The wagon's wheels bounced on the rough, rutted dirt path as it made its mad dash across Hyrule field. The horses galloped full-force, their flanks steaming and their eyes rolling, their hooves thundering and raising clouds of dust in the wagon's wake. Through the night-dark air hissed the roaring sound of fire and the whoosh of arrows zipping perilously close to the wagon's canvas sides.
Mayor Bo of Ordon whooped and snapped at the reigns like a whip, urging the Ordonian-bred horses to go faster, but it was no use. The beasts were already in a flat-out run, and no goat-herd's horse was bred for speed. Another blazing arrow shot past, and Bo cursed loudly.
"Keep 'em off our tail, boy!"
"I'm trying!" came a shout from the darkness, and a moment later Bo heard the strangled scream of a Bublin archer as a sword knocked it from its boar-mount, barely audible over the rumble of the wagon. Another horseman caught up and kept pace beside the racing wagon, astride a chestnut-brown mare whose mane whipped back in the winds of speed. Her rider was an Ordonian boy, the dark green of his tunic barely visible in the starless night, bent nearly double over his horse to diminish wind resistance. A sword gleamed in his left hand. "How are we?" he panted.
"Could be better," the mayor replied gravely. "The horses can't keep up this speed for much longer, and if we slow down those Bublins will catch up."
"I can handle the Bublins."
"It's not just them, Link," Bo added, his voice strained from exhaustion and barely suppressed fear. "It's her. Ilia doesn't have much time left, and if we can't get her to Renado soon…"
But he was cut off as another rain of arrows shot past the wagon in sudden streaks of fire-brightness that burned at his eyes. Without another word, Link's horse merged back into the darkness behind, and the Bublin death-screams began anew.
Bo's head whipped around to focus on the task at hand. There ahead, looming out of the darkness, were the high red-rock formations that marked the entrance to Kakariko gorge. Mayor Bo urged the horses onward through the open gates and into safety: the Bublins hated enclosed areas, and the tall walls of the canyon where Kakariko village nestled were enough to keep them away. Lights flickered past on either side; the lights of houses, and he gave a hard jerk on the reins. The horses skidded to a halt. They stood nervously, prancing back and forth and pawing at the ground, waiting to be unhitched and rubbed down, but Bo ignored them completely. He leapt from his seat at the head of the wagon and rushed around to the back, where he thrust the heavy canvas flaps aside.
Light from the village windows spilled inside the wagon, and it was enough to see the form of Bo's sixteen-year-old daughter, Ilia, sprawled out as though sleeping on the hay strewn across the rough wooden boards. Bo took her up in his arms. Her head lolled to one side. How slight she was; how weightless. He could see her half-open eyes in the faint light. They were glazed and sightless, and her chest rose and fell weakly with pained breath. Her skin was fever hot against his bare arms, her whole body was trembling. Not much time remained…
Renado the Shaman's hut on the edge of the village gave off a bright glow of firelight from its windows, and as Bo rushed towards it he could see the door open and the face of Renado's little daughter peek out. "Father, Bo's here!"
Bo knew nothing more. He felt Ilia being taken from his arms, heard Renado's voice speaking to him, and himself replying, but it all faded to a dim awareness beneath floods of relief and exhaustion. Here he was, and here Ilia would finally be safe. If there was a cure for her illness, then Renado would know of it. "Come inside," Renado's daughter was saying, and a small hand slipped into his. "There's a fire going, and I can make tea. Where's Link?"
"Here." Behind them, Link faded out of the darkness as seamlessly as a shadow, leading his mare by her reigns. "Ilia… is she…?"
"Alive," the mayor answered, and Link gave an audible sigh of relief. It turned to a wince, however, as he clutched at his right shoulder. Bo was shocked to see the feathered shaft of one of those Bublin arrows sticking out a good three inches from the Hero's upper arm. "Link, you've been shot!"
Link shrugged, and then gave a gasp as the movement brought a new wave of pain through his injured arm. "I'll… I'll heal," he managed. "I heal fast." He made a movement with his good arm to indicate the horses. "We need to see to Epona and the other horses. Bo, can you unhitch those two? I'll-"
"You'll sit down and let the little one bring you some of her tea," Bo insisted. The little girl nodded seriously and darted off into the large clay-walled hut, leaving the two men alone in the darkness. Bo waited till she was gone before speaking again. "Alright, how bad is it really?"
