The soft thud of hooves on grass was all that heralded his approach, which suited him just fine. Link brought Epona to a canter, then to a trot, and finally to a halt as he reached the crest of the hill. He gave the steed a pat on the neck and whispered a short command in his native, Kokiri tongue. The beast gave a brief whinny of understanding and knelt down, its belly on the grass just before the pinnacle of the hill. Link too bent low to the ground, dismounting, and crept, hand over hand, to the top of the hill.
Looking down he saw a rather lovely panorama of Hyrule Field stretched before him. Lon-Lon Ranch was just visible to the northwest, and a short 500 yards or so below and before him was a dusty, well-rutted road. He looked around and saw a cloud of dust off to his left, which obscured a vaguely square blot in its center---the caravan, to be sure. Link's keen eyes soon distinguished the flagstaff on the cart's back, which identified it with Lon-Lon's shipping division. This, then, was the right place.
Time seemed to slow down as he watched the far-off caravan, composed of three large wagons each drawn by a pair of oxen, lumber along the meandering road. The sun was bright and more than once he had to put a hand over his eyes to shield the glare. His gaze wandered back and forth across the stretch of road, but always back to the caravan. That was what he needed to watch out for, after all.
A cloud moved in front of the sun and Link's hand dropped from his brow, to his relief. He glanced over at Epona, still obediently lying on the ground but now munching some of the dry, thirsty grass. Link thought for a moment and then half rolled and half crawled over to his mount and reached into one of her saddlebags, withdrawing a wedge of cheese and a chunk of bread. Tearing the bread open to make himself a sandwich with the cheese, Link returned to his post and took another look across the landscape. He blinked, seeing that the caravan was nearly directly in front of him. Whatever he was looking for ought to have presented itself by now. Link realized that it might not be visible to the naked eye, and passed the Lens of Truth over his eye. He didn't see anything of interest, although it was a good idea to try. Weeks ago a troublesome ghost, one of the leading citizens of a small hamlet near Kakariko, had rose from the grave, having been murdered by a drunken lout in a brawl. Link had had to use the Lens to see the specter of the man, and once the ghost had explained his problem, Link had dealt with the reprobate, tossing him in jail, and the ghost had been laid to rest. But it had taken some time for him to realize that he had to use the Lens to see the source of the trouble. Ever since then he had remembered to look through the Lens to make sure there was nothing unseen causing the trouble.
But this time the Lens did not reveal anything of interest. Link watched the caravan waddle along and sighed at the idea the he'd have to come back tomorrow to maintain his vigil. It was the third day of watching as the caravan passed that spot, and he was beginning to think that the problem had taken care of itself.
A thought crossed his mind. Perhaps the gleam of the sun on his armor had given him away, and whatever he was looking for had seen it and laid low. Cursing himself, he started to take the breastplate of the Hylian Royal Guard off when he saw movement in the tall grass below.
Link's eagle eyes trained on the spot, and he strained to see what was going on. Then he spotted the shapes moving in the grass. They were long, and gray, and moved unlike human beings. So it wasn't bandits after the caravan after all. That explained why there were never any goods damaged, only human beings. "Not that Talon cared for anything other than his goods, selfish old bastard," thought Link.
These were Wolfols. How they had wandered so far from their usual habitat, the woods, Link didn't know, but it would seem that they were doing pretty well for themselves, preying on the caravans bound for Hyrule Market Town. Wolfols were dangerous monsters---they are not intelligent enough to be the equals of a human being, but compared to mundane wolves, they are frighteningly brilliant. They were smart enough to know that caravans passed this way regularly, and smart enough to leave no survivors to tell of the slaughter.
"Let's see if they're smart enough to stop me," Link thought. He gave Epona a whistle and the filly sprang to her feet. Link almost jumped into the saddle, drawing the Fairy Bow and three arrows as he did.
"Yah!" Epona set off at a gallop down the gentle slope towards the caravan, which had seen the coming Wolfols and had pulled to a stop. Link's Royal Guard armor and finely polished Hylian Shield flashed in the sunlight. All three arrows fell into place on his bow, and he let fly at the leading Wolfols. Three arrows were not terribly accurate, but at such a long range the odds of him hitting with any shot were not great. At least he'd have a better chance.
