Zelda was in a deep, dreamless sleep when someone gently shook her awake.
"Your Highness, it's time," Link whispered.
Zelda sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. She blinked a few times, clearing them, then glanced to the window. It was still dark outside.
A coldness overtook her as she realized that the day they had talked about in the abstract was finally upon her. No longer would war be theoretical or something that happened to someone else. Today, she was going to war.
But even though her insides felt like ice, she forced herself to push back the covers and put her feet on the floor.
Link was already dressed in his gambeson and the pants and heavy boots he would wear under his armor. He obviously had been up for several minutes.
"I must admit," Link said: "I slept like a rock last night. Maybe there's something to that Erenrue custom."
"I just wish they had warned us about it ahead of time," Zelda said with a frown, "instead of letting us think we had been poisoned."
"Yeah, their execution definitely left something to be desired." He shook his head. "I have found much to admire about the Erenruites—and I am proud to fight beside them today—but I must admit, I prefer our culture of peace. I'd much rather sleep well because I have no worries than drug myself to forget about them for a night."
Link left to get Zelda's armor from the armory and, after standing up and stretching a little, Zelda got dressed. She tried not to think too much about what she was doing or what was coming.
She put on heavy canvas pants—not unlike what Link wore all the time—and a padded gambeson and sturdy boots. She was sitting at her dressing table, just finishing braiding and pinning her hair up on her head, when Link returned. There were two armor attendants behind him carrying the various pieces of Zelda's armor.
They bowed to her as she turned around on her stool to face them. "Your Highness, if you will permit me—" one of the attendants started to say.
"No," Link said, interrupting him. "I'll do it. You may go."
The man looked a little surprised. "A-are you sure you don't want help, Sir?"
"I will need it later when I need to get ready, but not now."
"Yes, sir," the man said with a bow. They laid the armor out on the bed. Then they both bowed and hurried out of the room.
Link picked up the maile shirt first.
"What do I need to do?" Zelda asked in a quiet voice.
"Hold your arms up," he replied.
She did as he said. A moment later, he pulled the maile shirt on over her head. It was a heavy, solid weight on her shoulders. She tried to take comfort in knowing that it was between her and a sword edge.
"Stand up," Link said, his voice barely above a whisper. He offered her his hands and she let him pull her to her feet.
He knelt in the floor at her feet and carefully buckled each strap on her leg armor. He seemed to take extra pains to make sure everything was secure. He didn't speak except to ask her if something was too tight or uncomfortable.
He moved slowly and methodically as he continued to arm her. She felt as if he was preparing her for her funeral—that he was dressing one last time. And yet, at the same time, there was something so intimate in his actions that she felt as if he was touching her body with all the reverence and awe of a lover who had finally obtained his heart's desire. It was simultaneously a first moment together and a last.
He buckled the strap of her sabatons under her foot, then stood up. There was a brief moment when their bodies were touching and he was looking into her eyes. Zelda expected him to kiss her, but, after a few seconds, he slowly turned away and reached for her body armor.
He buckled the breast plate and back plate together at her shoulders and sides, then he put on her arm harness. He handed her a pair of gloves to put on. The left glove was full, but the right one had the pinkie and thumb cut away.
"I think I like this better than my normal archer's glove," Zelda said, breaking the silent tension in the room—full of desire and sadness.
He took her hands in his and slid the two half-gauntlets on over her gloves. "I'm glad," is all he said.
He picked up a linen coif next and put on her head, covering up her hair. He tied it under her chin, but instead of turning away again, he held her face in his hands and leaned in, kissing her.
Zelda felt a chill run through her body as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over her head. Then, all too soon, he was pulling away from her. She didn't want him to pull away.
"Link, I love you," she heard herself saying. She shocked herself with the words; it was as if, for a moment, she didn't have control of her mouth. Or, perhaps, it was that she had been holding in the words for too long and they finally had to come out.
He smiled softly—a little bit of the old cockiness on his face. "I thought you might—given that you were ready to kill your grandfather over me. …But I like to hear it nonetheless."