"Not as bad as it looks."
"Wouldn't take much," Bo muttered under his breath, and went to unhitch the two wagon horses. He turned his head again at Link's shuddering breath of pain, just in time to see the hero grasp the arrow shaft in his left hand and… "Link, stop, what are you doing!?"
With an agonizing jerk, the arrow came free. Link held it up to examine in the light of the window, completely ignoring the horrified look on Bo's face. "Uhg, it's barbed. No wonder."
"Tell me you didn't just pull out a barbed arrow embedded several inches into your shoulder!"
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I just did."
Bo shook his head in disbelief. Even as he watched, the flow of blood from the wound slowed and stopped. A golden glow shone through the solid leather of Link's left gauntlet, underneath which his triforce birthmark graced the skin. The boy shot Bo a level look. "I told you I heal fast."
Bo would have responded, but at that moment the door of the hut was thrust open and Renado's daughter appeared, a steaming mug of herbal tea in each hand. She handed one to Link and one to Mayor Bo. "Father says I should take care of the horses. I like animals," she announced. "He says you have to come inside, because he wants to talk to you about Ilia."
Link and Bo exchanged worried looks. "Is everything alright?" Bo asked.
"I dunno. That's just what Father said to tell you. I like animals," she added, in case neither of them had picked up on that point.
Within the hut a fire crackled in the center of the room. It gave off a strange, sweet odor, as though it burned with incense. Out of the corner of his eye, Bo noticed a rather dreamy look pass across Link's face; no surprise there, as the boy had always reacted rather oddly to scents. Ilia had been laid out on a pallet of blankets near the fire, and in the light it was easy to see how pale and dead-looking her skin seemed. Renado was bent over her still form, just completing the task of spooning some strange green medicinal liquid into her slack mouth. The Shaman straightened up as the two of them entered. Bo felt a strange chill as Renado's dark eyes met his own.
"I have some unfortunate information to tell you," Renado murmured, and Bo's heart sank. "And although I am sorry to have to speak it to you, it must be said. Ilia has Tremoring Fever, a disease for which there is no cure."
"No!" Bo spoke, in a trembling voice. The floor seemed to be dropping away beneath him, replaced by an endless void through which he fell: a void where there was no Ilia, no sweet little daughter to waltz around the house every morning, to laugh musically at his stories, to hug him tight and kiss him lovingly on the cheek before she went up to bed…
Renado's voice worked its way through his floundering mind. "I will do what I can for her. My medicines can keep her alive, but for how long I do not know."
There was the tiny crash of breaking pottery, and Bo realized that the mug had slipped from his hands and hot tea was soaking into the floorboards. Renado's daughter, just returning from outside, hurriedly sought a rag and bent to mop it up, but it all seemed so distant. Link's voice sounded at his side.
"If there was a cure, who would know of it?"
Renado turned his dark gaze upon the Hero in green. "I had a feeling it would be you who asked, Link. If anyone knows where the remedy could be found, it would be Lanayru, the Spirit of Wisdom who resides at Lake Hylia."
Link blinked slowly, oddly calmed by that strange, sleepy scent which permeated the air. Perhaps, thought Bo dully, that had been Renado's plan all along; to keep at least one of them thinking calmly and logically. "Then I'll go tonight. I'll ask Lanayru, and I'll find the cure, and I'll come back. Not just for Ilia. For everyone."
And Bo found himself recalling how selfish he had been. If this sickness was truly Tremoring Fever, then it wasn't just Ilia who had been stricken by it. He could remember, now that he thought about it, the other reports that had filtered into their tiny, forest-shrouded village: rumors and fears that seemed to travel less with people and more on the wind itself, rumors of a terrible disease that was sweeping through Hyrule. Bo hadn't paid them any heed at the time. Now he knew that he should have, especially when Ilia had gotten sick.
The Shaman was speaking to Link. "You must be careful. Hyrule is not as it was; it has become a plague-pit, a dying ground. Even if Lanayru can tell you the whereabouts of the cure, there is no guarantee that you will return with it in time to do any good." But Link crossed his arms (now completely healed, Bo noted, as though he had never been injured) resolutely and stared up at Renado with a look of finality on his face. "So be it," Renado said. "You'll find I know you all too well, Hero. I have already prepared for your journey." From the folds of his floor-length robe, Renado drew a small, bulky package wrapped in brown paper, about the size of Link's fist. "The thing I have packed for you in this parcel may be of some use. Keep it with you at all times."
