Author's Notes: Hello and welcome to my first posted Legend of Zelda fanfic. Set after the conclusion of Twilight Princess and a sort of lead-in to a full-length adventure fic I have planned. This piece began as a way for me to get in character, so I would appreciate your comments and thoughts on it. Enjoy!
The sun beat down from a sky pale as water, as if the heat's rays had leached the color from the heavens. Not a single cloud dotted the great expanse to offer the slightest glimmer of respite from the oppressive heat that shimmered across Hyrule's great plains and turned Ordon's harvests of wheat and corn dry and golden. Cicadas buzzed incessantly from hidden pockets of shadow, and in the forest, heat all but crackled among the trees while wildlife laid low in wait for cooler evening temperatures.
Grateful for the steady water level of the river, and for the newly completed watermill at Jaggle and Pergie's, Ilia rinsed a basket of laundry. She'd hiked her skirts up around her thighs, knowing but not caring that it was unladylike. The water flowing around her knees helped beat back the heat, and though her straw hat may have been crooked on her head, it shaded her face from the worst of the early afternoon glare. She could feel her skin crackle under the sun's assault and made a note to check the level of cooling salve in her medical supply. They'd probably have to send the young men into the forest tomorrow to collect more herbs for making the potion to slather onto reddened and burnt skin.
"Need any help?"
The familiar voice, the familiar query, had Ilia rising from her half-crouch, a wet shirt dangling in her hands. Link sat astride Epona, as confident and casual on horseback as he was on foot. He too wore a straw hat, his without the colorful cloth band hers sported, and his tunic was loose at the neck to combat the sweltering late summer temperatures.
His grin spread, warm and full. "Just swung by your house. You already have a full load on the lines from this morning."
Ilia swiped a wet hand over her forehead. The cool moisture felt good on her skin. "I'm a little behind on laundry this week, and that load's been dry the moment I hung it up. This heat bakes out any moisture within seconds. Thought I'd get a jumpstart, and maybe tomorrow I can take a day off."
"I could help." Guilt had Link swinging out of the saddle. "Only fair, since you do my laundry, anyway."
Ilia laughed it off. She moved a little closer to shore, where Link stood at the bank, letting Epona drink from the briskly moving stream. "You headed up to Fado's?"
"He's got a couple bulls need their horns trimmed." Link reached out to straighten Ilia's hat. He flicked his fingers through the ends of her hair. It had grown out a little since childhood, and she often, as today, wore it twisted back into two ponytails. Sun tails, he thought. Sunshine, soft and beautiful. "Said I'd head up there, help him hold them down while he got the job done. Funny things, bulls. Don't take kindly to getting trimmed."
"It's a symbol of their manhood," Ilia laughed. She ran a gentle hand over Epona's muscled shoulder. "Don't work this poor old girl too hard, Link. You know I worry."
Ilia worried the way city women wore jewelry—casually, effortlessly, and every day of the year. Link hopped back up onto Epona's broad, bare back and turned her up the path. "You, too. Take it easy out here. You have enough sun salve?"
"I'll check tonight." It was so like Link, Ilia thought with the usual foolish curl of warmth in her belly at his thoughtfulness. So like him to think of her, no matter what the situation. "You want a real meal, you swing by around sunset. I'm thinking something light, like cold pasta salad."
"I'll bring a jug of Goron ale." Link's grin was wicked. "They say spicy's good for the heat."
Ilia just laughed it off and bent to the task of wringing out excess moisture from the shirt. She listened to the easy clop of Epona's hooves as he rode away before risking a glance up at his retreating figure. Link knew she had no head for alcohol, much less the fiery brew the Gorons had a penchant for and drank like water. Called it Lava Melt, those crazy, macho volcano dwellers, and it was hot enough to scald the hair right out of your scalp.
Link like the stuff, macho crazy man, and Ilia shook her head at the thought. He'd certainly changed from the quiet, self-contained teenager he'd been before the Twilight Days, as commonly referred, into this self-assured, world savvy young man. He drank Goron Lava Melt, ate delicacies of fish entrails and algae salad from the Zoras, and went up every winter to Snowpeak Mountain to have snowboard races with the Yetis that welcomed him, and his presents of Ordon pumpkins, graciously.
Yet he was home here, Ilia mused as she tossed the last shirt into the basket and hauled the entire load back to the house she shared with her father. Her arm muscles wept in grateful protest as she dumped the basket onto the porch, but she steeled her mind, and body, and moved to the next task. She pulled the dry load off the lines strung between house and fence, then pinned up the damp load before heading inside to fold.
Her father was mayor of Ordon, but they lived simply, as they'd always had. Even the expansion of the town in recent years hadn't changed much in their way of life. Ilia moved to her small back bedroom and spread the laundry onto her bed, folding clothes and stacking them in individual piles—hers, her father's, Link's. She had been doing Link's laundry since he first came to Ordon, a sad, orphaned child with no family and no home. Now that he was Hero of Hyrule, some things had changed, but the more they changed, the more they stayed the same.
He still came over for dinner, four or five times a week, and he always brought a bouquet of wildflowers, a little trinket, a share of the meal, and wiped his boots at the front door.
He still tugged her ponytail, same as he'd done since he was five, helped with the dinner dishes, sat on the porch with her to watch fireflies and falling stars.
He still lived in the tree house on the edge of the forest, where birds sang from the braches outside his bedroom window and squirrels sunbathed on the railing of his front stoop. And he'd never once asked her to stay the night. Move in with him. Never once broached the subject of anything in their lives, together, remotely hinting at permanence.
Ilia was just setting his clean clothes in the wicker basket for him to take home with him that evening when a knock sounded on the front door. Visitors were unusual in the midday swing of village life, and she went to answer the summons.
Uli, Rusl's wife, stood on the porch wearing a pretty sundress. She had a pink ribbon in her hair and new sandals on her feet. "Ilia. I hate to bother you, but Beth is injured. Wheat fields. She and Talo were playing around, and he got her with the reaper by accident. It's not too bad, but I thought I should ask you to take a look."
"I'll get my pack." Ilia hurried to the corner, where she stored her medical supplies, and grabbed her hat off the hook before following Uli down the path. They had no official village healer, but often in emergencies people looked to Ilia for guidance and advice. "Those two, I swear, if it's not one thing it's another."
"They say young love is bound to hurt," Uli said with a smile. They neared the edge of the wheat fields, where a small crowd had gathered. "Ilia's here!"