Two of the missiles went astray, embedding in the ground near the first Wolfols, but one struck true, puncturing the beast's side. The Wolfols' gray fur was streaked with blood, and it let out a baleful howl. The creature staggered, but did not fall. Link made a quick calculation of distances and velocities, and realized that another volley of arrows would not be worth it. He placed his bow carefully back on his back and took up from Epona's side his pennant. The royal Triforce crest, golden, on a field of purple, billowing brilliantly in the wind, adorned the tip of his lance. The Wolfols by now had turned to face their charging opponent, who was rapidly closing the distance. His lance dipped, and with a clash and spurt of gore it ran the lead Wolfols through as the beast screeched most unnaturally. Feeling the weight of the dead thing on his lance, Link jammed the weapon into the ground and let go, allowing the gurgling wolf to die in peace.
The others quickly reversed direction and came after the now-retreating horseman. Link wheeled his mount and slowed her a bit, then lept from the saddle with Master Sword drawn. The blood pounding in his ears, nerves tightened into deadly springs, fingers tingling with adrenaline, he let out a savage cry and lunged for the nearest monster.
Three of the beasts closed in around him, none of them pursuing the receding Epona. Link's lunge caught the beast on the thigh, and brought a trickle of blood to the blade, but the beast retaliated with a savage, barking bite that nearly caught Link's gauntleted hand. He held up his shield to ward off the claws of a second attacker, then focused his energy into a downward chop to the wounded Wolfols that split the monster's skull nearly in two and brought it to the ground with a satisfying thud. He then swung his shield around him and bashed away the pounce of one of the two monsters left, which sent the canine tumbling a short distance.
Link's shield hand went to the hilt of his blade; allowing the strap to hold his shield in place, he made a broad sweeping chop with great strength. The Wolfols before him was tripped by the blade and skittered to the ground. A quick follow-up chop to the midsection of the monster pierced its ribs and stabbed through the monster's heart, killing it on the spot.
In the din of battle a fourth monster had arrived, unseen in the tall grass and unheard. The newcomer made a silent leap for Link's back, and the hero was caught unprepared and was knocked to the ground by the momentum of the beast's charge. Seeing him fall, the third, which Link had bashed away, came stalking up to his legs and made a bite to his calf, making a ragged gash. Link yelped in pain and with heroic effort rolled onto his back, with one Wolfols at his throat and one at his heels.
Struggling desperately, the Master Sword falling from his grip, Link managed to fight back the gnashing jaws of the Wolfols that was crushing the breath from his chest and threatening to remove his throat. At the same time he gave a brutal kick to the other one's sternum and sent it, with a yip of pain, onto the ground. He wrestled the Wolfols on his chest off and dealt it a savage backhanded blow with his shield, dazing the creature for a moment. It allowed Link the time to spring to his feet and, grabbing the Master Sword from the ground, give forth a thrust to the other Wolfols that skewered the beast through the neck. He then turned and calmly eviscerated the remaining foe with skillful ease. Breathing hard, he surveyed the scratches on his armor and the bleeding of his wounded leg. He looked to the caravan and to his horror discovered the last two Wolfols of the pack approaching not the wagons filled with goods but the lead wagon with a man, his wife, and two children. Link set off at an agonizing run towards the caravan, arriving to find the husband fending off the growling beasts with his whip as the children wailed. Nearly simultaneously, one of the Wolfols turned to face Link while the other leapt into the wagon, claws bared, and began to maul the near-defenseless couple. Link's blood ran cold at the sight, but he could not get to the victims without dealing first with the Wolfols before him. Almost as a passing thought, he chopped the monster across the flank, spilling its guts across the road and dropping it. He jumped into the wagon and gave a savage war-cry, and with a mighty flying kick as he leapt he struck the Wolfols that had torn the flesh of the wagon-master. The creature was knocked off the wagon and collided into the crates in the wagon behind it, startling the oxen, which threatened to bolt. Link leapt across the gap over the heads of the frightened beasts of burden and stabbed forward, disemboweling the Wolfols and a crate of helpless cheese.
