AN: Oh my goodness, I can't believe I am finally posting this... I think I'll let you read and save my notes for the end (they will be fairly brief for now)...


Xxx 51 xxX

I watched him from the shadows of the Temple of Time, admiring his strong, composed stance. Night had fallen, and the gentle torchlight illuminated his figure, softening the starch white of his clothing. His loose, plain tunic lacked any kind of decorative stitching, and a white sash had replaced the usual belt. Such humble attire had been specially made for this very occasion, when Link faced the judgment of the Three Golden Goddesses themselves.

This was his Rite of Kingship, the first and most important step toward coronation.

He had formed a mental barrier to help him focus completely on the ceremony, so while I could not sense his thoughts, and though he showed no outward sign of it, I knew he was nervous—very nervous. Months of battling his inner darkness had wounded Link's confidence and left him questioning his worth. Even despite the Council's unanimous decision to conduct the Rite of Kingship, Link had found little sleep the previous night, haunted by his fear of failure. For the Rite wasn't merely a ceremony—it was a test. Each candidate could perform this test only once; there were no second chances. Unless Link received the Blessing of the Goddesses that very night, he would never take the throne at my side.

I felt almost certain he would succeed, but I could not pretend to know the will of the Goddesses, and the possibility of his failure had also weighed upon my mind. I remembered how I had dreaded my own Rite, partly because the day had come before I was ready for it. My father's illness had claimed his life only months after my marriage, and his responsibilities had fallen onto my shoulders. Desperate to ease the weight of this burden, Link had requested that he and I conduct our Rites together. But the Council had denied his request, and I had performed the ceremony alone. He had struggled to fill the empty throne at my side ever since… and his moment had finally come.

Seven priests and priestesses, including the Temple's High Priest, surrounded him in a wide circle, garbed in long white robes and hoods. Each held thick white candles in their steady hands.

"Kneel, Link Harkinian," the High Priest instructed him in a gentle but assertive tone.

Slowly Link sank to his knees, bowing his head as he pressed a fist to his heart. I had taken a similar stance in my Rite of Queenship. It was an expression of lowliness, of the candidate's willing servitude to the gods.

The others then stepped forward to place their candles on the floor, encircling Link with a ring of flames. The candles represented the seven qualities of an ideal leader: diligence, patience, kindness, chastity, temperance, charity, and humility. They, like Link's clothing, had been created specifically for the ceremony.

"Din, Goddess of Power…" The High Priest began to chant in flawless Ancient Hylian. "…Nayru, Goddess of Wisdom…"

Link remained still as stone, his head bowed and eyes closed. Tension strained the air as my heart began to race.

"…Farore, Goddess of Courage… We present to thee Link Harkinian, Prince Consort of Hyrule, who hath been deemed worthy to serve thou in kingship. Yet our judgment is but a shadow of thine immeasurable wisdom, and thus we humbly await thy Blessing—"

Before the Priest could finish his sentence, the candles suddenly flared red, then blue, then a particularly bright shade of green. Again and again they changed, glowing brighter and brighter until their ever changing flames began to spread beyond their wicks. Steadily they joined into one, surrounding Link in a brilliant ring of fire…

And then the blaze consumed him.

I drew a sharp breath and crossed my arms, clutching the fabric of my sleeves with cold, sweating hands. Having experienced those flames myself, I knew they would not harm Link unless he failed the test. But watching him bow his head down toward the floor, engulfed in those wild, multicolored flames… even I struggled to believe he could emerge unscathed.

Then finally the flames began to recede, slithering away from Link's prostrated form. I released the breath I'd been holding, watching as the fire withered and parted into its original seven flames. Having resumed their original forms upon each candlewick, the flames then vanished into seven wisps of smoke.

"The Goddesses have spoken," the High Priest declared, and I could hear the joy in his otherwise calm voice. "Rise, Prince Link."

Slowly Link lifted his head, rising to his feet as the smoke drifted about him. I stepped forward, near dizzy with relief as I left my place in the shadows. He passed… He passed…

The Priest approached Link, holding a golden circlet in his hands. Its elegant design featured three gems—a ruby, a sapphire, and an emerald—which symbolized the Blessing Link had just received. This was the King's Circlet of Acceptance, and Link would wear it until he was coronated.

"The Sisters have granted you their Blessing," the Priest said, placing the Circlet over Link's head. "You will be coronated in thirty days' time."

He then stepped back to rejoin the ring of priests and priestesses. "The Rite is concluded," he declared. "Behold your future king."

The others bowed in reverent unison. "Our king," they echoed.