At Uli's announcement, villagers drew back out of both respect and fear. Ilia had a reputation, and it was that she didn't tolerate fools. Rubbernecking, in Ilia's book, fell squarely in the realm of foolish behavior.
Ilia swept the scene before her with cool, competent eyes and began issuing orders as she knelt beside the fallen girl. "Talo, you run and get a bowl of clean water for me. Shane, give me your water bottle." Shane had dark eyes and hair like his older sister, Ashei, who'd once helped Link on his adventures. They had relocated here after the Twilight Days, settling into village life and running with Talo's gang. He handed Ilia the requested water, then stepped out of the way.
Ilia bent over Beth, shading her with her body, and smiled reassuringly at the younger girl, offered her a drink of water. "Don't worry, Beth, I'll take care of you." She turned to face the crowd. "The rest of you, go about your business. Beth doesn't need you standing around and goggling, and the fields won't tend themselves."
Talo came rushing back, slopping water over the edge of the bowl. Ilia carefully tore the sleeve of Beth's shirt away from the wound, and he swallowed hard at the sight of blood and mangled flesh. "I didn't mean for it to happen, Ilia, I swear. For the love of Nayru, I swear, it was an accident. We were just fooling around a little, just playing, and…I swung, and she got too close, and I…It's not bad, is it?"
His young face radiated sincere apology and worry, and Ilia smiled a little at the concern. Young love, Uli had said, and it was sweet enough to give her a toothache. "She'll be fine, mister. You just be more careful about fooling around in wheat fields from now on. Your ma's going to have a fit when she sees what you did with you work blouse, Beth."
Beth's face was pale and shone with sweat as Ilia expertly cleaned the gash in her arm. "Wow. That really hurts. It's not, like, broken or anything, is it?"
"No, missy, but you've got yourself a nice cut here." Ilia pressed a damp cloth to it, grateful the bleeding was already subsiding. "I'll give you a quick wrap here, but I want to get you inside so I can stitch you up proper. Probably going to scar." She slanted Talo a glance. "If we're lucky, it won't be too bad."
"Man, Beth, I'm sorry." Talo swallowed down pride as horror brought tears to his eyes. "I never meant to scar you or nothing."
"Easy, little man." Ilia patted Talo on the arm in comfort. "You'd better head up to Fado's, get a horse from Mavin." She named Fado's apprentice, a young man who'd started a horse breeding operation just on the other side of the goat ranch. "Beth isn't up to walking, and we can't carry her in this heat."
Uli had been watching the proceedings, and she called out, "Link's here." She turned to Ilia as hoof beats neared. "He can take her home."
Link pulled Epona up easy, careful not to spew dust into their faces. "Shane came running, said you might need a transport. Hey there, Beth." He grinned down at the girl who'd once had a painful crush on him. "Need a lift?"
Beth wasn't so far gone she couldn't bat her lashes at him coyly. "From you, Link, anytime." Link grunted and, at Ilia's consenting nod, hefted Beth into his arms. "Oooh, you're so strong."
He laughed, the teasing flirtation as normal as breathing. Everyone in the village knew Beth and Talo were head over heels over each other. He settled her easily on Epona, swung up behind her. "To Sera's?"
Ilia nodded. "Best for her to go straight home. Beth, I'm prescribing bed rest for a day, at least," she continued as she fell into step beside Link. "In this heat, your body will need time to fight back any infection and heal itself."
"Ma's going to be fit to be tied," Beth muttered. She leaned back gratefully against Link. It didn't matter if she was in love with Talo, or if Link was a little sweaty and smelled like goat musk. Her head was throbbing, with heat and pain, and she felt woozy, not unlike the first time she'd swiped a taste of her father's home-brewed wine. "Bed rest, during the busy time."
"Every time is busy in a village," Ilia pointed out as the crossed the bridge. It was mildly cooler in the shade under the spreading tree outside Hanch and Sera's front door. Their ancient cat, Link, lifted his head and eyed them disinterested from his patch of shade. His tail tip twitched, then he lay back down, deeming the visitors not worth the effort of rising. "I'll deal with your ma, Beth, you just worry about you." She held the door open as Link carried her inside.
He lay her on her bed, then stepped back when Ilia moved in. Uli had kept Talo behind, for which Ilia was grateful. Concern and guilt were fine if it would prevent similar accidents in the future, but she didn't want Beth distracted. Uli was level-headed engouh to give Talo some task to keep his mind off his guilt. "I'll get her something cool to drink," Link murmured, knowing Ilia was only half-listening as she threaded a needle.
Despite the generous coating of numbing cream Ilia slathered on, Beth fainted at the first prick of the needle into her arm. Ilia could only be grateful, and she sweated through the delicate process of pulling skin and flesh together in a neat, straight line. She covered the area with a healing salve, then bandaged the arm before sitting back and blowing out a long breath.
Link's hands came to rest lightly on her shoulders, rubbing at the tension there. "We're lucky to have you."
She smiled at that, accepting the tankard of cool mint tea he handed her. "Beth is lucky Talo missed the bone. I'm going to see to it those two aren't put on field detail at the same time anymore."
Smiling—Ilia never could let things alone—Link tucked his tongue in cheek. "They weren't on it today. Shane let Talo swap him."
Ilia's eyes narrowed as she washed her hands in the basin Link had set up on the bedside table. "Shane should know better than that. Maybe I'll have a talk with Ashei…"
"Leave them be, Ilia." Link's voice was soft, and he took her searing glare in stride. "Talo bribed him with a snakeskin." A shed snakeskin was a rare find in Faron Woods, and highly prized among the youth—and the younger adults—of Ordon.
"Boys." Ilia snorted her opinion of that and took the basin with her to dump out the open front window. The parched ground outside drank up the liquid, leaving behind the barest dark patch as evidence. She turned, not at all surprised to find Link not a pace behind her.
Heat pumped off him, and his eyes, those lake water blue, were midnight dark as he reached a hand to brush hair off her damp cheek. "What would it take to bribe you to be on field duty with me?"
Even as her heart bumped, her lips curved into a smile. They'd done their share of playing chase in the wheat fields, back when they were kids. "I'm not so easy to be bought with a snakeskin."
