Continuing Tales

For the First Time in Never

A Frozen Story
by JE Glass

Part 22 of 24

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Please, save them! I'll do anything you ask…!

Elsa squinted into the gray half-light surrounding her, unsure of where she was or what was happening. It was like she stood in shifting mist that coiled and receded like tidal ocean currents, forms rising before her only to fall away into nothingness while the same sentence echoed around her like a broken chime.

Please, save them!

There was an obvious desperation to whomever was screaming, a seizing fear that tore at her heart because she recognized the frenzied pitch. Her own voice had sounded like that three years ago on the fjord when she'd heard the shattering of Hans' sword rather than the dull, wet thunk of it imbedding in her flesh and turned to find Anna standing over her, frozen solid and undoubtedly dead. She'd shrilled one single name, her voice carrying across the ice choked fjord in a wail of terror and desolation. That was what the voice in the mist sounded like, all hope hinging on one miniscule grain of hope that was quickly drifting away on a runaway current.

Moving carefully, Elsa picked her way through the shifting shroud, trying to find her way out. This wasn't like the last time she'd been stuck in the deep, dreamless sleeping a body falls into when gravely injured. There was no vast blackness, no comforting weightlessness or silence. This was something else entirely, but a larger part of her didn't seem worried.

After all I've been through let me rest for just a little while longer.

She didn't know how long she'd been in this in between place…didn't really know how she'd even gotten there. The last thing she remembered was seeing Revel and feeling him touch her face, warm knuckles brushing her skin. He'd smiled at her, but the smile had never reached his eyes, and why would it have? He was dead after all. Despite his words of reassurance, the queen had seen the bolt in his chest and the blood on his hands. Revel was dead, and she wanted nothing more than to let go of her broken, earthly body and join him, her father and mother in whatever existed beyond the physical plane.

But what about Anna? a voice from the mist asked. What will happen to her if you let go because things got too hard?

Guilt burned in her chest and cheeks, and she hung her head. Yes, what would happen to Anna if she were to die? Surely she'd have to take over the kingdom, but would the stress of ruling be too much for her sister? Anna was resilient, yes, and had a pure, loving heart that would undoubtedly guide her, but she'd not been trained to rule a kingdom like the queen had since birth. Elsa would have continued to ponder these nagging questions and thoughts had the mist not began to clear and solid shapes emerged, warming with color the closer she neared. The queen emerged from the coiling gray tendrils and stepped into a vast valley of dark stone and towering monoliths that rose out of the ground like the skeletal fingers of giants. Some were simple stones, worn by years of exposure, while others bore swirling blue markings that shimmered in the fading daylight. Throughout the valley familiar round boulders littered the packed earth floor, scattered as far as the eye could see, and covered with blankets of moss and various forms of flora and fauna.

Trolls…these are all trolls, Elsa thought in amazed wonder, never seen so many clustered in one area. Pabbie's clan was only about a hundred strong, but this clan had to be well over two thousand.

"Orgram! Orgram, please wake up!"

The queen started and turned towards the familiar voice and felt herself stiffen as Saja entered the valley clutching something to her chest. She looked haggard and tottering on the edge of madness, eyes wild and face waxy with trepidation. Her hair was a disheveled, sweaty mess that clung to her forehead and cheeks as she raced into the valley and knelt before the first large stone with blue markings.

"Orgram!" she shrilled, bent almost double over the bundle in her arms, chest heaving.

Suddenly the trolls came to life, unrolling like pill bugs and springing to their feet. They blinked in surprise at the Frost Born in their midst, lingering uncertainly where they stood rather than rush to her. After a moment, a young female troll approached, and Elsa felt a wave of recognition wash over her.

Is that Bulda?

No, her face was wrong, her ears weren't as large as Kristoff's troll-mother, and she wore purple stones where Bulda wore pinkish-red. But there was a strange familiarity to the female troll that trilled a note of curiosity in the queen the longer she stared. Elsa didn't know how the trolls mated or reproduced, it wasn't something she'd ever really wanted to know and thanked the stars Kristoff had never obliged to tell her, but this troll could have been Bulda's mother. The resemblance between the two was just too uncanny.

"Saja?" the troll asked, approaching with obvious caution. Frost had begun to accumulate under the kneeling Frost Born, snaking across the ground in erratic patterns. "What are you doing here? What's wrong?"

"Belluma," Saja choked, turning on her knees to face the female troll, tears trailing lines of silver down her face. "I need Orgram. Please…"

Elsa watched as her ancestor waved for someone out of sight to come forward as she placed the small bundle on the ground and pulled the blankets away. Both the queen and the Belluma sucked in a breath, the latter of the two taking a reflexive step back while Elsa stepped closer for a better look. The child was perhaps no more than five or six, already long of limb, like his mother, and sinewy like most boys his age. He had a thick head of white hair, also like Saja, and soft features that had yet to decide whether or not he'd take after his father or mother. It was plain to anyone he was built for running and climbing and mischief, only the child was far too still for someone so young and deathly pale. But what moved the troll away from him were the creeping lines of black corruption following the path of his veins starting from his chest and spreading throughout his body like acrid spider webs.

Elsa didn't hear the three other women approach but felt one brush past her in a shiver of cold as the body the queen possessed broke apart and reformed like smoke. They were all shield maidens, all dressed in clinking chainmail and leather armor, all with shields across their backs and swords at their hips, but what they carried close to their chests' weren't weapons but rather more children. Three more little ones were laid next to the first, all ranging in size and age from infant to perhaps three years old, and all covered in the same creeping sickness. The women departed without a word, retreating to a respectable distance, faces sallow and drawn out with grief.

"Blood poison," Belluma breathed.

"It had to be in their food," Saja explained in a rush, voice trembling. "We were eating and my eldest started complaining of a stomach ache. That's not abnormal, he eats like a horse, but then the other three started acting strangely: hazy gazes and shuddering like they were cold. I thought it was just a chill working through them, but then Reinn started seizing and vomiting blood. Isien, Jorund, and Gyda started shortly after. No one else was affected, but the dogs who ate the scraps of their food have the same symptoms. Belluma, who would do this to children?"

"I cannot answer that," the troll said with a sad sigh. "Saja, why did you bring them here and not take them to your human healers, or call upon your mother? You know our magics cannot mix."

"Snaer slumbers her deepest in late summer and is beyond my reach, and not even the Glacier-eye worked on them! I didn't know what else to do! None of my healers have ever seen anything like this, and if it's poison, like you suspect, there's an antidote, and who knows more about plants and healing properties than the trolls?"

"But Saja, we cannot—"

"Let me see, Belluma."

The troll ducked her head respectfully and stepped aside, joining the ranks of expressionless onlookers who lingered at a distance. In her place a large male troll emerged, his body almost entirely scraped of moss to that he was entirely rock save for a small loincloth around his groin. He wore a grass and moss cape across his stony shoulders and a wreath of flowers, herbs, and gems atop his head, marking him as chief. His craggy face, scared and lined from years of living in the elements, only seemed to enhance the shrewdness and depth in his dark eyes which he leveled impassively on Saja. The air of authority that rolled off him was almost palpable, and the surrounding trolls went to bent knee out of respect and reverence.

"Orgram please, you're the only one who can help them."

The troll chief regarded the children laid before him, dark eyes sweeping over each in turn as he tracked the creeping blackness in their veins as the corruption spread and slowly began to snuff out each life one-by-one. He was silent for a few heartbeats, simply staring as if in contemplation of something, before raising his head and leveling his ancient eyes on Saja once again.

"Belluma is right. They have been poisoned, and I believe I know by which plants."

The Frost Born exhaled a breath and clutched at her chest with an icy hand, something akin to hope lighting her blue eyes. "Can you make an antidote? I will give you anything you wish, I swear it. Just save them."

"Yes, I know what plants caused this, and yes, I do have an antidote, but the price for my help is too high for someone like you."

"I'll give you anything!" Saja shouted, pleading at his feet, all decorum gone. She was simply a mother now desperate to save the lives of her children, and she wasn't above begging. But Orgram's words still had the power to stun and terrify her. Whatever he wanted she would gladly give. Didn't he know that? Couldn't he see that etched into every inch of her being?

"The price is too high, Frost Born."

"Name it!"

For a brief moment Orgram was silent, his eyes trailing over the faces of his people until he found the one he'd been searching for, the one who glared back at him over the top of his bushy yellow eyebrows, fury practically rising in waves of heat from his little rock body. Elsa followed the troll chief's gaze and felt her breath catch when she realized Orgram was staring at a much younger Pabbie. The troll chief as Elsa knew him glared at the current chief with barely contained rage, and the look was so startling it made the queen go momentarily cold.

Why does he look so angry? Is it because Orgram is going to help Saja? Is this what she was talking about…why she hated them so deeply?

"Only one can live," Orgram said flatly, his gaze still lingering on Pabbie before he tuned back to her.

Saja rocked back, the shock and revulsion on her face mirrored by her shield maidens some ways behind her, Elsa included. "What?"

"That is the price. Only one of your children can live."

"I would never choose one above the other! How can you even suggest that?!"

"I warned you," Orgram smiled thinly, spreading his hands. His smile disappeared in a flash, a twisted scowl replacing it. "And you will not accept the price because you are weak and would rather see them all dead than raise one above the other. Do you think you live above the laws of nature just because you are the daughter of Snaer? Do you think you are not immune to the shadow of loss because of your powers? Things die every day! Grass, trees, animals…humans. They all die, some in clusters, some alone and isolated, but they all die. So why are you and your family immune to the embrace of death? You should be grateful you have the chance to save even one. Not many ever have that chance when left at the mercy of the world-mother."

"I can't just choose between them! They're not cattle or property or blades of grass, they're my children!"

"Does that somehow make them above the laws of nature? Young, sickly creatures perish so that the strong can survive. So pick the strongest who will survive and be done with it." Orgram rumbled with a deep frown, dark eyes flashing. "I only have antidote for one and only one."

"Then make more!"

"It's not that easy. Making more will take time, and by then they would all be dead. So yes, Frost Born, you will have to choose which of them lives."

"I can't just do that! I can't just…." Her words left her as she began to hyperventilate, arms around her stomach as she battled the pain warring within her; the agony of her desperation and the constant pressure of her power trying to escape as she became more and more emotionally compromised. Her heart thundered behind her rib cage and she wondered if the organ could actually explode from overuse.

"Then you doom them all to die," Orgram declared with a grim finality, folding his arms across his chest.

"How…can you be so…callous?" Saja hiccupped as her tears began to fall, staring down through wavy, watery vision at the bodies of the most precious tings in her life, hands trailing over each. How had things gone so wrong? She'd been happy…by the gods she'd finally found peace!

The troll chief surprised her by barking with cynical laughter that sparked such anger in the Frost Born she almost lost control of her magic and lunged at him. Fang of ice slowly rose around her, the sticky warmth of the valley sucked from the air as her magic began to congeal into a solid form. "These are human children, winter witch. No, they aren't even that, they're half-human, so what love should I have for them or you? What love do any of us have for the human stain on our land?"

"Do not speak of my children as stains, earth dweller," the Frost Born menaced, eyes glowing white, snaking fingers of needle sharp frost climbing the boulder next to her, "when it is your kind who meddle in the affairs of powers beyond your reckoning!"

Orgram saw the spreading ice and snarled, stepping away from the needles stretching towards him, green sparks twinkling at his fingertips. "Do not raise your power in my presence, winter witch! I have little tolerance for you as is, but continue to threaten me and we'll soon see if you are a match for a whole clan of trolls. I imagine you'll only have to kick the hornet's nest once to learn your lesson."

"You insult my family!"

"And your presence on this earth insults me! Lower your magic or we are through and you can watch your precious little pups die tonight!"

Gritting her teeth, Saja pulled hard on her ice and brought it back into herself, extinguishing the glow of her magic from her eyes. Breathing hard, she kept her head lowered in a show of supplication to the troll chief, rage still boiling under her skin, but she would master it if it meant her children could live.

"Forgive me, Orgram, for my insults."

The troll chief snorted and stepped forward once again, but unlike Saja his magic remained dancing on his fingertips as a silent warning should she lose control again. "You are the one who came crawling to me begging for their salvation. Remember that. Not even your blessed mother could help you, could she? Where is Snaer, Saja? Where is your sire right now when you need her most? Asleep, I imagine, and well beyond your reach because the summer season has yet to draw to a close. So you are left with me as your only choice, but you balk at the price. Didn't your human sires teach you to never spit at the feet of someone trying to help?"

Even while watching this heart wrenching drama unfold Elsa felt her cheeks warm with indignant rage. She saw the smugness on the troll chief's face, saw his haughty swagger and the cruelty in his eyes. He was enjoying watching Saja suffer, twisting the knife a little deeper with each word as he tore her down and laid her low.

This is why she hates them, she thought swallowing the lump in her throat.

Body shaking so violently she could hardly lift her hands while bile rose into the back of her throat, Saja swallowed hard and extended a hand towards Orgram, eyes still trained on the fragile forms of her four children: Isien, her youngest daughter, less than a year old, and Jorund, her twin brother; Gyda, her second eldest daughter, only two, and Reinn, her eldest, son of Gunnar and his only living child. These were her legacies, these were her heirs, and they were also her greatest treasures and loves. In them she'd discovered joy unparalleled. In them she'd understood what it truly meant to be a mother, yet here they were, so frail and weak, all because she hadn't sensed the shadow looming ever closer to her happy family.

"Does this mean you accept that three of your four children will die tonight?" Orgram asked, his rough voice carrying across the clearing.

You bastard, Elsa raged, body shaking alongside Saja's. You evil little bastard!

"Yes," the Frost Born managed to choke out, voice beyond broken.

"Then choose wisely, Frost Born. Squeeze the juice from the moss into one of their mouths and wait. The corruption will leave their body." He handed her a ball of moss from a pouch around his neck and stepped back, joining the ranks of his kin and watching with expectant eyes.

Saja clutched the bundle to her chest and screwed her eyes shut, fearing that if she kept them open her resolve would falter and she'd lose herself to grief and pain. "Frigg," she whispered, bent over the bodies of her little ones, tears spattering the ground and turning into blooms of ice, "mother of Thor and Balder, wife to Odin who sits upon the High Seat, queen of Asgard, hear me. I have not prayed to you in a lifetime, and I know I do not deserve your help or guidance, but please do not begrudge a woman who is about to lose three of the most precious things in her life. Please, guide my children into your hall and welcome them with open arms. They are so small and without stain, surely they will make fine additions to your court. Bless them and treasure them as I have, and forgive me for not being stronger. This sin, I know, will follow me to the grave.

"Snaer, mother, hear me," Saja bit down hard on her inner cheek to keep the sob building in her chest at bay and pressed on. "I have called to you yet you do not answer; I have screamed yet you do not come. Know that three of your grandchildren will cease to exist after this night, and I hate you for it. The Glacier-eyes failed me when I needed them most….you failed me. After this night we are no longer kin. My heart is beyond the point of mending, and I will not forgive your absence. You are dead to me."

Pressing the bundle to Reinn's mouth, Saja squeezed the juice from the moss, trying her hardest not to look at the dying bodies of her other three children. "Ragnar, forgive me," she grated, chest lurching as she attempted to suppress a sob, squeezing until the last of the moss juice dribbled from her icy fingers. "Please, forgive me. Please…"

Reinn suddenly gasped and gagged, arching off the ground and vomiting chunks of greenish-black sludge that stained his lips and neck. Saja turned him over and let the spasm pass, patting his back until he quieted and fell into a deep sleep, color once again rising into his cheeks. She let out a choked laugh as she stroked his thick hair that was in sore need of cutting. Despite his small size he looked so much like Gunnar it almost physically hurt to look at him.

