When Link and Zelda weren't shocking everyone at court with their public fights, they spent their free time in Rayliss's room. Rayliss was one of the few Erenruites who wasn't enthusiastic about the idea of war, and she seemed to need to be distracted from the incessant talk of it as much as Link and Zelda wanted to forget it.
They alternated between talking, gaming, and playing music. In the short time they had been there, Zelda had noticed an improvement in Rayliss's playing. Just as he had done for Zelda, Link helped Rayliss relax and enjoy playing for her own amusement. With the pressure off her to be perfect, Rayliss started trying more complicated pieces—and usually succeeded at them.
One afternoon, the three of them were playing together when the door burst open and Nicoli came rushing in carrying a helmet under his arm. He and his parents had been staying in the castle since the reception, and he had started gravitating to Rayliss's room as well. He still held Zelda in a certain amount of awe, and it was clear that he hero-worshipped Link, who was so much of what he was not but wanted to be: charming, quick-witted, self-confident, brave, and an excellent swordsman.
"G-guess what?" Nicoli said excitedly. His stuttering was actually getting better, as he grew more comfortable and confidant around his royal cousins, but it still came out when he was agitated in any way.
"What?" Zelda asked.
He held the helmet up for all to see. "M-my f-father said I c-can fight! He had armor m-made for m-me and everything!"
Zelda frowned, which was clearly not the response he was hoping for; he visibly deflated.
"Nicoli, I really wish you wouldn't go," she said.
"Why? I'm old enough. I-I want to p-prove myself."
"What do you have to prove? Of all the men I met at the reception, I rank you as one of the most honorable in Erenrue. You don't have to risk your life to prove that."
He swelled back up. "Y-you think I'm honorable?" he said with a spreading grin.
"Yes. You're honorable because you're honest and your intentions are pure. I heard a lot of false flattery from a lot of power-hungry, gold-digging men and that attitude completely overshadowed whatever accomplishments they had on the battlefield. You, on the other hand, stood out—not because you're a great warrior, but because you are already a great man. You don't need to go to war to prove that."
Nicoli seemed to float across the carpet to a nearby seat. He kept the same broad grin on his face while Zelda and the others resumed their music.
Late in the afternoon, while the four of them were playing cards, Sir Elgon opened the door and limped into the room.
He had been joining them regularly as well, whenever he could snatch a few minutes of free time. He said he enjoyed listening to their music, but Zelda suspected he was there for the same reason she and Link were: he wanted to forget the impending battle for a little while.
But when he hobbled into the room, looking grave, Zelda immediately knew he was not there to be social.
"What's wrong?" Link asked him.
"Tomorrow," was all he said.
A silent chill fell over the room. It was as if someone had extinguished the sun and a long winter night had settled in.
"When do we go out?" Link asked in a quiet voice.
"We're to leave a couple of hours before dawn. The king has asked everyone to be in position and ready to go by first light."
Link abandoned his cards and went out onto the balcony that overlooked the field in front of the city. Everyone silently followed him.
In the far distance there was a black mass spread across the plain. As the minutes ticked by, it became clear that the mass was slowly moving towards them.
"Is that them?" Rayliss whispered.
"Yes," Link replied.
"His Majesty thinks it will be better to meet them a little way out from the city," Sir Elgon explained. "One, they might be expecting to get closer before meeting resistance, so that may surprise them a little. Two, he wants to give us room to feign a retreat if we need to."
"He's a master of that maneuver," Link said. "If anyone can pull it off, he can."
"Hopefully it won't be necessary. There are a lot of them, but the scouts agree with your assessment: many men appear to be carrying bows and have little, if any, armor. If we hit them quickly and avoid the arrow-fire, they should quickly collapse."
"I would like to think that Nagadii will prove to be an incompetent general," Link said, staring out at the army moving towards them, "and I'd like to think that his attacking Erenrue is a mistake of pride, but I'm beginning to worry that he has something up his sleeve. I know he scrys, and he had the forethought to put up spells to block our own magical spies. And he was smart enough to make King Marcus's death look like an accident caused by Princess Zelda, rather than a planned and intentional attack on his part. I fear that this may be a similar case: he may act like a fool, but in reality it's a well-planned trap."