"I like your skin." His fingers trailed up the inside of her wrist, light as feather down, slipped over her shoulder. His eyes followed the movement of his hand, a smile curving his lips. "Soft, smooth, perfect." She trembled, and his gaze flashed to hers. "Beautiful. Just like you."
"Link…" She whispered his name, full of longing, as the rising inside her urged her to touch her mouth to his. His arm came around her waist, holding her against him as he deepened the kiss. Her hands lifted, clung to his shoulders, as heat kindled inside her. She murmured against his lips, seeking more, and protested when he eased back.
His eyes were dark, his heartbeat unsteady, and he pressed a kiss to her temple to calm them both. "Easy." He stroked a hand over her hair, his smile full of regret as he pulled back. "Sera's on her way. Let's pretend to be professional."
Ilia didn't have time to respond before the front door burst open and Sera rushed in.
"Beth! My baby, my darling, where is she, is she okay?" Sera would have barged past, but Link lay a restraining hand on her arm, blocked her path with his body.
"Sera." He kept his voice low, reassuring. "Beth is sleeping. She's fine, but she needs her rest right now." Sera subsided a little at that, sucking in a deep breath. Sweat glistened on her face, and her pudgy arms were rosy with the vestiges of sunburn. Link gentled his hold on her. "Ilia took care of her. Just a cut on her arm, left arm, straight through the big muscle there. She needs some time to recuperate."
"How did this happen?" Sera turned on Ilia, despair and fire in her eyes. "How could this happen to my girl?"
Ilia bore the brunt of her anger without rancor. It was hard to turn anger onto Link, and few in the village ever spoke ill of their goat boy turned hero. "An accident, in the wheat fields." She spoke quickly, knowing the wrath of a mother is a powerful thing. "Just an accident, Sera, and she wasn't seriously hurt. She has a handful of stitches, and she'll need me to come by in the morning and change her bandages. All she needs now is rest, plenty of liquids, and lots of love. I think the injury scared her more than hurt."
Sera softened at that, cast a look into the back bedroom. Her lips firmed, and she nodded once. "I'll just go take care of my girl, then." She looked back at Ilia. "Thank you."
"I'll see you in the morning." Ilia moved to pick up her bag, but Link got to it first. He held the door for her as they exited, and Ilia blew out a relieved breath. "I wouldn't want to cross Sera on the war path."
"I'm the one who stood in front of her. Thought for a minute I'd have to wrestle her down like a goat on the loose."
The laugh escaped her, and Ilia tilted her head up to smile at Link. "Hero of Hyrule, wrestling with goats. You done at Fado's?"
"Probably head back 'til dinnertime. Either the water supply's gone bad or it's heat sickness, but a number of them are running fevers and are complaining." Link ran a hand through his tousled hair and gave Epona an affectionate slap on the shoulder. She turned her head to nuzzle his chest. "Need a ride home?"
"I'll take one." Ilia let Link swing up, then took his offered hand and snuggled herself against his back. She rested her face lightly against his shoulder as Link nudged Epona into an easy walk. He smelled like sunshine, sweat, and goats. Ilia wrinkled her nose at the last, but it was a familiar mix, one that triggered countless memories from her childhood and brought a sense of comfort.
Link pulled up in front of Mayor Bo's house. "Stay out of the sun," he cautioned as she leapt lightly down. He handed her the pack. "See you later."
Ilia shaded her eyes and watched him ride off, whistling a little under his breath. It was a tune she'd never heard before, except from him. Ilia went inside to store her pack, refilling her supply of bandages and medicines. He'd started singing it, she realized, after his travels during the Twilight Days.
She often wondered what had happened, what he'd been through during his travels to save the known world from the hidden dangers of the shadows. He so rarely spoke of it, his adventures, though Ilia knew it wasn't because he never thought of them. Often, especially around sunset, she'd find him staring off into space, towards the distant woods, with a far-off look on his face that spoke of secrets nobody knew but him.
He'd shared bits and pieces with her, and Ilia had no illusions that he'd carefully chosen and edited the parts he recounted. He never spoke of the heartache, the exhaustion and fear and stress, the weight of the entire nation riding on his shoulders. Instead he told her about the fishing hole, or flying chickens on Treasure Island, or about Yeto and Yeta in Snowpeak and the postman who sang silly songs and ran in the Goron marathon every spring.
He rarely spoke about Midna, Twilight Princess. Whether because he'd been sworn to secrecy or because he wanted to keep her to himself, Ilia wasn't sure, but she always had the feeling that Midna was someone precious to Link. When he did talk about her, it was always a passing reference, as if he were glazing over her importance to him or her role in the entire events that had transpired over nine years before.
Light sparked against the head of a reaper, slung over Rusl's shoulder as he passed outside the kitchen window, and Ilia shook her head in self-reprimand. Here she was, daydreaming about a time long past and shirking her duties. There was time left for her to catch up with the group of women in the near fringes of Faron Woods, collecting berries and herbs. She grabbed her basket from beside the door and hurried out.
Rusl glanced over as she fell into step beside him. His thick mustache and full head of hair were liberally streaked with gray, deep lines dug around eyes of a misty green. Ilia thought Rusl would never change, his rangy body lean with sinewy muscle. "Hot as Din's fire out."
"I'm hoping it'll break in time for Summer Solstice," Ilia sighed. "And we could use some rain."
"Not likely." Rusl squinted at the hazy sky, shook his head. "Don't feel rain coming. Heard about Beth."
News spread faster through the village than wildfire, and nothing spread faster than bad news. Ilia sighed and tipped back the brim of her hat to look at Rusl speculatively. "You never did anything stupid like that when you were young, did you?"
His grin flashed. "Now, Ilia, I wouldn't be admitting it to you if I did. I like my hide in one piece." She laughed at that, knowing he was teasing. They came to a fork in the path, and Rusl nodded towards the lower fields. "I'm headed this way. You're going into the woods?"
"We want berry tarts for Solstice, we have to beat out the squirrels to the goods," Ilia said. Something flickered in Rusl's eyes, and she narrowed her own. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing." Rusl shook his head. "You aren't taking Link with you?"
Ilia felt heat creep up her neck, heat that had nothing to do with the weather. "There's a whole group of women out there already. If it's dangerous, you tell me now, Rusl, and I'm calling everyone back in."
He shook his head. "No, not dangerous. Just a feeling I've got. You don't wander too far out, that's all, and you be back plenty before sundown. Else I'm organizing a posse to find you."