"Hush little one, hush. You're safe now. I'm here." The Frost Born couldn't keep the quiver from her voice as she watched the blackness in her son's neck and chest disappear as the antidote went to work and purged the poison from his body.

"It is done then," Orgram said with a gravely huff and turned away. "One saved at the expense of three. I have done my part, now leave."

"Orgram!" someone snapped in the crowd and pushed their way forward, the onlookers gasping at the use of the chief's untitled name. "Show at least a little compassion for a mother who has just lost her children. Or have you forgotten you are a father as well?"

The troll chief glanced over his rocky shoulder at Pabbie, danger dancing in his dark eyes. But the son of the chief, who was not a young troll any longer, met his sire's blazing glare with a sizzling one of his own. After a tense moment the chief shrugged and sniffed with forced nonchalance.

"Of course, Pabbie. Tend to her if you must. My part in this is done."

"Yes," Pabbie hissed, fists clenched, "many things will come to an end soon."

If the chief heard the threat he did not acknowledge it, trudging away and disappearing into the valley.

"I am sorry," Pabbie said quietly as he came to stand in front of Saja. Needing something to do with his hands, he summoned a thin carpet of moss which he pulled free of its earthen bed and gently laid across the bodies of the three little ones, their lives having snuffed out minutes ago. The Frost Born didn't look up at him or even register his presence or the shroud he'd provided, simply bent in half and pressed her forehead against one of the covered bodies, heart shattering to pieces. She didn't know if she screamed or was simply silent, the storm raging within her smothering everything.

Elsa stood in frozen silence near her ancestor, tears stinging her eyes as she watched the Frost Born sob over her lost loved ones. Nothing could have prepared her for the truth behind Saja's hatred for the trolls, and now she understood why her ancestor despised them so completely. Orgram had enacted the worst kind of cruelty he could, forcing a mother to choose between her children which would live and which would die. It was awful, it was sickening, it was damn near diabolical, and she'd watched it unfold before her like so many of Saja's other past tragedies. The queen closed her eyes and turned away, not wanting to see this anymore but knowing it was still there despite her unwillingness to look.

Was there no light in my ancestor's life? Was there no happiness?

Then a more sinister question wormed its way into her mind and she almost vomited with just the thought of it.

What if Anna had to make that decision? Sweet god, it would destroy her. It would destroy me.

"I'm sorry," a faint voice said from behind her.

Elsa spun with a startled gasp but wasn't surprised to see her Saja, the woman who'd come to her so many months ago, standing off to the side, eyes locked on the form of her younger self bent over her children. There was pure anguish and shattering guilt burning in her bright blue eyes and a shimmering wetness that bespoke of barely contained tears. She was hugging herself, icy hands wrapped snugly around her waist as she continued to stare with a haunted, desolated look.

"Sorry for what?" Elsa asked lamely, unsure what to do or say; torn between wanting to wrap her ancestor in a crushing hug or keep her distance out of respect.

"That you had to see this. I didn't want this memory to touch you, but with the Glacier-eye in you there was a strong chance you'd tap into my memories that are connected to the troll territory."

Elsa blinked in shocked surprise and looked down at herself. "I'm in the troll territory, and I have a Glacier-eye in me?" Brow scrunched with confusion, she look back up at her ancestor. "What…is that exactly?"

"A healing stone my mother made for me when I was young," Saja answered mechanically, still watching her younger self. She was quiet for a long time, just watching and remembering. "This day will forever haunt me. Even in death, I can't escape it."

"I…I'm…Saja, I can't say it enough. I'm so sorry for what happened."

"Now you understand why I can't and won't trust them."

"I do. Orgram was filth," Elsa spat, fists clenched. "I hope his time as chief was a short one."

A thin, mirthless smile touched Saja's lips. "I made sure he was the first to die."

"You killed him?" Elsa frowned, somehow realizing she'd already suspected this but found it no less shocking.

"What you are seeing is only half the memory," Saja explained dryly. "Orgram was the one who poisoned my children."

The queen gasped, hand clapping over her mouth. "What?" she hissed through her fingers, feeling her face grow pale.

"I was told much later of his betrayal by Pabbie after he'd defected from his sire's clan. Orgram had made a deal with a clergyman who I'd permitted to live in my kingdom. How the troll and holy man came together is unknown to me, but they both despised me and plotted mine and my family's demise. My children were the first to die because Orgram believed it would weaken me and leave me vulnerable. He gave the poison to the holy man who slipped it into their food." Saja took a rattling breath and steadied herself, blinking away her tears. "What the troll chief didn't realize was that a handful of his trolls saw this deal he'd made with the clergyman as a breech in their laws, so they left, and Pabbie sought me out."

"He told you the truth?"

"He told me everything," Saja sighed, remembering how she'd nearly killed him, "but it was already too late. The clergyman had run from my kingdom the very night he'd poisoned my children, fearing the trolls would betray him. And he was right to have run. My rage was the likes of which this world has never seen and probably will never see again."

"You and your husband must have been devastated," Elsa whispered, watching the memory run its course before dissolve into shift gray mist once again.

"Ragnar was broken by the loss of his children."

"They weren't all Gunnar's?"

Saja smiled thinly again. "No, only Reinn, my eldest, was Gunnar's. The other three were Ragnar's."

"You married him after Gunnar's death," the queen stated rather than asked.

"I did. Shortly after Gunnar died I discovered I was with child. Though it wasn't uncommon for a widowed woman in my culture to raise a child on her own, Ragnar would not hear it and had me marry him. It wasn't as if he forced my hand; I saw the wisdom in our union and the benefits it could give me and my child. It was a union of convenience, but it slowly grew into something more as the years passed. I learned to love him and he, in turn, gave me a family. We were happy for a time…perhaps too happy."

"Did…" Elsa swallowed, not sure this was the right thing to ask. "Did Ragnar help you hunt the trolls?"

The Frost Born chuckled dryly, whipping at her eyes. "No, Elsa, he did not. Though the death of his children pained him greatly, Ragnar was a logical man who realized long before I did that, though we'd lost three precious lives, we still had Reinn. My husband adopted his nephew and raised him as his own, but I was too overcome with grief and rage to realize I still had a husband who loved me and a child who needed a mother. I was blind and a fool and let my hatred consume me."

"You're only human, Saja. I don't know any mother who wouldn't have reacted the same way," Elsa soothed.

"I am not entirely human. I am the daughter of Snaer," Saja said turning to look at the queen, blue eyes glinting like chips of lake ice. "I waited for the weather to turn cold then started hunting. I am a weapon and I used my lethality to murder the innocent. I wanted Orgram dead alongside the holy man, but more than those two fell to my blade. Blinded by my anger and the need for revenge, I slaughtered most of the troll chief's clan."

"And the clergyman?"

"I did not find him until years later, but yes, even he fell to my blade."

The two were silent for a long time after Saja's tale, both women lost in dark thoughts. Eventually, the first Frost Born roused herself and shook the blanket of pain and loss from her shoulders, turning instead to speak to the queen.

"So," she began with forced cheer, "you certainly tried your hardest to die this day. I must commend you on your efforts. You fought hard and gained much."

"I lost more than I gained," Elsa whispered sadly, remembering the bolt in Revel's chest and the blood on his hands. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried hard not to let herself be swept away by the tidal wave of grief threatening to swallow her.

At least I got to see him one last time, she thought morosely, hand clutching her chest. I got to see him smile.

"You killed the men who threatened you and your family. That is a great victory."

"Exactly…I killed someone. It's…" Elsa's breath hitched and she took a moment to steady herself. No matter how many times she fought it she could still see Fritz choking to death as her ice consumed him, could see the fear in his bulging eyes as he thrashed like a fish on a hook. "It wasn't something I ever wanted."

"Sometimes we must do everything we can in order to protect the things we love," Saja said quietly.

"You're right, we do, but that doesn't mean I can be okay with it. I look a life, Saja. Fritz might have been trying to kill me, but he was also a human just like me with flaws and strengths and someone who loved him. His actions were just misguided and twisted, but I can't help but wonder if I had let him live could he have changed his ways and been a better person? What if me killing him was a mistake?" Elsa wrapped her arms around her waist, much like Saja had, and hunched. "I feel so much guilt swirling within me I'm afraid I'm going to implode."

Saja surprised the queen by approaching her and taking her face gently between her icy hands and staring hard into her cerulean orbs. "This is a hard lesson to learn, Elsa, but it is an important one, and one I'll teach you like Gunnar taught me. When in combat you must forget that the person you're fighting is human. You have to forget or push aside any guilt you might feel towards taking a life because in that moment someone is trying to take your life. He might not share your sentiments; he might not even care or see you as a person. The fact that you still saw him as a human is a good sign— you won't ever kill unnecessarily— but if it comes down to you or him, your life is more precious. You family is more precious. Never forget that."

Forced to look at her ancestor, Elsa realized that the light burning in Saja's eyes was such powerful compassion and conviction it momentarily stilled the raging maelstrom inside her and cause her to go still. The first Frost Born surprised her again by pressing her forehead against hers and closing her eyes, the two sharing a quiet moment of reflection before she spoke again. "When I came to you some months ago I called you weak, but I see now that I was mistaken. You are simply young, Elsa Frosberg, with your whole life ahead of you and many more lessons to learn. I am proud to call you my descendant, and I'm proud of the woman you have and will become because I can see now that there is more strength in you than I previously thought."

"I…" Elsa struggled to find something to say, but the unexpected complement momentarily numbed her tongue, so she simply said, "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Saja replied stepping back with a warm smile that seemed to peel away the years and make her shine with an internal beauty. For the first time since their meeting in Elsa's chambers, the queen caught a glimpse of woman beyond the stoic, hardened mask of the warrior queen to the mother and lover underneath. Saja smiled once more before she broke eye contact and glanced around as if hearing something. "It's time for you to go back."

"Back to where?"

"Your body," Saja chuckled, canting her head curiously to one side. "Back to your kingdom and your lover, of course."

At the mention of Revel, Elsa hung her head and looked off into the mist, aching to see him one more time before she awoke. If Saja could relive her memories in a place like this maybe the queen could too. But she had a sick feeling the memory that would replay would be the moment of his death, because that, like Fritz's death, still wouldn't leave her in peace. She could still hear the thud of the crossbow bolt sinking into his flesh and his pained exhale as the shaft bit deep. She could still feel him fall back against her, body sagging as his consciousness faded. Elsa had felt the bolt with her own hand even as she struggled to hold him, willing him to live even before he'd jumped in front of the death that had meant to be hers. Revel had always been adamant that her magic would never fail her, but it had in the worst way possible.

I tried to push you away when I realized what you were about to do. Why wasn't I strong enough to save your life like you did mine? Why am I always the one who needs saving?

The Frost Born saw the forlorn look on her descendants face and frowned, confusion creasing her brow. "Do you not wish to see him?"

"I want more than anything to see him," Elsa whispered fiercely, hands clenching to tight fists at her sides.

"Then return to your body."

"He's dead. I saw him die in my arms…"

"You…" Suddenly Saja understood and a wide smile spread across her face. Elsa saw it and only had a moment to wonder at it before two of the Frost Born's icy fingers touched her creased forehead, smoothing out the wrinkles as she lightly pushed her backwards. "Go back. You have so much more life to live, and we'll speak again soon."

Before Elsa could answer she felt the ground under her give way and was falling before she could draw breath to scream, tumbling head over heels into darkness with no hope of knowing up from down until she landed.

The queen blinked awake with a sudden, sharp gasp, consciousness buoying her back to the surface of existence at lightning speed. Breathing in, Elsa felt her chest expand and whimpered at the pain, tears slipping out of the corner of her sore eyes. The dull ache of her body suddenly became a consuming, fiery throb that intensified with every breath she dragged in. Everything hurt: her eyes felt crusty and grainy; her neck was raw and her chest felt like it had been smashed into pieces and glued back together with acid. Her left side and back throbbed, volcanic agony pulsing under her bandages with each beat of her heart. Raising a trembling hand, she attempted to touch her torso but couldn't manage it, the pain alone enough to make her nauseous. Elsa coughed and swallowed hard, her throat like a wasteland. Even her scalp pulsed with tingling warmth as if someone had brushed her hair with a wire comb. And to make matters worse, for a terrifying moment she thought she'd gone blind. Her eyes were open but all she could see was pitch black darkness in all directions.

Lying as still as possible, Elsa blinked a few more times and squinted into the blackness as hard as she could, willing her vision to return. Eventually, her sore eyes began to adjust to the gloom and she noticed with a rush of relief she was staring up at a granite ceiling. Throwing her senses further and focusing on her breathing, she relaxed as much as possible and realized she was lying on a soft bed of furs, the follicles sliding like silk between her fingers. A pillow rested under her head, firm but comfortable and oddly smelling like her sister. There was a blanket over her legs that stopped at her waist where the bandages began.


Lifting her head took far more effort than she thought it would, but Elsa was now able to see she was wrapped from waist to shoulder in rough wool bandages that overlapped the other in an expert bind. They smelled sweet, or something under them did, and were snug enough she could move if she wanted while keeping her wounds firmly shut.

Someone wrapped me in bandages…she thought, mind still slightly sluggish. So am I back in the castle or…

A gentle breeze touched her cheek, and Elsa turned towards the sound of fluttering fabric. The first rays of a soft gray dawn were peeking through the gap in the curtain drawn across the entrance of the rock shelter, and she suddenly realized where she was.

I'm in Pabbie's valley. That's right…Saja said I was with the trolls.

The thought of her ancestor immediately snapped her out of her haze. She was in the troll territory, but how? The last thing she remembered was Adrek's hands around her throat and then him screaming and letting her go. Then Revel…

At about the same moment her memory caught up with her, Elsa happened to look down and saw a dark lump lying beside her, and her heart dropped into her stomach. "No," she whimpered softly, attempting to roll towards him. She couldn't see him clearly because of the darkness of the room she occupied, but Revel lay on his side facing her, face slack and body relaxed. In the gray light of morning he looked so peaceful it was almost impossible to come to terms with the fact that she was looking at his corpse. Tears stung her eyes, making them ache all the more, but she let them fall as she reached for him, terrified she'd find him cold but needed to at least touch him one final time.

You fool, she thought, struggling to keep her hand steady as it shook from trepidation and pain, why couldn't you have just stayed in the room or run when the castle came down. Why'd you have to jump in front of me? Why are you dead and I'm alive?

"I'm so sorry, Revel," she hissed, gritting her teeth. "I never wanted any of this to happen. I never asked for you to sacrifice yourself for me. Why couldn't you have just lis—"

Her cold hand touched his warm arm and he came to life with a sudden, sharp jolt, sufficiently startling the queen. Elsa jerked away with a ragged gasp, scrambling back out of reflex until her battered body expressed its displeasure in a chorus of volcanic shouts. The earth tilting dangerously under her, she stared in petrified terror, heart jumping from her stomach to her throat in a tremendous leap and right hand extended in an effort to ward off the wraith of her lover.

