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Bending the Aether

Chapter Text

“I never realized how boring those meetings were.”

“Why do you think I never gave you the details?”

Anna sighed, leaning against the stonework of a tower’s balcony, “Secret queen stuff?”

Her sister rolled her eyes but smirked at the dramatic display.  

“Trade tariffs and taxation percentages are important, I guess,” the queen continued, shrugging, “Thanks for sitting in.  I know I got this...but having you as an advisor is nice.”

Elsa smiled.   “Of course. After you signed the treaty with Yelana, it makes sense for either myself or her to show up occasionally to represent the Northuldra,” she took her sister’s hands with a gentle squeeze, “You can be an independent leader proving yourself while still respectfully and maturely listening to input from others.”

The hands in hers squeezed back.  “Spoken like a queen.”

Elsa let go and walked to the balcony’s edge with a laugh, “Ex-Queen.”

The redhead observed as the other woman seemed to survey the city below them.  Months ago, when witnessing the same practice, Elsa’s brow was always wrinkled with worry.  Now, she looked quietly amused, admiring the view, her glittering gown lightly moving in the breeze, bare feet on the stone underneath them.

Anna walked up and bumped her sister’s hip with her own before resting her elbows on the stone railing.

“Is it weird?”

“Is what weird?”

“I mean, you’ve had a crazy past few years.  You went from shut-in princess to queen to magic sorceress to...what would you call it?  Supreme Goddess of Nature?”

Elsa snorted, “That’s extreme.”

“You still get my point.”

“Life feels different now, especially in the forest.  Like I belong,”  After a beat, Elsa suddenly turned to her sister, “Not that I didn’t feel that way with you and our friends!  It’s just...For once, I think I finally feel almost completely myself, magic and all.”

“Almost?”  Anna asked, elbowing her companion when she didn’t get a response, “Elsa.”

The other grumbled, turning to now look up at the castle’s spires.

“I can’t explain it.  I’ve always been so preoccupied concealing my powers or leading Arendelle or some other traumatic affair.  Now that I finally feel at peace with myself and my existence in life, I’m wondering for the first time if maybe…” she paused, sighing, before finally looking back at Anna,  “Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to share that existence with someone.”

“Oh.  Oh!” the younger woman shrieked, “This is so exciting.  I’ve only been waiting for you to have a crush on someone for, like, ever.”

The blonde shook her head.  “That’s ridiculous, it’s not a crush.  A small desire for companionship maybe.”

“Mhm.”

“I can want friends.”

“I thought you said you had those already?”

“This is different.”

“Exactly my point,” Anna exclaimed triumphantly, before asking with a devious smile, “Who is it?”

Elsa started to walk away and too calmly, too smoothly, stated, “No one.”

Anna practically bounced to catch up to her sister. “Elsa, you’re twenty-five years-old, it was bound to happen at some point.  I mean, if you were to look at me and honestly tell me that you never have and never will be romantically interested in someone, I’ll believe you.  Cousin Joffrey was like that.  It’s very normal.”

Her response was a sigh.  They walked in silence a few steps across the bulwark. 

Anna waited.  She had waited almost twenty years.  Casually, she hummed a small tune as they walked, resisting the urge to poke her sister until she broke.

Elsa’s muttering was barely heard over the breeze from their tall vantage point on the wall.  “I’ve always pushed people away.  This is new.  And a little terrifying.”

“You died and came back.  A crush is terrifying?”

“You died and came back.  Not that unique and terrifying for us.”

“Dork,” the queen grinned, “I’m sort of glad this could be something you want though.  I know you have all these cool powers and the forces of nature at your beck and call, but the thought of you having someone with you makes me happy.  Someone has to keep you company in that forest,” Anna slyly glanced next to her, “If they are in the forest?”

Elsa shook her head but was nevertheless back to smiling.  “I’m fine on my own, and I always come back to visit.”

Anna looked out over Arendelle.  Her Arendelle.  “True.  But why be just fine when you could be happy?”

“How have you gotten even sappier since being engaged?”

“I found my person, and now we get to be together forever,” Anna beamed before turning back to her sister with wide, horror-filled eyes, “These royal wedding planners though...yikes.”


Hoof-beats pounded against the earth as Nokk carried Elsa across the plain separating the outskirts of the capital to the forest.  Her visit with Anna following their oficial business had been pleasant.  Though the land she travelled was once foggy and impenetrable, the sunlight, even at sunset, now easily brightened the way, pink light glistening off melted snow.  The grass and ground eagerly peaked through, as if eager for the first warm season following the breaking of the curse.

There was harmony in the elements and peace, and Elsa smiled into the wind blowing her hair wildly as the duo charged forward. Could she thank Gale for such a beautiful day, such a pleasant breeze on this eve of Spring?

Thinking the name alone seemed to suddenly bring on a dizziness, an ache. The rush of air from riding seemed deafening now, but the horse was now gone. The sounds of footsteps, gone.  Her vision of the woods grew misty in the edges and a voice, almost singing, whistled in her head.

Sssssssomething movessss the treesssssss.  Sssssailss asssssking me for fiiiiiilling. Ssssneaking and ssssailing.

“Lady Elsa!”

As if waking up, Elsa found herself jolted by the sound of her name, the forest suddenly in full force before her.  Nokk trotted towards the Northuldra village; Elsa somehow knew, somehow felt, that the spirit had followed some unspoken command in her heart to bring her home .  Perhaps she had fallen asleep during the ride.  Could it be merely a dream?  She set aside the questions bubbling in her mind, focusing on the person greeting her.

Yelana continued to wave her over, quickly finishing a conversation with what appeared to be a returning hunting party.  As they walked away, she turned to the woman as she slid gracefully off the icey spirit’s back.

“Lady Elsa, what a pleasant surprise.”

The blonde produced a small package and replied, “I have a gift from the Queen.  For you,” she leaned in with mock seriousness and whispered, “I was told to keep it very secret.”

The Northuldra leader delicately removed a tiny section of the wrapping to reveal a label of Arendellian whiskey.

“Oh my...now this is a mighty gift indeed for us out here.  I take it she liked my engagement present?” she asked, eyes glittering with mirth.

Elsa laughed, “Even I do not know what magic you work on those berries to make a mead that strong.  She had hoped this would be an even trade nonetheless.”

“You’ll have to give her my thanks next time you see her,” the elder said before draping an arm across Elsa’s shoulders, steering her into the camp, “Come, there’s a nice fire tonight, you should join us for supper.”

“I don’t want to impose.”

“Please, you should know you’re always welcome here.  You’re here so often, I should really just give you a tent by now.”

“Sleeping on the beach is shockingly comfortable,” Elsa replied sheepishly, but she did not fight the old woman, allowing herself to be led deeper into the camp.

Yes, Nokk had delivered her home.  That fact however was still unspoken out loud to anyone.  She was of Arendelle, born and raised to rule the capital.  That should be home, where Anna was.  And yet, deep down, the woman who had abdicated the throne and embraced the world of magic knew that the People of the Sun were now her family. Months of sitting by their fires seemed to make it obvious.  She knew them so well now, became so invested in their lives; and they seemed genuinely happy to have her amongst them.

Still, Elsa found attention and socializing hard, even years after her isolation in the castle had ended.  Old habits left her feeling embarrassed as she politely listened to issues and daily struggles from the Northuldra.  Their reverence was almost god-like, and they treated her as an extension of the spirit themselves.  Yes, she technically was.  No, that did not make advising on their troubles any easier.  Like Anna had asked, what even was she?

“Lady Elsa, which fields do you think will be blessed with a large crop this year?”

“My Lady, would the water spirit accept our offering so it may rain this week?”

“Lady Elsa, is the birth of my grandchild ill-fated under the North Star or ordained to bring us fortune under the Summer Solstice?”

The former queen answered politely, if not vaguely, with as much sincerity as she could muster.  Politics in the forest weren’t all that different from the city.

It was one particular voice that finally arrived at the campfire once the sun had completely set and diverted her attention wholly.

“My Lady.”

Honeymaren claimed a spot on the same log next to Elsa, an easy, relaxed smile warmly reflected on her face in firelight.  ‘Lady Elsa’ seemed stuffy and formal when everyone else used it, as if it harbored some dying remnants of the official title she lost when she renounced her queenship.  On Honeymaren’s lips, however, it was teasing, hinting at a game they had been playing for some time now.

Elsa tried to hide a smile as she invoked her own nickname for the woman with mock seriousness, “Shepherdess.”

Her response was a smirk. “How was your trip?”

“Uneventful,” Elsa shrugged before eyeing the large dirt and mud stains on Honeymaren’s tunic, “Dare I ask how your day fared?”

With a sigh, the Northdran removed her cap, explaining, “The snow is melting, Spring is coming, and the herd is restless.  Wet ground and running beasts didn’t work out very well for me today.”

“Do you not like Spring?”

She glanced from the fire to the blonde, still blatantly cheerful despite her lamenting.

“I’ve grown fond of Winter,” she stated simply with a smile.

Elsa looked away shyly, down at the log between them, but she found her lips curling upward. 

“In that case, hold still,” she murmured, holding up her hand and spreading her fingers.

If someone asked Elsa how her magic worked, she would have no idea how to explain that it simply happened.  For years, it often happened without her consent. Somewhere in between the balance of fear and love, she had learned control, but how or why was still lost on her.  One fundamental principle, however, was always obvious to her; ice was the element of lawful order.

Despite the chaos of nature, the wild instinct of magic, ice was extremely organized, solidly based in fundamental principles of math and geometry. A simple study of the various possibilities and combinations of snowflake creation and design easily demonstrated this fact.  From her mind and into reality, Elsa had created architecturally flawless castles, sparkling gowns, and even living snowmen. Clothes were by far the most simple; fabric was interlocking grid lines and patterns. Ice easily replicated those structures. Ice to water was fairly straightforward. Cleansing dirt and then dismissing it altogether was a simple progression of logic.

Therefore, when a flick of her wrist frosted Honeymaren’s clothing, and the following wave of her hand removed the ice and dirt completely, it simply made sense.  The outfit was now spotless.

“Amazing,” Honeymaren muttered, looking down her own torso.  When she heard Elsa scoff in response, she looked up immediately, exclaiming,  “No, really, you are.  I know you’re probably sick of people telling you that everyday, but I mean it.”

“Please.  No one says that,” Elsa replied, looking down at her hands that had returned to a folded position on her lap, “I still got a lot of stares back in the city today.”

“Even those of us that have known the forest spirits and magic our whole lives are in awe of you.”

Elsa looked up from her lap to the fire before them.  She could feel the brunette's eyes on her.  While she should accept the complement and move on, as most social norms would dictate, she couldn’t bring herself to hide the truth from this woman.

Maybe Anna was right about letting people in.

“Awe always seems to come with a dose of fear. People simply hide it better when they benefit from it,” Elsa explained, her voice quiet but her tone firm.

Even she was a bit shocked at the bitterness she felt as she said it.  The revelation made her turn quickly to Honeymaren.

“Not you, not your people.  It was like that for a few years in Arendelle, once my secret was out, so to speak.  You all embrace enchantments in your daily lives gladly,” she smiled, “You were right when you said I belong here.”

Honeymaren met her gaze and seemed to slowly mull over her words.  Her expression did not bear traces of anger or sadness at Elsa’s small act of self-pity nor did it boast its usually bright smile.  It was one of quiet contemplation, but her eyes remained fixed.

She leaned forward and rested her hand on Elsa’s.  Her voice was exceedingly calm and gentle  as she explained, “Elsa,you’re amazing, with or without the magic.  That’s why you belong here.  Because you think a lizard that can set our whole camp on fire is cute.  Because even if you didn’t have the powers, I’m completely convinced you’d still walk around barefoot in the woods.  It’s you.”

And Elsa believed her.  As she stared back into those brown eyes, she knew for at least this one single person, it wasn’t about the magic that made her a god or a monster.  It was just her.

Nokk really had brought her home.

She knew she was blushing as she looked away to the fire once more, muttering with a small smile, “Thank you.”

Honemauren’s tumb completed one loop on the back of her hand before letting go, seemingly content with Elsa’s response, and she moved to return her cap to her head.  

“You should come see the reindeer tomorrow, they miss you.”

“Perhaps I shall, Shepherdess.” 

“Whatever you wish, My Lady.”

They stayed side by side at the campfire until the elders let the flames dissolved to embers.

Chapter Text

“And this big man over here is the little baby that cuddled on your lap the first day we met.”

“Really? After just a few months?”

“He’s basically a teenager now.”

The large clearing was damp with melted snow.  The sizable herds roamed freely and prodded at new grass they hadn’t seen in a season.  A very simple fencing of wooden posts surrounded them, rather obvious to any human observer it could be easily knocked over by a reindeer with enough willpower.  However, the animals were tame enough under Honeymaren and her brother’s guidance, and Elsa learned these structures were always temporary and seasonal; they would soon be moving to pastures fresh with new grass as the weather continued to warm. 

The buck before them huffed, as if aware his shepherd spoke of him.

Elsa reached forward and gently brushed her fingers down the length of the beast’s snout.  Huge eyes turned and looked at hers.

The smell of grass and flowers overwhelmed her nose.  Her legs suddenly felt tense, eager, ready, and green bled into her vision as images of meadows weaved in and out.

“He’s ready for Spring,” Elsa confirmed, smiling at the reindeer.

“I think they all are. Warm weather, better food, and um, friendly engagements with the ladies,” Honeymaren chuckled next to her.

“Hm, it’s not that,” Elsa said as she tilted her head, as if in deep thought, petting the reindeer’s face, “I think he just wants to run.”

There was a pause before Honeymaren whispered, “Can you talk to animals?”

The blonde laughed, “No, not yet anyway.  But I can feel them now.  Sometimes there’s not always clear separation between myself and the forest,” she trailed off before turning to her companion, “That must be so odd to hear.”

She shrugged.  “Is it odd to you?”

“No. I may not understand it, but it actually feels very natural and normal. For once in my life,” Elsa admitted sheepishly.

“Then it’s not odd,” Honeymaren stated with a nod, turning to the buck and giving him a firm pat on the back,  “Don’t worry, buddy, you’ll get to stretch your legs soon.”

Elsa busied herself with continuing to stroke the animal’s head.  The other woman’s confidence and easy acceptance was somehow always a surprise. While delivered quite casually, the implication was intense, and the once queen struggled not to blush at the act; it hinted to an intimacy the former shut-in did not often experience.  Acceptance was still new, and seeing it done so with such a charming smile made one feel flustered.

“Would you like to go for a ride?”

“On him?”

“Sure, you said he wants to run, and he’s big enough for both of us now.”

A familiar and instinctual mantra of conceal, don’t feel was chanting inside Elsa’s head. The other woman’s playful smirk was too much.  She simply nodded in affirmation, moving to tie her hair up with an icy twist in preparation of riding.

A sudden surge of wind collided directly with Elsa’s back, and she lurched forward. Directly into Honeymaren.  The pair managed not to fall to the ground; strong arms surrounded her waist. Elsa was suddenly overly aware of how muscular the other woman was from working in the fields.

Giggling floated on the breeze as the grass moved, showing Gale’s joyful retreat, the spirit’s goal of mischief and chaos completed.

“Gale’s in high spirits today.  You alright?” Honeymaren asked, steadying Elsa to her feet, hands still securely gripping and supporting her forearms. 

Conceal, don’t feel, conceal, don’t feel.

“Yes, thank you.  I feel I’ve gained more younger siblings recently.”

“You want mine too?  I’ll give you a discount for him,” she shot back with a snickering grin.

Again, it was too easy, too comfortable.  That damn smile.  It didn’t help as they hopped onto the beast’s back, feeling Honeymaren’s arms surround her, gripping the reins, body pressed against her back once they were in their shared saddle.

Elsa gulped as she grabbed the saddle’s pommel.  At least her riding companion seated behind her couldn’t see her face as she stared forward, through the reindeer’s horns.

The buck, for his part, behaved extremely well.  As if knowing his unspoken cry for exploring had been magically heard by the duo, he obeyed Honeymaren’s commands easily in exchange for the chance to run.  Elsa was impressed by the work the herder had clearly put into training the animals for the more equestrian needs of the village.

Indeed, Honeymaren was a skilled rider, and despite the simultaneously delightful and terrifying feeling of her forearms tensing with control and command of reins against Elsa’s frame, the blonde deeply enjoyed the ride.  She had taken to exploring the forests with Nokk during the past Winter months, but what was once white was beginning to see bright greens and yellows.

The meadows further north held few trees, and the sun reigned more freely than in the thick of the forest. Snow was gone, and the grass was an almost luscious gold.  The reindeer beneath them was allowed to sprint fully, and specks of color, newly budding weeds and flowers were passing by in a blurr. Harmony of the spirits and the natural magic of the seasons changing was truly beautiful for the mistress of ice, and somehow, she knew this was a gift Honeymaren had wanted to show her.

A rumble echoed across the plain, but Elsa saw no dark clouds in the sky.  

When it happened again, seemingly from the mountains, Elsa shouted against the wind and force of their riding, “Was that the Earth Giants?”

“Probably,” Honeymaren loudly replied.

Another boom reverberated from the cliffs in the distance.

“They aren’t usually that excited,” Elsa called back, somewhat concerned.

“Not recently.  But they’ve been known to stumble around.”

Suddenly, the explosive noise was bursting her head.

SHADOW.  DESTROY.

Anger exploded in Elsa’s chest like a massive fissure cracking her in half. It was blinding and absolute.  She felt the power to destroy a hundred Arendelles ripple just at her fingertips, tearing through her veins.  Thunder-like bangs echoed in her ears as the ground shook.

All the rage and blind emotion vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and Elsa’s energy was sapped with it.  She swayed in the saddle as her grip failed, slipping towards the speeding earth below them.

In her dizziness, she felt the arms around her tighten as they jerked to a stop, halting her plummet to the ground.

“Woah, are you alright?”

Was it real?  What did it even mean?  Vague images and random emotions, even for a partial spirit, was not generally a reliable source of information.  The reindeer’s mood had been one thing, but who or what was this?

Was she simply going crazy?

“Yes, I’m sorry, just a little light-headed,” the blonde replied, regaining her sitting position atop the now stationary mount. 

Honeymaren expertly hopped off the saddle to the ground, immediately outstretching her hands, gesturing for Elsa to dismount.

“I know riding reindeer is a bit rougher than horseback.”

“It’s not that,” Elsa replied, sliding off the reindeer’s back with the assistance of Honeymaren’s steadying hands.  She tried to swallow her embarrassment as the other woman kept a light touch to her waist to ensure she was steady on the ground.  With a reassuring nod, she took a few steps forward to demonstrate her balance and full consciousness.

Honeymaren patiently waited, traces of concern still left on her countenance.  The reindeer started prodding at the ground for a grassy snack, easily left on his own to behave.

“Before Arendelle, before the fog,” Elsa asked, glancing across the vast valley before them, “Were there any enemies of the Northuldra?”

Honeymaren frowned at the seemingly random question.  “Not really, I think the cliffs make it hard for anything human.  You probably know more about our geography than I do,” she finished with a chuckle.

The former royal easily tapped into her training, almost picturing the words of a common history book, explaining, “The region that surrounds Arendelle is mostly forest and mountains.  Makes it hard to infiltrate by land.  Trade is mostly via the fjord and the Southern Sea.  Our armada is one of the greatest in the world.”

“Makes sense.  Plus, we have Earth Giants.  So.  Pretty hard to sneak a whole army in here.  Everything else is just myths and legends,” Honeymaren grinned walking forward to stand next to Elsa as she perused the landscape, “You still seem worried.”

She was.  But of what?  A couple of odd visions and dreams hardly explained any concrete fears.

“Some would say I was a myth.  That this whole forest was a myth.”

“And that’s why I do not worry about what’s to come, real or myth. We have the spirits.  We have you.”

Elsa huffed, “I worry.”

“You always worry,” Honeymaren chided softly, taking the other’s hand, “I’ll just have to distract you.  Come on.”

With a slight tug, they were suddenly standing face to face.  Elsa’s hand was guided to the other woman’s shoulder, and she felt a light pressure against her lower back.

“What are you doing?”

“Isn’t this how they do it in court?” the brunette questioned before her eyebrows shot upwards, “Oh wait, I forgot the important part first.”

Honeymaren immediately let go, taking a large, comical step backwards.  She made a sweeping, dramatic bow, mimicking the most formal of the lords of Arendelle.

Elsa found it rather adorable.  The Northuldran looked up expectantly, still more horizontal than vertical.

With a chuckle, Elsa flourished the most queenly of courtesies.  Barefoot.  In the middle of the valley.  After suffering hallucinations.  Smelling of reindeer.  To a lady shepherd she was trying desperately not to fall madly in love with.  Perhaps she really was going crazy.

Honeymaren eagerly returned before her, standing tall, placing hands in the designated positions before leading them into a rather popular waltz very familiar to the former noble.

After a few successful circles, Elsa questioned, “How did you learn to dance like this?”

“Don’t laugh. Olaf.”

“I’m surprised.”

“He’s pretty observant and an expert on city culture, though he doesn’t have a good height for hands-on teaching,” Honeymaren admitted with a pointed look, and Elsa laughed at the hypothetical teaching sessions with the snowman that popped into her imagination.

“No, I mean, I’m surprised at how good you are. Given probably limited practice.”

Honeymaren grinned, “Well, you’ve adjusted quickly to being with us in the woods. I thought I’d try and pick up some of the things you likely had to learn growing up to keep it fair,” she briefly glanced around the field before muttering, “Probably could do with some music though.”

Learning to dance had been particularly difficult for Elsa.  Only one or two instructors had been allowed in her presence for schooling and other matters of royal etiquette, and it was certainly a risk to require her to touch one in order to learn the lesson in question.  Back then, she had been quaking in her gloves as an overly skinny, old, balding man had reprimanded her for every misstep.  After all, a queen would need to entertain and do so gracefully lest she disgrace the kingdom.  Little did he know then all she could focus on was trying not to kill him with an icy death.

In comparison, this was much better.

Honeymaren smelled like pine, and her fur-lined tunic was soft to the touch. Glittering, golden-brown eyes eagerly darted from feet to face.  The novice seemingly relied on her proficient dexterity more than inherent knowledge of dance, making some of their movements clumsy.  However, an excited smile remained ever constant on the shepherd's face, and Elsa found herself bubbling with laughter at each misstep or dramatic turn.

After countless spins and twirls, Honeymaren concluded their dance with another sweeping bow, promptly collapsing on the ground.

“How do you not get dizzy?” she exclaimed, leaning back to rest on her hands and stretching her legs.

Elsa’s mouth was beginning to hurt from how much she was smiling, and as she sat down on the grass next to the shepherd, she found it difficult not to imagine a more perfect partner, for dancing or otherwise. 

“Why aren’t you married?”  The question bubbled from her mouth before she could stop it.

“How do you mean?”

What did she mean?  “Is someone courting you?”

“Don’t you think I would’ve mentioned them in the past few months we’ve known each other if I was with someone?”

Elsa blinked.  “That’s a valid point.”

“Trying to marry me off?” quipped the brunette, signature smirk in place.

“No,” she replied slowly, eyebrows furrowed, turning to stare at the ground before them.

This was a new feeling.  A terribly confusing one.  So many of the wonderful things in Elsa’s life were often met with bitter disappointment or some twisted cosmic punishment.  Certainly she was misunderstanding whatever was happening between them.

When she glanced back up, Honeymaren was sitting calmly, playing with a blade of grass, small smile in place.  Space to change the subject.  Sensitivity to listen if the topic was pursued. 

Elsa inhaled deeply and tried to focus on the logical flow in her mind.

“You were trapped in the forest your whole life with the same people.  There wasn’t anyone you fancied?”

“I mean, fancied, sure, I guess.  I found people attractive, but there wasn’t anyone I wanted to be with, you know, forever.  Preferred to wait and hope maybe one day the fog would clear and find my soulmate rather than just settle,” Honeymaren explained with a shrug.

“Oh.”

Maybe...maybe Anna could be right.  Maybe she could finally give herself permission to be fully happy.

“What about you?” the voice questioned, interrupting her thoughts.

“I was always too busy worrying about freezing the entire kingdom into a snow globe to think about being with anyone.”

Honeymaren chuckled as she replied, “Makes sense.  And now you’re not so busy worrying about that?”

“Something like that,” Elsa murmured in response, finally turning to fully face the woman beside her. She didn’t stop the smile that bloomed on her face or attempt to hide the warmth she felt blossoming on her cheeks.

Elsa noticed Honeymaren’s fingers paused from their twirling of the grass, but the beautiful, dark amber eyes never left hers. There was a sweetness in her smile that seemed to grow wider and closer. 

They were sitting quite close.

Maybe the universe was finally on her side; maybe she could enjoy the new spring that followed a hard winter.

The buck’s head suddenly appeared in view between them, eagerly nudging and licking the side of Honeymauren’s face.

Elsa giggled.  Maybe later.

“I know, I know, how dare I forget dinnertime,” the shepherd cried histrionically, swatting away the large, furry head, “I’m going to need you to really learn to talk to animals so you can tell them to calm down.”

“Kristoff is rather fluent in Reindeer.”

“He’s been giving Ryder lessons.  I catch him mooing at them sometimes.”

They shared a laugh, and Honeymaren stood from the ground.  She wordlessly held out her hand, the message clear.  Elsa beamed as she accepted, allowing herself to be pulled up.

Let’s go home.

Chapter Text

“Thanks for meeting with me. Now that the forest is open, we have some people from the city wanting to join us, some of our own wanting to go to the city.  It’s a lot of planning, how we can be inclusive without losing our sense of who we are.  I never dreamed we’d see the fog clear, much less have to think about special wagon trails or making more food than we need so we can start trading.”

Bruni cuddled on Elsa’s shoulder.  Now that the weather was getting warmer, the fire spirit lived off the cooling mini-clouds produced by the sorceress of snow and preferred to stay close.  She lightly pet the lizard’s head before returning her attention to Yelana.

“There’s a lot to do now that the curse is lifted.  I’m happy to help.”

“Are you sure?” the older woman questioned, pausing their walk through the village, “I worry I’ve assumed just because you were once queen that you’d like to be a bigger player here. I think you’re great at it, and we certainly feel you are one of us, but is this what you want?”

Elsa glanced around at the people completing their daily tasks and towering trees that surrounded them, meditating on the future plans they had been discussing mere moments before.

“The Northuldra live in harmony with the magic of the forest.  I happen to be an extension of that magic.  I do truly want to help. And helping you means helping the spirits,” she explained, absentmindedly spinning her fingers through the miniature snow cloud precipitating on her shoulder, “I’m still figuring out exactly where I fit in with that, and I may not be the all-knowing being some of the people think I am...but I want to be part of the bridge that unites all of us together.  City, woods, and magic,” Elsa explained before stating more softly, “If anything, my sister and I owe you and your people so much after what our grandfather did.”

“We’ve earned each other’s respect and trust.  Sometimes the most beautiful things require taking a leap of faith,” the elder replied with a gentle smile, “Though, sounds like I still need to start thinking of getting an official apprentice to work with you on that.” 

They continued on their stroll, and while most of their business and planning was concluded for the day, Elsa found herself radiating around the scenes of everyday life before them, taking joy in observing parents teaching their children how to tie a fishing line or waving at the farmers taking a break from sowing the ground.  It was home.

Shouts and barking laughter echoed across the camp.  When Elsa raised an eyebrow to Yelana, she rolled her eyes, walking in the direction of the noise, walking stick steadily thumping against the dirt with the beat of each step.  

“Combat training.”

As they approached in the distance, Elsa saw a group of people in a small clearing on the edge of the village, some watching while others appeared to be running and moving.

Once Yelana brought them to the tree line, upon closer inspection, Elsa could see larger branches had been whittled down to rough quarterstaffs.  Heavy cracks tore through the air, signaling the clashing of the wooden weapons.  Some clapped each other on the shoulders in victory and they all seemed to laugh at the less graceful moments as they took turns dueling.  It reminded her of the guard training in the castle courtyard without the stuffiness of formal uniform and a captain barking orders.

The swing of a familiar braid caught her eye.  Elsa gasped.

The heavy, long tunic was gone, a thinner, lighter vest in its place.  She had only known the Northuldra people during the fall and winter.  They always had sleeves and high collars to protect against the cold of the northern region.  Skin was a new discovery.

Elsa felt a sting of embarrassment that something so human overwhelmed her so suddenly. Ice was rigid, geometrically methodical, and cold.  Heat, chaotic and desperate, was very new and overwhelming.  The sight of Honeymaren’s skin should not have sparked this much heat.

“Running around with the herds all day keeps her spry, doesn’t it?”

Her arms flexed with energy, the staff in her hands spinning swiftly with the twist of her wrists.  Calm and confident, she held her ground even when others barreled towards her, springing at the last moment with powerful speed. She dodged effortlessly, her body easily bending before she countered with the momentum.  Sweat beaded on her forehead and glistened on her arms and her chest, but eyes remained fierce despite the exertion.

She was warm and bold and like the spring sunshine around them.

“She’s a good fighter.  Strong and nimble, but smart about it,” Yelana commented.

The blonde beside her nodded absentmindedly.  Honeymaren was smirking devilishly now, saying something to her opponent.

“Lady Elsa, I should mention you’re blizzarding.”

“What?”  She turned to see a concentrated flurry of white pouring down her shoulder.  With a  gasp, she quickly waved, dissipating the cloud and snow entirely.

The retialian spirit that remained looked incredibly displeased.

“I’m sorry.”

Bruni flashed its tongue before making a show of leaping from Elsa’s shoulder.  Both women watched as its little body wiggled away into the forest.  Elsa sighed, pointedly not turning to meet Yelana’s gaze after such a mortifying display.

There was a pause before the Northuldran asked, “What’s it like in Arendelle these days?  Is it still ‘man marries woman’ and that’s that?”

Elsa’s head whipped around, eyes wide.

“Pardon?”

Yelana merely continued to stare expectantly.

Clearing her throat, she replied, “Same-sex marriage is legal.  Though perhaps not common.  I’m not sure what that has to do with-”

“Nature and Ahtohallan are beautiful teachers,” the other interrupted, “I’m sure you know that even more than us now.  But my people have always looked to the forest, and love between two beings is a pure, wonderful thing, no matter the form.  The mother fox protecting her cub. The flower and the bee,” her whimsical tone trailed off before shooting a pointed look at her conversation partner, “An ice queen and a lady herder.”

Elsa glanced shyly from the elder to the group practicing before them.  Honeymaren was swatting her stick almost playfully at Ryder, lips moving to what Elsa suspected was some witty quip or playful comment at her brother’s expense.  Their companions seemed to laugh at the exchange.

She tentatively returned to the rather intense, if not incredibly smug stare the older woman was giving her.

“I’ve never felt anything like this before, much less know how to act.  She’s one of my few friends; I have much to lose.  And yet,” Elsa murmured softly, “I would be lying if I didn’t admit I desired more.”

Yelena smiled, placing a sympathetic hand on the other’s previously occupied shoulder.

“You dove into the depths of Ahtohallan,” she said with a wink, “I think you’ll do just fine with this leap of faith.”

“Hey!”

Elsa jumped, the shout much closer than the previous calls of roughhousing from the group across from them.  

 

Honeymaren was suddenly before her, panting from an apparent sprint across the field.

“Your turn!”

“What?”

A hand quickly enclosed on her wrist and began pulling her towards the group of fighters.

“Come on!”

Elsa looked behind her as she was dragged away, flashing Yelana a look of utter bewilderment and distress, a silent signal for aid.

The elder simply waved with a smile.


Shadow, shadow.  Shifting through sunbeams, far from the shallows. Waves, not greetings.  Salt longing to taste the shore. Shadows, many shadows on our watery sky...

Elsa awoke slowly, groggy from a deep and confusing dream. The sun was beginning her colorful descent past the horizon, and the light still stung her eyes as she tried to return to the world of the living.

The rhythmic waves crashing on the beach steadily helped to lure her back as she sat up.  She had been napping. Then...somewhere else?  Some dark, grey abyss floated in her memory.  She sat up, blinking away the fog in her mind.  Perhaps the weird dream was merely the result of exhaustion; her morning had been busy helping to finish preparing the fields and planting seeds, hence the nap.  

A splash caught her attention, and Nokk trotted onto the sand from the tide and seafoam. With a small smile, Elsa stood and walked over to the spirit, the brilliantly cold water lapping at her feet.

“What’re you up to?”

The watery horse was quite still, and she could not help but feel the gently glowing eyes were transfixed upon her. Calmly waiting.

“Am I interrupting an errand?”

Elsa turned quickly in surprise to another new presence on her sliver beach, body relaxing at the familiar sight of the brunette Northuldra approaching.

“Not at all,” she replied with a grin.

Honeymaren offered Nokk a nod before her eyes settled back on the blonde, and Elsa felt the world shift.

“I thought I might come see if you wanted to watch the sunset together before we joined everyone at the fire.”

“Sure.”

Honeymaren glanced away, looking across the sea, chuckling, “You probably see it all the time.”

“The company is nice, Shepherdess,” she stated softly, perhaps more delicately than she meant to.

The dark, rich gold eyes returned to meet hers, wrinkled in the corners from a smile. 

Is this what Anna meant when one finds their person? Their childhood fairytales suddenly felt so alive when Honeymaren looked at her like that.  Spirits or not, she felt she could move cosmos with the sensation alone.

When Elsa turned to lead Honeymaren to a spot near the dunes to sit and spectate, Nokk lightly touched their nose to her shoulder, salty water lazily trickling down her sleeve. The woman paused, extending her hand to the translucent beast’s head at the unspoken request. As her fingers wrapped around their snout, the flowing liquid began to harden, the ocean’s essence slowly freezing.  She blew gently, a flurry of snow from her lips beginning to bend crystals of ice on the spirit's mane. Within a matter of seconds, Nokk appeared as if a sculpture of compacted snow, shining brilliantly against the backdrop of the sky now drenched with pink.

Elsa heard Honeymaren murmur next to her, “Beautiful.”

“I know, I love how Nokk glitters in the sunlight like this.”

The voice that answered back was quiet.  “That too.  But I was talking about you.”

Eyes wide, Elsa looked away from her admiration of the frozen water spirit to the other woman; she was smiling sheepishly.  She had complimented her before, but the directness was new.  Even mastery of the cold couldn’t stop the flush she felt spread across her face, and beyond the whistle of the sea breeze in her ear, she heard the pounding of her heart.

Honeymaren slid her hand into the pocket of her tunic.

“Can I-”

“Lady Elsa!”

The new voice was one of haste, crashing into them from across the sand.  A reindeer and rider crested the dune, charging down towards them, sand flying.  Yelana yanked the reins hard to bring her mount to a grinding halt.

“You and I have been summoned to the castle, most urgently,” she stated firmly, her voice leaving no room for question.

The former ruler knew the voice, the commanding tone, the resolute drive of a leader faced with a heavy burden and task not to be questioned.  Elsa glanced apologetically at Honeymaren before nodding to Yelana.

Arendelle needed her.

Before she could summon the spirit, Nokk trotted over and again touched Elsa’s shoulder.  Had they been waiting with her for this precise moment?  What did they know she did not?  She sighed, leaping up to the icy beast’s back.

“Honeymaren, ride with us,”  Yelana turned to the woman still standing on the sand, “It’s time we started figuring out our place in the world beyond our village.  We’ll need people like you to start showing the way.”

“Yelana, I’m just a herder.”

“You’ve become a fierce warrior growing up in the closed forest when we were constantly on guard. You’re smart.  You’re friendly.  Strength, wits, and charisma are the makings of a good leader.  It’s time to choose,” the elder declared fiercely.

Honeymaren stared hard at her leader with the same intensity as the speech just delivered to her.  When she looked to Elsa, the blonde did her best to meet it unflinchingly; this decision was hers alone, and she knew personally, not a light one to make.  But as she felt Nokk breathing beneath her, she felt they were somehow out of time, the grey fog of her dreams seeping back to her consciousness.

The shepherd turned back to Yelana and nodded.

“Good, I already packed you a bag.”

Honeymaren scoffed, throwing her hands in the air, “So much for a choice!”

Yelana brushed her off, nodding behind them, “Your brother brought a mount, hurry now.”

The older Northuldran loudly whistled, and another mounted reindeer appeared over the dune.  With a grunt, Honeymaren jogged to meet them.

The two remaining women turned their mounts southward.  Elsa thought she saw Yelana try to hide a smile.