His concern, rather than making her worried, made her laugh. "Relax, Rusl, you old mother hen. I've lived in these woods all my life, same as you. We'll be fine."
Still, he watched her go and ignored the urge to follow. Just a feeling, he'd said, and that was the truth, but…A shiver ran down his spine, and he shook off the feeling of foreboding.
Evening was a long ways away yet, so why did it feel like there were shadows?
Ilia found the gaggle of women easily enough. Ordon Village had prospered since the end of the Twilight Days. With Link as Ordon's figurehead, a flood of families had settled in the expanded village, doubling their humble population within a season after Link's return. Most of the families came from other reaches of Hyrule, poorer towns where there was not enough land or good grazing, families displaced by hunger or poverty. They worked hard and, despite Ilia's initial distrust of outsiders, had coalesced into a strong unit.
Ashei greeted her with a wave from a patch of blackberries. The young woman had settled in Ordon less than six months after the end of the Twilight Days and had surprised everyone with the ease of her transition from cold, hard-edged warrior to hard-working farmer. She and her younger brother, Shane, shared a sort of communal house with some of the other young people who had come to Ordon, working the fields and the nearby woods under the watchful eye of Uli and Rusl.
She was the unofficial head of the little expedition, and Ilia went over to hear the progress. A half-dozen other women waved and smiled from various patches of blackberry and raspberry brambles in the shaded glen. Ashei saluted to Ilia, the last remnant of her warrior heritage that she could never shake. Ilia was both amused and a little awed that Ashei thought of her as anyone worth saluting, but the younger woman had immeasurable respect for Ilia.
"Nearly full up on raspberries," Ashei reported smartly. "Winnie wants to make fizzy raspberry cordial, says Hunter knows how." Hunter, a city transplant who had taken to country living like a duck to water, had a small winery at the edge of the village. "Few strawberries, maybe because of that cold snap last season. Thinking about going deeper, look for other patches."
Ilia was inclined to agree—no Summer Solstice was right without strawberry preserves on solstice rolls—but remembered Rusl's warning. She'd laughed it off, but she couldn't shrug off the unease his words had left. "Rusl said not to wander too far. He wouldn't say what was wrong, but he had a feeling."
Ashei flipped her long, dark braid over her shoulder, scanned the surroundings. "Has a feeling, does he," she murmured, more to herself than to Ilia. "Heard him and Link take a turn around the perimeter last night, too." She spoke of the path that ringed the outer edges of the village proper. It was Link's habit, perhaps from the months of training he spent in Castle Town with the Hylian soldiers, to patrol the village once a week or so to check for danger.
"And they don't say anything about it," Ilia muttered, eyes firing. Link had a thing or two coming for sure. Macho wasn't acceptable when it put the village at stake. "We'll finish up here, come back tomorrow for strawberries. Maybe we'll take a couple guards with us. I think we need more clalla root, too, for sun salve."
"Link will probably insist on coming himself," Ashei commented. She and Ilia turned to the prickly business of collecting blackberries. "The man never tires."
"Mmm." Ilia didn't comment. Link showed her more than he shared with the other villagers, and she knew he was tired. It would be hard, she thought, to be the de facto leader of Ordon Village, everyone looking to you for guidance and inspiration all the time. Any sign of weakness or hesitation could have untold impact on the entire village community.
"Or maybe he's just afraid to show he's tired." Ashei shrugged, slender shoulders in a mist gray tunic. She'd long since shed her initial attire of heavy armor but still tended to cool colors. Her long fingers expertly dodged brambles and thorns and plucked the juiciest morsels for her basket. "Hard to believe he's almost thirty."
Ilia bristled in automatic defense. "He's not even twenty-seven."
"Rounding up," Ashei said carelessly. "Most village men, they'd be married for years by now, wouldn't they?" Ashei didn't blink under Ilia's piercing stare. "Might not know much about village norms, but that's the way things usually work, right?"
"Usually." Ilia fought down both the instinctive defensiveness on Link's behalf and the bitter seeds of jealousy. She knew Ashei had no more than professional respect for Link, but still…
Ashei smiled a little, just a ghost of amusement curving her stern lips. "Guess he didn't have your traditional upbringing." She looked around, drinking in the peace of the woods. It was cooler here than in the village proper or the wheat and corn fields, with the shade of the trees and the whisper of the slightest breeze in the foliage overhead. Birds sang chirping songs in answer to the buzz of insects and occasional distant call of monkeys or other animals deeper in the forest.
"I'm glad I brought Shane here. All the normalcy." She resumed her task of plucking berries, distractedly dropping them into Ilia's basket instead of her own. "I don't blame my father for raising me the way he did, but it's nice here. Busy, in a good way. All the people."
Ashei rarely spoke of her own childhood. Ilia quietly divvied up the berries between her basket and Ashei's. "Your father raised both you and Shane?"
"Shane and I are half-siblings," she said by way of explanation. "Shane grew up with his mother in Kakariko Village. I didn't know about Shane unti the Twilight Days. Link found him, orphaned. His mother passed during a shadow attack." There was no name for the monsters that had sprung up around Hyrule and had disappeared with the end of the Twilight Days. "Found out he was my brother. I took him to the mountains, but it wasn't a good place for him. Wasn't right. I ran into Link in Castle Town that autumn, and he said we could move here. Said we'd be welcome here." Something similar to amazement crossed her face. "We were."
"You are." Ilia laid a gentle hand on Ashei's shoulder. "We're glad you're here."
The easy acceptance, the sincerity, always had Ashei fighting down the spurt of embarrassment. "Well, Shane likes it here. He's excited about learning how to herd."
Ashei glanced over. "Link doesn't tell you everything, does he?" The comment, carelessly teasing, was delivered in her usual blunt style. She didn't mean any harm, and she wasn't, as many of the village gossips would, probing into Ilia's private life. "Told Shane he'd teach him how to herd goats. Shane heads up to Fado and Mavin's every evening. Riding practice. He's all fired up about it. Says Mavin has a real nice horse for him. Ghost."
"Ghost." Ilia smiled. "Sweet guy." She read between the lines and gave Ashei another pat on the shoulder. "Even-tempered, easy ride, harmless. Your brother's fine on anyone Mavin puts him up on. He wouldn't do anything risky with a newcomer. And Ghost follows Epona like a shadow. Link will take care of Shane."