Revel stared at her, blinking away the haze of sleep and tired confusion. Then the biggest smile she'd ever seen suddenly broke across his face once he realized this wasn't some perverse dream, but his joy at seeing his beloved awake quickly faded when he saw the utter terror on her face. Slowly he edged towards her, holding out his own hands in a gesture of reassurance. "Elsa, it's me. Calm down, love; it's just—"

He abruptly stopped when she suddenly grabbed ahold of his arm with surprising strength and began touching him all over, hands working over his chest and shoulders before cupping his face. Her fingers moved along the edge of his jaw and the coarse stubble there, across the bridge of his nose, tracing the familiar lines of his features like a blind man reading brail for the first time. Her eyes were fiercely bright, almost fevered, as she stared hard at him as if at any moment she expected to blink and he'd be gone. Her breath was ragged and labored, washing across his face in cold waves until it finally hitched and a tight, raspy sob of, "You're alive," broke free seconds before the lances pain driving into her chest, back, and side became too much and she sagged into him.

"Hey, hey, I've got you," Revel soothed, catching her and gently laying her back down. "Be still and just breathe. I'll be right back."

He attempted to rise but Elsa had a firm grip on his hand and wouldn't let go. Revel stopped and knelt beside her, noting the sweat starting to bead along her hairline. His warm palm cupped her cool cheek and he smiled again, relief plain on his face. "I'm just going to go get you some water. I won't be gone long."

Not reassured in the least, Elsa fought to release her grip and let her hand drop. Revel flashed her one final smile before ducking out of the room and disappearing. He couldn't have been gone more than five minutes but already the queen was slipping back into the hazy depths of fever-sleep, her body a coiling mass of agony. Never in her life had she experienced this level of pain. It drew out every minute to an eternity, slowing the passage of time and leaving her numb to anything aside from an allover throb. Revel returned, sliding back first through the rawhide curtain and carefully setting a tray laden with earthenware pots, two cups, and an assortment of nuts, fruits, berries and vegetables. He carefully set the tray down and scooted close to her, eyes bright in the dim light. The curtain moved again, a slash of grey morning flashing past, as someone else entered the room. Elsa squinted at the small figure, wavy vision making it difficult to tell who it was.

"Belluma?" she frowned, voice barely above a hoarse whisper.

"I…" the troll pulled up short, mouth hanging open. "How do you know that name?"

Elsa shook her head but her mind was a muddled mess and the sharp movement only served to stir the muddiness even more. She groaned and coughed, wishing desperately she had something to—

"Here, drink this." Revel lifted her head and pressed a small cup to her lips. At first Elsa tried to show some semblance of decorum but her liquid starved body proved too dry and she threw etiquette out the wind, drinking greedily after the first few sips, streams of water dribbling out of the corners of her mouth.

"Easy love, easy. There's plenty here. Don't choke yourself," Revel said softly, carefully lifting the cup so as to not allow her to drink too much all at once.

The first couple of glasses had no taste, just the blissful balm of cold mountain water soothing the wasteland that was her throat. After the third cup, Elsa began to taste a sweetness in the water, the liquid flavored with something that wasn't altogether unpleasant. It had a citrus note to it, something akin to oranges, with strawberry and a few other flavors she couldn't identify. Still, it was no matter. The water seemed to be doing the trick and she felt her body begin to relax, the fire in her mouth and throat extinguished along with some other pleasant side effects. The constant screaming torture of her wounds were quickly fading into blissful numbness. Elsa became dimly aware that the troll she'd mistaken for Belluma, who was instead Bulda, had plopped down next to Revel and was proceeding to mix and grind different herbs in an ancient-looking mortar. She caught the queen looking at her and smiled warmly, but didn't stop her grinding.

"Rest now, Elsa. You'll feel better once you've let your body sleep a little longer."

The queen tried to object, she really didn't want to sleep— but oh, it felt so good to finally breathe again without being in constant agony. Eyes sliding lazily over to Revel, she held his gaze for a few seconds longer, the fingers of her extended left hand entwined with his, before the tea took full affect and pulled her into a peaceful, blissfully dreamless sleep.

"We'll have her rest a little while longer while you change her bandages," Bulda explained as Revel reluctantly untangled his fingers from Elsa's and went to work. To his great and relieved surprise her wounds were healing nicely, only a hint of redness around some of the stitching. He applied the paste Bulda had been mixing with steady hands, all the while watching his beloved slumber peacefully. An hour later he was done, stepping out of the room with Bulda as the first true rays of sunlight hit the valley and began burning away the customary morning mist.

"How long will she sleep?" he asked, stretching his back and trying to suppress a loud growl from his stomach. He'd not eaten in almost three days.

Bulda chuckled and waved to the tray still inside the room with enough food for him and Elsa to share. "She drank three full cups of slumber-tea, so she should be asleep for most of the morning if not some of the afternoon depending on how quickly her body is healing. But you, dear one, need to go in and eat something before you faint. You're thin enough as is…the both of you are."

"I don't want to disturb her," he said with great reluctance, glancing back at the rock-shelter. He couldn't understand why she'd been so startled to see him. Maybe it had just been confusion brought on by pain, but he couldn't help but feel something tug at his soul when she'd realized he was actually there with her and not dead. You're alive, she'd choked, and the relief in her eyes was nothing short of witnessing a miracle happen.

"Then you are welcome to eat with the rest of us. Pabbie will have already risen by now and started the morning songs," Bulda explained, walking towards a cluster of tall boulders with blue spirals etched into the stone.

"He sings?" Revel asked curiously, following the troll-mother.

"He does, but it's not in the fashion you humans are familiar with. Every morning at sunrise, Pabbie sings to our earth-mother and thanks her for providing us with another safe night and asks her to grant us a prosperous day. He also sings to the sky-father and thanks him for moving the moon across the heavens and bringing back the sun," the little troll explained, leading the former captain into the cluster of stones which was larger than Revel anticipated. Most of the clan seemed to be in attendance, sitting in a tight circle around Pabbie who sat at the center. Each troll rested their hands on the shoulder of a clan member in front of them, creating a matrix of interwoven arms that ended with the troll closest to Pabbie pushing their stony fingers into the earth.

Bulda found a place at the back of the congregation and sat, pulling Revel down next to her. A few trolls turned to look at him, curious as to why he was here, but a sharp look from the troll-mother quickly turned them back around. Bulda reached out and touched the shoulders of the clansmen in front of her and nodded for Revel to do the same.

"This won't take long. After Pabbie's song we'll grab some food and head back to Kristoff's quarters," she whispered.

Revel hesitantly copied the little troll, placing his hands top the shoulders of the troll in front of him. He felt a small spark of something race up his fingers and shivered but refused to let go lest he insult them. Allowing himself a chance to relax, Revel closed his eyes and exhaled, opening himself to the troll chief's song that carried across the clustered mass of hunched and silent stone figures in lilting, rhythmic baritones. It took him a moment to realize Pabbie wasn't simply humming notes but actually speaking in a language not remotely human. There was power in each note, tendrils of something never before felt by the former captain snaking through the crowd and making the snowflake brand on his chest tingle and itch.

Eyes closed, he could feel the push and pull of foreign power like an ocean tide, gentle fingers both warm and cold brushing his exposed skin and making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He likened the sensation to a smith's bellows blowing fresh air on hot coals in order to heat them to a desired degree. Suddenly he could smell the rich scent of earth and pine, the heady flavor of the forest sticking to the roof of his mouth and the back of his tongue. The ground under him hummed, vibrations working up his crossed legs and climbing his spine until it enveloped his head like a crown. The sensation was both electrifying and startling. Revel could feel himself getting lost in Pabbie's song, the notes carrying him away to an unfamiliar place. Something prompted him to open his eyes, and he obediently complied, not prepared for what he was about to see.

The little clearing was alive with color, each troll engulfed in snapping flames that matched the fierce glow of the jewels hanging around their necks. As the troll chief continued to sing, the song growing in pitch and beat, the flames soared higher and began to spin, a rainbow of color turning like a slow whirlpool with Pabbie as the glowing, golden nucleus at the center. Faster and faster they spun until they were a muddied blur swirling too fast for the eye to see. Revel stared in open mouthed wonder, expecting to feel the effects of the whirlpool like a harsh wind or a powerful current but instead only feeling a steady pulsing like hundreds of hearts beating together in a synced tempo. He was shocked to find his own heart joining the rhythm, syncing with the rest of the congregation with effortless ease.

Suddenly the song hit a high, clear note and the spiraling vortex of color shot skyward with a rush that the former captain actually did feel as it moved the hair off his shoulders and left him gaping. The pillar of light capped off into a swirling dome some ways above him, light and color still spinning and mixing in a dizzying frenzy. Hand's still resting on the shoulders of the trolls in front of him, he glanced down and saw that his snowflake brand was aglow, color suffusing his shirt and shining through the fabric. It joined with the other colors, melding with the flow, and with a remarkable revelation he realized he could understand the troll chief, his words transcending the language barrier and piercing Revel to the soul.

When up turns to down

And sky becomes ground

We rise, we rise, we rise

When earth-mother sings

In halls of forest and king

We rise, we rise, we rise

When sky-father rides

Great steeds across the sky

Earth-children raise your voice

For in the in between day

When light turns to grey

And power comes as a choice

Let the earth-children know

The seed has been sown

So we rise, we rise, we rise

Multiple times the troll chief recited this chant, his low voice carrying an echo of power causing the swirling vortex of color to ripple and shift like fingers moving across the surface of water. Revel felt Pabbie's voice move through him, piercing marrow and soul alike, an electric current that settled under his brand and filled him with such warmth and fervor he felt as if he were going to overload. He didn't know if it was simply his imagination or something else, but he watched a shape form within the whirlpool of light and color: limbs, torso, shoulder and head pulling together like smoke trapped in a bottle. It was vaguely human but obviously feminine, with wide hips and ample breasts all cast in colorful silhouette. The being, whatever it was, silently strode through the troll masses, lingering near a few before moving on, and all the while Revel felt like at any moment he was going to disconnect from the earth and fly off into space. Having never been a religious man he'd never experienced a truly spiritual moment, but here with the trolls, watching this otherworldly being move among these mythical creatures, he felt his awe and amazement like a tidal wave crashing against a steadfast mountain. Unable to close his eyes, he felt tears trail down his cheeks, heart slamming behind his ribcage as the colors began to brighten into an intense blue before disappearing altogether in a blinding flash that left him dizzy and lightheaded. It was unclear how long he'd sat gasping, but Bulda's gentle touch brought him back around and he leveled wide eyes on her, hands shaking so violently he had to set them in his lap. The troll-mother was eyeing him closely, head canted to one side.

"You saw her, didn't you?" she eventually asked, a small smile splitting her face.

At first he was unable to form words, but eventually Revel managed to squeak out, "Who's…her?"

"The earth-mother," Bulda replied with a kind smile, the first kind smile Revel had seen directed towards him since he'd entered the troll territory with Elsa early yesterday morning.

"W-Was she— is she a…goddess?"

"You humans have always sought to label things in order to better understand. She is simply the earth-mother, bearing no name or title in our language. She is all and everything, not a physical being but rather a spirit that resides within the very essence of the earth and all that tread upon her land."

"But…I…" Revel took a breath to steady himself and unconsciously laid a hand over the snowflake brand and felt a flutter against his palm almost like a secondary heartbeat.

"Come, dear one. We need to get you some food. You look white as a sheet."

Revel clambered to his feet, aware that most of the trolls had already left the clearing. He glanced over his shoulder to where Pabbie had sat and saw trails of freshly bloomed white and blue flowers trailing around the stone grove, following the path the spirit had walked. Shaking his head, he followed Bulda back to the rock shelter. The little troll had ducked inside the room and retrieved the tray, setting it between them as she sat heavily against one of the stone slabs, feet stretched out before her.

"Eat, eat," she prompted, scooting a bowl filled with mixed fruits and nuts towards Revel. He graciously accepted it with a nod and popped a few berries into his mouth, trying hard not to shovel a whole handful down his throat. He really was quite hungry.

"If you're anything like my son you'll have an appetite like a bear going into hibernation," Bulda laughed, munching happily on what looked like a piece of root she'd fetched before heading back to the rock shelter.

"I bet it was all the nuts and berries that made Kristoff into a giant," Revel remarked conversationally when the two had fallen into a fragile silence. He still wasn't sure of what he'd seen, but for the moment he was willing to just let it go so he could focus on the more pressing issues at hand.

"I can tell you, feeding that child was a clan effort," the troll-mother sighed, continuing to munch on her root. "We're plant eaters, you see, but humans' need both to survive. So finding adequate food for Kristoff was a challenge when he was younger. Luckily, the other ice harvesters seemed to form an attachment to him and taught him how to hunt and fish in the proper seasons."

"You don't eat meat?" Revel asked, genuinely curious. He also wanted to know why the mountain man had been raised solely by trolls and not with a normal, human family but figured that was probably too personal a topic for someone who was still considered an outsider.

"We respect the land and all living things," Bulda explained patiently. "That means eating things grown solely from the earth and leaving the living creatures alone. That is our practice which isn't often shared amongst the humans. Your bodies need meat to survive, so Kristoff had to learn how to hunt at a young age."

"And it never bothered you that he was eating a living creature?"

"Not when I know that creature gave its life in order to allow my boy to live," Bulda answered with a firmness that alluded to many arguments waged on behalf of her adopted son's need to eat things other than roots and berries.

Revel finished off his bowl of nuts and fruit and started on another filled with assorted vegetables and mushrooms. After a moment, he decided to venture further into the depths of personal conversation, testing the waters, so-to-speak. "So…was it strange raising a human child?"

"There were…marked differences," Bulda admitted after giving Revel a shrew look that lead him to believe he'd overstepped his bounds. "There are marked differences between trolls and humans, namely the fact that you all are so susceptible to illness and chills. I learned very quickly how to keep Kristoff warm and how to treat him when he got sick or hurt himself…which was often," Bulda mumbled with a rueful smile.

"Sick or injured?"

"Both, really. We trolls are heavy creatures and sometimes we forget how frail flesh and bone bodies are. That's why we built this room for him." The troll-mother gave the granite wall she sat behind a fond pat. "That and it was a place he could bring and bed Anna-dear in private."

Revel felt a flush working into his cheeks and coughed to cover his embarrassment. Picturing Anna in a…sexual setting, even if it was with her husband, wasn't something he wanted on his mind. "She's a lucky woman to have found a man like him," he managed.

"We think the opposite," Bulda laughed. "It's Kristoff who was the lucky one. We were so ecstatic when he brought her here the first time. My little boy had found a girl!"

There was something in the way she'd said it that made Revel curious as to whether or not Bulda was glad her son had found a mate or whether he'd found a woman instead of a man. "Did you…expect him to bring home someone else?"

"Well…" Bulda waffled, wincing slightly, "if he had we'd have loved him none-the-less. Humans have such strange boundaries when it comes to who and what you love, but I really wanted grandchildren. Ever since his mushroom grew and his stones dropped, I've been hoping for grandbabies." Bulda cracked a wide grin, eyes lost in a memory. "Ah, I remember the day he came to me and Pabbie because he'd grown his first mushroom…only we realized it wasn't really a mushroom swinging between his legs but a tree bough."

Revel snorted and choked on his tea, coughing the bits of inhaled liquid out of his lungs. "I…I umm…yeah, I'm going to have to take your word on that," he managed to wheeze out. Bulda cackled and rocked back laughing, Revel joining her in a chuckle after he'd recovered. There really was no comeback to a statement like that, so he kept his mouth shut and enjoyed the warm sensation of proper food in his system.

"Well, I need to be off to check on a few things. I'll send for one of my sister trolls to keep watch while you head for a bath," Bulda said, grunting as she rose to her feet.