“I’m getting old. Like I said before, one needs to think of succession plans.”

“Understandable.”

Yelana’s expression sobered as she reached into her pocket and held up what appeared to be a folded note.

“Gale just delivered this.”

Her hand extended across the gap between them, and Elsa now saw the small paper bore the familiar wax seal of the royal family of Arendelle.  When she opened it, she found Anna’s handwriting.

Possible attack on Arendelle. War meeting.  Hurry.

Elsa winced at the blunt desperation of the hurriedly scrawled ink.

“There’s much we don’t know.  Too soon to worry, eh?” the rider next to her said calmly.

Nokk’s head turned, as if glancing behind to their rider.  Pressure began to build against Elsa’s chest, as if she were underwater.

“Worrying is my specialty.”

Heavy hoofbeats suddenly approached behind them as Honeymaren’s reindeer surged forth at a full gallop. Nokk quickly bolted without instruction, and the trio rode hard for Arendelle.

Chapter Text

Elsa could barely see the massive bridge leading them to the castle; her eyes were watering profusely, more than would be expected from the typical whiplash of riding horseback.  As Nokk halted before the entrance to the grand structure, she was almost unable to slide off to the stone beneath her.  Her vision blurred, and she felt as if she was choking.

Wood smells funny.  Eaten, but not by mine.  Different burn.  Smoke trying to hide. Shall we play?

Her lungs were burning.  She leaned against Nokk’s side, coughing profusely, gasping for air.

A hand touched her back, and she could see Honeymaren’s worried countenance enter her peripheral.  

Elsa swallowed hard before she raspily muttered, “I’m fine.”  

Her head and chest were aching, but she had to lie, had to keep going to whatever was waiting for them, as touching as the act of concern was from the other woman.

But what was happening?

Before Honeymaren could comment or question her, the guards were rushing out the gate to collect them. Elsa took as deep a breath as possible, standing tall in the presence of Arendelle’s citizens.  She glanced at the woman next to her.  With a small sigh and a shared nod, the hand dropped from her back.

She had to be strong for whatever came next.


“We received a message from an ambassador of the Southern Isles very politely asking for our surrender by sundown.  If not, their entire naval fleet would be on our beaches by evening.”

As the Secretary to the Crown spoke, Elsa glanced at her sister, standing at the head of a long table that held a map of the continent and surrounding oceans.  Anna’s brows were knotted, but she kept a queenly calm otherwise.

“Apparently the broken engagement, years of sanctions, and what they call our ‘preference for the demonic’ is what finally did it for them,” the pragmatic man stated evenly, but Elsa had worked with him previously enough to notice the almost undetectable sarcastic bite.

 “Is that supposed to mean me?” she asked.

 Anna shrugged. “Us.  Magic forest.  Who’s to say?”

“Lady Elsa, holy war is a great sell to the people, but they likely just want the resources we’ve denied them.  Arendelle is the center of the continent’s trade system. Force is their only option, and all they know.  This type of behavior is why we did not engage with those brutes in the first place following your coronation.”

“We’ve always been able to keep them in line before.  Why not now?” the queen asked, gesturing to the others surrounding the table.

The navy’s Admiral chimed in, “This attack is expertly timed.  We won’t be able to launch all of our armada out of the fjord in time.  They’d be overrun.  What usually acts as our gate and shield is bottlenecking us, they’d be able to pick us off one by one.”

“How are we surprised by an attack to the sea?  Seems like our defenses would be better prepared.  This is supposed to be our specialty,” Anna countered.

“Your Majesty, we’re not fully out of the winter thaw, so some of the fjord is locked. We usually have more patrol ships off the coast to better alert us, but we bring them in for the winter. It’s been colder in recent years, and we previously agreed Lady Elsa would not manipulate the seasons’ cycles too aggressively,” the Admiral bowed his head respectively to Elsa before continuing, “Again, the timing...is extremely precise.” 

Elsa leaned forward, resting her hands on the table.  She tried to focus her eyes on the map; her chest was heavy and constricted again, and it was making her dizzy.

Yelena questioned, “Do we have any confirmation on their numbers?”

“We sent a small corvette to scout and return.  They spotted a hundred, maybe a hundred-fifty frigates.

“To match our hundred, ice locked,” Elsa winced at the imaginary body of water on the table, “What if I thawed the fjord now?”

“By the time they arrived, we could have maybe twenty-five deployed.  Maybe.”

Quiet permeated the room.  One could hear the clock in the adjoining library ticking away their quickly dwindling time.

Anna shook her head, voice defiantly firm, “What else do we have?”

If not for their desperate situation, Elsa would have smiled at the pride she felt for her sister.

The General in the signature green uniform of the army now spoke up, “If we want to prepare for landing, the armies are standing by with General Mattias-”

“No,” the queen cut him off, “What else do we have to stop them from even getting here?  Before citizens are at risk?”

“Your Majesty, we cannot stop them from entering the fjord, and once they’re inside, it will be difficult to predict.  I suggest we start evacuating the outer villages.”

“What about mortars? Or projectiles?  You must have some protection at the opening of the fjord?” Honeymaren questioned, looking back at the General.

Elsa had almost forgotten she was in the room, but she certainly belonged.  She stood tall and spoke confidently, like Anna.  Yelana had been right, this suited her.

“Decommissioned during the late King’s reign.”

Anna sighed, “Father never did like dear ol’ Grandad's war mongering blatantly on our front door.”

“He converted the land to agriculture for economic growth.  Trade and our treaties have always been our protection,” the Secretary assessed, “And now our undoing.”

The comment hung on the air as the dreadful silence returned.  Everyone seemed out of ideas, and it felt like a shard of ice was attempting to impale Elsa’s temple. Her body was screaming at her that something, everything, was wrong.

Whatever gave her powers, blessing or curse, was trying to tell her the answer.

“Perhaps not,” Elsa countered, looking to the Secretary, “Our ‘inclination to the demonic’ is always an option.”

There was a pause while everyone processed her comment.

Anna shot her an incredulous look across the table.  “Are you saying that you, Elsa, my dear sister, can...take down an entire country’s fleet?”

“I froze the capital and most of the country.  And stopped a massive tidal wave.”

The Secretary seemed to weigh the option, stroking his beard, “Your Highness, even if it was possible on that scale, this might just add to justifying their war cause back home.”

“Um, yeah, or it could kill you!” Anna shrieked.

Maybe it would.  Elsa saw the fear easily in Anna’s eyes now. To her, the idea was insanity.  The blonde turned to Honeymaren expecting the same...but found none.  Concern was there, of course, it always was in her kind eyes, but her jaw was set, her shoulders back.  Her gaze flickered, as if searching.

Honeymaren sighed, then nodded.  Trust.  It was as simple as that.

Elsa mustered what strength her body would allow, standing upright.

“We can’t survive this attack.  If we deflect them before they arrive, then we’ll be able to fight the war the next day,” she looked to Anna, voice firm, “There is no future, no tomorrow, to question and debate over if I do not ride to meet them.”

She glanced back down to the map before them on the table, before continuing, “But I’m afraid that’s not all.  It’s not just the sea.  I don’t know how I know, but there’s more.  I think there’s another attack.  I need to try and speak with the spirits.”

For what it was worth, the officials present held their tongues exceedingly well.  The look in their eyes indicated the expected reaction from seasoned, pragmatic veterans in the face of something as absurd as magic.  And yet, they bowed their heads.  Perhaps Arendelle had seen enough exceedingly odd and magical occurrences in recent years to finally embrace the gut feeling of a...what was she? Sorceress? Spirit? Monster?

Why did her head feel like it was going to split open?


“My friends,” Elsa’s voice drifted from the library doors where Yelana and Anna stood just outside.

Honeymaren reappeared at the threshold, closing the doors behind her.

“She’s, uh, with them now,” the Northuldran muttered, seemingly uncertain in her phrasing.

The other two nodded simply.  This was certainly odd, even for their lot.  The trio stood silently in the hallway, only the hushed conversation between the General and the Admiral that drifted to meet them a few paces away breaking the tense quiet.

Anna hated quiet.  And she really hated closed doors.

She sighed, “I wasn’t really ready to be a wartime queen.”

“Your Majesty, you do not have to be ready in order to be capable.  If this is to be your burden, you must carry it.  But not alone,” Yelana stated sagely.

Anna offered a small smile; the advice meant a lot coming from the woman who had spent most of her leadership in battle with a corrupted forest and a portion of Arendelle’s army.  She turned back to the sealed barrier before them and frowned.

“I still can’t believe she wants to go out there alone.”

“She’s strong.  We just have to trust her and her stubborn dedication.  That’s why we love her so much in the first place, right?” Honeymaren answered reassuringly with a light grin.

The queen nodded briefly in agreement before suddenly pausing. Her eyes narrowed.

“Right.  We ‘love’ her,” she replied slowly, lips twitching.

Honeymaren cleared her throat, adding a formal depth to her voice, “Uh, thank you for allowing me into the meeting, Your Majesty.”

Anna noticed the subject change, but given the impending doom waiting for them, she allowed her the retreat.  Her curiosity would have to wait.  For now.

“Sure.  Yelana mentioned you’re her apprentice now.”

“She decided rather suddenly.  I guess I’ve accepted.”  The woman shot the elder a glare, who pointedly ignored her.

“You made some good points while we were talking.  We definitely need all the help we can get,” Anna assessed before looking solemnly to Yelana, “I’m sorry to enact the war terms of our treaty so early, bringing you and your people into this.”

The older woman looked out the window to the darkening sunlight.

“If what Lady Elsa says is true, the fate of the city and the woods are now one,” the seasoned leader murmured softly, “Ahtohallan has braided our destinies together for some time.”

Anna shivered. Why did it always feel like her and her family were the plaything of something much bigger?

The library door suddenly creaked open, and Anna saw her sister’s figure emerge slowly at the threshold. She swayed in place before collapsing against the doorframe.

The queen gasped and took a step forward to help her, but Honeymaren was already at Elsa’s side, a hand on the blonde’s forearm, another on her lower back.

She looked terrible, paler than usual, as if immensely tired or sick. And yet, as weak as her body appeared, her blue eyes were glittering spectacularly, as if truly made of the ice she so easily wielded.

Something had changed, and Anna was unsure if she should be hopeful or afraid.

Elsa’s fingers brushed against the herder’s hand holding her, and with a breath, her body straightened. By the time the two military men finished their journey down the hall to join them, Honeymaren’s hand had retreated, and the woman before them was steady.

Elsa’s voice was eerily calm as she stated, “The spirits have confirmed there is a second group attempting to enter Arendelle from the north, through the mountains, through Northuldra’s lands.”

“Do they know who it is?” the Admiral asked, eyes wide.

She shook her head.  “Only that they wave a different flag than the Southern Isles.”

“Interesting.”

The General immediately turned to Anna, voice quick and anxious, “Fighting on two fronts will be difficult.  It will take time to ride to the north through the forest, we have to send troops now if-”

Elsa held up her hand as she interrupted, “The Earth Giants and Bruni will handle them.  They are small to be so secretive.  No large army could easily march through the rocky passes,” she explained before declaring resolutely, “The Giants and fires will eradicate them.”

Anna winced, but she did not contest the assessment.  This was their reality now, war was here, and the military personel beside her, with dark circles under their eyes, merely nodded.

“They mean to harm the forest.  I know this must be hard to believe, but I know it in my bones to be true,” the blonde asserted, emotion finally leaking into her voice.  Anna recognized the desperation as it was plaguing her own being now.

“Then they are an enemy of Arendelle, per our treaty with the Northuldra.  We are one nation now, and the forest is our home.  The timing is no coincidence,” Anna affirmed, locking eyes with Yelana.

Her sister had once said they were the bridge.  Yelana was right; the two peoples were now one.

“Gale and Nokk will assist me with the enemy’s navy,” Elsa further added, and Anna huffed at the nonchalant tone.

“I still don’t like the idea of you going out there.”

“I must.  Even for spirits, our enemy is not small.  There is no other path.”

The military official politely countered, “Your Highness, if this is truly possible, then you would only need to hold them off until our ships can leave the fjord.”

Elsa looked pointedly back at the man, face disparagingly empty of emotion as she darkly muttered, “Admiral, I’m quite sure you will not want your sailors or soldiers anywhere near the ocean while this is happening.”

Could she really hold such tremendous power?

This was her sister of the past, Anna thought.  She had been so carefree the past few months, after finding a home in the forest, embracing life as a spirit.  The Elsa standing before her was the queen once locked in her room, resigned to be ladened with impossible purpose for a hypothetical greater good.

All she could do was support her.

Anna turned to the General and Admiral, sternly commanding, “Continue the evacuation of the outer villages.  Send messengers to my cousin in Corona; I’m sure Rapunzel will assist us with answering in kind once this immediate threat is resolved.  Send scouts to the forest borders to watch and only engage if the spirits fail,” she turned to the window, “The sun sets in the hour, and they’ll be here.  Let’s move quickly.”

As the men bowed and retreated urgently to their tasks, the monarch set her eyes upon her sister.  

“You better come back.”

Anna finally saw Elsa’s armor crack, and a small smile alighted her face.  “I always make my way back to you.”

They met halfway in a tight embrace.  As exhausted as she had looked, Elsa’s arms felt strong and steady now.

“Mom and Dad would be so proud of you right now,” Anna murmured into her sister’s ear.

“You too,” Elsa replied, pulling away but holding her sister out at arm’s length, “We promised the flag would always fly.”

Anna mustered the last of her royal training not to sob at the comment.  She would do anything for their country, but it always seemed to be Elsa making the sacrifices.

She gave a firm nod.  She could do this.  If Elsa could do her part, she would play hers.

Elsa’s arms dropped from her sister’s shoulders and offered Yelana a polite grin, to which the elder bowed her head briefly in return.  She then glanced to Honeymaren.  Anna was shocked to find this was the first time since Elsa had arrived at the castle, doom and gloom and all, that she looked truly nervous.

Her sister was always the paradox of an elegant queen and awkward dork.  Why would an impending, dramatic war change that?

Honeymaren, for what it was worth, took it in stride, gesturing down the hall with a reassuring smile.  “I’ll walk you out.”

Elsa reached out to squeeze Anna’s hand before they made their exit.  Yelana looked wistfully at the duo as they hurriedly walked down the hallway.

“I hate to see them out of time.”

So her suspicions had been correct all along.  Elsa, the hermit, now the romantic.  Honeymaren seemed sweet, and Anna did love being right.  In a different world, this would be a happy moment.

But the queen simply nodded.  They were all out of time now.


Perhaps Elsa had made a mistake.  It was so much harder to say goodbye this way.

Honeymaren had been faithful to her word, truly walking to her out the castle, even to the thick, stone railing of the bridge.

When Elsa turned to the other woman, she couldn’t find the words.  There was too much left to say, and she had too much left to do waiting for her on the water.

Honeymaren, however, simply smiled, as if she knew.

“Before you go, I want to give you something.”

The Northuldran reached into her pocket, pulling out what appeared to a marble or people between her fingertips. When Elsa extended her hand to receive the item, she found a small nut donning a signature cap deposited in her open palm.

“It’s an acorn?” Elsa questioned hesitantly, waiting for an explanation.

The woman before her seemed to deflate. Honeymaren frowned slightly, squinting hard as if in contemplation.

“Right.  No one’s explained that to you yet, have they?” she asked slowly.

“Nope.  Sorry.”

After another pause, Honeymaren merely shrugged.

“Well, then, something to look forward to.  When you get back.  Mysterious village secrets,” she replied with a cheesy grin and a wiggle of her eyebrows.

“Is this why you came to the beach?”

“I guess you’ll have to come back to find out.”

Would she come back?  Elsa almost broached the topic.  But anxiety and doubt seemed impossible against the confident warmth Honeymaren always seemed to project around her.  Honeymaren had faith she would return.

Instead, she looked down at the little, round seed sitting in the palm of her hand.  A tiny sign of hope and life.  She would protect everyone she loved.  She was capable, and that thought brought some comfort.

Snowflakes swirled around the acorn, quickly encasing it in ice so that it appeared not unlike a large, thick coin. Droplets extended and hardened repeatedly to form a link chain.  She slid the new necklace over her head.  When she looked back up at Honeymaren, she found her expression unreadable.

“I can keep it safe this way,” she explained.

“Just keep yourself safe,” Honeymaren replied softly, glancing up to the fortress beside them, “I’ll protect Anna as best I can.  I know there’s a whole castle here to do that, but-”

Elsa squeezed her into the tightest hug she could muster, cutting her off.  While the other woman floundered for a moment, caught off guard, the blonde soon felt arms wrap around her in return.

“Thank you for always understanding, for just...knowing,” Elsa whispered, shutting her eyes tight against the tears that were threatening to appear.

“Of course, My Lady,” was the softly murmured response.

Elsa breathed in the lingering scents of the forest that blossomed on Honeymaren’s hair and skin. Home.

For most of her life, fear had ruled her.

Power laced with fear was ruthless, all-consuming. Mighty but chaotic. The scales were uneven before she realized love was the opposite of fear. Love for her sister and friends brought her balance, control, and peace.

It was all about balance. Fear and love. Fire and water. Wind and earth. Frozen moments and the free flow of time.

As she held Honeymaren in arms, felt the warmth of cheek against cheek, love surged through her, love enough to counter an entire ocean of fear.

There was balance inside her now, and it was time to begin.

As her grip loosened and the hug broke, she turned quickly, hopping up onto the ledge of the bridge, looking down over the calm water shining far below her. 

She ran a hand through her hair and a stream of ice twisted the long mane into a tight braid.  Her flowing skirt and cape began to precipitate, falling like powdered snow, until she was left with a simple, white tunic over her pants.

Glancing back behind her, she saw Honeymaren watching her in quiet awe, eyebrows raised.  Touching her acorn pendant, Elsa gave her a shy, small smile. 

Then she jumped off the bridge.

A torrent of water shot up from the fjord’s surface below, dousing her in midair.  A rainbow briefly glinted in the fading sunlight from the wet spray that fell in the air.  Nokk’s horse-like figure emerged, gracefully continuing the descent with Elsa on their back.  As a hoof struck the fjord, beast and water merged partially, and the spirit continued charging across the surface like a smoothly rolling wave.

With the bloody sunset finally dipping past the horizon as their backdrop, they charged towards the open sea to the battle awaiting them.


Elsa sat on the floor of the library, staring out the window streaming yellow, fading light.  She heard Honeymaren’s fading footsteps as she walked to the doors where Yelana and Anna waited.

Inhale.  Exhale. Her chest still felt it might cave in, and her head threatened to crack open.

“My friends,” she tried.

The heavy wood door clicked shut, and the world finally seemed quiet.

Again, another breath.  She stared into the glow of the window until it stung her eyes, and she shut them against the light.

She finally let go, allowing her body to surrender to the assaults to her senses she had felt for days.  Her consciousness did not fight back, and she permitted whatever was fighting to speak into her mind.

Blue and purple light flooded her vision.  She floated in an aurora where starlight reflected like icicles.

Four elemental runes swirled around her.  Four beings touched her mind and soul.

“My friends.”

To the mother, Ahtohallan, they called in unison.

“I’m sorry I didn’t realize how to talk back to you before.”

Powers, still growing.

Tiiiiiime, sissssster.

“There’s to be an attack on Arendelle.  One I don’t think they can survive.  I know while we live side by side with the Northuldra, to interfere to this degree is no small task I ask of you.  But I must.”

Peeeeople of the Ssssssun.

Survive the shadows, protect the forest, keepers of magic.

LIVE.  MUST. 

A light warmed her skin.  Young child, more than even you know in the forest.  Still secret.  Arendelle protects.

“Then...you’ll help us?”

Ssssave.

LIVE.  MUST.

“Thank you.  There’s supposed to be an attack by sea in a few hours.”

Many shadows break the shimmering waters.

Smoke in the mountain woods.

MOUNTAIN.

“Then they’re trying to attack from the mountain as well?”

Two flagsssss. Laaaand and ssssssea.

“How shall we help?”

MOUNTAIN.  ROCK.  DESTROY.  

Eat the wood, smoke them out, I will.

Will of the waves, will of mine.  Swallow shadows to the depths.

Sssssailing shipssss, my kisssss killsssss.

“Will it be enough?”

The spirits grew quiet. Multiple timelines, multiple futures, multiple paths like glowing veins seemed to stretch before them all now in the bending lights surrounding them.

Many shadows.

“Then I will ride with you.  The party to the north must be secretive and will likely be very small in numbers.  I can help more with the large armada.”

Many shadows.

Sssssacrifice.

TIME.

Friend, your powers, still growing.

“If we’re going to beat this navy on our doorstep, I need to help.”

A beat passed before the wind whistled once more.

Cosssst you, possssibly.

“For Arendelle, for the people I love, I will pay any cost. To Ahtohallan.”

Four voices called back to her, To Ahtohallan.

Chapter Text

As Nokk and Elsa approached the opening of the fjord and entered the ocean proper, they could already see the robust outlines of approaching vessels on the horizon against the last remnants of colored light.  The horse-like spirit charged forward across calm waters and lazy waves.  When they were a few yards away, the full moon had emerged, beginning to shine mystically in the growing contrast of the darkening sky.

Elsa hopped from Nokk’s back, the sea’s surface freezing as soon as her feet touched it.  She took a step forward, and another ice cap formed, slightly higher.  Jogging forward, each step helped her mount a higher and higher block of ice she commanded to shoot up from the ocean.  At last, she came to a stop, standing tall on a large column of frozen water to survey the gathering masses before her.

This was truly a fleet designed for war.  Brigs, galleons, and frigates dotted every stretch of ocean before her in an obvious display of strength.  They had promised battle, and they had brought it.

She felt her energy flow freely now, like a river, connecting effortlessly to the other spirits. Magic was cold water sloshing at her fingertips threatening to spill over and cover the world in ice.  Finally learning how to speak and interact with the others had somehow unblocked something inside her.  She did not feel alone.

Gale and Nokk’s energies seemed to vibrate with tension inside her head.  They too were overflowing with power, ready for her instruction.

Her palms faced up towards the sky. She lifted, and while her muscles tensed against an unseen resistance, she easily surpassed it. As her arms reached above her head, a massively thick wall of ice burst from the ocean’s surface from either side of her tall pillar.

The line was drawn. The enemy could not, would not, cross it.

She shouted, “Surrender now, and Arendelle will allow you to leave in peace!”

As her voice echoed and died on the seabreeze, even she felt their meaning hollow in the face of so much blatant force.  No admiral would show up with a navy this size with the intention of leaving...especially at the request of one woman.

Elsa swallowed.  Maybe they couldn’t hear her.

With a crack and boom, cannonballs launched in her direction.  She frowned. The metal spheres plopped pitifully into the water as they missed her completely.

Cannons were hard to aim. Or perhaps it was a warning shot?

A swarm of arrows suddenly dotted the space before, stark against the white backdrops of sails, as the onslaught quickly arched and fell towards her.

Elsa heard the telltale giggle in her ear.  On pure instinct, ice immediately ensnared her ankles, cementing her to the frozen pedestal.  She was almost shoved off her perch as a forceful gust of wind blasted around her. The rapid air swatted away the arrows, twisting them drastically off course to scatter into the sea below.

Definitely not a warning shot.

“Alright, then.  Maybe we can just disarm them somehow. Disable the boats? Gently?”

There was a pause.  She could almost feel the spirits’ doubt, but they acquiesced all the same.

The reflection of the moon shining brightly against the waves began to shimmer and move as the calm seas started churning.  Whitecaps formed on the peaks of large swells, moving against the flow of normal tide, causing the ships to begin noticeably rocking.

A rush of warm air swept past Elsa’s cheek, heavy and humid, a stark change from the chill of the night.  Dark clouds blotted the starlight beginning to dot the sky, and far-off drumming of threatening thunder began to echo.  The moon disappeared, and a light drizzle misted down.  Despite the loss of moonlight, there was an eerie, grey glow hanging in the air.  Elsa sensed the touch of magic.

Distant shouts of sailors could be heard on the wind, and she saw specks against the lantern light from the boats running to make adjustments against the turn of weather.  However, the ships still moved forward, even closer to them now.

“That’s a start,” she sighed, bouncing on the balls of feet, “My turn.”

She hopped off her platform, hands stretched downwards, shooting a geyser of ice just beneath her as she fell. Sliding down the newly formed path, gravity forced her to build speed, and she redirected her blast to create a pendulum, flinging her wildly upwards into the air above the nearest ship.

Magic swirled in her palm, and she threw it towards the wooden deck. The snowball made impact and exploded, coating the entire bow in a thick blanket of snow. Elsa landed on the soft, white power with a wet thud, taking the brunt of the fall with her shoulder and quickly rolling to her feet.

They were on her immediately. 

A soldier charged with a shout, drawing the signature cuirass of the Southern Isle.  Elsa’s arm flew up to deflect the blow, a buckler of ice immediately blooming between them.  Her shield burst apart, but the force still sent the sailor reeling backwards from the reflected force.  Fingers closed into a fist, and ice encircled the man’s ankles, tripping him onto the deck, shackled and immobile.

“We don’t want to fight you!” Elsa shouted, only to be met with more battlecries behind her.

She turned as two others advanced, swords raised.  Stomping her foot into the snow, she instantly transformed the surface clear and slick as glass.  The ice sent the duo toppling over and sliding, blades clanking uselessly on the ground.

Then something dark caught her eye.  When she looked across the deck, a figure roughly her size wordlessly stared back.

Essence of the night sky seemed to swirl across its skin, an endless galaxy of black and purple moving and twisting.  Two giant stars of brilliant white light dotted its head, the only facial feature making it appear even remotely human.  The edges of its body, the vague shapes of arms and legs, seemed to blur, as if the figure itself was unsure of its own manifestation, on the unstable verge of changing.  It was the uneven, dark reflection of a person, yet not fully alive.  A shadow.

What was this?  Magic?

It suddenly lurched forward at high velocity, drawing back a limb that rapidly formed a point.  Elsa desperately sidestepped away as the creature was instantly before her and stabbing with the newly formed, black blade of its own arm.

When the sword pierced nothing but air, the other arm formed an oddly balled fist.  When the spikes emerged, Elsa realized in horror it was a rough morningstar, ducking as both limbs swung wildly at her.

The miss brought another swing, and unable to maneuver in time, she raised her hand, blasting magic.  Obsidian weapons collided and recoiled against the ice, which shattered at the contact.  Her success was short-lived, and it immediately charged again, falling into a fast exchange of rebuffs and strikes.  Elsa tried to remain calm under the pressure, thankful her magic seemed to counter it.

But its speed was incredible!  She struggled to keep deflecting the aggressive blows.  When she would fling an icicle towards it, it simply dodged it.  Her mind tried to work as fast in her magical designs, parrying with a frosty blade of her own or a flurry to give her an extra push out of the way, but she felt the constant, rapid exchange draining her energy.

Sword swiped at her, and she swatted it away with an ice-coated hand.  Mace hastily countered with a backswing, knocking her arm away as the impromptu gauntlet burst.  She was wide open.

The next swing made direct contact with her torso, the impact sending her flying backwards, smacking against the railing of the deck.

Elsa rose to a kneeling position, gasping to catch the breath knocked from her lungs, her chest aching from the mace’s punch.  No mere human could harness power like that, and perhaps it was lucky she was no mere human to have survived a direct blow.  She couldn’t take another.

Before she could even stand, it lunged toward her, swinging down, and she pushed an icy shield from her fingertips to block the attack.  Again and again the strikes plummeted down on the block of ice above her head, and she struggled to keep maintaining the magical flow to restore what was quickly chipped away.

Her eyes whipped around for anything to help.  The saber of one of the unconscious soldiers was next to her.

She grabbed the sword with one hand and swiped at the figure’s legs.  The blade passed through the black void with no resistance, like cutting air.  Seemingly unaffected, limbs continued pounding down at her icy barrier.

Another powerful blow slammed down, the ice starting to crack above the single hand holding it up.  Elsa grunted under the force, her breath like fog on the cold air.

Right.  All she had to do was stay calm and breathe.

Pursing her lips, she blew down on the ground.  Wisps of magical frost licked the surface, quickly coating the wood surrounding her in ice.  It stretched beneath the feet of the dark shape beating down upon her.

The shield splintered, fragments of Elsa’s crystal-like protection spraying everywhere in an explosion.  The next attack would pulverise her, and the creature was pulling back, milliseconds way from her demise.

With a snap of her fingers, a pike of ice shot up from the chilled ground, successfully impaling the shadowy entity.  It went completely still, frozen mid-strike.  Black turned white, and her enemy crumpled into snow around the shard.

Elsa stood, wiping some of the powder from her shoulder with a sigh.  It was a bit barbaric, but at least magic truly worked against whatever that thing was.  Finally catching her breath, the cuirass was tossed aside.  If this creature was impervious to steel and normal weapons, it could never be allowed to reach Arendelle.

She looked across the deck now completely coated in icy remnants of her magic.  She had offered peace and tried every alternative she could think of.  They had brought monsters to counter her.  If they wanted war, so be it.  Her magic in battle had always been defensive; taking down one ship couldn’t take this long if they hoped to face a whole armada.  She had to think bigger.

Maybe it was time to finally become the monster they always thought she was.

She clapped her hands together and twisted them.  As she separated them once more, a flat disc levitated in the space between.  Eyes narrowed on her target as her arm drew back, palm open, plate of ice beginning to spin in place, growing in size.  Then, her hand jerked forward through the air, as if chopping it, throwing the sharp and circular disc whirling toward the thick, tall mast of the boat.  The saw of ice cut cleanly through the wood, and the giant log collapsed onto itself, crushing the ship below it.

The boat lurched beneath Elsa’s feet; she thought it might be a good idea to start moving.

She turned and ran, launching herself off the railing towards an adjacent ship.  Her fingers barely caught the wet side of the port bow.  Grunting with effort, she managed to rollover onto the top.

Two sailors emerged, drawing back the strings of their shortbows.

Her arm jerked up as she stood, lifting a wall of ice to block the arrows they fired at her.  Her other hand pushed forward, sending the large, frozen rock sliding towards the two soldiers, slamming into them and knocking them down.

The rumbling thunder grew louder, and the rain was falling in full force now.

She waved her arm in a wide arc around her body, tendrils of magic flowing with her. The rain droplets surrounding her stopped completely, hovering in place and crystalizing.  The ice mutated into spikes, like darts.  With another swoop of her arm, the frozen arrows skyrocketed forward at her will, tearing through the sails, then plummeting down into the body of the ship, smashing through the entire wooden belly.  She could feel them as they dove completely through, forcing leaks in the hull.  Satisfied, she moved on.

This time, when she charged to the side, she had a plan for her exit.  Holding her hand in front of her as she ran, Elsa blasted the ground with ice, extending it beyond the edge of the ship, providing more of a runway.  She just needed to walk the plank so to speak before jumping to her next target.

This time, when she leapt to another ship, the distance was closer.  She landed easily on the deck, pushing a mate overboard with a gust of frigid air in the process.

Behind her, Elsa heard the crunching and crashing of wood and water.  She turned back to find an immense rogue wave pulverizing the galleon she had just weakened and abandoned.  The vessel rapidly took on water, surrendering to the depths calling below.

Looking back to the healthy ship below her feet, Elsa nodded with Nokk’s apparent strategy.  Waves could work.

Jogging up to the pointed front of the bow, she glanced down to the turbulent waters bashing against the sides of the ship as it moved forward.  Shouts echoed behind her, but she only lazily turned to glance over her shoulder.  More soldiers swinging swords were running towards her.

She simply held up her hands; the waves below halted at her unspoken command, freezing at the height of their crest.  The boat violently stopped as it crashed against the huge wall, and the charging sailors were tossed forward off their feet.  Elsa wobbled at the sudden momentum change but managed to keep her footing.  She could feel the floor slowly tipping forward, no longer parallel as the frigate started to sink, and her gaze eagerly darted across the railing for the next target.  

The ground continued sloping in an unnatural direction, and Elsa barely scrambled to the side to hastily jump off.  She quickly realized then she had misjudged in her aim.  The distance was too wide to the smaller corvette she had hoped to reach.

Laughter twinkled in her mind as she began to hurtle to the water.

A burst of wind pushed against her back, shooting her farther across the gap, safely above the new ship.  The pressure, however, did not alleviate as she began to fall downward, and Gale’s chaotic idea bloomed in her head as she fell even faster.

She rapidly channeled all her energy towards her legs.  Stalactites of ice gripped her calves, sharp points sticking into the air past her feet.  Elsa pulverized into the boat.

Puncturing the deck, she pushed easily into the hull, shattering through another floor below.  In a blur, Elsa found herself below deck, amongst crates and barrels, water rising swiftly around her feet from where the bottom was cracked in her attack.  Everything was happening so quickly now.

Another thought that wasn’t her own brushed again against her consciousness.  Unquestioningly, she blasted the wall with a strong surge of magic, creating a large opening beside her.  Ocean powered forward to claim the unoccupied space.

Elsa closed her eyes and took a calming breath against the onslaught of water quickly flooding the belly of the boat, already at her waist.  Six-fold radial symmetry of snowflakes.  Hexagonal and crystalline.  It was all patterns and balance.  Ice and snow.

No fear, just balance.

Her eyes ripped open, she swung her arm above and around her head.  As she flung it forward, a chain of ice whipped in the same direction, crystals interlocking in repetition. 

A translucent shark with Nokk’s glowing eyes swiftly darted by the opening, biting down on the chain she had just tossed.  With a final breath, the water already at her chin, Elsa was immediately pulled out into the open sea.  They were a flash of movement as the salt stung her eyes.

The large fish jumped from the surface, Elsa dangling along behind it and gasping for air as they broke the surface.  The spirit crashed back down and pushed forward, fin cutting the water with precise speed.  Its trailing rider struggled not to inhale seawater.  Her energies focused at her feet; tension and resistance began to mount as ice pushed against water.  The woman’s form rose from the ocean as they pushed forward, balancing on a long, thin block of ice.  Like Kristoff and Sven with their sled, Nokk pulled Elsa on a large ski, now gliding along the surface.

She shakily adjusted her weight to maintain balance before starring ahead rather than at her feet.  The shark was weaving them in between columns of the fleet.  Elsa smirked, gripping the chain tightly in one hand.

Punching the air beside her with her free hand, an extended, thick trail of magic hardened into a lance.  Much like a charging knight, she jabbed the large weapon, only rather than another jousting cavalier, her target was the side of the nearest ship.  She grunted against the friction of ice dragging through the walls but managed to withstand the force.  The entire starboard carried a gaping, long hole after they passed by, water quickly flooding and overtaking the vessels.

They continued down a line of ships, Elsa sideswiping them all, forcing them to submit to the rough seas and start to sink.  When she looked up at their trajectory, she realized they were beelining towards the back of one of the boats.

With a final smash to a ship beside her, she cracked the ice spear from her arm and left it sticking out from her last target like a harpooned whale.  Then she released her tether to the watery spirit.  Once the chain was dropped, Nokk’s shark turned, fin dipping beneath the surface to wreak havoc elsewhere.  Their previous momentum still carried her forward, board-like platform skipping along the top of the water barreling toward the stern of the frigate before them.

Hands splayed wide before her, snowy magic darted forward, halting the waves, elongating them against the wooden walls as a solid slope.  Then she threw her hands behind her, releasing a polar wind, shooting her forward even faster.  She tensed in the brief second before her miniature sled hit the new ramp of ice. 

She slid up the incline and shot upwards.  By some miracle her plan worked, and Elsa soared up and up even higher than the vessel she was boarding.  Her chunk of ice smoothly dissipated into a flurry.

At the peak of her jump, as gravity started to push against her, she sprayed icicles across the ship below her.  Sailors screamed as they ran for cover, just as she had hoped, as she needed them safely out of her way.

As she landed, a bolt of lightning struck a ship to her right in a blinding flash of light, and the wooden vessel erupted into flames too hot to be tamed by the rain.

Her and the spirits had to keep pushing harder.

Elsa assessed the multitude of the navy still before her on the open ocean from her new vantage point and took a deep breath.  Feet shoulder width apart.  Inhale.  Knees bent.  Exhale.  Arms slack and palms up.  With her next breath, she began to lift.

The resistance was immediate and immense.  To create enough ice to lift her quarry would require more energy than she had previously expended.  They were extremely heavy, and pain seared through Elsa’s arms as she strained against them.  Her power was draining, the cost of every inch her arms moved up was an expensive one.

But what would become of Arendelle if she failed?