"Well, that's done with," he panted, then turned to the family in the lead wagon. "Who is hurt?"
The wife, yelling to be heard over the sobs of her children, told him that her husband was bleeding. Link helped her bring the man off the wagon and onto the ground, where he whistled for Epona. The loyal mount came galloping to the scene. As the horse arrived, Link snatched up a saddlebag and removed bandages, which he used to quickly and skillfully dress the man's wounds. The man groaned and gasped, but Link could see that he was in little immediate danger as long as he was brought to a proper healer soon.
"Thank the Goddesses, thank the Goddesses..." the wife kept repeating, as her children's wails quieted to whimpers. She comforted the boy and the girl as Link looked about for more danger.
"Your husband will be fine with proper care. I have stopped the bleeding but he needs more healing than I can muster. Where were you headed for?"
"Hyrule Market Town," the little boy said to Link.
"Hmm...I think it would be closer to get there than back to Lon-Lon. Don't worry, your dad will be okay." The boy smiled weakly and wiped away some of his tears. "I will escort you. I would normally accompany you at a distance, to see if any more troubles present themselves, but I cannot risk that now. I am a knight-errant of the Royal Family, and I give you my word that I will allow no further harm to come to you."
"Technically, I wasn't supposed to allow any harm to come to you whatsoever...damn it all..." Link closed his eyes in frustration as he thought of the wounded man.
"...I present His Royal Highness King Harnikan II of Hyrule, and Her Majesty Princess Zelda." A page announced Link's arrival in similar high fashion: "His Lordship Link of Kokiri, Knight-Errant."
Link entered and bowed before the monarch, who sat at his throne with Zelda by his side.
"Arise, Link." Link obediently rose. He was no longer clad in the dented, dusty armor he wore in the field, but now in gleaming ceremonial plate. Like the guards beside him, he wore a red tunic (actually the Goron Tunic, for practicality's sake) beneath it, embroidered with the Triforce crest.
"My latest quest has been fruitful, my liege," Link informed the king.
"So I have heard. Then you found the source of the attacks?"
"The heads of the beasts responsible I have run through with pikes and placed in the spot of the attack as a warning. There shall be no more attacks by those creatures."
"Unfortunately, I must inform you that you did not succeed completely in your duty."
"Yes, my liege, I am aware of my failure." Link looked away in shame.
"The man may not live the night. We are doing all that we can, but his injury was severe. Were you aware when you accepted my command of the strictures therein?"
"Yes, my liege."
"Then you are aware that you have failed to complete my request in full."
"Yes, my liege."
"Your effort was valiant, Sir Link, but perhaps not executed carefully enough. Your priority was to defend the human lives at stake before all else."
"My liege, if I may explain..."
"I was fending off the Wolfols that were attacking the caravan, when I was surrounded, and some of the pack broke away to attack the helpless travelers. I have never observed a Wolfols to use such intelligent tactics as to draw me to the defense of the innocents such as that before, and, if I may say so, I should not have been expected to anticipate such tactics."
The king paused in thought as Link stood, excruciatingly still and sweating from the heat of the summer day, his heavy outfit, and nervous tension. "Is it not your duty, Sir, to anticipate all dangers that may be present?"
"Yes, my liege, but..."
"I understand the situation, Sir, and your conduct was, as far as can be determined by myself, adequately in keeping with your oath and your code, but you simply could not and did not comply with the full stricture of the assignment given to you. I shall award you reimbursement equal to half the negotiated sum, as you have completed half your obligation and cannot complete the second half."
"Thank you, my liege." Link knelt once more, and arose to await the King's payment.
"Go with a guard to the treasury and take your payment, and then return to your quarters. Expect another quest from me within three days. That is all, you may go."
"Thank you, my liege." Link turned to go.
"Do try to be careful, Sir Link. Your talents are too valuable to be sullied by negligence or carelessness."
"I understand, my liege."