Link accepted the package from the Shaman's hands and turned it over, intent on pulling at the twine that bound it, but Renado grasped his arm warningly. "Not here."
And so it was that Link of Ordon cast one final, longing look at Ilia, said his goodbyes to Bo and Renado and his daughter, and stepped out of the darkened doorway into the night. Bo watched him go with something akin to hope. Whatever Link set out to do he did with passion, and seldom failed. There was still a chance for Ilia to live. Still a chance…
The mayor of Ordon turned to Renado. The Shaman stared at the door as though seeing right through it, but Bo managed to catch his eye and his face creased in a small smile. "Well, my old friend," Renado said. "How much do you want to wager that the next time we see Link, he'll be riding into town with some miracle cure held heroically above his head?"
Bo gave a short bark of humorless laughter. Still a chance, still a chance…
"Renado, I'd bet every rupee I've ever owned."
Tremoring Fever… No one in Hyrule knew for sure where it had come from or who had given it a name, but most agreed that it had begun some time during Ganondorf's reign. After the Gerudo Theif's rise to power and before his downfall at the hands of a Hero in green, the Fever had risen: a strange sickness appearing only fleetingly and without any known cause in far, obscure corners of the kingdom. It infected, it lingered, it killed, and it moved on, contagious as the plague and as fast-spreading as wildfire. While Ganondorf remained in power, the disease hid in the shadows, but after his death it blossomed spectacularly.
The first to truly know were the Zoras. Slowly, great numbers of their people began to sicken and die, and so the Zora prince, Ralis, sent a messenger to their long-time allies, the Gorons, pleading for help. The messenger arrived already pale and wracked with fever, and in a matter of weeks the disease had worked its way through the ranks of the Gorons. Goron traders bringing goods to their shops in Hyrule Castle Town had exposed the Hylians to it, and soon a state of panic began. Townspeople who had been friends their entire lives would suddenly no longer go near one another, paranoid and suspicious that everyone they met on the street could be carrying the dreaded Fever. Shops shut down, vandalism became commonplace, and riots broke out in the streets.
Princess Zelda watched from her balcony as the smoke and shouting rose through the air, and could do nothing to stop her kingdom's downward spiral into mistrust and terror. The best surgeons and healers in Hyrule worked night and day to discover a cure, but so far none had been found.
She told no one, because it would only increase the general panic, but Zelda secretly suspected that she was beginning to sicken as well.
In Ordon Village, in the southernmost region of Hyrule, the Ordonians knew none of this, or if they knew, pretended not to remember. They believed that the forest would protect them. No one came this deeply into the woods where their little shepherding village dwelt, so there was no way for the Fever to find them. So they believed, and so they would have gone on believing, had not a young Hero in green returned from his battle with Ganondorf with the disease clinging malevolently to his tunic and skin…
It began a few months after his return, sometime during the summer and close to shearing season, when Tremoring Fever began to kill the goats.
There were shouts in the goat-field. They carried on the summer air and rang through the village, through the trees, through all of Ordona Province until the world echoed with them. The trees rustled angrily and the sunlight beat down, and the frantic bleating of the goats mingled with the even more frantic cries of the goat-herds.
Yenka, the oldest of the Ordon goats, lay on her side. Her legs kicked frantically at the air as though beset by uncontrollable convulsions, and her head jerked back and forth. Froth flecked her blue coat, the signature color of Ordonian-bred goats, flying from her open jaw with every frenzied bleat.
Link dodged away from the goat's rock-hard, circular horns, and made a dive for her neck. He wrapped his arms around her soft head and inhaled the sweet animal scent and the sharper smell of fear as he tried desperately to hold her still and keep her from beating her brains out against the ground. It was useless; Yenka's body was no longer under her control, and the muscle spasms that gave Tremoring Fever its name threw her wildly in every direction.
A panting Fado grabbed Yenka's thrashing limbs and pinned them to the ground. The larger man's weight was much more effective at holding her still, but the goat's body still trembled beneath his grip. "Got her?" the goat-herd called to Link.