Struggling with the massive, psionic weight, she fell to one knee.  The wood began to buckle and splinter beneath her as the exchange of energies, the cosmic balance of gravity and space dueled through her very bones.

She heard Anna’s playfully chastising voice.  She could build an entire castle from nothing.  She couldn’t lift a few ships?

Honeymaren’s assured smile was still fresh and sweet in her memory.

Love outweighed her fear.

Energy poured through her veins, allowing her to stand.  She grunted, eyes tightly shut, past the throbbing of her muscles, arms steadily rising in the seemingly open air before her.  With a triumphant shout, her hands rose victorious above her head.

Even in the chaos of a stormy battle around her, she heard the distinct glacial cracking she knew so well.

When she opened her eyes, over a dozen ships were now marooned on an island of thick ice, massive spikes buried into their hulls, crushed beyond repair.  Elsa doubled over in relief she had succeeded in eliminating so many at once.

As she leaned over, hands on her knees and panting in exhaustion, flashes of trees blurred her vision. The pines stood as dark silhouettes against a field of flame. The other spirits were tired but victory felt close.

Elsa screamed as a sharp pain cut across her forearm, the ship and sea returning to her field of view.  A shocked sailor stood before her, mouth agape, an unloaded crossbow in their hands.

The sorceress looked down to see where the bolt had merely grazed her and left a thin, red line.  They had missed.  She looked back up, and the attacker immediately began fumbling to reload the bow.  With a flick of her hand, a pile of snow dumped on the archer.

She turned and ran toward the railing preparing to leap to the next vessel.  As she pushed off into the air, a pressure wrapped around her ankle.

Suddenly anchored, her body swung down, shoulder crashing against the side of the ship, narrowly avoiding splitting her head open.  With a wheezy breath, wincing at the torment of her aching limbs and odd disorientation of being upside down, she tried to glance back up to the top of the boat.

Another creature of dark, swirling mass was gripping her leg and dangling her overboard.  It felt as if burning claws were beginning to sink into her skin.  Elsa hissed against the searing agony.

She looked down to the water far, far below, quickly calculating, and glared back up definitely at the monster.

“There’s a reason I used to wear gloves.  Touching isn’t wise.”

The shadowy arm gripping her ankle was suddenly frozen solid in opaque ice, and the being howled in a cacophonous screech.  Its shoulder cracked, severing completely from its body, and Elsa started plummeting to the ocean.

As she fell, her mind felt as if it was floating. The icy appendage attached to her leg shattered away into snowdust.  Her own spirit felt the presence of the other four, still aware of their sentience.  They were all so exhausted, but so, so close.

She calmly outstretched her hand towards the rapidly approaching water, impact imminent.  A spinning tendril of saltwater stretched up from the sea, the small waterspout reaching up to greet her.

When she broke the plane, her movement oddly did not slow.  However, she did not fear her fate as she sank.  The momentum of her fall pushed her forward, and a current funneled her down into the depths at blistering speed.  She felt Nokk’s energy surrounding her, propelling her into a wide arc, swinging them back up to the surface.  The pressure began to build underneath her as they stretched upwards, and she shared her power in unspoken understanding.

They burst forth at a breakneck speed, spraying salty mist into the rain-drenched air, charging towards the gusting, howling heavens.  Elsa’s surroundings grew blurry at the velocity, but her body no longer fought the turbulence. She was a part of something much bigger now, and when their movement finally settled, her eyes calmly scanned the horizon.

She towered above the tallest ships’ masts atop the head of a giant ice dragon.

Nokk’s eyes shined brilliantly as they roared, serpent tail swinging violently and decimating a row of boats.  Tidal waves devoured nearby crafts from the sheer might of the blow.

Elsa rose her hands to the grey void, heavy rain dripping water down her fingers.  As the winds brushed against her, they transformed under her magic into something cold, hard, and sharp.  Deadly.  A newly birthed blizzard of crippling hail and sleet sliced down to masses below.  The resulting whiteout made the spell-touched, frozen wyrm below her glow almost blue in contrast.

Squalls surrounded her, and she knew Gale was with her now too.  A whirlwind levitated her even higher.

The final act was upon them.

As if turning a great wheel, Elsa’s hands began to move and twist, around and around, summoning a vortex.  The already thundering skies mixed with the savage seas.  Their energies fused, water, wind, and ice blistering the world around them with magic as they became the eye of a superior storm circling the entire fleet.

Elsa grimaced against the sheer force of the hurricane building around them.  Overwhelming sound like a crashing earthquake vibrated through her skull.  Her sight continued to flicker uncontrollably between the physical and the spiritual as the spinning tempest fed on her power.  The ominous, black clouds that closed around her reflected the mirror images in her soul, of Gale and Nokk’s beings clinging to hers.  The Giants and Bruni were with them now, linked together for better or worse.  

The storm kept taking more and more.  She needed to hold on, it was almost done.  All of it was almost over, if all five of them, together united, could just hold on.

Elsa stood as the central anchor, as if the focal point of a scale. The chant was familiar now in her head as multiple voices called out with her.  Fear and love.  Fire and water.  Air and earth.  Light and dark.  Balance.  The four clung to her vitality and she to theirs.

Suddenly, the scale tipped and lurched, and the balance was lost, flinging them into the darkness.

Each spirit was ripped away from her, each loss sending stabbing shocks of pain through her chest.  Their connected consciousnesses were sharply cut, yanked away, leaving a terrible, profound emptiness in their place.  Elsa screamed in agony.

And then, it was quiet.  Everything went still.

Her lingering energy hung by a thread.  The cyclone enveloping her was slowing, and the clouds easily parted, spent of the magic that had summoned them.  Stars twinkled in a clear sky.

Glancing dizzily below her, the wreckage was almost unfathomable.  Splintered wood littered the water’s surface more abundantly than seafoam.  As far as the eye could see, across the ocean, there was destruction and death, and Elsa at its center, its cause.  But she felt nothing.

She turned back to Arendelle, across the fjord, to see the castle untouched under the moonlight.

Then her world went black.


Honeymaren paced back and forth across one of the two windows in the queen’s sitting room to the sound of rain clunking against glass.  While the tower provided the ideal height to observe the ocean beyond, the storm had made it difficult to see anything since Elsa rode out.

She paused and looked again.  It kept getting worse.

“She’s fiiiiiine.  It’s just drizzling!” Olaf crooned chipperly from the floor beside her.

A crack of lightning with an immediate roll of thunder did nothing to waiver his smile.  Honeymaren had to admire his optimism.  She offered him a small grin despite the knot in her stomach and glanced at the others in the room.

Anna’s eyes were locked on the other window, nose practically against the glass. Kristoff stood behind her, his arms wrapped around her waist.  Her knuckles were white as she clung to him, the engagement ring on her finger glinting in the flashes from outside.

Honeymaren turned away with a grimace to Yelana.  She sat cross-legged on the couch, eyes closed, palms up and resting on her knees.  As much as the herder didn’t want to admit it, she too felt the magic pricking the air.  Like thick, humid fog, it permeated everything like a dreadful premonition.  Even in the forest, they had never felt it like this before.

Yelana’s eyes snapped open.

Anna’s gasp broke the silence of the room. “Elsa!”

Darting back to the window, Honeymaren’s mouth dropped.  The storm had completely disappeared.  It was impossible.

Not a single cloud blocked the night sky now, and the full moon was bright with an accompaniment of stars.  One in particular beamed impressively bright.

No.  She squinted harder.  It wasn’t a star.

It was Elsa.  Hovering...and glowing?

Then, she was falling.

“No!” Honeymaren screamed, hand slamming against the glass.

She watched helplessly as the love of her life plummeted into the sea.

Chapter Text

“Adolf must be having a tough go of it with all this fog.”

“I’d kill for watch duty right now.  Ain’t nothing to watch,” Karina scoffed, eyes unmoving from the whittling knife and wooden block in her hands.

“Captain’ll still have his head if we hit shallows or Islander scum,” Jorn replied, pausing his washing of the deck railing to look out again over the open ocean, “Fog came outta nowhere.”

“It’s the anniversary, that’s why it’s foggy.”

Jorn turned to the old man mopping behind him. “What, really, for the Siege of the Fjord?  Ain’t that next week?”

Karina slouched further down against the barrel she was using as a backrest. “Hell if I know, been stuck on this bloody ship for ages.”

The eldest sailor continued mystically, “You know, days like this they say you can see her.”

“Here we go,” Jorn quipped, twisting out his cleaning rag, “Another classic legend from the salty sea dog himself.”

“Go on, Lars, I could use a naptime story,” Karina barked with a laugh.

Lars waved them off, returning to his mopping with a grunt. “Piss off.”

“Oi, mate, it’s just a bit of fun, go on then. Let’s hear it again,” Jorn said diplomatically, retiring his cloth over his shoulder, “For the anniversary.”

The wink between the two younger sailors went unnoticed as the old man rubbed his thick, grey beard, leaning against his mop.

“Arendelle was always peaceful under two beautiful queens. One was born during the Winter Solstice and had magical powers of ice.  The other was born during the Summer Solstice and was as warm and bright as a poppy.”

Karina frowned. “Wasn’t one technically a princess?”

“Yeah, didn’t they switch or something?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Lars snapped before returning to his tale, “The sisters took care of us. We prospered under their rule and made friends with the People of the Sun living in the forest with the spirits. Queen Elsa, the lady of winter, took care of the spirits and the forest.  Queen Anna, the lady of summer, took care of the people. But-“

“Then those Southern Isle bastards showed up?” Jorn crossed his arms, leaning against the railing.

“Don’t spoil the ending,” Karina pouted sarcastically.

“Their entire fleet appeared on our shores, demanding our surrender. Two hundred ships!”

“Mum always said three hundred when she told it,” Jorn muttered with an amused smirk.

Lars continued in a deep, foreboding voice, “They had sacrificed their souls to dark magic, giving birth to the Shadows, monsters of night.  Death was knocking on our door.”

“Don’t forget the attack from the forest too.”

The trio looked to the newcomer who had spoken up, a smiling ensign on his hands and knees with a scrubbing brush.

Karina chuckled, nodding to the young Northuldran, “That’s right, don’t forget Magnus was fighting Shadows as a runt!”

“Better than you!” Jorn quipped before nodding back to Lars, “The attack from the sea, go on.”

Lars glanced between the three onlookers, dramatically paused, ensuring their comments and laughter were finished. Once satisfied, he brandished his mop like the scepter of a decorated official issuing a proclamation.

“Queen Elsa went out to meet them, and a powerful storm of ice, wind, and thunder swallowed them all. No one saw what happened. But when the clouds and fog cleared, all the ships were wrecked, and Queen Elsa was gone. The few survivors were taken prisoner, and they begged for death. They spoke of a terrible and mighty Blue Dragon that had brought upon their demise in seconds and couldn’t stand to live after witnessing such carnage.”

“Badass,” Jorn asserted, the other two audience members nodding in agreement.

“Aye, lad. Badass. That’s why we fly the standard of the Blue Dragon now as Arendelle’s Royal Navy,” Lars explained, pointing his mop-head to one of the flags fluttering above them, “So that those bastards never forget what happened five years ago.”

“Five years,” Jorn hummed, glancing back to the sea, “Reckon she’s out there somehow?”

Magnus solemnly commented, “Lady Elsa hasn’t been seen since that night.”

“Oh, she’s out there. Seen her myself,” Lars asserted before leaning in surreptitiously, “If ya look close, and I mean real close, when the fog is thick like this, there’ll be the blue glow. Or a shadow long and dark under the water,” he gripped the wooden handle of his mop tightly as he unwaveringly declared, “The Blue Dragon’s out there.”

“Ice, off the port bow!”

The shouts and shuffling of the others tore the four away from their somber reflection. Jorn leaned over the rail, squinting against the fog.  White littered the surface.

“Where did all this ruddy ice come from?”

Karina rose and stretched, interest peaked enough to walk towards the gathering sailors.

“There’s a person!”

“We got someone overboard!”

The mates called for the dinghy to be dropped. Everyone was watching now, pushed to the side of the ship, observing as the little row boat and two of their comrades made their way down and out with their paddles.

“She’s still breathing!” one of the rescuers called back to the boat, sending those on board scrambling for blankets, to fetch the medic and a stretcher, or to inform the captain. The rest continued to stare in wonder. Someone found alive at sea was unheard of in their deep, cold waters.

The ropes were hoisted, and the dinghy returned to the mothership. The group of sailors all extended hands to lift the precious cargo to them, to safety. She was heavy, somehow still partially frozen.  They laid her gently on the deck, and despite their training, they stared dumbstruck.

Chunks of ice clung unnaturally to the woman’s torso and limbs, and her skin was as pale as snow. Her long, damp hair was splayed across the deck like tarnished gold.  A simple necklace dangled from her neck, moving so slightly with her delicate breathing.

“By the Five…” Lars stuttered breathlessly.

The old man trembled violently, swaying on his feet. Jorn gripped his forearm, catching him from falling. Still, his haunted eyes did not leave the woman before them.

“Lars, steady on.”

He merely mumbled back, “It’s really her.”

“Who?”

He was met with silence. Some sailors too tilted their heads in confusion, wondering at the mystery before them. Others still mirrored Lars, eyes wide, as if they had seen a ghost. Fear and awe bewildered them all and robbed them of their words.

Magnus was the one who finally answered, his voice oddly calm.

“Lady Elsa.”


Captain Maren of Arendelle’s Royal Army sighed as she climbed the spiraling staircase to the queen’s office.  Who knew what kind of mood their leader would be in today, especially when Maren had been so hastily summoned to the castle.

When she crested the top of the stairs, a long hallway greeted her.  At the end, two guards stood beside a large wooden door. Maren began her march down.

A mirror on the wall caught her eye, tucked between old paintings and portraits. 

Her own reflection was still an oddity.  Years of nomadic forest life meant her only mirror was river water, and nowadays she was always camped in the field or at the sparsely decorated forts.

The woman that looked back at her was very much a soldier.  Her shoulders square, back straight, forest green uniform neatly in place. Short, cropped brown hair and calculating brown eyes accompanied an otherwise reserved expression.  A long scar travelled across her cheek and upper lip.

Maren looked away and continued walking.  She didn’t have time for vanity.

She silently stopped before the threshold.  One gatekeeper knocked, stepping into the inner sanctum to announce her name and rank. The leader of the Northuldra did not often have to introduce herself anymore when in Arendelle. At least recognition induced efficiency.

When the guard remerged and nodded, she entered the room.

Sunlight streamed through two windows on the right wall, illuminating the rug’s vivid, teal fabric. The fireplace’s mantle was richly decorated with cloth and a shining, silver axe inscribed with runes. Bookshelves, ornate picture frames, and even a suit of armor lined the other walls.  A grand desk with the floral sigil of Arendelle carved up the legs stood at the other end of the room. The woman behind the desk stood up.

“There you are.”

Queen Anna’s wardrobe had garnered a reputation as robust, and today was no different. The signature dark lavender of the royal family seemed to coat her entire body; impressively high collar, protruding padded shoulders, elbow-length gloves, a full skirt, and knee high boots all matched with a golden trim. A long braid wrapped around her head, almost like a helmet. The overall effect felt like one was facing down a heavily armored knight, and the finishing touch was a black eye patch covering her left eye, embellished with a golden flower.

War had changed them both.

Maren approached the desk and bowed. She stood at attention and watched as the queen poured dark liquid from an elegant decanter into two glasses.  One was presented to her.

“Go on.  A toast, of sorts.  Between old friends.”  

Maren obeyed the order and picked up the glass but did not sip.  She stood stiffly holding the drink out in one hand, the other arm still formally tucked behind her back.  ‘Friends’ wasn’t a precise term, but she knew the queen did not have many.  Nor did she herself, for that matter.

They both had simply done what was necessary to survive, and this united them.

The queen took her glass and turned to the nearby window. Maren noticed the lipstick and fingerprints already lining the goblet; this was not the first beverage of the afternoon.

“You know, my grandfather spent his whole life at war with most of the continent,” Anna surmised, staring down at the city and fjord below, “Perhaps this war is merely poetic justice for thinking my reign would be different.”

Maren did not comment.

“Five years to the day today, they declared war, and we answered back.  Five years from today, my sister…”  

Right.  The two things they truly had in common.  War and her .  The queen took a sip of her drink, swallowing hard, staring intently at the bottom of the glass.

“The Prince Consort thinks it’s time I accepted she’s gone,” she continued evenly, failing to hide the note of bitterness in her voice before she looked up at Maren, “What do you think?”

The captain answered evenly and pragmatically, gaze directed at the back wall in perfect etiquette, “Your Majesty, Olaf lives. Her magic lives.  She is alive.”

“We both saw her fall into the sea, from these very windows.”

“She is alive.”

“How can you be so sure?”

On a normal day, the queen embodied the absolute confidence of someone born with the divine right to rule. Arendelle loved their leader that rode with them to battle even when she demanded perfection. She was strong, incredibly intelligent, and intense in hot anger or cold retribution.

But doubt? It was never on the queen’s lips… and yet there it was now.

They were the last two that still turned to the ocean’s horizon with searching eyes. For her . And now it seemed, Maren was the only one left.

Elsa.

She stared directly at the queen now, propriety be damned.

“I swore an oath to this kingdom I would protect it.  I swore an oath to my queen I would find Lady Elsa and bring her home.  I will fulfill both before my dying breath,” her voice was even but resolute. A declaration. A vow.

She would do whatever it took. Another five years or another fifty years.

A blue eye stared intently, assessing.

“You really love her, even still?” Anna asked softly.

Maren looked down to the drink in her hand.

Love. The word echoed in her chest, a whisper reverberating an empty chamber. Love had been snowflakes on eyelashes and kind smiles by nighttime fires. Love had been freshly fallen white blankets of powder on morning walks with accidentally brushing hands. Frozen lakes of childlike wonder and frost just before the dawn of spring.  Dances and reindeer rides.

Love was a precious sculpture of ice buried deep to protect it from the fires of war. She had to be hard and cold for its sake.  She had a job to do.

Placing the glass on the desk, Maren stood rigid and upright once more, arms firmly locked behind her and chin held high. The perfect soldier.

Her gaze returned to the wall beyond.  “Respectfully, may I ask why I have truly been summoned, Your Majesty?”

The queen turned back to her window, expressionless.

“Fort Halvor has fallen. One soldier managed to escape to bring us the news. The rest are captured or dead. Convoys in the area were told weeks ago to rendezvous there.”

She paused, and with one swift motion, downed the rest of her drink. Her eye narrowed as it continued to survey her kingdom outside the window.

“Captain, take the Silver battalion” the queen commanded absolutely, “Take back my fort.”

Maren bowed. “Your Majesty.”

The soldier turned on her heel and made her exit.


Sleep my darlings safe and sound…

Elsa awoke with a violent start.  She shot up and looked around in wild panic, unsure of where she was.

The tension in her body melted slowly as she realized she was in a room and in a bed. Generally a sign of safety.

Arendelle’s flag was splayed on the wall, and the mere sight made Elsa sigh in relief before she continued inspecting her surroundings. The rest of the lodgings were simple. Wood floor, wood walls, wood ceilings, wood chair, small wood desk close to the bed.  A map laid on top of the table beside a compass. An unfamiliar swallow-tailed flag adorned the wall nearby, smaller than the national banner. The background was the same purple hue, but a long, bright blue serpentine figure stretched across it.  As she stared, Elsa could feel a gentle rocking.  All the wood...she was on a boat.

The sight of countless ships decimated across the ocean flashed in her mind. Her head dropped to her hands as an ache culminated in her temple.

A light knock sounded at the door. Elsa looked up to see a tall man enter the room and close the door.  The sight of the familiar white uniform of the Arendelle Navy again put her at ease. The stranger had casually rolled up his sleeves. Green and purple detailing around the chest indicated he was ranked above the average seafarer, but he moved to the desk in the room before she could properly analyze it.

He sat down, opening a drawer. Inspecting his profile, she noticed traces of grey in his red hair and beard. Any traces of old age, however, were overwritten by the defined jawline and strong, wide shoulders. 

A bottle emerged from the drawer with a small glass.

“You probably have questions.” His voice was deep and scratchy as he placed his new bounty on the desktop.

Elsa blinked. That was a massive understatement.

“What’s going on?”

“You were found floating in the middle of the ocean in hunks of ice a few days ago,” he explained calmly, uncorking the bottle. He paused, eyes glancing towards her, “Do you know who you are?”

“Elsa of Arendelle,” the former queen replied with a frown, anxiously looking between the man and the flag, “Do you not know who I am?”

He began to pour the golden contents of the bottle into the small glass as he answered, “I do know, Your Highness. Pardon my lack of decorum, but I needed to check. These are strange times.”

She tilted her head quizzically at his odd response, but there were more pressing matters.

“Where are we?”

“Aboard the HRM Geirr . Captain Johansen, at your service,” he bowed his head in her direction as he set the bottle back down, “We’re a few leagues into the Southern Sea from the east, heading due west.”

Elsa glanced down to the floor, menrally picturing the map she had memorized long ago.

“But that would be towards Arendelle. How are we so far to the east of the continent? I was just at the capital.”

Johansen finally turned to face her full on. His gaze was intent as he leaned forward in his chair.

“Lady Elsa, what do you last remember?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but none came.  Her eyes fell to the blanket still covering her legs. The ships. All those dead people.

“The invasion. I had to stop it. I thought I managed to before…” she trailed off, struggling to piece the fragments, “I’m afraid I don’t remember anything after that.”

The captain’s dark, grey eyes did not move.

Elsa looked back up and questioned apprehensively, “Is everyone alright?”

It couldn’t have been for nothing. They had to be safe.

Johansen leaned back into his chair and picked up the shot of liquor, quickly tossing it back. The empty glass clinked back against the table.

“Did I pass out for a bit?”

As he again picked up the bottle to uncork it, he finally answered, “A bit.”

He poured another shot and then sighed, “Your Highness, I might be an officer of Her Majesty's Navy, but my lot in life is leading a group of sweaty sailors that are only literate in curses and shanties, so I’ll be blunt,” he paused, then held the bottle out to her, “Drink?”

“No, thank you.”

“Right,” he muttered, clearing his throat, setting the drink down. He turned again to her.

“The invasion you speak of was five years ago.”

Five years.

Elsa felt her mouth dumbly fall open. 

Five years? Impossible.

She knew what it was to freeze another’s heart, but now, she felt the cold as it revolted against her. The chill crept up her spine and clutched at her chest.

Five. Years.

Johansen continued on, gravelly voice barely registering to her, “We have been at war with the Southern Isles and their allies since then. You have been missing, more or less declared dead, for five years.”

War.  Dead?

Were the people she loved dead? Why was her head and heart so empty, where were the spirits? What had she done? So much blood was on her hands and she then...she left? Died?

It was so, so cold. She shook fiercely. Fear turned the winter against her. Her mind screamed Conceal, don’t feel , the body howled back in all-consuming fear. The room was spinning, her breathing growing too quick and shallow.

No. Never again. The ice belonged to her.

She practically glared at the wall, trying to anchor her vision. Her hand stretched out to the desk. The captain's bushy eyebrows shot up in surprise, but he did not contest, quickly handing her the bottle.

Elsa uncorked the bottle and took a swig before rather ungracefully launching into a coughing fit.

The burning in her throat, the coughing, the fire of it all...it was like waking up again. The excessive force felt terrible, but she was alert now, no longer spiraling into panic. The fear had been pushed aside. She could think.

The room went quiet. Her breathing softened, breathes growing longer, deeper. Johansen just calmly watched.

Elsa swallowed and raspily asked, “Anna. Queen Anna is still…?” she struggled, unsure how to ask if her sister was still alive.

Thankfully, the man understood and firmly nodded.

She took another slow, long breath.

Honeymaren.

“The Northuldra are still with us?”

He nodded again. “Many of them joined our ranks.  We fight the war on two fronts. Forest and sea.”

By Atohallan, she hoped Honeymaren was alright. However, she forced herself to continue down her mental checklist.  She extended her arm back to return the rum to its owner, who silently accepted it.

“Are we winning?” She winced as soon as it tumbled out of her mouth. They weren’t playing a card game.

Johansen grunted, “The enemy has magic.  We call them Shadows.  Big, dark, like someone covered in spilled ink.”

Elsa grimaced further. “I saw them that night.”

She hated to wonder how her people had fared against the walking nightmares.

He nodded before continuing, “Very hard to kill, if they even die. Took about two years before we discovered they really only went down against silver weapons. Anyway, we don’t see a lot of people like us on the other side nowadays. A few, we think, to round up and command the Shadows,” he explained, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his chair, “Wasn’t always like that, so we think the Islanders are running out of men and funds. We hope. We’re running on fumes and recruits that keep getting younger,” his voice grumbled and he shook his head.

He nodded his head to the map on his desk before continuing, “Corona and most of the inner dukedoms, they’re with us. The outer dukedoms are with the Islanders. The whole continent is tired.”

Five years of war.  It was a lot to take in, but Elsa’s mind, the mind of a former leader, was already picking it apart and studying. The captain seemed content to pour himself another drink as she mulled it over.

“You said the enemy has magic. What about us?”

The glass that was on the way to his lips paused, and he looked at her incredulously.

“Your Highness, you were the magic.”

“But the other spirits…” she murmured, still desperately trying to feel them, to sense them.

Johansen shook his head. “Gone. Folks will swear ‘by the Five’ or have heard of the Blue Dragon and her spirit kin saving the world. But for the past five years, they’ve only been fairy tales. Common ones for Arendelle. But still just stories...and now here you are,” he muttered almost ominously before turning back to his drink.

The silence she felt was real then. The spirits had disappeared.

She had to figure out what happened.  She needed to get home.

“Captain, I must get to the capital,” Elsa stated firmly, summoning what queenly energy she could despite still sitting a bed in front of the man that had observed her multiple panic attacks.  It admittedly wasn’t her best day.

There was silence save the clattering of glass as the bottle was returned to the desk drawer.  Johansen stroked his beard in thought as he turned back to her.

“My orders are to get to Fort Halvor. We’re two weeks late on a supply run thanks to a surprise blockade, and I know they need the gear,” he summarized thoughtfully, “Army there should be able to get an escort for you, faster cutting across on land.”

Despite his rough demeanor, Elsa could see the kindness in his stormy grey eyes. After all, his crew had saved her, and she was grateful.

“Thank you.”

He nodded, standing up and walking towards the door. “We’re just over a day out now. Try and get some rest. My quarters are all yours.”

Before he opened the door, however, he paused and turned back to her.

“I’m not saying Her Highness shouldn’t do as she pleases about the ship. But, well, a lot of sailors are superstitious. Their guardian of the sea just came back to life. Don’t think too harshly of them if they’re a bit…” he scratched his head as his hoarse voice trailed off.

Elsa offered a sympathetic smile.  She knew her presence was, at minimum, terribly awkward on the best of days.

“While it seems a lot has changed, that, at least, is pretty normal,” she replied as nonchalantly as she could.

He nodded, opening the door. The sunlight now streaming in brightly illuminated the wall, and the electric blue dragon popped vibrantly on its flag.

“Wait, sorry,” Elsa called out before he could leave, “you mentioned it before, what’s the Blue Dragon?”

Johansen turned and just stared at her, ship creaking gently with the quiet rocking.  Suddenly, he burst into booming, thunderous laughter.  Elsa stared bewilderedly from the bed at the man who had been serious and unreadable for most of their conversation.

He was gasping for air, tears in his eyes when he barked, “You!”

Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “What?”

The only response she received was continued snickering as he walked out the door and shut it behind him.

Chapter Text

Elsa was rather annoyed with the measurement of time. All things considered, she had too much of it. Apparently she had five years of it in a blink. Now, time continued to mock her, creeping slowly, marked by the unmoving arc of the sun outside poking through the edges of the door and the small window portal.

She tried to listen to the captain’s advice and stick to his quarters for the rest of the trip so as not to disturb the crew anymore than she already had.  However, the officer’s room was strongly lacking in the way of entertainment. Considering most of his desk and personal items off limits, Elsa tried to study the modern map nearby to note any changes she might have missed.  There was a rather bland book about the types of knots one could manage with a bit of rope while out at sea.   She even braided her hair the old fashioned way, without magic, slowly twirling the blonde tendrils with her fingers and weaving them together.

The boredom wasn’t even the worst part of this particular brand of torture. Being locked alone inside a room brought up some unpleasant childhood memories. She was alone with her anxiety over the one dark thought that kept slithering in her brain: she had abandoned her family and friends when they needed her most. Furthermore, the spirits, her siblings in spellcraft, had vanished.  Like the sudden absence of a limb, the loss was obtrusive and painfully constant.

Honeymaren’s amber eyes began to haunt her like a ghost, a cursed memory from her past. Was she dead? Did she despise her for disappearing? Had she moved on with her life and forgotten her, a simple acquaintance lost to the passing years?  Elsa wasn’t sure which was the worst option, but she mentally explored each of them obsessively despite the growing ache in her chest.

By the time she realized she had started pacing the floor, Elsa sighed in frustration. She couldn’t stay in this room hiding anymore.

When she opened the door, the warm sunlight on her skin immediately welcomed her, and the stinging frost of worry melted away.

Limitless blue sky and vest ocean beckoned as she stepped across the deck.  Wind and wave made delicious music to her ears. While her mind did not recall her supposed hibernation, her body felt keenly aware that she had been still for too long, and her legs yearned to stretch.  Her lungs were singing with the fresh, open air, and when she contentedly sighed, frost shimmered in her breath.

Humming drifted from above. Elsa turned to see Johansen at the wheel of his ship, seemingly content with his lot in life. His deep voice produced a rich melody, and this simple tune continued even as he glanced down and nodded in her direction.  She smiled and proceeded away towards the bow.

While one might expect sleepiness or grogginess from a long slumber, her senses were surprisingly sharp, and her magic permeated her whole being.  Whatever source existed inside her, whatever pool she drew from, it was now even more deep and bountiful than before.  Even with each simple step, she was hyper aware of the soft, weathered wood beneath her bare feet, feeling each crack, each chip in the surface with distinct clarity.  She felt awake and alive .

It was mildly alarming...but since when had her life been normal?  The looks and stares now sent her direction as she was on the open deck were a reminder of that fact.  Sailors old and young paused from their chores and activities to glance up at her as she passed by. 

Hopefully Johansen would forgive her for the slight disruption.

She finally anchored herself at the front of the bow’s center tip. Leaning against the rails, she tried to ignore the hushed whispers she sensed around her and simply admire the grand horizon before her.

“They’re in awe of the Blue Dragon. Give them some time.”

She looked up to the owner of the kind voice that had suddenly appeared next to her.  A tall, lanky young man offered a grin, his face still glowing with the youth of his boyish features.

Elsa returned the smile.  “I understand. Though I’m not sure I deserve the fancy nickname.”

He leaned in secretively, eyebrows arched high, and asked, “Was it Nokk?”

Her eyes widened in surprise before nodding.

“I knew it!”

“I’m impressed.”

“Nah, most of Northuldra guessed that one,” he replied with a shrug, his modest words failing to hide his smug smirk.

“You’re from the village.”

He nodded, dark hair falling across his face. “Arendelle’s caught up on a lot of our spirit lore and traditions after everything that happened, but you’re definitely the big hero. There’s a statue of you in the city square now, I saw it when I joined up.”

“That’s...mildly embarrassing,” Elsa grumbled before questioning, “You didn’t want to stay in the forest?”

“I’ve seen the forest my whole life. I wanted to see more,” he replied, looking out over the ocean before them, “Always been good in the water, so the Navy made sense.”

“You look a little young,” she observed gently.

“The age limit keeps going down. And...I maybe lied,” he winked before stating matter of factly,  “Shadows don’t care how old I am.”

Elsa frowned.  He couldn’t have been older than fifteen.  Had her people really been driven to such desperation?

“So five years ago, what were you up to?” she asked, hoping for a lighter conversation topic.

“Fishing. My family ran the boats up the rivers.”

Images flashed in her memory of the family weaving fish nets by the nightly fire.  To her, it was only weeks ago.

“Marthen?”

“My father.  I’m Magnus.”

She smiled as she replied, “I think I remember. You were a lot shorter then.”

Magnus chuckled, “Things change.”

“You’re telling me,” Elsa sighed, looking down at the spray from the ship cutting through the water.  So much had changed without her, and she had no idea how much.  Her fingers grasped at the necklace still dangling from her neck.  Her thumb brushed over the icy amulet, acorn preserved inside.

“Do you miss them?”

“Yes,” she murmured with a sad smile before her head whipped around, “Wait.  How did you know it was a gift?”

“I’m Northuldran. I know a løfte when I see one,” Magnus playfully scoffed, toothy grin in place.

“Huh?”

He tilted his head to the makeshift necklace in her hand. “A løfte . You said yes.”

Løfte , is that the acorn?”

The question hung in the air, only the gentle sea breeze breaking the silence.

“You don’t know?”

She shook her head.

His lips twitched.  “You just took it?”

She nodded.

Magnus burst into laughter, hunching over the railing.  Elsa stared in helpless confusion at his snickering as he tossed his head back and struggled to control himself.

“I’m sorry,” he snorted, whipping tears from his eyes.  He took a calming breath before turning to her.

“It means ‘promise.’ Like an oath,” he explained before cupping his hands in excited demonstration, “Someone offers the acorn. Another accepts the acorn. Then they plant it together, giving back to the forest, laying roots. The forest is where they court, make their home, live together, have babies, grow old. They watch their tree grow old with them. Their tree and love are always in the forest, even after they pass.”

A single beat of her heart seemed to quake the foundations of her body.

“Love?”

“Yeah, you know.  You guys call it the same thing we do in the city.  Marriage?”

Elsa blinked.

“It’s a proposal!?”

Her horror only grew as Magnus roared with laughter once more.

She had spent almost six months living in the woods amongst the Northuldra.  Fall and winter had marked so many firsts for her in her new life, and everyday had been filled with Honeymaren’s smile.  The herder’s patience with Elsa’s insecurities had always been a blessing, and she would always calmly explain the mystery of the world to ease her anxieties.  No one had ever gotten close to her before, physically or emotionally, from threat of magic or noble propriety.  Who could love a witch?  A monster?  She had never dared ask for more, only dreamed to hope after Anna encouraged her to.  She would never risk those deep, golden eyes turning away from her.  Love unknown seemed so much safer than love unrequited. 

But a proposal?  Elsa could feel her cheeks heating.  She had been so clueless, dumbly staring at the shepherd when she offered her the acorn before she rode off into battle.

Oh, no.  Before she rode off and never returned. For five damn years.

The blonde rubbed her hands over her face and groaned.

She could hear the devious giggles next to her.  “Lady Elsa, you can’t just go around accepting acorns from people.”

With a huff, her hands fell from her face, and she stared hard at the grey tides spread out before them.  The salty air brought her back to the little stretch of beach where she had slept.  Honeymaren glowing pink under the sunset, setting off the pounding in Elsa’s chest. In a world without war, in a different past, perhaps, it would have happened then.

“Can I say something crazy?” she finally asked, breaking the silence and leaning in with a shy smile, “I think I would’ve accepted it even if I did know what it meant.  I would’ve said yes.”

Magnus hummed with a smile, “ Ahtohallan knows what she’s doing then.”

“At least one of us does,” she mumbled, looking down again to the necklace, “I just hope she’s alright.”

“Oh, she’s definitely alive.”

“How can you be so sure?”

He shrugged before replying, “Anyone with the guts to ask the Blue Dragon to marry them must be pretty tough.”

Elsa laughed, succumbing to the boy’s optimism and the relaxing breeze.

“Actually, maybe you can tell me. Do you remember the herd-”

“Land!”

“Fort ahead!”

Shouts from across the deck interrupted the woman’s question.  Bodies seemed to spring up around them trying to get a better look at their destination.  Land dotted the horizon, a stone-grey structure atop brown and green cliffs.

She had read much more about Fort Halvor than ever having witnessed it herself. Modest size and unique placement on the ocean served well as a resupply point, and it was reasonably defensible despite its older, smaller construction. While not Arendelle’s crown jewel, it was often a strong part of their supply chain for their allies to the east.

The once-queen had longed to see the rolling fields and wild forests that sat on the other side. The neighboring mountain range was supposed to be lovely this time of year.  Elsa couldn’t help matching the smiles she saw around her of the tired sailors ready to touch land again. This would bring her closer to home.