Zelda turned to look at him. "You haven't mentioned this before. The other day you actually sounded confident that we could defeat him."
"Well, for one, I've had some time to think about it. And the longer I think about it, the more nervous I become. Maybe that's just nerves setting in ahead of the battle, but maybe it's not; maybe it's a premonition.
"But wrong or right, it's not something I should make widely known. King Ranis has forgotten more about war that I'll ever know; if there's a way to avoid a trap, he'll find it. He doesn't need me to tell him to be cautious.
"That, and it's best not to say anything for morale reasons. Battles more often hinge on morale than numbers or weaponry. If Erenrue's soldiers go out nervous and fearful, expecting something that may not happen anyways, they will not fight aggressively. And everything hinges on them being aggressive. Otherwise, they will be slaughtered by the arrowstorm."
"You are right not to say anything," Sir Elgon agreed. "I have seen the difference morale can make to both sides of the battle. Ours must stay high in the face of three-to-one odds."
They were quiet a long time as the sun set behind the mountains and it grew too dark to see the Hyrulian army. The city below began to softly glow as torches and street lanterns were lit. Orange sparks flew high into the deep-blue sky as forges around the city continued to work through the night to arm as many men as possible.
Link took out the flute Rayliss had given him and he began to play something slow and melancholy. It seemed to Zelda—as the notes drifted on the wind and echoed down through the streets of the city—that he was playing not just for them, but for all of the people of Erenrue who were spending one last night with their families. Come the following evening, some of the chairs at the dinner table would be empty.
"What song is that?" Zelda asked quietly when he finished. She didn't recognize it.
He cleared his throat a little and began to sing the tune. Zelda had never heard him sing before, but he actually had a very sweet voice.
"Of all the money that e'er I spent,
I've spent it in good company.
And all the harm that e'er I've done,
Alas it was to none but me.
And all I've done for want of wit,
To memory now I can't recall.
So fill to me the parting glass;
Good night and joy be with you all."
"A man may drink and not be drunk;
A man may fight and not be slain;
A man may court a pretty girl
And perhaps be welcomed back again.
But since it has so ought to be,
By a time to rise and a time to fall,
Come fill to me the parting glass;
Good night and joy be with you all."
"Of all the comrades that e'er I had,
They are sorry for my going away.
And all the sweethearts that e'er I had,
They would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.
Good night and joy be with you all."
His voice softly faded away. Zelda found herself wiping away tears in the darkness. She noticed that Rayliss—who was standing beside her—had to do the same.
"Beautiful," Sir Elgon said, his own voice sounding choked with emotion.
"Thank you," Link quietly replied. "I actually learned that from some of the palace guards in Hyrule. It's traditionally sung the night before a battle, or at the funeral of someone who served as a guard."
"I wonder if they're singing it now?" Rayliss asked, looking out into the darkness at the army that could not be seen, but was there nonetheless.
"Something tells me they're not," Link replied. "I don't think Nagadii has given them anything to sing about—not even bittersweet songs."
They fell into silence for a while, then Nicoli spoke. "I'm going tomorrow," he said quietly. Rather than sound enthusiastic, as he had before, he sounded almost resigned.
Zelda looked at him. "Nicoli…" she started to beg.
He held up his hand, cutting her off. "Maybe I d-don't have anything to prove. B-but that doesn't mean there's not a g-good reason not to go. They have come here to enslave us and disp-possess our royal family. If I don't fight and we lose, what have I g-gained? Not much, since I'm a m-member of the royal family, and Nagadii has been k-killing off everyone in Hyrule with a claim to the throne. I-I'll be one of the first to go if he gets in here."
Zelda started to argue with him again, but it was Link who interrupted her. "What he says is very wise. And very right."
He offered his hand to Nicoli. "I will be honored to fight beside you tomorrow, m'lord."
Nicoli smiled and took Link's hand. "And I beside you, Sir."
Rayliss sniffed. "I wish you two would stop. I feel like we're all saying goodbye."