"Sort of," Link shouted back, squirming as Yenka's twitching head tried to break out of his grasp. All around them the other goats milled fearfully, their bleating loud and panicked. The goat-herd and his apprentice held Yenka still as her trembling slowly subsided.
Fado stroked the goat's side calmingly while not once relaxing his grip. "Eighth one this week," he complained. "Not counting little Lett."
Link followed Fado's example and ran his fingers through Yenka's blue wool. He could feel the heat of her fever as his hands touched her skin, and a momentary sense of sympathy made him frown. Lett had been one of the goat-kids born that spring, while he had been away saving the world. Her mother had been the first goat to fall ill, and in her paroxysm she had trampled Lett to death.
"It's not the fever that kills them, I'm thinkin'," Fado commented. "I mean, sure, the fever'll kill them eventually, but mostly it's the shakin'. They beat themselves against the ground till their heads break open." It had taken the death of several goats to find this out. Now at the first sign of trembling, Link and Fado would grasp the affected goat by the head and legs and hold it still until the shaking ceased. There were already several sick animals confined to the goat-stables, resting on soft beds of hay and tied securely in place by strong ropes. Now Yenka would be joining them.
"At least it hasn't spread to the horses," Link commented, thinking of his beloved mare. "I'm sure if anything happened to Epona, Ilia would beat my head against the ground."
"That girl does love her horses," agreed Fado. "Sometimes I think she loves them more than her own father. More even than you, come to think of it. Speakin' of which, when are you goin' to officially tell everyone the good news?"
"The goats are dying, Fado. I can't think of any good news to be told."
"Not about the goats. You and Ilia!" he prompted with a strained grin. Even under the best of circumstances it was getting hard to genuinely smile, ever since the goats had gotten sick. "The wedding!"
Link tried to return the smile, which he pulled off with no little amount of effort. "It isn't official yet, and nothing's set in stone. We've just been talking about it. Anyway, it might be best to postpone talk like that until things are a little more… normal around here."
Fado, always eager to impart his wisdom on the younger generation (though in reality he was only a few years older than Link), gave Link a knowing nod. It's like we're acting, Link thought. The goats are dying all around us, and we're sitting here holding Yenka still so she doesn't kill herself, and it's become a sort of game to pretend everything is normal. And so we smile and talk about weddings and whatever we do, we don't spoil the game.
"There now, I think she's done." Fado released his grip on the old goat, and after a moment Link did the same. Yenka lay still and panting in the grass. Her eyes were glazed over and it didn't seem like she'd be able to get up and move anytime soon. In the end Link and Fado had to carry her between them to the stables. It was simple enough; the disease had greatly diminished her weight, and underneath all that blue wool she was naught but skin and bones. The older goat-herd spoke lightheartedly as they laid her out upon the hay and bound her with ropes. "The way I see it, you should live each day as if things can only get worse from then on out. Marry Ilia as soon as you can, that's my advice. That way, well, things might be bad, but at least they're bad for both of you."
"Easy, girl," Link muttered to Yenka, and then to Fado: "I'll think about that."
The rest of the goats were rounded up for the night. Fado had devised a makeshift corral in a corner of the paddock to keep the healthy goats, hoping that by separating them from the sick animals he could slow the spread of the disease. Link knew that this would never work in the long run: too many of the goats were already infected but not yet showing symptoms, and they were the ones most likely to transmit sickness to the others. Link herded the goats on foot. He had long since stopped bringing Epona to the corral, afraid she might contract the sickness. For all he knew it was nothing more than a goat disease, but he would rather be safe than sorry. When the last of them had been corralled, he set off past the goat-field's wooden gate and through the forest toward Ordon.
Marry Ilia as soon as you can. Live each day as if things can only get worse. It made sense, in a strange, pessimistic kind of way. Suppose all the goats died; what then? Ordon survived on those goats. The Ordonians wore clothes spun from goat-wool, drank goat-milk and ate goat-cheese and meat. They used those unique circular horns for anything from tools to decoration, and utilized the animals' droppings for fertilizer for their vegetable plots. If the goats died, Ordon would die with them.
And then what about him and Ilia? Wouldn't he rather be married to her now, instead of waiting for things to get better and secretly knowing they never would? Yes, it made sense, but part of Link wanted to keep putting it off, keep refusing to talk about it. Part of him didn't want to marry Ilia.