As they approached more closely, simple towers came into view and the wooden docks stretched out as if beckoning them. She could see the small, insect-like silhouettes of people buzzing about the ramparts and docks.  Those around her leaned forward, one hand blocking the sun from their eyes, the other waving wildly above them.

Elsa inspected the small dots moving about the fort more closely, trying to find the responding waves but found none. However, the people on land scurried about with purpose and vigor, seemingly just as excited by their approach. Before she could comment to Magnus, she spotted additional movement in her peripheral.

The cannons were turning towards them.

“Wait! Stop!”

As soon as the warning spilled from her lips to the others onboard, a loud bang cracked through the air.  She instinctively held up her hand, and the incoming cannonball instantly exploded in a white burst of ice.  Another boom cracked through the air to the left, and her other hand outstretched to meet it.  The blur of metal erupted into frozen chunks that poured down over the open water before the ship as the sailors shouted in shock and then realization.

Elsa looked down quizzically at her fingertips. It was so much power for so little effort.  Her eyes returned to the fortress, focusing on the people rushing to reload the weapons. Blue uniforms.  Southern Isles.

Instinct took over.  Her arms swirled in place, two perfect snowballs hovering in the air when she completed the circuit.  With a flick of her hands, the pristine, glittering spheres launched forward at breakneck speeds.  In a blink, they crashed against the cannons, creating an unnaturally large blast of white powder.  Ice now coated the mouths of the artillery, rendering them useless.

Arendelle and Northuldra had been tortured by war for five years without her.  That changed today.

Elsa turned behind her towards the helm ignoring the mates still standing wide-eyed and wide-mouthed.

“Captain, I can-“

A swarm of arrows hissed in the air towards them inciting more shouts from the crew and interrupting her. Elsa glanced at the incoming attack, swatting her hand in their general direction as if handling the mild annoyance of a fly. Gusts of blizzard and hail sprang forward to deflect them into the ocean.

She turned back and continued sternly to the man standing at the wheel, “Take us in. I can secure the dock and the fort,” 

Even from across the bow, she could see his frown and grizzly eyebrows jutting down.  Everyone held their breath.

His eyes finally moved from her to those under his command as he bellowed, “You heard the Dragon, get moving. Battlestations! For Arendelle!”

The collective roar around was deafening.

Johansen continued as he spun hard down the wheel, “For the Queen! For death!”

“For the Queen! For death!” the sailors eagerly chanted back.

Magnus placed his left hand on Elsa’s shoulder as everyone began to dash to their posts, a newly brandish sword in his right.  “Don’t be scared, we always say that.”

She calmly turned to the young man beside her, a smile turning upwards upon her face.

“Scared? On the contrary, I’m furious,” she replied gently, chin titled regally high, “Stay low until it’s safe.”

Without waiting for a response, she quickly hopped up to the deck’s railing, easily finding a steady perch on the wood, connecting to the swaying ocean waves with reflexes sharpened and ready.  Inhaling the briny air, Elsa lowered herself to one knee, still balanced on the beam.  Chilly wisps of magic left her mouth as she exhaled, stretching her arms down towards the water. As she fully extended and gracefully lifted her arms in a full rotation, mist rose from the ocean. Her cold energy kissed the sun-warmed surface, and the fog thickened, fully encompassing the ship as she stood up on the railing.  The grey cloud would make it impossible for any attackers to aim and hit.

With a satisfied nod, she leapt into the open air above the churning waves and into the shivering embrace of the mist.

Ice pillars rose to meet her, and each step summoned another without thought as she ran towards the fort.  For a moment, all was quiet in the impenetrable fog. Her anger seethed, ready and hungry, propelling her forward despite the blinding mist. Magic knew magic, and she could sense the lurking darkness waiting before her.

She would recapture the fort and destroy what had plagued her people for so long.

Soldiers yelled in surprise when she burst through the fog, landing on the long dock protruding into the sea. With a speedy flourish, thick snow shoved an Islander off the ledge and into the water.  Swords clanked uselessly against gauntlets of winter crystal Elsa easily summoned to her forearms.  Her speed was unmatched as she swept their legs with her own, toppling them to the ground with yelps. The ten or so humans in her way were easily frozen or thwarted. Their crossbows and artillery cracked under the glacial pressure she hauled down upon them.  Mere mortals were no match for her now as she knocked them aside.

Suddenly, the air shifted. She felt them before she saw them, like a creeping breath on the back of her neck, hot and humid against her cold skin. When she turned, the murky, hazy figure was standing atop the steps leading away from the dock and into the fort. Elsa felt her rage flare as a Shadow twitched before her. That night on the fjord, she avoided and evaded, playing the defensive.  She had disappeared to leave these horrific creatures unchecked. 

This time, she surged forth to meet them.

She darted up the stairs with blinding speed, hand drawing back.  When a dark limb slashed toward her, she parried with her own icicle-encased arm.  Deflecting their blow with ease, her body twisted with the continued momentum, and she immediately countered with a swift kick to the faceless head, blasting a puff of snow.

She charged forward into the threshold of the fort’s courtyard, dropping to her knees as black void blurred above her head.  Her knuckles instantly frosted over, and her fist cracked against the torso of the Shadow that had critically missed their strike against her.

Hopping back to her feet, she quickly scanned the sizable grounds, a perfect square of grey-stone bricks lined with large, thick walls. A tall drawbridge was closed on one side, and the small stables nearby were empty and horseless.  Gateways to the fort proper were wide open, and she felt the darkness sneaking along the corners of the various side entrances and smaller buildings. 

A Shadow lunged down from the ramparts, and Elsa raised her sword-like icicle to meet it, piecing it like skewered meat. The creature hardened and froze before cracking and snapping from her thin blade, crashing against the ground.  The remaining magic of the expired weapon melted from her hand. As another Shadow bolted towards her across the flagstone, her hands pushed and willed the new ice sculpture forward of the disposed enemy, plowing into the new, oncoming threat.  The Shadow went flying back as the block slammed against it.

In whatever game time was playing with her, she found herself the victor.  Unsure if the Shadows were slower or if she was faster, these creatures were no longer the despairingly difficult challenge they had been in the fjord years ago.  Fragile queen and peaceful spirit had made room for something else, and it thrilled in the fight, excelled at it.  The monster that had destroyed the Southern Isles’ fleet was well-rested and eager for the revenge she had missed.

Fingers closed tightly into a fist, and an approaching Shadow froze completely like a statue.  Dipping into her anger felt good.

A trio bolted towards her from the gap between two buildings, and she started her running charge. One single wave of her arm brought forth a surge of magic, easily blasting away two of the attackers.  The frosty spray spread out like a crashing wave from her previous position and across the courtyard, hardening at its tallest apex.  She was running parallel to it now, and, as the remaining Shadow barreled forward on a collision path, Elsa leapt from the ground, evading a spiked arm as she continued to run against the icy wall past the creature.  She pushed off her new ramp, landing behind the now stumbling Shadow, trying to divert its momentum.  With a sharp tilt of her head, the barrier next to them crumbled, crushing the inky figure in glacial chunks before it could even turn to face her.

Her victory was short-lived and others quickly replaced it, seemingly pouring from every crevice of the base.  One lurched towards her, and she flung her hand in the empty space before her, sending an icicle shooting forward.  It nailed her target, burying into the void, causing the Shadow to wither into snow with a pathetic flop.

She whipped around and punched with the force of her turn, another icy spear hitting the enemy that had crept behind her.  Instinct took over as more jumped to her position, hands lashing out like a combat fighter, launching frozen spells as rapidly as the thought could form in her mind.  Each Shadow that dared approach her met a sharp, cold end before they could touch her.

Then, they paused their assault.  Too still, too stiff. More crept from the corners of the base, the night skies on their skin swirling slowly as they lined the walkways and door frames surrounding the fort’s center.  There still was no human soldier in sight beyond those now unconscious at the dock.

Elsa blew a hair from her face, surveying the growing mass.  They were smart enough to learn, to regroup.  She sighed; she had to get creative and keep up.

Pointing her finger, she quickly drew a six-pointed star in the space before her.  A crystal snowflake blossomed from thin air, flat and rigid like glass.  Snatching the ice between her hands as if in prayer, she exhaled a foggy cloud against her own skin.  When her hands separated, a long row of identical snowflakes hovered in midair, fanned out like a deck playing cards.

When the Shadows blurred to rush her, a snap of the wrist sent a snowflake spinning wildly into the fray.  As it sliced across the chests of multiple attackers, they burst into white powder. Elsa hurled another and another, the sharp edges of the flakes embedding into her targets or cutting across them in wide arcs.  The overall darkness, however, inched closer even as she chipped away at the masses.

Her arms switched from short jabs to a swirling motion above her head, and the remaining snowflakes began to twirl around her in a speedy revolution with swiftly building momentum.  They spun and spun, faster and faster, cutting the misshapen arms from the dark spirits, forcing them to shrink with reduced essence and energy before they were completely obliterated by another slash.  With a final push and wild snap of her arms, wide and strong, Elsa sent the snowflakes flying into the crowd.

A cloud of white powder surrounded her as the creatures burst into snow under her spells.  And yet they still lunged for her, greedy and desperate for destruction.

Elsa inhaled deeply.  Power, cold and keen, beckoned within.  Even without the other four, her own spirit was seething, ready, so much more capable.

Dive down deep into her sound...

Blue, glimmering light gyrated around her hand as her first plummeted hard into the ground with a fierce punch.  Magic glittered and cracked along the stonework floor of the fort’s courtyard, the clamorous sound of crunching rock matching a hundred Earth Giants.  Ice jettisoned up from the new outlets, spikes impaling the Shadows with a razor’s edge.  Mist clouds popped up as they crumbled to snowdust around her, some even freezing entirely as the white glaze enveloped them.

Elsa rose from her knee, scanning the buildings and bulwark.  Shadows leered down from the upper ramparts or reappeared at the stairways.  Watching, waiting...

Suddenly, they all turned in unison, bolting to the front gate.  Those already on the bulwark simply jumped down somewhere beyond Elsa’s line of sight. Others rapidly leapt to the ramparts, easily clearing the twenty-foot ascent with a mere step against the walls. They all disappeared behind the wall towards the fields that laid in wait.

She walked towards the large gate, the drawbridge closed tight, hand outstretched.

They would not escape to do harm elsewhere. She would end them here and now.


“Everyone is standing by, ready to ride. Scouts are also back. Skeleton crew of twenty, thirty soldiers. Too many Shadows to count. Maybe two hundred. Probably closer to three.”

Maren frowned from their hidden position in the tree line as she looked across the vast field to Fort Halvor.  Those were tough odds against the hundred soldiers under her command, but not impossible.  The rangers had developed a particular skill set in stealth and expertise in dealing with the more arcane variety of their enemies.

A challenge simply made things more interesting.  She turned back to her lieutenant, spreading a scroll across a withered stump.

“Here are the blueprints for the fort from the castle. There’s a hidden exit we should be able to use if it hasn’t been sealed. We’ll send two more scouts at nightfall. I want everyone to stay ready to move. As soon as they signal an opening, the main unit will charge as a distraction.  Another group will infiltrate the secret passage to attack from within,” she explained as her finger moved across the page, “Surprise is what’ll give us any advantage.”

“Yes ma’am,” Alfsen replied with a small, growing smirk, “What signal should I instruct the scouts to use? Or should they be improvising like the episode at Garrison Gertruda?”

Gertruda. Maren’s lips twitched trying to hide her smile. That had been a fun adventure between the exploding jelly and chicken feathers. 

She nodded to the young man. “Louder the better. Tell them to-”

A distant explosion sounded in the distance. The captain whipped her head back to the fort, squinting against the tree foliage.  Another boom echoed across the field, and the smallest traces of smoke floated to the sky.

Someone was attacking from the sea. They couldn’t ask for a better distraction than a pincer attack, and she wasn’t going to let their Navy counterparts upstage the best of the Army.

Maren eagerly turned to clap Lieutenant Alfsen on the shoulder.

“Change of plans. We ride now. Go!”

Without question, he bolted deeper into the woods to the awaiting squadron, shouting orders that immediately summoned the crackling of leaves and twigs as their whole group began to move and leap onto horseback. Maren swiftly jogged towards her mount, but she didn’t have to go far.  The reindeer met her halfway; he knew well the cry to battle.  Special silver casing on the beast’s antlers glinted in the light poking through the branches above.  She hopped up easily to the saddle, giving the animal a firm pat on the neck.

She grabbed the reins and turned about to see her team behind her, horses and their riders quickly trotting forward, expertly forming the line she would lead.  The hundred that made up the Silver Battalion were clean, efficient, and quick.  There was no time for speeches, and Maren never offered them.

Her steed stepped to the tree line, on the edge of the grand, golden field with the fort lying in the distance. Her fist shot into the air.

“Charge!”

Indeed, no speeches. They either lived or died together, and that was that. Riders and beasts all shot into the sunshine and open plain.

Hoofbeats loudly rumbled all around her as the group began to build speed and momentum.  Her eyes remained transfixed upon the fort, counting down the seconds, the distance, the odds of their success swaying in the balance.  She could smell the grass they kicked up behind them and the salt on the air so close to the sea, but her gaze did not waver from their destination.

They had made it almost a third of the way across before she saw the first tainted smear on the horizon, the swarm of black on the blue sky.  The monsters had no need of the drawbridge and simply plummeted from the ramparts to the grass beyond the moat with no hesitation. They fell like black rain and surged towards the moving cavalry with the unmatched reckless abandon of a tidal wave, their numbers at least two hundred strong. 

But still Maren and her vanguard continued forward. She had stopped counting the number of Shadows she had destroyed years ago.  No human matched their speed, but a Northuldran took to magic like a bloodhound. Shadows were difficult to kill, but there were tricks around that. She did not fear them.

She feared guilt.

She counted the people she had a hand in killing. Fifty-two enemy soldiers. Another twenty-nine for those that had died while under her command. Eighteen of her people reported lost to defending the border last she visited Northuldra.

As a leader and a fighter, she felt the weight of ninety-nine souls on whatever grand scale measured a person’s life. She never lost count.

The guilt that plagued her was surpassed only by the brutally basic instinct to stay alive. She needed to stay alive long enough to find what she had lost.

Elsa.

She would not die today simply because she still had work to do.

Reaching for her bow, hands left the reins with complete trust her experienced mount would continue charging towards the enemy in bold determination. Her finger snatched a silver-tipped arrow from the quiver strapped to her thigh and quickly notched it in her weapon as her eyes singled out one of the running monsters.  The projectile was released and flung into the crowd, her target dissipating with a poof.  Others behind her loosened their own ammo, sending handfuls of Shadows back to the abyss.  The impending onslaught grew closer and closer despite their attempts to thin their numbers at range. 

Her thighs instinctively tensed as the line of mortal and animal crashed into the mass of dark arcane. The reindeer beneath her lowered his head and plowed through the Shadows with his broad antlers like a battering ram. Silver points seemed to puncture the creatures, and they disappeared into dust at the blow.  The two forces began to mix as her soldiers lashed out with swords and arrows into the fray. Shadows jumped into the air towards their farthest ranks. Battle was firmly upon them.

Maren practically poured arrows into the chaos around her. The slightest movement towards her was marked for death. It was the only way a mere human could beat the nimble and impossible speed of the Shadows. Puffs of the stardust followed her as her reindeer continued pushing through groups of their enemies.

A force pounded at her side and her vision suddenly swam as gravity sent her toppling to the ground, the crash sending shooting pain across her left shoulder that took the brunt of the fall.  Her body instinctively tried to bounce back up, to keep moving, but the danger was already upon her. A Shadow had knocked her from her saddle and had pinned her down.  Its limb swiftly mutated to the shape of an axe.

She barely had time to raise her free arm and block the oncoming attack with her silver bracer.  The weight of ten men seemed to press down from the Shadow onto the gauntlet, and her whole arm shook against the strain.  Her body wreathed and shook under the pressure, her other hand struggling against to free itself from her own torso and the ground, reaching down her leg.

Adrenaline flashed as fast as her dagger from her boot. The makeshift weapon on the Shadow’s arm flared into dark smoke as it emitted a piercing cry.  When she swiped again, it flung off of her, and she rapidly scrambled to her feet to draw her longsword.

The obsidian and purple hues bled and swirled as the figure sprouted a new attachment, sharp and pointed. Panting to catch her breath, the Shadow sprang forward before she could even complete her second exhale. 

Precious metal of Maren’s sword and dagger glittered in the daylight as she parried the repetitive strikes and swipes of the knife-like appendage.  Feints and false leads did not sway or deter the monster.  It fought with the mad abandon and guttural instinct of a starved animal. When she lunged, it mirrored, but harder and faster, knowing it could beat her. Yes, it moved with desperation, but the cold calculation was sophisticated and masterful as it countered every skill she possessed.

Boots shuffled on the dirt as she dodged, struggling to add distance between them only for it to be taken away.  Her mount was somewhere in the fray, and the blurs of forest green uniforms in her peripherals were otherwise engaged with the same problem she was facing.  No allies would help her, this was her challenge and hers alone.  Her defenses and endurance would eventually fail in a direct contest of strength. In a competition of pure speed, she would lose. Predicting its movements was the only way to survive this. She needed a plan, now.

As it danced around her, Maren knew when she was being cornered, sensing the change in raging blows to probing, testing lashes against her weapons.  It was pushing, planning, learning, leading her to a trap. She tapped into what energy remained, and as she guarded against her enemy’s quick swipe towards her legs, her sword immediately whipped upwards on the offensive.  It was too slow, she knew this, but the Shadow leaped back to avoid the hit, giving her precious distance.

Then, it paused.

Her hair stood on the back of her neck. This was it.

Without hesitation, she whipped around, flinging her dagger in the process. Despite her aim with her non-dominant hand, the new, sneaking Shadow had been close enough to present a large target and perished as the weapon struck its chest.  With a blind spin back, Maren dropped to her knee and thrust her sword forward.  Her original attacker had taken the bait of seeing her back and blindly charged.  It was now skewered across her silver blade before misting away. She had been fast enough, this time.

The captain immediately hopped up to her feet and scanned the field.  Many of her forces had been dismounted, horse carcasses laying too still across the field.  Shouts and screams filled her ears, arrows flew across her vision, clashing metal rang out.  Even at the briefest of glances, she knew there was too much black across the sea of green for the numbers to be in their favor.

They had to retreat. Even if the Shadow forces had split off to handle whatever had attacked from the sea, they were still overrun.

Before Maren’s lips could part to issue the command, ripples echoed in the air and the soil beneath her.  Loud pounding sounded in the distance towards the fort.  They lacked the ferocity of cannonfire but little else could match the force or size needed to create such volume.  Maren frowned, turning to the structure.

A rumble solidly shook the ground, and she struggled not to collapse onto the ground.  Humans and monsters alike paused at the anomaly, trying to understand why the earth was suddenly loud and moving.  White haze bloomed above the small stronghold like steam. Not even the largest cannons or trebuchets made smoke of that color or size.

Maren squinted.  Wait, it wasn’t smoke.  It couldn’t be...Snow?

The shaking stopped, and the world went still.  Every human seemed to take a collective breath.

Shadows suddenly whipped wildly away and began bolting to the fort, seemingly unconcerned now with the troops.  Opportunistic swords swung down at the retreating forms, and Maren marveled at their luck.  They finally had them on the run. Thank Ahtohallan for whatever was at the fort.

Raising her longsword high into the air, she called out, “Advance!”

The word echoed as the soldiers parroted her command, ensuring it was heard over the madness and commotion.  Maren lifted her hand to her mouth and issued a shrill whistle before she easily sliced her blade through a Shadow trying to flee past her.

Thuds sounded before reindeer, antlers and all, burst through a group of the withdrawing enemies, leaving them like ash in the air.  He proudly trotted to the captain, and she expertly perched on one stirrup to quickly swing her other leg over the saddle. The beast shot off like a crossbow bolt for the keep.

Blind to all else except what mysteriously propelled them back to the stone keep, the magical entities offered no resistance as Maren’s steed brought her blade to their backs.  She easily hacked and swiped at the stragglers, trying to keep the path clear for their own counter march.  A handful of horseback riders mimicked her plan yards away, pushing forward, leading groups of soldiers now on foot spread out across the vast plain.

When specks of black night dotted the horizon once more, her heart sank.  Had they fallen for a trap?  Shadows leaked like an overflowing cup from the top of the fort, throwing themselves over the battlements.  For a brief moment, Maren feared the retreating force would turn around with a vengeance, but they continued rushing away to join their new brethren.

Which group was truly fleeing? What was going on inside the keep?

Glowing light suddenly blinked on the wooden barrier.  Maren squinted across the field as the luminosity spread like paint moved by an expert hand, symmetrical lines unfolding and carving into the surface. Twisting patterns stretched from the center focal, all shining and sparking in the sun.

It was a snowflake.

An explosion vibrated across the field as the gate imploded in a blur of white.  The captain yanked on the reins as bits of ice were flung into the surrounding area at great distance. Swarming Shadows seemed to buzz at the approach of whatever rendered the gate to splinters.

Maren held her breath, vision glued to the newly blasted opening as the snow settled to the ground.

Snow and ice…no, she couldn’t dare to hope…

The figure that stepped through the destroyed fragments of the drawbridge was eerily calm despite the sheer force of enemies that now stared her down. Locks of blonde hair that escaped from a long braid blew in the gentle breeze.  Her white tunic glimmered in the light as her arms whipped across her body, sending a flurry blasting into the black mass. 

Even at this distance, Maren knew it was her.  The woman worth years of war and death and searching and dreading and hoping.

Elsa.

She was alive.  

“The Blue Dragon!”

“By the Five!”

Remarks of astonishment mixed with the cries of battle around her, the Arendellians still engaging the few enemies separated from their group.  The bulk of the sea of Shadows all faced the small castle, their backs turned to Maren’s vanguard and the forest, seemingly unconcerned with the mortal soldiers in the wake of the spirit that stood before them.

Elsa confidently stepped forward; the dropping height without the drawbridge did not phase her. The moat was meaningless as ice rose from the waters to meet her steps, and she crossed the distance with ease, the frozen bridge building itself at her will. 

She was as perfect and radiant as Maren remembered.

There was one key difference. She was pissed.

Elsa moved like one of them, at speeds almost impossible for a human.  Shadows at the front line lurched forward, but she was already upon them, kicking cleanly through their hazy bodies with a point of jagged ice that shot from her heel. Before any could retaliate, frozen hands slapped them aside effortlessly before obliterating them with a blast of magic.

The warriors in green were spread out across the edges of the mob at the rear, clashing against the enemies still so focused on ice spirit. With Elsa’s help, they could win this.  Maren frantically searched the field for a way to penetrate the mass of enemies and cross the remaining distance to the blonde.  Gripping her sword handle tightly in one hand, reins in the other, she prepared to fight her way through.

Then the void started to churn.

To her horror, the Shadows suddenly began to move in a wild, synchronized frenzy.  Nightmarish bodies twisted into one another, the sinister darkness blending together and swelling in size.  The inky black and eerie purple continued to amass as more Shadows dove into the swirling, growing void and fused together to form a new atrocity no citizen of Arendelle or Northuldra had ever seen.  Two ghastly, white eyes emerged from the inky murk.

Like a large ape, thick arms atop wide shoulders swung violently through the air.  The beast stood as tall as a proper city house, and the deafening screech that pulsed from the mouthless face staggered the nearby troops.  Maren grit her teeth against the sharp pain threatening to split her head, tugging the reins as her mount began to rear back in fear.

Its mighty hand shot up towards the sky above some of the soldiers before plummeting down to the ground.  Before their captain could shout a warning, a tall block of ice surged from the ground, smashing against the giant Shadow’s limb before it could complete its rapid descent and squash the people below. 

Maren glanced at Elsa to see her arms raised above her head, stance firm on the field.

The frustrated, rebuked monster immediately turned to new targets, initiating a whipping, wide arc.  A wave of thick snow collided with the soldiers, pushing them out of the direct path. The powder sprayed everywhere as they landed on a fresh snowbank, shaken but unharmed.

Again, the gargantuan Shadow shifted to smash the vulnerable bodies on the ground, defending with their useless swords.  Elsa dove in front of them, hands raised, magic surging forward to push against the giant arm, halting the deadly swing. It quivered as it struggled and fought like a swimmer against a strong current. The woman too looked strained, feet digging into the dirt to unleash more energy to deflect the blow.

Maren frowned. Elsa was too worried about protecting the soldiers when she was their only hope offensively.  Individuals were too spread out across the plain, too weak. The army force was in the way now.

“Form ranks!” she shouted into the fray, catching the attention of those immediately beside her.

Some of her people repeated the message, trying to rally the others, “To the captain!”

She kicked at her deer’s sides, and they sprinted forward, Maren steering them closer to the moat, off to the side. Elsa needed a clear line to the Shadow. 

The copper hair of her lieutenant caught her eye, and she turned to shout, “Alfsen, get their asses over here!”

He nodded, yanking the reins and shooting his horse off in the opposite direction. Good man, he would get any stragglers.

Maren glanced back to the center. The Shadow shifted its weight and moved to walk towards the retreating troops, but crystalline magic caught and froze its ankle, sealing it in place. It strained against the ice, and Elsa’s outstretched arms seemed to tense in resistance, her fingers clenched tight, trying to hold it back with the invisible strings of her spell.

Those still on horseback helped guide the remaining members of the vanguard to her position, Alfsen bringing up the rear.  When they had fully regrouped, Maren slid off the saddle and sheathed her blade.

“Steady,” she said firmly as she passed through the small crowd, giving shoulders a quick squeeze. Pushing to the front, her focus was again transfixed on the duel of magic before them.

She had either just protected them or rounded them all up for easy slaughter.

She trusted Elsa.

With a crack, the shackle broke, and the monster stumbled forward, clumsy, heavy steps quaking the ground. Before it could gain any momentum to charge, a snowball plopped against its head. Its form turned to face its attacker, piercing cry slicing through the air.

But the woman’s eyes were on the army; she could see Elsa scanning their clumped group. There was no way she recognized Maren in this chaos at that distance, but shoulders seemed to slump in relief that they were now all secure in one place.

A flick of the wrist summoned multiple pillars of ice from the ground directly in front of them, tall and thick enough to counter the large threat now on the other side.  Maren immediately pressed her back to the cold surface, poking her around one of the corners to continue assessing their next move. They now had cover and could stop getting in the way. It was time to help from a distance.

Maren instinctively reached down to her quiver to find only the feel of feather from the ammo, the weapon clearly missing. Shit. She had lost her bow when she was toppled off the reindeer.

“Archers!” She called to the group huddled behind the walls with her. 

Shaken but brave, they stepped forward and launched silver arrows towards the Shadow, small traces of black essence hissing away at each hit.  It gave no notice as it lumbered toward the woman standing alone now in the field.

Glaring at the giant foe, Elsa tucked her elbows tight against her sides, arms curled and tense.  Her knee kicked high and stomped hard against the ground, magic immediately swirling up her calf.  Its twin mimicked the motion and too had the glacial hue wrap up her leg.  Her whole body shot upwards as colossal icicles extended from her legs like massive stilts Maren had once seen clowns use to tower above the crowds at a parade in the city.  The shining tendrils of her spellwork continued to climb up her body.  Her arms snapped away from her torso, and ice jutted forward, long, sleek, and sharp like stingers. More artwork than warcraft, the magic unraveled and reshaped on her limbs and her body until she was cocooned in the center of a moving crystal sculpture.

The board was set, black and white.  It was giant versus giant now.

Thrusting pikes punctured the bulky form of the monster as Elsa jettisoned forward with her impressive reach.  The Shadow’s thick hands wrapped around the cold appendages, plucking them out like thorns. Maren could see it strain to spin or push the ice titan away in the contested grapple, but Elsa’s icicle legs grew into heavy stalagmites to endure the force.  She jerked her long arms back, slicing out of the Shadow’s grip before launching again.

Despite their massive size, the two still moved at aggressive speeds. The beast seemed to ignore the rapid swipes of ice’s razor edge, relying on its fortitude to endure as it barreled forward with a sturdy shoulder or strong fist for brutally blunt damage.  With each attack, the Shadow’s energy seemed to melt away into snowy mist, its body rushing to refill sections cut away with Elsa’s strikes. As time went on, Maren could see it shrinking ever so slightly, and the exchange between them bounced thunderous booms across the field.

But the ice too eroded from blistering blows, cracking away from the force. In a surge of strength, their enemy swatted away Elsa’s attempt to stab with her lance-like arm, and headbutted her defenseless core. Ice cracked and shattered from the center coating across her body and across her limbs.

When she tried to block the next jab, the cold magic of her arm deteriorated into white dust. Like a skilled boxer, it rained punches at the new weakness. Jab, cross, jab, hook. Elsa could only keep her remaining arm raised as it chipped away at her ice with wailing blows.

It reared back, both hands raised high.  The blonde flipped backwards off her ice blocks, narrowly avoiding the Shadow’s fists slamming down upon them. Fragmented chunks flew in every direction as Elsa landed on the ground and dipped to her knee, her suit now completely destroyed.

Maren fought the urge to charge blindly at the beast herself. It was still too big. She had to believe in Elsa.

Dark fingers eagerly moved to grab their opponent. Its target remained rooted and unflinching as she kneeled on the ground; glittering frost suddenly flashed across the grass from her to the demonic figure next to her. Dirt seemed to transform to glass as the surface froze to hard ice.  The clumsy giant slipped and scrambled, giving Elsa a brief moment to dodge away.

While greatly reduced in size since its birth, the monster still towered above her like a large animal.  When it stepped towards her, she twirled away, flinging stinging pellets of hail. If it tried to swipe, she vaulted the limb, and the dance continued.  Elsa was maintaining the distance between them now.

Maren squinted hard to follow her form and gauge her movements, trying to predict and plan a way for them all to survive this.  But even she felt helpless and could only watch as the woman of winter battled for their fate, and she appeared to be evading, stalling.  The captain strained to read her face, but the once dazzling confidence was now an agitated grimace. 

However, Shadows did not deal in stalemates and half-victories.  The void across the giant’s skin began to spin and bend. One arm shrank, and the energy quickly readjusted as the other arm swelled to considerable size, unnatural and grotesque as it matched the size of its own body.  Fist became hammer, designed for a single, deadly purpose.

Then, Elsa smiled. Maren blinked, surely she was mistaken. But there it was. Beautiful. Horrifying.  The Shadow began to charge towards her, drawing back the heavy arm.

Smug smirk in place, her hands spun around each other before whipping forward, a beam of white, intense light blasting forth from the space between. The air all around them shivered at the arcane cold that snapped across the plain.

Maren’s mouth fell open. The beam missed.

The surge of magic hit the grassy field, off target, not even triggering the Shadow to change course as it merely brushed off the snowy powder that drifted in the air.

“She missed!” cried a voice amongst their group.

Her rangers muttered and stared in disbelief, anxious spectators in a game for their lives.  The charging titan continued forward with a flying fist, Elsa narrowly leaping to dodge the attack.  Slamming down, the massive hand broke the earth, launching dirt into the air.

But she still smiled.

Suddenly, Maren felt the air shift, like the break in heat before the storm. Magic, but different than the Shadow.

Spirits.

A speck of blue appeared up the cliff side.  Nokk’s paws thundered on the ground as they crossed the field from the ocean at terrifying speed in the form of a giant, translucent bear.  With a fierce snarl, they pounded through Elsa’s frozen pool of magic on the ground, and their liquified body hardened and sparkled magnificently. Water to ice, the predator turned hard and deadly.

They leapt with razor claws bared and sharp teeth glinting, tearing through the Shadow’s essence with a ravaging bite. The water spirit’s glowing eyes shined magnificently in contrast to the midnight form of their prey as they tore and cut. Large hands tried to pry them off, but the fierce bear swiped and slashed them away with ease.  They crunched harder with punishing force, clinging as the Shadow wildly tossed about.  

With a final screech, the creature of darkness dissolved into black mist, and then, nothing.  All fell silent except for the light breeze.

It was over.  But the relief that came to the leader of the Silver Battalion was short lived.  She still couldn’t fully believe her eyes.

Nokk rushed over and nuzzled the crook of Elsa’s neck, gentle and sweet in comparison to the brutal savagery they had just displayed.  The blonde looked ecstatic, rubbing her cheek against the spirit’s head. Maren frowned. Had they been separated all this time as well?

Someone behind her squeaked, “Holy shit.”

The captain had half a mind to turn around and reprimand them, but she couldn’t tear her sight from the magical duo before them.

She was really back. She had saved them.

With a light pat to Nokk’s haunches, Elsa jogged over to the troop still stunned and staring, the other spirit not far behind.  Maren forgot to breathe.

As she arrived, Elsa eagerly looked around and questioned, “Is everyone alright? I didn’t-“ 

Their eyes locked, and her speech halted, sapphire eyes clouding in uncertainty. Maren felt the grime and sweat of battle on her brow.  How odd she must look to a ghost of the past.  Braid gone.  Scarred face.  But Elsa?  She was glowing, just like in Maren’s dreams. Elegant and bright as moonlight. She was a dream.

Relief and recognition seemed to blossom across Elsa’s face, her lips turning to a wide smile.  She really was extraordinarily beautiful.

“Honeymaren!”

Maren floundered. But this wasn’t a dream, this was real…and her name was wrong now. 

An explanation was caught in her throat.  Years of planning what she would say.  Finally declaring her love and issuing a proper proposal.  She couldn’t do it. She was frozen before the mistress of ice.

Steps and murmurs reminded her they were very much not alone.  She had a job to do.

“Your Highness.”

She turned her eyes to the brown and green beneath them as she bowed. Shuffling of metal and leather indicated every person now mimicked her and bowed to the former ruler, the eldest princess, the most powerful of the spirits.

Maren heard the shy voice mutter, “Everyone, please, that’s not necessary.”

She followed the hidden instruction and looked back up.  The restlessness of her people behind her was unbearable. Questions hung in the air. They pressed against the lips of the squadron, too well trained to let them fly. The same questions pricked at Maren’s mind.

How? Why?

Elsa. There was so much to say, and yet she couldn’t summon the words.  What was wrong with her?

The woman in white looked intently at Maren as she answered the unasked, “I woke up in the middle of the ocean a few days ago.  The last thing I remember was that night at the fjord.”

Maren’s heart pounded in her chest.  Impossible.

“From five years ago?” she asked.

“A Navy ship found me floating in ice,” Elsa explained with a shy smile, gesturing back to the fort, “They’re at the dock.”

No.  This was wrong.  She had considered every possibility.  That Elsa had been captured or killed.  That she was fighting their enemy far away, in secret.  But who could have predicted this?

Elsa had been truly safe, and yet...war had not sullied her.  Not like Maren.  

She still looked so optimistic, so pure when she stepped closer and lightly called out, “Honeymaren.”

The name stung when it sounded so hopeful from Elsa’s mouth. It was foreign. Long dead...and best forgotten.  Maren had killed the name just like she had killed ninety-nine people.  She was a murderer.  It was so obvious to her now.  The Fifth Spirit was beyond the reach of some grubby mortal, obviously destined for something, or someone, so much more glorious.

Maren kept her breathing as even as possible.  Her people needed a leader right now.

Her back straightened as she turned to the vanguard and ordered, “Secure the keep.  Tend the wounded.”

She needed to stick to business.

As the soldiers had rushed away, Maren questioned, “Are you hurt?”

“No. I’m relieved actually,” Elsa replied with a smile, placing her hand on Nokk’s head.

“We haven’t seen the spirits in a long time,” Maren commented, glancing between the two.

So long without magic or love in her homeland or herself...

“When I first woke up, I couldn’t feel them. Nokk said they woke up and felt my magic, so they came. They don’t remember anything since the fjord either, and I still can’t feel the others,” Elsa explained with an apologetic tone.

The polar bear moved from her to the Northuldran.  Maren, despite her shock, knew not to fear the spirits. She held up her hand, and Nokk easily brushed their snout against her fingers.

Visions of the past began to swirl in her mind. Nokk showed her the flowing rivers in the forest where she dipped her feet after a long day.  The fresh rain on the fields as she herded in the reindeer from grazing.  The ocean’s edge where she wanted to tell Elsa...

Water held sad memories for her now.

“We’re far from home,” she murmured to the cold head and glowing eyes resting against her palm before she dropped her hand and turned away.

Far, far away from who she once was.  Honeymaren could’ve been a match for Elsa.  Captain Maren never could be. There was too much blood on her hands.

Elsa took a step towards her. “Honeymaren, I-“

“Captain.  You’ll want to see this,” Alfsen’s voice broke through as he ran up to them, pointing back to the keep.