I remained where I stood several feet away, giving Link his moment. His eyes sought mine, however, and I felt his awed exhilaration as his mental barrier faded. I gave him a tearful, beaming smile, knowing he could sense my exuberant pride.

My king.

xxxxxxx

Impa returned to the castle shortly after Link's Rite of Kingship, bringing with her two representatives of the Alliance—and the answer to our prayers. For the Alliance, she proudly informed us, had agreed to support our peace treaty.

The two representatives, Lord Cedric Oswin from Holodrum and Lord Kalan Eldred of Labrynna were both middle-aged and surprisingly pleasant individuals. They had come to draft the terms of the treaty and to ensure Guinevere's cooperation once she arrived. The terms were simple: in exchange for Ashton's life, and the release of the Vandelian soldiers we held captive, Vandelius would cease all acts of war against Hyrule. Any further violence would result in the direct retaliation of Alliance forces from multiple kingdoms.

Copies of the finalized treaty were created, each bearing four blank lines—one for my signature, one for Guinevere's, and two for those of the Alliance representatives.

Her response to my initial letter had been short, stating she would arrive in two week's time to negotiate for her son's life. There would be no negotiations, however, since Guinevere had little choice but to sign the treaty.

As expected, her carriage reached Castletown mere days after the treaty's completion. Several guards escorted her party through the town and beyond the castle gates, halting them before the castle's grand entranceway. Ian and a group of his best guards awaited her there, and only once they had thoroughly searched the entire party did Ian allow Guinevere to proceed.

Link and I stood before a high window, watching her strut up the stairway with her head held high. Her full burgundy skirts trailed behind her, weighed down by the dark fur she had fashionably draped across her shoulders. A large, extravagant headpiece sat atop her head, and a bejeweled cane—used more to occupy her hands than assist her knees—completed her showy attire. The Queen Mother of Vandelius always dressed to intimidate.

Eight years ago, I had been a victim of that intimidation. I had come to Vandelius hoping to win her motherly affections, but that idea had shattered the very day I arrived. Guinevere was a strict and demanding woman, rarely pleased with anything, and I had failed to meet her impossible standards. She had treated me like a pet, training me to be little more than her obedient imitation, but even my earnest efforts to had fallen short of her lofty expectations.

So much has changed since then, I reminded myself, lifting a hand to caress my belly. She has no power here, not anymore.

My tension dissipated when I felt Link's hand caress my back. I turned to meet his gaze, soothing away his concern and admiring him for the umpteenth time that morning. Hyrulean fashion could never compete with the materialism of Vandelius, but he and I had also dressed for the occasion.

Wanting to present myself with an image of dignified authority, I had chosen a golden gown with tight, stiff sleeves that puffed a bit at the shoulders. Rubies set to black embroidery adorned the high, snug collar, fading just above the empire waistline. Flowing layers of golden gossamer cascaded past my ankles, softening the more severe look of the bodice. Rubies hung from my ears, and a formal golden crown had replaced my usual circlet.

My gown was beautiful, but I had taken far greater delight in Link's appearance. His heavy, midnight blue tunic made a dramatic contrast to the wine red shirt he wore underneath. Careful attention to detail had given it some necessary flair without the aristocratic flamboyance Ashton so adored. His thick, tall collar featured impressive red and gold embroidery, as did the seams along his armscyes. Gold clasps adorned the front of his tunic, and a narrow gold trim continued below his belt. Matching dark red trousers tucked into polished black boots completed his outfit. It was simple attire for a prince awaiting his coronation, but Link preferred it that way, and he wore it well. Very well. With the Circlet of Acceptance across his brow, and with all trace of his illness gone, Link was the epitome of impressive nobility.

Resisting the urge to kiss him—since I'd allowed the maids to paint my lips—I reached for his hand and laced my fingers with his.

Come, my love, I told him softly. It's time we washed our hands of him.

.

Minutes later we sat in the Council Chamber, waiting for Guinevere to be escorted inside. Link sat perpendicular to my right, and Impa, representing the High Council, sat perpendicular to my left. Beside them sat Lord Cedric and Lord Kalan.

Shortly after everyone had settled into their chairs, two sharp knocks sounded at the heavy double doors.

"Enter," I called.

The doors swung open as Ian strode inside and paused to give a quick, perfected bow.

"The Queen Mother of Vandelius," he announced, "Lady Guinevere Sophia Regaldi."

Then he stepped aside, allowing the older woman to come forward. Her cane made a dull thud against the stone floor as she strode inside, carrying herself with haughty sophistication. She was a tall, attractive woman, slender without being slight, and she boasted all the desirable physical traits of a mature woman. She had always taken great lengths to resist her age, caking her face with makeup and molding her figure with a corset. Only the faint grey streaks in her otherwise raven hair betrayed her true age.

