A Spirit of Courage

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Howdy! Name's November!

This is an AU story that I posted on FFN, which has gotten virtually no feedback. I'm kinda disappointed by that, since I'm very happy with this story, so I'm posting it here in the hopes that more people will be willing to read it and give me crit on it. =) If for whatever reason, you want to post a review on the FFN site, here's the link to the story: click

Prologue: Death and Darkness

"Link! Look out!" Zelda screamed, cupping her hands around her mouth so that her words would better reach the furiously battling Hero. Her heart was racing in her chest fearfully as she watched the long-legged young man turn a nimble backflip and dart away from the incoming strike.

The sky overhead was dark and thick with masses of thunderclouds, whose black bellies snarled hungrily and flashed bright bolts of lightning over the battlefield. The air was heavy beneath them, as if their imposing weight were crushing the air in Hyrule down around its denizens. A storm was hovering over the warrior and his monstrous opponent, and as Zelda watched, the first few drops of rain began speeding down from on high. They fell slowly and in scattered amounts,only to swiftly pick up a vicious speed and force, until they were coming down in driving curtains. A sharp gust of chilly wind keened over the rubble-strewn ground, sending the raindrops slanting into the eyes of all present. Lightning stabbed the sky in blinding flashes, and the thunder that followed made the ground quake in fear.

Zelda felt her breath catch in her throat; it was hard to see her Hero as it were, and the brief glimpses she caught of him when the lightning flared did not set her heart at ease. He was stumbling slightly as he ran, and limping when he wasn't stumbling. He'd been injured before, while the war had been waged in the tower, and the frantic dash down to this new battleground had not improved his condition. The Princess could see that he was getting tired and weak, that his wounds were starting to drag him down. Her heart clenched painfully.

"Link,don't give up!" she cried, feeling her throat beginning to choke up."He's weakening—I can sense it! You can do this! I believe in you!"

In a flash of lightning, she saw the Hero of Time spare her the briefest of glances over his shoulder before he returned his focus to the fight at hand. He was no more than ten feet away from her; she had seen the look of desperation in his impossibly dark blue eyes give way to a smoldering light of courage. In the darkness that followed, Zelda heard him sheathe the Master Sword, the Blade of Evil's Bane, and heard him fumble behind him for the bow strapped under his shield. There was nothing; then, a bright, yellow glow began to shine out in front of Link as the young Hero nocked a Light Arrow onto his bowstring. He aimed for the face of the monstrous boar-beast before him, and let fly. Ganon let out a shattering roar of pain as the arrow connected with its mark, and tumbled onto his knees.

Hesitating only enough to draw his sword once more, Link charged in and dealt the evil beast a series of rapid swipes to the tail—the weak point that Navi had eagerly pointed out at the battle's start. A shaft of furious lightning split the storm-darkened sky, and in the heartbeat of its flare, Zelda saw something that wrenched a horrified scream from somewhere deep within her. Ganon whirled on his brave assailant with the flat of one of his twin swords and flung him away with a solid blow to the chest. Link landed a good distance away with a choked yell. Zelda ran around the side to see if she could spot him, her heart thumping hard against her breastbone. She'd never imagined violence like this—at least not done towards her Hero. She brought herself up short, her hands clapped around her mouth fearfully, as she saw the dim outline of the young Hylian staggering to his feet once more. She saw the weary slump of his shoulders—how low he held his head, how labored his heaving breaths were, how painfully he seemed to move—and knew that he was quickly losing his strength.

The young woman bit her lower lip nervously.She knew that the Triforce of Courage gave Link some degree of protection against evil powers, as well as the unyielding bravery that he showed now. But she couldn't help but wonder if she had somehow underestimated the brutal strength of the Triforce of Power held by Ganon. Indeed, the Evil King seemed nigh unstoppable, despite the best efforts of the Hero limping around him.

Zelda followed Link behind the barrier, her heart tearing with every slow, painful step the boy took. She sniffled, and was startled to discover that rain was not the only thing streaming down her face. She was crying—crying for fear of her Hero and Hyrule, for the sorrow she felt to see him so battered,and for the awful dread that was building in her belly. Link stopped and turned to face Ganon once more. Lightning blasted the soggy battlefield, and Zelda saw that the Hero of Time was quivering weakly where he stood. She listened to him fumble about trying to sheathe the Master Sword, then slowly draw out his bow and fit an arrow to its string. A dim glow lit the Hylian youth from the front, but his arms dipped lower and lower as it grew brighter. The physical strain of creating a Light Arrow was sapping the needed strength from his body;he could barely hold his bow upright to aim it.

Goddesses of Hyrule, help him! Zelda pleaded in her heart. Her sobbing gasps synced eerily with the labored draws of breath from the Hero in front of her. She leaned closer to him, her eyes huge, begging the Goddesses for mercy. Her heart broke when she saw the failing glow of the Light Arrow die out completely, and she heard Link drop his bow to the muddy ground at his feet. Ganon was creeping steadily closer, and the Hero stumbled away from his approach as fast as he could. Zelda ran alongside him,sniffling and wringing her hands anxiously.

"Link!" she squeaked,her throat almost too tight to speak. "Don't let him win! You can defeat him! I know you can! Don't give in!"

Again, she saw him turn to glance at her, and saw him dip his head in a trembling nod. Zelda felt as if she had been punched in the stomach by the trust and warmth in his tired eyes. He began limping back to the place where he had dropped the bow, snapping his fingers weakly and pointing in its direction. Navi hummed down obediently and illuminated the cast-aside weapon, though her blue glow was all but swallowed by the driving rain.

Link lifted the bow into his hands, and slowly laid an arrow against the string. Zelda saw a yellow bubble of light begin to form in front of him. Her heart leapt with joy as she realized that this arrow was gaining strength much faster than the one before it. Perhaps that brief moment of eye contact with her had given her Hero some extra strength. Whatever it was, though, it led to a fully-formed Light Arrow that connected furiously with Ganon's boar face. The monster toppled down, and Link struggled to unsheathe the Master Sword. Once it was in his shaking hands, the youth lumbered forwards and hurled himself at the Evil King with a weak cry. He struck once—fumbled the sword in his grasp—planted his feet—struck again—wobbled and caught himself—lifted his sword for a third strike—

"Get out of there!" Zelda shrieked, her heart now thundering a panicked beat in her chest. "Run! You don't have much time! Go! Go!" She could barely see her Hero, a smudge of dim light in a world of darkness. But she could clearly hear Ganon grunting and snorting and struggling to his feet. He was moving faster than Link could hope to, and Zelda nearly lost her mind when she heard him knock the brave warrior away as if he were nothing more than a bothersome flea. A thin scream tore free from her throat as she hitched up her skirts and dashed in the direction he had flown.

When she reached the place,Link was still on his hands and knees, gasping for breath. Zelda knelt down and put her hand against the wall that separated them. She saw Navi hover close to the Hero's face, heard him retch and cough, watched drops of blood dot the ground. The Princess moaned softly at her courageous champion's fate and covered her face hopelessly. Just barely, she heard a quiet, weak voice whisper, "Haa…Huh." She looked up to see Link, head still down, pressing his hand against the barrier between them, his palm against hers. The Hero lifted his face to hers with painful slowness. A dark ring of purple surrounded his right eye,and his face was traced all over with more cuts than Zelda could count. Blood from his coughing fit streaked his chin, but he was smiling! Smiling as if to comfort her, to tell her not to be afraid for him.

His dark blue eyes, though glazed and barely focused, were filled with warm encouragement. Zelda felt herself fall forward into those eyes, become lost in them. She wished there had been more time to speak to him before this battle had broken out, more time to tell him the words that lurked timidly in her heart. She wanted to tell him—oh, great Goddesses, she wanted—but she was too afraid of his reaction. What if he did not return the feelings? She wanted to believe that his eyes held a glow of something approaching affection, but she did not want to make assumptions. Her heart twisted and tore painfully at the incredible agony on his face, and at the gentle calm in his eyes despite his pain. Link's smile stretched across his bleeding face, a small light of hope in this dark night. He began pulling himself off the ground, supporting himself on the barrier between him and the Princess. Zelda kept her hand against his; though she could not feel his touch through the wall, it gave her some measure of hope to know that she was supporting him somehow.

Link gave her one long look before returning his focus to Ganon once more. Zelda caught her breath in her throat as she watched his trembling hands aim an arrow at the boar-beast's face. The weak glow of a Light Arrow was swallowed by a harsh blast of lightning that split the sky; in that instant, the two Hylians watched as Ganon's eyes slipped out of focus, and the Evil King dropped to his knees without even being struck. Zelda felt a burst of hope surge through her heart at the sight. "Link, I'll hold him for you!" she shouted. "Get ready to attack. We'll send this foul beast to a place he'll never escape from!"