Link quickly closed the stout oaken door to the bedchamber, throwing a backwards glance down the hall to make sure he was unobserved. He then inspected the room and its lovely contents.
"What did you do this time, killer?" The voice was sweet yet sharp, so deliciously different from the silence and dull phrases that usually inhabited the same residence.
"Oh, some...there was a man hurt while I was on duty, and I get blamed." Link tossed off his hauberk and let it thud to the thickly carpeted floor, then crossed the room and tended the fire in the massive fireplace.
"What exactly happened?"
"The caravan was being attacked by Wolfols. They were the ones behind the attacks all along."
"That would explain the casualties."
"Yeah. And I had killed most of the pack, but some of them stopped attacking me and went for the helpless wagon-master. I don't know if they thought he would be easier prey, or if they really knew that I'd have to defend him, because it seemed damnably like they were drawing me off..."
"I doesn't matter. How much did you get, anyway?"
"Two hundred Rupees...I maybe can use it to replace my arrows I shot and the bread and cheese I ate. Then I'm back to doing more bounty hunting..."
"Well, you're doing good deeds for the realm. You're keeping the peace."
"I guess so. It puts bread on the table. And not much more."
"Well, I'll take you some of what we're having."
"You're the best, Princess." Zelda joined Link, who sat on the four-poster bed and idly brushed his tunic. "How long can I stay?"
"Oh, not long. I'm expected in a little bit." Zelda rolled over to Link and gently but thoroughly placed herself around him, stroking his hair.
"We can't go on like this..."
"I know, I know! So do your jobs better, don't let people get mauled, and maybe you'll attract my father's attention! Then we won't have to hide it!"
"Okay, okay, okay." Link gave Zelda a kiss and got up to gather his things. "I'll see you at the dinner tonight?"
"Apparently, you will."
"I mean, will you be there?"
"Yes, and so will you. So unless you happen to go blind within the next few hours..." Zelda got up and walked to her closet to find a different gown to wear for her meeting.
"Well played, my dearest. Your wit is as sharp as ever," Link sarcastically intoned.
"One does one's best. Good bye, Link."
"Good bye." Zelda heard the sound of the door opening and shutting. She began to undress, unhooking her white dress and letting it flow onto the floor as she took up a hairbrush and began stroking her golden locks. She was oblivious to the fact that Link hadn't really left, and was currently sneaking up behind her...
"I quite suggest the red gown, dear. It's flattering on you," said Link, who had insidiously snaked his arms about Zelda's bare waist.
"You! Get out, you...you..."
"Incorrigible yet charming rakehell?"
"You CAD! Go away!"
Link grinned ear to ear and bounded over to the door. "Just my way of getting through the day, Zelda dear."
"Sometimes I wish you wouldn't get through the day, you..."
"And do consider that red dress, it's most becoming."
"I don't like it much; it's rather tight across the bust..."
"Precisely, my dear. Ta." He left through the door, and this time Zelda made certain he had really gone, with an indignant scowl on her face. But as soon as Link was gone she smiled, in spite of herself, then burst into a spasm of giggles.
"Why do I put up with him?"
"No, no, friend, I am a knight-errant of the King of Hyrule." Link, on horseback in the small village of Korintir, was talking, or attempting such, with a native. The scruffy man was dressed in what Link could swear was or once was a burlap sack, with a rope for a belt and little more than rags on his feet.
"Well, what kind of a knight are you what don't got 'is own castle?"
"The system, good sir, is that I receive monetary wages instead of land for my services to the Crown. In return I must live a migrant life performing services for the state."
"Suits me. I'd much prefer a life where I don't have to give a cut o' me grain to the Baron."
"Such is the way of the world, I'm afraid." Link was growing tired of the conversation.
"Why does it have to be that way then? I think I ought to look out for me and me family but not fer some lord in 'is castle!"
"Well, you'll not have to worry about that from me. I won't use any more of your resources, except to ask you if there is an inn here."
"Inn? Well, the Dodongono Pub c'd fix you with a room, though I don't rightly think yer Lordship deserves such fare..." Is he being sarcastic? Scum...
"Please. Think nothing of it. Direct me to the...Dodongono Pub was it? Yes."
