Link was fourteen years old.
He was lying in his bed, and he was fourteen years old.
His eyes were puffy and drooping. It was extremely early in the morning, and he hadn't gotten any sleep at all last night. For Link, this was so exceptionally out of character that it worried him even more than he already was.
The truth was, he was scared.
The day after tomorrow was an important day. It was one of the most important days of his entire life. It would affect his entire future. If he failed . . . he would never be able to live with it. He wanted to succeed so badly. . . .
The Skyloft Knights were the older, multicolored group of citizens who took public safety very seriously. They were always patrolling around Skyloft, keeping the peace with their intimidating presence and hounding little kids about being responsible and not being a nuisance. Universal animosity flourished in the minds of all children towards these knights. They were just trying to keep them from having fun, weren't they? They were walking, talking rules in people-with-badges form. If a child caught sight of a brightly colored tunic anywhere, regardless of whether what they were doing was bad or not, they would alert their young brethren at once.
If the two unruly children and disciplined lawgivers were such enemies, why, then, did it all change so abruptly once the kids became teenagers? What could have caused such instinctive rivalry to dissipate? Where did the mischief go?
It started small. Rumors, a word at the dinner table of the heroic feats of the Skyloft Knights, a bit of praise for their efficiency. The newly-turned teens start to wonder just what makes those knights so special. If the whole of Skyloft praised them, then surely they must be something great. When the kids turned into teenagers, those brightly-colored uniforms turned from walking pillars of boring to glamorous objects of envy. By this age, it becomes universally obvious that everyone wants to be a Skyloft Knight.
Link and Zelda were no different to this inevitable process. At first they loathed the knights. They kept ruining their fun. What was wrong with tying cans to the Remlits' tails (Mia, Zelda's new pet, was an obvious exception) and watching them run around, yowling, in panic as the tin banged and clashed behind them? Or tying sleeping kids' shoes together so that they'd trip and fall when they woke and tried to walk? Or hiding in the bushes in the evening and popping out with a "BOO!" at unsuspecting citizens out for a twilight stroll? Nothing. It was all harmless play. What was this 'disturbing the peace' those knights spoke of?
And once the two got their Loftwings, the pranks didn't abate, but doubled. A year after Link met Aepon, Zelda received a light bluish-purple male Loftwing that she named Nohan. Link and Zelda quickly learned that their birds, and most birds in general, had a wicked mischievous streak. For instance, if a group of them were perched somewhere, just preening, a bored bird might sneak up on a distracted Loftwing and give it a poke, startling it, and the silly Loftwing would dart away amused for another few minutes before succumbing to boredom again.
The first time Link and Zelda had seen this, they couldn't believe their eyes. Loftwings were animals; very intelligent animals, but animals nonetheless. Why would any bird take the time and energy to prank another bird? What creature was smart enough to plot for that? They soon learned that Loftwings were more than capable of drawing amusement from the plight of other birds.
Once Aepon and Nohan met each other they became fast friends, sticking together as much as possible, sleeping and preening together like they'd been brothers their whole lives. Link often wondered if they got along so well because their partners were such close friends.
The two kids and their birds soon became a notorious prank gang on Skyloft. When all four were spotted in the marketplace, people would wonder what nefarious scheme they were cooking up next. Shopkeepers watched their wares like Guays watched their eggs. And more often than not, Link, Zelda, Aepon, and Nohan got away with whatever they did to prank another day.
Whenever they did get caught, however, it was by a Skyloft Knight. The knights came to recognize them and follow them around, making sure no ruckus was raised under their watch. Link and Zelda hated turning around to see a stiff uniform tailing them, and Aepon and Nohan hissed when they saw the bright colors pass by.
Then they turned thirteen.
Zelda was the first to turn. A life surrounded by her father, the Headmaster, the Instructors, and numerous knights took its toll on her. One day she confessed to Link that she aspired to be a knight one day. Link was shocked at first. Those knights were boring, unfunny people that couldn't stand to see kids have fun. What was to like?
But Zelda influenced him more than anyone in his life. Eventually, she got to him. And the jealousy took him like a plague. He wanted to have the power the knights wielded. He wanted their authority and respect.
And now, at fourteen, he finally had a chance to be one. Fourteen was the age that teenagers could apply for knight training, which would continue for four years and replace and make up for normal education. Sword fighting, advanced science and mathematics, and skilled bird riding would be taught to the knights-to-be, the best education that Skyloft had to offer. Any child would be mad to want to pass this kind of opportunity up.
Once they realized that such things were important, of course.