She watched her Hero grip the Master Sword and stumble towards the stunned monster as fast as his shaky legs could carry him. This would be the end—at last, Link would be able to rest! Once Ganon was sealed away, Zelda would take the youth far away from this dark, dangerous place and treat his wounds. Then, perhaps, when he had recovered some of his strength, she could talk to him and tell him how she felt. Her heart began to lighten in her chest as she summoned her strength to pin Ganon down.

But as hard as she tried, she could not get a good enough grip on the Evil King to hold him down. She could feel a subtle push against her, as if he were resisting capture. She would pull back, call up more of her power, and try again, but each time Ganon would brush her aside. Again and again she tried, with no success. But how could that be? He was stunned, unconscious—he couldn't possibly be resisting her! Realization struck the Princess in a cold, harsh blow, and she clapped her hands to her mouth. It's just an act! He's luring Link in!

"Link!" she screeched, her voice rising to a frantic pitch. "Get back! Get away! Hurry! Link!"

She saw the youth hesitate, swaying on his feet at Ganon's head. He crouched low, bracing himself and raising his shield defensively. The silent minutes stretched thin, becoming hours, days; Ganon did not move to attack the Hero before him, remaining slumped on the ground. Zelda's heart was whirring in her chest, frantically begging Link to retreat to a safer place, but it seemed that her Hero was either too weak or to stubborn to flee. She bit her lip frantically, drawing blood, but she did not notice the pain.

The only sound was that of the falling raindrops, which pelted the combatants mercilessly and mingled with Zelda's free-flowing tears. The young woman placed a hand on the barrier, leaning in towards her Hero. "Link," she whispered, the loudest she could speak, "come back. Please, please…Come back where it's safer." She watched the young Hylian ease up out of his tense crouch, though she knew he had not heard her. Link stood at Ganon's cheek, eyeing his seemingly helpless opponent in a calculating way. She could see him wobbling as he stood; his strength was nearly gone, and soon it would be too much for him to even stay standing. He seemed to take each falling raindrop as a shove or a blow, and swayed on his feet with the force of them. He was weak and tired, and his body was nearly spent, but his indomitable courage and spirit kept him from submitting. Zelda sucked in her breath as she saw him draw both arms—for he was holding his sword in two hands—back to strike, and prayed fervently that her previous judgment of Ganon's state of consciousness was right.

Link's arms swept down slowly, the Master Sword cutting a glittering, glowing arc through the rain and the darkness. The blade inched towards Ganon's neck, its path wavering with its wielder's trembling hands. For a second, it appeared as though victory belonged to the Hero of Time, and that soon the Evil King's head would be rolling across the ground. But in the instant before the Master Sword struck flesh, Ganon's eyes snapped open, and one of his powerful hands lashed out, catching Link across the chest. The Hylian was hurled through the air towards Zelda, and in midflight, the Master Sword slipped out of his grip. Hero and blade struck the same fragment of castle wall at much the same time, with very similar results.

Zelda wasn't sure which was louder: The high-pitched singing note of the Sword of Time breaking mid-blade,or the awful, crumbling crack as Link's neck was snapped.

"NOOOOOOO!"

The Princess gave voice to a thunderous, disbelieving wail as Ganon's dark laughter boomed out over the rumble of the retreating thunder. Link slid down the wall slowly to land in a limp huddle at the foot of it.The barrier fell, and Zelda dashed to her Hero's side. She took his head in her lap, desperately stroking his bloodied face with one hand while feeling his neck, wrist, and chest with the other. She found no pulse, and he made no movements as if he were breathing. "Link, no!"she whispered fearfully. "No! No! Don't—don't go! Link!" Fresh tears streamed down her face, dripping down into the sightless, open eyes of the Hero in her arms. Link stared blindly out into the pouring rain, his mouth dropped open the barest of inches; his expression was frozen in one of mild surprise, as if the suddenness with which he had hit the stone wall had startled him slightly. He was dead.

Zelda cursed herself for all that had happened. It was her fault she had been captured—she shouldn't have revealed herself in such an open place as a closed-door Temple. If she hadn't been taken away, Link wouldn't have come to save her, and he would never have been pulled into this battle, and he would still be alive. The Hylian brushed his cheek lightly with her hand, wincing at the sight of his blood staining her silken glove. The ground shook, and Zelda jerked her head up to see that Ganon was prowling towards her, his eyes bright with wild joy.

"Ohoho! So the great Hero of Time is only mortal after all!"he thundered. Zelda would have sobbed in fear, but she found that she had no tears left in her body. She stared up at him, as mute as the Hero in her lap had been in life. "Now that he's gone, nothing stands between me and the power I seek!"

A fear gripped Zelda, and she realized that Ganon was right. As she was shaking her head and opening her mouth to beg for mercy, she spotted a glint out of the corner of her eyes. The Master Sword lay fewer than twenty feet away, well within her grasp. If repaired and placed in the hands of a capable wielder, the sword could be Ganon's undoing. At the same time, however, if she took Link away and brought him to the right person, his body could be restored, and his spirit brought back into it. The Princess's eyes flashed from the broken blade to her broken Hero. There was no way she would be able to carry both the sword and Link away from Ganon.

She was going to have to choose.

But how could she possibly choose between a sword so important and a young man so dear? Zelda squeezed her eyes shut, her heart clenching painfully. Triforce of Wisdom, guide me. Show me the path that is right.She knelt there, eyes closed, listening to Ganon's steady approach and praying for her path to appear. It took a moment, as if the spirit of wisdom was just as conflicted as she was; then, Zelda felt a gentle pressure on her cheek, turning her head to the side. She opened her eyes, and saw that she was looking directly at the Master Sword, whose blade was now cleaned by the rain. It looked somewhat dull and lusterless, as if its energy had died with Link. Zelda felt a lump form in her throat, and she bit her tender lower lip, which had already endured much chewing this night. Her breath coming in shaky puffs, she bent her head and gave her Hero a gentle kiss on the cheek. "I'm sorry,Link," she murmured, her heart broken. Then, after placing his head on the ground with as much tenderness as should would if he were still alive, she unclipped the sheath from Link's back and strapped it to her own belt. She got up and began striding purposefully towards the broken sword, her face set like stone.

She heard Ganon's roar of protest and gathered up her skirts in one hand, running flat-out towards the Blade of Evil's Bane. The ground shook as the boar-beast pounded after her, and his bellows rent the sky. Zelda swooped down and grabbed both pieces of the Master Sword in her free hand without breaking her stride. She hurried towards the edge of the ground and flung herself into the empty air just as one of Ganon's massive hands swept the spot where her legs had been. The Evil King roared his frustration as the young woman escaped.

Zelda dropped the hand that was holding the bundle of her skirt, for once not giving a damn about modesty and proper etiquette. She made the signs one-handed as she fell through the air, praying that the magic would still work. Her luck held out; her palm was tingling with energy, and it cast a subtle blue light in the darkness. Zelda thrust her hand downwards, open-fisted, shouting,"Nayru's Love!" A prism of light formed around her body as she dropped,forming a secure cage of protection. The Princess took what felt like her first deep breath of relief in seven years, releasing it in a sad sigh. The ground zoomed closer and closer, but she no longer feared the drop—not with the power of the Goddess of Wisdom protecting her.

The crystal cage around Zelda took the worst of the impact, shattering like a dropped wine glass when it struck the ground beneath Ganon's tower. She stood, dusting herself off briskly with her free hand before gathering up her skirts and taking to her heels again. The pieces of the broken sword in her arm rattled and crashed together in counterpoint to the rhythm of her pounding feet. She did not know if Ganon would follow her, or if he viewed her and the Master Sword as harmless in their current states; she simply ran because her heart told her to flee. An image of Link's face hovered in front of her as she sprinted through the night—she saw the smile he had flashed at her, the grin of encouragement that had come from someone who should be receiving reassurance rather than giving it. It haunted her, crushed her already broken heart into tiny pieces.

Through the marketplace, which was crawling with Re Deads, ran the Princess. They shrieked, but Zelda was already too terrified of something else to even notice; their petrifying screams had no effect on her. Across the broken drawbridge, and out onto the open field, she bolted as if the hounds of Hell were at her heels. Hyrule was dark, and the ground squished as her feet struck it. Zelda could sense that the storm was passing in the opposite direction of her. The rain in her face was thinner, gentler, and the air before her seemed easier to breathe. She ran breathlessly, her heart an aching hole in her chest. Her legs were burning with cramps and fatigue, and her shoulder was sore from her deathgrip on the Master Sword. Still, she ran, pressing forward through the dark land; she was alone and vulnerable, but it scarcely seemed to bother her. Her blue eyes were wide and wild, dark with horror at all she had seen that night.

Zelda was less than half a mile away from the castle gates when she stumbled and fell. The Master Sword tumbled ahead of her; the piece with the hilt impaled the grass and stood up straight, while the smaller piece skidded until it struck the other part and was stopped. The sight of the legendary sword without anyone to wield it against the Evil King seemed to be the key that unlocked Zelda's shoved-aside grief. The Princess of Hyrule threw back her head and gave voice to a keening wail that seemed to send the Field ringing. Fresh tears coursed down her cheeks as she slumped down against the ground and cried bitterly. She howled her sorrow to the night like a Wolfos, mourning not only the loss of her Hero, but also the loss of hope for the kingdom that had once been hers.