He leaned in, pressing his forehead to hers, and looked into her eyes. "And I love you, Your Highness," he said with a whisper.
"You can call me by my name," she offered.
"I don't think that would be wise."
He pulled away. "Because love or no love, I am not your equal. And I already take enough liberties with you. I'm lucky your grandfather is a more tolerant man than your father, or I'd be dead by now—several times over."
She took him by the hand, not wanting him to leave. "You can do it when we're alone. It'll be our secret."
"It's a habit I don't need to get into. What if I slipped up when someone was within earshot?"
"What if I want you to?"
He smiled at her. "Highness, don't you know by now that there's no point in taking up this argument with me?"
She let go of his hand, frowning at him. "You are really quite stubborn, you know."
"That's the pot calling the kettle black," he retorted.
He picked up a blue surcoat and slipped it over Zelda's head, then he began to lace it up the sides.
She looked down, expecting to see Erenrue's silver arms on the blue, but was surprised to see the gold heraldry of the Hyrule royal family on it instead. She was suddenly reminded of Link's shield. It had a very similar stylized bird—albeit it in red—with a gold Triforce above it. She wondered if his ancestors had just altered the royal arms slightly when they passed out of the inheriting branch of the family.
Then she noticed something was missing. Normally, when she was wearing the royal arms, she had to wear a mark of difference—in her case a black bar with triangular points hanging from it—just above the main charge. There were several marks of difference, each indicating the status of the person who bore them—be it royal heir, child, or sibling of the king. Only the king and queen were allowed to wear the heraldry without a mark.
Her surcoat, however, had no mark of difference on it. It was the surcoat of the monarch of Hyrule.
"I wonder if the person who made this knew they were supposed to give me a mark of difference?" she asked, still looking down at the coat.
"Oh, that was done quite deliberately, Your Highness," Link replied. "If it wasn't, then your helmet wouldn't match."
"What do you mean?"
He picked up the helmet that was lying on the bed and showed it to her. Two blue plumes and one longer gold-colored feather had been added to the top of the helmet.
She looked at Link, still confused.
"They use feathers to identify people on the battlefield," he explained. "Otherwise, you might get confused about who you're supposed to be following and who you need to protect.
"Generals wear a single feather. Here, it's white, but in Hyrule, it's blue. Members of the royal family—like Prince Zeyde—wear two feathers of the same length: in Erenrue, one white and one blue, but in Hyrule it's one blue and one gold. The King wears three, though: two shorter ones and one longer one. His Majesty will have two short white ones and one long blue one, but you have two short blues and one long gold."
"So… they're dressing me as if I am already Queen of Hyrule?"
"But I'm not. …Not officially, anyways."
"But that's the statement we want to make. Nagadii is saying you are illegitimate—a traitor and a king-slayer. We're saying that he is a usurper and that he—not you—killed the king.
"If you show up dressed as queen, the Hylian soldiers might have some reluctance to fight against us. They may wonder what will happen if Nagadii is proven wrong and it turns out they've taken up arms against their rightful monarch."
Link picked up the sword he had given Zelda. During the night, someone—probably Sir Elgon—had firmly strapped its scabbard onto a white belt. Now, Link buckled the belt onto Zelda over her surcoat. Lastly, he buckled her quiver—stocked full of fresh arrows—across her back.
She was as ready as she would ever be.
Link handed Zelda her helmet. "I believe everyone is meeting in the War Room. Why don't you go ahead and join them and I will be along as soon as I can get ready."
"Alright," she said, tucking the helmet under her arm. She picked up her bow, too, then headed out the door.
When she walked into the War Room, she found it full of servants, generals, and advisors. The king was at the far end of the table, looking at the map, while two attendants hurried to arm him. He paid them no mind, though—being too busy talking to his generals. Zelda looked at the helmets scattered over the table and counted plumes; it looked as if there were six generals.
Prince Zeyde was nearest the door, looking—as always—serene in the midst of chaos. Zelda had expected that he would be awkward and ill at ease—being too studious and gentle for war—but he stood tall and handsome in his armor and actually looked quite capable. He seemed to approach warfare the way he approached everything: with quiet determination and precise application.