"Maybe we are, Your Highness," Link replied. "That's the nature of war: some people don't return."
"Why did this have to happen?" Rayliss wailed. "Why?"
"Because some people want more than they deserve," Link said. "When they think they are smarter than the gods and can write their own destiny—when they get corrupted by pride and greed and ambition—it spills out onto everyone else. Evil is never contained to one person; it spreads.
"But why does it have to exist?"
"Because the gods gave us free will. We are free to be good or not. If we weren't free, then we would be like animals, living and dying without an original thought or deep emotion or great deed. Yes, we have evil, but we also have good. We have noble ideals like honor and self-sacrifice and loyalty. Those things only exist because we're free to choose to be good or evil.
"You can't have one without the other."
They fell back into silence, each of them digesting Link's words. But they were interrupted a few minutes later by a page.
"Your Highnesses, m'lords, the king requests your presence at dinner tonight. It will be served in one hour in the family dining room."
He bowed, then left, obviously not expecting any of them to protest.
Zelda was a little surprised. Not only was it early for dinner—especially in Erenrue, where they liked to eat quite late—but since the war preparations had begun, all formal and family dinners had been cancelled. People wandered into the dining hall whenever they had time to eat and just ordered something. The kitchen was running nearly twenty-four hours a day.
Link looked at Sir Elgon. "Join us tonight," he said, offering a rare invitation to dine privately with the royal family.
Sir Elgon smiled a little. "Thank you, Sir, but I'm afraid I must get back to my duties. There is a lot to do before morning."
Link escorted Zelda back to her room, then left to get changed in his own. When he returned a little while later, she noticed that he was wearing the same beautiful silk and velvet brocaded cote he had worn to the reception. He was even wearing the silver collar of estate.
"You look very handsome in that," she said as they walked through the quiet halls together.
"Thank you," he said, sounding pleased. "I thought I might not get to wear it again, so why not make the most of it?"
Zelda felt a chill come over her. "Are you that certain we're going to lose?"
"No, not at all. But I would rather prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised than prepare for the best and wind up horrified at the results."
"So you don't think of yourself as an optimist?" she asked, feeling rather surprised. No matter how bad things had gotten, Link had always shown great poise and confidence, so she just assumed it was because he was naturally optimistic and expected a favorable outcome.
"I think of myself as a realist," he corrected. "You don't live your life under the shadow of a death sentence and not think constantly about the worst that could happen. I like to think that I can do a lot to change a situation for a better, but I know I am no god; sometimes even doing your very best, you cannot overcome the odds."
Despite the fact that it had been less than an hour since the page announced dinner, Link and Zelda were the last in the dining room. Zelda was a little surprised to see the entire extended royal family there: King Ranis, Prince Zeyde and Princess Austina, their young sons, Philippe and Castor, and Rayliss, the king's nephew, Duke Clark, and his brother, Duke Reginald, and Reginald's lady, Duchess Filippa, and their son, Nicoli.
Link was the only guest who was not related to anyone.
Dinner was a rather somber affair; there was little conversation and, surprisingly, none of it was about the battle on the morrow. After dessert had been cleared away, the servants brought each person a single glass of wine. Even Philippe and Castor—who were nine and five, respectively—were given small goblets.
King Ranis stood and raised his glass. "Our cause is a just one. May the gods grant our kingdom victory, and I pray that my family—and the families of all my people—are reunited tomorrow evening, whole and happy."
"May it be so," everyone replied gravely. Then they all drained their cups.
"Sleep well everyone and I will see you in the morning," Ranis said.
They began to rise from their seats to leave, but the king put out his hand. "Link, Zelda, I need you for a few minutes before you go to bed. And you, too, Rayliss."
Curious, but slightly confused, Rayliss, Link, and Zelda followed King Ranis and Prince Zeyde out of the dining room. They went through the quiet halls and entered the empty, echoing throne room. It was almost ghostly. Moonlight came through the windows and caused the white marble floors to softly glow all around them. At the far end of the room, two bowl-torches had been set up on the stairs in front of the thrones, and they cast a small, orange circle of light.