But why? he thought. I love her, don't I?
Yes, of course I do.
So why don't I want to marry her?
The face swam to the forefront of his mind without being called, a face with pale, bluish skin and reddish-yellow eyes, surrounded by a waterfall of unruly orange hair. A mischievous grin played across those features, and the face winked and was gone.
Because I can't stop thinking about the other one, can I?
I'll never see her again. I promised myself I'd never even think of her again.
That doesn't stop me from loving her.
I love Ilia more.
I want to marry Ilia.
And I never want to see the other one again.
Liar, liar, liar!
Link tore himself away from those thoughts, because down that road lay something resembling madness, and instead thought about the goats again. His footfalls entered the village and crossed it in relative silence. Night was falling and the world glowed with the final dregs of twilight. No one was out and about to see him. The Hero entered the trees again, headed for the tiny clearing a little apart from the rest of the village, where his house rested.
The goats were dying. Yenka, the old goat who used to nudge him good-naturedly in the back with her horns whenever he came out to the goat-field, was dying. And it hurt, in a way that the magic of his triforce couldn't heal.
He reached the clearing and stared up at the dark silhouette of his house against the shadowed sky. It seemed somehow too big and too empty, and Link tried to remember the last time someone else had lived there with him. His parents had died when he was nine, far too long ago to properly recall, and that hurt as well. He didn't want to go home yet, and so instead he continued walking, past where Epona slept peacefully, tethered by the side of the house, past the old wooden targets he used to use in order to practice his accuracy with a slingshot. Into the woods again.
Eventually the trees cleared ahead, and Link found himself standing on the edge of Ordon spring. The water glowed slightly in the darkness, as though radiating faint moonlight even though no moon graced the sky. Those springwaters were supposed to have healing powers, but they hadn't helped the goats. The Hero sat down and stared at his reflection in the water.
The goats were dying.
He realized, suddenly, that he still smelled like Yenka; stank of her. Not her sweet, animal, goat-scent, but the smell of her fear. You couldn't possibly smell that, common sense told him. You don't have the senses of a wolf anymore; that magic crystal is stowed away safely in your basement, wrapped in so many layers of cloth that you can barely feel the itch of its magic when you pick it up. But he could smell it nonetheless.
He dipped his hands in the sparkling water and washed them, first against one another, then with the sand that covered the bottom, trying to scrape the scent away. It still lingered, and so he threw his sword and shield aside and pulled his tunic off over his head. His undershirt followed, and then his hat and boots and gauntlets, and the triforce birthmark could be seen glowing ever so faintly on his left hand in response to the magical water.
Stripped to his breeches, Link dunked the wad of clothing in the water and scrubbed at it vigorously, then left it to soak. He splashed water in his face, in his hair, across his skin, trying and failing to rid himself of the horrible reek of Yenka's impending death. He had to wash it away; it stank, it hurt his throat even to breathe it in, and then he realized that his throat hurt not because he was breathing, but because he really, really needed to be crying…
A hand rested on Link's water-beaded shoulder, and he jerked around to find Ilia standing behind him, sympathy in her eyes. "Link?" Her voice was soft and sweet and wonderful. "Link, are you alright?"
No, said his mind. "Yes," said his mouth.
She stared up at him compassionately, and Link found that he suddenly hated himself for not loving her with every ounce of emotion his body possessed. "The goats," she asked quietly. "Did they… Did another one… die?"
"No," he answered. "It's Yenka. She's gotten sick. Fado and I got her tied down in the stable, but…" But she'll die anyway. If the shaking doesn't kill them, the fever will. It was so… so unfair.
She hugged him tightly, and after a startled moment, Link hugged her back.
"Link, you're all wet."
"Ilia, you're all dry."
"Not anymore," she giggled, and Link was struck by that strange sense of acting again. We pretend everything's normal, and whatever we do, we don't spoil the game.
"Come on," she said, with a tone of strangely false cheer. "You can come to my house to dry off. Daddy's making hot chocolate."
"Well, I do love Mayor Bo's hot chocolate," Link answered, in an equally happy voice that sounded oddly forced. Whatever we do, we don't spoil the game.
She nodded, and it was so strange to see on the same face a beaming smile, and yet tears shining unfallen at the corners of her eyes. And that hurt more than anything else. Whatever we do, we don't spoil the game. But if things are bad at least they're bad for both of us. We can spoil the game together, as long as nobody else knows.