And now Link lay in his bed, his stomach in knots, his eyes bloodshot and baggy with anxiety, for tomorrow or, rather, today was the third stage in getting into the knight program at Skyloft Academy.
The first test was the written test: a grueling four-hour-long nightmare in the airy classrooms of the Academy. Link's eyes, hands, and brain felt cramped and shriveled from torturous overuse, answering the repetitive problems of varying difficulty; from simple logic questions to long, wrung out equations that no sane individual could hope to conquer quickly or easily, much less both. Link had studied with Zelda for weeks until numbers and letters danced behind his eyes whenever he closed them. After the test, Link had gone straight home, bid an indignant Aepon good night, and climbed right into bed and slept for six hours.
The second test was of the sword and shield. Link and Zelda had practiced for that too, going over parries, lunges, swipes and shield bashes, going faster and faster each time until they were really dueling. With wooden swords, of course. They used to practice in the plaza, but Groose and his lackeys saw this as a wonderful opportunity to beat them with sticks, so Link and Zelda had abandoned the wide open space and took to more secluded areas.
The actual test, Link thought, went rather well. He had showed off his moves on a sack dummy in front of three judges: Instructor Owlan, Instructor Horwell, and Knight Commander Eagus. Then he was pitted against three Skyloft Knights of ranging difficulty, to see how well he fared. He recognized two of the knights as those who had tailed him and Zelda when he was younger, and he couldn't help thinking they remembered him too.
At least, the painful bruises all over his body thought so.
Still, he hoped the Instructors and the Commander were impressed. He had trained hard for the evaluation and thought he'd pulled off some nice moves.
But the third test was the one that Link was worried about, and what was keeping him awake when he should've been dreaming: the bird test. Contestants were required to fly through an aerial obstacle course on their Loftwings. Link had watched the older kids navigate through the course last year and he was not looking forward to it. The contestants had to pass through five red rings to pass, which sounded easy but was most definitely not. They had to fight their way through rock obstacles, floating bars and rods with spinning attachments to steer them sent adrift in the air by the Instructors, and pass through the hoops in a specific order. What was more, one of the rings was attached to the feet of a Guay, the trained crows of Instructor Horwell. They were a little bigger than Loftwings but twice as agile, often darting out of the pursuing birds' reach.
And the contestants were timed.
Link turned over onto his side, feeling clammy. Honestly, he didn't know if he could do it. He and Aepon were masters of the air, but they didn't work together all that well. Usually Link just let Aepon do all the flying. How would Aepon be able to tell where to go at the trial? When Link did try to direct Aepon to somewhere specific, the experience left him dizzy and disoriented. He usually came out of it blinking hard and scratching his skin, quite sure that feathers were growing on its surface.
He'd tried to practice more times than he could count. He and Aepon had flown together the past few weeks more than they ever had in their lives, and for so long that when they were done Aepon collapsed where he landed and just lay on the ground. But every day yielded the same results. Whenever Link tried to take control, he was overwhelmed by the new sights and sounds and feelings Aepon experienced that humans did not. The feel of the wind rustling through feathers, the way the world seemed to slow down when they were moving fast, and, above all, the difference in their sentience. Aepon, and Loftwings in general, were incredibly smart, the smartest animals in the sky world. But they were still second class to humans. Link's consciousness recoiled at delving too far into the simplified thoughts and wants and fears of Aepon's mind. And so Link could only try his best to take control, but he withdrew quickly every time. He just couldn't help it.
And he knew it was wearing for Aepon too. Aepon, Link could tell, was uncomfortable with his attempts to almost control his mind. Half the time he kicked Link out himself, not understanding what Link was trying to do.
Link wanted to ask one of the knights how they managed it, but the contestants were forbidden to bug someone about it, and the knights were forbidden to answer. No one could ever offer advice about bonding with their bird, because all bonds were different, just like all Loftwings were.
Zelda tried to offer help, but she didn't have to try out for the knights until the next year, due to her few months' difference in age. She wasn't under the same kind of pressure. She was bewildered when Link tried to explain his attempts to control Aepon. "Why don't you just try working with him?" she always asked. "Why do you have to control him?" The truth was that Link didn't have much faith in Aepon doing anything efficiently. He was lazy and stubborn, preferring to do things his own way. Link had also seen him do some incredibly stupid things too, like randomly crashing into buildings or trying to eat extremely hot food from Link's plate when he ate outside or somehow getting his claws caught between the planks of a diving platform. It had taken a good ten minutes to free the dumb bird, and then he'd pecked at Link irritably, like it was his fault.