Smiling a little, Ashei checked her basket, saw it was nearly full. "You and horses, Link and goats. What is it about this town? Or is it just you two?"
Ilia let the teasing comment wash over her. "I've always liked horses. And Link…" She smiled a little. "That's a different story altogether now."
Ashei rose suddenly, leaving her basket behind to check on the others. Used to her abrupt manners, Ilia moved to work away at another clump of berries. Ashei came back, crouched down and helped Ilia fill her basket. "You and Link have known each other a long time."
From the normally stoic Ashei, it was a nearly unimaginable invitation for conversation. Ilia pricked her finger on a bramble, hissed out a breath. "Most of my life. He came to Ordon when he was just a child. I was maybe three, four years old. He lived with us for a while but always seemed to want his own space. It was Rusl who suggested we let Link have the little tree house. It had been something of a playhouse for us kids, but Rusl fixed it up, made it into a real home. Link moved out when he was, oh, maybe ten or so."
"I suppose he worked on the ranch, and that's why he likes goats."
Ilia's smile stayed secretive. "One of his chores was to help Fado, yes. Fado gave him Epona. Ordon war horse, the way we used to breed them out here for the Hylian soldiers, back in the glory days. Fourteenth birthday present. Boy, was I mad." She laughed at the memory. "Jealous mad. But he always let me ride Epona, and I helped train her, get used to carrying a rider on a saddle. He'd take me on rides through the forest, riding double on Epona. Bring me flowers or pretty stones." She shook her head. "We were kids then."
"He tracked you across the country when you were kidnapped." Ashei lifted an eyebrow. "Wasn't a kid then."
Uncomfortable with the topic, Ilia busied herself with picking berries. "We're friends. He's the best friend I have."
"Bet you're his best friend, too."
Ashei crouched, toyed with the berries in her basket. "I never had that. Someone who knew me since I was a kid. Someone who'd stand with me through everything. I had someone like that, I wouldn't let them go off somewhere for half the year."
Stubbornness moved across Ilia's face. "It's not my choice that he goes. It's not his choice, either. You know better than I do that Link has a duty to Hyrule. He made a promise to Queen Zelda. He doesn't break his promises."
"'Better than you'?"
"You saw him, during the Twilight Days. He doesn't talk about it much, but I know you helped him, sometime or other. You were a part of that, saving Hyrule."
Ashei didn't flutter at the responsibility, didn't brush off the acknowledgement. "I was a part of it. So were you." She slanted Ilia a glance. "Link spent a lot of time thinking about you. Once told me something about you losing your memory. Never seen a grown man cry, but he came close."
"Did I say that?" Insulted, Ashei slapped her hands on her hips and glowered. "Said he came close. Blue eyes look different with tears in them."
Stunned by the unexpected revelation, Ilia sat back. "He cried for me?"
"Link's not so selfish to cry for himself," Ashei pointed out. She stood, hefting her basket. "We're done here. Head back in before the squirrels get us."
She called out, gathering the other women. They compared notes and berry levels, commenting on future harvests. "If there's anything left after the squirrels," they laughed. It was a common joke around the village that the squirrels would get anything they left behind, worse than a plague of locusts. "Come on, Ilia," they urged as they headed back.
"Yeah." Ilia followed more slowly, lost in thought. The light had taken on the orangey hue of late afternoon, shadows stretching lower across the earth. Still, the heat baked out of the ground beneath Ilia's feet, parched her throat so that she thought about a long, cool drink of water. She'd have to immerse the goatskin cask of mint tea in the river before dinner so it'd be chilled some by dinnertime. She'd told Link she wanted pasta salad, which was right enough, but the idea of cooking inside their humble kitchen, and heating up the house in the process, made her wince.
Familiar hoof beats had her sighing even as she looked up at Link's approaching figure. Both he and Epona were darkened with sweat, and Ilia automatically looked the mare over for signs of neglect or overwork. He called out as they drew near, "Rusl said you came out into the woods."
"I'm a big girl," Ilia reminded him. "Ashei had a whole group out here, so it wasn't like I was alone. What's got you and Rusl so jumpy?"
Link's grin flashed, and Ilia knew he wasn't going to tell her anything. Typical protective Link. "Nothing. Here, let me carry that." He leapt lightly off Epona's back and took the basket from her hands. "Talo dropped a fish off by your house as I rode past. I guess in thanks for taking care of Beth. We could do a barbecue, save you from slaving over the stove."
He was so sweet. Ilia's heart warmed, and she fell into step beside him. "That'd be nice."
"I could fix the fish," he offered. "You work hard all day."
Now her smile warmed, matching the tenderness in her heart. "You work harder."
Link shrugged, unconcerned. "Goats are settled for the night, at least. Probably heat sickness. Fado and I checked the water, seems all right."
Ilia's eyes widened, then narrowed. "You didn't do anything stupid like drink from it yourselves, did you?"
"Uh…" Goddesses, he hadn't watched his mouth. Ilia's eyes shot fire at him, and Link hunched his shoulders, miserable in the face of her wrath as he always was. "I didn't let Epona try any. And Fado and I are fine. The symptoms didn't seem like poisoning, so we thought…"
"Think again, mister Hero." Her voice slashed out, lighting in a summer heat storm. Link winced and wished, not for the first time, that he'd been more careful about what he'd said. "Next time you suspect there's something off in what the goats are putting in their stomachs, don't be shoveling it so readily into your mouth. You're as bad as you were when you were twelve. You haven't forgotten a certain mushroom incident, have you?"
The beady eye she fixed Link with had him shrinking in his boots. "No, ma'am." He'd never live that one down. An honest mistake, really. They'd looked harmless enough. How was he supposed to know they were in reality Faron toadstools? Potent enough to lever a full-grown man with the worst symptoms. Link had suffered them all, in the worst of summer's heat—vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, hallucinations. He'd dreamed he was a wheel of goat cheese, being chased by a pack of red-eyed rats.
And Ilia had sat with him for a week, bathing his forehead with cool cloths, forcing water down his parched throat, holding his hand so in his few moments of lucidity, hers was the face he saw, bending over him, murmuring reassurances.
"I think that was the first time you held my hand and meant it." Link reached out now, twined his fingers with hers before she could jerk away. "Don't," he murmured when she tried to free her hand. "I never stop missing you. Ilia."
All her anger at his carelessness melted away, and Ilia's heart sighed. "You're always gone so long."
