Link reckoned it was near midnight when, at last, they came out of the forest on its western side. It ended where the beach began. And beyond that was the sea.
Link was so busy trying to figure out where they were—where they above or below his mother's house?—that he forgot that Zelda was seeing the ocean for the first time.
"I think it's that way," he said, pointing south. "I think we're still too far north."
When she didn't respond, he glanced at her. She was staring, wide-eyed, at the water.
Link smiled a little and took her hand in his. "I promised you that I would show you the ocean one day. This isn't the circumstance that I would have chosen, but here it is, nonetheless."
"It's so big," she said in awe.
"It has no opposite side," he said. "They call it the Endless Ocean."
"It smells funny."
"That's the salt in the water."
"It's salty? You can't drink it?"
"So… it's pretty useless."
"I wouldn't say that. My family has made its living from the ocean for generations. They collect the water and allow it to evaporate, leaving the salt behind. That's how you get salt on your dinner table, Your Highness. And the big fish that they serve at banquets don't come from streams; they come from here in the ocean. We also eat other things from the ocean—shrimp and oysters and clams and seaweed and—"
"Quit talking about it," Zelda interrupted, "you're making me hungry."
Link laughed. "Let's find my mother's house and let her feed us."
It was quickly decided, in the interest of getting to eat that much sooner, that Zelda would transform.
Link hopped lightly onto her back. "Stay on the sand where it's wet," he said, pointing ahead. "It's harder and easier to run on."
She tossed her head, then began to move forward. In a few steps, she broke into a gallop.
The moon was bright overhead and the ocean calm, the waves gently washing in under Zelda's hooves. The air off the ocean was warm and comfortable. It was a wonderful night for a gallop along the beach, and for a moment, Link and Zelda completely forgot who they were and why they were there; they were in the moment when they were nothing but two young people enjoying life and each other.
The land to their left began to slowly rise. Link pointed to it, yelling over the air whistling past them. "That's the beginning of the cliff. Mother's house sits on its highest point. We're not too far away now."
Shouldn't we be over there? I mean, how will we get up the cliff if we stay on this side of it?
"Don't worry, there are stairs. I think it will be easier to climb those than run up the slope for a long time."
They were quiet for a while as the land steadily rose up beside the beach. Just when Zelda tired and had to drop to a walk, Link spotted what he had been looking for.
"There it is," he said, pointing at a little light far up on the cliff. As they drew closer, the moonlight revealed a quaint little cottage perched near the cliff. It had grown over the years since Link had been born—it was definitely more a cottage than a hut now—but it was still relatively small and cozy. The fishing business had not turned out quite as well as it would have if Mars had lived, but Link's mother had done well with what she had to work with.
When they reached the cliff stairs, Zelda transformed.
"Do those belong to your family?" she asked, looking at the boats. There was a small fishing boat and a row boat pulled up on the shore, out of reach of high tide. But out in the water, there were two much larger boats—boats too large to be beached—which were riding at anchor.
Link was surprised. "I suppose so." He pointed to the smaller boat on the ocean. "I know that one is ours. I can only assume the second one is ours now, too. It's been a few years since I've been home."
"Do you not write letters?" Zelda asked in surprise.
"My mother can't read or write. My Uncle Alfon can, and I'll send him a letter occasionally, letting everyone know that I'm alright, but he never writes back much; he's too busy."
They climbed the ninety-six stairs to the top—"really, Link, are you sure this was easier than just walking up the cliff?" a breathless Zelda complained—and went to the door of the cottage.
Link glanced around and listened, but he saw and heard nothing that disturbed him. Still, he worried that it wouldn't take Nagadii long to figure out that he had gone to his family for help. He pulled Zelda's cloak hood up to hide her face.
Link knocked on the door quietly, but with urgency. After a moment, he heard something stirring inside.
"Who is it?" a scared voice—trying to sound braver than it was—demanded.
"Mother, it's me," Link said quietly, speaking close to the door.
There was a moment's hesitation, then the sound of a bolt being opened. The door creaked an inch—one blue eye peering out—and then it was suddenly thrown wide open and Link was engulfed in his mother's arms.
"Oh, Link, it is you!" she said in a loud whisper. She pulled him away long enough to kiss him repeatedly all over the face, then she hugged him tightly to her again.
Link was a little embarrassed, but, at the same time, pleased; nothing could ever take the place of a mother's love at seeing her child for the first time in nearly three years.