Chapter 1: Hyrule After the Hero

Linkali hoisted the bucket over her shoulder and reached for thedoorknob. "We'll be back in a minute with your water, Mom," shepromised, ruffling her little sister's hair with her free hand. Afterexchanging a glance with the young girl, the two of them stepped outthe door and into the village.

The sun was climbing through thecloudy sky towards its zenith, and though the seasons were turningtowards summer the land was actually quite temperate. The few bravesouls who made the journey into Hyrule would often remark about howstrangely cool the climate was, for even in the dog days of summer,many Hylians would go about comfortably in long sleeves and leggings.It was because of the weak sunlight, they said; Hyrule never gotterribly warm because the sun was never bright and it was often hiddenbehind clouds. There seemed to be no way of changing it, and hence, noreason to complain about it. To the best of their knowledge, only oneperson in Hyrule was old enough to remember a different climate, but itwas useless trying to talk to her.

For whatever it was worth,Linkali had seen fit to wear long sleeves that day, for though therewas sunlight, there wasn't much warmth to be had from it. She had on aclean, white cotton shirt, whose sleeves were tucked neatly into hersturdy leather, fingerless gloves, and whose shirttails were tuckedinto a pair of leather breeches. Her boots stopped just below herknees, and were fairly new—a gift she had only received because herprevious pair had been worn out to the point that they couldn't even besalvaged for scrap leather. Her belt was a simple strap that she woreon a slant, hung with a few pouches and fastened with a beaten steelbuckle that Linkali had scratched a downward-pointing triangle onto fordecorative purposes. The young woman also wore a short, soft, greenmantle around her shoulders, with a wide, loose collar and a long,trailing hood; stitched onto the front, for simple decoration, was ayellow X beneath a horizontal line of the same color. Linkali'shooded caplet was well-known around the village, for she had worn itnearly every day since receiving it several years ago, and its age wasfinally starting to show around the seams.

Linkali, who made it apoint to respond only to the shortened name of "Lin", was a strongyoung woman of seventeen years. She was taller than most of the othergirls her age in the village, a fact which her mother often credited todrinking plenty of milk as she had grown. She was lean—almostathletic—of build, with strong, supple limbs and sure hands. Her face,which was somewhat oval-shaped with pleasant features, had a seeminglyconstant expression of quiet, gentle certainty—a look truly befittingsomeone with her nature. Her slender-pointed ears were pierced twicewith silver hoops, and her skin was somewhat pale. Her long, straighthair was a curious shade of light brown—though it was definitely brown,in some lighting, it had an almost golden sheen to it—and it was cut insuch a way that two tufts of bangs stuck out over her forehead, whilethe longer pieces of it hung down behind her in a ponytail.

Perhapsthe young woman's most attention-snaring feature was her startlingeyes. They were blue—not entirely unusual, since her father was alsoblue-eyed—but they were a shade of the color that no one in her familycould find in their lineage. Linkali's eyes were as dark and deep asthe evening sky, though when something humorous caught them they seemedto grow bright and flash with happiness. They were soul-eyes, peoplesaid—the kind of eyes that could hide nothing; Lin's true feelingsalways showed up in her eyes, whether she wanted them to or not, and itwas often said that someone who knew her well enough would be able toread her very thoughts just by gazing into her eyes.

"Dad saysit's going to rain tonight," the young girl walking beside Linkalipiped up. Lin looked down at her sister. Talina—who preferred, butrarely insisted on, being called "Tali"—was five years younger thanLin. She was much shorter than her sister, though it was clear from thesize of her hands and feet that she still had much growing left to do.Her hair was a shaggy mess of brown strands, styled almost identicallyto that of Lin. Talina tended to copy the older girl in everything shedid; however, she could not imitate her older sister's gaze, for whileLinkali sported eyes of dark blue, Tali's were an equally deep shade ofbrown.

"Well, Dad does have a good sense for these things," Linadmitted. "Ever since he broke his arm a few years back, he says thathis shoulder twinges whenever a storm's on its way."

"And he'susually right, too!" Tali glanced in the direction of the well, whichwas located in the center of the village common. "Hey, who's that overthere, Lin? Do you know them?"

Linkali paused, resting her freehand on her sister's shoulder to bring them both to a stop. Thoughvillages were generally considered to be safe havens, there was alwaysthe occasional monster who managed to make their way in to causetrouble. Talina took a cautious step back and edged around so that shewas standing slightly behind her older sister. Linkali approached thefigure in the common with care, lowering her guard only when she sawthat they were leaning casually against the stone rim of the well.Monsters never leaned. They might crouch or sit or stand, but theynever leaned against anything; they always held a tense, predatoryposture. Still, Lin stayed in front of her sister until the man spoketo her.

"I am a traveler looking for a place for rest," he said.Though he spoke Hylian—the language of the land—his word choice andsentence structure were somewhat unusual. "Would I find it here in thisvillage?"

"In Kokoria? I don't see why not, if you're an honestman." Linkali attached the bucket to the rope and lowered it into thedarkness of the well. Talina plunked herself down on the stone rim ofthe well and began kicking her heels against the sides of it.

"Kokoria,"the traveler repeated, sounding the village name out carefully. "Thatis an interesting name for a village. Is it very old?"

"One hundred and fifty years," Lin replied honestly.

"It looks to be a small place, too."

"Itstarted out small. In the days of its founding, nobody wanted to leavetheir own village to build a new place to live, so Kokoria began with apopulation of only fifteen. These days, though, we number thirty-five,all told. There used to be more people," Linkali admitted, tugging thebucket-line to and fro. "But, well…things have happened." She did notfinish her sentence ambiguously or in any way that would prompt the manto question further; she made it a statement of fact.

"What sortsof things?" the man asked curiously, either failing to notice orignoring the definitive way Lin had ended her words. Linkali stoppedtoying with the rope, and Talina's feet fell still against the side ofthe well. "Has there been a sickness?"

Linkali sighed. "If youhadn't already told me that you were a traveler, sir," she said softly,gazing into the black heart of the well, "I certainly would haveguessed it by now. No, there is no sickness here—not that I know of, atleast." And she left it at that.

"Then why has this village's population declined of late? Has there been a war, or some fighting?"

Linkali fished the bucket out of the well, groaning on the inside. It figured that shewould have to be the one to answer this man's questions. He obviouslyhadn't spoken to many Hylians of late; otherwise, he would haveaccepted her blatant unwillingness to answer him directly and wouldhave stopped pressing for information. But here he stood, seekinganswers and prying into things like an undisciplined child. She knewshe shouldn't blame him, but he was making the situation veryuncomfortable for her.

"Sir," the young woman said, strugglingnot to sound terse or agitated, "that is not a question that can befreely answered. At least, it is not within my rights to answer it. Youare more than welcome to seek out the village leader—his name isGotari, and he lives with his wife and son in that house—though he maynot give you any more information than I have." She pointed, and theman nodded. "We do have an inn in Kokoria, and you can find it overthere." She shifted her finger to the left, indicating the building.Without another word, she returned her attention fully to the bucketswinging in front of her.

"You seem troubled by something," thetraveler noted, sounding sympathetic. He looked between the twosisters, neither of whom would meet his eye. "Both of you do. Why? Isit something to do with the number of people who have gone out fromyour village?" He laid a hand on the bow around his shoulders. "Ifthere is a monster terrorizing this place, then I will gladly standagainst it."

Linkali shook her head, smiling a little grimly."There is no monster, sir, and even if there were, we would be able totake care of it for ourselves," she informed him. "I have told you allI can. You may seek out Gotari if you like, and perhaps he can bettersatisfy your curiosity."

"Very well." The man clearly looked confused and sympathetic, but Linkali's stern gaze seemed to burn the words Leave, if you don't mindinto his head. He nodded once to the two girls, and took his leave ofthem, heading in the direction of Gotari's house. Linkali watched himleave, resting a gentle hand on her sister's knees.

"He didn't mean to remind you of what happened," she murmured.

"I'mglad you didn't tell him." Tali shook her head briskly. As if that ridher of the saddening memories, she asked in a cheerful voice, "He sureasked a lot of questions, didn't he?"

"A lot of outsiders do,"Lin responded. "But, they learn in time that Hyrule is not a placewhere free-speakers and question-askers prosper. Not that it's a badplace to live—it just takes getting used to, and it takes a while tolearn the rules."

"And some people never learn, right, Lin?"

"Exactly." Linkali let the bucket she had filled come to rest on the rim of the well with a solid thunk. She and Tali both peered inside, frowning at how little water filled it. "Think we should give it a second go?"

"Didwe promise Mom a full bucket?" Talina asked, looking up at her sister'sface. Linkali stared at the half-full pail for a minute more, then tiedit back in and sent it down for another go. The spring had been a dryone; hence, much rope had to be unwound before the sisters heard thecharacteristic splash of the bucket striking water. Linkali gripped therope and began playing it deftly in order to coax her bucket to pick upmore water.