"Do I smell that bad?" Revel laughed, sniffing his shirt only to cough and recoil at his own stench.

"Judging by the look on your face, you can even smell you," she chuckled. "Put on the tunic and pants I gave you last night. While you were sleeping, I took them in a bit so they should fit you better."

"Thank you, Bulda."

The troll-mother nodded and headed off, leaving Revel alone outside the rock shelter. Taking a few minutes to check on Elsa, he ducked inside and found her sleeping peacefully. The heat had faded from her cheeks and she seemed to be a shade less pale, both good indications of her rapid recovery which he contributed to the Glacier-eye. Eventually a squat female troll with multiple green jewels around her neck and a crop of mushrooms growing off her shoulders arrived and showed Revel to where the hot springs were located. Nothing more spectacular than steaming holes in the ground with a few rocks clustered at the edges, he undressed and washed quickly, fighting the urge to remain in the blissfully hot water for as long as possible but not wanting to remain away from Elsa for too long. Still, it was refreshing to remove the days of sweat and stress from his skin and hair, scrubbing it away with a lump of fragrant moss provided by his troll guide.

When he returned to the rock shelter, dressed in borrowed clothes that were still a bit too large and hair still damp, the female troll departed without a word and he slid down next to his beloved, content on watching her sleep. He didn't realize he'd begun to doze, more relaxed from his bath than he previously thought, until the sound of movement awakened him sometime later and he opened his eyes to find Elsa remarkably sitting up, back pressed against the wall of the stone room. For a scant couple of seconds he remained still, simply watching her, silently marveling at the progress her body had made in only a day. The beating she'd undergone should have seen her bedridden for weeks with no guarantee she would have recovered without permanent scarring or disablement. Yet here she was, sitting up when more than one rib had been broken, her sternum fractures, her side slashed and back flayed open.

If I didn't believe it before, I do now. There really is true magic in this world far beyond my comprehending.

"You drugged me," were her first words, and for a heart stopping moment Revel thought she was angry at him until she glanced his way and he saw that the corners of her mouth were turned up. He suppressed a relieved sigh and waved his hand airily.

"Ah, well, I see I've been caught red-handed. It was for your own good you know, the drugging and all," he replied, jacking himself up on his elbow. From this angle he could see that the livid bruising around her throat had faded to a pale yellow spotted here and there with small blooms of brown, the skin almost completely healed.

"You just wanted me prone and at your mercy," Elsa sniffed indignantly, her smile growing wider as she absentmindedly played with a few loose strands of hair.

"I just wanted you well," he answered seriously, rising to his knees and taking her face in his hands. Her smile faded as she too became serious, leaning into his touch as her eyes searched his face. Revel kissed her gently, careful not to press too firmly in case her wounds still ached, which judging by the ginger way she moved they did, but she returned his embrace with a fierce one of her own, drawing herself closer to him. For a breathless handful of seconds they remained locked together, both forcing themselves to realize this was real and not some perverse, cruel dream. It had to be done, for both Revel and Elsa had believed they'd lost the other and craved physical reassurance. They made sure the press of their lips was real; the heat and softness of the other's skin was real; the smell and taste and overall sensation of their close proximity was real. Eventually the two broke away for air but kept their foreheads pressed together—his hands resting on her neck and her hands tangled in the fabric of his shirt.

"I thought I'd lost you," Revel whispered, tears pricking his eyes. He distantly wondered if there'd ever be a point when he'd stop crying.

"For a minute there, you did," Elsa replied just as quietly and tearfully, an admission that tore at her soul .

"Because of me," he rasped, drawing back, eyes averted. "None of this would have happened had I—"

"No," Elsa said firmly, a finger pressed against his lips. "I'm not going to sit here and let you wallow in guilt. The fault is to be shared between the both of us. One is not above the other."

"But I—"

"No. No buts about it, do you understand? I forgive you a thousand times over and a thousand times more. And I hope you can forgive me as well."

"Of course I do," he urged. "I still don't believe any of this was your fault."

"We have differing opinions then, but I'm glad you forgive me." Then more quietly she added, "If we are to be together we have to learn to share the blame."

Revel felt an explosion of warmth bloom in his chest like a firework and pulled her close, burying his face in the crook of her neck and trying hard not to squeeze her. "I love you; from here till the end of time."

"And I you," she said, leaning back to kiss him once more, but stopped when her fingers slid over a few raised lines on his chest. Confused, she looked down. "What is…?" When the lines began to glow faintly under her touch she gasped and leaned closer. "What is that?"

"It's better if I show you," Revel explained quickly and pulled off his tunic, watching Elsa's eyes grow large at the sight of the snowflake brand.

"That's…the snowflake I made for you at Christmas," she whispered and realized in a sudden rush that the mark sat exactly where the crossbow bolt had hit him. "How is this possible…I felt the shaft hit you."

"I don't know how it happened either," he admitted, trying to fill the void that preceded stunned amazement. "I remember feeling the bolt hit me and knocking the wind out of me, but somehow it never pierced my skin. I didn't even realize the snowflake was there until Pabbie had me take off my shirt after I brought you here. He said you branded me. Well, not exactly branded. This is the troll jewel you had me wear. It somehow mixed with your power." Revel realized he was doing a horrible job at explaining what had happened, and there was no wondering why. He didn't even fully understand it himself.

"Troll magic and ice magic can't mix," Elsa breathed, remembering Saja's words.

"Pabbie said the same thing, but apparently it can when love is thrown into the mix."

Elsa looked up from her staring, unsure if he was being ironic or serious. "Is that how they explained it? Love?"

"Actually, yes. Those were Pabbie's words exactly."

Sitting back, the queen let her fingers trail over the mark, watching with rapt fascination as the snowflake glittered and shimmered under her touch. It was warm, like his skin, but under the surface Elsa could feel the gentle thrum of her magic. If she concentrated, she could sense the mark like two magnets moved close together, her power reaching for Revel and wanting to connect with him. But there was also a wild kind of power imbedded within, like bottled springtime. It coiled around her arctic magic, the two balanced in near perfect harmony. She knew nothing like this would ever exist again, at least created by her hand, so she let her marvel show, fingers memorizing each facet and curl.

"It's beautiful."

"Because you made it," Revel said softly, pressing her palm against the brand with his hand. Elsa started and jumped a little, glancing at her left shoulder. The former captain frowned, brow wrinkling. "Is something wrong?"

"No," she breathed then laughed: a pure, clear sound that raised goosebumps across Revel's skin. "I feel…I don't know how to explain it. My brand feels warm." She used her free hand to touch her own mark just to be sure.

"Doesn't it always?"

"No, usually it's cold, but when I'm touching you," she looked over at his chest then back to her shoulder, "it feels warm. I think I'm feeling you."

"Well of course you are. Your hands are pressed against my chest," Revel teased with a wide smile. Elsa gently shoved him, rolling her eyes. He mimed being pushed by someone with considerable strength, over-exaggerating his fall and pulling his beloved down with him in slow motion. He eased her to a stop, mindful of her healing body, and smiled up at her, fingers running through her unbound, platinum locks and massaging her scalp. Elsa closed her eyes and lay against him, her own cool fingers still tracing the mark on his chest.

"Mmmm, that feels good," she purred, relaxing further.

"I'm glad," Revel smiled, delighted in the security of her weight against his body and the scent of her filling his nose. She was his and she was alive, two miracles he'd never thought could happen.

"Revel," Elsa said after a while, palm coming to a rest over the mark on his chest. "What happened inside my ice palace and the journey here? I remember so little…"

He was quiet for a long time, torn between telling her the truth or giving her a general explanation of what happened. Truth eventually won over convenience, and he sighed deeply, not wanting to relive those terrifying moment when he'd been so sure he'd lost her for good.

"You were badly injured, Elsa. I'm not surprised you don't remember much."

"I thought I saw Kristoff. Was I imagining that?"

"No, he was there. He brought Sigmund and a small regiment of guards with him. It was your brother-in-law who shot Adrek and killed him."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, genuinely aggrieved for his loss.

"Don't be," Revel sighed, stroking her shoulder with his thumb. "I buried my brother years ago. Anyway, you were losing a lot of blood and fading in and out when I got to you. The castle was coming down, so I followed Kristoff and Sigmund out to there your sister was waiting." At the mention of Anna, Elsa sat up a bit too quickly and hissed at the sudden, tugging pain in her back as the stitches pulled tight. "Hey, easy love. Try not to move too quickly."

Elsa waved him off, pushing past the pain so she could look at him. "I'm fine. Why was Anna there?"

Revel looked unconvinced but didn't push the issue. "I didn't ask, but I assume she came with her husband and the guards. We put you in the sled but—" he cut off mid-sentence, mind returning to snowy plateau where Sebastian knelt with the queen in his arms, a forlorn look on his face. Pressing his lips together, Revel pressed on, aware his love was watching him with intent eyes. "One of the guards who accompanied Sigmund was a medic. He informed us that you had lost too much blood and wouldn't make it down the mountain. And he was right. Kristoff told the company he knew a place to take you, but on the way there you stopped breathing. I worked to get your heart beating again and succeeded, but for a few terrifying minutes I thought I'd never see you again."

Elsa lay back down, digesting what he'd just told her. She'd technically died coming down the mountain but he'd brought her back. "You saved me twice."

"I couldn't lose you," he rasped, rolling her onto her right side so he could better see her face. "I couldn't let you go."

"I'm here," she smiled, gripping his hand tightly. "I'm safe."

"Now you are, but in the beginning, when we brought you to Pabbie, it wasn't clear if he'd be able to help. He couldn't touch you in order to heal you."

At this bit of information, Elsa frowned deeply. "Why?"

Revel brushed the cascade of her platinum hair aside and touched the handprint brand on her shoulder, feeling a slight tingle in his fingers when he did. "Because of this. Saja marked you with her magic which meant the trolls couldn't touch you. Bulda tried and your power threw her back." Elsa said nothing, just covered where Revel's hand rested on her brand with her own. "Pabbie thought that was the end. According to him, you were bleeding internally, and without anything to heal you, you were going to die. But then this huge ice hawk showed up and things became…strange."

"Himmelen?" Elsa perked up, remembering Saja's icy companion.

"I think that was his name. My mind goes a little fuzzy here because somehow Saja managed to connect with me through this mark on my chest and spoke to the trolls. She told them to use the Glacier-eye Himmelen had to heal you, but only I could touch it."

"So it was Saja who gave you the Glacier-eye?"

Revel nodded. "She left after delivering her message, and I put the eye in you while starting the process of stitching you up."

"Ah, so this is your handy work," Elsa smiled, touching her side. It was remarkable. She knew she should be in excruciating pain but her wounds barely ached anymore, just an allover tenderness that could flare into uncomfortable pain if she shifted the wrong way.

"I did my best. Pabbie provided everything I needed to work on you."

"So we've been here for what…a few hours?"

"A full day," Revel corrected. "It's Sunday afternoon, if I've got my days right."

"Is everyone still here? Kristoff, my sister and the guards, I mean." Revel winced and looked away, prompting Elsa to cant her head in uneasy confusion. "Revel, where's my sister?"

"Back at the castle…giving birth."

"What?!" This time when she sat up she ignored the pain entirely and stared at him open mouthed. "My sister's in labor and I'm not there?!"

"Elsa, you were unconscious. Anna will be fine. I sent Sigmund and the rest of the guards back with her."

"You don't understand," she snapped, struggling to push herself onto her knees, her side and back starting to pulse. She managed to make it into a kneeling position, limbs shaking, before lurching to her feet. Leaning heavily against the stone wall, she attempted to move towards the rawhide flap when the unhappy ache of her wounds suddenly flared into a burning agony and she began to sag. Revel, who had gotten to his feet alongside the queen, caught her as her knees buckled and she tipped forward, vision momentarily blurring.

"Whoa, hey, I've got you," he soothed, easing the both of them back down into their knees. Elsa's breathing was labored with pain, frost crusting her fingers and spreading out under her, so he kept her close to his chest, letting her catch her breath.

"I need…" she struggled, fighting through the wall of fire quickly engulfing her, "to get back home. Anna…needs me."

"I know, but you can't move around so much at first. It's a miracle you're moving around at all, but if you push yourself there's a chance you'll reopen your wounds."

"But I need to be there for her!" she countered, urgency and guilt plain on her face.

"You need to be well enough first, love. Anna didn't want to leave you either, but she had to think about the babies. You need to do the same and think about yourself. Your body needs a chance to heal."

"But I—"

"Stop," he said, silencing her with a finger over her lips. "At the rate you're healing, I think we might be able to leave tomorrow morning, but only if you calm down and allow yourself to rest for a while longer. Anna is fine. You know she is with Kristoff by her side. You'll see her soon."

Elsa reluctantly allowed him to lay her back down but was unable to allow herself to fully relax. As queen she should be there to welcome the birth of the only current, eligible heirs to the throne of Arendelle, but she also should be there because it was her little sister. Elsa had no trouble believing Anna would have more children in the future, but missing out on this opportunity physically pained her.

"What kind of sister am I if I'm not there for the birth of my nieces or nephews?" she mournfully voice aloud.

"One who was just recently fighting for her life," Revel answered firmly, making her look at him. "This is not something to feel guilty about, Elsa. This is just horrible timing on the universe's part." That managed to pull a faint smile onto her lips. "Are you hungry?" he asked, turning the tide of conversation.

"I am, actually," she admitted with a small amount of blush rising into her cheeks as she attempted to be polite. Really, Elsa was almost beyond the point of famished and had seriously considered gnawing on her arm. She attributed her hunger to how quickly her body was healing.

Revel laughed and got to his feet. "I'll go get some more food from Bulda."


"I—um—ate your portion while you were sleeping," he admitted sheepishly.

Elsa rolled her eyes. "Figures. Leave the food with the men and they eat it all."

"Hey, I'll have you know I hadn't eaten since Friday."

"That makes two of us," she countered quickly, her wit returning. Revel made a face and disappeared, returning a few minutes later with another tray of food and some tea that Elsa eyed suspiciously. "I swear its normal tea…or as normal as troll tea can be. We'll drink it together."

So they ate and drank their fill, both basking in the others company and continuing the threads of their conversation until there was little else to say. Eventually, once the food was gone and the tray moved aside, the two lay together, drifting in and out. Bulda and Pabbie stopped by at some point later in the afternoon and found the two lovers asleep in each-other's arms. The trolls left them to their well-deserved rest, shooing a few curious youngsters away so the couple could sleep in peace and regain their strength.

"Are you sure you're well enough for this," Revel asked for the fifth time since Elsa had emerged from the rock shelter earlier that morning.

"How many times do I need to tell you that I'm fine," she groused, leaning heavily against a boulder, right arm crossed over her midsection and applying pressure to her bandaged side. She'd donned the thick wool tunic Bulda had given her, the fabric, despite having been taken in considerably, still swallowed her willowy frame. The troll-mother had secured it with a sash, careful not to tie it too tight lest it chafe at Elsa's stitches.

Revel had checked them earlier that morning, carefully unbinding her and allowing the queen the first real look at the injuries she could at least see. The gash in her side was a shallow crescent that began towards the back of her torso and stopped below the curve of her ribs just below her breast— roughly twelve or more inches in length. Her beloved had done a fine job sewing her back together, the sections of lacerated skin fitting together like puzzle pieces, the sinew he'd used to hold it closed a stitch that would have made Ingrid, the royal seamstress, proud. Elsa knew there was going to be a scar, but judging from Revel's excellent work it would one she could live with. The rest of her body, namely her right side and chest, was a mass of mottled bruising of varying degrees of color.