They stopped in the middle of the circle of light. Zeyde went up the stairs and picked up a sword that had been left lying across his throne. Ranis turned to face Zelda and Link, but gestured to Rayliss. "Rayliss, come here."
Looking even more confused, Rayliss went to her grandfather and he positioned her on his left side.
Zeyde took his position on the king's right, holding the sheathed sword before him. He looked as serious as the king, but the corners of his mouth kept trying to creep upwards into a smile.
Link looked at Zelda in confusion, but she just shrugged; she had no idea what they were doing, either.
"Link, kneel before me," Ranis said.
Despite his bewilderment, Link didn't hesitate to do as commanded.
"Link, Zeyde and I have spent a lot of time discussing you over the past two weeks," Ranis began. "You have impressed us beyond measure. You have carried yourself with a nobility that I sometimes find lacking in born-nobles. You have taken care of your princess with selfless devotion and, really, with more self-sacrifice than any royal has reason to expect. And your information and tactics have been invaluable to us for planning our counter-attack tomorrow.
"No offense meant to those present, but we find it appalling—utterly appalling—that we have had to lie about your nobility because you lack a title you so rightly deserve. …Although I think it says something about your character and bearing that not one person has ever questioned that lie.
"Zeyde and I have gone round and round with how to fix the problem and make the lie a truth. And while we would gladly give you land and a title of nobility here in Erenrue, we know that your loyalty to Hyrule and Princess Zelda is far too deep to ever consider swearing allegiance to us.
"So, we have come up with something new to hopefully alleviate the problem."
Zeyde dipped the pommel of the sword towards his father and the king withdrew it from the white leather scabbard. It was a handsome sword with a gold crossguard and pommel, set with glittering sapphires.
The king raised it up, then brought it down on Link's right shoulder, then his left.
"I, King Ranis of Erenrue, do dub thee Sir Link, honorary knight of Erenrue."
He put the point of the sword against the floor and crossed his hands on top of it. "The position of honorary knight does not carry an oath of allegiance, but it likewise carries no weight; there is no land or political position that comes with it. We are no more bound to you than you are to us. But, for as long as you are within this kingdom—now or in the future—you will be treated with the same respect and courtesy as any of our knights. …And should anything ever happen and you find yourself unable to live in Hyrule, come to us and we will happily convert your honorary title into a full one."
Zelda saw Link trying to blink back tears. "Your Majesty… Highness… I don't know what I have done to deserve such an honor. I…." He couldn't go on.
The king gestured to him. "Rise, Sir Link."
Link pushed himself to his feet and Ranis clapped him on the shoulder. "Link, the very fact that you don't feel you deserve this is the reason why you deserve it. For you, unwavering loyalty and devotion are as natural as breathing. But among us mere mortals, we have to work very hard to develop those traits—thus why we give out rewards for those who accomplish it," the king said with a teasing smile.
He turned and resheathed the sword, then took it from Zeyde and offered it to Link. "For the service you have rendered to our kingdom and for the service I know we will receive from you on the battlefield tomorrow—service we have no right to expect—I present this sword to you. Wear it when you go into battle, Knight of Erenrue."
Link didn't take the sword. "Your Majesty," he said, looking pained, "this is a very great honor, and I am… I am grateful beyond words. But I fear I cannot wear your sword at this time."
He unsheathed his own sword and held it across his hands, showing it to the king. "This blade has been passed down through my family for countless generations. It is said to have been the sword of Sir Laertes, one of the last Knights of Hyrule, and my direct ancestor."
"Say no more," the king said, interrupting him. "I understand. I would never ask you to set aside such a priceless heirloom."
Link resheathed his sword, but reached out, offering to take the other sword from the king. "Although I can't wear your sword, may I have it anyways?"
"Certainly," the king said, looking a little surprised. He placed it in Link's hands. "It is yours to do with what you wish."
Link bowed his head. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
He turned to Zelda and knelt before her. "Your Highness, I swore my sword to your protection and service, and I swear this one as well." He kissed the crossguard of the Erenrue sword, like a blessing, then offered it to her. "Please wear it for me, and if my arm is slow in your defense, may this sword be quick in it."