He noticed Zelda enter and he gave her a slight bow of the head—an acknowledgment of the rank she now bore.
She walked to his side.
"Good morning," he said.
"Are you ready?" Zeyde asked, looking at her carefully, as if searching for some sign that she wasn't.
"Ready as anyone ever is, I think."
"A wise answer," he said approvingly.
"There's something I've been meaning to ask you…" she started to say.
"What was my mother like?"
He smiled softly, but a sadness came over his face. "She was a wonderful person—so sweet and loving—even as a child. And she was always charming and gracious. No person who was with her for more than five minutes could fail to fall in love with her. From kings to the lowliest page or common person, she could make everyone feel at ease and as if they were her dearest friend."
"So she was a lot like you?"
"I'm afraid you give me a compliment I'm not worthy of."
She looked up at him critically. "No, I don't think so."
They were interrupted a moment later by the king.
"Ah, Zelda, there you are." He gestured for her to join him.
She walked slowly to the head of the table—the generals and advisors stepping back out of her way, carefully looking her over, sizing her up.
She walked with her back straight and her head up, moving through them like a monarch. If she was going to dress the part, she felt she needed to act the part as well.
King Ranis gave her a quick look over, then nodded his approval. "That looks fine on you."
"Where's Link?" he asked, looking around the room.
"He's getting ready."
"Running late on the morning of a battle?" one of the generals snickered.
"Actually," Zelda said, in her best haughty voice, "he helped me get ready first, then he went to make himself ready."
King Ranis nodded. "As he should do. There is no greater honor for a monarch than to have one of his noblemen personally serve him."
The general at least did them the courtesy of looking embarrassed; the king was being dressed by some of the common men from the armory
"Actually," Zelda said, "I think the greatest honor is fealty given in blood."
King Ranis looked at her sharply. "Has he done this?"
He got a faraway look in his eyes, then he nodded approvingly. "Yes, he would do so." He looked back at Zelda. "Link is worth more to you than entire treasury full of money and gems. Anyone can accumulate wealth—and it can be stolen from you—but the loyalty that he gives you so unconditionally is a rare thing indeed. It cannot be bought or traded, nor can it be taken from you, unless you do something to deserve to lose it.
"When you are on your throne, you must make sure to put him above all your other advisors because you can trust that he will never act for his own gain—only for your good."
"Yes, sir," she replied. He wasn't telling her anything she didn't already know, but she felt better hearing him confirm what she felt. Her father certainly wouldn't have given Link so much credit, simply because he was common-born.
"I don't like to speak ill of the dead," Ranis continued, as if reading her mind, "but Marcus was a fool. He could have asked for no better son-in-law—nor one more noble. He certainly would be a welcome addition to my family," the king hinted.
Zelda pretended to be busy studying the map, oblivious to his hinting. Despite the fact that she had, just a few minutes before, confessed to being in love with Link—despite the fact she had glimpsed a possible future with him in her life as her partner, rather than as her retainer—that didn't mean she had any plans to marry him in the near future. She felt too young, too inexperienced, and her life, at the moment, was far too chaotic to even begin considering such a weighty decision.
Besides, Link would be the first to tell her that she needed to concentrate on being a queen first. And given that she didn't even have a kingdom at the moment, that might take quite a while to accomplish.
A moment later, Link strode into the room. He stopped a respectful distance from the table and bowed low to everyone assembled. He was carrying his helmet, too, and Zelda noticed that he had been given a blue plume to indicate that he was a Hylian general. Someone had even been considerate enough to make him a blue surcoat with his family's arms on it.
He wasn't doing too badly for a fisherman's son. It was sad, but perhaps he should have been born in Erenrue instead of Hyrule. They certainly seemed more appreciative.
"Just the man we need," the King said, gesturing for Link to come closer. "Let's go over our strategy one more time."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Link said, coming to stand beside Zelda.