"The gash on your back was the worst," he'd explained while peeling the strips of ointment suffused bark away. Elsa sat very still as he worked, wincing every-so-often when he pulled a sensitive stitch.

"How so?" she'd asked, trying not to fidget.

"The cut on your side was made by a sharp blade meaning the laceration was a clean break in the skin."

"No kidding," Elsa mumbled, suppressing a sick shiver at the memory of Fritz's blade against her skin and how it had tugged before biting deep. Even the memory of the pain was enough to make her nauseous. Revel seemed to sense her emotional discomfort and carefully wrapped his arms around her shoulders, nuzzling her bare neck and laying down a string of kisses from her shoulder to just below her ear. Elsa shivered in pleasure, biting her bottom lip to keep from gasping.

"I've got you; you're safe," he reiterated for the hundredth time, mumbling the mantra he'd been reciting since she'd awoken.

"I feel you," the queen replied, finishing the mantra and leaning back into him, eyes closed.

After a moment Revel pulled away and bent back to work, continuing his explanation. "Anyway, clean cuts are the easiest wounds to stitch. Unfortunately, the one on your back was ragged and uneven. Putting the skin back together took a lot of piecing, but even then there are uneven areas."

"Is that why it hurts more?"

"That and it runs across your spine." He indicated the path of the wound by running his finger alongside it starting at just left of her lower back, up across her spine, between her shoulder blades and stopping just shy of her right shoulder.

"How long do you think the stitches will be in?"

"I really couldn't say," Revel admitted with a sigh. "I don't know if the Glacier-eye is still healing you, but judging from the works it's done in almost two days, I'd say you might be able to remove them in another week or two."

"Explaining this to Physician Brynja is going to be a chore," the queen muttered, straightening as Revel started to bind her again in fresh bandages provided by the trolls.

"I can imagine there's going to be a lot of meetings and explanations once we get back to the castle," the former captain said quietly, a note of unease in his voice. Elsa didn't need to ask what he was alluding to. If Sigmund had returned with Anna and Kristoff he'd have told the Asham prince what had transpired in the ice castle. There was no telling how Symon would react to the knowledge that his king had been killed while trying to assassinate the Arendelle queen, his champion alongside him. There was no telling how he'd react to the news that Revel was alive and innocent of his murder charge. There was no telling…and the prospect of the unpredictable unknown made Revel nervous. He didn't really know his little brother well enough to gauge how he'd react and that scared him.

"I just don't want you to overexert yourself," Revel explained as he saddled the fjord pony who nickered happily.

"It's a necessary evil, I'm afraid," Elsa replied with a gusty sigh.

"We could stay another day or two…give you a chance to—"

"We're going back to Arendelle, Revel," the queen said, unquestionable finality in her voice. The former captain couldn't help but smile which made Elsa frown. "What?"

"It's just good to hear that regal steel in your voice again. Let's me know you really are on the road to recovery."

"Keep stalling and you'll see exactly how regal I can be," Elsa tried to say with unmoved seriousness but couldn't keep the slowly spreading grin from her face.

"Of course, Majesty," Revel replied with a mocking bow. "I am forever your servant."

Unable to properly smack him, Elsa simply rolled her eyes and leaned against the sun-warmed boulder, the heat a blissful balm on her injuries. Despite having been healed remarkably fast, they still ached and burned every-so-often if she shifted right, and regardless of her driving desire to return to her kingdom, Elsa knew the ride down the mountain would be a painful one.

"It's good to see you standing, Elsa."

The queen turned to find Pabbie standing behind her, kind eyes squinted as he smiled up at her. She returned his smile wishing she could kneel down and give him a proper hug but not wanting to gamble her precarious balancing act. It had taken her most of the morning to remain standing for longer than a couple of seconds. So instead, Elsa turned slightly and held out her hand which the troll chief took after a moment's hesitation. No sparks of warring power leapt between them, a sure sign that the Glacier-eye had run its course and Saja's connection had lessened considerably.

"Thank you, Pabbie. This is twice now you've saved my life. I don't think I can ever repay you."

"It is my duty, Elsa," Pabbie replied with a wide, warm smile, squeezing her hand gently. "I only wish I could have done more. The Glacier-eye is only so powerful."

"It's not your fault Saja won't let you touch me with troll magic. But you gave Revel everything he needed to see to my recovery. That alone was more than I could have asked for."

"You are too kind," the troll chief said with a sigh. Elsa saw the glimmer of distant sadness in the troll's eyes, hundreds of years of guilt hanging around his neck like a weight, and was suddenly overcome with the urge to tell him she knew everything, to let him know he owed her nothing. Four hundred years of bearing the weight of his guilt was long enough, especially since it wasn't his fault. Carefully, because it was difficult to go to her knees due to the stitches in her back, Elsa lowered herself down with the aid of the rock she leaned against and put her hands on Pabbie's shoulders.

"I know everything, Pabbie," she said quietly. "I know what happened to her children and why she distrusts all trolls."

His shock was palpable, eyes wide as saucers. "How did you—"

"It was the Glacier-eye. It allowed me to tap into Saja's memories connected with the troll territory. I saw what happened that night; how Orgram treated her and the truth behind his betrayal."

"My sire was a twisted creature," Pabbie growled, closing his eyes against the memories that flooded his mind. "He didn't begin that way, but his years on this earth shaped him into a cruel and vengeful being."

"He was, but you are not. I saw how you challenged him. I saw how you covered her children with the shroud, and showed them respect even in death. Saja told me you were the one who defected and came to her with the truth."

"I owed her that much after what my sire did to her…how he tortured her over the years. He was the one who created the amulet which capped her powers. She may have not been one of us, and her magic may have been our opposite, but she was still a living being that shared our earth. Who are we to decide who is worthy to walk upon earth-mother's land?"

"You are wise, Pabbie, but you still hold on to your guilt. You need to know that you own me nothing. Four hundred years of servitude is enough."

A small, sad smile tugged at the troll chief's lips and he patted Elsa's hand affectionately. "I made a vow, Elsa, to Saja before she died. She did not want my aid, but I gave it anyway. I told her I would protect her bloodline as a form of penance for my sire's crimes. I am bound to you and your family, by my choosing, and always will be. Even if I cannot touch you with troll magic—even if our powers war with one another— I will always be here to help when and where I can."

"How…did she die?" Elsa asked, unsure she wanted to know.

"She sought the holy man who poisoned her children and found him in a small village by the sea," Pabbie explained, turning his head in the direction of Arendelle. "It was only a few miles from where your kingdom resides now. She confronted him during Mass and dragged him into the center of the town square. At sword point, she forced him to confess his crimes for all to hear. He begged for forgiveness but her rage was terrible and would not be so easily quenched. She killed him in front of his congregation, cutting him in two, which panicked the village. They attacked her out of fear, riddling her with arrows, but Saja was only half human and not so easily felled. She destroyed the town, leveling it completely and killing every last soul."

"She died in that village?"

"No, she died on the shore of your kingdom. Ragnar was so aggrieved by her loss he moved his kingdom to the fjord and renamed it Arendelle in order to honor Saja's memory. In the old tongue it was Arnadarl, Arna being Saja's adopted father's family name."

"But Saja was a Frosberg," Elsa frowned.

"Ragnar was the Frosberg. Saja took his name when she became queen, but for whatever reason Ragnar wanted to name the kingdom after her family's name."

"I had always wondered…" Elsa whispered, more questions than answers rising into her mind. She heard Revel walk up beside her and kneel, planting a soft kiss on the side of her head.

"Gralysningen is saddled and ready to go when you are," he said quietly.

She nodded and turned back to the troll chief. "Thank you for everything, Pabbie."

"You are welcome, Elsa. Please, return home safely and tell Anna-dear we look forward to seeing her and the little one's soon."

"I will."

"And give her this!" Bulda called, jogging from around the corner with a bundle in her hands. She was a little out of breath and looked relieved Revel and Elsa hadn't left yet. She handed the bundle to the queen, broad smile dominating her face. "I made a blanket for the babies."

"Of course. The first of many grandmother gifts, I suspect," Elsa teased lightly.

The troll-mother laughed and nodded. "What kind of grandmother would I be if I didn't spoil my little ones some?"

Elsa smiled and had Revel help her to her feet, leaning heavily on him as they walked to where Gralysningen stood pawing impatiently at the ground. After making sure she had a firm grip of the saddle, Revel swung up and settled into place with practiced ease but stopped when he reached down to pick Elsa up.

"I'm not sure how we're going to do this," he admitted with a helpless flush.

"Allow us," Pabbie said and rolled into his boulder form. Bulda jumped atop him, and curled inward, the two of them creating a small stair Elsa could climb rather than having Revel lift her into the saddle and risk pulling or tearing her stitches. She graciously took his hand and climbed up, sitting side-saddle in front of him with her arm around his waist, relieved that her saddle didn't have a horn in the front like many seemed to have adopted over time.

"You two are wonderful, thank you," she said as the trolls unrolled.

"You're welcome, now get home. The faster you heal the faster we can see you and the grandbabies again," Bulda chuckled, shooing them away like a true mother. The queen and former captain waved good-bye, trotting back into the forest and guiding Gralysningen onto the well-worn trail some yards from the troll territory entrance.

As anticipated, the ride back to Arendelle was a challenge for both Revel and the queen. Despite his best efforts, the former captain wasn't able to make it an entirely painless journey. They trotted at an easy pace, making relatively good time along the mountain passes, but the terrain was uneven and at a near constant downward slant, forcing Elsa to lean back and grip Revel's shirt lest she slide off the horse. Ridding side-saddle was a new experience in balance for her and one that was made all the more difficult with her still aching injuries. More than once they had to stop in order to give Elsa a change to breathe and shift, all the while her bandaged wounds screamed at her from the near constant jerking and jarring of Gralysningen footfalls. The small breaks allowed them time to sip at the water skins provided by the trolls and munch on a few berries Revel was able to gather from nearby bushes. He would explain to the queen different techniques of differentiating edible berries from poisonous ones, pointing out small differences she would have completely missed had she been doing this alone. But their breaks remained small and before long the two were back in the saddle, Elsa bracing herself for the pain and gritting through each footfall.

Attempting to get her mind off her discomfort, Revel struck up bits of conversation where he could, explaining more foraging techniques and making her laugh with stories of his mishaps during his first few years with the poachers.

"We were trying to climb a steep rise up a small cliff face when I spotted a fallen tree braced against the cliff. It was at just the right angle we all could climb it and get out of the gorge relatively quickly, but Mikael warned me against it."

"So obviously, you did it anyway," Elsa filled in, stifling a hiss of pain when she shifted against and stretched the stitched in her back.

"Of course," Revel laughed, unconsciously adjusting his grip around her waist. "I climbed it in a heartbeat and sat smugly at the top waiting for the rest of the hunting party to catch up. Duval, one of the younger members but older than me by about four years, who I had a small rivalry with, only shook his head sadly at me. It wasn't until the next day when my hands, arms, neck and face broke out into an itchy rash that I realized the 'vine' I'd used to climb the tree with was actually a poison oak vine."

"Oh no," Elsa gasped, trying to smother a giggle. "Did you really? I'm not even a woodsman and I know not to touch the hairy vines growing on trees."

"Inexperience at its best," Revel sniffed, guiding Gralysningen away from a cluster of thick bramble bushes. They'd already had to unstick themselves from one encounter already.

"Uh huh," Elsa said, unconvinced. "Sure it wasn't just a case of rivalry blindness?"

"I admit to nothing," Revel grinned and kissed her atop the head again, not able to do it enough. They continued to speak as they rode down the mountain, their conversation lilting from one touchstone to the next with lazy efficiency. Revel learned about the vision Elsa had regarding the death of Saja's three youngest children and the betrayal of Pabbie's sire. He learned about the supposed origins of Arendelle, how it had been the site of the Frost Born's death and had been founded by her aggrieved husband. It was all fascinating and raised more questions than it gave answers, something Elsa was determined to look into once she fully recovered. In return, the queen learned about Revel's encounter with the trolls and their inherent distrust for him at first.

"I'm surprised they warmed to you that quickly. Usually Pabbie is a lot less social."

"I contribute his willingness to interact with me due to the fact that I was the only one who could work on you," Revel answered, tightening his grip on her as they trotted through a shallow stream. He felt Elsa stiffen when his arm squeezed her left side and winced. Despite her obvious discomfort she'd not complained, suffering in silence as she had most of her life.

"That certainly helped, yes," Elsa smiled, watching the forest slip by. It had turned out to be a beautiful day. The sky was devoid of clouds and shone a brilliant blue through the leafy branches above; a gentle, warm breeze shifting the foliage and sighing through the boughs. Revel told her about the ceremony he'd sat in on, about the being he'd seen walking amongst the trolls and how their magic had appeared to him. Elsa listened in rapt silence as he described the vortex of color and the words of Pabbie's song that refused to leave his head since hearing them. He even told her about the weird second sight he'd had while Himmelen sat on his shoulder and Saja used his energy to speak to the trolls. But what he neglected to tell his love, what he kept close to his chest, was that he still saw in the wavy smoke vision even now. Sometimes it would come to him in a flash and he'd see things in a slight double vision, the tangible world standing in rigid parallel to this strange new world filled with shifting shadows and…things. Revel didn't know what they were, didn't want to know, but it didn't change the fact that he could see them every-so-often. Figures would dart around trees and peer out at him, hunched or malformed with sharp, glowing eyes, but when he blinked they would be gone. Sometimes he'd see strange blue balls of light, like tongues of fire solidifying into solid shapes, drifting through the forest. In one particularly startling instance, he and Elsa had fallen into comfortable silence, her drifting in and out against him, when suddenly the former captain looked over and saw a man nearly eight feet tall standing off the path a ways, watching him. If his size wasn't enough to make Revel look twice, the massive set of antlers resting atop his head was. Revel jerked hard on the reins, startling Gralysningen and Elsa at the same time as the horse came to an abrupt standstill. Of course, when he looked again, heart in his throat, there was no one there, only swaying branches as if something had just passed through.

"Something wrong?" Elsa had asked, following his line of sight.

"I thought I saw someone standing there," he admitted vaguely, feeling a rush of guilt for lying to his love but not wanting to spook her. He shook his head and smiled, flicking the reins for Gralysningen to start walking again, though the pony gave a flick of his ears in something that could have been perceived as curse in horse language. "Must have just caught a tree the right way."

Elsa wasn't convinced and felt a strange fluttering sensation against her brand like an erratic heartbeat. She let the incident go, but couldn't understand why Revel had gone so pale at the sight of a man in the woods. This was open hunting season, after all, so people in the forests surrounding Arendelle wasn't an uncommon thing.

Four hours later Arendelle came into view and both travelers breathed a sigh of relief. They pressed on into town, moving past rich farmland towards the back of the kingdom, the sun starting to move from its zenith towards the horizon line by the time they crossed from grass onto cobblestones. It being Monday afternoon, there were a large amount of people milling about in various stages of work who stopped what they were doing and stared with wide-eyed wonder or glowering unease as Revel rode towards the palace with a very un-regal looking queen ridding side-saddle in front of him. Despite hers and Bulda's best efforts, Elsa still looked fairly haggard, but at least they were able to tame her hair into her customary braid and wash the last of the dried blood from her skin.