Her piercing emerald gaze scanned her audience before settling on Link. I knew her stare had nothing to do with his handsome looks. Harsh scrutiny burned in her eyes, a blazing hatred for the man who had replaced her son. Link held her gaze, unwavering as he maintained a mask as calm and confident as my own.

"Lady Guinevere," I addressed her, careful to keep a neutral tone, "I trust you have verified your son's condition?"

Her eyes, so much like Ashton's, shifted to me. "I would not be standing here if I had not," she sneered.

"We arranged to keep him in acceptable health until your arrival. Do you agree the terms have been met?"

"Absolutely not," she snapped. "I demand to know what you've done to his hand. Some ghastly form of torture, I imagine?"

"Your son inflicted that wound upon himself," I replied, unfazed by the venom in her tone. "He chose to tamper with magic, despite his ignorance on the subject, and he has suffered the consequences."

"Why did you not treat it?" she hissed.

"We agreed to treat wounds with lethal potential," I said in a lower tone. "We did not agree to keep him comfortable or to reverse any disfigurement."

"I want it healed." Her eyes bore into mine, narrowed and threatening. "He cannot return to our society with such deformity."

"Lady Guinevere, if I may enlighten you to the current situation," Lord Cedric spoke up. "There have been some developments during your travels, and you are no longer in a position to make demands. The Alliance has already finalized a peace treaty, and there will be no negotiations." He gestured to the papers on the table. "You will take your seat and sign all three copies, or you forfeit your son's life."

Guinevere stared at him, clearly outraged.

"The Alliance has approved this nonsense?" she stammered. "Without the consent—without the awareness—of Vandelius?"

"We would not be here if they had not," Lord Kalan replied dryly. "Have a seat, Lady Guinevere."

Slowly, as though toying with our patience, Guinevere sank into her chair. Before her sat a long quill and a bottle of ink, which she ignored.

"This personal vendetta has gone on long enough," Cedric said. "Your son has no place in Hyrule, nor do your soldiers. This treaty will ensure that."

"Sign your name," Kalan repeated, "or return to Vandelius without your son. Those are your options."

He then rose from his chair to place the treaty before her.

"The terms are simple enough," he said. "Vandelius will cease and desist all hostile acts against Hyrule. In exchange, Lady Zelda has agreed to return all Vandelian prisoners, including your son."

Guinevere hesitated, lifting her eyes to Kalan with an air of loathing.

"And if I refuse?" she hissed.

Fear clutched my heart with a tight, icy grip. Guinevere's possible refusal had crossed my mind, but I never let myself believe she would do it. Choosing to continue the war meant choosing to allow Ashton's execution.

It also meant sending my soldiers back into battle—Link included.

My eyes met his, and though he tried to send me silent reassurance I sensed his fear as well.

"If you refuse to end this peacefully," Cedric replied, "the Alliance will end this in a less pleasant manner. We know your son tampered with black magic to conquer Hyrule with an army of the dead—I can assure you Vandelius will find little favor after such a disturbing course of action."

Guinevere shifted, pursing her lips as she considered his words.

"I'm afraid," she said, pushing the treaty away—much to my horror, "that I am unable to sign a treaty like this. My son is ruler of Vandelius; he must be the one to give his consent."

"Your son is a prisoner of war and the property of Hyrule." Kalan tapped his finger against the treaty. "As stated here, the Alliance recognizes that authority has fallen to you as Queen Mother. The decision is yours."

I held my breath as Guinevere hesitated again, resisting the urge to reach for Link's hand. The chamber stood silent as a tomb, and I felt certain everyone could hear my pounding heart.

Then, finally, she reached for the quill and jabbed it into the ink.

"This is outrageous," she muttered, signing her name with harsh, angry strokes. Quietly I exhaled, closing my eyes as a wave of dizziness swept over me. Link's own relief flowed through the bond, though we dared not make any outward exchange.

Cedric then rose and handed her the other two treaties. "There are three copies—one for Hylian records, one for Vandelian records, and one for the Alliance records," he informed her. "You will sign all three."

Guinevere fixed him with a cold glare but obediently signed the treaties. The representatives and I moved to do the same, but Guinevere rose from her chair and snatched her copy.

"Have my son escorted to my carriage," she said coldly. "We leave immediately."

Casting me one last glare, she turned and rapped her cane against the doors, signaling the guards to open them outside. They did so quickly, and she stormed out of the chamber without another word.