He was smart; it had to be important. Maren immediately nodded and began to follow him back to the fort.  Footsteps followed behind her.  Now at the moat, she could see the simple, frozen pathway Elsa had summoned was actually a rather intricate bridge.  She tried not to look surprised at the detailing on the rails or the measured, gentle arc over the water below.  Even in the heat of battle, Elsa was an architect.

Snow and ice coated the entire courtyard.  The troops were scattered about, trying to dig the pathway to the buildings or shuffling towards the dock.  Elsa’s powers had certainly evolved, or perhaps she was finally releasing what had always been pent up.  The giant fissure and crumpled stone spoke to an unknown strength.

The true oddity, however, were the handful of snowmen that littered the area. They weren’t exactly snowmen, more of less sculptures or vague outlines of humans frozen in ice.

Elsa spoke up with a frown, “The Shadows…Most of them usually crumble into snow. I must’ve been distracted earlier.  They look like the frozen memories from the Forest and Ahtohallan.”

Maren chewed the inside of her mouth. She had seen such memories when Elsa first came to the forest.  That the deceased Shadows would reflect the images of people…the implications were horrifying.

This was bad.

Alfsen brought them to one that had been seemingly slammed and plastered against the wall, uniquely preserved in ice compared to some of the others in fragile snow.  He somberly nodded towards the figure.

It was clearly a soldier of Arendelle.

Maren leaned forward, inspecting the subtly detailing on the collar pristinely preserved. “It’s an older outfit.”

“These uniforms were retired almost forty years ago,” the former queen surmised, eyes scanning the sculpture, “The flower insignia was removed from the chest and added to the belts and hats.”

A silence fell between them. No, this wasn’t a dream. It never was.  This was a nightmare, growing more terrifying by the minute.

Maren couldn’t have her team wondering if their enemy was somehow connected to their own country.

She leaned towards Alfsen and muttered, “Knock them down.  Discreetly.”

Elsa stammered, “Oh, well, I could just…”

With a grand wave of her hand, nature’s clock seemed to speed up as sparkling waves of magic licked the air and ground. White powder quickly melted away. The cracks in the flagstone were filled with a smooth layer of ice.  Even the drawbridge was fixed with a sheet of crystal now bearing a beautifully engraved pattern of ivy and leaves.

Everyone paused.  Mouths were open and gawking.

Elsa flushed as she mumbled, “Maybe not very discreet.  Sorry.”

“Quite alright, Your Highness.  Distraction is a sound strategy,” Alfsen replied chipperly, clearly impressed.

The blonde offered a sheepish smile. “Unfortunately, causing a scene is my default at this point.”

Maren simply glowered at her soldiers.

“I’m not in the habit of repeating my orders,” she barked, sending the dazed troops into a frenzy, dashing back to their tasks.

The captain then turned to her lieutenant and said, “Escort our guest inside. I’ll be there in a moment. There’s much to discuss.”

With a nod, the redhead politely turned to Elsa, gesturing to the keep, and Maren watched as the duo walked inside the modest castle.  Curious, blue eyes looked back at her before disappearing in the threshold.

Five years.

She took a shaky breath.

Ninety-nine lives, probably more after today.

Maren would uphold her oath to the queen and bring Elsa home to where she could be properly loved. Then she could perish in some distant battlefield in this war like the rest of the broken and the damned. 


“So then, roughly three years ago, we implemented silver weapons,” the young man sitting at a dusty desk rambled on in his explanation.

They had been talking for almost an hour.  Lieutenant Alfsen, as he had introduced himself, had been doing his best to recap the past five years as efficiently as possible.  Elsa now began to understand why Johansen had truly stuck to the bare bones in his story.  The recounting of her own tale had been rather limited in comparison.  She attacked the fleet, woke up, and the spirits were gone, with Nokk freshly returned since.

Elsa tried to focus solely on the lieutenant and be respectful of this effort on her behalf, but she found her gaze slipping to Honeymaren, or rather, as Alfsen had introduced her, Captain Maren.  The ex-queen did not advise they had previously met nor had the Northuldran. In fact, Maren had said nothing at all since they entered the room.

The captain leaned against the wall in the corner, arms crossed, eyes incredibly focused on the fire they had scraped together in the fireplace. Room and board at the small fort that had exchanged owners in the past few weeks was a little worse wear.  She too looked rather worn, even after washing her face and straightening her uniform.  Not that Elsa thought it bad, simply different. She was still as alluring as she remembered.  The shepherdess had clearly traded the fields of animals for battlefields, but the outdoors still suited her complexion.  Arendelle’s forest green uniform complemented her chestnut hair, and the shorter haircut in turn accentuated the appeal of her jaw and cheekbones.  In fact, Elsa thought the trim cut of the outfit spoke well to the warrior’s form. Their country’s sigil flower was skillfully carved into the silver bracers on her forearm, and the intricate hilt of the longsword at her hip spoke to a well-decorated, well-respected soldier.

Even with all the changes, it was still Honeymaren. Brave and strong. Still beautiful.

And yet, she looked...heavy.  The former royal could guess at the burdens.  A leader that carried a moral weight beyond that of a mere herder.  A woman whose scars now cut deeper than the one across her once soft cheek and once smiling lips.  No, the differences were not bad.  But the frown and darkened eyes were what truly worried Elsa.

There was only so much she could guess by looking.  She just hoped time had not been too unkind to the one she loved.

Alfsen continued on, “When defeated, they dissolve, almost like a puff of smoke.”

Elsa turned her attention back with a nod. “That would explain why you were surprised that those I handled turned to ice or snow.”

“It’s unique, to say the least, Your Highness,” he replied with a small smile.

“Do you know where they come from?”

“Thin air sometimes. But always near the enemy.”

Maren cleared her throat; Elsa was embarrassed at how quickly she whipped her head to face her, desperate to hear her say anything at this point. 

The brunette’s gaze did not move from the fire as she explained in an even tone, “The prevailing theory is that the Islanders can summon them somehow. Though it must take resources of some kind to make more,” she tilted her head thoughtfully as she spoke, “ Usually, if they have a group already present, while they seem to pop out from every corner, once they’re exterminated, there is a large break of time between waves.”

Elsa nodded, intrigued more by the theoretical possibilities of the arcane than her love life, for the moment.  “Magic of that level would require a substantial amount of energy.”

The dark brown eyes finally turned to face her.  Maren’s expression was still all business, voice scholarly and emotionless.

“Yes. We can safely assume they’re magical, but the origin is still unknown.  Thankfully, they have never even come close to the capital.”

Elsa felt a gentle ripple against her mind.  Connected, but not intrusive.

“Nokk has no memory of creatures like this. But the magic does feel familiar. It’s not unlike ours,” she translated, relieved to be feeling the consciousness of another spirit again.

“You really can talk to them in your head?  The other four?” Alfsen almost whispered, eyes wide, a crack in his otherwise proper decorum.

“Well, before the fjord ordeal, yes, I could with all the spirits.  Now just Nokk has come back to me.”

“You city boys always get spooked so easily,” the captain drawled from her corner.

“We can’t all come from magic forests with magic spirits hidden in magic fog, ma’am.”

Elsa tried to hide a smirk as Maren snorted at her lieutenant and rolled her eyes.  Maybe her playful nature wasn’t entirely gone behind that scowl.

Having survived any type of retribution, Alfsen looked back to Elsa and explained, “We believe the Shadows somehow speak telepathically.  They can coordinate.  They’re getting their orders from somewhere else.”

“Like us,” Elsa sighed.

“Like you.”

Old soldiers in the snow, the similarities in Shadow and spirit.  Their reality wasn’t particularly comforting.

Maren turned to the man and instructed, “See if the scouts are back yet. I want the report as soon as possible.  The enemy likely knows the only person who can properly counter it is back. Getting her to the capital as quickly and quietly as possible before they can come for her is all that matters now.”

Alfsen stood, quickly saluted his superior, and bowed to Elsa as he made his exit.

After an hour of hearing nothing but his voice, his absence suddenly made the room feel empty, as if it was just Elsa and a glaring statue left.  Anxiety slithered and swelled in her belly.

Five years of life and war.  They weren’t strangers, but where did she start?

Maren must have sensed her unease and cleared her throat to break the silence.

“Your Highness-”

“Please don’t call me that,” Elsa whispered fiercely, cutting her off. 

She refused for them to be strangers.

She heard a small sigh as the captain stepped from the wall and sat on the edge of the desk.  Maren’s chest rose with a deep breath as she took one last inspection of the walls before finally settling directly on the woman in the chair.  She was much closer now.

The captain tried again, “I can’t imagine how jarring it must be to have awoken to a new world.”

“I suspect it's not as bad as having seen it firsthand,” she replied gingerly, offering an opening for more.

But Maren merely nodded, still monotone, “The war has changed much.”

The awkward quiet returned to the room uncontested.  Eyes dropped to the desk.

Elsa huffed in frustration.  This was silly.  She was being silly.  The Honeymaren she remembered always told her to simply ask.  She had to stop fearing the answers.

“Won’t you tell me what happened?”

“The lieutenant gave a fairly thorough review.”

“No, you. How are you?  What...happened?” 

Maren’s frown deepened only slightly, impressive in the face of such a loaded question.  She crossed her arms again.  Her neck twitched as she swallowed.

“I returned to the forest at first to help with the invaders on that front. They kept coming in waves.  It was only a few weeks before I returned to Arendelle and asked the queen to be sworn into the army formally,” she paused and looked away to the far wall before continuing, “We decided I could be of more use on the offense.  That it might help morale to see Nothuldra’s leader marching into battle.”

“Leader? Does that mean...Yelana…”

She nodded.  “There was a raid early on. Took the enemy three arrows to the chest to bring her down. She refused to die until the whole village made it out safely.  Stubborn old woman,” she mumbled with a hollow laugh, voice dying in her throat.

Elsa wasn’t sure which broke her heart more.  Not being there when Northuldra, when Yelana had needed her, or hearing the traces of hurt buried in Maren’s dark humor.

“I’m sorry.”

Maren shook her head, and the twitching smirk disappeared.  She continued matter-of-factly, “The armies from the city helped us rebuild and make the area more defensible. I set up a small council to run things in my stead, and I left to fight.”

A pause followed, but Elsa needed to know more.

“Captain is no small feat,” she offered optimistically.

“In wartime, it’s easy to promote rank. The queen has been good to me,” was the response coupled with a shrug.  She was inspecting the wall again.

“How is she?” she questioned quickly.  

“Alive,” Maren quipped, glancing back to the blonde with a raised eyebrow, “I at least promised you that much.”

Elsa smiled gently.  “I never doubted you.”

With a sigh, Maren grunted, “She made it difficult. We’ve been in a few close calls together. Drives her advisors crazy, always riding into battle, risking her life, without an heir,” she rolled her eyes, but she bore a small grin as she grumbled, “But the people love her for it.”

“No heir? That’s surprising for Anna and Kristoff,” the queen’s sister chuckled, remembering all the moments she had been a third wheel for the loving couple.

The smile fell.  “Her Majesty was pregnant, but…” 

Oh, Anna.

Elsa swallowed hard and sat up straighter in her chair.  “Thank you. It sounds like you’ve been a good protector and friend.”

“As much as she’ll let anyone be. As much as anyone can be close to the queen, I suppose,” Maren murmured, small frown in place.

So much pain.  And she had left them alone.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come back,” she whispered, afraid her voice would crack.  Tears threatened to fall, and she was doing her best to resist.

Maren actually looked surprised as her eyebrows raised, the first hint of concern to break through the visage of indifference.

“There is nothing to be sorry for. Ahtohallan must have her reasons,” she replied calmly.  Her voice was almost as soft, almost as honey-sweet as Elsa remembered.

Almost.

Elsa’s fingers brushed against her necklace.

“Is there anyone…” she trailed off before shaking her head, “It’s silly, I asked you this question already.  It feels like just a few weeks ago for me. Is there anyone you’re close to?” she finished with a nervous laugh, leaning forward in her chair to look directly at the woman across from her.

But the dark, golden eyes avoided hers. “Your Highness-”

“Honeymaren, please,” Elsa sighed, closing her eyes, taking a breath, fighting the prickling sensation to cry at hearing the title.  When she opened them again Maren was glaring down at the wooden desk.

The blonde muttered, “It’s been five years, I would...I would...have hoped you found some happiness.”

And it was true. After all, Elsa had never told her how she felt.  She wouldn’t have blamed her.

The captain looked up at her, and, if anything could melt a frozen heart, it was the honey in her eyes.  Had it been days or years since she last saw them so clearly, looking at her so sweetly?  Elsa almost bolted from her chair, wanting to run her fingers through the new, short hair and brush her lips against the new, raised skin that marked her mouth.  All to prove it was still the same Honeymaren with her warm, butterscotch eyes that had shown Elsa even a cold monster could learn about a love that felt like fire.

“Ma’am.”

Alfsen appeared at the doorway, and the softness in Maren’s eyes hardened once more. They looked away.  In a blink, time had taken another moment from Elsa.

She couldn’t blame the busy lieutenant for interrupting a second time, but as Maren nodded him inside, her heart sank.  The avoidance hinted at the answer she sought.  Her love had moved on with the rest of the world, and, perhaps, that was that.

There was no warmth left for the queen of ice.

She summoned any royal training left in her bones, sliding the mask in place as best as possible to suffocate any signs of sadness.  She bit her tongue with hopes pain would shock and stifle the tears threatening to spill.  Knuckles went white as she tightly balled her fists on her lap.  She had to focus on their mission, their war, and get back to Anna.

Getting the truth from Honeymaren, Maren, would have to come later.

The young man stepped forward to the desk, unrolling a map onto the surface.

“There’s been reports of enemy movement in the forests here and here,” he reported, pointing at the scroll, “West might be the safest, back the way we came, wait a few days for the ferry at the entrance of fjord, though it isn’t always running on schedule,” with a wince, his hand moved to a different section of the parchment, “We could go east, wrap around to the north to avoid the forests and go over the river’s end through the mountain pass. That might be two weeks if we’re lucky.”

Maren hunched over the map, staring hard, “We can’t afford to waste that much time. We’ll push northwest through the forests to Fort Arne to cross the river at the Bridge of Eagles.”

“We have no idea how many Islanders or Shadows could be hiding there.  Intel when we were at the capital said whole scouting parties have been lost,” the soldier commented, voice level. Assisting, not dissenting.

Maren, however, just shook her head. “It’s the fastest way. Like I said, they know she’s back.  We have to get deep behind our lines where they can’t touch her,” she explained firmly, glancing to Alfsen, “The fort is massive, never fallen, we’ll get the back up we need if we’re quick enough. We just have to be careful.”

The man nodded.  Elsa lifted her chin; they were talking about her like a package that wasn’t even there.  But she held her tongue…this was to get to Anna.  And despite everything, she trusted the woman standing before her.

Maren continued on, steady and pragmatic, “Notify our ten best we leave at dawn. The rest will stay here and help defend what we’ve reclaimed until reinforcements come in. We travel quick and light,” the captain stood tall from where she leaned on the desk and plainly commented, “I have to see to other preparations.  Your Highness.”

The bow was quick. Maren was the one that had walked away, but Elsa felt thoroughly dismissed.

Chapter Text

The moment hooves hit the dew-covered grass, Maren felt decidedly better about their plan. She had not slept well.  Her personal life aside, Elsa’s return to the world was...a lot.  No one would ever know the captain was anything less than confident in her own orders, but she had to ensure the other woman was brought safely to Arendelle.

Maybe it was just her heritage, but being outdoors really did wonders for her mood.  She had secured a new bow and resupplied her quiver with arrows.  The air smelled clean and indicated good weather for the day’s ride. Her reindeer even had more hop in his step as he ascended the line of moving rangers, trotting towards the middle of the pack as they left the plains by Fort Halvor and entered the woods proper.

In fact, her mood was so improved, when she spotted Elsa, she couldn’t stop the laugh that barked forth from her lips.  

The other woman was riding Nokk, as anticipated. What Maren had not expected was to see a large, crystalline direwolf as big as a horse.

“What?” Elsa asked, looking to Maren.

The Northuldran eyed the massive ice spikes that made up the Water spirit’s mane as she scoffed, “Nokk is just showing off now.”

Elsa smiled.  Maren resented her heart for fluttering at the sight.

With an exaggerated pause and glance to her mount, the blonde replied with a smirk, “They said you have to think bolder than reindeer sometimes.”

“Blasphemy,” the former shepherd deadpanned, turning back to the woods before them. She could still hear the twinkling laughter beside her.

Maren really tried not to enjoy Elsa’s smile, not to savor the familiarly they once had.  She tried not to see the hidden touches in Elsa’s outfit choice as they continued on. Her magic had summoned a navy blue tunic and matching riding cloak. She even sported a pair of boots rather than going barefoot. Maren smirked knowingly at the little similarities to the Arendellian army uniform she and the rest of the group wore. Elsa wanted to fit in, and she had failed miserably. The deep, velvety fabric glittered with silvery patterns of frost like dark twilight. While she knew Elsa thought a high ponytail would be pragmatic and hopefully muted, it only demanded attention with a polished royal presence.

As much as Elsa tried to hide, she only shined brighter and more brilliantly with her efforts.

Maren knew this woman so well, better than Elsa probably did herself. The fact made her feel ashamed. What right did she have? Perhaps she could be forgiven the sin of enjoying it before she had to surrender it forever.

“Oh,” Elsa’s voice interrupted her thoughts, “It’s the baby.” 

When Maren looked up, clearly confused, Elsa continued with a grin, nodding towards her reindeer,  “From the night we met. That we rode together.”

“Not really a baby now,” she mused, giving the animal a pat on the neck.  His head seemed to lift proudly, basking in the attention. Maren rolled her eyes.

“Did you name him?”

“Ryder.”

The reindeer huffed.

“After your brother?”

Oh, right. Elsa didn’t know. 

“In his memory,” Maren answered quietly.

Elsa didn’t know she was a killer, that she couldn’t protect him. That she had failed.

“I’m so sorry.”

It was her fault for not leading and defending the village properly. Elsa’s pity was a kindness Maren didn’t deserve.

She tried to brush off her concern with a shrug, “The beast is bull-headed. He’d be proud.”

Elsa nodded solemnly, casting her eyes down to Nokk’s back.  The smile was gone.

Damn. Killing Shadows was easier than this. Which was worse? Upsetting the one she loved? Or getting too close? People she loved died because of her. That couldn’t happen to Elsa.

Maren decided on a neutral, business-like tone when she asked, “Have you or Nokk remembered anything else since yesterday?”

Elsa shook her head. “We still can’t feel the others.  Some small headaches.”

The captain turned back to face the front of their line. Alfsen and another soldier were leading the pack at a steady walk on horseback.

“Nokk came back. The others will too.”

There was a pause before she heard Elsa comment, “You’re very optimistic.”

“Logically, what happens to one, happens to the others. Seems probable they will awake soon as well.”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Elsa trailed off. 

Maren peaked to the side to see how her attempts at calming were working.

Elsa was shaking her head. “It’s funny to think I once wished all magic in my life would disappear and never come back.  Now all I want is for it to come back and be like it was,” she finished with a shy grin.

Maren had read the books and accounts.  Queen Anna had given her full access to the castle’s library to assist in her searches for the princess. Elsa’s grandfather, the warmonger, made sure his own people were scared and easily dominated. Magic was evil, lest someone find a way to break free of his bondage and triumph over his sword. Even after his time, his son, Elsa’s own father, had locked her away in fear. The people called her a witch.  Then there was Northuldra, another victim in the hatred of magic.

Her home and her love. The treatment of both disgusted her. She pushed her anger down.

Maren commented casually, “People back home miss the spirits. The forest isn’t the same without them.”  Without you.

She continued on, looking at the blue eyes staring intently, “They will be happy to hear of your return.”

Elsa smiled again. Maren swallowed and turned in her saddle one final time to focus on their match forward.

The rest of the day’s ride was uneventful.  Maren was unsure if she should be thankful or suspicious.  When they stopped for camp for the evening, she proceeded with the latter, sending scouts to the surrounding areas to scope for trouble, arcane or otherwise. She too dipped into the darkness of the forest as night fell, staying clear of the fire and small conversation over rations. It was easier to note possible defensive points and escape routes than be close to Elsa’s light laughter at one of her ranger’s jokes. 

It was only once Elsa and most of the others laid down to sleep that Maren quietly circled the camp and deposited herself nearby to stand watch despite having assigned a rotation to perform the function.

She trusted her squadron with her life, but their cargo was far more important.

Her eyes remained transfixed on the tree line. Partially to spot any potential dangers, mostly to avoid the temptation to look at the blonde laying down only a few feet away.  She spotted Alfsen easily enough when he silently emerged into the little clearing.

He gave a quick salute as he stepped over to her.

“Scouts back?” she muttered.

“All quiet,” he whispered back with a nod.

Maren saw his eyes glance to Elsa and then back to her.

“Shall I assign a personal guard on top of the watch so you can sleep, ma’am?”

She simply shook her head.  

“I figured.  Some tea then,” he said gently, producing a metal mug tucked behind his back.

The captain eyed her lieutenant carefully before accepting the offering.

“I thought I said to travel light when we left.”

“Tea leaves are light, ma’am.”

Bastard was too cheeky for his own good. 

Maren rolled her eyes as she replied, “Thank you. Good night.”

With a smile, he was off again, likely checking in with the watch before going to sleep himself.  Maren brought the tin cup to her lips and was rather surprised to find the liquid as warm as it was. Their little watch must have had a small fire going.  The flavor was bitter, but one had to make due without honey and milk in the wilderness.

Maren sat and sipped, looking at the fire, looking at the trees, looking at the dirt. She sighed.

Then she finally drifted her gaze to Elsa.

The partial spirit had seemingly no qualms or difficulties sleeping on the woodland dirt with nothing but a simple bedroll and her cloak as a blanket. Maren knew she shouldn’t give into the pathetic, shameful, voyeuristic desire to admire her, but she was weak.  She had dreamt of the woman every night for over five years. Unlike the bloodsoaked and war-ravaged world she lived in, Elsa was one reality that was infinitely better than any likeness born of imagination.

Blonde hair illuminated like gold in the flickering flames of the campfire. The subtle, shifting light played with the architectural quality of a well-defined brow and dark, ruby-like lips, creating beautifully contrasting shadows across her glowing skin.  How many nights had she seen the shy smile curve across those lips by the village center?  How many times had Maren almost closed the distance to brush the blushing cheekbones with her fingers or lean forward to-

The captain tore her eyes away; she was torturing herself now.  Elsa’s life would be better without her in it.  She had to accept that.  The past was the dream now.

She stared into the small fire of their little camp and let her thoughts drift to her other love and regret:  Northuldra.

Growing up, Maren adored helping her father with the herds.  She remembered being right by his side when he helped pull a calf from a swollen mother. Every morning she would look for the baby reindeer and the proud parent. They were always together.

One morning, after a few months, when she walked with her father to the herds, she noticed the young bull by himself.

“Why is he all alone?” she had asked.

“He’s grown up now. His mom has to leave him by himself so he can learn how to live and be strong,” her father had explained calmly.

“But why?”

“Sometimes you have to leave for things to get better.”

“Like Mama?” 

“Like Mama.”

“But I miss her.”

She remembered her father, tall and strong, looking sad.

“I do too. But now she doesn’t hurt anymore. We hurt so she doesn’t have to. That’s how it gets better.”

Of course, this was all before her father joined their mother in the earth a few years later.  They were buried by their lofté tree together.

It was the most basic principle of Northuldra. The forest gives life. Life returns to the forest.

Maren stole one more look at the woman sleeping, taking another sip of tea.

Sometimes you have to let go for the world to be better.


Elsa looked across a frozen lake.  Stars blinked in the sky above.  A silhouette far away turned to face her under an aurora painted on the black canvas of night.

Iduna smiled softly at her.

“Mother?” Elsa asked, her words echoing.

Iduna replied, calm voice ringing in Elsa’s head despite being so far away, “When all seems lost and your energy is spent…” 

There’s a mother...

Elsa began charging across the ice towards the other woman.  Despite her speed, the distance never closed.

“You need simply ask for more time,” Iduna finished, closing her eyes.

The ice began to crack under Elsa’s feet as ran forward.

...Full of memory.

“Is it you? Have you been singing to me?” Elsa called out.

The woman turned away.

“Wait!”

The ground collapsed, and Elsa plummeted into the darkness alongside glittering shards.

Elsa awoke with a start.  

Chirping insects.  Crackling fire.  A snoring soldier. 

Recognition and awareness came with a few blinks.  This was their second evening en route to Fort Arne.  Nokk’s mental and magical presence was still crisp and clear.  She was safe.

A dull ache felt chipped into her skull.  She sat up, rubbing her hands against her temples.

“Are you alright?”

She jumped at the voice, looking over her shoulder to see Maren sitting on the ground, leaning her back against a tree.  The captain appeared calm, as if she had already been awake.

“Yes, just a dream. I’m sorry.”

Or at least, she hoped it was.  Last time she had done a poor job listening to the visions and warnings of the spirits.  But this one left much to be desired in the way of actual information.  The voice seemed so familiar though...

If Maren sensed her hesitation, she did not comment on it.  Only a firm, single nod was given in acknowledgement.  She looked back to the campfire.

Elsa too turned back around. Her mother was dead, and Elsa had certainly been through quite the ordeal lately.  Not every dream a spirit had needed to be a dark premonition of danger to come, right?

She sighed.  Dwelling on it would only cause worry, and she had no answers at the moment.  Instead, she peered into the ring of darkened, glowing wood and dancing orange flames.  Little smoke escaped; the rangers knew how to build their camp to avoid detection.  Still, as small and humble as it was, the warmth and light tucked here between the trees reminded her of the forest of Northuldra.

“I miss the fires in the village,” she mused softly, trying to keep her voice low enough not to wake anyone, curling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

“To keep warm?” she heard Maren quip behind her.

The Ice spirit rolled her eyes, hiding a smirk.  It had been two days of hot and cold from the captain.  Playful sarcasm seemed arguably a good sign Maren was in a fair mood this evening, even if Elsa still did not yet know where they stood in their friendship, or whatever they were.  The frozen acorn pendant seemed heavy on her neck, tucked and concealed under the high collar of her shirt.

“Everyone always came together and sat with nature. It was nice,” Elsa continued fondly, “I still love the people of Arendelle. We’d have huge dinners in the town square and play games and...” she trailed off, struggling, turning to look over her shoulder at the Northuldran, “it was good. It just wasn’t…”

“The forest?” the other woman finished for her.

Elsa nodded.  She loved both, she really did.  One simply felt more like home.  Still, it didn’t stop her from feeling immensely guilty for playing favorites.  Maren, for what it was worth, did not appear to judge her for it, her face remaining neutral.

“The city’s changed a bit. Her Majesty made sure everyone knew about you and the other spirits,” Maren explained before looking down at the ground to mutter, “Even if they get the stories wrong most of the time.”

“Which ones?”

She tilted her head, contemplating the question.  “They speak of Altohollan as just a place. Don’t worry, a mystic, unknown, far off place, so no one gets any ideas to charge across the Dark Sea like you did,” she replied with a pointed look at Elsa.

Elsa thought she saw a flash of mirth in those eyes.  Perhaps it was just the reflection of the fire’s light.

Maren continued on, looking back to the campfire, “But, Altohollan, she’s more than all of that.”

“How so?”

“She’s life. She gave us the sun and the glacier. For water, for fire. To cultivate earth and give us air to breathe,” Maren described with awe and reverence, “She came before everything and is everything. You can’t embrace that in pieces or thinking someone in some distant place is watching. You need to be in it. The forest is alive, we are a part of the forest. It’s not a place, it is her, it is us, it is all of it together,” she outlined in hushed excitement, her hands gesturing to the trees around them.

“Balance,” Elsa murmured, knowing the feeling and connection she maintained with the other spirits.

“Yes,” Maren affirmed before nodding towards the sleeping rangers, “They’re good people, and I gladly fight beside them. Most Arendellians are respectful and ask Northuldra for their wisdom and want to celebrate their Blue Dragon. But...” she hesitantly paused.  It was the first time since their reunion Elsa thought she looked almost sheepish rather than the sturdy soldier.

“You can be honest with me, it’s alright,” Elsa assured her, stretching her legs out and turning more fully to face the other woman.

Maren’s amber eyes assessed her before she nodded and continued, “In the city, it will still never be what it’s supposed to be. Being with the spirits in the woods we all share.  I’ve caught up on their culture as well. I’ve done my reading,” a bitterness rose in her voice even if her volume was still quiet in the night air, “King Runeard made sure the hate of magic ran deep. He conquered most of the continent through war, including that little island nation to the south that hates us so much now. He murdered many of my people and erased much of our history, and we’re still helping to clean up his mess.”

Runeard.  Elsa wondered how many others in the world had fallen victim to her grandfather’s atrocities beyond what she saw in the frozen memories of the glacier.  By making his son fearful, he might as well have been the one that locked her in her room all those years, and she was just a single person.  Whole counties had fallen to his greed in past wars, like the Southern Isles and Northuldra...what else had he tainted in his wrath?

Maren’s voice grew softer, interrupting her pondering.  “You and your sister have changed much. I’m proud our nations work together,” she leaned back against her tree, staring hard now at the fire, “But this will always be what makes the Northuldra, the People of the Sun, one with the spirits and keeps Arendelle just a city that reaps the benefits of magic they never had to suffer for.”

It was harsh, but Maren was right.  Elsa had been part of the problem for so long, blinded by what the Arendellian history books told her about her family and country.  For all her pain and suffering in the past, she had still been marked as city royalty, protected and privileged.

“It’s odd enough feeling like I’m from both worlds, and I’m still sorely lacking in my mother’s culture,” Elsa stated slowly, trying to ensure there was purpose in each word, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be watching someone tamper with something of yours they probably don’t fully understand. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Maren sighed, shaking her head, “That was a very long, ranting way of agreeing with you,” she glanced at Elsa, a small smile alighting her face, “I too miss the fires.”

The breath snagged and caught in Elsa’s throat.  That smile.  There she was.  Honeymaren.

She displayed the ferocity of a warrior that passionately cared for the village and forest and yet was the soft, loving woman that Elsa would have agreed to marry five years too late.

Did she miss home?  It sounded as if she had not been back for some considerable time.  Did she miss their nights together?  Elsa had cherished every night by the fires, catching up on each other’s days.  Did she miss her people, or a person?  Perhaps she had left a lover behind, someone waiting for her to come back...

The Noruldran crossed her arms, adding, “If anything, you have a right to miss them more than me.”

“What do you mean?”

There was a pause.  Maren cleared her throat.

“Well, the nightly fire, besides the obvious of staying warm, is to honor the spirits and Altohollan for giving us the sun. We always have one, even in summer. Anyway, if you think about it, it was quite literally for you as one of the spirits,” she explained with a shrug.

Elsa frowned.  “How come you never told me?”

Golden eyes moved around from the fire to the ground to the tree line.  “I knew you already felt the people’s reverence to be a bit much. I didn’t want you to feel embarrassed and stop coming.”

“You were always very considerate of my anxieties,” Elsa murmured, slightly embarrassed how tender her voice sounded.

“You had a right to be there. And I wanted to see you,” Maren admitted, gaze settling on the ground between them, “It was selfish.” 

Oh, Honeymaren.

Before Elsa could even contemplate a response, the other woman uncrossed her arms and moved to stand up.

“I’ve kept you up too long. Get some rest,” Maren stated simply, brushing the dirt off her pants and walking across the camp to where the horses and Ryder were tied.

Elsa sighed, once again defeated in the wake of another one of the captain’s retreats. Hot and cold. Fire and ice. Maren’s moods seemed just as poetically and dramatically oppositional. Even the fabled Fifth Spirit didn’t know how to balance that anomaly of nature.


Maren finally decided she was firmly suspicious.  Three days in the woods, and all had been quiet. It was her plan after all, but she still expected something in the way of resistance.  In a few hours, they would be at their destination, and rather than feeling safer, she strangely felt they were running out of time.

The dread did not expire as they weaved between thinning trees, the rising sun easily breaking through. As their path kept sloping further and further down, fewer and fewer trees lined the way, until finally, she could see through the large gaps at the threshold of the woods.

They had reached Arne Valley.

The grand mountain ranges of the north immediately dominated the horizon with their impressive peaks and chilling grey presence. Insurmountable and deadly, the natural barricade loomed over Arendelle’s countryside.  Bluer mountains to the south offered more gentle, rolling slopes, adorned with trees and wildlife emerging in the afternoon light, much like their own party now did, blinking against the high sun. Overhead foliage was replaced with flowers and field as they weaved down to the flat, rolling plains of the valley proper.

To the western edge, the Agrap River was not a lazy, bumbling brook but a surging force that required passage via the grand Bridge of Eagles that spread the massive gap.  Melting snow from the mountains in the warm springtime air made the river strong, and based on Maren’s past trips, she knew they would soon hear the rushing water when they got close.

Fort Arne stood tall and mighty near the bridge as the regal protector. Unlike Halvor, Arne oozed significance and power as a proper fortress almost as big as the castle in the capital.  White limestone shined like a divine beacon against the rugged backdrop of the mountains.

Maren was partially dreading the involvement of the pretentious generals waiting there, but in the very least, Elsa would be safe. Fort Arne had fairly earned its nickname as the Shield of Arendelle; no enemy army had ever crossed the bridge.

“Wow.”

A voice interrupted Maren’s thoughts, and she turned to only briefly see Elsa’s look of sheer wonder before it dissolved to embarrassment.

“It’s bigger than I thought it would be,” she said with a sheepish smile, “The books didn't capture the scale of it.”

The captain’s own lips twitched as she tried to fight the urge to laugh.

By the Five, this woman was going to kill her with cuteness.

Their party began the steady march through the valley, a light wind at their backs in the vast, open field. Another hour or two of meandering walking on horseback, and they would find themselves at the keep.  Ryder’s massive head, antlers and all, kept turning longingly to the dandelions and weeds dotting the ground.

Then, like a choking breath, the breeze itself seemed to shudder.  Maren whipped her head around at the same time Elsa did, the only two that seemed to notice. The movement, however, alerted the others.

Despite the sun shining brightly at the crest of its daily arc, night fell upon the foothills to the south. At first glance, one would suspect a large cloud had blocked the sun to cast such darkness. But it continued to bleed across the luscious greens, now tainted black, dripping steadily down to the opposite side of the valley.

Death had arrived before them.

Such a hoard of Shadows had never before been witnessed. Maren’s mouth fell open at the sheer size. Hundreds upon hundreds of monsters were required for such magnitude. In the face of such strength, the end felt inevitable.  Choice had been an illusion. Such doom would have met them on any path, any field, any plan she had conjured.

Their peaceful journey was a trap. She was right to have been suspicious.

Maren hated being right. 

“To the fort!” she shouted, swiftly kicking Ryder and bolting forward.

Few precious minutes stood between them and annihilation. Perhaps if they could reach the fort, they could make a stand, hold them off.

Her fellow members of the Silver Battalion followed their orders, horses charging beside her, sights set on the grand castle. Sparkling blue too rushed beside them as Nokk’s clawed paws thundered alongside them. Elsa, however, was still looking over her shoulder at the approaching wave.

Maren narrowed her eyes, trying to clear the vision blurry with movement from riding her mount.

Oh, spirits, no.

Elsa twisted again, eyes darting between fort and foe.

No, no.

With the almost imperceptible turn of Elsa’s body, Nokk immediately heeded, arcing away from the group and turning around to race towards the oncoming darkness.

Damn! Damn her and her need to be the savior. 

“Don’t stop, ride hard,” the captain shouted, catching Alfen’s eye. The lieutenant gave a firm nod before Maren yanked the reins, peeling away and chasing after Elsa. She pushed Ryder to catch up with the spirits, each step bringing them closer to the inching nightmare across the vast valley. 

Her fate was tied to Elsa’s. If this was their path, she would follow.  She would give her final breath to protect the woman she loved.

“Go with them,” Elsa called out over their mounts pounding against the ground.

“No.”

“Maren!”

“I’m not losing you again!” she screamed into the wind whipping by them.

Elsa practically growled in frustration, and Nokk slid to a halt. Their rider threw her leg over and hopped to the grass.  As Maren stopped Ryder, the frozen wolf bolted away to the northwest.

“Where’s Nokk going?”

