Sheik tapped a foot nervously as Nabooru waited for his response. He felt tired and old, and for a moment simply listened to the whistle of the breeze through the aged windmill.
"I don't want to be there when you do it," he said.
"Ah," Nabooru took a breath and let it out slowly, "I... was hoping you would help."
Sheik was taken by surprise, "Help?"
"If I falter. I thought... after all, you are a Sheikah..."
He awarded her a level stare, "I may be Sheikah, but I do not take pleasure in violence. Something your people would know little of."
"You are very quick to judge my people," snapped Nabooru, "for a man who has ended so many Gerudo lives."
"And you my people," Sheik's voice rose, "for one who supports a usurper king."
Nabooru's eyes were bright in fury, "I have never supported him. I fought alongside him and played the part of slave when necessary. I have protected my people, which is more than I can say fo-"
"You don't want to finish that sentence," Sheik stood up.
She seemed to consider it, then shrugged and glanced away.
"You're right," she said simply, "I don't."
Sheik's anger dissipated, but he did not rejoin Nabooru on the bench. Instead, he paced slowly around the hut, stepping around the great turning wheelbase. He circled the entire floor before returning to Nabooru's side. He stared down at her for a long while, while she evaded his gaze.
"I am afraid," she finally said.
She tilted her head in his direction, "I've never..."
His hand found its way to her shoulder, "Never?"
"I've never hurt myself before. It sounds strange to say it."
Sheik was instantly ashamed to have been angry with her. As she rubbed her arm distractedly, it became apparent that she was little but a frightened and lost soul. He found he wanted nothing more than to protect her.
Her thin hand placed itself on his, and he tightened his grip on her shoulder.
"Death would be easier, wouldn't it?" she murmured, barely audible above the creaking of the mill.
"Death is always easier," Sheik released her shoulder and moved to kneel in front of her, "and unfortunately permanent."
"Mostly," Nabooru gave a half smile.
"Mostly. You have to promise me not to think about death."
She gave him an appraising look, "It seems to me that death is all we have. You and I know nothing else."
He was rendered speechless for a moment, watching her in stark concern. She reached a hand to his face. The backs of her fingers brushed his cheek, warm and soft, and he turned away from them. Nabooru withdrew her hand and smiled.
"Like I said," she resumed the nervous rubbing of her arm, "nothing else."
Sheik stared at the floor between the Gerudo's feet, "Regardless, I'd prefer it if you could come back alive."
"So would I."
"It's the pain I'm afraid of," her expression was dark, "Gerudo are not supposed to admit that. I'm not sure I can do it myself."
Sheik shook his head slowly, "Nabooru, I would do anything to help you right now, except that. I know I won't be able to."
Nabooru stared at him for a short while. Finally, Sheik sighed and stood up, folding his arms over his chest, "Would it help if I walked with you as far as the river?"
She nodded and rose, face turning pale. As she walked to the door, Sheik watched the sway of her red hair and the movement of her shoulders. A nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach forced him to follow close behind.
The day flowed quickly as Din and Ganondorf rode across the plains, skirting the Western desert. They reached the pass to the Gerudo lands by nightfall, stopping just before the valley to rest. The setting sun cast their shadows across the dusty rock walls. Din cleared a small amount of sand and held her hands over the ground. A small fire, unnaturally red, appeared and hovered in the shallow pit. Pleased, the goddess sat down on the ground and gestured to Ganondorf to join her.
"It's still early," the king protested, "we should ride on."
"I will take us where we need to go," Din waved a hand at him, "sit and rest, you are still mortal."
"You claimed magic would give us away."
"Not this close to our goal: the echo will be much smaller."
Ganondorf sat down, frowning. Nearby crickets went silent, and the wind and fire made the only sounds. Din slid close to him, laying a thin hand across his arm.
"I mentioned a discussion about our power. Would you be interested in having it now?"
She brushed her hand over his breastplate, undoing the buckles and pulling the heavy armor off. Her hand pushed aside the neck of his tunic to rest on his bare skin.
He raised an eyebrow at her as she gazed at him.
"Little king, you could have more than this" the remaining orange sunlight was caught in her hair, causing the red strands to glow, "you could have a power even greater than that of my triforce piece."
"Oh?" Ganondorf was distracted by the heat of her fingers across his chest.
"What would you do for the power to claim the true Triforce?" her eyes were inviting, "anything?"
This captured his attention. He leaned back slightly, considering her integrity.
"Anything," he answered firmly.
Din smiled, pulling closer to him until she knelt over his leg and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her nose brushed his, but he was undaunted. His hands gripped her waist tightly.
"Anything," he repeated.
Her eyes were suddenly sharp, "even give away your own soul?"
She saw the flicker of doubt across his face, and pulled back, standing up. She paced around the fire, arms crossed. The sun disappeared behind the red hills.
"What do you mean, my soul?" Ganondorf demanded, skeptical.
Din chuckled coldly, "You are under the impression that essences and ghosts are nothing more than superstition. You are incorrect."