The king tapped the map. Blue blocks had been added to the map to represent the Erenrue divisions. There were six major divisions—one for each of the six generals—plus two half-divisions—one for Prince Zeyde and the other for the king—which were made up exclusively of noblemen and which served as the Crown's most elite fighting force.
"As we discussed," the king said, pointing to the larger blocks, "the bulk of our army is on foot. Only mine and Zeyde's divisions will be mounted."
"We know you and Zelda will be their main target," the king continued. "If she falls or is taken, that's the end of Hyrule. If they get you… well, I think we can assume that your ransom would cost a kingdom."
"I am not be ransomed," Link said firmly.
The king nodded.
Link looked at Zelda expectantly. She didn't want to think about what would happen if Link ended up in Nagadii's clutches. But she knew that the king was right: Nagadii would demand her kingdom in exchange for Link. And while she would willingly give up everything she owned for him, Hyrule wasn't hers to give away. It belonged to all of its citizens; she had no right to sell them into darkness—not even for someone as dear to her as Link.
She swallowed, then nodded her understanding. No ransom.
The king continued. "I think it would be best if you two stayed with either me or Zeyde." He pointed to a small block in the front of the formation which was decorated with a large gold crown. "I will be leading the attack. While that may not sound very safe, my vanguard is made up of the best of the best—all of them hand-picked by me and all of them devoted to this family. If anyone can protect you, it's my men. And since we're riding in hard and fast, we should take less archer fire.
"But if you think it better, you can stay with Zeyde." He pointed to a block with a smaller crown which was behind the main line. "His division serves as our shock troops. He can watch the tide of battle better from the rear, and if he sees our line weakening, or if they make an attempt on our flank, he will send in his men to help us regain control.
"It's the safest place to be… for most of the battle. But, of course, when you're sent in, it's because things have become rather desperate. It can be hard work to regain control."
Link looked at Zelda—clearly deferring the decision to her.
Zelda knew that Zeyde was in the back was because he was the heir; should the king fall in battle, it would be important for him to be able to escape alive. Which wasn't to say that his role in the battle was unimportant; she could see where his intellect and cool head would make him ideal for protecting their rear and giving them aid where it was most needed.
But despite the fact that she was the only heir that Hyrule had, she felt that everyone would think less of her if she took the rearward position. This was her fight. She couldn't ask others to fight for her throne but be unwilling to put her own life on the line for it when the time came.
The room was silent and all eyes were on her, waiting for her decision.
"We will fight with you," she told her grandfather.
"Good," he said with approval. She may have just been imagining it, but she thought she saw something like pride in his battle-hardened old face.
She definitely saw a change in the other men present. They all nodded in agreement and looked at her with new respect. It was as if she had passed their test.
"With us in the front," Link said, "I think it makes sense for Her Highness to use her bow to take out as many of their generals and leaders as she can to add to their confusion. I doubt Nagadii will get too close, but Her Highness has more range than most and she's accurate. If he slips up and comes too far forward, or if we push forward quicker than he can retreat, she may be able to get him. If he's wounded or dead, the entire army ought to fall apart."
"I agree," the King said. He moved the blocks around so that they were in a narrow arrow-shape, with his division at the point and Zeyde at the base.
"We'll hit them like this," he said. "This presents us with a relatively narrow front, which means we'll take fewer casualties from their arrows, but it will allow us to move a little faster than a single column and we can spread out faster when we hit their line.
"We'll drive the point as deep as we can and see if we can't catch Nagadii by surprise and give Princess Zelda her chance."
He looked around at everyone. "Clear?"
Everyone nodded and there was a chorus of, "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Then, gentlemen, let us away."
There was a scramble for helmets and sword belts; the servants from the armory helped adjust a last few straps. Then everyone moved out—clanking loudly down the normally quiet, peaceful corridors.
The hallways were lined with servants, all waiting in silence. As the procession passed them, they bowed.
Outside, the palace courtyard was filled with people holding horses and trying to calm them; the animals were prancing and tossing their heads in anticipation. Even the horses of Erenrue seemed eager to prove themselves on the field of battle.