“To get help,” Elsa muttered, riding gloves crumpling apart into snow and falling to the ground.

Maren huffed. That was vague.

She leapt from the saddle and swatted the beast on his flank, sending him flying. He quickly turned around and charged towards the fort.

“Where’s he going?”

“To get help,” she mimicked sarcastically, pulling her bow from the quiver.  Just because she was stupid enough to die didn’t mean her reindeer had to.

Maren glanced down to the quiver at her hip. Thirty-three arrows. She had counted before they left Halvor.

Thirty three against a thousand. 

Quickly lacing one through her bow, she asked, “What’s the plan?”

Elsa untied the cloak at her neck, releasing it into the wind. The cape dissolved into flurries.

“I’ll focus on the group. You get any that slip through?” she replied hesitantly.

Maren took aim, staring at the approaching mass along the length of the arrow shaft.  They had a minute, maybe less. The captain then eyed the woman beside her from her peripheral.

Elsa took a deep breath.

A single finger quickly drew out a circle before she slammed the palm of her hand into the newly hardened disc. The creation cracked and flipped wildly through the air, rushing to the sky. The signature six-pointed figure remained as the crushed fragments fell away. Suddenly locked in place, towering above the approaching masses, the snowflake began to glow.  Rapid pulses of icicles shot out from its center, raining down huge spikes that blasted the Shadows with blue light. The few dozen that ran through the column were easily disposed of, but the massive wave continued plowing forward.

Maren glanced back to the woman next to her. They were going to need a little bit more juice. 

Elsa’s hands slapped together and fingers interlaced, an intense white light poking out from the joined digits. When she flayed her hands and spread them away, a glowing snowball levitated between them, still swelling and gaining mass. With a scooping motion, she lobbed it forward, propelling it a shocking distance across the field with such a simple toss. Despite the grass lacking any powder, the snowball rolled and bounced, getting bigger and bigger before a second ball popped off.

Both spheres rolled forward, growing and bouncing until they each rivaled the size of a cottage. Maren’s eyes went wide behind her drawn arrow as icy legs burst from the snow, continuing the charge forward. Arms followed and then heads and even claws and a roar from an unseen mouth.  The snowball giants leapt unflinchingly into the swarm of Shadows, swiping up clumps of the monsters scurrying by.

Anna had once told her about Marshmallow, Olaf’s brother of sorts. Elsa was extraordinary.

“Can you build an army?” she dared to ask.

“Too much energy at once,” Elsa grunted distractedly, arms already bending into the next spell.  She was grimacing from the focus.

A massive, spiked wall of ice, like a chipped and jagged chunk of glacier shot from the dirt, and for the briefest moment, they lost all visuals on the Shadows. Maren knew this would only stall them very briefly.

“Can you do a big storm again?”

“Like at the fjord?  I had the other spirits. And I lost control,” she muttered, whipping a bolt of white energy as black figures leapt over her wall.

They were close now. Maren loosed her arrow at one that popped above the wall, and it disappeared into mist. 

One down. Thirty-two.

Elsa had destroyed at least ten in the same span it took Maren to kill one. Flurries of hail and beams of magic practically leapt from her hands before another one instantly followed. Clouds of white dust puffed up as the front line advanced from the group tumbling over the wall.

It wasn’t enough. They kept coming.  Maren immediately notched another and shot it off. And another, and another. 

Black leached into the sky, and Maren shifted to fire an arrow before she realized it was not a jumping Shadow. A small sphere of dark energy quickly grew closer and closer as it moved towards them, an unnatural hum and vibration in the air growing louder.

After sensing quick movement beside her, an ice shard connected with the warbling orb, dissipating both with a poof.  Two more approached, and Maren ducked to the side. Ice enveloped Elsa’s arm, and she swatted them away like flies.

“Range attacks.  That’s new,” Maren intoned, firing another arrow.

“Looks familiar,” Elsa grimaced before rising narrow columns of ice to block more incoming blasts.

It looked too familiar.

They were learning how to attack at a distance from another master of magic. The dangerous implications could be discussed at a later time, if they survived.

Maren took a step back with each shot now as she reloaded. The woman beside her too was backing up as she practically danced, twirling to launch a blast then shuffling in a small retreat. A few more precious feet, a few more seconds for one last attack.

She could easily see the glowing eyes of the nightmares now.  They were upon them.

Maren tensed. And then, they pivoted, jerking towards the left and right, their immense force splitting in two.

Shit. Why did that seem worse?

She immediately turned with the tide, turning to the left as she was on Elsa’s left, leaving the right to the mercy of the other’s magic. If the Shadows truly wished to reach the fort, perhaps they could still delay them. Arrows picked off one or two, but they moved too fast. They would soon shoot past them to the castle.

They didn’t. They turned again. 

The Shadow hoard was circling them.  Maren cursed, pressing her back to Elsa’s, who’s whole body suddenly jerked with upwards momentum.  A huge barrier of ice shot up from the ground and encircled them, rounding off into a dome above their heads.

They weren’t here to launch an attack on the troops with Elsa in the way. They weren’t here as an enemy of Arendelle. They were here solely for Elsa.

Maren really, really hated when she was right.

They could hear pounding vibrations through the walls.  That trick had surely only bought them seconds with that many Shadows.

“Stick to the plan,” Maren instructed, assessing her quiver. Twelve left.

The ice started to crack.

Elsa glanced over her shoulder, voice shrill, “There’s too many, I could hurt you.”

The captain drew an arrow and aimed at a widening splinter on her side of the wall.

“Just blast. I’ll stay at your back.”

“Maren, I-”

“I trust you.”

Words caught in Elsa’s throat as the ice wall burst and darkness fell upon them.

Maren surrendered to instinct. Her body knew what to do after so many years of training and war. The blurs in her peripheral, the surges of adrenaline at a charging enemy, the lifesaving dodges before yet another was attacking…she could bend with the flow of battle, at least as well as a mortal could when facing Shadows.  Above all, she was attuned to the spirit behind her, dancing and spinning together though danger.

When Elsa turned, she moved with her, remaining back to back in order to face the incoming destruction all around them.  Magic sprung forward from Elsa’s fingertips to entrap or expire a group of Shadows before Maren swapped into position to stall the one or two that slipped through. In a game of sheer numbers, the enchantress certainly held the advantage, but the test of endurance meant the captain simply had to cover the other woman’s back just long enough between turns as they revolved around the roulette of darkness.

Ice and snow were starting to litter the area. Additional terrain gave them desperately needed milliseconds as the Shadows needed to bound around or above them. Maren shot an arrow as one popped from behind an icicle sticking from the ground, moving with Elsa’s turn to switch sides. The scene changed again, more ice, a shield of sorts constructed from a frozen wave, arched and twisted.

Maren kicked a loose chunk of ice, managing to dissolve the leg off a Shadow, sending it stumbling. An arrow quickly followed through its head.  Movement behind her suddenly felt more frantic. She whipped around to see Elsa’s arms flinging forward and unleashing a blast of white energy that splashed forward like water before hardening.  Shadows froze and shattered in its wake.

One jumped above the spray, projecting itself to the source. As Elsa gasped, Maren’s arrow pierced it.  Elsa’s look of gratitude only took a fraction of a second and quickly fell away as they both turned back to the void surrounding them.

Maren knew she was low on ammo.  As an arrow shot forth to puncture one enemy, she rolled forward to avoid the slicing arm of another. Snatching a fallen arrow in the process, she managed to shoot the attacking Shadow from her knee. With a twirl, she plucked another from the quiver, sending it flying with a twist back to Elsa’s side.

Her fingers gripped the feathered end of her last arrow much more tightly. Whipping her hand back from the quiver, she then punched forward, stabbing the silver tip into a Shadow almost on top of her. She immediately drew back as the misty form dissolved, shooting down another already bounding towards her.

“I’m out!” Maren shouted, lobbing her bow at an incoming knot of Shadows in a desperate act of annoyance. Simple wood, it phased through their swirling skin. 

“Duck!”

Blind faith sent Maren dropping to her knees.

Bolts of blue flashed above her head, sticking into the foggy black of dozens of Shadows before her. Their forms flashed into white snow around the ice arrows sticking from their chests.  In one second, Elsa had exterminated more than Maren’s whole quiver-worth had managed.

Magical arrows.  Showoff.

Silver blade flashed as Maren drew her sword, leaping up from the ground.  Both hands tightened on the hilt as she parried away the weaponized arms of their assailants.

From behind her, Elsa called out, “Finally!”

Maren heard a grunt and cold powder hit her cheek.  She glanced to see a large path of slick ice had cleared part of the way to the east.

More and more Shadows burst into thin air in the distance. Maren turned back to stab at one of the monsters charging her. When she glanced back, water was sliding across the grass and ice, like a rising tide or the calm remains of a surging wave having arrived at its maximum reach. 

After another swing of her sword, shallow water was lapping at her boots. 

A dozen of Nokk’s direwolves bounded across the valley, sloshing and glittering with fresh river water.  As they stepped upon the icy surface laid before them, Elsa’s magic immediately blossomed on their translucent forms, the opaque haze of hard ice spreading from their legs. Teeth and claws could now cut.

Reinforcements had arrived.

As they continued barreling towards them, some Shadows redirected to the new force, others still continued the previous assault. Maren managed to slash one into oblivion in the confusion.

“Hold tight,” Elsa shouted over as she whipped a spell in the other direction.

“What do-"

The wind was knocked from Maren’s lungs and the question left unfinished as something plowed into her. Her gut reaction was to try and grab at whatever she could with her free hand, still clinging to her sword in the other. Fingers gripped at something cold. She never fell, never hit the ground, and was still flying forward.

One of the Nokk wolves had crashed through the lines of Shadows with Maren now clinging to its icicle mane. With blinking recognition, the expert reindeer wrangler managed to swing her body properly atop the huge canine, clinging with her legs in the absence of a saddle. With impressive speed, this Nokk tore through Shadows with mighty bites as they passed.

Maren steeled herself and readied her sword. A Northuldran and a spirit fighting side by side was a force to be reckoned with.

“Alright, let’s show them how we do it back home.”

The Water entity barked below her and jumped into the air. They came down to pin a Shadow to the ground before chomping the head away from the body.  Maren easily skewered another enemy that tried to swipe at Nokk’s flanks. The duo darted off again, the highly intelligent mount expertly darting between groups of Shadows still coating the field in their massive force. Nokk swiftly lined the monsters up as easy targets for Maren’s blade and clean slices as they charged past.

Suddenly, a scream cut through the air and tore through Maren’s heart.

Elsa. 

The ice wolf skidded to a halt, and Maren whipped her head towards the sound echoing carrying across the field.  White energy surged in a massive column from the ground shooting up to the sky.  Clouds and hail whipped around violently in the vortex of an instant storm.

Below her, Nokk hunched over, seemingly in pain. A whimper sounded before the icy snout pointed to the sky and howled.

The light storm and scream abruptly died.

Maren desperately tried to urge Nokk to turn and return north.

“She needs help!”

Then she heard the giggle.

Maren’s short locks rustled in the breeze that passed them before a surge of wind practically slapped her in the face. She turned to see Shadows violently ripped from the ground.

“Get ‘em, Gale!” the Northuldran cheered, relief almost knocking her as hard as the initial fear.

Elsa had to be fine if more spirits were arriving. Right?

Leaves and petals kicked up from the ground as circling air suddenly strengthened into small tornados across the valley. Shadows were sucked into the swirling masses as they gathered speed before being promptly shot into the air with tall arcs.  Nokk launched across the grass as they flew like tossed and discarded toys.  With such force, Maren simply had to raise her blade for the Shadows to cut across them and disappear.

Water, Wind, and woman continued to barrel through the crowds growing more and more dispersed.  Everything was so much more chaotic now. Maren saw flashes of lightning strike down into the fray, the air buzzing with charge.  Another wolf dashed past them, ramming into their target. Maren thought she saw flashes of blue light, presumably from Elsa or perhaps fires starting from the lightning storm. She could barely focus on swiping at Shadows as Nokk propelled them forward through pockets of storms, tornados, and even hail. 

Black blasted from the left and into Nokk’s muzzle, sending shards of ice cutting into Maren’s cheek. Ignoring the small sting, her eyes narrows on the Shadow that had hurled the magic blast, now charging towards them.

Even headless, the Water spirit shuffled.  Maren expected Nokk to run. Instead, they turned and violently bucked, launching her screaming into the air.  A gust whipped across her body, shooting up from the ground to slow her speed before she fell hard against it.

She foggily saw the glass-like wolf disappear behind a mob of ravenous Shadows while her cheek was mashed against the dirt.  Maren swayed as she stood, trying to shake the spinning from her head and gain her bearings.  Her sword was barely raised in time as an enemy clashed their own blade-like arms against the metal.

Boots shuffled and staggered as she backpedaled, on the defensive. It was loud now; booming thunder and hurled magic from friends and foes made her whole being vibrate. So much was happening.

Maren yelped as the Shadow managed to slice her right arm, and her sword suddenly felt heavy as pain shot down the appendage. Her left hand gripped her forearm to muffle the hurt and stop the flowing blood already drenching her sleeve.

The monster drew back to strike again. Maren knew she wasn’t going to be fast enough.

A giant white claw crashed down into view, and the Shadow exploded. Maren dumbly looked up at her savior, one of Elsa’s huge snowmen. Half of its face had been crushed in since the start of the battle.

Shadows jumped and clung to the massive arms, digging in with their spiked hands. The living snow sculpture groaned and stumbled forward, sending Maren scrambling to avoid being smashed. She dived between its legs as the lumbering creature passed above her, shaking the earth.

More Shadows immediately were before her. Maren was clambering to her feet again, trying to get her blade upright and ready in time as her arm strung in protest.

Intense light flashed, crashing boomed, and Maren’s arm blocked her face as her eyes screwed shut. When she opened them again, fire quickly consumed the grass, Shadows already turned  black dust mixed with the smoke. The red flames from the lightning strike darkened to purple and rapidly spread. Heat made the air choking and thick.

Everything was happening so fast. Maren turned and began jogging away, only to jump back as a frenzy of Shadows exploded in her face. When the haze cleared, she saw what had killed them in their retreat.

A cyclone made of pure fire twisted and hurled towards her, its magnitude rivaling the height of Arendelle’s castle. Blue and purple flames scorched their path with no resistance.  Her skin already stung with a scalding sensation despite the sweat dripping from her brow mere moments before.

Maren anxiously twisted her head to either side, looking for an opening, but neither blue sky nor green grass beckoned to her. Black clouds, thick smoke, and walls of eerie purple flame surrounded her. No Nokk, no animated snowman, no spirit was in sight to save her.

She couldn’t outrun the blistering speed of the firestorm blazing her way.  There was no escape.

Maren closed her eyes to accept her fate, sword in hand.


“Hold tight.”

“What do-"

Elsa watched as one of Nokk’s wolves went shooting off into the distance, leaping over Shadows with a shouting Maren in tow.  She inhaled deeply, eyes narrowing at the incoming Shadows.  With Maren safely out of the way, she could blast away a bit more indiscriminately. Elsa had been conserving her energy since she exerted so much at the start of the battle.

As the pack of frozen Water spirits dispersed into the crowd, Elsa beckoned to the piles of remnant spells behind her, bidding the pieces of ice to animate forward. The white rocks flung to her, hovering in close proximity as they swirled around her body, some as small as her first and others as large as her head.  

When Shadows dove forward, their faux axes and blades clashed against the hunks.  With a simple tilt of the head, the ice plowed forward, pushing down the attacking Shadows before pulverising into more behind them.  She glanced over her shoulder, a blink shooting the remaining bits at the monsters charging from behind.

Facing back to the front, bleeding purples separated from the beasts’ inky forms, pulsating forward, shooting dark magical bolts her way at close range.  Ice immediately encased her skin, wrapping her arm to deflect a blast.  Her thigh and calf followed suit.  Their missiles bounced off as she enveloped her entire body in a solid block of ice. 

Elsa frowned at the cloudy ice blocking her face.  Not her best idea.  She willed the suit of cold armor forward, feeling the satisfying collisions as she slammed against the unseen targets. Her head rocked as she came to a jerking stop. Vibrations and the sounds of chipping told her multiple Shadows now wailed on the icy capsule.

She inhaled deeply through her nose, lungs full, chest tight. Then, she flooded her whole body with magic.  The suit shattered, exploding heavy chunks in every direction, taking out dozens of Shadows that had crowded around her.

More quickly replaced them, and Elsa twisted her ankle, adding a sharp, icicle heel to her boot.  With a sweeping, slicing  kick, one monster’s legs plopped into snow, sending the torso careening to the ground.  She turned from the weakened enemy, moving on to another.  Her mind’s eye clearly saw as one of Nokk’s wolves pounced and finished the job on the one she left behind with a chomp.

As she batted away one beside her, two Shadows vaulted into the air on track to collide.  Instead, the billowing black masses spun together, and the distorted mess fell heavily before Elsa.  Before she could discern limb or body, a club-like fist burst forward, making a direct impact upon her skull.  Grunting with recoil, she countered the surprise attack by shoving her fist into the rapidly forming torso, discharging ice inside.  Still not fully fused, the duo burst into a puff of snow.

However, the damage was done, and she stumbled as she turned to a new foe.  Her head throbbed, and her sight grew dizzy.

Colors were dingy and stale, the images blurry.  She was running with countless others.  Tired, so tired from days of marching.  So scared.

Reality slapped her awake, instinct raising her hand to blast away a lurching Shadow at the last moment.

Metal clashed against metal.  A glinting shield of one of her companions caught her eye with the tarnished golden sigil of Arendelle before blood splattered against it.

These memories weren’t hers.  What were they doing in her head? Her eyesight swam as she blocked another Shadow’s attempt to charge her.

She was going to die, she had to fight harder. Her country and her family were counting on her.  But she could barely raise her sword, she was so tired.

Elsa’s arm felt heavy as she raised an ice spike from the ground to pierce an oncoming enemy.

An enemy’s greatsword was turning upon her, steel raised high and heavy.

Frost blossomed from her feet, coating the grass.

The blade embedded in her chest.

She screamed.

Agony and pain.  Doubt and guilt.  They pulsed through her and exploded into the world in a blinding, excruciating rupture.  Infinite and absolute. It was everything, and it was pure terror.

There’s a river full of memory…

Then it was gone.  A cup emptied.  Her cry faded.  She opened her eyes to a giant circle of ice and blasted, preserved Shadows.  More were coming, but she stood with bated breath as the fog of her mind cleared.

Nokk flooded her consciousness with concern and questioning, and yet...

Another presence joined.  And another.

Doubt gave way to the freedom of wind.  Guilt melted against the passion for life.  Energy surged through her veins once more.

Gale and Bruni had returned.

Elsa immediately flung shards of ice into the air, and a gust of wind whipped from behind, snatching them with invisible hands.  The sheer force projected them widely into the sky before plummeting them down to impale a group of Shadows.

Better late than never.

Shadows beside her screeched as blue flames poured over them.  Elsa eagerly turned to see the newest arrival approaching her.

No longer the adorable salamander, Bruni was a large reptile not unlike the crocodiles of the Southern Isles or the monitor lizards of the outer dukedoms far to the east.  They certainly wouldn’t fit on her shoulder anymore.  Their periwinkle coloring had blossomed to an electric blue and two purple stripes decorated the length of their back.  Instead of a cute, little tongue, the appendage flashed long and forked as fire poured from their mouth, small but sharp teeth flashing in the light.  They proudly whipped their strong tail, flinging a Shadow away in the process.  Bruni then eyed her cockily, as if arrogant smiling was possible for a lizard.

She mentally scoffed at the ego radiating through their linked thoughts.  This Blue Dragon theme was out of control, but she had missed the playful spirit.

Hands wrapped around air, and a sphere of snow molded on the ground beneath her.  With a  violent twist, she kicked the snowball, launching it into a wave of Shadows, knocking them over in a line. 

Elsa pushed out with her mind, feeling Nokk’s water puppets moving across the field, very aware of the one that held and guarded Maren.  Gale soared around and above them, manipulating the natural harmony of the air; dark clouds were building.

“Let’s end this.”

With a nod, Bruni’s eyes began to glow purple along with the stripes on their back.  When they opened their jaws, magenta flame poured forward, gleaming purple and indigo as the fire danced on ignited crisis grass and set individual Shadows ablaze. Their black bodies crumpled into piles of soot.

Their enemies adjusted, trying to dodge the jettison of fire and moving to flank them. Elsa slid her foot in a wide arc on the ground, rapidly spreading permafrost on the dirt. Nearby Shadows found their lower limbs frozen upon contact, stopped in place. A simple toss of the flamethrower’s head sent the purple flare in their direction, burned to a crisp.

The spirits pressed forward, balancing the opposites of ice and fire. One to freeze attackers in place, the other to cremate them. Despite their stubby arms, Bruni moved just as inhumanly quick as Elsa and the Shadows. Thunder was rumbling in earnest now. The two newcomers had found themselves rich with energy after so long a sleep.

Elsa dipped deeper, pouring magic into a heavy push upwards, shooting a massive glacial fragment from the ground. Shadows easily bounded around it, but thankfully, this ice was not for them. 

Bruni’s fire engulfed the massive chunk, and water poured forth as the solid dissolved. They quickly redirected so as not to burn up the liquid, leaving a small pool on the field.  Nokk’s magic immediately rippled across the surface, spinning into multiple funnels.  The elongated sprouts slithered apart on the singed grass in the form of snakes.

Elsa smirked. That was better than another trip to the river. She flung her own magical essence towards them, hardening their bodies and hungry fangs to wreak havoc on what remained in the valley.

Darkness still closed in with ever haunting white eyes. The blackened sky lashed out with strikes of lightning. Elsa could feel Bruni pushing against the sparks of electricity, inciting heat and fire to spread on the greenery of the valley.  Red flame deepened to purple under their magic, and the terrain grew dangerous for the multitude of enemies still abound.

Nokk’s animations were weakening in the face of so many Shadows, but Maren was still with a wolf, the picture growing fuzzy in Elsa’s mind.  Fire spread and storms swirled faster.  The emotions that fed their powers were beginning to feel tangled and frayed, as if the invisible strings that united them were knotting.  Bruni’s ambition enraged too quickly, Gale’s snickering laughter was too easily tempted. Magic was free flowing.

They had to be careful.

Wind whipped her ponytail as one of spinning vortexes drew closer.  Elsa extended her hand and directed her palm at the tornado.  White mist glittered from her hand, easily sucked into the twister. Another breath from Bruni scorched enemies that drifted too close to her.

Magic to ice. The frost collected and hardened. The whirlwind whipped hail violently, not just pushing and pulling Shadows but piercing them with the sharp pellets. Elsa allowed the fusion of her and Gale’s creations a few brief seconds of life so that it could offer death to the terrible monsters they faced. Then, with the simple lowering of her hand, her ice stopped. The storm slowed. The air column collapsed and was no more. She could not risk leaving it unattended.

Bruni inhaled, his attacks paused as lungs of fire rekindled. The Shadows surrounding them surged forth at the opportunity.  Elsa’s left arm flew to cover Bruni as the brutes tried a volley of little black meteors. A round shield of sturdy ice cemented to her arm took the brunt of the force with ease.  When they stalked closer, a long rod of ice extended from Elsa’s right hand.  As she drew the weapon back, the cold crystal flattened and sharpened into a proper blade.

When she sliced down, it was like cutting through snow. The sword glided without contest clean through, and the black void turned white powder fell pathetically on the ground.  She was no expert, but she at least hit her targets with her hacking as they circled her.

Bruni exhaled, purple once again erupting across Elsa’s vision. It felt hot, even to the woman who never truly felt bothered by heat or cold.  To foe or mortal, it must have been beyond blood boiling.  She channeled more magic into the blade to avoid melting.  With a flourish and spin, she quickly cleaved a Shadow in half as hellfire consumed the rest nearby.

Maybe Maren wasn’t the only one that could handle a sword.

“Wait, where’s Maren?”  She couldn’t feel her presence with Nokk any longer.  Most of the animal puppets had been destroyed, and Nokk’s visibility was limited.

The outpouring of energy from Bruni in their collective consciousness hesitated, scrambling.  Frantic panic cut through her, through all of them.  Gale’s focus suddenly shifted, funneling magic to stop momentum, but it was too late.

Elsa turned instinctively with instant dread, knowing what she would see before her own eyes saw it.

A cyclone of pure fire.

Maren was going to die.

She was caught in the middle of their storm, just as Elsa had feared.  Flame had grown too strong and too large from the fueling air feeding it, flaring from almost nothing so quickly. Neither Bruni nor Gale could hope to stop the momentous inferno at its current size and speed.

Elsa charged across the valley, blasting away any Shadow that dared step into her path. She watched helplessly as the captain turned and faced the wall of death.

Maren was going to die.

Bruni and Gale struggled for control with no avail.  The Ice spirit threw her sword into the abyssal gut of a Shadow as she leapt forward. They chipped away at her shield as she flew past before it melted into nothing.

She had never felt such an oppressive heat, her body ached even moving towards it. There were still so many Shadows between her and Maren.

She watched in horror as a veil of flames closed completely, blocking her path. Maren was gone.

Maren was going to die.

“No!”

Elsa did not hesitate, diving right into the massive fireball, reaching out for the woman she loved.

White flashed in blinding light. Elsa screwed her eyes shut.  The deadly heat disappeared completely.

It was quiet.

Elsa opened her eyes.  Familiar bluish haze of thick ice surrounded her.  One hand was outstretched and pressed to the sloping wall.  She had sealed them in a bubble of ice, like two inhabitants of a snow globe.  The other arm was tightly wrapped around Maren’s waist, whose limp form was pressed against Elsa’s chest.  Foggy breaths intermingled between them in the intense cold and proximity of their icy sphere, including Elsa’s sigh of relief.  She could feel the captain’s rising chest press against her torso with each calm, slow inhale and exhale.

Maren’s beautiful face was a mere inch from hers, eyes shut in seemingly peaceful sleep.  Small cuts lined her cheek along with smoky smudges and grime from the flames.  Urgency of battle waned, but Elsa’s heart still raced.

Eyelids slowly slid open.  Maren still looked serene and content. Black pupils lazily focused on the face hovering above them.

Then, the woman draped in Elsa’s arm smiled.

“This is nice. I thought it would hurt more,” Maren whispered softly, hand reaching up to stroke Elsa’s cheek.

“What?” Elsa asked breathlessly, unable to stop herself from grinning as well.

She was soaring with giddy relief.  This was the woman she had left behind.  They were both alive and so, so close...

“Dying,” Maren hummed, her thumb brushing Elsa’s bottom lip.

Elsa leaned more deeply into the caress. “You’re not dead, silly.”

The hand froze stiffly in place, and the rest of Maren’s body rigidly followed suit.  Her head jerked back, suddenly taking in the opaque crystal that surrounded them.  After profusely blinking, she cleared her throat and moved to stand, bumping her shoulder against the ice in the tight space.

“Careful, let me.”

Warmth in her chest was easily transmuted into the magic at her fingertips.  The hand still placed against the ice shimmered as white light swirled into the surface like etched glass, spreading and twirling across the entire orb.  Glowing ice flurried into snow that drifted and melted away, dispelled by love.

Maren stood up properly now, wincing slightly before she wrapped her left hand around her right forearm.  Elsa moved to put a steading hand on her shoulder, but Maren suddenly looked horrified at the appendage.

“You’re hurt.”

Elsa frowned.  She felt fine.

Her eyes followed Maren’s and looked down, surprised to see her sleeves were gone, the magic melted, and angry red marks instead blotched across her skin.  She pulled the limb back and held it in front of her face.  The blisters looked rather intense, and yet, she felt only mildly sore.  As she inspected them, faint shimmering tendrils began to wrap and lick the skin.  Tingling and soothing, subtle frost now glistened on both her arms and hands, all without her instruction or command.

That seemed even more alarming.  She tore her eyes away; there were more immediate issues to worry about for now.

Her arms fell to her side.  “I’m alright.  Are you injured?”

Before Elsa could point at the blood on Maren’s uniform or the arm she was holding, the other woman’s eyebrows shot up in shock as she looked towards the field.

“By Ahtohallan ,” she muttered in disbelief, scanning the horizon.

Elsa turned around and too felt her eyes go wide.

Snow coated the entire field as far as the eye could see.  Even Elsa knew calling it a simple snowfall was beyond modesty and just horrifically incorrect.  Gale’s clouds and Bruni’s fires had been banished.  Blinding white and shining ice echoed the deadly winter she had set upon Arendelle once before, all condensed and powerfully packed into the valley.  Death had hailed upon the surface, and hundreds of figures stood frozen in time and space, hollow shadows of Shadows.

Elsa shivered.  She had left her fear unchecked at the thought of losing Maren.  They stood in the wake of her pure destruction.  The power frightened her.  And yet a pricking in her mind, like a needle, so small but sharp, thrilled in the prospect.  Alien and foreign, she pushed the sensation away.  Again, she would have to wait until later.

She swallowed hard before turning to the blue lizard that had poked its head out from the snow nearby, tongue hanging out in apparent bliss as steam rose from the Fire spirit tucked in the cold powder.

When annoyance flashed unchecked through her veins and through their shared senses, Bruni quickly snapped to attention, jumping out from the snow pile.  Snowflakes fluttered near the ground where Gale also hovered nearby.  She could feel their pouting like youngsters awaiting their reprimands and punishment from a parent.

Elsa sighed, trying to remain calm but firm, “We can’t lose control like that.  Ever.  That’s how people get hurt.”

Eager remorse loudly filled their mental space with bumbling, childlike apologies.  Elsa couldn’t remain upset with them for long.  Gale and Bruni were the most playful and youthful of the spirits, and their trickster methods were never intended to harm humans.  Even tranquil Nokk, lazily dozing in the river afar for now, was amused at their antics now in the face of scolding.

The Ice spirit shook her head with a smile before simply pointing to the woman standing behind her.  She glanced over her shoulder to see Maren still gripping her arm, mouth agape at the spirits.

Gale immediately blasted forward, ruffling Maren’s short hair and swirling down her form to her legs.  Bruni quickly came shuffling after, rubbing against the brunette’s legs like a cat.  Elsa rolled her eyes but still grinned at the trio.

“Welcome back,” the Northuldran quipped fondly, a small smile alighting her weary features as she looked down at the spirits now either chewing on her bootstrap or nudging around her empty sheath and quiver.

Elsa opened her mouth to jokingly ask Maren if she accepted their apology, but a roll of thunder sounded in its place.  She frowned, looking up, as she no longer spotted Gale’s storm clouds against the blue sky.  As the sound grew louder, she realized it came from behind her, not above her.

“Shit,” Maren groaned, no longer smiling.

Bruni scampered back to Elsa as the sound grew, and she turned north to face it.

Hundreds of riders on horseback charged from the direction of the fort towards the two women.  Blinding sunlight reflected off the shining, silver armor each soldier wore; the knights were impressively decorated and bore long lances.  Elsa could faintly make out the engraving of wings across their breastplates, and the front visor of their helmets mimicked eagle beaks.  The legendary cavalry of the valley did not disappoint as they approached with their sheer size and polish.  Flag bearers carried the standard of Arendelle whipping in the wind as they continued forward.

Maren cursed again as she picked up her sword from the ground and sheathed it.  Elsa glanced at her with a raised eyebrow.

“You’ll see,” she grumbled in response.

The leader of the pack called out to them, “Lady Elsa!”

When he stopped, the entire procession neatly halted with him.  A moment passed as the rider tried to hoist his leg over his mount’s neck and slither off his saddle.

Maren saluted as he stepped forward, breathing heavily from the ordeal of getting off his horse.  His cuirass appeared somewhat customized to accommodate a more pronounced and rotund figure.  The lifted visor revealed round, ruddy cheeks and an impressively large mustache.  His helmet was adorned with the unique plumage of eagle feathers. A gauntlet-covered hand gripped the hilt of his sheathed sword as he stood as straight as possible.

A nasally voice drawled, “General Berglund, at your service.”

Elsa recognized the name and offered a small nod. She had met with countless military officials in her lifetime, but if she recalled, he had held his position for some time and was always eager to let others know this prestigious fact.  Repeatedly, with much gusto.

“Your Highness,” he continued with a very histrionic bow, “You are most welcome to Fort Arne.”

A sea of lances shot into the air as the Arendellian cavalry saluted the princess in the traditional fashion for mounted soldiers.  She meekly smiled at the intense crowd.

Berglund remained bent for more than the standard sweeping bow. The seconds ticked by. Elsa glanced hesitantly at Maren and thought she saw the Northuldran’s eye twitch.

She cleared her throat, trying to dust off her more regal persona. 

“Thank you, General.”

“No, thank you,” he replied loudly, rising finally, “We certainly would not have easily survived an assault of that size without the Blue Dragon and her friends.”

Elsa bashfully bowed her head. Bruni was practically purring by her leg, proudly preening.

His voice grew even more high-pitched as he turned and gestured to the ranger standing to the side. “And Captain Maren, it would seem your reputation as the Queen’s Silver Hand was certainly earned.”

Elsa tried to mask her surprise.  That was a new title.  Maren was clearly more well-known in Arendelle than she had let on, even more so than just the leader of the humble and small Northuldra.

“Sir,” Maren bowed deeply at the compliment,” I have much to report, but my main objective is to return Her Highness to the capital, per Her Majesty's orders.”

The general waved his hand as if casting aside the comment.  “Yes, yes, that’ll do better with some refreshments, you must be exhausted.  Come along.”

With a whistle, a white horse with an empty saddle was brought forward from the ranks. Ryder the reindeer also popped his enormous head out from the crowd, eagerly trotting to his master.  As Maren patted his side, Elsa glanced down at the lizard lounging at her feet. Bruni yawned, settling further into the grass. They would stand watch and make sure no Shadows returned.

After they climbed the mounts and began to march back, the thrill of the fight completely evacuated her body.  They were safe. They were still alive.

Why did something still feel wrong?

Berglund said they must be exhausted and yet…exhausted wasn’t quite right.  She was tired, but some small, terrible part of her own soul still whispered for more.  They hadn’t scratched the surface of her maximum potential.  Her body and spirit could yet endure thousands more Shadows.  There was still so much anger pulsing through her, she could not fathom its origin or limits.  To feel no pain from her injuries, to have already surpassed what a mere mortal could survive...

Then there was the episode that had summoned Gale and Bruni; she had lost control and unleashed raw power.  Extremely worrying.  What parts of her mind were truly just hers?  What feelings?  And where did the foreign ones come from? What would happen the next time she lost control?

The Shadows had learned to cast limited magical spells at range.  Why did she do much of herself in these monsters? Was she the real monster, just as she had always feared?

She tried to bury her anger and unease.  Maren’s smile after the fire, on the other hand, had been a wonderful relief.  Perhaps that one simple fact could alleviate all the doubt and grief and uncertainty the rest of the world was offering her.

She glanced over to the captain riding her reindeer nearby, hoping to catch her eye.  When their gazes met, Maren turned her head to pointedly look away.

Elsa suddenly felt bitterly alone.


Fingers stretched and tightened against the bandages wrapped around Maren’s knuckles, testing her flexibility. The fort’s doctor had patched up a few burns and scraps, but she still had full mobility.  She rolled her shoulder, luckily feeling no stabs of pain from the tended cut on her arm.

She sighed, dropping her hand back to her side. Her injuries were the least of her worries.

Overlooking her embarrassing moment of weakness and the fact she had practically groped Elsa’s face, things were looking up.  Wind and Fire were back.  Elsa confirmed in a brief meeting in the war room that the spirits seemed to return when she unleashed large amounts of magic; they told her it woke them up like a loud noise from a deep slumber.  The tedious general and others in command were ecstatic. Even the Northuldran felt a glimmer of hope with their magicks returning.

However, Elsa had been biting her lip the whole time, eagerly disappearing to the room they had offered her to rest.

So Maren was worried.

She climbed the stone stairs to the sleeping quarters reserved for the high-ranking officers and noteworthy guests.  Fort Arne was large and grandiose enough to expect important people and ensure they at least had minor comforts.  A carpet of deep red muffled the sound of her steps, a single brazier flickering against the darkness of the hallway.  Tiny windows offered little light now that the sun had set.

Pausing before a door, she raised her hand and knocked with two short taps against the wood.

She waited.  There was no response, verbal or otherwise.  Maren again sighed and gingerly opened the door.

Her heart almost leapt across the room.