"Seems my reputation has caught up with me," Revel murmured, watching the townsfolk for any sign of impending trouble. Even when a volatile situation had a chance to cool an angry mob could kick up in an instant, and Revel could easily see the good people of Arendelle attempting to pull him away from Elsa if they thought him a threat to their queen—which, judging from a few ominously dark looks, was the case with many. However, the spark never made it to the powder keg. Apparently, Sigmund had placed a watch who was to report the moment Revel and Elsa returned. Within about a minute of the two being back in town Sigmund rode up on his black stallion with a regiment of guards who immediately formed a tight barricade around the travelers, escorting them back to the castle.

"Good to see you whole and healthy, Majesty," Sigmund said with an obviously relieved, albeit completely shocked smile. Clearly he anticipated her to be in a far worse state than she was.

"Thank you, Lieutenant, though I am far from healthy but well on the road to recovery," Elsa said with a kind nod. If Sigmund thought it strange that she leaned heavily against the former captain or that his arm had yet to drop from where it had snaked around her waist, he said nothing.

"How is my sister?" the queen asked as they crossed the stone bridge connecting the castle to the town proper, the clatter of their horse's hooves echoing against the low retaining wall.

"Forgive me, Majesty, but you would have to speak to the royal physician. I have not seen or heard from the princess or Baron Kristoff since we returned two days ago."

"Did she give birth en-route?"

"No, Majesty. We got here before the actual birthing happened."

Elsa accepted this bit of information and attempted to swallow the anxiety building in her chest only to have it expand and grow heavier when they entered the courtyard and found prince Symon and his Asham guards waiting for them. Revel reined up, face suddenly grim as he let his eyes slide from one Asham guard to the next. He knew these were well trained men by their rigid and ready stance, hands resting on the pommel of their swords as the first, silent warning they carried live steel and wouldn't hesitate to use it should their prince call them to action.

"Queen Elsa," Symon called, standing flanked on either side by fully armored guards, "I would have a word with my brother, if it pleases you."

Elsa felt a spark of fear shoot through her that Revel seemed to remarkably feel because he jumped and looked down at her with wide eyes. They held each other's gaze for a heartbeat, both feeling the others trepidation and unease through some weird and unfathomable bond. Elsa was the first to break eye contact and sever the connection.

"Help me down. I will settle this," she told a deeply frowning Sigmund who had stopped next to Gralysningen after dismounting from his own horse.

"Elsa, please. Let me speak—"

"I have had enough of Asham royalty and their presumed opinion that I owe them something," the queen snapped, interrupted her love, feeling heat flush her face. Sigmund obediently stepped forward when she gave him a sharp look and helped her down. He held her by her waist, which was a mistake, pressing to firmly into the stitches on her left side and making her gasp and stagger once her feet alighted on the ground. Revel was out of the saddle in a flash and helped the big guard who looked suddenly so unsure of how to touch the queen after seeing pain twist her features.

"We do this together or not at all," he whispered into her ear as he helped her stand. "That was the deal."

"I cannot appear weak in front of your brother, Revel. This is my kingdom, and he needs to remember that," she countered, brushing off his aid and standing on her own. After a few quick breaths to steady her nerves and the pain of standing ramrod straight, Elsa slowly walked forward, head held high.

"Prince Symon," she addressed him in the clear, authoritative voice of a seasoned monarch, "I understand you will have questions for your brother. However, there are pressing matters you and I must address before that can happen. Namely what transpired at my ice castle. I assume Lieutenant Sigmund gave you a general briefing on the events?"

As if someone can be briefed on the fact that their blood relative tried to assassinate another monarch, Elsa thought grimly.

Symon strode forward, his men at his heels. Reflexively, Revel and Sigmund flanked Elsa, the big guard keeping his hand on his sword pommel while the former captain slid into a shallow but coil-tight fighter's stance. When Symon reached into his jacket pocket, all three tensed, a warning snap of cold rolling from the queen as she watched him warily. Much to her relief, her powers had recovered more quickly than her body, the fragmented mess it had become during her fight with Fritz congealing back together after the second time she'd awoken in the rock shelter. Symon carefully withdrew a parchment of paper with a broken Arendelle seal and held it up for everyone to see.

"I received this transcription from Chamberlain Kai shortly after the princess returned from the mountains. Apparently, I have been lied to my entire life, and it's about high time this issue was resolved." Turning an unreadable look onto Revel, Symon said, "You are not a prince of Asham nor are you technically my brother."

Revel felt like his heart and stomach had just fallen out of his body and plunged into the cobblestones at his feet. He opened his mouth to try and reason with Symon, but the prince cut him off.

"You are none of these things, but I know what you really are—"

"Symon please let me expla—"

"You're my king and the rightful ruler of Asham." Suddenly, the prince sank to his knees, the rest of the Asham guards following suit, right hands fisted and pressed against their hearts in the universal sign for subjugation. When Symon looked up again, he was smiling broadly in a playful way that made Revel suspect this had all been an elaborate show. "It's good to see you again, brother."

All preamble going out the window, Revel pulled his brother to his feet and both men embraced tightly. "I've missed you, Symon."

"As have I."

"Fifteen years is a long time to be away."

"Yes it is," Symon smiled and stepped back, bowing as Elsa carefully approached, confusion and relief warring for dominance on her face. He bowed at the waist, as was proper, and said, "Forgive me, Majesty. I know this is not a time for jests, but I couldn't contain my joy upon receiving word that my older brother was innocent of his crime."

The queen's emotional confusion came to a stop somewhere between irritation and understanding, but she slipped her regal mask on with expert ease and stared coolly at Symon. "You are right, sir. This is no time for jest. Certainly not here in my castle courtyard," she emphasized with a small wave of her hand.

The Asham prince's face fell and he hung his head in shame until the queen sighed dramatically, a note of her own kind of mischief coloring her voice. "Still, I can see how you'd be overjoyed with the news. We will have much to discuss very shortly."

Even though Symon's smile had slightly returned, he appeared weighed down by an unpleasant duty. "Forgive me, Queen Elsa, but I must speak with my brother immediately. This is not a matter that can wait, and it is also a matter solely for Asham ears."

"Brother," Revel said, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder, "I need to see to her Majesty."

"With respect, Highness," the prince said, emphasizing Revel's proper title, "this matter needs to be resolved now. According to this document you are the rightful ruler of Asham. We must discuss a course of action to take. Back home you are still viewed as a traitor to the crown, and that needs to change. We must also discuss what happened the night of father's murder and what part Adrek and Fritz played in it. I'm sorry, but you need to come with me now."

Revel looked stricken, glancing between Elsa and his brother. In one he had found everything he'd been looking for and more, but in the other was a life he'd left behind, a kingdom now without a proper ruler, and a brother he hardly knew. Suddenly he was torn between want and responsibility, and never had a choice been more heartbreaking. He knew which was the logical choice, which was the right one, but he also knew which would make him the most happy. Elsa saw the confliction tearing him apart, and Revel's heart broke anew when she nodded in acceptance of his already made decision. A flutter of cold touched the mark hidden under his shirt, and he realized with a start he was feeling Elsa's sadness through his brand.

"Go with him, Revel," she said, her voice level, but her eyes bright with sorrow. "The two of you have so much to—"

There was an audible gasp from the assembly when Revel stepped in front to the queen, took her face in his hands, and kissed her deeply. He held the embrace for as long as he could, savoring her taste, feel and scent. For half a heartbeat Elsa stiffened at the public display of affection, for she would have never been so bold, but very quickly shoved her disquiet aside.

What the hell. I love him. So let them watch.

After a breathless moment they separated but kept their foreheads together for a few seconds.

"I love you," he whispered so just she could hear.

"And I love you," Elsa replied, feeling sparks on her tongue. "Now go with your brother. We'll see each other again."

Sigmund politely cleared his throat, gaze politely averted. "Majesty, we should get you to the physician so she can see to your wounds. I'm also sure the princess will be wanting to see you as well."

Not trusting her voice, because Elsa knew she was losing one of the most precious things in her life, she simply nodded and moved back. Revel nodded as well and stepped away, refusing to untangle their intertwined fingers until the last possible second. The queen let her hand drop and turned away, glancing over her shoulder, Revel doing the same, as they drifted away from one another, two bodies caught in the currents of opposing tides. Before he passed through the castle gates, he turned once more and pressed a hand against his chest, smiling at his beloved. Elsa jumped when she felt a phantom hand touch her chest just over her heart, gentle heat warming her brand. Revel mouthed 'I love you' and Elsa could swear she heard his voice as if his mouth was right next to her ear. Smiling despite the sad circumstances, she returned the gesture and mouthed her declaration of love as well, watching until Revel disappeared from sight. Only then did she turn towards the castle and the now daunting task of walking all the way to the residency wing.

This is going to hurt, she thought with a determined sigh, taking the first step gingerly.

Her earlier prediction of overall discomfort of walking to her sister's quarters was grossly understated…the climb was absolutely brutal. Elsa had waved off any offers of help or general assistance, each step up the stairs a mountain to conquer, but conquer it she did. It took the better part of an hour to make a journey she usually made in less than three minutes, and by the end of it she was sweating enough that her snug bandages felt damp and her hair was plastered to her forehead. As always, Sigmund followed closely behind and practically vibrated with his inability to aid his queen, watching her labor up the steps with the deepest frown she'd ever seen dominating his face.

"Majesty, please, allow me to assist you," he urged gently, making sure to keep his voice level though Elsa could hear the pleading edge to it.

"Thank you, Lieutenant, but I require no aid. Plus, the physician who saw to me in the mountains said it would be best if I took every opportunity to stretch my legs and rebuild my strength."

That was a bald-faced lie, and she knew it. Pabbie and instructed her to strict bed rest for the next couple of days in order to give her body time to regain its strength. Revel had also echoed that sage advice numerous times during their journey back to the kingdom, driving home she needed to relax as much as possible. Elsa had listened to their words but had long ago decided, after hearing she'd missed the birth of her nieces or nephews, she would participate in a form of penance and climb to her sister's side much like Anna had climbed to North Mountain three years ago in order to bring her home.

I'll be damned if I let someone carry me to Anna. Let me be stubborn in this one thing. If Anna did it for me, I can do it for her. I owe her that much, Elsa though over and over again as she struggled up the stairs. I am also a queen and will not appear weak in front of my castle staff. Not after word of what happened has most likely already reached every ear in my kingdom. Let them build a story around my seemingly miraculous recovery…let it become legend. It's just another piece of armor for the future.

But by the time she reached the top of the stairs she was completely regretting her decision, nausea rolling around in her stomach like a turmoil sea, making her vision swim. Still, she maintained her regal posture, or as much as her stitches would allow. Head held high, Elsa leaned heavily against the banister, eyes closed in the hope that if she stopped watching the carpet roll and buck under her feet her stomach would somehow settle. But she knew she was almost spent, the last of her strength reserves sucked dry. Even lifting her hand to press against her side took a massive amount of effort, her limbs heavy like led weights. As much as it galled her, Elsa was preparing to swallow her pride and ask Sigmund for help when a familiar figure met her on the final landing, relief and happiness glowing from every inch of his body.

"You really did a number on yourself," Kristoff smiled widely, descending the last few steps in an easy stride. Elsa returned his smile with a thin one of her own, struggling to keep her breathing even.

"What this?" she said, quirking an eyebrow and motioning at herself. "Just an exercise in endurance, I assure you."

"Uh-huh, I'm sure," he said with an unconvinced roll of the eyes and attempted to move in to help her up the last few steps, but she waved him away.

"I can manage, Kristoff."

"I know you can," he replied kindly but refused to step aside. "But there is no shame in allowing family to help family."

"I…" Elsa felt a spark of defeated shame warm her cheeks and looked down. She could hardly hold herself up, using the banister as more of a lifeline than a crutch. If she let go, the queen was certain she'd crumble and would be unable to pick herself back up. Still looking down, she nodded her consent, but Kristoff surprised her by bending in half and placing her right arm over his muscular shoulders and held it there with his left hand. He used his only other free arm to gently loop around her waist, allowing her the aid she so desperately needed while at the same time letting her walk on her own. Elsa felt another bloom of gratitude warm her. She realized Kristoff was helping her maintain her regal image, bending to help but not making her appear to be an invalid or weak by carrying her.

"Thank you," she whispered sincerely as they ascended the last few stairs together and made for the residency wing.

"Like I said, family helps family. It's the least I can do," he replied with a smile. Elsa thought she caught a glint of something new in his eyes and understood it to be the glow of a new parent. It was pride and happiness, relief and almost uncontainable joy that spilled out of him like a spring. It removed the lines of worry and fear from his face and made him appear younger while at the same bizarre time aging him considerably. Kristoff was a father now, and he wore the title with obvious chest-swelling pride like a man with a new medal.

They made much better time than if Elsa had struggled there on her own. He let her rest against the wall as he opened the door to her sister's room and peeked inside, withdrawing a second later and pushing it the rest of the way open. "She's resting, but I think she'll want to wake up for this," he said and was prepared to help Elsa the rest of the way, but this time she did wave away his aid.

"I'll walk the rest of the way."

Kristoff hesitated for a few moments but eventually nodded.

"Majesty," Sigmund said from a respectable distance. "Allow me to fetch Physician Brynja so that she may take a look at your injuries."

"That will be fine, Lieutenant," Elsa nodded, turning towards him. "Please, also have Gerda bring up some tea and pastries."

Sigmund nodded once and turned sharply on his heels, disappearing down the stairs at a relatively fast clip. Alone in the hallway with her brother-in-law, Elsa released an anxious breath and looked up at him, nervousness starting to coil in her stomach and making her fingers itch.

"I don't know what to say to her," she admitted, unable to maintain eye contact with him for very long.

"I don't understand," Kristoff frowned.

"The last time she and I spoke I…struck…her," Elsa swallowed, the memory painfully vivid in her mind. The shame and guilt she felt only seemed to build, swelling to the point she thought she would burst if it didn't find an escape. Unconsciously, ice began crusting her nail and creeping up her hands like fractal vines. In all her years, the queen had never purposely raised a hand to her sister. Even during her most trying and irritated moments, Elsa had always exercised a level of cold decorum when her anger was pushed to its limits. So the idea that she'd lost control and lashed out at the one person who meant more to her than her entire kingdom, who she'd fought to protect for thirteen years, was sickening. And to make matters worse, she knew she'd left a bruise behind. Elsa could still hear the crack of her knuckles skipping across Anna's cheekbone…could still feel the sting on her skin and hugged herself, the lump in her throat doubling in size.

Kristoff was quiet for a few moments, clearly trying to compile his thoughts into something meaningful to say. "Bulda always said we make bad choices when we're mad or scared or stressed. You were all those thing that night. I'm not justifying what you did, but I understand why it happened. Anna doesn't hate you for it. You know she doesn't have the ability to hate anyone," he said with a small smile and faded with his next words. "And after what happened in the mountains on the way to the troll territory…"

"Revel informed me of what happened," Elsa admitted, looking off down the hallway, eyes distant.

I died coming down the mountain and my sister was there to witness this. Oh Anna, what have I put you through?

"I could hardly get her to come back to the castle when she went into labor. She flat out refused to leave your side."

"Even after all I did to—"

Kristoff put a gentle hand on her shoulder, the look on his face cutting the words right off her tongue. "Everything you've ever done has been for the benefit of Anna and this kingdom. You had a moment of weakness, Elsa, and your sister has already forgiven you. Now you need to forgive yourself."

"But I—"

"Go in there and talk to her," he interrupted with gentle firmness. "She needs to see you. She needs to know you're okay. I'll wait out here for Brynja. You two need time together."