"We didn't," she admitted, "but I think it would benice if we could manage it, don't you?" Tali nodded and resumed kickingthe sides of the well. A comfortable silence stretched between the twoof them.

Finally, Talina tapped her sister's shoulder and pointedto one of the houses closest to the center of the village. Linkalifollowed Tali's finger to a small home that, like most of the buildingsin the village, looked as if it could use a fresh coat of paint and afew new patches of roof. It was a well known house—it was the home ofthe village's founder, who was remarkably still alive after so manyyears. "The Woman of Sighs isn't out today," she noted.

Linkali paused, blinking in silent thought. The bucket was forgotten for the moment. "Where did you hear her called that?" she asked suspiciously. Talina shrugged.

"Ioverheard you and Bartal talking about her one day," she replied,kicking her heels against the stone sides of the well. "That's what youguys called her." Linkali hesitated again, the corner of her mouthquirking up.

"…Bartal and I say a lot of things you're notnecessarily supposed to repeat," she told her younger sister bluntly."That being one of them. For the record, though, her name is Aldez."

"Oh,I know that," Talina pointed out, somewhat off-handedly. She thumpedher heels against the well, bouncing from side to side with the rhythmshe created. Lin smirked as she reeled the bucket in. "But what youcall her makes a lot of sense—she really does sigh a lot."

"Yes,but if Mom and Dad heard you calling her that, you'd land yourself in aworld of trouble for disrespecting the village founder," shethreatened, jabbing Tali in the ribs. The girl giggled and reeled fromher perch, landing in the soft grass beside the well. "You'd wish theEvil King had gotten you instead, you'd be in so deep!"

WhileTalina pushed herself up, Linkali looked into the bucket again. Sheshrugged. "Well, it's not much more than we got up the first time," sheexplained. "But it's better than nothing, and we promised Mom we'd havethe water back soon."

"The village is quiet today," Tali notedsoftly, gazing up and around the small town. Linkali nodded as she setthe bucket down beside the well. "Nobody's outside."

"Well, theclouds're getting thicker, so most people are probably bracing for therain," Lin pointed out, jerking her thumb upwards. Indeed, the cloudsthat had covered the heavens in a gauzy layer had grown darker and moreintimidating in appearance; it looks as if the storm would break in amatter of hours. The air was starting to feel heavier as well, as ifthe deepening clouds were pressing down upon the land. Linkali did notenjoy heavy rainstorms; they had terrified her when she had beenyounger (and, truthfully, she still jerked every time thunder shook theground, and flinched when lightning streaked across the sky—but thenagain, who didn't?).

Just as Lin and Tali were heading back inthe direction of their home, a wild, drawn-out yell split the airaround them. The sisters froze, with Linkali jumping protectively infront of the younger girl and tensing warily; then, they caught sightof the noise's source, something that, for the first few moments afterits appearance, kept them in stunned silence.

A young man aboutLinkali's age and size was speeding through the village square astridea massive, shaggy-furred dog. The canine was about as tall as Talina,and its paws were as big as dinner plates. It looked somewhat wolfish,with a thick muzzle, perked ears, bushy tail, and a heavy ruff ofsnow-white fur about its neck; its pelt was black, with white on itsmuzzle, chest, belly, and lower legs. The huge dog bucked like anunbroken horse, barking and panting roughly as it bolted through thevillage. The youth on its back was letting off gleeful hollers andyelps as he rode the creature like a horse, holding on tightly to itslong, furry ruff. One hand punched the air exuberantly, and his neckwhipped back and forth.

As the dog-rider spurred his unwillingsteed away, Talina looked up at her sister, who was doubled overlaughing. "W-was that Bartal?" she asked, still not completelybelieving what she had just seen.

Linkali wiped tears of laughterfrom her eyes and nodded. "Who else would do something like that?"Shaking her head slowly, she asked, "Be a big girl and take this waterback to Mom for me?"

"Sure." Tali grabbed the bucket in bothhands and hauled it up until it was in her arms. "Want me to tell heryou and Bartal went off together?"

"Can you?" Lin's mind wasedging closer and closer to the young man whose giddy shouts were nowfading into the distance. "'Cause something tells me this dork's motherisn't going to get to him fast enough. Thanks, Tali." She crouched downand gave the younger girl a loving kiss on the forehead, then sprintedoff in the direction the massive dog had taken.

Linkali's searchled her to the outskirts of the village, to the space between the lastbuildings and the rock wall that surrounded Kokoria. She did not findthe dog, but she did find Bartal lying in a semiconscious heapat the roots of a towering oak tree with yellow-veined leaves. TheHylian youth stood over her friend, hands on her hips, shaking her headslowly while she waited for him to come to himself. She did not worryat all about a possible injury; the boy's skull was doubtlessly thickenough to survive impact with an attacking Rogon. He was only stunned,though Lin was sure that most people would have been knocked outcompletely by half the things that left Bartal merely dazed.

Aftera few moments, Bartal's amber-brown eyes blinked away their cloudyglaze, and the boy shook his head firmly. Bartal and Linkali had knowneach other longer than either of them had known anyone else; neithercould remember a time when they had not been friends. (They wouldsay that they'd known each other their entire lives, but Bartal wasslightly older, meaning that there was about two months of his lifewherein he had not known Linkali.) They were a perfectlymismatched pair: Lin was collected and tended to be serious, whileBartal was a roguish goof-off who didn't seem to have a care in theworld. The two of them walking together, joking around and pushing eachother down, was a common sight in Kokoria Village. They were known fortheir reckless, often dangerous, antics, and for the trouble theytended to cause when together. (Linkali might be the perfect,responsible role model on her own or with her sister, but when coupledwith Bartal, she became just as much of a wild daredevil as he was.)

Thoughit did not show at the moment, Bartal was Linkali's equal in height,with a few added inches in his favor. He was built in much the sameway, too—lean and tall, but with enough muscle to get him through life.His hair was an unruly mop, black as coal and shaggy as the dog he hadjust finished riding. He was darker-skinned than either Lin or hersister, although many would still say that he was pale of complexion.He wore a long-sleeved gray shirt and pair of black leggings, with agreen tunic overtop; the sleeves and pants of his underclothes weretucked into his leather gauntlets and boots, respectively. He had twobelts as opposed to Lin's one: The first went around his hips, whilethe other buckled across his chest. His long, pointed ears were notpierced, although he did have a crescent-shaped nick midway along thebottom of his left ear. Curiously, he also wore a single pauldron onhis left shoulder, which had been passed down through his family overgenerations. The lone piece of armor was dinged from many of Bartal'sescapades, and the inlaid pattern on it had been all but worn away withage; the only design element to remain was that of four red rectanglesarranged in groups of two, one across from another.

When Bartalrealized who was standing before him, he laughed. "If you were hopingfor a ride on ol' Ganga, you're outta luck," he told her. "That dogruns like the wind and leaps like a deer. I bet he's miles away now."

"Bartal,you're an idiot," Linkali said, pinching up the skin of her forehead ina gesture of frustration. The other Hylian merely laughed loudly andheld out his hand. With feigned reluctance, Lin took hold and helpedhaul the boy to his feet again. "Why were you riding the goatdog?"

"Itseemed like a good idea at the time?" Bartal muttered in reply, rubbingthe back of his head gingerly. Those words seemed to be hiscatchphrase; he uttered the sentence so frequently that many villagerswould often beat him to the punch and say it before he had the chanceto. He had a reputation for being a clown, and his cheerful nature andcomical antics never failed to amuse. Linkali figured that was why sheenjoyed his company so much; there was never a dull moment with Bartalaround.

"You know what else sounds like a good idea?" Lin asked,raising her finger like a disciplining teacher. Bartal cocked his headto the side.

"Hillboarding?" he offered. Linkali hesitated. "Oho!I see how it is! You were planning some snide remark, but I actuallysaid something that appealed to you more than sarcasm!"

Linkaliscoffed as her friend wrapped an arm around her waist and begandragging her beside him as he walked back into the village. "I don'tsee how a responsible girl like me can get so easily wrapped up in yourimmature, dangerous sports," she growled, though there was a gildededge of concealed laughter to her words. "As you like it, Bartal—let meget my board, and I'll meet you at the trailhead."

"Why don't you bring Tali along this time?" Bartal asked.

"I'm not letting my sister do the kinds of reckless things we do," Linkali replied.

"Who says hillboarding is reckless?"

"Hmm,you're right. Sliding down steep, uneven, grassy hills on wooden plankswith polished undersides is totally not a reckless activity. All thosebroken wrists we've suffered in the past doing this kind of thing werejust freak accidents."

Bartal rolled his eyes. "You need to lighten up with Tali. You think I'm this protective of Coren?"

"Coren's your brother. Tali's my sister. There's a difference."