She at last pulled away a little, but she held him by the arms, looking at him. "Oh, look at you," she whispered, tears in her eyes. "You're all grown up. My baby is a man now." She couldn't resist another kiss and tight hug. "Oh, I wish your father could see you. He would be so proud."
Link felt a little emotional, too. But before he could recover, his mother was pulling him inside the house. "Come in," she said. "Sit here by the fire. Meghan! Alons!" she called out. "Come see your brother."
There was a mad scramble as brother and sister both tried to be the first to reach Link. Alons was in the upstairs loft, and he skipped the ladder entirely, jumping down onto the living room floor. Meghan came tearing out of one of the back bedrooms.
They both rushed Link simultaneously, nearly knocking him over. He had to take a step back to brace himself.
"Speaking of all grown up…" he said, looking at his siblings. His sister—fair and blonde like him—was almost sixteen years old. His brother—short and dark and husky-built like their father's side of the family—was thirteen.
They both tried to speak to him at once; he was only able to catch a few words of what they were saying.
"…come see us sooner?"
"…you have a sword?"
"Are you a knight?"
"How long… staying?"
"I want to… with you."
"Meghan, Alons," their mother gently chided, "You're going to worry him to death. Let him rest and catch his breath. I'm sure he has time to answer all your questions."
They reluctantly pulled away, but stayed close, as if afraid he might slip away before talking to them.
Suddenly Link remembered Princess Zelda. He was embarrassed that he had been so rude; she had been left standing at the doorway, awkwardly left out of the warm family reunion.
He hurried to the door, gently pulling her in. He shut and bolted the door before turning back to his family.
"Mother, Meghan, Alons, may I introduce you to Princess Zelda."
They stood in open-mouthed astonishment as she pushed back the hood of her cloak, revealing her face.
It took a moment for the surprise to wear off, then Tatiana quickly knelt and tugged on her children's arms until they did the same.
"Your Highness, may I present my family," Link said formally. "My mother, Tatiana, my sister, Meghan, and my brother, Alons."
Zelda held out her hands. "Please, you don't have to do that. Rise."
They seemed almost reluctant to do so. Meghan and Alons continued to stare at her in wonderment, but Link's mother seemed unsure if she should avert her eyes or not. She kept stealing glances, clearly too curious to look away for long.
"Mother, we're starving," Link said. "Could we have something to eat?"
"Oh, yes… yes, of course," she said, snapping back to her senses. She began bustling around the house, ordering the younger children to fetch and tote while she put together a meal.
Link sank down wearily into his mother's rocking chair—the one his father had made for her before he was born. He gestured for Zelda to sit in the cushioned chair beside him.
"Don't worry," he whispered to her, "we'll be safe here for a little while."
"How long, do you think?"
He frowned. "Not too long," he admitted. "This is the first place I would look for me."
The smell of fish and spices and hot food soon wafted through the house. Both Zelda and Link's stomachs rumbled audibly.
Link clutched his. "Gods, that smells so good! And I'm so hungry I hurt!"
"Alons, go get some oranges from the cellar," Tatiana commanded. "Hurry." Then she looked at Link and Princess Zelda. "How long has it been since you ate?"
"We had our last real meal… um… yesterday at lunch. We had a little fish and some greens tonight for supper, but it wasn't much."
She turned back to the kettle she had on the fire, stirring it while she talked. "We've heard so many rumors the past few days, I haven't known what to believe. Some have said that the king was murdered by an assassin, while others have said he was taken captive by a demon. And some said that the princess was killed, others say she was kidnapped, while others say…." She hesitated, glancing back at her.
"What do they say?" Zelda asked quietly.
Tatiana whispered, as if the words were too horrible to say aloud. "They say that you killed your own father, then ran away when the guard tried to stop you."
"Have you heard anything else?" Link pressed. He wanted to know what sort of rumors were at work; they could harm as much as any soldier tracking them down.
She glanced at him, worry in her eyes. "They said… they said that you and Ryu tried to take over the kingdom. Some say that you were working with the Princess to take down the king, others say you were trying to kill both her and the king in order to take over for yourselves, but she escaped."
"Well, obviously I didn't try to kill her, or she wouldn't be here with me."
"I knew you would never do any such thing," Tatiana declared hotly. "I told everyone that my son had been raised to be a knight for the royal family and there was no way that my own flesh and blood could ever turn against his rightful monarchs."
"You are more correct than the rumor-mongers, to be sure," he said with a smile.
They were interrupted by Alons, who presented them with a plate of dried oranges. Link tried not to snatch them up and cram them into his mouth like some barbarian… but it took effort. When he glanced at Zelda, he noticed that she looked like she was having to restrain herself, too.