A thin layer of light filtered through Link's room, signaling the dreaded dawn. Link hated the sight of it. Well, of course he always hated the dawn (it meant he would have to get up soon) but today it brought a new flavor of distaste. The third trial was to begin a little after dawn, bright and early. Couldn't be long now.
Just as Link thought this, the town bells began to clang.
Link buried his head in his pillows and whimpered.
The trials varied. Some did well. A lot did average.
Others failed. Miserably.
The whole town gathered in the plaza - making it rather crowded to watch the flying tests. People had started reserving spectating spots since an hour or two before the show, and the earliest people claimed the benches on the edges for a nice close view. Everyone else had to make do with the remaining spots. People brought bottled drinks or soups to warm them on the chilly morning. Friendly conversation and jokes and laughter rose from the crowd. And when the tests started, everyone turned their attention to the sky.
Reactions were mixed. There were many "oooooh"s and "aaaaaah"s as they watched the birds and their owners soar through the air. There were many winces, like when they saw someone fall off their Loftwing or slam into a floating rock or, as one contestant did, somehow get caught on the Guay's talons and ripped off his bird to dangle in the air. The Guay in question had to be coaxed to the ground with treats, and the clumsy boy had to be cut free from the crow's claws with a sharp knife. All the while the boy's dusty brown Loftwing kept getting in the way, poking her beak in everyone's faces and in general wondering why her partner was dangling from the claws of this strange black bird.
There was cause for a few good rounds of applause. One kid did exceptionally well, zipping through the course like a madman. He and his white bird shot through the rings like blank lightning. They messed up at the end, though, as the white bird clipped its wing on a floating pole and spiraled to the clouds a few hundred feet before leveling out again. They darted back up as quickly as they could, but the damage was done. They lost a serious amount of time, and lost points for it.
The contestants that didn't go yet were grouped on the Light Tower above the plaza, watched over and started by Instructor Horwell. When it was someone's turn, they jumped off the edge and called their bird; the second they landed on their bird, the trial began, as did the timer. It was rather crowded up there. Link and Fledge stood shoulder-to-shoulder, both nervous. Link wished desperately that he had used the bathroom before going up the Tower.
Groose and his lackeys did the course too, obviously. Strich went first, and he did reasonably well, save for a few penalties for flying headfirst into things. Cawlin's Loftwing went completely in the wrong direction for some reason, and they only recovered quickly enough to beat Strich's time by a few seconds. Groose and his blue Loftwing, Banon, did better then most, much to Link's dismay. Their only flaw was the sheer mass of he and his bird combined; they were slow and clumsy in the sky, and kept doing stupid stunts in an attempt to impress the crowd. Many weren't convinced. Still, he finished with one of the best times of the day. When Groose was done, he strutted like a bird under the Light Tower, waving cheekily at Link when he made the mistake of glancing down at him.
One by tedious one the kids jumped off the Light Tower, calling their birds and subjecting themselves to embarrassment in front of the whole town as they somehow messed up, either mildly or spectacularly. One kid somehow managed to slam into a floating pole and toppled off his bird. Another passed through the rings in the wrong order and had to start over again.
Finally it was Fledge's turn. He stumbled to the edge, white-faced and shaking, and it didn't seem like he heard when Link called to him, "Good luck." He took three breaths to steady himself (likely a calming exercise a teacher had taught him) and dove over the edge. Link, who was next, peeked over to watch him.
Fledge called Nabooru quickly and they shot upwards to the first ring, which was anchored between two floating rods. Nabooru rose toward it, faster and faster, until at the last second she clasped her green wings to her body and passed through it. Link smiled wanly at his success. He was happy for Fledge, but terrified at the prospect that he was next.
The next ring was attached to the top of a floating rock spire. Once again, Fledge and Nabooru shot through it and dashed to the next ring.
Then things went wrong. This ring was attached to a pair of slowly rotating poles. It wasn't going very fast, but it was enough to spook Nabooru into veering away from it. She drifted in circles, confused, before it seemed Fledge steered her in the right direction. They danced around the spinning ring, hesitant to try going through, before Nabooru suddenly dove for the ring.
She hit it at a bad angle. The spinning ring's side caught her and carried her around for a second before she forced herself through. Link winced. He knew they would get points off for that.
The fourth ring was attached to a pole that was designed to move back and forth. It wasn't going very fast either, but Fledge and Nabooru slowed and seemed to puzzle it out before going for it. They got through with no trouble.