"I made a promise to Queen Zelda." Queen now, he thought, shaking his head. Time certainly had passed quickly, the years slipping away out of his grasp. "It's not easy being the Hero."
Ilia's fingers squeezed his. In an attempt to lighten the mood, she said, "How about we take Epona to the Spirit's Spring? Let her cool down a little."
He smiled, willing to let her change the subject. "Sure." They took the right fork in the well-worn path to the village and came around to their favorite spot. Other villagers made use of the spring, and it was a popular spot among the younger children to play amid the placid waters of the pond, but for now they had it to themselves.
Link slid the bridle off, freeing her, and Epona tossed her head in gratitude before trotting into the soothing waters of the spring. "Want to take a dip?" Link had already set the basket down and was tugging off his boots.
Ilia smiled and followed suit, slipping off her leather sandals and beating Link into the shallows. The water felt heavenly against her skin, and she let out a long sigh of relief as the spring's healing powers beat back the heat that seemed to pulse out of her body. "I love it here."
Splashing altered Ilia to the fact that Link, as was his habit, was kicking up water, watching the droplets sparkle in the air. He squinted through the crystal droplets at her, pants rolled up to his knees. "I've come to terms with it, I guess."
"Come to terms with it?" His phrasing confused her, and Ilia cocked her head. "You've always liked it here."
Link shrugged, bending down to cup water in his palms and sluice it over his face. He came up snorting like a horse after a long drink, blinking at her through wet lashes. "You were taken from here. It's given me some bad moments, coming back here. Mostly right after everything ended." Link never referred to them as the Twilight Days. He knew, as nobody else did, that it hadn't been all twilight. And it hadn't been just days. Somehow, the name did an injustice to everything that had happened.
"Oh." Ilia had no idea. "Link, I'm sorry."
He brushed that aside, not to diminish its importance, but because he didn't want her to worry about him. "I'm fine with it now. Look at Epona." He pointed to the mare, rolling in ecstasy in the shallow waters and whinnying in delight. "Better than jumping fences, eh, girl?"
"Oh, Link. You didn't steeplechase her in the heat, did you?"
There was both resignation and recrimination in Ilia's voice. Link shook his head. "No, ma'am. I figured I wanted to live another day. Maybe tomorrow, if this heat breaks."
"Rusl says no chance of rain for a while yet." Weather talk was as comfortable to Ilia as her favorite blouse.
Link squinted at the distant sky. "Not talking about rain. I feel a break in the heat coming on."
"Old man," Ilia teased. "Rusl claims you have enough battle scars to predict next year's weather patterns."
Riding with the flow, Link grinned at her. "I envision a long winter, late snows, with a full spring and a mild summer. Should be good for pumpkins and potatoes, which will make Yeto happy when I visit next winter."
The mention of Link's odd mountain friends made Ilia laugh. The stories he told of them always made her laugh. "You really like Yeto and Yeta, don't you."
His grin spread wide. "I've never taken you to meet them, which is a shame. This year, you should come up to Castle Town and we'll ride up to Snowpeak. You'll like them. It's impossible not to. They're real gentle, and Yeta's about the sweetest creature you've ever met."
"And they're obsessed with pumpkins." Link had his own pumpkin patch, dedicated to the shaggy-furred yetis.
"Obsessed," Link agreed. "Nayru knows why. I think they like the orange color. The snow never leaves up there."
Ilia shivered at just the mention of snow. It was rare for snow to fall even during the coldest weeks of winter in Ordon, and while she greeted each frosty flake with awe and wonder, Ilia had no desire to live where it fell regularly. She imagined that snow would be more of a hassle than spring floods and mud. "Maybe," she agreed noncommittally. "Winter's still plenty busy here in the village, though. It's a long ride up north to visit."
"You deserve a vacation." Link sat on the sandy beach, kicking his feet in the shallows. He glanced over as Ilia sat beside him, watching Epona frisk in the water like a foal. "You take care of so much around the village. I don't know what Ordon would do without you."
"You, either." Ilia returned the compliment easily. "It's never the same without you, Link."
He shrugged, looking away. "You do all right without me."
The quiet tone of his voice had Ilia pausing, confused. He meant something more than just the village surviving the cold months in his absence. "Link?" She touched her fingers to the back of his wrist, silent questing.
Link glanced at her, unable to hold her gaze. "It's just…It's different for me, I guess. When I leave, it's just me in the big city, you know? You've got everything and everyone here. I mean to say, it's different for the person leaving than the ones left behind." He squinted across the water. Light bounced off the ripples Epona created as she moved deeper to stand hock-deep in the spring. "In your letters, you always sound so busy. You never sound lonely."
It was different for him, he thought, and she could have no idea how he waited for those letters in the long, dark days of winter, shivering in the castle despite the largest fire in the hearth of the room that was his for the duration of his stay. The only rays of sunshine in the dreary routine of marching patterns, archery training, horseback practice, sword fighting techniques, border patrols, guard rotation schedules. The only glimmer of reality, of the world that seemed so far away it was like a long-forgotten dream.
He could all but see her when he sat up late to read and reread her letters, doing everything she depicted in the long, chatty letters she wrote to him every other week like clockwork. Breaking ice on the river, winter harvests, children come down with the flu and exposure. Finding new recipes with Uli. Throwing hay with Fado and Mavin on the ranch. Sewing projects, Midwinter Festival, pine berry wine, rain collection efforts. Ilia didn't know that Link kept every single one of her letters in a locked chest at the foot of his bed, and every autumn he took his favorite ones with him back to Castle Town, a meager connection to reality.
"I never thought you'd want to hear about me being lonely," Ilia confessed without hesitation. "It wouldn't make for a very enjoyable read if I told you how I wonder if you're okay, if you're eating right, if Epona stays warm in her stable. You have enough on your mind, Link. You don't need to add to your burden with my telling you all my worries."
"I guess it's nice to hear sometimes." Link let soft, white sand spill through his fingers. "Sometimes when I'm gone, it's so easy to forget. Little things seem so far away. Even the big things." He looked up at her, guilt in his clear blue eyes. "You know you're the closest friend I've ever had. But winter nights do something to you when you're separated from everyone you know and care about. Sometimes I'll read your letters, a dozen times, and I wonder…do you write to me out of friendship? Or out of duty?"