Zelda was deeply moved. She took the sword from Link. "I will wear your sword and I will not be afraid. I know wherever I go and whatever happens, it will protect me just as if you were with me."
He smiled at her. "Although, admittedly, it will work better for you if you add in a little anger."
After the knighting, everyone parted ways and headed to their respective rooms. Link and Zelda went to her room and she changed into her nightgown in the closet while he stripped down to his undershirt and pants in the bedroom.
"I think what the king and uncle Zeyde did for you was very sweet," Zelda said from the closet.
"It was incredibly generous of them," he agreed, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking off his boots. "I truly am honored beyond all words. I have never even heard of anyone who was knighted in a foreign kingdom before."
"I wish they could have done it publicly, but since they've been putting it out that you're already a knight, they can't exactly admit that you weren't."
"But I noticed they included Rayliss."
"Well, she already knew I wasn't a knight."
"Yes, but that's not why she was there."
"Oh?" he asked curiously.
Zelda blew out the lantern in the closet and stepped out. "She was there because they wanted her to see and know—so that when she comes to the throne, she will be obligated to acknowledge the title as well." She smiled. "That will be your title in this kingdom at least unto the third generation."
"They might need to add a generation or two later down the road; Hylians are known to live a long time, you know," he said with a teasing grin.
Zelda laughed at him.
She started to go around the room, blowing out the candles, but she didn't make it halfway around before she began to feel queer. At first she felt kind of slow and clumsy, but she rapidly became dizzy. The room began to move and the candelabra in front of her split into two.
"Link…" she called out fearfully. "Something's wrong with me."
He jumped to his feet, but she saw him stagger sideways, then fall. "I feel drunk," he said.
"That's the way I feel."
She tried to keep to her feet, but the room was spinning and bucking up and down so much, she collapsed to her knees. That she didn't feel anything further indicated something was very wrong.
"We've been drugged," Link said, his voice rising in panic.
Zelda tried to make her eyes focus. She saw Link—now two Links, then back to one—crawl across the floor, towards the bed. With great difficulty, he pulled himself up to his knees and clumsily grabbed the bell that was sitting there. He began to ring it loudly.
"Help us," he called, his voice weak. The bell was ringing out of rhythm, but luckily it was loud. "Help us."
Thank the gods he had presence enough of mind to summon the guards. She couldn't think about anything but lying down on the carpet and resting. It was getting so hard to keep her eyes open.
A moment later, Sir Elgon came bursting into the room, running as quickly as his bad leg would allow.
"Sir Link, what's wrong?"
"Drugged…" was all Link could manage to say. His voice was thick, as if his tongue didn't want to work properly. "Help…."
But instead of becoming alarmed and summoning help and sending off the guards to check on the rest of the royal family to see if they had likewise been poisoned, he smiled.
"Oh, I'm afraid you've discovered Erenrue's secret," Elgon explained. "It is our custom to take a strong sleeping potion the night before battle to ensure we get a good night's rest. Otherwise we might be up for hours tossing and turning and worrying ourselves sick. Only a few men don't partake in order to watch over the rest. That would be my lot tonight.
"I daresay His Majesty expected you both to be in bed before it kicked in, so you wouldn't notice it; you would just fall asleep. But now that you know, you mustn't tell anyone; if it got out, we would be terribly vulnerable to a night attack. You understand?"
Zelda couldn't tell if Link nodded or not, but Sir Elgon must have been satisfied with his answer, because he started to pick Link up from the floor.
"P-princess…" Link slurred.
"Oh, yes, of course," Elgon said. He hurried to Zelda and scooped her up.
"Don't worry," he said, as he carried her to the bed. "You'll feel great in the morning."
Zelda felt so drunk, she highly doubted it, but it was far too hard to say so, so she remained mute.
He carefully put her into bed, then he picked up Link and put him in bed beside her and pulled up the covers. Zelda felt like a sleepy child being tucked into bed.
"Goodnight. See you both in the morning."
He went around the room, blowing out the remaining candles, but Zelda was asleep before he left.