Link, Impa, and I rose to our feet to shake hands with Cedric and Kalan, thanking them with humble sincerity.

"I've been sympathetic since the Retribution War," Cedric said with a smile. "Kalan and I voted to interfere with the civil war here, but obviously the majority ruled against it."

"Vandelius has always been a more… aggressive kingdom, but Ashton has taken it to entirely new bounds," Kalan added. "You can rest assured he won't meddle in Hyrulean affairs again."

Impa and Link could see my composure unraveling, and quickly Impa ushered the two representatives from the chamber with the promise of a celebratory feast. Link reached for me, sensing my onslaught of tears, and immediately I fell into his arms.

"Link—" I choked, unable to stop my tears from wetting his tunic.

"Shh, it's okay," he whispered, his own composure wavering as he pressed a firm, lingering kiss to my temple. "It's over, darling. It's over…"

Though he did not share in my tears, I sensed his feelings echoed mine. The treaty hadn't simply ended the recent conflict with Vandelius; it had put an end to more than seven years of personal war against Ashton and his undying thirst for revenge. To be free of him after so much heartache still seemed like a dream.

We made it, Zelda, Link soothed, slowly caressing my back. This is reality. He's out of our lives.

Knowing I needed the closure of seeing Ashton leave my home for the last time, I forced myself to calm down and hurriedly fixed my makeup before our guards dragged him from the dungeon. I wanted dry eyes and a steel demeanor when I witnessed Ashton's final departure. I would not give him the satisfaction of seeing me so shaken.

.

Minutes later Link and I stood outside the castle entrance, watching our guards escort Ashton and his mother to her carriage. Guinevere had removed her fur and draped it over Ashton's slumped form, taking care to hide his deformed hand from curious eyes. Whether the gesture was more for his benefit or her own, I could not say.

Guinevere had always kept an active role in Ashton's life, influencing him more than his absent, negligent father, but never had I seen her express motherly affection. Ashton had been subjected to her constant criticism since he was a young child, and though he would never admit it I knew he still struggled to win her approval.

And now he had failed her. Embarrassed her.

As someone who had never known true love or happiness, Ashton always had a gaping hole in his life—in his soul, even. He never understood the cause of his emptiness, and therefore had no idea how to cure it. Cheap thrills had brought him artificial pleasure, fleeting indulgences that lacked true satisfaction. Eventually I became his means to gain that lasting satisfaction, and losing me had left him more bitter, apathetic, and self-absorbed than ever before.

Now, years later, I had slipped through his fingers a second time. Meddling with black magic had already taken a hard toll on his health, but I knew his humiliation would strike a harder blow day after day. Whispers would follow him, mockery of all kinds, and each year he would wither a little more, rotting inside until death finally claimed him.

I might have pitied the man, but in that moment I could not summon anything but quiet loathing. I could not forget the suffering he had carelessly inflicted upon my family, my friends, and my people. Though it hardly suited his long list of crimes, Ashton's misery would be his punishment, a sentence he would serve the rest of his life.

I lowered my gaze, fingering the heavy ring he had given me the night of our engagement party. I had considered disposing of it, but I felt a paranoid need to sever every tie to him, to leave him no excuse to contact me again.

"Wait," I called, stepping forward.

Ashton and his mother both turned, and Guinevere fixed me with an icy, hostile look. Ashton simply stared, wearing a mask of weary contempt.

"What more could you possibly have to say?" Guinevere snapped.

I lifted my hand, showing them the ring held between my thumb and forefinger. "This belongs to your son."

Ashton looked at the ring but said nothing as his mother snatched it from my hand.

"You were never worthy of it in the first place," she hissed.

Then she turned and ushered her son on toward the carriage. Neither spared me another glance, and I moved to take Link's extended hand, glad to resume my place at his side.

Years ago that ring had meant something to me, something other than sorrow and fear. I had given Ashton a chance to know true happiness, even after his true, selfish nature had been exposed. I had offered him a warm, compassionate heart, hoping I could somehow change him, but the years had twisted him beyond repair. He did not simply fail to recognize love; he refused to learn it.

I could not say I was sorry. Ashton was a sad, wretched man, but in truth I was glad he had rejected my compassion. If he had chosen to be a better man, I never would have known the joy Link brought me. I belonged with him, and I would have ached for him all my life, as he would have for me. If Ashton was to ever know happiness, he would have to find it without me.

The guards moved to open the carriage door, and Guinevere urged Ashton to climb inside first. I glimpsed his face in the window, pale and defeated but still frozen in a glare. Unwavering and void of emotion, I held his gaze, following those eyes until the carriage rounded a corner and he vanished from my sight.