The curtains had been pulled back, and moonlight flooded into the room from the large window on the opposite wall from the door. Under the soft glow, draped in ethereal white, Elsa’s silhouette sat on the edge of the bed, back to where Maren stood. A light blue nightgown shimmered on her frame, long sleeves and skirt leaving only the princess’s neck visible to the newcomer. Blonde locks feel down across one shoulder, draped unseen to the front.

Maren swallowed, trying to steady herself against the bewitching sight.

“The doctor said you refused help.”

A beat passed before she heard, “I’m fine.”

A lie.  Maren looked down at the ground.  Maybe it was for the best to start putting space between them. Maybe Elsa was starting to see she wasn’t a good choice to keep around. It would certainly make things easier once they arrived at the capital, and Maren would leave. 

And yet she knew it was a lie. She knew Elsa, and Elsa was hurting.

Maren stepped into the room and gently closed the door.  The only sound she made was the tapping of her boots on the wooden floor as she made her way to the bed.  She slowly sat on the edge closest to the door, ensuring there was plenty of space between her and the woman on the other side.

She softly asked, “Do you trust me?”

Elsa’s head finally turned towards her to look over her shoulder; Maren could see her eyes were puffy and red from tears.  Pitiful, yes, but the color difference only made the cerulean of her eyes shine even more brightly.  She was still hauntingly beautiful.

Those eyes were assessing her. Maren simply sat and waited.  She learned long ago tending to wounded animals, one simply needed to be patient.  Despite whatever internal battle raged within the other woman, after a moment, a pale hand extended across the bed.

Maren’s thumb brushed against knuckles as she took the hand into her own. Elsa’s skin was cool to the touch. She had missed the unique sensation, and guilt immediately flooded her chest at the realization. Burying her shame, she gently turned the limb, finding no cuts, no blisters.

She paused, and glanced back at the blonde. Elsa did not meet her eye, but she still offered a tiny nod.

Maren’s fingers slowly and delicately pushed back the sleeves of the gown, revealing smooth and flawless skin.  She couldn’t stop her sharp intake of breath at the shock of what she saw.

“You were covered in burns,” she murmured in disbelief, “I saw it.”

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Elsa frantically choked out, pulling her hand away, “The headaches are back, like last time.  I see things and hear things that aren’t my own thoughts or that of the spirits.  My emotions are out of control. There are times I suddenly feel so angry and scared, I might burst. And I don’t even know if those are my feelings or someone else’s.”

She was shaking, hands clenched tightly on her lap, struggling to contain the hitches in breathing.

Maren tried to keep her features neutral and voice calm. She should have checked her surprise before. Elsa needed confidence.

“Fear is normal when we don’t understand something.  But this?” Maren gestured towards Elsa’s hands, “I wouldn’t be too afraid of something that’s helping keep you alive.”

Elsa released the stressed fists, looking down at her open palms.

With a shaky breath, she replied, “I thought we knew everything already.  That I could finally have peace and a home and a life.”

“You’ll be home at the castle soon.”

“No.  Not Arendelle,” Elsa stated firmly, looking up to Maren with a hard expression, “Northuldra, the forest.”

Home. 

Elsa had been one of them. Not just by her mother’s blood, not just because she was a spirit. Elsa was the most loving, caring person Maren had ever met. She adored every single person in the village, and they adored her.  By the fires, in the fields, near the rivers, she lived with them and helped them as not just nature’s bridge, but as a genuinely kindhearted person. Even when she was overwhelmed or uncertain, the shy and sweet Elsa still never stopped trying for them. 

When Elsa had disappeared, Northuldra was no longer home. Maren had no home.  She was a pathetic and terrible leader.  She had run away from the memories of happiness replaced by the haunting dead. Yelana, her brother, their people, and for five years, Elsa…

Elsa deserved a future full of love and happiness, without her, without a coward and a murderer.

She was too ashamed to even admit that to her.

“Northuldra has always been the home of the spirits.  You belong there,” she simply said.

Elsa’s lip began to tremble, her voice shrill. “Is that all I am? Ice, the Fifth Spirit?”

The captain looked anywhere but the eyes with tears threatening to overflow.

“Sometimes we become what the world needs, not what we want,” she muttered.

Hunching forward to the edge, she moved to stand from the bed. Hands reached out and caught her arm, stopping her in place. 

“Please, don’t go,” Elsa sobbed, crying now in earnest, “I’m so sorry, I just-“

Her voice halted, cut off by the weeping she could no longer contain.  Her body slumped against the other woman, head falling to the Northuldran’s shoulder.

Maren hesitated briefly, as if frozen. Then, she gingerly placed her arm around Elsa’s quivering, crying form, rubbing her hand against her back as she held her.

“Let it out.”

She wasn’t strong enough to deny the woman she loved.  She was still a coward.

Chapter Text

Maren was gone when she woke up.  Elsa did not see her again until they set out on the road, across the bridge, for the city and Arendelle proper.  The captain’s reindeer would occasionally catch her eye in contrast to the knights on horseback, but she did not approach.  Elsa certainly didn’t blame her for keeping her distance.  She had literally thrown herself at the woman. Then she had cried so much, she had fallen dead asleep.

Elsa wasn’t sure which was more embarrassingly mortifying.

She tried not to outwardly cringe at her behavior from Nokk’s back.  The Water spirit had assumed a more traditional form, presenting as their signature horse.  Comfort radiated between them, trying to wash away the residual humiliation at her own actions.  Not that anyone noticed her twitching and sighing.  Their escort was a full regimen now, and added people and protection meant Elsa was now no longer enjoying the simple company of the rangers. On the contrary, she enjoyed no company now. These people respected rank and left the former royal socially isolated despite surrounding her on all sides as they marched.

Bruni and Gale, after some internal plotting between the spirits, had set off separately for Northuldra.  They all wished to be home, and Elsa did not have the heart or desire to stop them.  Knowing they would help protect the forest from those horrible Shadows gave her some peace.

Maren did not speak to her until the second day, when the paths grew wider, the number of small villages and homes grew more frequent, and the knot in Elsa’s stomach steadily grew tighter. They would be at the capital within the hour.

When Ryder and his master trotted nearby, Maren’s tone was neutral; Elsa tried to embody the coolness of ice lest it be obvious she was still mortified at her actions from their previous encounter.

She was failing.

“You probably know, but we’re almost there.”

As far as conversations and etiquette went, Elsa recognized the peace offering of sorts. 

“Luckily the roads still look mostly the same,” she reasoned with a smirk before looking at Maren, “Thank you though.”

Maren nodded, eyes fixed ahead.  “It should be quiet. Your sister will be surprised, but that seemed safest.”

“I understand. I’m excited to see her.”

“She’ll be happy too.”

Their eyes met.  Elsa thought she saw the hints of a smile. 

Maybe Maren didn’t hate her.  At least for today.

Elsa maintained eye contact as she coyly commented, “I suppose her Silver Hand would know.”

Maren snorted and shook her head. “Stupid title. Just means I’m in charge of the fools that got good at killing Shadows and whatever else was deemed too ‘unique’ for your typical soldiers,” she explained rolling her eyes, “Arcane advisor is how the queen pitched it.”

As exasperated as the captain acted, Elsa found her eyes drawn to Maren’s glittering eyes and curling lips.  It was pitiful, really, how quickly she clung to the moments of warmth and familiarity, how eagerly her heart began to pulse.

“What other unique title introductions did I miss?”

“Olaf’s honorary stewardship is pretty good,” Maren surmised with a twitching smile, “I still think I have some of the silliest, for example-”

Her voice immediately died as she looked forward past her steed’s horns.

“Damnit.”

“What?” Elsa asked, glancing ahead. She could see the city’s gates in the distance. Exciting, yes, but no cause for alarm.  Riders, clearly in Arendelle’s livery, were on the way to intercept them.

“That’s an honor guard. A well-prepared honor guard,” Maren hissed through gritted teeth.

Elsa looked once more, seeing the decorated uniform of the riders.  “Is that bad?”

“It means they sent word to the capital you were coming, after I specifically asked them not to,” she groaned, “Berglund is such a bastard.”

“Why is that a problem?”

Maren’s mouth began to move but no answer came. After some hesitation, she did not answer, and her glaring gaze remained transfixed forward.

Then Elsa heard it.

Screams on the wind.

What was it?

They were still so far away. For the sound to travel that distance, it would need to be incredibly loud. Practically every citizen in Arendelle would need to be shouting in the street to make that level of noise.

Oh.

With recognition came the subsequent embarrassment and dread.

“A crowd is the last thing you need.”

The words were so solemn and gentle, muffled by the hoofbeats that surrounded them. When Elsa looked over to their speaker, she noted the grimace and furrowed brow. Maren still kept her gaze locked forward.

Annoyed and angry, all for Elsa’s sake. All to save her from her silly fear of the public eye.

Elsa still had so many questions about Maren's distant moods. An unknown, mysterious lover haunted her nightmares with the assumption Maren had moved on. Fear choked her as she wondered, perhaps even a more terrible fate, if Maren simply no longer loved her, if she had at all.  Maybe she only did this in service to Anna. Elsa was a mission, nothing more.

And yet…Honeymaren was still looking out for her, always protecting her. She had been willing to die at the hands of a thousand Shadows for her. The necklace tucked beneath her shirt was pressed against her chest now swelling with desperation for this woman.

“Thank you,” Elsa said softly, “I’ll be alright. But thank you.”

I love you , she so badly wanted to shout.  But even if she wasn’t terrified of the response, this was not the time nor the place.

Amber eyes looked at her. Maren nodded.  Elsa tried to remember to keep breathing.

Commotion escalated around them. The shouts from Arendelle were louder.  With a deep breath, Elsa readied her mask, buried her feelings. Her pathetic and pining love life would have to come later.

They were upon the city gates.

Like a direct strike of lightning, the moment the barricade was pulled back, the deafening, thunderous eruption that followed seemed to shake Elsa’s skull and body.  The royal guard led the way through the entrance, the knights of Arne receding to follow Maren and Elsa still sandwiched in the middle. 

The city was bursting, bodies leaching from every alley, doorway, and street.  Not even this many people had been present for Elsa’s coronation, and foreign nations had poured in even for that event. Her mind struggled to mathematically explain the surging crowds screaming before her, chanting her name. Wartime industry booms? Evacuation of secluded villages? Certainly they were not all present for just her?

Flags of green and purple bearing the golden crocus dangled from the windows of houses or waved above the heads of eager citizens. Dashes of electric blue caught Elsa’s eye, and she recognized the sigil of the dragon from the Geirr .  She gulped. Her sigil.

It was almost more embarrassing than her coronation. Almost.

Then she saw the statue.  Elsa was openly gaping now.

Magnus had mentioned there was a statue of her, but she had formed no expectations when they had been in the middle of the ocean. Now that she was here, now that it was before her, she was absolutely bewildered. 

It was massive, demanding immediate attention the moment one entered the city gates. Taller than the nearest homes and shop buildings, its presence towered above the innocent bystander.  Elsa’s marble twin stood, or rather, twirled in place. The artist had expertly manipulated the white material to show the wrinkled and draped fabric delicately stretching in some places. The curve of her body indicated a moment of action frozen in time, hand extended to the viewer with a snowflake balanced in her palm.  A serpentine, scaly dragon twisted around her, the fierce head glaring over her shoulder, mouth agape, teeth brandished.  Sculpted waves framed them both, as if any further flourish was needed.

The bottom pedestal read The Blue Dragon, Hero of the Siege of the Fjord .

Elsa frowned as they passed the statue.  “That’s…excessive.”

“The queen made you the greatest martyr in history.  A national hero,” Maren intoned before muttering with a hint of annoyance, “I’m sure this parade of sorts was all her idea as well.”

Elsa turned again, narrowing her eyes at the sculpture.

“But are my hips really that wide?” The question escaped her lips before she could stop herself.

When she glanced back, Maren had turned the other direction, her face and reaction hidden. Elsa hoped she hadn’t heard the inquiry and was merely distracted with something else.  Nokk, on the other hand, seemed rather pleased with their artistic representation as they cantered forward.

People continued to joyfully shout as they continued by, more flags, more streamers, more everything. Elsa tried to permanently affix a polite grin to her face, taking time to sweep her eyes across the crowds. Her duty as royalty never truly ended, but at least all she had to do was wave.

Another statue, a bit more modest, greeted them as they passed through the town center near the market. Elsa had seen this one before. Anna had installed the artwork on her coronation a few months ago, or rather, five years and a few months ago. A young girl and boy facing the world hand in hand. Northuldra and Arendelle together.

Their mother and father.  Elsa truly smiled this time as she admired the masonry.

Come my darling homeward bound.

Her pulse quickened as she looked up to see the long bridge leading to the castle. Anna was waiting for her. Would she be relieved as Maren had predicted? Would she detest her for having left for so long?

What if time had stolen too much from them?

It was such a blur.  The noise of the crowds. The doors opening and butlers and more guards rushing forward.  They all bowed to her with exclamations of ‘Highness!’ in a chorus. 

The doors slamming, the castle sucking them in, the screaming and shouting shut out and silenced.  The scenery passed by too quickly.  Walls she had seen since she grew up. Portraits she had memorized long ago, seemingly untouched.  Servants continued to corral them forward, leading the way to the audience chamber. Elsa nervously looked over her shoulder, checking to ensure Maren was still there. The brunette nodded.

Bodies bowed, hands gestured to the entryway. As the duo stepped into the chamber, doors slammed shut behind them.

Then it was suddenly still. It was silent.

Each hesitant step forward heavily echoed in the large room, shattering the quiet before it anxiously returned. Elsa held her breath for fear of making too much noise as she inched forward to the center of the room.

The throne was empty.  Eyes anxiously flew across the empty space. All the doors were shut, likely with guards behind them.  All the rushing, and now they were to wait.  Maren crossed her arms and seemed to settle in place calmly.

Elsa was about to burst.

“What if you’re wrong? What if everything is different?” she dared to whisper.

She turned to face the woman beside her. Maren silently regarded her and her question before her eyes floated around the room.

She then quoted quietly, “‘An act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.’”

Of course she knew the story, everyone did.

“That was so long ago.”

“Love like that never goes away,” Maren murmured more to the floor than her.

Elsa felt the hot shame flash through her veins. Her sister was alive. Maren’s brother was not.

“I’m sorry, I’m being quite selfish.”

She expected Maren to merely nod or shrug her off like last time.  Instead she received a confused tilt of the head.

Elsa clarified, “My sibling is still alive. I should be thankful. I am. I just…” she paused, sighing when she couldn’t find the words, “that was rude of me.”

“I wasn’t thinking of Ryder,” Maren said slowly, eyes still sweeping the room as if checking her voice would not break something in the stillness.

Elsa held her breath, waiting. Waiting for Anna. Waiting for Maren to explain away all the uncertainty. Waiting for love.  Waiting for time to continue forward. Waiting, always waiting, for something she couldn’t name or fully understand.

Soreness seeped into her skull. She shuddered.

“You’re here!”

The shout and echo made Elsa jump, whipping her head to the source of the sudden sound.  Steps tapped loudly in the huge room as the new arrivals made their way across the floor.

Anna!

Amidst a handful of advisors, scribes, and personnel, the queen of Arendelle had finally arrived. Elsa’s eyes went wide at the sight of her dear sister.

Anna’s outfit was a copy of their father’s, the embellished military jacket and trousers with regal flair and medals referencing their heraldry reserved for the royal family.  However, rather than just the lining and fancy epaulettes delicately introducing a brassy accent, the entire outfit was coated in the blinding, glittering metallic hue.  It was like staring into the sun. Her hair was twisted in one large braid that ran the length of her back, and even her copper locks had yellow ribbons interwoven with them.  Most daunting of all was the gold eyepatch covering her left eye.

“Anna,” Elsa stammered in shock, “Your Majesty.”

She offered a small courtesy, but Anna quickly waved her to stand.

“Oh, Elsa.”

The second Anna’s arms embraced her, relief rocked through her entire body. Her sister hugged her tightly. Her sister who had always swore to be by her side as long as Elsa let her.

When they parted, she gripped her sibling’s shoulders and held her at arm's length. She wasn’t ready to let go.

She certainly wondered about her outfit.  “You look different.”

“Is it a good different?” Anna asked with a smirk.

Elsa recognized the words alluding to their first reunion.  Anna seemed so young then, in her memory, compared to the eccentric woman of regal bearing that stood before her.

But the smile from her past was still there now. She was alive and strong.

This was her Anna. She was wrong to have been so nervous.

“Very good,” Elsa choked slightly, blinking back tears.

“You haven’t aged at all,” she exclaimed before wiggling her eyebrows, “I guess I’m the older sister now.”

“Never.”

As they fully stepped back from their embrace, the queen turned to the woman standing at attention.

“Colonel.”

Maren’s countenance wrinkled in confusion.

 “Yes, you.”

“Your Majesty?”

Anna chuckled as she explained, “You found her and brought her home. You don’t think that deserves a hefty promotion?”

Golden eyes glanced between the two sisters before settling on the ground.  She bowed her head to her queen.

“She found me, Your Majesty.”

“Then good thing we kept you around,” Anna drawled playfully.

Elsa hoped to catch Maren’s eye once more, but the Northuldra’s posture remained formal, sight fixated on the ground.

An abrupt and dramatic cough echoed across the chamber from one of the corner entrances.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Anna turned and whispered to Elsa, “He asked me to summon him so you’d be surprised he’s a ranked official now.” 

She then pointedly turned to the source of the sound, cleared her throat, and called out, “Steward!”

A white snowman immediately appeared from behind one of the columns, hobbling towards them excitedly.

“Olaf!” Elsa cried out, kneeling down and opening her arms wide. He immediately accepted her offer, jumping into the embrace.

“We missed you!” Olaf sang loudly as they hugged.  He then muttered into Elsa’s ear, “You have no idea how hard it's been being the only sane one around here.”

She giggled, depositing him back on the ground and patting his head.

“I’m proud of you.”

He beamed.

As Elsa stood back up, Anna declared to their small gathering, “I think a celebration for all of Arendelle is in order.  The Blue Dragon has returned.  We should have it right away. Tomorrow night?”

“Oh! I love a party!” Olaf cheered. The other members of the castle’s staff began to eagerly scrawl our notes on their parchment.

The Blue Dragon, however, hesitantly commented, “That’s really not necessary.”

“But it is!” Anna countered excitedly, “The people, the world, need to know you’re back.  Talk about a morale boost.”  Her entourage was still hastily writing as she spoke.

There was no commanding tone, but Elsa realized the implication. This wasn’t a welcome party her sister wanted to throw on her behalf.  This was the will of a queen for her people. Elsa knew of the unspoken responsibility and conceded.  The welcome parade, a party. She was a symbol now, just as she was long ago.

“If you think it’ll help.”

“I know it will.  Come on, let’s get some tea and catch up,” Anna confidently grabbed Elsa’s hand, beginning to walk away before calling over her shoulder, “Colonel, I trust you’ll check in with the generals to fill them in on anything missing in Berglund’s messages and standby in the meantime.”

Elsa allowed herself to be dragged along towards one of the exits, but not without turning to look back at the woman who had brought her all this way.

Maren was bent forward in the proper bow one was expected to offer royalty as they departed, eyes and face respectfully downcast. 

Elsa thought she saw a drop of water fall to the floor.

She blinked. There was nothing.  The soldier rose as they further retreated, and she saw a brief smile as Olaf began to speak with her. 

Elsa returned to facing forward, continuing to follow Anna as she pulled her along. Perhaps it was just a shadow in the light.  Maren crying seemed impossible after all she had seen the fighter endure. Elsa knew she must be tired after the day’s journey and excitement to even imagine something so ridiculous.

She followed Anna to one of the numerous sitting rooms available in the castle. While her sister appeared to have undergone some makeovers, she found the decor and general ambiance of the castle further in still unchanged.  The furniture, while ornate and much too formal for her personal preference, was a welcome, comforting sight.  They settled on a sofa together.

It was silent as a servant poured their tea. 

Elsa found herself trying very hard to not look at her sister’s face, afraid it would appear as if she was staring at the golden patch over her eye. And yet the social standard was to look one in the eye when speaking. She awkwardly darted her eyes around the room, to her sister, to the chair. Maren had told her some of what she missed, but clearly not everything.

Where did one start after five years?

As the servant departed, Anna picked up her tea cup and reclined back into the couch.  After taking a sip, with a knowing smile, she said, “You might as well ask.”

Elsa sighed in relief. She was silly, this was still her sister, her best friend.

With a sheepish grin, she asked, “What happened to your eye?”

“A stray arrow shattered against a stone wall near me, and the splinters ricocheted right in.”

“Ow.”

“I know,” Anna gushed before shrugging, “Now, if I’m near a fight, I charge into it. Too risky to just standby.”

Elsa glanced down at the glimmering fabric. “I guess that explains the uniform.”

“It’s all about image, right? Hard to look like a dainty, kind princess now, so the extravagant queen of battle is a better sell,” Anna reasoned before taking another sip of tea.

“Remember when you thought the politics of the job were boring?” Elsa quipped, picking up her own cup.

Anna laughed, “They’re still dreadfully boring.  But at least I know how to use them now.”

She was so confident and in control. Anna always had the wits and passion, but seeing her so skillfully at ease made Elsa feel proud. Anna had navigated one of the biggest wars in history since their grandfather all without her.

She had done a lot without her…

“I heard about the baby,” Elsa mumbled, staring down at the teacup left untouched and resting on her lap, “I’m so sorry.”

If her sister was surprised at the conversation shift, she didn’t show it.

“Don’t be.  What kind of mother could I possibly be anyway with my attention on a war?”

Elsa replied softly, “I always thought you’d make a great mom.”

“That was before,” Anna stated simply before reaching out to touch Elsa’s arm with a smile, “But thank you.”

The eldest sister deeply admired the younger’s strength. Anna had to be so strong without her.  She tried to push the sadness welling in her chest deeper down.

Elsa set her tea back on the table before grabbing Anna’s comforting hand and switching topics again. “Is Kristoff well?”

“He likes staying busy.  It’s easier now when there’s always something to do.  He’s away meeting with some of the dukes for some critical funding.  But he’ll be back in time for the party tomorrow night,” she squeezed Elsa’s hand with a smile, “He’ll be happy to see you.”

Her sister was so calm, smiling this whole time. Her best friend was too kind, too forgiving.

Elsa swallowed hard, trying to choke out the one thing she had been waiting to say since the day she woke up.

“Anna, I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you.”

Confusion flashed across the queen’s face, who promptly deposited her cup back to the tray before fully turning to her sister beside her, joining both their hands together.

“But you were. Arendelle would’ve fallen that day. You gave me time. And you came back,” Anna explained, voice gentle, thumbs rubbing Elsa’s hands.

“I still don’t know what happened, or how,” she rasped frantically, feeling the threat of tears.

“We can figure it out together. We can fight together now.”

Without question or hesitation, Elsa found herself in her sister’s full embrace, tucked safely in her arms, and began sobbing freely for the second time in only three days.  Anna’s hands rubbed her back, slowly rocking.

Time slowed. She cried until there was nothing left.

Her voice was shaky when she finally emerged. “I’m sorry.”

“Seriously? I’m banning you from apologizing. Official royal decree.”

A laugh bubbled past the remnants of tears.  Elsa calmed her breathing, shaking her head, wiping away the last drops of moisture from her cheeks.

“I don’t know what came over me.”

“Five years’ worth of survivor’s guilt catching up with you, probably. Now that I’m technically older than you, wiser, and even been queen longer than you were, let me offer some sisterly advice,” Anna teased, leaning back from their hug. Her hand returned to firmly gripping Elsa’s.

“Don’t pity us. You disappearing wasn’t your fault. You coming back home, still fighting, that is a choice you consciously made.  And I think it’s a rather good choice,” Anna surmised with a warm smile, “The people that love you are happy you’re back. Purely happy. And we haven’t had something like that in a long time.”

“Honeyma-” Elsa stopped, adjusting with a huff, “Maren might feel otherwise.”

Anna rolled her eye, patting Elsa’s hand before she leaned forward to snag her tea once more.

“We’ve all been gloomy for a while, it might take some longer than others to remember how to be happy again. Plus, she’s been looking for you for so long, she’s probably stumped what to do now that you’re back,” the queen snickered as she brought the cup to her lips.

“What?”

“She didn’t tell you? Of course not,” was the signed response, “She asked me to go.  She only joined the Army so she could go off into the world and look for you. Staying in that village wasn’t going to cut it.”

Elsa’s lungs tightened, struggling. Maren had been looking for her? Left home and put herself in such danger, for her?

Anna continued, “Damn smart and an amazing fighter, she conquered anything I demanded her to, but it was all to find clues, interrogate the enemy if they had captured you, spot signs of magic that would lead us to you,” she paused, leaning to bump her sister’s shoulder with her own, “In moments of weakness, I doubted if you were alive. But never her.” 

Elsa wanted to cry again. She was so relieved. Maybe there was still hope.

“I assumed she had found someone else or changed her mind,” she admitted, looking bashfully to the other woman.

Anna chuckled, “Nope.  Maybe she thought I’d have her beheaded if she gave up on my sister.” 

When she noticed the look of horror on Elsa’s face, she swatted at her sibling’s arm.

“Kidding! Comes back from the dead twice and can’t take a joke. Or tell another girl about a crush,” she grumbled before coyly smirking over the rim of her cup, “You haven’t changed at all.”

Elsa felt her mouth curl upwards. She had missed this so much.

“You’ve changed a bit. But you’re still always going to be my little baby sister.”

“Baby?” Anna admonished, feigning hurt with a hand over her chest, “Remind me to have your statue knocked down.”

“No, it’s growing on me, the Blue Dragon thing. You and your propaganda team picked a good name,” Elsa laughed, picking up her tea cup once more. This time, she actually took a sip.

“Olaf had lists of names before we decided. You were almost the Porcelain Swan,” Anna crooned, devious smirk in place.

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes.”


Maren straightened the pins on her blouse for the fourth time.  She was strongly resisting tugging at the collar again, instead pulling the white gloves tight on her fingers. The dress uniform never fit quite right despite being almost identical to the field version, except with extra flourishes of purple and small gold accents.

She peered between the curtains that separated the darkened hallway where she stood and the grand ballroom buzzing with people. Even with only a day’s notice, almost every citizen was desperate to infiltrate the castle, maybe knock elbows with the queen or Blue Dragon. The entryway near her met an impressive staircase that the royal family and guests of high honor used for their dramatic entrances.  A black suit partially blocked her view; the herald in charge of announcing everyone was standing by for the final, and most important, introductions.

Maren retreated back to the darkness.  She fumbled with the pins a fifth time. 

“The new metals look nice,” a calm voice drifted down the hall.

The newly promoted colonel immediately bowed at the voice. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Anna was too fixing the finishing touches on her outfit as she approached. The brilliant crimson red of her gown seemed bright even in the dim lighting. Her signature style of huge skirts billowed out like flames; the crinoline had surged in popularity in the past few years thanks to the queen’s personal interests in fashion. In keeping with the laws limiting personal silver to support the war effort, her jewelry was all gold and rubies:  Bracers for her wrists, large pendants dripping from her neck, a crown embedded in a blaze of ginger curls (that one could assume had taken hours at the hands of multiple hairdressers to complete). She even had gold spaulders mounted on her shoulders. Her eyepatch was lined with garnets.

Maren tried not to scoff at the forced metaphors of the fires of war.  Even she had to admit, Anna knew how to appeal to her people, and they would eat up the imagery of the chic, battle-hardened queen.

“I got the gist of your adventures from the war council, we’ll talk more tomorrow morning about the details,” Anna mentioned half-heartedly as she attached a ruby earring the size of a plum to her ear lobe.

Maren remained at attention and merely nodded. She hadn’t seen either of the sisters since they first arrived back to Arendelle yesterday.

The visual of Elsa walking away from her had been looping continuously in her mind since then.

“Good turnout?” the queen asked, nodding to the curtain while she affixed the earring’s partner.

Another nod. Maren frowned as she craned her head to peek between the gap in the velvet fabric.  So many people, all for Elsa.

As she turned back, Maren simply stated, “She’ll be anxious.”

Anna paused briefly in the act of adding a ring to her finger, glanced at Maren, then continued with her jewelry.

“We learned our duty at a young age. She knows this one night means critical funding and support,” she intoned, inspecting her hand, “Thankfully, she’s smart, and kind enough to forgive me for using her.”

Anna’s hands moved to rest on her heavily accented hips as she now pointedly stared at Maren.

“Kind of like how she’ll forgive you for giving her the cold shoulder,” she drawled with a raised eyebrow.

Maren looked guiltily down at her boots. “Not all of us should be forgiven.”

Duty.  How many had she killed in the name of duty?

Anna’s voice softened as she replied, “You’ve given everything for her.”

“She deserves more.”

“She wants you .”

If Elsa really knew of Maren the murderer, of Maren the monster, of the ninety-nine lives weighing on her soul…

“She wants a memory,” Maren muttered sadly, looking up to the woman now shaking her head.

Anna sighed in frustration, choosing to vent her annoyance by fluffing her hair in further preparation for her entrance.

“As your queen and your friend, get over yourself.  My sister isn’t dumb,” she noted bluntly, shooting a glare Maren’s way.

“I know she isn’t,” Maren agreed somberly, “That’s the problem. She’s perfect.”

“Who is?”

The new voice drew their attention down the hallway. The Prince Consort shuffled into view, hunching his shoulders to straighten his jacket. Maren bowed as he stepped closer.

Anna chastised with a click of her tongue, “Cutting it close, my love.”

Kristoff blew a kiss, knowing better than to interfere with the queen’s makeup, which had been applied rather heavy-handedly to match the intensity of her ensemble.

“Sorry.  Wardrobe malfunction. Apparently dining the dukes the past few weeks did more damage than I realized,” he said as a white gloved hand patted his belly before offering his arm, “Ready?”

“Always,” Anna hummed, taking hold of her escort.  As they walked past Maren to the curtain, she looked over her shoulder and sternly added, “Try and have some fun, for once.”

The pit in Maren’s stomach only worsened at the comment. 

“Your Majesty, Your Highness.”  She bowed yet again as they made their exit to the glorifying cries of the gentlemen announcing their copious titles.  Cheers and applause leaked into Maren’s quiet little corner.

Duty. The high collar continued to choke at her neck.

Yelana had once boasted of duty to nation, to their people. Maren had been left to shape Northuldra’s place in the world; instead she had simply left Northuldra.  She carried home in heart because the sight of it made her sick, riddled with memories.  As a leader, she was a failure.

Anna would agree to this purpose of duty. She served the country and the people. In a way, they were family, she was their mother. Family had always been the queen’s duty after having felt the absence of it for so long after her parents died.  Maren had failed long ago, when the Shadows tore her brother apart for leaving the village to save the reindeer while they were under attack. In duty to family, she failed.

In her duty to Ahtohallan and the spirits, perhaps she had not failed. Not quite. But this was not honorable; her service had only been in the name of one spirit, one woman.

Is that what remained? Duty to love? Hadn’t that been what kept her going all these years?

Hadn’t she swore she would bring Elsa home, no matter the cost? If the price was her soul, so be it. Her duty to her betrothed, her love, the woman that would save Arendelle and Northuldra countless times over…Elsa’s life was worth every drop of spilled blood. Elsa’s safety was worth her despising Maren for what she became. Elsa’s love certainly belonged to her people, her family, her spirits, all her other duties that were far more deserving than Maren would ever hope to be.

She had to leave. For Elsa, for her love.  In this duty, she could not fail.

But what was she going to do?

“Sorry I’m late.”

This new, breathless voice behind her made her heart ache even more deeply.  Maren turned around, dreading whatever gorgeous blue gown she was about to see donned on the gorgeous figure that tormented her.

Shockingly, it wasn’t blue.

If starlight was silk, it slinked across Elsa’s body now. Maren had never seen fabric shimmer with such luminosity, as if opal or moonstone had been liquified to dye cloth.  The silvery sheath began high on her neck before draping down her chest and hips, hinting at tasteful curves while revealing none. Instead, the pink skin of only Elsa’s arms was on display given the lack of sleeves, along with the hint of a leg through the slit in her long, sleek skirt. The simple heel she wore looked like pure glass.  A platinum bangle in the shape of a twisting dragon adorned her bicep. Blonde locks were free flowing save for two tassels braided from front to back, small snowflakes glistening on the strands.

Maren swallowed hard as she caught the briefest view of Elsa’s back as she turned in place to straighten out her skirt.  The halter style respectfully covered the front, but the back was enticingly low cut.  The great expanse of creamy skin was torturous.

She looked like a goddess or queen of old from the Arendellian fairy tales.  Maren wondered if perhaps she had finally died, whisked away in Ahtohallan’s arms.  Surely this was the paradise  of the afterlife standing just before her.

Elsa, oblivious as always, was nervously rambling as she looked down at her spellwork, “It was the best I could do on short notice. Anna’s designers had me look at at some drawings, but they started going on about motifs and patterns-“

“You look stunning,” Maren muttered. It was all she could say. All other energies were dedicated to keeping her upright and breathing.

Love and need choked her now.

Elsa offered her sweet, reserved smile as she softly replied, “Thank you.  You look very nice.”

Maren struggled to look anywhere but her. The rosy cheeks, the scarlet lips, the smell of vanilla and mint…all were choking her.

“Shall we?” she asked, offering her arm.

Elsa stepped to her, loosely clasping her escort. Together, they moved to face the curtain.  She was breathing very deeply in an overly controlled manner; it was obvious she was nervous. Maren chewed the inside of her mouth at Elsa’s plight. 

She was damned either way.  She would just have to bury her own feelings until Elsa was safely delivered to her sister, once again.

Duty called.

“Just squeeze.”

“Pardon?”

Maren slightly lifted the limb that Elsa’s hands lightly held. “Grip my arm as tight as you can.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Elsa replied hesitantly, looking uncertain.

“I can take it,” Maren nodded, glancing from the portal to the other woman, “You’re nervous.”

Elsa’s chest rose and fell with another troubled sigh. The fingers on Maren’s arm began to grip a bit harder.

“This part is always hard,” she murmured, eyes wide with the brutal truth Maren already understood.

“I know.”

“I left them.”

“You saved them,” Maren assured her, looking fully at the blonde now, “You gave them almost everything, and you still have to give more.  It’s not fair they always need more. I’m sorry. But it’ll be over soon.”

Blue eyes stared back at her. Perhaps too much of Maren’s jealousy had leached into her voice. The world needed so much, too much, from the woman she loved, and Elsa always gave it so willingly.

The smallest of smiles accompanied the whispered, “Thank you.”

After a nod, Maren subtly drew the attention of the servant standing just outside the curtain, nodding that they were ready.

He called the attention of the crowd.

“Introductions are so frivolous.  I should’ve lost my title when I abdicated,” Elsa sighed quietly, actually sounding annoyed.

“They have to spit mine out first.  It’s almost as long as yours now that the castle’s publicity team has updated it,” Maren mumbled back.

The castle crier cleared his throat and projected, “Introducing Colonel of the Arendelle Royal Army, Silver Hand to her Royal Majesty Queen Anna, Keeper of Light to the People of the Sun, Leader of Northuldra, Lady Maren. Escorting…”

As the man paused to inhale, a hush fell over the crowd.

“Keeper of Light?” Elsa whispered incredulously, hints of a smirk gracing her face.

The mocking voice in Maren’s head reminded she was a fraud, just as fake as the title to be the head of her people.

She just had to last a little longer.

“Told you before they were silly,” she murmured to the other woman, “just wait for yours.”

“Her Royal Highness of Arendelle, Eldest Daughter of their Late Majesties King Agnarr and Queen Iduna, The Blue Dragon, Hero of the Siege of the Fjord, Spirit of Ice, and Keeper of the Forest of Northuldra, Lady Elsa!”

Fingers dug into Maren’s arm as they stepped into the light.

The noise was deafening. The movement and buzzing of the crowd below did not tempt Maren; her eyes, like everyone else’s in the room, were firmly upon Elsa.  The cool, reserved smile, the regally lifted chin, the polite bow of the head at the cheers of her name. Once-Queen. Powerful Spirit.  To a bystander, she suavely accepted their reverence.

The vice grip on her forearm, the nails threatening to puncture the fabric of her uniform, these told Maren the truth.  She knew well when the wrinkled eyes and curved lips spoke either of true mirth or the mask Elsa wore.

Her hand covered Elsa’s glued to her arm without thought.  Their eyes briefly locked. Love and duty stung like sour bile in Maren’s stomach.