"Ilia," he murmured, watching those unshed tears glisten like springwater against her eyes. "You know it's okay to cry."
And abruptly she was pressing herself against him and shaking with sobs, her arms wrapped around his waist so tightly that it physically hurt. "N-nobody wants me to cry…" she wept into his chest. "They all w-want to p-p-pretend it isn't happening. But I've n-needed to c-cry for s-so long…"
There were tears running down Link's face as well, but he ignored them, because men didn't cry the same way women did. "It's alright," he murmured, and didn't know if it was Ilia or himself he was consoling. "We can go back to the village and drink hot chocolate and pretend everything's fine. But just here, just with the two of us… It's okay to cry."
"Link…" she moaned, and for the first time he noticed just how hot her skin felt against his own. "Link, I c-can't stop s-shaking…"
Two minutes later, Link burst through the door of Mayor Bo's cottage, barefoot and tunicless, clutching a shuddering Ilia in his arms. Bo took one look at the spectacle and blanched. "No!" the mayor hissed. "Not… Surely not Ilia!"
"Hitch a team to one of the wagons," Link commanded in an eerily steady voice. "We're going to see Renado."
The older man registered the orders with disbelief. "But, but she can't have the sickness! She just… just can't!"
"She's burning up," Link responded glassily. He was amazed at how calm his voice sounded. Whatever we do, we don't spoil the game. "I'm going to find my sword and get dressed. Meet me by the road to Hyrule field in five minutes, and have the wagon ready." He considered for a moment, considered watching the goats beat their heads against the ground until the blood spilled out. "Put something soft in the wagon for her to lie on. Some straw or something."
"But," repeated Bo, still unable to believe what was happening. "But she can't…"
"Do it now!" Link shouted, and in that instant Bo saw something flicker in those blue eyes, something wild, something feral. "Five minutes," the Hero said again, and then Bo was holding Ilia in his arms, and Link was gone.
There was no time, Link thought as he ran through the village, to let his clothes dry out; he would have to let the wind dry them on the way. He stopped by the spring, just long enough to put on his sopping clothes and swing his baldric back across his chest. Then he was running again, running back to his house, dashing through the door and down the ladder rungs to his dark basement. He felt around in the blackness, searching the surfaces of the shelves until his hand brushed against the object he was looking for: his lantern. He managed to light it, and then fixed it to his belt as he searched the rest of the room for what he would need. His quiver and bow were slung across his back behind his shield, his clawshot, hawkeye and empty bottles were stowed away, and the whistle Ilia had made for him from a reed of Horse Grass was worn around his neck. About the bulkier items he could do nothing. Without… her magic, there was no way to carry them.
Go on; say it, his mind implored. Say the other one's name.
I never want to hear that name again.
Time was running out. In a few minutes Mayor Bo would be waiting for him on the road. Link was about to extinguish the lantern and leave, when his left hand suddenly touched something hidden on one of the higher shelves: something that itched against his skin and made his triforce burn, something that sent an urgent sense of near-uncontrollable craving through his mind. He jerked his hand away, and the part of him that couldn't love Ilia laughed inside his head.
No. I don't want it, and I promised myself that I would never use it again.
I don't want it.
Of course I want it. I dream about it.
It reminds me of the other one, and I don't want to think about her.
Liar, liar, liar!
He found that his hand had once again clasped around the object and lifted it down from the shelf, and he stared at it in the feeble lantern-light. It was a rough bundle of cloth, or rather, something much more important wrapped in a rough bundle of cloth to keep it from touching his skin. He thought he could see it glowing a sinister orange through the rough fabric. That burning urge to unwrap it, to let it touch his bare skin, was almost too strong to resist, and Link hurriedly shoved it, cloth and all, inside one of his empty glass bottles. He thrust the cork in tightly and stowed the bottle once again in his belt next to his rupee purse, and the feeling abated.
Who knows, maybe he would need it.
And so a few minutes later, astride Epona, he had met up with Bo and Ilia on the road to Hyrule field and guided them through the monster-infested plains to Kakariko village, where Renado waited with the news that would begin another journey to save all of Hyrule.
It hadn't yet occurred to Link, but he might just end up saving the other one's world as well.