May we never cross paths again.

xxxxxxx

Having finally put our conflict with Vandelius behind us, the weeks preceding Link's coronation passed in a flurry of activity. Preparations for the ceremony and the grand reception scheduled to follow were nearly complete. While these events would be exclusively attended by the court, Renae had arranged separate celebrations for the public to enjoy. The streets of every major town had been lined with streamers and banners bearing the royal Hylian crest. As Hyrule's capital, Castletown offered the most impressive display, and people had come from all corners of our kingdom to join the festivities, which meant the restaurants, shops, and inns were bustling with activity. The preparations held a more formal tone within the castle, but the lively atmosphere still filled the old halls with hushed anticipation.

I was beyond excited, but Link found himself a bit overwhelmed by it all. He had long grown accustomed to public scrutiny, but with his kingship came higher standards he would have to meet. His appearance needed no improvements, but our tailors had fitted him for an impressive new wardrobe. The Council had also prepped him in every way imaginable, forcing him to review everything he knew about politics, history, and etiquette.

Even Link's name had been altered. Historically most kings had longer, fuller names, mainly because they demanded a certain reverence. After some discussion, it was determined he would be crowned "Lincoln Tiresias Harkinian." Lincoln was most likely the full name his parents had given him, and Tiresias had been my father's second name.

As King and high commander of the military, Link would obviously no longer serve as General, and he had offered the position to Clef. The former captain had humbly accepted, claiming he was honored to shoulder the responsibility and relieved to shed the alliterative "Captain Clef." Former Lieutenant Theodus had been chosen to serve as the new Captain.

As Link's coronation drew nearer, I was relieved to sense no feelings of insecurity from him. He felt more than ready to take up the duties of kingship, and knowing he would finally occupy the throne at my side brought him great relief. Link still struggled with some nervousness, naturally, but his worry stemmed from something far simpler—he had never been fond of formal ceremonies.

.

When the morning of his coronation finally arrived, Link and I were woken and separated so our attendants could transform us into true images of royalty.

Having been through the formal dressing process many times before, I allowed my thoughts to wander as my maids clothed, brushed and painted me into the stunning, commanding queen my court expected. I stared into the mirror as they donned my heavy, royal blue gown, remembering how different I had looked the day of my own coronation. Tears had reddened my eyes and streaked my face—silent tears of grief for my late father and fear of my uncertain future. I had passed my Rite of Queenship, but I had not expected to take the throne for at least three more years. What had frightened me more than failure, however, was the inevitable strain my queenship would place on my marriage.

Link and I had enjoyed only a few precious months as the newlywed Prince and Princess. There had been no gap in our social status, and my father had silenced all public opposition to our union. My coronation meant I would have to silence that opposition, and every day Link would feel the social rift my heightened status had wedged between us. Link had assured me that nothing, not even politics, would damage our personal relationship, but his promises held little weight in the face of such uncertainty. I had always been reluctant to drag Link into politics—even to the point of nearly rejecting his marriage proposal—and those fears had returned at full force the morning of my coronation.

Only after Link came to see me just minutes before the ceremony was I able to regain my composure. He had taken me in his arms, letting me feel the depth of his pride and affection until the knot in my chest had loosened. Neither of us had bothered with speeches or promises—those had already been spoken time and time again. We both knew where we stood, as equals bound by love, but we still feared for each other. Link knew my crown came with a heavy burden, one I would have to carry alone. I worried Link's sole duty as my consort—to father my child—would cause people to overlook his true worth.

At last we could leave those worries in the past. Soon Link would stand at my side, in every way, and he would have the respect he deserved.

"Does this please you, my Lady?" one of the maids asked me as she rearranged my skirts.

I took a moment to register my reflection and admire my gown. Folds of heavy blue material hung loosely from my shoulders, exposing the long, tight sleeves of golden silk underneath. The neckline sloped elegantly below my collarbone, flattering me without sacrificing modesty. Droplets of gold hung from my ears, matching my heavy necklace and my formal, jewel-studded crown.

"Very much," I replied, smiling at them in the mirror. "Thank you."

I then gathered my skirts and left the chamber to find Link, confident his attendants had finished with him as well. His dressing room stood only a few doors down the corridor, but I struggled to keep a calm, dignified stride as my golden cape trailed behind me. Two guards opened the doors, greeting me with a nod.

I found him standing by the large window, his loose, shoulder-length hair gleaming in the sunlight as he gazed out toward Castletown. A long red cape trimmed with fur covered his back, though I barely glimpsed it before he turned to meet my gaze.