"Alright..." Ganondorf played with an open buckle, "if I believe you, from what I recall a soul is a necessary thing. I would die without it."
"Well, yes!" Din laughed and danced over to him, standing over him with a manic expression, "That is why I would take only a piece of your soul for the binding."
"Your books and scrolls do not tell of it," she was excited by now, "but there is an ancient process by which mortal and deity may be one. We would share your body and my power, and no magic would be greater."
The full weight of the proposal struck Ganondorf like a welcome slap. He could harness the power of a goddess and crush the remains of Hyrule within weeks. He would find Zelda, obtain the Triforce and then... he struggled to remember what came next. It had been so many years since he had felt this close to total victory.
"I could rule," he murmured aloud.
"Yes," Din hissed, "you could do what you were born to do."
She stepped closer and placed a finger under his chin, lifting his face, "Restore the Triforce to me and I will give you Hyrule. We will reign over both realms."
Ganondorf grasped her hand, allowing the slightest smile. They had the same goals. He would agree to her scheme now and later find a way to claim the Triforce for himself. In the meantime, Din was giving him everything he wanted.
"How do you perform this binding?"
The early rosy sunrise brightened the road for the lone rider at the edge of the forest. Link had slowed Epona to a walk an hour before, and she was still sweaty and tired. By the time they'd found the hidden entrance to the Kokiri woods, the mare was snorting and neighing in protest. Exhausted, Link slid from the saddle and nearly collapsed. He patted Epona on the neck, digging an apple from his bag and holding it out for her.
"You earned it," he leaned against the horse's shoulder as she ate.
Catching his breath, Link took a long look up and down the forest's edge. He couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, and there was no sign of Ganondorf's presence.
"Good girl," Link allowed Epona to take the core of the apple and grasped her bridle, "come on."
She snorted in displeasure, expecting his next command.
"Come on, you can't stay here," he ran a hand down her neck, "they'll see you."
She sidestepped, causing Link to stumble. He righted himself in time to see her trot off across the countryside toward Lake Hylia, apparently pleased with herself.
"Fine," he breathed. He turned around and faced the hollow end of an overturned tree, the portal to his childhood home. He was somewhat surprised he could still see it, as the tree rarely ever showed itself to Hylians. Reflecting on the past night, he wondered how he could have overtaken the Thief King. A dark notion crawled into his mind that he was far too late, and Ganondorf had already entered the woods.
Pushing the thought away, he walked slowly toward the portal, peering into its pitch blackness. He could not see the forest within, and gave a small prayer of thanks that the protective magic had apparently not been disturbed. As he reached the great tree's reaching roots, he lifted a hand. It was absorbed by the dark shadow of the portal.
"Here goes," he muttered, stepping boldly forward. He continued walking, for a moment through total darkness, until he could see the dim sunlight of the woods beaming down in dusty shafts. A wooden bridge appeared out of the shadows, and Link found himself fully immersed in the Lost Woods. A faraway bird called out in the peeping of frogs. The spongy moss beneath his feet gave slightly as he stepped onto the bridge.
The place was barely different than he remembered it. A few trees had changed places, and the grassy forest floor was maybe a little more brown, but the woods were essentially unchanged. Link strode lightly across the small bridge, warmed by patches of sun on the old wood planks. His boot heels clicked against the aged boards.
He believed himself to be alone, as no voice called out and no singing signaled the presence of stalkids. He was thinking of the quickest route to the sanctuary when his previous impression was loudly proved wrong.
"Hey! You! What do you think you're doing here?!"
Link stopped halfway across the bridge, looking around for the source of the familiar, childish voice. An old sensation of annoyance permeated his thoughts, recalling hundreds of ruined evenings and childhood fist fights.
"These woods are sacred! Hylians are not allowed without permission!"
Link lifted his hands in the air in a gesture of submission, "I'm not here to do any harm. I need to see Saria."
He made a slight grimace in anticipation of the reply. Sure enough, a Kokiri boy leapt down from the trees and landed on the bridge before him, scowling and furious. Link immediately recognized his red hair and flushed face.
"Saria?!" the boy yelled, "What would a Hylian ever want with Saria?!"
"No! I won't allow you to go any further!" The boy stomped his foot, causing his fairy to fly from his shoulder to the bridge behind him, "I, Mido, the great leader of the Kokiri, will never allow you past this bridge!"
Link stifled a smile, "Never?"
Mido was clearly unprepared for this, "What?"
"You win," Link shrugged and seated himself on the bridge, now eye-level with Mido, "I'll just sit right here."
The Kokiri's jaw worked, his bright blue eyes clouding with confusion, "What, forever?"
"Sure. Forever," grinned Link, "since you'll never let me pass."
"F-fine!" Mido shouted, "If that's what it takes to protect Saria!"
Link was a bit taken aback by this, and tilted his head inquisitively, "What makes you think you need to protect her from me?"