"Eh,I don't really see one. Well-p, hurry back!" With that, Bartal releasedthe girl. Lin darted off in the direction of her home, a grinstretching up the corners of her mouth.

Hillboarding was a sportof Bartal's own making. It had started off as one of his usualharebrained schemes—bringing split logs down from the forest above thevillage by riding them like toboggans—but he found that he enjoyed thethrill so much that he decided to refine it. Granted, it was still farfrom safe, but that did not stop the boy or his female friend fromheading out and practicing it with hair-whitening frequency. Linkaliswiftly grabbed her board—which was nothing more than a wooden plankwith one side heavily polished—and ran back the way she had come,taking a different turn that led her up the side of the grass-coveredrock wall outside the village. Bartal was waiting for her, a board ofhis own tucked under one arm. Together, the two friends made the climbto the top of the slope. Once there, they threw their boardssmooth-side down and each took a running leap onto them. The hillsideblurred around them as the two hillboarders quickly picked up viciousspeed.

Linkali bent her knees and strove to keep her weightcentered on her board. She felt her heart begin to race excitedly inher chest, and narrowed her dark blue eyes against the first few dropsof rain that began to fall. The drops were gentle for now, fallingintermittently from the sky; Lin knew that before the sun had set, thestorm would be going at full force. Though she knew with stronger raincame an increased risk of fall and injury—both from the decreasedvisibility and from the slipperiness of the grass—the risk ratherexcited her. The green hood on her mantle flapped and snapped behindher like a flag in the breeze as she accelerated rapidly.

Whenshe gauged that she had gathered enough speed, Linkali stomped the backend of her board—which had been steam-curved for twenty Rupees by thevillage spearmaker—and leapt into the air. Her board shot forward, hita bump on the hill, and flew up and around; it completed its circle andslid underneath Lin just as her feet were about to hit the ground. Sheheard an impressed whistle from Bartal.

"Nicely done!" hecongratulated. Linkali grinned. Her teeth were white and straight,though there was a small gap between the two front ones.

"Thank you. Now, can you imagine my sister doing that?" Lin laughed, shaking her head. "This is reckless, Bartal!"

"Hah!" Bartal scoffed. "Yeah, right. This isn't reckless, this is fun!"He crouched low and shot up the side of a small knoll, shifting hisweight back to keep from streaking too far forwards. The youth grippedthe edge of his board and pulled his feet away from it; for a briefmoment, he hung in the air. Then, just as swiftly as he'd gone up, hebegan to fall. Bartal moved quickly and smoothly, placing the boardback under his feet just in the nick of time.

Linkali's eyesnarrowed calculatingly. "Really? You seem to be confused. Perhaps Ishould"—she leaned downhill to pick up speed, then swerved in front ofBartal, nearly startling him into falling; from there, she made a widepass behind him and finished at his side once more—"educate you!"

"You couldn't educate a block of wood, Lin!" Bartal taunted.

Linkalicut to the side to avoid a dip in her path, then swept back aroundbeside her friend. "Is that so? I'll have you know I once educated ablock of wood into holding a door open for me when I didn't have thehands free to do it myself."

Bartal carved sideways and rode hisboard up the side of a long, sloping rise. He planted one hand at thetop of the ridge—keeping the other firmly on his board—posed with agoofy grin, then slid back down gracefully. Lin leaned back to cut herspeed while she waited for him to catch up. "That's not education.That's called 'making a doorstop'!"

"Well, either way, you and the average block of wood tend to share the same level of mental acuity," Linkali shot back.

"Mental awhattity?"

"Acuity.It's a noun. It means the sharpness of something." Lin hunkered down,shooting herself off the top of a rise as Bartal had done earlier. Shecontemplated turning a flip, but decided she did not have enough air,and landed without attempting any tricks.

"Oh." The boy noddedslowly, digesting this new knowledge. He paused, frowned, then shouted"Hey!" as he realized just how backhanded her remark had been.

Bartalcrouched low on his board, streaking after Linkali, who was glidingdown the hill and laughing uproariously. The two of them wove aroundeach other down the slope, turning as many jumps and tricks as theycould. They reached the bottom, skidding on the long edges of theirboards, as the rain began to pick up force.

Linkali picked up herboard and braced one end of it on the ground. Her heart was hammering,and her legs were shaking slightly; she felt, as she always did after ahillboarding run, as if she had cheated Death yet again. She turned herface skyward, allowing the gentle rain to wash the beading sweat fromher face. When she heard Bartal calling her back towards the trailhead,she snagged her board and trotted after him.

"It's not safe tostay outside the village for too long," the boy told her. Lin nodded."Yeah, I figured you would know that from what happened to Tali." Therewas a catch in his voice, barely audible, as he added, "And my dad…"

Linkaliwas silent for a few moments as she padded after her friend. Shestudied his face for a second, then asked quietly, "I know it's been awhile, but have you heard anything about him?" Bartal shook his head.

"No,not since he was taken to add to the Evil King's army," he replied."And that was four years ago, almost five. For all I know, he could bedead, or turned into a Stalfos with no memory of Kokoria, or somethingjust as bad." He looked at Lin. "And he's not the only one who wastaken, too. Gotari's elder son was stolen as well, and Korlan, andLohoran, Italtal, Jutari…all because they stood outside the village fortoo long on the wrong night."

"And all of Tali's friends, too,"Linkali muttered with a shiver. "Although, they weren't taken, justslain on sight. Honestly, you can never tell if a monster is there totake you to Ganon's tower, or if it's only waiting to feel your bloodon its claws."

"Well, there's really nothing we can do about it,"Bartal told her simply, a sad smile crossing his face. "These thingsare just like the tributes we have to pay to the Evil King—we can'treally change them, so we just have to accept them." Though his wordswere spoken with enough defeat, his amber eyes sparked with secretknowledge. It was knowledge that Linkali shared, but just like thereason behind Kokoria's declining numbers, it was not information to bediscussed out in the open air.

Thetwo young Hylians went hillboarding until well past sunset, by whichpoint they were exhausted, soaked to the marrow and sore from theirnumerous slips and failed jumps. Linkali was the one who called it aday first, after she narrowly avoided falling with her arm at anunlucky angle. Bartal was quick to agree. After all, with the grass asslick as it was, neither of the two youth could go more than twentyfeet without their boards flying out from under them; Lin's board wasactually waiting for her at the bottom of the hill, because she hadn'tbeen able to get her hands around in time to grab it before it got away.

Sheinvited Bartal over for dinner, but the boy declined, saying that hismother was likely worried out of her mind. Lin knew that the storywould probably be the same with her mother, and she hurried back to herhouse after giving her friend a tight hug of farewell.

Before shestepped inside, Linkali paused with one hand resting on the doorknob ofher home. She gazed up at the storm-black sky above her. The rain waspouring in sheets now, filling the air with its wet, murmuring patter.The drops struck her face with stinging force; as she had predicted,the storm had picked up ferocity the longer it had gone. The tiredHylian youth blinked against the falling rain, flexing her stiffmuscles gently as she stood. Wind was hissing above her now, drivingthe raindrops at angles as they flew through the darkness.

Linkalishivered at the strange feeling that came over her, the feeling thatsomehow, she had seen and felt these things before. It was aninexplicable sensation, one that made the hairs on the back of her neckstand on end. Her heart began beating harder, pounding against herbreastbone forcefully in the dark; she found it harder to breathe, asif her ribs were made of heavy iron and her lungs were made of paper.Her whole body tingled with something like anticipation. Lin knew thatshe had been in this situation before now, but she could not think ofwhen. What she did know, though, was that there was a powerful feelingof dread welling up inside of her, a fear of something she could notsee but knew was coming for her all the same. She wanted to flee, butfound she could not; whatever was coming after her had pinned her onthe spot.

Suddenly, with a sizzling crash, lightning split thesky above her, tearing a white-hot wound through the dark skin of theclouds. Linkali jumped half a foot in the air, mute with panic at notonly the sound of the thunder, but also the strange silhouette she hadseen rearing above her. Looking back later, the young woman wouldrealize that it had been nothing more than the windmill at the edge ofthe village; but at the instant, the darkened form had looked likenothing if not a powerful beast with its heart set on her demise.Linkali fumbled with the knob in her hand, breathless with fear, untilshe finally managed to yank the door open and leap inside. She slammedit behind her and pressed her back firmly against it, panting forbreath.

The golden glow from the kitchen calmed the Hylian down,soothing away the strange fear that the storm had burned into her mind.Linkali released her breath in a sigh. "I'm home!" she shoutedcheerfully.

"Goodness, Lin," her father called from around thecorner, "if you hadn't said anything, we would never have known youwere there! Could you slam the door a little louder next time, so weknow when you're coming and going?"

"Sorry, Dad." Linkalistripped off her soaked clothing then and there before gathering it upand prancing up to her room in the loft. "I'm going to get changedbefore dinner. You were right about the weather, though—it's rainingcats and dogs out there!"