"So what did happen?" Alons asked, looking at both of them.
Link gave them a brief version of events between bites of orange.
When he was finished, Alons pointed to Link's right arm where blood had soaked through the hem of his tunic sleeve. "Is that how you got hurt?" Alons asked.
Link glanced down; he had forgotten about his arrow wound. "Yes, an arrow clipped me."
"Alons, dish up this soup," Tatiana commanded, as she wiped her hands on her apron and hurried to Link's side.
She pulled up his short sleeve and looked at the bandage underneath. The wound had bled through the thin linen.
"I think it needs to be stitched up," he told his mother. "It keeps pulling open and bleeding again."
She unwrapped the bandage and looked at it. "Yes, it does," she said. "Meghan, get my bag."
Meghan, who had been setting the table, hurried to Tatiana's room. She emerged a moment later with a canvas satchel.
Tatiana set to work cleaning the wound—Link gritted his teeth against the sting of the medicine she used—then she ground up a few leaves and made a plaster over the wound.
"These will help numb it," she explained, as she tied a clean bandage around his arm to hold the plaster in place. "I'll stitch it up after you eat."
"I'll take my time," Link said with a slight smile.
Link and Zelda ate a hearty dinner of seafood stew, bread, and a sort of liquidy salad made from seaweed and tangy spices.
"This is good, Mother," Link said between bites.
"Eat all you want; there's plenty more." She reached out and brushed a stray lock of his hair back, tucking it gently behind his ear.
"I remember when Grand Vizier Ryu came for you," she said quietly, reminiscing. "You were barely a year old. It was storming; your father and I were sitting by the fire. He was mending a net while you played with it. Then there was a knock on the door and a few minutes later, my baby was gone.
"And tonight, with a knock on the door, my son returns to me. But I'm afraid you are in as much danger now as when you left seventeen years ago."
"I'm afraid it's worse," Link admitted. "His Majesty probably wouldn't have killed me if he had found me when I was still a child, but now Nagadii will execute me. He was getting ready to do it when we managed to escape; I have no doubt that he will do it now. I am a threat to him. Princess Zelda is a threat to him. He will try to eliminate us both."
"What are you going to do?" she whispered.
"I have no idea. My plans only went as far as here. I was hoping you and Uncle Alfon could help us decide what to do. Somehow, we have to defeat Nagadii and the soldiers which he has under his command—and I don't know, at this point, how many that is. It could be that they've all become loyal to him, or it may be that some are still unsure and won't fight against their rightful ruler. But, regardless, we are only two people against a powerful magician and at least some soldiers. And, at the moment, we don't even have any weapons. The Princess has her bow, but no arrows, and I have nothing more than a large kitchen knife."
"I will go see your Uncle first thing in the morning," Tatiana vowed. "He might know what to do."
At last, Zelda pushed away her empty bowl with a sigh. "I'm stuffed," she declared.
"Are you sure? Is there anything else I can get you, Your Highness?" Tatiana asked fretfully.
"No, I'm fine, thank you." Then she paused. "Well, actually…."
Tatiana rose to her feet. "Yes?"
"I would like a bath. And maybe some fresh clothes?" she asked hopefully.
"It's late to draw a bath," Link hinted to her in a low whisper. Unlike the palace, where there was at least one huge kettle on a fire at all times—filled with hot water ready for use at the royalty's command—Link's mother would have to draw half-a-dozen buckets of water up from the well, by hand, build up the fire, heat her small kettle to boiling, empty it into the wooden barrel they used as a tub, then do it all over again, just to have enough hot water. Then she would have to draw up another dozen buckets of cold water to finish filling the tub and moderate the temperate.
To make a hot bath took a few hours of labor.
"I can do it, if Her Highness wants," Tatiana offered.
Link glanced at Zelda, his eyes pleading with her not to make his mother go through so much effort so late at night.
"No, that's alright," Zelda said. "It can wait."
"Are you sure?"
"At least let me get you some water so you can wash up." She looked at Zelda, gauging her size. "I think you're about Meghan's size. Meghan, find some clothes for Her Highness to wear."
Meghan smiled shyly, looking pleased at being able to help, then hurried off to her room.
Alons drew some water and put it on the fire to heat. While they were waiting for it to heat, Tatiana unwrapped Link's wound and wiped away the poultice.
"I think this is as good as it will get," she said, pressing on his wound.