Mido eyed the Master Sword with some concern. A distant memory returned to Link and he immediately felt ashamed. The Kokiri were peaceful people, and used weapons only for protection in dire circumstances. Of course Mido wouldn't trust a sword-carrying stranger.
"Ah," Link unbuckled his scabbard and pulled it off, holding the sheathed sword at arm's length, "is this what you're afraid of?"
"I'm not afraid of anything."
Link bit back a sigh, "Is this why you're afraid for Saria?"
Mido's jaw shifted again, "Maybe. Maybe I don't like how you look."
"You care about Saria a lot, don't you?"
The Kokiri's face was stony, "More than anything."
For the first time in his entire life, Link believed Mido was telling the truth. He rubbed his scratchy chin, skin dry under a few days' worth of stubble.
"Listen, Mido, I care about Saria very much. There's a man out there who wants to hurt her, maybe even kill her," his throat closed a bit as he said the words, "I'm trying to warn her."
Mido was evidently conflicted, as he tapped his foot repeatedly and looked from one side of the bridge from another.
Link held up his sword again, "If it makes you feel better, you can hold on to this."
His face wearing an expression of suspicion, Mido reached out a small hand and grasped the strap. Link released his hold and Mido stumbled a bit to maintain his grip. He took hold of the the scabbard and hefted it over on shoulder.
"Alright," snapped the Kokiri, "I'll take you to her. But if you try anything, I'll beat you up."
Link stood up, twice the height of his obstinate guide, "That's a deal."
They shook hands, and Mido turned to face the forest. He led the way in confident strides, Link following after with an uneasy feeling. There was no guarantee he would make it to Saria before Ganondorf. He could only hope Mido would not lead him astray.
The morning breeze brought the fist sting of autumn as Sheik and Nabooru made their way down the hill beneath Kakariko. The day was silent but for the wind, which began to howl as the two reached the flat fields separating the village from the rest of Hyrule. They walked at a brisk pace and did not speak.
Sheik allowed Nabooru to lead the way, as she had claimed to know the places where the Gerudo sentries in the fields would not see her. His mind buzzed with worry. Any trace of the ruthless fighter within Nabooru had vanished, replaced by a hesitant gait and tense posture. She looked nervously around as they traversed the flats. Ahead, the river wound across the countryside, a blue ribbon partially illuminated by the sun.
As she walked, Nabooru began to take off her golden adornments, handing each bejeweled trinket to Sheik. He carried them reverently, glancing from the glinting bracelets to the Gerudo before him. Her expression was blank.
"They will be more likely to believe me," she explained unnecessarily.
Sheik nodded, suppressing a desire to tell her that there was another way, any other way, to carry out their plans. There was not, of course, and Sheik gave a short sigh as Nabooru pulled the gold and shell clip from her hair. The red locks rushed down in a wave, and the Gerudo tucked the fringes of her hair behind her ear as she handed the bauble to Sheik.
Another few moments of silence brought them to the edge of the river, where the ground grew soft and wet. Nabooru knelt down in the mud, allowing it to seep into her thin pants at the shins. Sheik reached out an arm and pulled her back up with a bit more force than he meant to. She looked at him in confusion.
"I'm sorry," he stared down at her knees, "it just... seemed too much."
Nabooru let her lips curl in a tiny smile, "This is too much? The cheap theatrics, not the actual danger?"
Sheik allowed himself to look straight into Nabooru's golden eyes, "This entire plan is too much."
She reached out a hand, touching his arm lightly, "It's the best I can do."
The wind picked up, sending Nabooru's red hair flying and the edges of Sheik's cowl loose. Neither made any motion to remedy these changes. Nabooru stepped closer.
"If you're going to do it," Sheik said gently, "It should be now. We'll be seen."
She nodded, looking at the ground. Sheik found himself completely disarmed. With her hair down and all traces of her elevated status gone, the Gerudo for once appeared totally calm. There was no panic in her eyes, and her shoulders had relaxed.
"May I borrow one of your knives?" she extended her hand.
Sheik let one of his concealed blades slide into his palm. He made no move to relinquish it, however, and let it hang at his side as he evaluated the woman before him. Seeing his expression, she smiled a little and closed the space between them, her arms pulling him close and her head resting against his shoulder. He felt the warmth of her skin through the fabric of his faded uniform. Taking a deep breath, Sheik let his lips rest against her soft hair.
"You can't do this," he murmured, one hand tracing the back of her neck.
"No," she turned her face to his chest.
"You never could have."
His eyes scanned the fields aimlessly, "Alright."
In a swift, careful motion, Sheik pressed his palm to the exposed skin just above her hip. She shuddered as the blade entered her body, stifling a moan in his cowl. Feeling his wrist wet with blood, Sheik kissed Nabooru's forehead and pulled himself away. She stumbled to the ground, hand clumsily covering the bleeding wound.
"Thank you," she choked, a fast smile on her lips.
Sheik gave himself one more moment to watch her before summoning a spell to take him away. As the Hylian countryside faded, replaced by the bright sand of the desert, he thought he heard her call his name. He closed his eyes and focused on his mission.