Elsa swallowed the still swelling lump in her throat again and edged through the doorway. Kristoff smiled at her one more time before shutting it behind her with a faint click. The queen stared at the hand-carved piece of white-washed wood for a number of seconds before scraping together enough courage to propel herself to turn.

Anna's room was bright, the curtains thrown back to allow the afternoon sun to bathe the spacious quarters in golden light. Unlike the queen's personal chambers, the princess had an affinity for warm colors made all the more luminous by the bands of sunlight lancing in through the triangular window on the other side of the room. The floor was hardwood stained with a warm lacquer that made it shine, and numerous rugs lay everywhere in order to stave off the chill most castles were prone to. Anna's bed was a monstrous piece of furniture along the right wall with an ornate canapé of burgundy canvas hanging from a beautifully painted white-wood frame. The canvas had been tied back against the wall with gold rope. Anna had the bed commissioned after hers engagement to Kristoff, wanting it to be large enough to allow them room for comfortable, cramp free sleeping; though Elsa suspected the bed's size had more to do with carnal pleasures than adequate sleep room. The multi-colored quilts and white sheets were a mess as was the woman sleeping soundly against a large assortment of plush white pillows.

The princess wore a thin green robe of silk, tied together with a matching sash, that stood in stark contrast to the smooth, freckled skin of her neck, chest and face. Her hair was a tousled mane of strawberry blond; her customary braids undone allowing her thick locks to go where they wished, which was everywhere, cascading over her shoulders in twisted strands. Elsa felt an affectionate smile touch her lips as she neared that faded and quickly fell when she noticed the discolored bruise under Anna's left eye. The swelling had gone down considerably, but the bruise had yet to fade entirely, still bluish-brown in places. The queen felt her body begin to lock up the longer she stared at her sleeping sister and the bruise on her face, two halves of her mind warring with one another. One half said stay, Anna needs you, but the other half screamed for her to run, that she was a danger. Elsa wavered half way between her sister's bed and the door, tense as a bow string and sore beyond reason. Courage leaking out of her like a boat with a hole in the hull, she was prepared to spin around and flee when the shuffling and gurgling of something she'd not noticed snapped her attention to the large bassinette beside Anna's bed. All thoughts of leaving fled from her mind as she tottered to the mahogany crib and looked down into it with wide eyes.

They're beautiful, was her first awed thought, the breath rushing from her lungs in an excited exhale, her smile almost painful. And very squishy looking.

Two, tiny twins lay side-by-side in a crib of soft manila silk, swaddled in warm blankets. One was peacefully asleep while the other stared up at her with big, beautiful eyes of the clearest blue. The newborn, already blessed with a head of curly, strawberry blond hair like its mother, watched the queen for a few breathless heartbeats, eyes so large and filled with the wonder a child so young gazes at the world with. Suddenly it broke into a pleased, sputtering cackle, pink, toothless gums visible as it laughed and reached for Elsa with a squeal, tiny fingers spread wide.

"Hello, little-one," Elsa whispered softly, her grin dominating her face, letting the infant take her cool finger in its tiny hand. With surprising strength it jerked her hand around as if it were trying to shake hands, a string of cackles still rolling from its belly. "It's nice to meet you too," the queen laughed with it, unable to contain the bubbling joy welling inside her. Truly, there was magic within all newborns because one couldn't help but smile and laugh when they looked at you, innocence and purity pouring out of them and enveloping anyone near in a blanket of ceaseless wonder and enjoyment.

The second infant blinked awake at the sound of its sibling's laughter and stared up at the queen with an almost quizzical look, left hand immediately disappearing into its mouth where it began to chew and suck in its fingers. This one barely had any hair on its wrinkly head, but it did have the most striking brown eyes Elsa had ever seen. They were almost amber in color and filled with an eerie kind of wisdom far beyond its scant few hours of life. With the index finger of her left hand still held in the firm grip of the first newborn, Elsa resisted the urge to touch the little-one's face, unsure how it would react to her cold fingers, instead tickling its belly. Nonpulsed, the amber-eyed infant continued to stare.

"You're the somber one, I can already tell," she said with a rueful sigh. "Here, let me show you something." With the twitch of her fingers a small snowflake appeared, hovering above the silent newborn who tracked it with now wide, expectant eyes. Gently, Elsa set the snowflake down on the infant's nose and laughed softly when it broke into a cackle and attempted to bat at the flake, pudgy arms flapping at its side.

"Just like your Mama." The queen smiled at the fond memory she had of doing the same with Anna when she was a newborn. She'd lean as far into the crib as possible and lightly pepper her with snowflakes, watching her laugh and squeal as she tried to catch them. "I have something for you from your troll grandmother," she said, pulling the carefully folded bundle from where she'd secured it in her sash. Gently she unfolded it and realized it was actually two small blankets about as large as her torso woven with intricate markings and spirals that were mesmerizing to look at. The prickling tingle of her brand told her there was troll magic here. Both blankets were identical save for the coloring. They both had green and brown designs, but one had pink and red added while the other was blue and purple.

Boy and a girl, Elsa realized with a chuckle. Bulda knew Anna was having a boy and a girl.

Unsure which was which because children looked the same when they were still freshly squishy and pink from birth, the queen laid the blankets over both. The shifting of bed linens drew Elsa's attention away from the little ones, and her previous joy hitched on a bump of sudden fear. Anna groaned lightly and rubbed at her face with the heel of her palm, mumbling a few incoherencies as she fought to wake up. The queen held very still, unsure why she felt like a deer spotted by a hunter but unable to calm the pounding of her heart. She withdrew her hands from the infants, lest her magic accidentally spark, resting them on the edge of the bassinette.

"Mmmm, baby, let them sleep," Anna mumbled, cracking her eyes open. "We just got them to— Elsa?"

The princess froze when her hazy, unfocused eyes alighted on her sister and suddenly focused like a lens clicking into place. In a flail of blankets and limbs she sat bolt upright, eyes as large as dinner places and wreathed with shockingly disbelief.


Before the queen could move, Anna had thrown the blankets aside and practically dove out of bed, wrapping her sister in a powerful hug and burying her face in her neck. Elsa fought back a scream when the princess squeezed, biting into her lip until she was sure it would start bleeding. Anna must have felt her stiffen and suddenly remembered her injuries.

"Oh god, I'm so sorry!" she squeaked, immediately letting go but taking her sister's face in shaking hands. Tears glazed her eyes. "Please tell me I'm not dreaming."

"I'm here, Anna," Elsa smiled, gently removing her sister's hands from her face and holding them against her chest so she could hopefully feel her heartbeat. The princess stepped close once again, fighting the urge to put her arms around Elsa's waist, and buried her face in her chest. The queen gingerly hugged her, stroking her unkempt hair as Anna clung to her with a desperate tightness, body trembling.

"Don't ever do that to me again," she rasped, voice laden with barely restrained tears. "Do you understand? Don't ever leave me like that again."

"I swear to it," Elsa replied, squeezing her little sister as tightly as she could despite her body's objections. Anna must have sensed something, a shift in her sister's balance or the way she leaned heavily against her, because she pulled her towards an ornate, cushioned rocking chair next to the crib and eased her into it despite Elsa's objections. Squatting down with surprising ease for a woman who'd just given birth, Anna took a better look at her, gently tugging open her tunic and staring at the bandages underneath.

"Pabbie healed you," she whispered, torn between pressing a hand against her sister's chest and keeping her distance in case she touched a sensitive area.

Not wanting to complicate things right at this moment, Elsa only nodded but couldn't keep from cupping Anna's left cheek and running her thumb over the bruise. Fresh guilt twisted inside her and she clenched her teeth to the point she thought her molars would crack. "I'm so sorry, Anna. I can't tell you how awful I feel about..."

Anna took her sister's hand in hers and squeezed, an understanding smile curling her lips. "You're not entirely at fault. I said some horrible things too that should have never come from my mouth."

"But it hit you," the queen reiterated in a hoarse whisper.

"And I called you names and broke the law by breaking Revel out of jail. If I hadn't done that you wouldn't have gone up to the ice castle chasing after him and that Asham prick and his minion wouldn't have followed you. It's my fault this happened. It's my fault you got hurt."

"Anna, no," Elsa said firmly. "If you hadn't broken Revel out, I would have lost him. I've no doubt Fritz or Adrek would have had him assassinated in his cell. Because of you he's alive."

"But because of me you nearly died," the princess argued, tears welling in her eyes at the memory of Revel hunched over her sister, pushing air into her lungs over and over in a desperate scramble to restart her heart, blood staining his hands.

"Anna, we can go in circles blaming ourselves for the rest of eternity. I don't blame you for what happened to me. I made terrible choices after finding out about Revel's identity and sought to be a fair and just queen when I should have just listened to my instincts— those same instincts you seemed to have no trouble listening to— and refused Adrek right out."

"But that could have caused a war."

"It could have but maybe it was all talk. We'll never know now that Adrek is dead."

The two were silent for a handful of moments, Elsa staring through the window while Anna laid her head in her lap, arms curled around her sister's legs, until one of the little ones in the crib fussed and the princess leapt to her feet, suddenly shaking with new mother jitters. She stepped up to the bassinette and made a surprised noise, obviously just noticing the blankets.

"Did you bring these or am I losing my mind?"

"The latter, I think," Elsa teased with a wink. "Bulda gave them to me to give to you."

"They're perfect," Anna smiled, gently lifting the fussy one out of the crib while softly shushing it in her cradled arms. Elsa watched and couldn't do anything but smile at the way Anna held her child, her entire body glowing with maternal warmth. The princess walked back over to her sister, beaming.

"This is Jorg," she introduced, holding him out for Elsa to take.

"Anna, I'm not sure I can—"

"Oh shut up; you'll be fine," Anna laughed and placed the baby in her sister's nervous arms. Judging by the sudden burst of exuberant cackles that rolled from Jorg as he grabbed for her finger, he was the infant who'd been awake when she entered the room.

"Hello Jorg," Elsa smiled, careful to support the baby's head and held him close. He was astonishingly warm, his pink skin almost rosy in hue much like Anna's had been when she was a newborn. He laughed and played with Elsa's hair, bright blue eyes always roaming around, while Anna lifted the other newborn from the crib and settled her against her chest, turning so that Elsa could see.

"And this is Thea. They were born holding each other," she explained with a laugh. "Well, more like Jorg was holding onto Thea's foot."

"Sounds like something you would do," Elsa said, sliding her sister a playful look. Anna made a scoffing sound and bounced little Thea in her arms, smiling like a woman who was holding the most precious piece of sunshine to have ever fallen to earth.

"Thea has Kristoff's eyes," Elsa observed, watching the little one blink and stare.

"She's got someone's, I can tell you that. Kristoff's eyes aren't that golden. And can you believe she hasn't cried once? She'll laugh and cackle with her brother, or when her father and I are around, but she never fusses."

"Mama said I was like that when I was little. You were the squaller."

"Makes sense," Anna shrugged, kissing little Thea on her chubby cheek.

"Prince Jorg and Princess Thea," Elsa smiled ruefully, rocking gently in the chair and watching Jorg attempt to eat her hair. "You two chose beautiful names. Isn't that right, little Jorg?" she laughed, making a snowflake dance on her fingertips in front of him. He cackled and reached for it which made the queen smile all the more. Suddenly she felt the layers of guilt, shame, anguish, heartache and heartbreak lifting off her shoulders as she continued to rock her nephew. Suddenly all seemed right like the earth had exhaled a trapped breath held far too long. Everything stopped spinning and became still as she held the baby in her arms and smiled. Looking up, the queen seemed to realize for the first time she was back home in her castle, back in the safety and familiarity of halls she'd tread a hundred thousand times and would walk a hundred thousand more, only now there would be the patter of little feet and true, pure laughter ringing in her home. For the first time, Elsa realized she had a family in every sense of the word. Here in her arms was proof of that. The legacy of the Frosberg line would live on in Anna's little ones, and she couldn't be more happy or relieved. Yes, there would be trials and tribulations to come, yes, there would be hard days, especially since she was losing the second most important thing in her life, but she could get through it, aided by the strength of her family.

Though the thought of Revel seemed to dim the bright glow of her newfound hope a bit. She knew she'd see him again, but for now he had his own family to contend with and reshape, his own kingdom to heal with Symon by his side. It was hard not imagining him standing next to her anymore. Elsa was under no disillusion Symon wouldn't take Revel back to Asham in order to straighten things out and restore him to his proper title as ruler, and it saddened her greatly. He was leaving after they'd just come together, which seemed cruelly ironic. They'd been through so much it seemed unfair all of that would end here and now after they'd both escaped the clutches of death, pulling each other back from the brink.

There is a reason for all things, Elsa thought, watching Anna make faces at Thea. He was put in my life for a reason, so I cannot and will not believe that this is the end. We have so many more adventures to share, he and I.

A gentle knock on the door made both women turn. Kristoff poked his head in and suddenly lit up at the sight of his children. Elsa saw the fire burning in his eyes that was only matched by the fire in his wife's, the two of them capable of igniting the whole room with their near combustible love for one another.

"Brynja is here," he announced.

"Go ahead and let her in," Elsa nodded. Kristoff quickly opened the door and strode across the room, stopping next to Anna to wiggling a finger at Thea who stared at him with bright, inquisitive eyes. Brynja followed close on his heels after shutting the door, took one look at Elsa, and quickly approached, heavy leather bag in hand.

"Majesty," she said, bowing at the waist, "are you well enough to sit on a stool while I examine you, or would it be more comfortable for you to lie on a bed?

"A stool is fine Brynja," Elsa said, carefully getting to her feet. Kristoff gently took Jorg from her, the little one fussing a bit when the snowflake he'd been enamored with disappeared. The queen summoned another one and infused her will into it, handing it to Kristoff with a soft smile

Brynja grabbed a plush footstool and set it before the queen, easing her down and carefully undoing the sash around her waist with deft fingers, speaking as she worked. "Lieutenant Sigmund informed me you had sustained significant injuries while at the ice castle. I admit I was a little perplexed as to why you didn't return to Arendelle, but he assured me you were in the hands of the finest medical care in the mountains."

Elsa saw Kristoff stiffen, glancing at the queen nervously. She gave him a reassuring nod before turning to speak to Brynja. "Baron Kristoff has family in the mountains who are well versed in the arts of healing. They took excellent care of me."

The Physician quirked an eyebrow at the queen and turned to look at Kristoff, clearly unconvinced. To his credit, the mountain man looked back at her with a flat, non-pulsed stare, little Jorg happily sucking on the snowflake. With a shrug Brynja returned to her work, using a sharp pair of scissors to cut the shirt off so that Elsa wouldn't have to raise her arms. As the clothing fell away, the Physician looked closely at the carefully wrapped bandages, scrutinizing each fold and layer.

"Whoever bandaged you did a fine job."

"That was Revel. He aided in my recovery," Elsa said quietly, suppressing a crestfallen frown and keeping her queenly mask in place.

If Brynja had any feelings of ill will towards the former captain she hid them well, her own professional mask firmly in place. "He did a remarkable job, but I'm going to have to remove them in order to assess your injuries."

"Is there really a need for that?" Kristoff asked, watching over Brynja's shoulder.

"It is not meant as a slight against your family, Baron Kristoff," she said not looking up. "This will give me peace of mind that her Majesty is healing properly and that there will be no unforeseen complications in the future."

"It's is fine, Brynja. I suspected you would want to see for yourself what happened. I trust your judgment."