Near the bottom of the steps, Rayliss, Austina, and Sir Elgon stood, each holding a magnificent white horse clad in heavy armor. Rayliss's younger brothers, Philippe and Castor, were also standing with their mother.
King Ranis gestured to Link and Zelda to stay with him and Prince Zeyde. The other generals went off into the crowd where their own wives and children were holding their horses for them, ready to make their final farewells.
Ranis put his hand on Rayliss's shoulder. "Rayliss, you are Regent while I and your father are gone. Do whatever may be necessary for the defense of the city until we get back. Sir Elgon is staying behind and will advise you."
She nodded a little, as if too overcome with emotion to speak. He kissed her on the cheek, then whispered in her ear. "You can do this."
On Zelda's other side, Zeyde was kissing his sons goodbye. His younger son, Castor, was crying and Philippe looked close to tears, although he was trying valiantly to hold them back.
"I'll be home shortly," Zeyde assured them both, giving them an extra kiss.
Austina threw her arms around his neck and he embraced her as tightly as his armor would allow.
"Come back home to me," she whispered.
"Always," he promised fervently.
Zelda had to turn away; tears were stinging in her eyes.
"I'm glad I'm going with you," she whispered to Link. "I couldn't stay behind."
"It does seem to be harder to stay than to go," he agreed, looking at the scenes of parting sadly.
The King was the first to mount up. All over the courtyard, other men—the generals, plus all the noblemen who were riding in the mounted division—took that as a sign and began to get on their horses as well.
Link put on his helmet, then Sir Elgon stepped forward to help. "If I may, Sir?" he asked.
Link nodded. Sir Elgon tucked the horse's reins in the crook of his arm and buckled Link's helmet for him so he didn't have to fumble with the strap while wearing his gloves.
Then Elgon turned to Zelda. "May I help you as well, Your Highness?"
"Yes, please," she said, handing him her helmet; she was still carrying her bow in her other hand.
He put her helmet on her head and buckled it for her. Link stepped up onto the mounting block beside the horse and got on. Zelda stepped up next.
"Let me hold that for you," Sir Elgon said, taking her bow from her.
Link offered her his arm, and she grabbed it with one hand and the back of the saddle with the other. Between her and Link both pulling, and Sir Elgon giving her a little push from behind, she managed to get onto the horse.
She panted a little from the exertion. Getting onto a horse without the aid of stirrups was never easy, but the awkwardness and weight of her full plate armor made the exercise ten times more difficult.
Sir Elgon handed up her bow, then gave Link the horse's reins.
"Thank you, Sir Elgon," Link said. He offered his hand. "It's been a privilege."
Sir Elgon gripped his hand firmly. "Likewise, Sir. Likewise."
"Take care of my city while I'm gone, Elgon," the king said, pulling his horse up beside him.
Elgon bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty."
The king moved off through the crowd. Zeyde came up next.
"Take care of my family," he said quietly.
"On my life," Elgon promised.
Zeyde nodded to him, then followed the king through the crowd.
Link gave Elgon one last nod goodbye, then nudged his horse into a walk.
Zelda put out her hand to Elgon and he briefly pressed it between his. "May the gods keep you both," he whispered as she pulled away.
Zelda turned back one last time to look at the families who were being left behind. She waved goodbye to Austina and Rayliss and they both lifted their hands in farewell. It looked as if they were crying.
The generals fell in behind Link and Zelda, then the other men began falling in behind them. The gates to the palace were thrown wide open and the guard standing by the doors threw a smart salute as they went by.
The streets were lit with torches and lanterns and everywhere people gathered along the edges, in doorways, and hung out windows to watch the royal divisions pass by. Except for the clatter of the horses' hooves on the cobblestone as they wended their way down, the city was eerily silent. It was as if everyone was watching a funeral procession pass.
Zelda repressed a shudder.
Now she understood why many people in Erenrue rejoiced when war was announced; the alternative was a sad resignation or else uncontrollable fear. And as much as she had inwardly cringed from the cheers at the reception, now she wished the silent crowds in the city were cheering. It would make her feel better about where they were going.