What I saw stole my breath away. Polished golden armor covered his chest and shoulders, glinting with his every move. Beneath it he wore a deep blue tunic over a black shirt, though gold bracers covered most of his forearms. Black pants and armor-clad boots completed his kingly attire—all he needed was the crown.

For a moment we simply stood there, drinking in the other's appearance.

"My Queen," he greeted me softly, a gentle, almost coy smile on his lips.

A surge of emotion sent me rushing across the room to embrace him. He caught me with a laugh, holding me close as I clung to him. I sensed he had also been reflecting on the past, drawing happiness from everything we had overcome, but his nervousness still distracted him.

"Why are you nervous?" I asked him softly, pulling away to meet his gaze. "You look incredible, and you have nothing left to prove. Remember, this ceremony is for you—to honor you and recognize you as our king."

"I know," he murmured, running his fingers through my long hair. "I just hate being put on display."

"I love putting you on display," I breathed, running my hands along his armor. "Especially when you look like this."

"Well, you best hope I don't make a fool of myself. I'll probably drop the scepter or trip on my cape."

I stifled a giggle. "You, Lord General? I think not. With all your practicing, you could do this ceremony in your sleep."

"I have been doing it in my sleep."

I laughed gently and took his hand, sobering as I kissed his fingers.

"I'm so proud of you," I whispered, nuzzling my cheek against his knuckles.

Gently he tipped my face up to his, angling his head to kiss me. I returned it tenderly, reaching up around his neck as he drew me closer.

"It's about time I caught up to you," he murmured when we parted, his hands caressing my waist. "I'll deal with the politics now. You just take care of yourself and Shayne."

"Mm, I think I can help you a little," I replied, trailing kisses along his cheek. "He'll keep us waiting another few months yet."

"And I want those months as dull and restful as possible. You've had far too much excitement, and it worries me."

I gave him a tender, knowing look. "Don't you worry about me," I soothed, stroking his cheek. "This day is for you, and you will not waste it fretting over me. Focus on everything you've accomplished, and be proud."

"I wouldn't be here at all if not for you," he whispered, resting his forehead against mine.

"Link…"

I closed my eyes when he kissed me again, tightening my arms around his neck as I kissed him back.

.

The throne room looked as impressive as I remembered it being on my coronation day. Rich blue tapestries lined the walls, bearing the vibrant red and gold of the Hylian royal crest. A matching blue runner stretched from the entranceway to the opposite end of the chamber, separating the massive crowd into two sections. Two thrones stood at the end of that runner, together for the first time in over twenty-four years.

I stood before the right throne, grasping a long scepter in each hand as I watched the procession begin. The High Priest of the Temple of Time stood beside me, accompanied by two other priests. Each wore formal while robes trimmed with gold. One held a small chest, the other a red cushion bearing the formal crown of Hyrule's King.

Slow, powerful music poured from the grand organ and echoed throughout the chamber, accompanied by the most heavenly chorus in all of Hyrule. Link led the procession, carrying himself with the regal poise he had long since mastered. His heavy red cape trailed behind him, followed by the seven members of the High Council. The lords and ladies of the court watched his every move, mesmerized by the stunning change in their soon-to-be former Prince Consort.

I struggled to keep my composure as he drew near, blinking back tears as he ascended the few stairs leading up to the thrones. Since his back now faced the court, Link allowed himself to give me a gentle smile.

You all right? his expression inquired. Had we not agreed to suppress our bond during the ceremony, the words surely would have echoed through my mind.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and stepped forward to offer him the scepter in my right hand—his scepter. Link took it with both hands, holding it parallel to the ground as he gave a reverent bow. Then he turned to face our subjects, grasping the now upright scepter in one hand and sweeping his cape behind him with the other. Pressing a fist to his heart, he sank onto one knee as the High Priest moved to stand beside him.

The music quickly faded into silence as the Priest laid his hands on Link's head. In slow, flawless Ancient Hylian, he blessed Link and prayed for his long and peaceful reign. I took a moment to dry my tears, grateful I would not have to find my voice before the ceremony ended.

Once he had finished, the Priest then lifted the Circlet of Acceptance from Link's head and turned to the priest holding the now opened chest. Placing the Circlet inside, he then turned to the other priest bearing the crown. With slow, reverent motions the High Priest took the gold piece from its cushion and turned back to Link. Lifting the crown high above Link's head, he then recited the Coronation Oath:

"Do you, Lincoln Tiresias Harkinian, swear to serve the peoples of Hyrule and strive toward an era of peace? To execute law, justice, and worship according to the sacred doctrine established by the Golden Goddesses: Din of Power, Nayru of Wisdom, and Farore of Courage?"