The Physician nodded once and began the arduous task of unwrapping each layer as carefully as if she were handling strips of fragile glass, starting at Elsa's shoulder and working down. Layer by layer the story of what the queen had been through began to take shape at the same moment the Physician uncovered something that would later he heralded as a miracle in the Arendelle. As the last bandage fell, the queen's naked torso on display for all eyes to see, an audible gasp rippled through the room but none sharper than the Physician.

"Saints above," she breathed, hand over her mouth, dark eyes scanning Elsa's bruised and lacerated skin. "How did you…how are you…" she sat back on her haunches, face slack with disbelief.

"It looks worse than it feels," Elsa commented, trying hard not to look at her sister even though she could feel Anna's eyes traveling across her skin like tongues of fire.

"No…no it's not that at all. It's…Queen Elsa, these wounds are a week old at the least. How is it that you sustained them only a few days ago?"

"How do you figure?" Elsa asked, trying to match the level of shock clearly evident in Brynja's voice, but she was also just as curious. There had been no mirrors in Pabbie's territory, so she could only judge her rate of healing by the wounds she could see and feel.

"The bruises on your neck and chest are nearly gone. It normally takes a week for a bruise, especially something that large, to dissipate, more with your level of fair skin. I suspect a few of your ribs were also broken during the attack?"

Elsa nodded, still trying hard not to look at Anna because she knew the pain she'd see carved into every inch of her sister like Fritz had carved into her. "According to my healers, my chest was fractured, I had multiple broken ribs, severe bruising on my right side, a gash on my left and a long laceration across my back," she said mechanically, eyes straight ahead.

"I see no indication you have any broken bones save for some mild swelling along the rib-line," she said, running her thumb gently along the bruise in order to see if she could feel any bumps or divots indicating a break. "Are you experiencing any shortness of breath or pain in your lungs?

"No, only a little pain in my back if I inhale too deeply.

"That would be your skin pulling at the stitches," Brynja explained. "Forgive the intimate question, but how are your bowel movements? Is there any indication of blood?"

"None that I noticed."

"So no internal bleeding. That is good." The woman placed the back of her hand against Elsa's forehead, feeling for fever. "You're a little warm."

"I walked up here," the queen replied by way of explanation. She caught Anna's sharp look even in her peripheral vision that was matched by the sharp look the Physician gave her.

"Any form of climbing should be kept to a minimum, Majesty. At least until the stitches come out," Brynja advised with careful neutrality.

"I'll take that under advisement," was Elsa's cool reply.

The Physician merely nodded, not presuming to tell the queen what she could and could not do, but still voicing her professional opinion. "These three scabs in the center of your chest, did something puncture the skin?"

"That was caused by a boot heel," Elsa answered quietly. She was impressed by Brynja's ability to take such news with a straight face, though she thought she spotted a flicker of rage in the big woman's eyes as she continued to examine her patient.

"These are finger marks on your throat," she observed quietly, making a slow circuit of the queen to better gauge the extent of the damage done to her. Elsa merely nodded, no explanation needed as to why those were there, and gritted her teeth when Brynja touched a sensitive area on her back.

"This suturing is excellent, albeit a little rough and irritated in places."

"Again, you have Revel to thank for that."

"I'll be sure to thank him in person. He was the man who brought my queen back to her kingdom safely," the Physician mumbled, hunching low to take a better look at Elsa's side. After a moment she withdrew with a perplexed exhale. "Majesty, I don't know how this happened or what you were healed with, but truly I've just witnessed a miracle first hand. If I didn't already know you personally, I would have thought this a fantastic lie. No wounds heal this quickly…ever. By all rights, you should be bedridden if not already deceased, pardon my bluntness."

"I have to agree with you. This is truly a miracle."

"Baron Kristoff," the Physician turned to the mountain man with a curious look, "do you know what herbs or ointments your family would have used? I'm quite interested in knowing the formulas. If whatever they used can be replicated, it would be a great advancement in the medical field."

"I…um…I don't really know."

"They are your family and you lived with them for most of your life, yes? Surly you—"

"My family is very guarded about their medicines, especially my grandfather."

"But you never saw any herbs picked, or a poultice boiled? I can tell there was some type of salve put over the queen's wounds that—"

"Brynja, enough," Elsa said with gentle firmness. "I'm sure if Kristoff knew he would tell you, so let us leave the matter alone. I understand your curiosity, but the mountain people seclude themselves for a reason. Let us respect them and my brother-in-law by accepting that this was a miracle of healing."

Brynja didn't look convinced or willing to drop the matter, but a sharp look from the queen told her the issue was to be dropped. So she nodded silently and opened her leather satchel, withdrawing a number of ointments but deciding against applying any more bandages.

"The wounds on your side and back are nearly healed, save for a few sensitive areas. I suspect we can remove the stitches in a day or two, so for now we'll allow the skin to breathe a bit. An ointment balm will be enough to make certain infection does not set in, and I humbly suggest taking a warm bath as soon as possible. The water will loosen the sinew and allow me to take the sutures out without causing you much discomfort."

"Thank you. I'll be sure to have a bath drawn later this evening."

"Very good, Majesty," she said with a shallow down. Then she turned to Anna. "Princess, how are you feeling?"

"I…great. Very little pain though I'm still massively sore."

"That is to be expected. I'll be sure to leave some more tea for the soreness as well as a balm that can be applied to sensitive areas." Glancing at the queen, Brynja said, "Your sister is as much a miracle as you are. Both little one's decided to come out at the same time, and we feared the tearing it would cause would lead to fatal bleeding."

Elsa snapped her head around to look at her sister who winced and gently laid a dozing Thea back in her crib. "You didn't tell me that."

"It…I…you'd just come back! It really wasn't the time to discuss…that."

"We'll talk later then," the queen said with a light frown. Another knock at the door pulled her attention away from a flushing Anna. Kristoff handed Jorg to his mother and went to get the door while Brynja had Elsa stand so that she could apply the ointment. The queen heard Gerda's voice and turned over her shoulder to greet her when the service matron pulled up short and gasped, dropping what she was carrying. Kristoff swooped in and managed to save the tray, upsetting a few glasses but keeping everything relatively in place.

"Sweet Mother Mary," she wheezed, hands covering her mouth. Elsa didn't realize tears could come on so fast to the service matron, but Gerda's eyes welled with them almost instantly as her wide, shocked eyes stared at the ragged, slightly pink line across the queen's back. Elsa graciously accepted a silk robe from the Physician and covered herself before moving gingerly towards the service matron. With the binding gone she could move more freely, but she also had to watch how far she stretched or moved lest she pull at the stitches.

"It's alright, Gerda. I'm alright."

Gerda hesitantly met her half way, bypassing regal formality and cupping the queen's face in her shaking hands. "My sweet girl, I heard what happened but never thought…" she trailed off, staring at the fingermarks on Elsa's throat and the yellow bruising around three circular scabs in the shape of a triangle visible in the V of her robe.

"I'm really alright, Gerda. Just a little sore and tired. And hungry," she added, looking longingly at the pastries on the tray in Kristoff's hands. That seemed to snap the service matron out of whatever emotional stupor she'd been headed towards. Shaking her head, she withdrew a step and took a breath, calm once more despite the tears still shimmering in her eyes.

"I will have a meal prepared at once and a bath drawn. Don't worry about coming down for dinner; I'll have it brought up for the three of you."

"Thank you, Gerda, but that's not—"

"I insist, Majesty. Princess Anna, I'll also have two bottles brought up for the little ones."

"Oh no, that's fine," Anna flushed. "I'll try feeding them myself again." When Elsa gave her sister a confused look her face reddened all-the-more. "I didn't expect the um…natural feeding to be so…uh…uncomfortable? Strange feeling? Weird?"

Elsa realized what she was alluding to and laughed good-naturedly. "You're a new mother, Anna. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"You're sister is right," Gerda agreed as she hustled to the door. "It's a matter of practice and instinct."

"I must agree with the service matron," Brynja said, gathering her things and making for the door as well. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. I'll return tomorrow to check your stitches, Majesty. If they appear healed enough, which I assume they will be, I'll remove them. For now, rest."

"Thank you, the both of you," Elsa said with a kind smile. The two women departed, leaving the royal family alone once again. "So, tell me about this birth I missed," the queen said after a moment of silence, easing herself back down into the rocking chair.

The rest of the evening was spent in Anna's room exchanging stories about what had happened while the other was away. Elsa explained in detail what had actually happened with Pabbie and the trolls, leaving nothing out, not even the vision she'd had of Saja and the knowledge of how Arendelle had been founded. Kristoff and her sister listened in rapt silence, asking only a few questions but remaining relative quiet until the end of her tale. Then it was Anna's turn to explain about her journey back to the castle and the birth of Jorg and Thea.

"It was…more painful than I imagined it would be," she said sitting on her bed while little Thea suckled happily. Anna shifted, adjusting to the feeling of a little mouth clamped around her sensitive nipple.

"She almost broke my hand," Kristoff snorted, shooting Elsa a look.

"I did not!"

To emphasize his point he raised his hand to show off his own set of bruises. "And the whole castle could hear her screaming, and let me tell you, she could make a sailor blush."

Anna screwed up her face and looked away, unable to keep the red from her cheeks. "You try pushing out two little melons through something as big as a fist and not scream," she muttered. "And I wouldn't make a sailor blush," she added indignantly.

"No, forgive me, you'd make a pirate turn away." Kristoff barely had time to duck the pillow headed straight for his head, laughing while he did.

"Shut up," Anna groused but couldn't hide her grin under her forced frown.

When Elsa playfully teased her sister about her decision to scale a mountain while heavily pregnant, Anna explaining why with exasperated sighs and exaggerated reasoning, it was then that Elsa received the news about Olaf and Marshmallow. It wasn't like her sister had been flippant with the sad news. Anna had actually teared up at the memory of little Olaf dissolving into nothingness in her arms, three little chunks of coal and a carrot the only things left behind. The shock Elsa felt was like a fist to the gut, the air rushing from her lungs. They were both gone? It wasn't hard to imagine, what with what had happened to her castle after Fritz hit her with the pepper powder, but she'd never even entertained the idea that her sudden blinding and disconnection with her magic could destroy two sentient creatures. She felt their loss physically and swallowed her tears, determined to make things right as soon as she was well enough. But the most concerning thing wasn't necessarily her ability to use her magic to build them, what Elsa feared the most was rediscovering how she'd done it. Both Olaf and Marshmallow had been created during highly emotional points in her life, so capturing and recreating that spark of was something she'd have to puzzle out.

The three of them continued their conversation, which had taken on a bit of a somber feel, until Gerda returned with multiple silver trays laden with food stacked on wheeled carts. She and a small army of servants arranged the trays before scuttling out, Gerda announcing that she would have a bath drawn once the queen was finished. So the royal family tucked in, Elsa realizing she was much more hungry than she previously thought and shamelessly devouring her portion at breakneck speed and managing to polish off a second helping before her hunger abated and she began to actually relax, content with the weight of proper food in her stomach.

As promised, a bath was drawn once the dishes were cleared away, and the queen sank under the steaming hot water in her large, claw-footed tub with an exhausted yet blissful sigh, the ache in her joints and skin vanishing the instant she submerged. Anna remained close despite Elsa's reassurance she was fine, helping her sister soap her hair and scrubbing herself clean. Removing herself once the water began to cool, the sisters both smoothed on the balm Brynja had left with Gerda to give to the queen once she was bathed. Anna was hesitant at first to touch the stitches, but swallowed her unease and smeared the mint infused ointment across her sister's back while Elsa got the gash on her side. Together the two returned to the queen's quarters, younger sister supporting older sister as they tottered down the hallway. As tired as she was Elsa didn't want to sleep, but found it almost impossible to keep her eyes open once she'd slid into the heavenly comfort of her familiar bed and cool sheets. Rolling into her less damaged right side, she held onto her sister's hand until her eyes slid shut and her body relaxed into sleep. Anna stayed with her for a while, refusing to leave until she was sure Elsa was in a deep sleep.

"I love you," she whispered for the hundredth time, kissing her on the forehead and pulling the sheets up over her shoulder. "I'll see you in the morning."

It was unclear how long the queen had been asleep, if felt like minutes but it had clearly been hours, but she blinked awake sometime in the early morning hours to the sound of something being shut. Blearily, she raised her head and stared into the darkness of her room, her ears picking up the scuffle of boots on hardwood. Something shifted near her window and a spike of fear lanced through her until a familiar figure stepped into the light and her fear combusted into a flare of warmth that seemed to center around her brand.

"Sneaking around like that is going to get you killed one of these days," she said, carefully pushing herself up and leaning against the mound of pillows put behind her by her sister. "Why not use my actual door?" She caught the glint of Revel's teeth as he grinned.

"I like using the passage. Makes things more mysterious. Plus, it's not like I don't know the patrol schedule like the back of my hand."

"That could be a worrisome statement if I didn't already know you so well," Elsa retorted with a smile of her own. Despite only getting a few hours of sleep she felt unexpectedly rested, most of her aches a thing of the past.

"Good thing you know me," he laughed and climbed onto the bed. Crawling atop her, he kissed her deeply before withdrawing and sitting back on his legs, fidgeting with something in his hands she couldn't quite make out in the darkness, but it sounded like parchment. Despite his easy smile, Elsa could tell there was something weighing heavily on her mind and her previous joy at seeing him faded a bit.

"You've come to say goodbye, haven't you?"

"I…" he seemed to lose whatever he was going to say, looking down at whatever was in his hands. "There's a lot going on, and not all of it I agree with."

"Such as?"

"Symon wants me to return to Asham with him on the morning tide—"

"Which you should do," Elsa said before he could finish. Revel looked surprised and slightly hurt, his shoulders slumping.

"You want me to leave?" he asked in a small, almost broken voice.

"What? No!" the queen gasped and pushed herself into a sitting position, grabbing his wrist. A crackle of energy traveled down her arm and climbed his, both of them shivering. Under his loose gray shirt Elsa could see the mark on his chest start to glow but chose to ignore it for now. "I want you to stay, but I know about the duties of a royal. Your brother is right. You need to go to your kingdom."

"You mean return to a kingdom I don't know? One that might not welcome me back? I understand Symon's logic, but I've not been to Asham in fifteen years. So much has changed, and I might not be well received by the people."

Elsa noticed he said the people and not my people. "Asham in your birthright," she argued.

"But Arendelle is my home," he concluded, scooting closer and taking her hand in his. "This is all I've known, and I don't want to leave it behind…to leave you behind."

"Revel, there's so much that needs to be done in Asham. You can't turn away what's rightfully yours because of me."

She'd expected to see sadness or maybe even irritation on his shadowed face, but instead she saw something sparkle in his eyes like a kind of crafty mischief that immediately made her both wary and curious. "What are you thinking?" she frowned, brow creasing.

"I'm glad you asked," he grinned, teeth flashing in the silvery moonlight, "because I have an idea. It's going to take a lot of work, and I'll need your help along with Symon's if we're going to pull this off. I've not told him about it yet, but I think he'll agree with what I have planned."

"I'm not sure I follow," Elsa frowned, heart starting to thump in her chest.

"I'll explain everything," Revel said taking a seat next to her, planting a kiss on her forehead as he handed her the piece of parchment he'd brought with him sealed with a red wax seal. Carefully she broke the seal and unrolled the parchment, her eyes going wide as Revel lit the lamp on her nightstand and she read what was written in his scrawling handwriting.

For the First Time in Never

A Frozen Story
by JE Glass

Part 22 of 24

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