Mortally insulted, Ilia sprang to her feet, swung around to glare down at Link with her fists on her hips. "Now you listen to me, Link. When it comes to you, I don't do a single thing out of 'duty', and I've never done a thing in my life to deserve to be told something like that. I don't spend every waking moment thinking about you out of 'duty', you dunce-headed, gill-necked idiot! If this kind of thinking is the result of you spending so much time in Castle Town, if this is the kind of man it's turned you into, I don't like it one bit."
Link leaned back on his hands so he could look at her. Livid, outraged, passionate, his Ilia. His heart ached with words he'd kept so long unsaid. Ilia yelling at him, out of rage, out of worry, out of pure scolding, was nothing new. Ilia had been yelling at him since he'd come through their front door with grass stains on the knees of his short pants from the day he moved in with them.
Link didn't think he'd earn any points in her book if he told her that she never looked more beautiful than when she was angry.
"That's the first time you've mentioned you don't like it when I leave," he murmured. In contrast to her, Link rarely indulged in his temper.
Ilia's ire didn't diminish the least in response to his mild demeanor. She'd come down off her mad when she felt good and ready, and not a moment sooner. "I tell you every autumn when you leave, so don't you try that tack with me."
"You tell me you wish I'd be here for winter harvest, or Midwinter Festival, or for my birthday." Link spoke without heat. "But you've never once told me you don't like my going."
"Of course I don't like it when you leave!" Ilia's furious shout had Epona's head jerking up in surprise. "What do you expect, I do a happy dance as soon as you and Epona round the corner into Faron Woods? You idiot! Boulder-brained, selfless, duty-driven stupid man! You think I like you being more than a two-day's ride away, all alone in some stupid fancy city, missing out on everything we do? Do you think I like lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wishing you were in your little tree house, dreaming that you're at the door for dinner, hearing your goat call in my mind? Do you think I like missing you so much it makes my heart hurt to think about you leaving? I hate it when you leave! I hate it, every autumn! I hate it so much it hurts when you come back because I know it's never for real! I—"
His arms came around her, suddenly, so tightly he crushed the air out of her lungs and cut her tirade off mid-stream. Ilia stared over his shoulder, shocked at the unexpected violence of the movement, so uncharacteristic for him. His arms banded around her shoulders, his face buried against her hair. "Link?"
"You never told me." His words were muffled. "You never once told me any of this. I didn't know. I thought…I never thought it hurt you this much."
She could hear the tears in his voice now, and something like panic settled in her stomach. Ilia had never seen Link cry—well, not since the Faron toadstool incident and he'd cried from the pain and the hallucinations. She wasn't sure how to react to his tears now. Grown men rarely cried, in her experience. "It's not your fault. I—I didn't mean to yell at you like that."
He shifted, eased his hold on her so she could breathe a little easier. Ashei was right, Ilia thought dumbly as she stared at him. Blue eyes do look different with tears in them. Bluer than normal, deeper than ever. "I'm used to it." His words had her flushing a little, even though it was nothing less than the truth. "But usually you yell because you have a reason. Ilia, I don't remember the last time you yelled because you lost your temper."
Confused, Ilia met his eyes again. "I lose my temper all the time, Link."
"No." He shook his head. "No, that's not it. You'll yell if you think I've done something reckless, or stupid, or if I've been careless with Epona. You'll yell if you think I'm pushing myself too hard, and you never hesitate to tell anyone if you think they're doing something dangerous. But I've rarely heard you yell at anyone because you've hit your limit and just couldn't take it anymore." He had to rub an impatient hand over his cheeks at the tears that itched as they dried. "I don't remember the last time you lost your temper over me."
Ilia did. She lost her temper over Link every autumn, when the missing him was the freshest and the thought of the months without him stretching ahead was unbearable. The villagers knew not to bring it up with her and, until the leading edge of her grief dulled, tiptoed around her lest they incur her wrath.
Link lifted a hand to stroke lightly down her cheek. "I don't like leaving you, either." He'd liked it less and less as the years passed, and he watched his life pass before him. "It's weird, but I wonder if this isn't how it felt when you lost your memory."
"What do you mean?"
Embarrassed, Link let his hand drop and moved away. Epona came up, blowing gently on his shoulder, and let Link work out the tangles in her mane. "Well, I remembered you, and when I found you, it was…" He shook his head. Words couldn't describe what had gone through his mind, through his heart, when she'd looked up from where she knelt beside the unconscious Zora prince, and had passed him over as some unknown stranger.
"It hurt" was all he could say to Ilia's probing look. Link stared blindly at his hands as he worked a bramble out of Epona's mane. "But you were building new memories, living a life, even without remembering. Sometimes it feels like that for me when I'm in Castle Town. Not that I don't have memories, but they're irrelevant when I'm there. They only matter to me, but nobody else shares any of it to me, and I have to live a life there as if none of my memories matter."
Ilia pursed her lips, looked down at her hands. "It wasn't exactly like that for me," she mused. She'd spent countless hours thinking about it, sleepless hours in bed staring through the winter dark at the glimmer of moonlight beyond her drawn bedroom curtains. "I only remember knowing it wasn't right that I didn't remember anything, but there was only a blank before I opened my eyes and found myself where I was. You have memories, and you want to go back to those memories. It wasn't like that for me," she repeated. "But I do remember not remembering you, and that hurts."
Surprised by the confession, Link looked over. His throat snapped shut as he watched her standing there. Water lapped at her bare feet, and her skirt flirted around her knees in the barest breeze that stirred the surface of the spring. In the darkening light, her hair glowed like gold, and her eyes, green as jade, shone with hidden secrets in a face Link thought the goddesses themselves would be jealous of.
"When I got back all my memories—when you brought back all my memories, Link—I remembered. I remembered everything I'd forgotten. My childhood here, my own name, your friendship. And I saw you standing there in Kakariko Village, and I remembered not remembering you. That I'll always remember. Like the look on your face when you came to Telma's Bar and I didn't know you. Just a handsome young man gaping at me. And it hurt, because I thought…Forgetting my own name, forgetting my own identity, that was scary, and it was odd. But forgetting you?" Ilia shook her head, fisted a hand at the heart that thumped uneasily. "It was like my heart was ripped straight out of my chest. I know we were just kids then, Link, but you mattered to me. More than anything."
"You matter to me, too." Link framed her face with his hands, careful not to scrape rough calluses over her skin. "We're not kids anymore, Ilia, and you've always mattered to me."