"I do so humbly," Link's strong reply echoed throughout the chamber, "until my successor relieve me, or death take me."

I struggled to control my beaming smile, managing to keep my tears from streaming down my face.

"Then with this crown," the Priest replied, lowering it onto Link's head, "I declare thee King of Hyrule."

He stepped away as Link rose to his feet, the scepter still grasped in his hand.

"Presenting his Majesty, King Lincoln!"

The hall erupted with applause. Cheers of "Hail, King Lincoln!" rose above the noise, and everywhere I saw smiles, none brighter than my own. Link finally allowed himself a humble smile in return, one I glimpsed when he turned to offer me his hand. I took it, moving to stand beside him as our people recognized their king and queen. Warm sunlight flooded the chamber, and through the rows of windows stretched a clear blue sky.

At long last, Hyrule's monarchy was truly restored.

xxxxxxx

The weeks flew by, each one bringing shorter days and longer nights. Before long the last of the autumn leaves had fallen, and a fresh layer of snow had blanketed the kingdom in white.

Winter brought a much needed time of stillness and quiet as Link and I adjusted to our renewed life. I helped him with his daily responsibilities as much as Maddox allowed, which was minimal. Link shouldered the majority of our duties admirably, but some evenings left him thoroughly exhausted. On such evenings we usually dined in the privacy of our chambers, easing into a night of relaxation. We often cuddled together on the sofa before a roaring fire, sharing kisses and feeling for Shayne's increasingly frequent movements. Maddox had estimated he would arrive in early April, just a week after my own birthday. As Link and I counted down the days, we took delight in decorating and furnishing the nursery, which had stood empty since our marriage. Seeing it's completion after two years of sorrow and doubt had brought me to tears.

I spent my days in a joyful haze, too excited to hold our son in my arms to worry about a difficult birth. As the due date drew nearer, however, Link's previously quiet concerns began to weigh on his mind and spoil his happiness. Watching me die in childbirth had been one of the fabricated memories Nassir forced into Link's mind during his imprisonment. In fact, it had been the memory that finally shattered Link's defenses and allowed Nassir to cast the Black Echo. Link knew the memory wasn't real, but it haunted him nonetheless. The possibility of watching it again—in reality—terrified him, and the fact that my own mother died in childbirth only added to his fears.

Link's near constant worry grew stronger at night, as he was forced to relive his false memories through recurring nightmares. But, unwilling to impede on my happiness, he was determined to endure them alone. I sometimes woke to find him sitting before the fire in the other room, fingering a glass of wine he had poured to calm himself. It was a harmless habit he had developed during the Retribution War, and one he had abandoned shortly after our marriage, since I had proven a far more effective source of comfort. It saddened me to see him resort to such things again, but I knew my presence could not comfort him. Only time would banish his fears.

The final month before Shayne's birth was difficult, riddled with false labor pains and constant worry. Maddox had confined me to my chambers on bed rest so I could hopefully reach full term, and I had willingly obeyed. I tried everything to keep an occupied mind, but some days my boredom inevitably brought anxiety. I constantly prayed I would reach full term, feeling that day could not come soon enough.

The day thankfully came in early April, just a few days sooner than Maddox had predicted. My true labor pains had started quite abruptly in the morning, continuing through the day and late into the night. My memories of those long, agonizing hours were little more than a haze of pain and exhaustion, but I did remember Link's support more vividly.

He had been too terrified to leave my side for even a moment, half convinced those were the final hours he would ever spend with me and our child. He had tried so hard to be strong, fighting his own fear to comfort me with all the sweetness and sincerity he could muster. All the while I had feared for Shayne's life, and I wept at the thought of sharing my mother's fate.

Finally, just as the sun's first light began to streak the darkened sky, I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy son and held Shayne in my arms for the very first time.

A much needed time of healing followed soon after, and a peace Link and I hadn't known for weeks seeped back into our chambers. Caring for Shayne did bring further sleep deprivation, but with our weariness came endless joy. For the first time in our lives, Link and I had a complete family of our own, and no level of exhaustion could diminish our happiness.

.

The sound of a newborn's cries pierced the silence of the bedroom, drawing me out of sleep. Groggily I sat up, yawning as I slid the covers aside and rose out of bed. Darkness still cloaked the room, so I summoned my magic—which I had regained since Shayne's birth—to light a lamp with a flick of my wrist.

Link sat up as well, rubbing his eyes as I moved to the foot of the bed where Shayne's bassinet stood. More than a month had passed since his birth, and we had grown accustomed to the nightly interruptions.