Link's skin felt a little numb, but he could still feel his mother touching it. "Regardless, it has to be done," he said, sounding braver than he felt.
Tatiana had Meghan light an extra candle and put it close on the table, so she could see better. She threaded a needle by the light, then turned, straddling the bench so she could reach Link's arm.
"You need to take off your shirt," she said. "I can't hold your sleeve out of the way and sew at the same time.
Link stood up and took off his belt, then peeled his undershirt and tunic off at the same time. He sat down on the bench again and propped his right arm up on the table.
"You're going to have to hold still," she warned.
"Alons, hold my arm," he said, gesturing to his brother on the other side of the table. With a grimace, Alons leaned forward and took Link by the wrist, holding him tight.
Link nodded that he was ready.
Tatiana swiftly drove the point of the needle through one side of his skin. Link jumped. "Ow! I don't think that numbed at all!"
"It only helps a little," Tatiana said apologetically. "It works best on mild burns and scrapes."
Link winced as she pulled the needle through, followed by the greased thread; that was only slightly less painful than the prick.
She pierced the skin on the other side of the wound, causing him to jerk a little. But he managed to stay still while she drew up the thread and tied it into a knot.
"I think three stitches will do you," she said.
"Don't skimp," Link said, his voice tense. "I need to use my arm a lot and I don't want to tear the stitches out because there are too few."
Link turned his head away so he couldn't see his mother preparing for the next stitch. Zelda was sitting on the bench to his left, looking at him sorrowfully.
He smiled weakly at her, then flinched again as his mother pierced his skin.
Zelda slowly reached under the table and took his left hand in hers. He grasped it tightly as his mother stuck him again, making a second stitch.
"Have you ever had this done before?" Alons asked, looking at his older brother in wide-eyed worship; Link's stoicism obviously impressed him.
"Yes, when I was about your age," Link replied.
Link actually chuckled, before wincing in pain again. "I tripped and fell into a rack of weapons and brought them all crashing down on my head." He let go of Zelda's hand long enough to trace a line from the top of his forehead up into his hairline. "I split my scalp open and the court physician had to stitch me up. But, luckily, I was unconscious for most of it. I think they said a mace hit me on top of the head and knocked me out cold."
"Tell him about your broken arm," Zelda said.
"Oh, that was definitely a lot worse than this."
"What happened?" Alons asked eagerly.
"We were out on the Hyrule Plain when a wolf attacked us. It started chasing the Princess and… ow," he said, jerking as his mother made another stitch. But he picked up his story again. "I tried to shoot it—I did shoot it," he corrected—"but the arrow didn't even faze it. It knocked me down."
He released Zelda's hand again and demonstrated how he blocked across his face with his left arm. "I put my arm up like this, to keep it from getting my throat. It bit down on my arm instead and broke it."
Meghan and Alons and Tatiana all gasped.
"What happened then?" Alons asked, even more enraptured.
"Luckily, Her Highness had a sword, and she ran it through and killed it."
"Wow," Alons said, his eyes growing even wider.
"There have been several animal attacks here lately," Tatiana said gravely, as she returned to her surgery. "Wolves and bears have both been growing bolder and coming closer to town."
"This was the most massive wolf I've ever seen," Link said. "It was much bigger than me."
"It was nearly as big as a horse," Zelda added.
"There, you're all done," Tatiana said a moment later, tying the last stitch. "I put four in, which should be plenty."
"Thank you," Link said, looking at the four little knots holding his skin together.
"Let me put another numbing poultice on it; that will help a little with the pain and help it heal."
She got up and went to grind more herbs.
Alons leaned forward on the table. "If you leave, can I go with you, Link?" he begged. "I want to be a soldier, like you."
"No," Tatiana said briskly, turning to look at him sharply. She sounded as if she had had the same conversation with him before.
"You let Link go," he whined.
"That's Link's destiny; that's his role to fill. I can't argue with that."
"But what about my destiny? What am I supposed to do?"
"You will stay here with me until you find out," she said firmly.
"She's right," Link said. "I couldn't bear the thought of leaving Mother and Meghan here alone to fend for themselves— especially with the trouble that's coming to the kingdom. You have to stay and take my place as man of the house."
Tatiana returned to Link and put the poultice on his wound. Even if he wasn't impressed by its supposed numbing qualities, he had to admit that it felt nice and cool on his inflamed skin.
As soon as Link was bandaged, his mother poured up two wash basins of hot water. Zelda went into Meghan's room to clean up, while Link washed up in the common room.