The last ring was attached to the talons of the Guay. Said Guay was very large and strong, but it was fast, too: the prize of Instructor Horwell. As Fledge and Nabooru neared it, the Guay veered away, trained as it was to avoid the contestants. Nabooru pumped her leafy green wings as hard as she could, but she was not a very strong flier. The Guay always managed to stay several yards in front of her.
Finally, after a long time of chasing, and with every agonizing second of Fledge's time ticking away in Link's head, Nabooru managed to veer herself through the ring. The crowd cheered as the two landed, and their time was read out. Link made a face. It wasn't a very good time.
But then he paled as Instructor Horwell waved him forward. He shambled forward in a daze, heart pumping very fast, supplying his body with useless adrenaline. His legs shook and his arms trembled; he was not looking forward to embarrassing himself in front of the entire population of Skyloft.
Instructor Horwell gave him a tiny smile, then motioned for him to go on. Link's stomach was twisted in convoluted knots. With a nauseous feeling in the back of his throat, he reached for the thunderstorm in his head and sent a message to Aepon: Let's go.
He felt Aepon's eager acknowledgement. All day the Crimson Loftwing had been swooping around the obstacle course, curious and entranced. He had no idea what it was. Now Aepon circled underneath the edge of Skyloft, ready to catch Link.
Link teetered at the edge, afraid to try but afraid to give up. Finally Aepon's enthusiasm and curiosity overran his mind. He let himself tip forward and fall.
And as he fell past the plaza, he heard one very familiar and welcome voice: "LINK! Work with him!" Then he whipped past and was out of earshot. Twisting into the right position, he whistled as loud and as clearly as he could. Aepon came zooming out of nowhere and caught him.
He knew who had spoken and what she meant. But nothing Zelda said, Link thought, would make Aepon listen.
Once more Link tightened his grip on Aepon's neck and tried to concentrate on controlling his movements. Immediately he could feel both bodies at once. He felt his tunic rubbing against his shoulders at the same time as he felt thick feather shafts growing out of them. He had fingers, clutching his bird's neck; he had no fingers, but scores of bendable, unfeeling feathers. He had a mouth, breathing and bending; he had an unmoving beak that he could only open or close. Automatic nausea rose in his throat, and was matched by Aepon's revulsion. He felt Aepon's wingbeats falter, and they dropped a few feet.
Suddenly Link was completely in his own body again, and Aepon was furiously tossing his head and rasping. The Crimson Loftwing had kicked him out again.
Link grit his teeth anxiously, aware of the crowd's stares. "Aepon, stop it!" he hissed. Aepon shot an angry screech back, letting Link know that on no uncertain terms was he allowed to try that again.
Aepon, confused as to what he should do, rose a little higher and circled while Link tried to steer him in the right direction.
Work with him!
At this rate, they were going to be in last place.
Link concentrated, pushing away all thoughts away from his head. He forgot the huge crowd watching his every move. He forgot that he had to get through this course in a set amount of time. He forgot all his past failures and unsuccessful attempts to control his bird.
He focused only on an image of the first ring of the course that they were supposed to go through. He focused on its shape and location and wrapped and layered it in feelings of urgency and importance; this is priority, he was trying to emphasize. Then he figuratively shoved the image into the thundercloud in his mind.
Aepon drifted without moving for about ten seconds. Then he turned his head to the side and stared at the first hoop with one glittering, speculating eye. He stayed like this, and Link began to lose hope in both his friend and his bird.
And with an excited shriek, Aepon raised his wings high overhead and drove them down with such force that they shot upwards like a cannonball, aiming straight for the hoop. Link blinked the suddenly violent wind out of his eyes and- Wait, where did the hoop go? he thought wildly, looking around. He saw the second hoop ahead and looked back. They had darted straight through the first ring already.
Aepon slowed and began a wide turn, thinking his task done. He looked back at Link with one eye and giving a little rasp, like he was asking, How did I do?
Link was frozen on his back, trying to process what had just happened. They were through the first hoop. They had done it with no trouble. Aepon had listened to him.
A delighted grin began to crawl on Link's face.
Let's do this, Aepon.
Hardly daring to hope, he focused on the second hoop and sent it to Aepon again. Aepon shrieked in delight at this strange new game and rocketed forward, aiming straight for the ring on the rock and passing through it like it was nothing. Smile growing larger all the while until he was practically beaming, Link directed him to the third hoop, the one that spun. Aepon circled it once, then suddenly folded in his right wing and dove sideways through the ring flawlessly.