"Shh, Mama's here," I soothed, carefully lifting Shayne up into my arms. His cries softened into whimpers, and I shushed him as I sank onto the edge of the bed. Link sat beside me moments later, gently sliding my nightgown off my shoulder so I could tend to our son. Shayne's cries immediately ceased as I drew him to my breast, and a blissful silence settled back into the bedroom.

Wordlessly we gazed upon our preoccupied son, mesmerized by this beautiful little person we had created. Link lifted a hand to idly caress my back, and softly I began to hum the same lullaby my own mother once sang for me. I liked to think the soothing, familiar notes helped lull Shayne back to sleep, but so far he had proven to be a very sleepy baby, with or without the aid of a lullaby.

Shayne paused then, his tiny mouth parting in a yawn. I smiled down at him, overwhelmed by a familiar feeling I had come to recognize as motherly love. It was a fierce, profound emotion, and one that empowered me. Shayne was my most beloved gift, and becoming his mother had given me an incredible new purpose in life.

"Such a sweet baby," I whispered, fingering his soft, tiny hand. "Right to sleep, just like his father."

"Only because he's with his mother," Link murmured, gently adjusting Shayne's green cap so it covered his little ears. It had been a gift from Saria, who proudly informed us Link had worn one just like it when he was a baby.

"Are you calling me dull?" I teased, flashing him a smile. "Anyway, I'm sure he'll be a sleepyhead like you."

Link sighed and dropped a kiss to my shoulder, too tired to manage a retort, though I sensed his flutter of mirth. "Can I take him?" he asked me.

"Of course you can, silly."

Gently I placed Shayne in his arms, noticing how very carefully he handled our baby. His face softened with such tenderness, a subtle expression of the love and fatherly pride I felt through the bond.

Then he lowered Shayne into the bassinet, causing him to fuss and whimper. Link shushed him, gently stroking his soft little cheek until Shayne calmed down and fell back asleep. I rose to stand beside Link, slipping an arm around his waist as he wrapped his around my shoulders.

It's been a month, and I still can't believe he's ours, he said as he slowly caressed my arm.

I leaned into him, resting my head against his shoulder. I know what you mean.

He kissed the crown of my head, and his happiness warmed me like rays of summer light. I smiled and reached for his cheek, tiptoeing up to kiss him softly.

Come to bed, I urged him. You need your rest too.

Casting one more glance at Shayne, I then pulled away and moved to climb back under the covers, settling onto my side with a sigh. I felt Link join me seconds later, nestling up against my back. He pressed a kiss to my cheek and laid his head on my pillow, his forehead touching the back of my neck. I reached for his arm as he curled it around my waist, caressing it as I rested my tired eyes.

I expected him to drift off as quickly as our son, but we had both slipped into that blissful state between wakefulness and slumber. Link's affection swept through me in gentle, soothing waves, and behind them I sensed a deeper, more profound emotion—one I returned without a thought.

I could only describe this feeling as love, though the word seemed painfully inadequate somehow. Over the past year I had learned just how beautiful and how powerful love could be. Ours had given us the strength to endure endless pain and uncertainty, even when fate itself seemed bent on destroying our happiness. Even now, in our everyday lives, our love continued to sustain us, bringing joy and hope for a bright future.

Whatever obstacles lay ahead, I believed we could overcome them all, one way or another, as long as we faced them together.

Xxx THE END xxX


AN Again: Finished at last! Wooow, I still can't believe it. D: I actually typed "THE END." D: Ok, well, as mentioned earlier I will keep this final note brief, but there are two things I want to say:

1) This is not quite the end for me, since I intend to go back and begin what I call the "epic edit" of the story as a whole. Posting each chapter as I finished it was a choppy and very challenging way to write this (super long) story, and I know it's riddled with errors, awkward wording, and inconsistencies. I intend to comb through every chapter and hopefully fix everything. These will be mostly minor changes, but I will post weekly updates on my tumblr blog (see my profile for the link) if you're interested. You will be able to see my progress here because the chapter headings will be changed as I re-upload.

2) Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou THANK YOU to all you amazing readers. I cannot express how much your support has meant to me. I am pretty sure I would have moved on to another project long ago if not for everyone's wonderful and encouraging feedback. I started working on Fortitude about seven years ago, and never did I dare imagine it would draw the attention it's received. Thank you so, so much for making this such an enjoyable journey - I truly hope the finale didn't disappoint. Please don't hesitate to drop me a review, comment, note, whatever - be it here, on my tumblr page, or wherever. I'm always happy to hear from people! :) And be sure to check my tumblr page if you want more Fortitude - I plan to keep that blog alive, hopefully for a long time! :)