These people ought to be bowing before me. The Hero of Time, doing what amounts to a load of mercenary work. I was a hero, not a bounty hunter. Still, I guess what Zelda did was best. I don't think I could have lived if we had stayed in that time.
Link trotted Epona off in the direction the man had gestured. His horse was clearly the healthiest, cleanest, and most used horse in the whole village, and he got a certain satisfaction noticing that fact. Although he used to have pangs of guilt for such feelings of pride, knowing that his code required humility, he had convinced himself he was due.
Only me and her...we're the only ones who know about the Hero of Time and Ganondorf. She's the only one who gives me the respect...oh, never mind. It's a good life, knight-errant. Beats sleeping in a tree.
"Oh, good sir! Good morrow to you!"
"And likewise to you, my lady." Link was passing a peddler woman on her way to the town center with a bag full of...something.
"Your colors...you are a knight of Hyrule?"
"What business brings you to unworthy Korintir?"
"It would seem that you have had a bit of trouble with thieves."
"Oh, much indeed. No one is safe. We don't know where they come from or even who they are, but they come in the night and take anything. People have been hurt, too, and killed. Dreadful."
"So I have been told. That is why I am here."
"Goddesses bless you! The King himself sends you here?"
Yes, can you believe it? Me, here talking to you...in this clump of hovels you call a city...
"He does indeed. I am going to the Dodongono Pub to find a place to sleep."
"Best of luck to you, then."
Link continued on, drawing stares and muted gasps. It was a good life, being a mercenary knight...he just sometimes wished he was accorded the respect he knew he was due.
Finally encountering the crude picture of the Dodongono head that served as a sign for these illiterate peasants, he entered the inn. It was a small, sturdy affair, entering into a dining area with filthy tables and filthier patrons guzzling ale, a bar and a tender, and stairs heading up to rooms, the whole of which was still smaller than his own bedchamber at Hyrule Castle. He squinted to see, his eyes adjusting from the bright sun without to the gloom within. He absentmindedly adjusted his gleaming hauberk as he strode to the bartender. This bartender was a stout Goron of about middle-age, that is to say about 300, Gorons being one of the longer-lived species in Hyrule. His face seemed etched with a permanent grimace, his bald head was somewhat flat, and his rocky beard bristled. His head peeked only a few feet over the counter.
"Ale or a room?" the Goron grunted.
"I will have a room, and board for my horse."
"Horse, eh, rich man? Heh heh heh. I know yer type," said the Goron enigmatically.
"I am a knight of the Royal Family, if it please you, sir," responded Link, his dignity irked. "My modest wealth is a prize of a lifetime of service and labor."
The Goron muttered something in its own, rumbling tongue, of which Link could speak some but not much. It made a vague gesture towards the stairs and grunted, "Five, on the right." Link turned to go, but the Goron made a loud, guttural grunt, and looked imploringly at him. Link turned and, with faint disgust, retrieved and tossed a handful of chipped green Rupees to the barkeep, who looked at him with poorly disguised resentment and turned to store the change. Link hastened upstairs and opened the door, which nearly fell off its hinges.
He flopped down on the bed in a most un-formal manner. The room was dingy, with scarcely more than a bucket for washing, a bed, and a chair, but it did have a window, facing the road, which was mostly caked with dirt. The ceiling was sagging and the floor creaked, but nonetheless Link was exhausted from his trip, scarcely bothering to brush the dust of the roads off himself before throwing off his basinet and his outer tunic, and settling in to relax. He withdrew from his backpack a book, which was a history of the recent events in the court of Hyrule over the previous few years, and was required reading for a knight such as himself. Mostly dry and uninteresting; however, it contained valuable information on the nature of the court and the methods by which one could gain in position therein. He had barely cracked it open when he remembered he had not made sure Epona had been stabled. He peered out the dirty window, and saw a young boy leading Epona off. Too tired to make sure the steed was properly tended to, and knowing that Epona could fend for herself if need be, Link returned to his book. He read until the sun began to sink below the horizon, and then, tired from his travels, sank quickly into sleep.