As she bounded light-footed up thestairs, Linkali pushed the déjà-vu out of her head. It was anirrational thought, and a sensation that had no place in her life; theHylian girl was a woman of reason and sensibility. She hung up herdripping clothes to dry and changed into something fresh. After a briefhesitation, she reluctantly combed through her tangled, wet hair, whichwas knotted with leaves and blades of grass from the many times she hadfallen. Then, looking much neater and saner, Lin bounded back down thestairs and took her place at the dinner table among her family.

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Chapter 1: Hyrule After the Hero

Linkali hoisted the bucket over her shoulder and reached for the doorknob. "We'll be back in a minute with your water, Mom," she promised, ruffling her little sister's hair with her free hand. After exchanging a glance with the young girl, the two of them stepped out the door and into the village.

The sun was climbing through the cloudy sky towards its zenith, and though the seasons were turning towards summer the land was actually quite temperate. The few brave souls who made the journey into Hyrule would often remark about how strangely cool the climate was, for even in the dog days of summer, many Hylians would go about comfortably in long sleeves and leggings. It was because of the weak sunlight, they said; Hyrule never got terribly warm because the sun was never bright and it was often hidden behind clouds. There seemed to be no way of changing it, and hence, no reason to complain about it. To the best of their knowledge, only one person in Hyrule was old enough to remember a different climate, but it was useless trying to talk to her.

For whatever it was worth,Linkali had seen fit to wear long sleeves that day, for though there was sunlight, there wasn't much warmth to be had from it. She had on a clean, white cotton shirt, whose sleeves were tucked neatly into her sturdy leather, fingerless gloves, and whose shirttails were tucked into a pair of leather breeches. Her boots stopped just below her knees, and were fairly new—a gift she had only received because her previous pair had been worn out to the point that they couldn't even be salvaged for scrap leather. Her belt was a simple strap that she wore on a slant, hung with a few pouches and fastened with a beaten steel buckle that Linkali had scratched a downward-pointing triangle onto for decorative purposes. The young woman also wore a short, soft, green mantle around her shoulders, with a wide, loose collar and a long,trailing hood; stitched onto the front, for simple decoration, was a yellow X beneath a horizontal line of the same color. Linkali's hooded caplet was well-known around the village, for she had worn it nearly every day since receiving it several years ago, and its age was finally starting to show around the seams.

Linkali, who made it a point to respond only to the shortened name of "Lin", was a strong young woman of seventeen years. She was taller than most of the other girls her age in the village, a fact which her mother often credited to drinking plenty of milk as she had grown. She was lean—almost athletic—of build, with strong, supple limbs and sure hands. Her face,which was somewhat oval-shaped with pleasant features, had a seeminglyconstant expression of quiet, gentle certainty—a look truly befittingsomeone with her nature. Her slender-pointed ears were pierced twicewith silver hoops, and her skin was somewhat pale. Her long, straighthair was a curious shade of light brown—though it was definitely brown, in some lighting, it had an almost golden sheen to it—and it was cut insuch a way that two tufts of bangs stuck out over her forehead, whilethe longer pieces of it hung down behind her in a ponytail.

Perhaps the young woman's most attention-snaring feature was her startling eyes. They were blue—not entirely unusual, since her father was also blue-eyed—but they were a shade of the color that no one in her family could find in their lineage. Linkali's eyes were as dark and deep as the evening sky, though when something humorous caught them they seemed to grow bright and flash with happiness. They were soul-eyes, people said—the kind of eyes that could hide nothing; Lin's true feelings always showed up in her eyes, whether she wanted them to or not, and it was often said that someone who knew her well enough would be able to read her very thoughts just by gazing into her eyes.

"Dad says it's going to rain tonight," the young girl walking beside Linkali piped up. Lin looked down at her sister. Talina—who preferred, but rarely insisted on, being called "Tali"—was five years younger than Lin. She was much shorter than her sister, though it was clear from the size of her hands and feet that she still had much growing left to do. Her hair was a shaggy mess of brown strands, styled almost identically to that of Lin. Talina tended to copy the older girl in everything she did; however, she could not imitate her older sister's gaze, for while Linkali sported eyes of dark blue, Tali's were an equally deep shade of brown.

"Well, Dad does have a good sense for these things," Lin admitted. "Ever since he broke his arm a few years back, he says that his shoulder twinges whenever a storm's on its way."

"And he's usually right, too!" Tali glanced in the direction of the well, which was located in the center of the village common. "Hey, who's that over there, Lin? Do you know them?"

Linkali paused, resting her free hand on her sister's shoulder to bring them both to a stop. Though villages were generally considered to be safe havens, there was always the occasional monster who managed to make their way in to cause trouble. Talina took a cautious step back and edged around so that she was standing slightly behind her older sister. Linkali approached the figure in the common with care, lowering her guard only when she saw that they were leaning casually against the stone rim of the well. Monsters never leaned. They might crouch or sit or stand, but they never leaned against anything; they always held a tense, predatory posture. Still, Lin stayed in front of her sister until the man spoke to her.

"I am a traveler looking for a place for rest," he said. Though he spoke Hylian—the language of the land—his word choice and sentence structure were somewhat unusual. "Would I find it here in this village?"

"In Kokoria? I don't see why not, if you're an hones tman." Linkali attached the bucket to the rope and lowered it into the darkness of the well. Talina plunked herself down on the stone rim of the well and began kicking her heels against the sides of it.

"Kokoria,"the traveler repeated, sounding the village name out carefully. "That is an interesting name for a village. Is it very old?"

"One hundred and fifty years," Lin replied honestly.

"It looks to be a small place, too."

"It started out small. In the days of its founding, nobody wanted to leave their own village to build a new place to live, so Kokoria began with a population of only fifteen. These days, though, we number thirty-five, all told. There used to be more people," Linkali admitted, tugging the bucket-line to and fro. "But, well…things have happened." She did not finish her sentence ambiguously or in any way that would prompt the man to question further; she made it a statement of fact.

"What sorts of things?" the man asked curiously, either failing to notice or ignoring the definitive way Lin had ended her words. Linkali stopped toying with the rope, and Talina's feet fell still against the side of the well. "Has there been a sickness?"

Linkali sighed. "If you hadn't already told me that you were a traveler, sir," she said softly,gazing into the black heart of the well, "I certainly would have guessed it by now. No, there is no sickness here—not that I know of, at least." And she left it at that.

"Then why has this village's population declined of late? Has there been a war, or some fighting?"

Linkali fished the bucket out of the well, groaning on the inside. It figured that she would have to be the one to answer this man's questions. He obviously hadn't spoken to many Hylians of late; otherwise, he would have accepted her blatant unwillingness to answer him directly and would have stopped pressing for information. But here he stood, seeking answers and prying into things like an undisciplined child. She knew she shouldn't blame him, but he was making the situation very uncomfortable for her.

"Sir," the young woman said, struggling not to sound terse or agitated, "that is not a question that can be freely answered. At least, it is not within my rights to answer it. You are more than welcome to seek out the village leader—his name is Gotari, and he lives with his wife and son in that house—though he may not give you any more information than I have." She pointed, and the man nodded. "We do have an inn in Kokoria, and you can find it over there." She shifted her finger to the left, indicating the building. Without another word, she returned her attention fully to the bucket swinging in front of her.

"You seem troubled by something," the traveler noted, sounding sympathetic. He looked between the two sisters, neither of whom would meet his eye. "Both of you do. Why? Is it something to do with the number of people who have gone out from your village?" He laid a hand on the bow around his shoulders. "If there is a monster terrorizing this place, then I will gladly stand against it."

Linkali shook her head, smiling a little grimly."There is no monster, sir, and even if there were, we would be able to take care of it for ourselves," she informed him. "I have told you all I can. You may seek out Gotari if you like, and perhaps he can better satisfy your curiosity."

"Very well." The man clearly looked confused and sympathetic, but Linkali's stern gaze seemed to burn the words Leave, if you don't mind into his head. He nodded once to the two girls, and took his leave of them, heading in the direction of Gotari's house. Linkali watched him leave, resting a gentle hand on her sister's knees.

"He didn't mean to remind you of what happened," she murmured.

"I'm glad you didn't tell him." Tali shook her head briskly. As if that ridher of the saddening memories, she asked in a cheerful voice, "He sure asked a lot of questions, didn't he?"

"A lot of outsiders do,"Lin responded. "But, they learn in time that Hyrule is not a place where free-speakers and question-askers prosper. Not that it's a bad place to live—it just takes getting used to, and it takes a while to learn the rules."

"And some people never learn, right, Lin?"

"Exactly." Linkali let the bucket she had filled come to rest on the rim of the well with a solid thunk. She and Tali both peered inside, frowning at how little water filled it. "Think we should give it a second go?"

"Didwe promise Mom a full bucket?" Talina asked, looking up at her sister's face. Linkali stared at the half-full pail for a minute more, then tied it back in and sent it down for another go. The spring had been a dry one; hence, much rope had to be unwound before the sisters heard the characteristic splash of the bucket striking water. Linkali gripped the rope and began playing it deftly in order to coax her bucket to pick up more water.