"I have some new clothes for you," his mother said, producing a pair of pants and a linen undershirt. "I'm almost done with your tunic; I just have a little bit of work left to do on the embroidery."
Link smiled. "You always make them too fine to wear."
"Nothing is too fine for you," she said proudly.
Link nodded to his old tunic, which still lay wadded up on the bench. "I think that one will be alright; it just needs the blood washed out of the sleeve."
"I'll do that tomorrow," Tatiana promised.
"And can you make me another hat? I lost mine the other night."
She smiled. "Do you still wear those, even when you're so far inland?"
"Yes, I wear it all the time—at least when I'm not in armor. I had to wear to hide my ears, and even now I'm not too keen on people recognizing me."
"Well, I knew you had to hide your ears, but I didn't know you still wore your old stocking cap; I thought you might have switched to something else—something more fashionable—something from the city."
"I like my stocking cap," he said firmly. "I am the son of a fisherman, and fishermen wear stocking caps."
Tatiana smiled even more broadly, looking very pleased. Then she gave him a hug. "I'm so glad to see that you haven't forgotten where you came from," she whispered.
"I will never forget my family," he swore. "No matter what the gods intend for me—no matter what I might become—I will always be the son of a fisherman. And I like it that way."
Link changed into the clean clothes. A few minutes later, Zelda emerged from Meghan's room wearing a long nightgown. She looked fresh-faced and had combed out her long, silvery-blonde hair and braided it.
"Your Highness," Tatiana said, "you can sleep in my room."
Her offer began a series of brisk negotiations over where who would be sleeping. They went around and around until, finally, Link declared that he and Zelda both would take Alons' loft and Alons could sleep with either Meghan or his mother.
"But… my bed—or Meghan's—are nicer," Tatiana tried to argue. "And you don't have to climb the ladder."
"I want to sleep where I can keep an eye on the door," Link countered.
"Fine, but Her Highness can still stay down here."
"She stays with me," Link said firmly. "I do not want to be in a position where we could be separated."
At last, Tatiana relented—only because she couldn't talk Link out of his plan—and it was decided that Alons would take Meghan's bed, and Meghan and Tatiana would share.
Link climbed up the ladder first, wincing as he used his arm, causing the skin to pull against the stitches. Once he was up, Zelda started to climb—awkward because of the long gown—and when he could reach her, he pulled her the rest of the way.
Tatiana insisted on sending up covers so Link could make himself a decent bed on the floor. There was a basket on a rope and pulley that Alons used to carry things up to the loft, and Tatiana loaded it down with blankets to the point that Link struggled to pull it up.
"Thank you," he said, once he had landed the basket. He looked over the rail that separated the loft from the common room and he waved goodnight to the others.
"Goodnight," Tatiana said. "If you need anything, you wake me up."
"I'm sure we'll be fine."
Tatiana and Meghan and Alons took the last remaining candles with them to their rooms. Downstairs, there was only a dim orange light from the coals in the fireplace. But there was a large window in the loft, and the moonlight shone brightly in it.
They had to crawl to the bed because the ceiling wasn't high enough to allow them to stand. The bed frame had been cut down so that the bed was only a few inches above the floor.
Zelda got in the bed and sighed. "Oh, this feels so good after sleeping on the ground."
Link folded up some of the blankets and made himself a little mat on the floor beside the bed. He started to lie down and cover up, but Zelda stopped him.
"Link," she whispered, "why don't you just get in the bed, too?"
"That wouldn't be proper, Your Highness."
"You've slept next to me the past few nights; I don't see a difference."
"It's perception more than anything," he said. "Sleeping together on the ground is different than sleeping together in a bed."
"Who cares? There's no one to see. Your family has all gone to bed—not that they can see up here, anyways."
He started to open his mouth to argue, but she cut him off.
"This is your home; you should be able to sleep in a real bed. And after everything we've been through, I think you especially deserve to sleep in a real bed."
He hesitated. He suspected that if Master Ryu had been there, he would have told Link that no, under no circumstances was he to get into bed with the Princess. On the other hand, Link did long for the comfort of a soft bed—especially as his right arm was beginning to throb.
"Link, do I have to order you to get in the bed?" Zelda said wearily.
"No, Your Highness," he replied obediently, as he pushed himself up into the bed. He also let out a contented sigh as he sank into the soft straw tick. "This feels wonderful," he declared. It felt like it had been years since he had slept in a proper bed.
"I told you," she said with a yawn, before rolling over.
Link put his arm over her—it felt better stretched out in that position—and fell asleep immediately.