Link gave a delighted whoop as he sent the fourth ring's image to his bird, and again Aepon shrieked at this new and strange challenge that was, for some reason, so important to his partner. He didn't care; he thought it was all a very fun game. To Aepon, what was more fun than a test of flying ability and, judging from the urgency in his boy's mind, speed? The fact that he was being watched only made him more excited. The Crimson Loftwing, and Loftwings in general, was a notorious showoff.
Through the fourth hoop they went, disregarding its back-and-forth movement. There was only one ring left to tackle, and Link scanned the skies with his eyes for a distinctive black shape: the Guay.
He spotted it drifting about a hundred feet above and to the right of the general course. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on Aepon's leather buckle collar; this was the most challenging task they had to face together. That Guay was huge, intimidating, and fast. Guays were smart, too, almost as smart as Loftwings.
At Link's direction, Aepon locked onto the great black bird high above. Link could read determined playfulness in his bird; the Crimson Loftwing had accepted this Guay as his target, and he was never going to let it out of his sight until he had completed his game and claimed the fifth ring. With a sky-splitting shriek that almost seemed to shake the clouds and made Link's eardrums feel like razor talons were clawing them out, Aepon shot upward, prepared to chase and catch his prey.
They rocketed to the heavens, the wind screaming in their ears, both boy and bird determined to end this contest once and for all. Link's anxiety and fear of being watched evaporated as they left the crowd in the dust. The two partners seemed to mold together and become one, and as one, they streaked toward the sun and the black dot that was in between them and it.
The Guay saw them coming. It beat its wings rapidly and rose to the side, the ring waving in its talons' grasp. Aepon picked up his already breakneck speed and shot after it. The Guay bobbed out of their reach for about a minute, growing closer all the while, before it tipped forward into a dive. Aepon opened his wings and drove them back, aiming himself down and diving after the Guay with an extra burst of speed.
The wind screamed and whistled in Link's pointed ears and threatened to rip him right off of Aepon's back. It stung his eyes, forcing him to close them to slits. He could barely see anything. Was that green blur to his right Skyloft? Was that black blur waving in his vision the Guay? Was it just him, or was it getting closer?
Suddenly Aepon flared his wings open and caught the wind, yanking them back to a near standstill. The sky was deathly quiet in comparison to the gale from before. Aepon stilled his wings and drifted, his beats silent, his gaze riveted on something below him.
They were right over two floating boulders that were as big as houses. Aepon fluttered to one and landed, crouching, his wings held out for balance on the uneven surface. Link held himself low on his bird's back, confused. He patted the feathers on the back of Aepon's head. "What're you doing, bud? We have to get that bird!" He nudged Aepon's sides. "Come on!"
Aepon's thoughts were a combination of impatience and giddiness. He shuffled at the edge of the rock, very tense, his head moving in excited little jerks. The closest thing Link could associate to his thoughts and behavior was when Link hid around a corner and jumped out at anyone who passed to scare them.
Rough wingbeats reached Link's ears. He drew in a sharp breath and flattened himself against Aepon's back. And as the Guay lazily rose over the side of the boulder, Link realized what Aepon was doing. The Guay had been so focused on diving out of their reach that it hadn't noticed Aepon hide on the top of the rock. Thinking its pursuers gone, it had started flying up to its former position, circling over the obstacle course. That was just what Aepon was waiting for. And as the great black bird caught a glimpse of white and red to its side, and heard the Crimson Loftwing's triumphant scream as he pounced for his prey, it realized its mistake. But it was too late.
And the only thing Link could do as they shot through the final ring, ended their time, and made themselves eligible for knighthood was laugh and laugh, because he realized that both he and the Guay had been outwitted by the Crimson Loftwing.
Raucous cheering met Link's ears, and he was pretty sure he heard one shrill voice above all the others yell, "You did it! You did it!"
But Link didn't listen to any of them. He knew, just like he knew that they were finished with the third trial, that they definitely hadn't gotten the best time of the day at all, and that Groose had probably beaten them with his big clumsy bird. But he accepted it and was content with it, because he knew that was just the price he had to pay for being stupidly stubborn and underestimating Aepon. But he hoped that they had given the judges something worth remembering.
As he and his Loftwing turned and began to ascend toward Skyloft, both giddy and reeling from their separate and same success, he only had eyes and ears for his partner and one of his two best friends in the entire world.
He leaned down and gave Aepon a big hug around his neck. The Crimson Loftwing glanced back and gave a happy rasp.
"When are you ever going to stop surprising me, Aepon?" Link asked, words half-mumbled from being buried in his bird's blood-red feathers.
Aepon bucked his back a little and rasped again, as though to say, Never.