"We didn't," she admitted, "but I think it would be nice if we could manage it, don't you?" Tali nodded and resumed kicking the sides of the well. A comfortable silence stretched between the two of them.

Finally, Talina tapped her sister's shoulder and pointed to one of the houses closest to the center of the village. Linkali followed Tali's finger to a small home that, like most of the buildings in the village, looked as if it could use a fresh coat of paint and a few new patches of roof. It was a well known house—it was the home of the village's founder, who was remarkably still alive after so many years. "The Woman of Sighs isn't out today," she noted.

Linkali paused, blinking in silent thought. The bucket was forgotten for the moment. "Where did you hear her called that?" she asked suspiciously. Talina shrugged.

"I overheard you and Bartal talking about her one day," she replied, kicking her heels against the stone sides of the well. "That's what you guys called her." Linkali hesitated again, the corner of her mouth quirking up.

"…Bartal and I say a lot of things you're not necessarily supposed to repeat," she told her younger sister bluntly."That being one of them. For the record, though, her name is Aldez."

"Oh, I know that," Talina pointed out, somewhat off-handedly. She thumped her heels against the well, bouncing from side to side with the rhythm she created. Lin smirked as she reeled the bucket in. "But what you call her makes a lot of sense—she really does sigh a lot."

"Yes, but if Mom and Dad heard you calling her that, you'd land yourself in a world of trouble for disrespecting the village founder," she threatened, jabbing Tali in the ribs. The girl giggled and reeled from her perch, landing in the soft grass beside the well. "You'd wish the Evil King had gotten you instead, you'd be in so deep!"

While Talina pushed herself up, Linkali looked into the bucket again. She shrugged. "Well, it's not much more than we got up the first time," she explained. "But it's better than nothing, and we promised Mom we'd have the water back soon."

"The village is quiet today," Tali noted softly, gazing up and around the small town. Linkali nodded as she set the bucket down beside the well. "Nobody's outside."

"Well, the clouds're getting thicker, so most people are probably bracing for the rain," Lin pointed out, jerking her thumb upwards. Indeed, the clouds that had covered the heavens in a gauzy layer had grown darker and more intimidating in appearance; it looks as if the storm would break in a matter of hours. The air was starting to feel heavier as well, as if the deepening clouds were pressing down upon the land. Linkali did not enjoy heavy rainstorms; they had terrified her when she had been younger (and, truthfully, she still jerked every time thunder shook the ground, and flinched when lightning streaked across the sky—but then again, who didn't?).

Just as Lin and Tali were heading back in the direction of their home, a wild, drawn-out yell split the air around them. The sisters froze, with Linkali jumping protectively in front of the younger girl and tensing warily; then, they caught sight of the noise's source, something that, for the first few moments after its appearance, kept them in stunned silence.

A young man about Linkali's age and size was speeding through the village square astride a massive, shaggy-furred dog. The canine was about as tall as Talina,and its paws were as big as dinner plates. It looked somewhat wolfish,with a thick muzzle, perked ears, bushy tail, and a heavy ruff of snow-white fur about its neck; its pelt was black, with white on its muzzle, chest, belly, and lower legs. The huge dog bucked like an unbroken horse, barking and panting roughly as it bolted through the village. The youth on its back was letting off gleeful hollers and yelps as he rode the creature like a horse, holding on tightly to its long, furry ruff. One hand punched the air exuberantly, and his neck whipped back and forth.

As the dog-rider spurred his unwilling steed away, Talina looked up at her sister, who was doubled over laughing. "W-was that Bartal?" she asked, still not completely believing what she had just seen.

Linkali wiped tears of laughter from her eyes and nodded. "Who else would do something like that?"Shaking her head slowly, she asked, "Be a big girl and take this water back to Mom for me?"

"Sure." Tali grabbed the bucket in both hands and hauled it up until it was in her arms. "Want me to tell her you and Bartal went off together?"

"Can you?" Lin's mind was edging closer and closer to the young man whose giddy shouts were now fading into the distance. "'Cause something tells me this dork's mother isn't going to get to him fast enough. Thanks, Tali." She crouched down and gave the younger girl a loving kiss on the forehead, then sprinted off in the direction the massive dog had taken.

Linkali's search led her to the outskirts of the village, to the space between the last buildings and the rock wall that surrounded Kokoria. She did not find the dog, but she did find Bartal lying in a semiconscious heap at the roots of a towering oak tree with yellow-veined leaves. The Hylian youth stood over her friend, hands on her hips, shaking her head slowly while she waited for him to come to himself. She did not worry at all about a possible injury; the boy's skull was doubtlessly thick enough to survive impact with an attacking Rogon. He was only stunned, though Lin was sure that most people would have been knocked out completely by half the things that left Bartal merely dazed.

After a few moments, Bartal's amber-brown eyes blinked away their cloudy glaze, and the boy shook his head firmly. Bartal and Linkali had known each other longer than either of them had known anyone else; neither could remember a time when they had not been friends. (They would say that they'd known each other their entire lives, but Bartal was slightly older, meaning that there was about two months of his life wherein he had not known Linkali.) They were a perfectly mismatched pair: Lin was collected and tended to be serious, while Bartal was a roguish goof-off who didn't seem to have a care in the world. The two of them walking together, joking around and pushing each other down, was a common sight in Kokoria Village. They were known for their reckless, often dangerous, antics, and for the trouble they tended to cause when together. (Linkali might be the perfect, responsible role model on her own or with her sister, but when coupled with Bartal, she became just as much of a wild daredevil as he was.)

Though it did not show at the moment, Bartal was Linkali's equal in height,with a few added inches in his favor. He was built in much the same way, too—lean and tall, but with enough muscle to get him through life.His hair was an unruly mop, black as coal and shaggy as the dog he had just finished riding. He was darker-skinned than either Lin or her sister, although many would still say that he was pale of complexion. He wore a long-sleeved gray shirt and pair of black leggings, with a green tunic over top; the sleeves and pants of his underclothes were tucked into his leather gauntlets and boots, respectively. He had two belts as opposed to Lin's one: The first went around his hips, while the other buckled across his chest. His long, pointed ears were not pierced, although he did have a crescent-shaped nick midway along the bottom of his left ear. Curiously, he also wore a single pauldron on his left shoulder, which had been passed down through his family over generations. The lone piece of armor was dinged from many of Bartal's escapades, and the inlaid pattern on it had been all but worn away with age; the only design element to remain was that of four red rectangles arranged in groups of two, one across from another.

When Bartal realized who was standing before him, he laughed. "If you were hoping for a ride on ol' Ganga, you're outta luck," he told her. "That dog runs like the wind and leaps like a deer. I bet he's miles away now."

"Bartal,you're an idiot," Linkali said, pinching up the skin of her forehead in a gesture of frustration. The other Hylian merely laughed loudly and held out his hand. With feigned reluctance, Lin took hold and helped haul the boy to his feet again. "Why were you riding the goatdog?"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time?" Bartal muttered in reply, rubbing the back of his head gingerly. Those words seemed to be his catchphrase; he uttered the sentence so frequently that many villagers would often beat him to the punch and say it before he had the chance to. He had a reputation for being a clown, and his cheerful nature and comical antics never failed to amuse. Linkali figured that was why she enjoyed his company so much; there was never a dull moment with Bartal around.

"You know what else sounds like a good idea?" Lin asked,raising her finger like a disciplining teacher. Bartal cocked his head to the side.

"Hillboarding?" he offered. Linkali hesitated. "Oho!I see how it is! You were planning some snide remark, but I actually said something that appealed to you more than sarcasm!"

Linkali scoffed as her friend wrapped an arm around her waist and began dragging her beside him as he walked back into the village. "I don't see how a responsible girl like me can get so easily wrapped up in your immature, dangerous sports," she growled, though there was a gilded edge of concealed laughter to her words. "As you like it, Bartal—let me get my board, and I'll meet you at the trailhead."

"Why don't you bring Tali along this time?" Bartal asked.

"I'm not letting my sister do the kinds of reckless things we do," Linkali replied.

"Who says hillboarding is reckless?"

"Hmm, you're right. Sliding down steep, uneven, grassy hills on wooden planks with polished undersides is totally not a reckless activity. All those broken wrists we've suffered in the past doing this kind of thing were just freak accidents."

Bartal rolled his eyes. "You need to lighten up with Tali. You think I'm this protective of Coren?"

"Coren's your brother. Tali's my sister. There's a difference."

"Eh,I don't really see one. Well-p, hurry back!" With that, Bartal released the girl. Lin darted off in the direction of her home, a grin stretching up the corners of her mouth.