Her heart turned over in her chest, a slow somersault. Handsome, she'd thought then, and it was no less true now. No longer the boy he'd been, but a man. Only more attractive for the doubts and the duties and the dreams pulsing just below that quiet, contained surface. Her hands came up to clasp lightly on his wrists, and she was surprised to feel his pulse beating rapidly when he looked so cool, so calm. "I would give you everything I have, everything I am. It's just not enough."
"You are enough." Ilia shook her head, gently. "You've always been enough for me."
Link's heart stumbled at her quiet confession. His eyes never left hers, and hers were filled with hope. With heart. "I don't deserve you."
Her lips curved upwards, and there was no heat in her voice as she murmured, "You'll just have to work at making it worth my while. Say it, Link. Ask me."
There was no hesitation, no doubts now. Link's heart trembled now as shadows and love swept over him. "I love you, Ilia. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to make my life with you. Marry me."
Tears glistened in her eyes. There were no sweeping gestures, no poetic recitations, no glowing oratories. No pretense. Just Link, heartfelt, sincere, straightforward Link. "Marry me," he repeated when she stood silent, her answer pulsing in her heart, love flooding every inch of her body. "Say yes."
"Yes." She whispered it, then repeated it louder. Laughing, she shouted it to the sky as she flung her arms around him. "Yes, I'll marry you. Yes, I love you, Link."
"Even if I am dunce-headed, gill-necked, boulder-brained…"
"Yes." Ilia said yes, then pressed her mouth to his. She gentled the kiss, hands coming to hold his face as his held hers. "I love you anyway."
Link cradled her close, swaying together as he closed his eyes, focused on the sensation of her in his arms. "What's it mean to be gill-necked, anyway?"
Ilia laughed. "Like a Zora, I suppose. I don't know."
"Boulder-brained is easy enough. Probably a Goron reference."
She tapped a fist lightly against the side of his skull. "Hear that? Echoes."
Link made a face. He propped his chin lightly on the top of her head, grinned at Epona. He would swear his horse was cheering for them both. "We'll have to tell your father, and Rusl and Uli. You don't think your dad will try to kill me, right?"
"He'll be happy." Thrilled. Ilia knew her father had been bucking for them to get married, and for Link to take over as mayor of Ordon, for years. She doubted he'd be fully pleased to know Link would rather continue his humble occupation as assistant goat herder, but she set that aside for now as another thought crossed her mind.
"Queen Zelda won't be pleased, you know." Ilia frowned as she thought of the long-term consequences of the simple proposal. The effects would ripple out to include the entire country. A sudden thought had her heart stuttering. "She can't stop us, can she?"
Link shook his head, combing his fingers through her hair. The gesture was soothing, and Ilia relaxed under his idle ministrations. "She and I have talked about this arrangement. We've known for the past couple years it's not a permanent situation." Though Zelda would be happy enough to let it continue for the text ten, twenty years. She was getting the better end of the deal, after all, but the thought held no bitterness. He wouldn't want to deal with the pressures of ruling an entire kingdom, weighing the overall good over the life of a single person.
But he didn't want Ilia to worry, so he merely said, "I think she won't be surprised when I tell her. I'll ride out right after Solstice to tell her. It should be in person," he added before Ilia could suggest just writing a letter. "There are too many details to entrust to a written message."
Subsiding though not fully appeased, Ilia's mouth twisted into a frown. "She won't make you spend this winter in the city, will she?" Her eyes begged for him to say no.
Lies never worked with Ilia, though. "I'm not sure. She might, just to give everyone a chance to wrap things up." He wouldn't be surprised if that's just what she asked, and for the exact same reasoning. "I'd have to train or pick someone who could take over the training duties, make sure someone else understands all the paperwork and things I take care of in the winter." Ilia didn't look unhappy so much as mad, and Link had the uncomfortable feeling she might be thinking about marching right up to the castle herself and telling Zelda just what she thought of that.
"When I go after Solstice, I'll see if I can be back by Midwinter." There, a compromise, he thought, and the flickers of fear eased as her eyes cleared and her smile beamed up at him. Narrow escape, he thought, and let Ilia snuggle against him.
"I'd like that. You haven't been home for Midwinter since you were seventeen." He'd spent his eighteenth birthday in the tail end of the Twilight Days. There had been no Midwinter celebration that year.
"I'll look forward to it."
Ilia slid Link a glance. "We could get married in the winter. Go up north for our honeymoon. You could teach me how to snowboard."
Link's grin broke out unthinkingly just at the thought. "You'll like it up there," he promised. "I'll talk with Queen Zelda. If I can be back by Midwinter, we'll still have plenty of time for a ceremony here and then the ride up to Snowpeak."
"Sounds like a deal." Ilia eased back and whistled for Epona, caressing her muzzle lovingly. "Now, someone promised to grill fish for dinner. Dad's probably back already." Her father had spent the day overseeing the construction of a new forest surveillance and research facility where, years ago, a man had set up shop selling lanterns for those braving the Faron Woods. He had since moved back to live with his sister along Zora's River, taking with him his odd talking bird, Trill, but Mayor Bo had thought his abandoned hut would make a good outpost for villagers on overnight forest expeditions and research.
"Colin should be back tonight or tomorrow," Link commented. He swung Ilia easily up onto Epona's withers, climbed up behind her. "Shelly's going to be excited." Colin and his little sister adored each other with an affection that made the entire village smile and sigh. "He should have the metal works from the Goron mines we need for plough repairs." Just in time, too, for end of season turnover.
"He needs to find himself a good girl and settle down" was Ilia's opinion. She reached back and poked Link in the thigh. "Sometimes I wonder if he doesn't try to take after you a little too much."
Link just grinned and shook his head. A little admiration was fine, respect was all good. But he didn't wish the path he'd taken on anyone. He'd walked the path he had in order to protect others from that same destiny, hadn't he?
He glanced down at the back of his left hand. The symbol was there, barely visible, the mark of the Hero. The Triforce of Courage, he thought, the stuff of legends.
He wasn't any legend. He was a man. His arms tightened around Ilia's waist. A man taking steps to live his life to the fullest. Ilia clucked her tongue at Epona, urging her to a fast lope along the forest path, and Link held on, grinning.
Legends and heroism could rest. Now was time for life, his life. Content, he let Ilia lead as they rode through the gathering evening shadows, drawing to a close a day of unforgettable memories.