Hillboarding was a sport of Bartal's own making. It had started off as one of his usual harebrained schemes—bringing split logs down from the forest above the village by riding them like toboggans—but he found that he enjoyed the thrill so much that he decided to refine it. Granted, it was still far from safe, but that did not stop the boy or his female friend from heading out and practicing it with hair-whitening frequency. Linkali swiftly grabbed her board—which was nothing more than a wooden plank with one side heavily polished—and ran back the way she had come, taking a different turn that led her up the side of the grass-covered rock wall outside the village. Bartal was waiting for her, a board of his own tucked under one arm. Together, the two friends made the climb to the top of the slope. Once there, they threw their boards smooth-side down and each took a running leap onto them. The hillside blurred around them as the two hillboarders quickly picked up vicious speed.

Linkali bent her knees and strove to keep her weightcentered on her board. She felt her heart begin to race excitedly inher chest, and narrowed her dark blue eyes against the first few dropsof rain that began to fall. The drops were gentle for now, fallingintermittently from the sky; Lin knew that before the sun had set, thestorm would be going at full force. Though she knew with stronger raincame an increased risk of fall and injury—both from the decreasedvisibility and from the slipperiness of the grass—the risk ratherexcited her. The green hood on her mantle flapped and snapped behindher like a flag in the breeze as she accelerated rapidly.

When she gauged that she had gathered enough speed, Linkali stomped the backend of her board—which had been steam-curved for twenty Rupees by the village spearmaker—and leapt into the air. Her board shot forward, hita bump on the hill, and flew up and around; it completed its circle andslid underneath Lin just as her feet were about to hit the ground. She heard an impressed whistle from Bartal.

"Nicely done!" he congratulated. Linkali grinned. Her teeth were white and straight, though there was a small gap between the two front ones.

"Thank you. Now, can you imagine my sister doing that?" Lin laughed, shaking her head. "This is reckless, Bartal!"

"Hah!" Bartal scoffed. "Yeah, right. This isn't reckless, this is fun!"He crouched low and shot up the side of a small knoll, shifting his weight back to keep from streaking too far forwards. The youth gripped the edge of his board and pulled his feet away from it; for a brief moment, he hung in the air. Then, just as swiftly as he'd gone up, he began to fall. Bartal moved quickly and smoothly, placing the board back under his feet just in the nick of time.

Linkali's eyes narrowed calculatingly. "Really? You seem to be confused. Perhaps I should"—she leaned downhill to pick up speed, then swerved in front of Bartal, nearly startling him into falling; from there, she made a wide pass behind him and finished at his side once more—"educate you!"

"You couldn't educate a block of wood, Lin!" Bartal taunted.

Linkali cut to the side to avoid a dip in her path, then swept back around beside her friend. "Is that so? I'll have you know I once educated a block of wood into holding a door open for me when I didn't have the hands free to do it myself."

Bartal carved sideways and rode his board up the side of a long, sloping rise. He planted one hand at the top of the ridge—keeping the other firmly on his board—posed with a goofy grin, then slid back down gracefully. Lin leaned back to cut her speed while she waited for him to catch up. "That's not education.That's called 'making a doorstop'!"

"Well, either way, you and the average block of wood tend to share the same level of mental acuity," Linkali shot back.

"Mental awhattity?"

"Acuity. It's a noun. It means the sharpness of something." Lin hunkered down,shooting herself off the top of a rise as Bartal had done earlier. She contemplated turning a flip, but decided she did not have enough air,and landed without attempting any tricks.

"Oh." The boy nodded slowly, digesting this new knowledge. He paused, frowned, then shouted "Hey!" as he realized just how backhanded her remark had been.

Bartal crouched low on his board, streaking after Linkali, who was gliding down the hill and laughing uproariously. The two of them wove around each other down the slope, turning as many jumps and tricks as they could. They reached the bottom, skidding on the long edges of their boards, as the rain began to pick up force.

Linkali picked up herboard and braced one end of it on the ground. Her heart was hammering,and her legs were shaking slightly; she felt, as she always did after a hillboarding run, as if she had cheated Death yet again. She turned her face skyward, allowing the gentle rain to wash the beading sweat from her face. When she heard Bartal calling her back towards the trailhead, she snagged her board and trotted after him.

"It's not safe to stay outside the village for too long," the boy told her. Lin nodded."Yeah, I figured you would know that from what happened to Tali." There was a catch in his voice, barely audible, as he added, "And my dad…"

Linkali was silent for a few moments as she padded after her friend. She studied his face for a second, then asked quietly, "I know it's been a while, but have you heard anything about him?" Bartal shook his head.

"No, not since he was taken to add to the Evil King's army," he replied. "And that was four years ago, almost five. For all I know, he could be dead, or turned into a Stalfos with no memory of Kokoria, or something just as bad." He looked at Lin. "And he's not the only one who was taken, too. Gotari's elder son was stolen as well, and Korlan, and Lohoran, Italtal, Jutari…all because they stood outside the village for too long on the wrong night."

"And all of Tali's friends, too," Linkali muttered with a shiver. "Although, they weren't taken, just slain on sight. Honestly, you can never tell if a monster is there to take you to Ganon's tower, or if it's only waiting to feel your blood on its claws."

"Well, there's really nothing we can do about it,"Bartal told her simply, a sad smile crossing his face. "These things are just like the tributes we have to pay to the Evil King—we can't really change them, so we just have to accept them." Though his words were spoken with enough defeat, his amber eyes sparked with secret knowledge. It was knowledge that Linkali shared, but just like the reason behind Kokoria's declining numbers, it was not information to be discussed out in the open air.

The two young Hylians went hillboarding until well past sunset, by which point they were exhausted, soaked to the marrow, and sore from their numerous slips and failed jumps. Linkali was the one who called it a day first, after she narrowly avoided falling with her arm at an unlucky angle. Bartal was quick to agree. After all, with the grass asslick as it was, neither of the two youth could go more than twentyfeet without their boards flying out from under them; Lin's board wasactually waiting for her at the bottom of the hill, because she hadn'tbeen able to get her hands around in time to grab it before it got away.

She invited Bartal over for dinner, but the boy declined, saying that his mother was likely worried out of her mind. Lin knew that the story would probably be the same with her mother, and she hurried back to her house after giving her friend a tight hug of farewell.

Before she stepped inside, Linkali paused with one hand resting on the doorknob ofher home. She gazed up at the storm-black sky above her. The rain was pouring in sheets now, filling the air with its wet, murmuring patter. The drops struck her face with stinging force; as she had predicted, the storm had picked up ferocity the longer it had gone. The tired Hylian youth blinked against the falling rain, flexing her stiff muscles gently as she stood. Wind was hissing above her now, driving the raindrops at angles as they flew through the darkness.

Linkali shivered at the strange feeling that came over her, the feeling that somehow, she had seen and felt these things before. It was an inexplicable sensation, one that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Her heart began beating harder, pounding against her breastbone forcefully in the dark; she found it harder to breathe, as if her ribs were made of heavy iron and her lungs were made of paper. Her whole body tingled with something like anticipation. Lin knew that she had been in this situation before now, but she could not think of when. What she did know, though, was that there was a powerful feeling of dread welling up inside of her, a fear of something she could not see but knew was coming for her all the same. She wanted to flee, but found she could not; whatever was coming after her had pinned her on the spot.

Suddenly, with a sizzling crash, lightning split the sky above her, tearing a white-hot wound through the dark skin of the clouds. Linkali jumped half a foot in the air, mute with panic at not only the sound of the thunder, but also the strange silhouette she had seen rearing above her. Looking back later, the young woman would realize that it had been nothing more than the windmill at the edge of the village; but at the instant, the darkened form had looked like nothing if not a powerful beast with its heart set on her demise. Linkali fumbled with the knob in her hand, breathless with fear, untilshe finally managed to yank the door open and leap inside. She slammed it behind her and pressed her back firmly against it, panting for breath.

The golden glow from the kitchen calmed the Hylian down,soothing away the strange fear that the storm had burned into her mind. Linkali released her breath in a sigh. "I'm home!" she shouted cheerfully.

"Goodness, Lin," her father called from around the corner, "if you hadn't said anything, we would never have known you were there! Could you slam the door a little louder next time, so we know when you're coming and going?"

"Sorry, Dad." Linkalistripped off her soaked clothing then and there before gathering it up and prancing up to her room in the loft. "I'm going to get changed before dinner. You were right about the weather, though—it's raining cats and dogs out there!"

As she bounded light-footed up the stairs, Linkali pushed the déjà-vu out of her head. It was an irrational thought, and a sensation that had no place in her life; the Hylian girl was a woman of reason and sensibility. She hung up her dripping clothes to dry and changed into something fresh. After a brief hesitation, she reluctantly combed through her tangled, wet hair, which was knotted with leaves and blades of grass from the many times she had fallen. Then, looking much neater and saner, Lin bounded back down the stairs and took her place at the dinner table among her family.

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Posted

soooo

maaaaaaany

wooooooords

I'll read it later :P

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Posted

same.

I'll read when I have ALOTof time

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I am loquacious to a fault, it appears. *sighs*

By the by, I have a question. When I paste chapters in, words get jammed together. Is there any way for it to not do that, or I am forever doomed to go back and edit my words?

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