The ever proper escort, she led Elsa to the steps before descending down the sweeping staircase to the swelling ballroom.  Queen and country awaited their hero.  Anna’s hand was outstretched to symbolically accept the return of her sister in front of their people.

Elsa’s clinging lessened, hands falling to her skirt. The former monarch curtseyed to her replacement. Maren bowed deeply beside her. They performed their parts. Anna eagerly took her sister’s hand, and began to speak to the audience.

Maren faded into the sea of people.

Her duty was almost complete. It was time to say goodbye.


Elsa really missed Northuldra’s forest.  It was quiet and peaceful. Even the village was calming on the busiest days.  Admittedly, people still stared and asked her questions, but Elsa was oddly more comfortable being subject to attention as a representative of the spirits and nature than any political official.

One could also consider the matter of population. Arendelle dwarfed Northuldra. And every citizen of Arendelle seemed packed into every crevice of the castle this evening.

There was something about being amongst so many people that made her nerves feel raw and exposed. Each word they spoke poked and prodded like a grimy finger.  Elsa’s feelings were not their fault…but even knowing their actions were blameless did not help alleviate her reactions to them.

“By the Five, just in the water? Floating there?”

“Yes, the fine sailors of our Navy did a great job pulling me to their ship and rescuing me,” Elsa responded perhaps too chipperly, having just regaled the tale of her return to the world at the behest of the couple she now spoke with.

In fact, quite a few people had circled around now. She suspected guests were eager and too impatient to queue a line, choosing swarming tactics instead. Servants drifted through them with serving trays of beverages and foodstuffs.

The woman who had just gasped at Elsa’s story seconds before snatched a glass of wine and asked, “Would you like one, Your Highness?”

“Oh, I don’t really drink.”

“Not at all?” the gentleman beside her questioned. The both looked aghast at the concept of sobriety.

Elsa floundered, reaching for a suitable response.

“Well, I partook in my first a few days ago, actually.”

“How exciting!”

It wasn’t. It was the only way she thought to jar her senses and stop a full blown meltdown from waking up after five years. Johansen’s rum had tasted abominable enough to shock her into reality.

But she couldn’t say that.

“It was certainly an experience,” she stated evenly.

An older gentleman beside them added excitedly, “One should enjoy the luxuries in life. Especially in a war, there’s no time like the present.”

Elsa forced a smile, an alien to this proposed mentality.

Normal people could afford to be drunk, be lost in their senses, lose control. Elsa sneezed and accidentally created living snowmen.  Getting drunk could bring about the ice age apocalypse, no matter how skilled she had grown, how much control she had mastered.

But she also couldn’t say that.

“Indeed.” Her voice was practically a squeak.

Another woman shrilly agreed, “Oh, yes. Speaking of luxuries, the latest craze in Corona are these delightful pickled oranges-”

Elsa internally screamed. Bruni, Gale, and Nokk wondered in awe at the complexity of human culture and social interactions.


Exits and entrances were secure, guards remained at their posts.  Royals mingled and both obvious and discrete security stoodby.  No guests appeared suspicious.

Maren sighed, leaning further against the wall in the corner of the ballroom.  She wasn’t supposed to be working, but it was all she could do to not focus on the growing knot in her stomach.  Her eyes kept scanning the crowds as she remained rooted to her little spot, arms crossed, frown firmly in place.  The servants had stopped offering her drinks after she glared enough times.

Elsa was currently nodding at something someone was saying to her.  Maren couldn’t see her eyes at this distance, but she didn’t need to.  Straight back, clasped hands, ridgid shoulders.  The visual discomfort made the viewer tense.  There was nothing she could do to fix it.  She had no right to fix it.  She never did.

Maybe she could use a drink after all.

“Aren’t you going to ask her to dance?”

The voice below her caught Maren off guard, but the trained officer only briefly flinched as her body and mind caught up.  This was afterall the one person that likely would not judge her for staring. 

“She’s busy.”

Olaf sighed wistfully, “I love dancing. It’s like a warm hug that moves.”

Maren snorted. He always said that. He had said it at least a hundred times when he taught her dance years ago.

After a moment, she glanced down at her friend.  “Do you want to dance?”

“Maybe later. I just drank like ten goblets from the chocolate fountain,” he groaned as he hoisted himself up to a nearby chair.

Maren raised an eyebrow, lightly chastising, “You’re supposed to dip the fruit in it.”

“You’re not my boss,” he intoned darkly.

With an eye roll, she turned back to the chaotic ballroom.  The swaying sea of people, the swirling dancers, the cracks of laughter, all of it spinning like one massive storm to the single eye, the true center.

Elsa.

Maren felt like she was drowning.  What was she going to do?

“I was joking, you know,” came softly next to her.

“I know, buddy.”

“You’re sad,” Olaf observed patiently.

It would have been easy to offer an excuse. There was one on the edge of Maren’s lips. And yet, she found herself turning somberly to her friend.

“I have to do something I don’t want to do.”

“Then don’t do it,” he quipped with a shrug.

An empty laugh tumbled from Maren’s mouth. “I have to.”

“Why?”

She winced, trying to find the words, trying to reason with the logic of a snowman.  “I need to. It’s important.”

“Then do it really quickly so you can get it over with,” he replied matter of factly, contently swaying his two snowball feet upon his chair.

Maren sighed.  In his defense, the advice was logically sound.

She surveyed the room once more.  Another glance, her last one, as she kept telling herself.  One last look, one last moment.

“Olaf,” she mumbled, “When Elsa was frozen in Ahtohallan , and you knew you were…”

“Dying,” he finished merrily. 

“Yes. You didn’t want to leave, but you had to. How did you know what to say to Anna? As you were leaving?”

Olaf turned his large eyes to the dancefloor, tilting his head in thought.

“I guess I told her what she needed to hear to keep going. I could’ve freaked out and made it all about me,” he explained, twigs gesturing excitedly, “You know, about me dying.  My imminent demise. Existential questions about the afterlife for snowmen. Like, seriously, where do you think I went between the time I melted and Elsa reconstructed me because I really think-“

“Olaf.”

“Right,” he refocused, looking at Maren, “But anyway.  I chose to help Anna so she’d be able to move on after I died. Like I always say, love is putting someone else’s needs before your own,” he finished sagely.

Love.

Maren nodded and turned back to the fray.

Her duty to love, to Elsa.  To serve her needs before her own.  Yes, Olaf was right.

She watched as the blonde politely smiled at a group of new guests.

Elsa needed someone who wasn’t broken.  Elsa needed to be safe and happy, without the woman who brought death and misery. 

People continued to hover around the princess, basking in her glory.  People Elsa had almost died for.  People she came back for.  Arednelle, Northuldra, the world.  Elsa’s love, strength, and kindness belonged to them.

How could Maren ever be enough in the face of the woman who was everything?

One last look, one last goodbye.  For love.

Maren snatched a drink from a nearby servant and downed it in one gulp.


Mingling was draining.  Elsa no longer felt nervous, just tired from the onslaught of polite conversation.  A rather steady headache had formed in the center of her forehead. However, with each new face, she readied her own, wanting each citizen to feel deserving of their own special smile from the Blue Dragon herself.

Still.  One could only rehash the same topics so many times.  Elsa blinked repeatedly, struggling to keep up.

“Pardon the interruption,” a kind but firm voice broke through the masses, a familiar head of blonde hair poking through the way that immediately cleared for him.

Elsa genuinely smiled now, no mask required.  Kristoff.  Perhaps older around the eyes, a bit rounder in the middle, and a sporting tad more polish than she remembered the ice carver bearing, but this was her friend nonetheless.

He flashed a charismatic smile as he slid up to her, speaking to their guests, “I swore I would lead Lady Elsa through her first dance to this very song, and I am a man of my word.  She’s been looking forward to it all day.”

A woman before them crooned immediately, “But, of course, Your Highness!”

Her sister’s husband pointedly looked at her, offering his hand.

Elsa cleared her throat, grasping his hand, “Oh, yes, yes I have.  Excuse me.”

He whisked her away to safety.  While still in the public eye, she found relief in the open space of the dancefloor and Kristoff’s kind smile.  She had truly missed him.

“Sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived at the castle.  I just got back myself,” he explained cheerfully, assuming the proper position with his other hand on her back,“You look great!”

“You too. Thank you for rescuing me,” she said with a small smile, grabbing his shoulder, allowing herself to be led into a light polka-like dance.  She was certainly no connoisseur, but the small steps were easy enough to follow with Kristoff despite not knowing the song.

Missing the top musical hits in the past five years were the least of her concerns.

“Don’t mention it.  You’re my favorite sister-in-law.  And maybe one of the few people I don’t have to sound so stuffy for,” he replied with a chuckle.

She shook her head.  “I haven’t gotten the chance to apologize or thank you for a lot.”

“Like what?”

“Missing your wedding.  Being there for Anna.  We were always the two that tried to talk sense into her when she had a wild idea,” she reasoned, wincing at her dance partner, “You’ve been on your own on that front.”

“Oh geez, remember that time with the pudding?”

She giggled.  “That ambassador never looked me in the eye after that.”

Kristoff laughed as well before giving Elsa a small spin.  He looked contemplative as they returned to the simple, swaying motion.

“You know, life is weird.  Sometimes you grow into something different.  But I think we both grew into people that could be together while still being there for our country.  She’s so strong.  Sometimes she still needs a dose of reality.  But whenever I was stuck, I tried to think what you would say.  And in the end, I decided you probably would’ve known when to just have her back,” he explained with his lopsided grin. 

Elsa had always known their marriage would be happy and successful, even if war had tested them.  She recalled Anna’s new confident posture but the same old kindness in her words.

“She told me not to be sorry.  I still feel guilty,” Elsa admitted as they turned with the melody.

“You always did.”

When she felt her face contort with an unasked query, Kristoff instead offered his own question.

“Did I ever tell you about my parents?  I told Anna ages ago, but it’s not a fond memory.”

“I suspected so, given you were adopted by magical trolls, but I didn’t want to presume or push.”

“Well, thank you.  I don’t remember much honestly.  By the time I was born, my dad had already been in a big war like this one.  Under your granddad.  He was pretty young, but there had been a draft or something,” he explained calmly as they moved slowly across the dance floor, “He came back, got a wife, had a kid, but apparently he was never right, you know?” 

Kristoff’s expression grew more serious as he stared over Elsa’s shoulder.

“Spooked easy, got mad.  Drank a lot,” he continued before wincing slightly, “He ended up putting a ton of nightshade in his mead one night.  He didn’t wake up.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kristoff shook his head.  “I really don’t remember him that much.  Barely remember Mom.  She tried to find work cutting the ice after that, but she wasn’t built for it.  Got really sick.  Didn’t make it.  The ice guys took me in for a bit.  Then I found Pabbie and the trolls,” his voice grew distant before he looked directly at Elsa and said, “The point is, I still feel guilty for what happened to them.”

“But you were so young, it wasn’t your fault.”

His eyes grew wide, and he firmly nodded.

“Exactly.  It wasn’t my fault.  Their choices, their actions, they weren’t my fault,” he slowed their movements as he accentuated each word to Elsa, “Your parents actions, not your fault.  This war, not your fault.”

The death of her parents.  Having magic after generations of hatred towards the arcane, starting with her own grandfather.  Leaving the people she loved behind to save them.

“You were getting better at it, but I think this whole thing made you forget, sometimes, you just gotta let it go,” Kristoff said gently, squeezing their joined hands, “Face it.  Acknowledge it.  But let it go.”

Her family had completely accepted her back. She could almost forgive herself in the wake of their kindness. For the millionth time that week, Elsa blinked back tears, sniffing before a laugh tumbled forward at her own silliness.

“You turned into a fine prince,” she whispered, patting his shoulder.

He shrugged and quipped back, “Sven’s a good therapist.”

They shared another laugh, and Kristoff added a final flourish and spin as the music slowly slid to silence.  A beat passed, and a new melody sprung awake.  While Elsa hoped they could continue speaking in partial seclusion, she noticed her partner’s eyes dart over her shoulder.  

“Excuse me, Your Highnesses. May I?”

Maren.

Elsa turned to see the woman finishing her bow. As she rose, her eyes were firmly set upon the princess. The intensity made Elsa deliciously dizzy.  She nodded in acceptance.

She glanced back at her brother-in-law, hoping it wasn’t too obvious she was on the verge of swooning like a young, lovesick girl. Kristoff winked at her before he nodded to the newcomer and took his leave.

Maren offered her hand, and Elsa reached out with her own. When the Northuldran took a step forward, the line between formality and familiarity blurred as their frames brushed.  The smell of pine.  The honey irises.  The scar kissing taupe lips.  New and old sensations hit her all at once.  She gripped Maren’s shoulder as another hand slid delectably down her back.

They began to move.

Elsa knew this song.  It was old, even by her newly handicapped standards.  The previous dance had been light, fun, easy.  This one was bold and heavy, seductive cellos and alluring strings speaking of longing and desire.

It seemed fitting the only person to ever inspire those feelings was now holding her very, very close.

There had been a few stolen glances since her return, but nothing like this. Nothing like the heat that had once ached her soul’s core when she looked at Honeymaren’s strong body, touched her hand in the fields, or shared smiles by the Northuldran fire.

Passion. She had been hiding it, keeping it secret but kindled.  But now, Maren was touching her while looking gallant in her officer's uniform, staring so intensely at her, Elsa couldn’t look away. Their bodies pressed together as Maren guided them across the floor, cheeks brushed. She was sure the whole ballroom could hear the thundering of her heart.

“You’ve gotten quite good,” she breathed more than spoke.  There was so little space between them.  She wished there was even less.

“More practice at formal functions, unfortunately,” Maren grumbled in her ear.

“I thought you used to enjoy it.”

“These ordeals always felt like a waste when there was a war going on.  I thought I had better things to do,” she explained quietly, eyes still unwavering from Elsa’s, “The company wasn’t the same.”

Warmth made the Ice spirit shiver.  They separated briefly for a quick spin in tune with the rhythm.

As they grew back together, Maren licked her lips before she uttered, “I wanted to thank you for saving my life.”

“Of course.”

Then, for the first time, Maren looked away.

“I’ll be asking Her Majesty’s permission to return to the front as quickly as possible, tomorrow hopefully.”

Heat was gone, extinguished.

Elsa felt like a Shadow had just punched her in the gut. She leaned back with their next steps, desperate for air.

“Why?” she choked out.

Maren intoned too calmly, “My task is complete.  I need to fulfil my other duties.”

“What? No. You should be here,” Elsa stammered, trying to keep up with her racing mind and speeding heart.

Anna wouldn’t have given her false hope that Maren still cared for her.

“I’ll be more useful elsewhere,” Maren replied sternly. They were barely swaying now.

“We need you here. I need you here.” Her tone was growing frantic.

“You don’t need me.” Maren sounded almost frustrated.

“Isn’t that my right to decide?”

They stopped. The blazing crescendo and crowd’s murmur seemed so far away as Elsa’s ears rang.  Maren took a step back, staring at their linked hands between them. Elsa’s other arm dangled lamely at her side.

“I didn’t want to intrude on your night and family any further,” the Northuldran’s voice was hollow, “This is goodbye, Your Highness.  Please enjoy the ball.”

The gloved hand released Elsa’s. The colonel bowed, turned on her heel, and walked aggressively to the exit. 

Once again, Maren had walked away and left her alone. The throngs of people only accentuated her loneliness. 

But what could she do? Maybe Maren knew Elsa wouldn’t risk embarrassing her sister by making a scene and chasing after her.  That she would just be the good girl she always had to be.

New heat flickered and seethed.

No. Fate or time had taken so much from her. She refused to lose Maren.  She was sick of being tossed around by the forces of the world. She was taking control of her own life.

She was done letting her guilt stop her.

Anger pushed her towards the open entryway doors. Citizens that drifted by mysteriously turned away once they got close.  Maybe, for once, her feelings were grossly apparent on her face.

She emerged into the main entrance hall, dusky with the mix of nocturnal darkness and warm candlelight.  In her peripheral, she noticed the familiar uniform dipping down another hallway, and she marched forward determinedly to follow.  When she rounded the corner, Maren was still shuffling away, silhouetted by the shadows and flickering braziers lining the walls.

Elsa called out, “Why are you just running away?  Why won’t you talk to me?”

Maren’s dark outline stopped abruptly, clearly surprised.  When the shock wore off, her shoulders and form seemed to slump.

Her pursuer stalked down the narrow hallway.  Not usually one for confrontation, Elsa felt her stomach twist, but she needed answers. 

Maren slowly glanced over her shoulder.

“What would you have me say, My Lady?”

Elsa took a quick breath, trying to remain calm but firm.  She needed to know.

“Tell me why you’ve grown to hate me.”

Maren turned to face her completely now, but her voice was still quiet.  “I could never hate you.”

“Resent me then,” Elsa countered sternly, taking a step closer, “You look at me and touch me and it feels so much like how I remember.  But then your words are so bitter.”

“I don’t resent you,” she pronounced each word slowly, as if strained.

“Then why won’t you let me in?” Elsa murmured, taking another step. They were close.

Maren flinched. “I can’t.”

“Can’t? Or won’t?” 

“My Lady-”

“Where’s the Honeymaren I knew?”

“She’s dead!”

The shout faded into the quiet of the hallway, only echoes from the party disrupting the new silence.  Tears welled in the wild, wide eyes.  Maren immediately turned her head, screwing her eyes shut.

“She’s dead, the herder you knew...I don’t know much of her is left. I had to kill most of her to survive this. I’ve had to kill so much,” she whispered fiercely, tearing streaming down her cheeks, “You deserve better than the leftover scraps of a person who’s gone.  You shouldn’t have to settle in life for the memory of a ghost.”  

Maren inhaled deeply, struggling to calm her breathing. She straightened and stubbornly continued, “I could die in peace now knowing you are alive and delivered to your sister. I’ve fulfilled my vows.”

Elsa swallowed as she tugged the acorn necklace free from the high neck of her dress.

“What about this vow?”

Maren took a harrowing breath as her eyes fell to the pendant now lying upon Elsa’s chest.  Her countenance crumpled, and the last of any defiance escaped her body as she sighed pitifully.

Her voice was barely audible as she murmured, “How could you love a monster?”

Elsa inched forward and asked quietly, “How did you?”

“You were never a monster,” Maren said as her eyes flashed to Elsa’s, her pitch soft but her tone resolute.

Witch. Demon. Monster. Elsa had been called worse.  She had seen them when she looked in the mirror.  These past phantoms sometimes still crawled and itched in her mind. But Maren’s declaration left no doubt. Honeymaren’s smile had always chased the darkness away.

“Then trust me, neither are you,” she replied gently, lifting a tentative hand to Maren’s cheek. When the other woman did not turn away, she confidently brushed away the tears with her thumb.

“I just see the same strong woman that always made me feel safe and worthy,” Elsa continued, tilting Maren’s face so their eyes met, “Everything you’ve done has always come from a desire to do good.  Even when I was gone, you were still fighting for me.  Whether by sword or by silly dancing, you always bring hope, you are still honorable and noble, you are…” she slowed her ranting, licking her lips.

Elsa gulped down the last of her insecurities.  It was time.

“You are the woman I love,” she finished, breathless.

The woman in question shuddered beneath her fingertips at the admission.

Maren’s hand moved to rest atop of Elsa’s still against her cheek.

“I never got to say it,” she mumbled dumbly.

Elsa felt life return to Maren’s body. Her other hand brushed against Elsa’s lower back, her arm wrapping around her torso tightly.  She was already leaning in closer before the Northuldran pulled her against her.

“I love you so much. It’s...it’s never changed, never lessened,” Maren whispered as their noises brushed, “I love you.”

Their lips crashed clumsily against each other.

It had been worth the wait.

Slow and tentative, if not a bit fumbling, Elsa learned the delight of smooth, sweet skin moving against her own.  The warm embrace of Maren’s arms made her feel secure and cherished.  The exchange of trembling breaths as their lips parted to accept more of each other made her lightheaded.

A pause, a hum. Foreheads rested against each other.  Another peck and brush of the lips.  Elsa registered the briefest taste of saltwater, and her hand instinctively stroked away the last of the sad dampness from Maren’s face, who sighed happily against her, kissing her again. And again.

Sensitive to shifts in the cosmos and all matters of natural balance, Elsa was very aware when the kisses deepended, their breathing grew heavier, and Maren’s hands started roaming her body.  They both seemed to staggeringly reach out for the wall nearby, and the Blue Dragon felt no shame in exerting her superior strength to shove Maren against the surface.  She eagerly swallowed the resulting gasp with her tongue.  The fire she felt on the dancefloor quickly returned.

Her thoughts emptied, and her mind cleared. No spirits, no doubts, no impending doom. The need and desire happily took over.  Heat continued to build, and the Ice spirit gladly continued to stoke the fire.

Voices carried down the hallway.

Elsa jerked away, whipping her head to the sound. The trained ranger, however, smartly and swiftly flipped their positions, pressing the blonde to the wall before leaning her shoulder against the flagstone as well.  Any onlookers would simply see the back of an officer of Arendelle.

Or so Elsa guessed in the fraction of a second that logic entered her brain. It immediately fluttered away again, and she freely raked her eyes across Maren’s face hovering close by.  She was finding it difficult to care if anyone found them when the Northuldran was breathing raggedly and looking as if she would devour her.

The voices down the hallway drifted father and farther away until all that remained was the sound of their own panting.

“Perhaps we should relocate?” Elsa asked hoarsely.

Maren nodded, maintaining the little distance that remained between them.  She responsibly asked, “Would you like to return to the party?”

“No,” Elsa answered much too eagerly and quickly, inciting a smirk from Maren. Who needed dignity?

“My room is closer,” was the simple reply as Maren outstretched her hand.

Elsa took it without question.

She had always been well-behaved as a child, excusing the occasional bursts of magic. Even when her and Anna were notorious for turning the smaller ballroom into a snowy playground, she was the conscious rule follower, simply too timid to resist her persistent sister. As a teenager, she barely left her room, much less considered any devious activities.

There was a delightful thrill in breaking the rules. Maren pulled her along the hallway, leading her by her hand, pausing at each intersection and checking corners. Like sneaking thieves in the night, they hugged the shadows, stealing kisses and avoiding detection.  She muffled her giggles every time Maren tucked them into a doorway or alcove, pressing her against the wall, impatient lips brushing her skin.

It was a miracle they made it to the colonel’s room.

Just another guest room in the castle, Elsa had no desire to inspect the space.  As soon as the door shut behind them, her back was against the wood, and she was gladly focusing all her attention on the woman cupping her face and kissing her like the world was ending.

Elsa took the hand on her cheek, and Maren paused in her pillaging of her mouth. Starting with each individual finger, she loosened the glove from Maren’s hand, eventually removing the white fabric and tossing it to the ground.  She then placed the hand back on her cheek, sighing into the sensation of finally feeling the woman she loved truly touching her.  While Maren stroked her face with the newly freed hand, Elsa liberated the other.

Once the other limb was liberated, Maren pulled back slightly, dropping her hand from Elsa’s face, leaning against the nearby wall with her shoulder.  

“Hey.”

Elsa snickered at the less than suave segue, but it did little to dampen the mood.  Maren’s voice was husky with something she found intoxicating.

“Hello,” she quipped back.

Maren breathed a light laugh before asking, “You’re sure about this? I don’t want to pressure you. We can wait.”

Heated ebbed ever so slightly. Cool air filled Elsa's lungs. If the fire was to recede, now was the time.

And yet her resolve did not change.

“I think five years was plenty of waiting,” she chuckled.  

When Maren inhaled deeply and slowly in response, panic flashed and she began to backtrack, “Assuming you waited. I would understand if-”

Hands immediately grabbed hers, thumbs rubbing reassuring circles on her skin.

“I waited,” Maren said firmly, before glancing down at their joined hands, “It’s just a bit embarrassing to admit.”

Warmth easily returned to Elsa.

“It’s sweet.”

“It’s embarrassing. Your sister said I was grouchy and offered to pay for a brothel visit. I declined,” she grunted pointedly.

Elsa smiled, shaking her head.

“That was a long time to wait,” she commented softly, transferring Maren’s hands to her hips. 

She heard the slow inhale once more but felt no alarm this time. As she now looked into the dark pupils and saw the same hunger she felt, she realized Maren struggled not to submit to the heat. Fingers moved against her hips to her waist and up her spine, touching the skin of her exposed back in the low cut of her dress. 

Elsa sighed in agonized bliss. Was this what snow felt like when it melted?

“I would wait forever for you,” Maren whispered, leaning close, nose brushing Elsa’s ear.

The other woman wrapped her arms around the Northuldran’s shoulders.

“I don’t want to wait. I’m an adult. I know what happens next,” Elsa asserted before shyly murmuring, “Even if it’s admittedly from books that were carefully hidden in the library and some very interesting conversations with Anna.”

Maren smiled, tightening her arms now around Elsa’s torso.

“Books can’t be much worse than what I stumbled upon as an awkward teenager,” she mumbled with a smirk.

“We can figure it out together,” Elsa whispered, simmering in the adoring, golden eyes staring at her, “I trust you.”

“I love you.”

“And I, you.”

A kiss sealed the declarations once more before evolving into another and another until Elsa lost count.  Her fingers fluffed the short locks of the brunette’s cropped hair before feeling down the base of her neck; she wanted to learn every inch. She gripped at the muscles of Maren’s shoulders and arms beneath the uniform as hands pushed against her lower back and lips scalded her neck.

It wasn’t enough.

Something sparked inside her, and she roughly pawed at Maren’s belt, tightly gripping the leather.  Hands joined hers, and together they wrestled to unclip the buckle. While Maren unlaced the accessory through the loops of her pants, Elsa moved on to hastily unbuttoning the blouse.  She barely resisted just ripping the buttons off, the ornate, embellished style making them fat and clumsy to handle.

They were slowly backing towards the bed, both fighting Maren’s sleeves to yank the clothing off of her.  The shortened chemise underneath quickly followed. By the time their legs hit the foot of the bed, and Elsa promptly pushed Maren to sit, all that remained were the unfastened pants and boots.  

They paused, and Elsa’s eyes fell to Maren’s body. The fighter’s athletic frame had once tempted her. Now it completely snared her. Not just because the muscles were impressively shaped (though she was very ready to explore them) but because she knew they had been in service to her. To find her. The scars that decorated the skin were bravely earned for her. The femininity and beauty of her shape had desired her, endured for her.

Maren sat and patiently waited, just as she always had.  Elsa’s heart was boiling, her whole body scalding with lust and love for this woman.  And yet she deserved to be savored.

The princess knelt to the floor and began removing one of her partner’s boots.  When Maren leaned forward to assist with the other, Elsa gently stopped her with a hand. The Northuldran raised an eyebrow but did not speak to question the action.

Elsa continued her work steadily, no longer rushing and desperate. When one boot was gone, she repeated the process with the other. Once complete, she gingerly tugged on the legs of Maren’s trousers, and the wearer lifted slightly from the bed to allow them to be removed. The simple braies undergarment followed.

Fingers traced the bone of ankles to the swell of calves, swirled around the knees riddled with marks, and slowly inched across naked thighs.  Maren shivered but did not interfere as the spirit offered her own form of worship.

Elsa slowly rose. Under Maren’s heavy-lidded gaze, she did not feel shy or nervous or scared. There was no fear and no need to conceal herself.

Her hand slowly lifted to her neck, and a sole finger tapped her throat.  The fabric of her dress began to drift into flakes of snow, the magic rolling down the length of her body, melting away the clothing until all that remained was the acorn necklace.

Lips parted. Eyes flickered across the entirety of her body before they met her own.  Maren’s chest swelled with deep breaths but no words came. They no longer needed them.

Love was shimmering brightly in her amber eyes.

When Maren extended a hand out to her, Elsa easily stepped forward and entered the awaiting embrace, finally merging their bodies once more, falling together onto the bed.

Like an awakening volcano, what little remained dormant was now churning and molten.  She was quickly learning how the flame and the heat filled her heart and belly.  Fire was greedy, consuming and needing more and more. Elsa could barely sate one need before she was desperately suffocating with desire for the next. She moved ravenously, and her partner easily matched her fervor. Where she ended and Maren began, began to grow smoky and blurry.

She kissed the length of the scar along Maren’s cheek, and she brushed her fingertips where it met Maren’s top lip.  When she discovered more on her soldier’s back and stomach, she eagerly traced them with her tongue.  She had no idea how Maren smelled so much like the forest they both missed and called home, but she enveloped herself in it and her lover.  As fire burned her, she nipped at Maren’s neck, scratched at her back, and rubbed their searing hot skin together. Need consumed and stung her, and they moaned together through the burning.

There was no hesitation or anxiety as she submitted to Maren pinning her down to the bed.  Heated breaths greeted her neck before lips and tongue and teeth descended upon her, attacking her throat and collarbones.  Hot lava poured down her body in tandem with Maren’s mouth over and between the swell of her breasts.  Scorching kisses to her ribs and naval left her trembling, and yet the sweltering tongue kept descending to blister the skin of her hips.  Elsa found it near impossible to remain silent, to stop the noise bubbling out of her mouth like an eruption.  She wanted to sing. She wanted to scream.

Maren’s face felt like magma on the inside of her thighs. Golden eyes looked up, and Elsa held her breath.  A hand snaked back up her torso, lacing with her fingers. Another gripped at her leg.

Maren sighed lovingly at her center, hot and humid.  Wildfire, no, hellfire blasted through her.

Well-behaved Elsa. Never drunk. Always in control.

Out of all the elements, Fire was most difficult for Ice to understand.  Passion without guilt.  Surrendering control to sensation and feeling without question.  Her greatest fear.

The last shred of control stood before the dancing flame, the tongue that pressed against her, blazing and exquisite.

Love.  Love was so much better than fear.

Elsa gave in completely to the fire.


Something wet hit Maren’s cheek.

As she stirred awake and opened her eyes, she frowned at the white smoke swirling in the corners of her room. Blinking away the sleep from her eyes, she focused more closely in the dark room, sitting up on her elbows.

Little flurries of snow were harmlessly dancing around in the window’s moonlight and falling to the carpet.

Maren glanced at the woman still sound asleep beside her. Elsa faced her, mouth agape and breathing in a manner on the verge of snoring. Blonde waves splashed hazardously across her pillow, and the sheet was barely raised above her waist. 

Maren smiled. The dreamily floating snow moved in sync with Elsa’s breathing, flurrying with each inhale, gently drifting down with each exhale. The air was delightfully cool on Maren’s warm skin now emerging from the sheets. She flipped to lie on her side to more easily admire this less refined version of the woman she loved.  Elsa looked so content and peaceful in her deep slumber.

Maren’s smile widened. Her lover was happy and tired. To her, that was a raving review of their endeavours a few hours before.

Lover. That felt like a miracle. How had she been so stupid to give in to her doubts?

Elsa’s forehead wrinkled and her breathing hitched, pausing the snowflakes above. Eyelids fluttered with movement beneath. As her mouth closed into a frown, the snow fell once more, heavier than before.  With a twitch and gasp, her eyes flew open.

“Hey,” Maren soothed, reaching out to cup Elsa’s cheek, “you’re safe.”

She watched as confusion slowly drifted to recognition.  Elsa’s face turned to plant a kiss on Maren’s palm.

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Not exactly. Bad dream?”

Elsa sighed, “Not at first, but then I-”

She stopped mid-sentence, eyes going wide. The snow halted its movements, remaining frozen and suspended. Shooting up, she sat in the bed looking wildly around the room.

“Shit,” Elsa whispered, raising a hand to dispel the snow.

Maren immediately erupted into a snickering fit.  The prim and proper princess cursing while naked, well, that was a rarity.  Her giggles earned a playful slap.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” Elsa’s tone was chastising, but she was already failing to hide a smile.

Maren purred, “I like the snow.”

“Oh really?”

“I’m in love with the mistress of winter, it sort of comes with the territory.  This view is incredible, by the way,” she flirted shamelessly, allowing her eyes to slowly peruse Elsa’s exposed chest.

Ahtohallan forgive her.

The subject of her dedicated observations rolled her eyes before moving towards her.  Elsa easily threw her leg over Maren’s torso and straddled her hips.  

“I enjoy the serious soldier, but I missed this rather giddy side of you,” Elsa murmured, taking hold of one of Maren’s hands, bringing the fingers to her lips.

“Me too,” Maren sighed as she felt the kisses pressed to each joint, knuckle, and scar on her hand.

Maybe she had been the one asleep for five years. She suddenly felt so awake.

Elsa then placed Maren’s hand on her waist and leaned forward, dipping low to kiss the corner of Maren’s mouth.

Something hard but small knocked against her chest.

Maren separated briefly to look at the object now dangling between them.  Her fingers reached out to clasp the acorn pendant still perfectly encased in ice.  Elsa waited patiently as she brushed her thumb over the necklace.  Maren felt a surge of pride at the fact Elsa had kept wearing it even knowing what it truly represented.

“When did you learn about the løfte ?” she asked as she gently released the token.

Elsa’s body slid to the side, leaving a long leg still draped across the other’s center. Maren’s arm now wrapped around a smooth back.  Blonde head rested on her shoulder. Pale fingers traced her collar bone. Maren was content.

“There was a Northuldran on the Geirr . He was quite amused I had accepted without knowing what it was,” Elsa recalled with a smile, hand now brushing against Maren’s ribs.

“I had planned something different.”

“A beach at sunset.” Head tilted and blue eyes looked up at her now, a knowing grin on lovely lips.  Maren felt hers curl to match.

“I could’ve explained everything, let you know there was no pressure or I could wait.  We Northuldra like to make it official before the courtship really begins, not after.”

Elsa’s hand grazed the skin on Maren’s stomach.

“I would’ve said yes even knowing what it was.”

It was still so incredible to Maren how Elsa’s cool touch made her body feel so warm. Her fiancée.

“Yelana said you would, unless I really messed it up.”

“Yelana?”

Maren used her free hand to lace her fingers with Elsa’s, leaving the clasped and joined digits to rest on her torso. 

“She smacked me on the head with her walking stick one night after you had walked away from the fire,” she began wistfully, “I must have been staring. She said, I kid you not, ‘You really are stupider than reindeer shit if you don’t just tell her already.’”

Elsa giggled, “That sounds like her.  She may have said something vaguely similar to me.”

“She was a troublemaker, but she was right,” Maren admitted, her free hand drawing circles on Elsa’s back, “The next day, Ryder spent all day helping me look for the perfect acorn in the rain. He kept yelling, asking why we couldn’t wait for a dry day. I told him it had to be now, I couldn’t wait anymore. And of course I was picky, none of the damn nuts looked right.”

Maren felt her cheeks hurt from smiling.  She enjoyed the vibrations of Elsa’s laughter moving through their tangled bodies before she continued.

“You should have seen his face when I told him I wasn’t going to use the reindeer to present it to you. Devastated,” she intoned, flashing an appropriately horrified face, earning more of Elsa’s musical mirth.

When they calmed and settled, Elsa gently observed, “You miss them.”

Maren nodded soberly.  “Of course. But I think I’ve been doing it wrong. Not talking about them. Not remembering. Not until you came back,” her arms tightly encircled Elsa’s frame, hugging her even closer than they previously were, “You’ve breathed life into me again.”

She felt Elsa squeeze back.

“I don’t know how yet, but I’ll end this war. For you, for them. For everyone.”

The Northuldran couldn’t see Elsa’s face buried against her chest as they embraced, but she could hear the stern, declarative tone, even if it was muffled.

Maren pushed off the bed, turning over, depositing Elsa on her back as she climbed and hovered above her.  For a brief moment, she strained to resist the delicious feeling of their hips sliding against each other and the incredible sight of Elsa’s parted lips waiting beneath her.

She needed to make this next part clear.

“I go with you this time. No matter what.”

Her betrothed, her future wife.  If Elsa was standing against the evil of this world, Maren would be by her side, without question.

Wide, blue eyes softened.  Fingers began carving their way up Maren’s forearms and biceps that held her up.

“Alright,” Elsa breathed.  A promise.

Her hands reached Maren’s shoulders before wrapping around and sliding down her back.  They swept down to the dip of her waist, pushing, pulling her down.  Elsa’s thighs were wrapping around her hips. Maren surrendered to gravity and pressed completely against the other woman’s body, sighing against her lips before their mouths eagerly joined together.

“I’m never letting you go again.”

Chapter Text

Elsa’s hand paused before it touched the library door’s handle.

“What’s wrong?”

She glanced down the empty hallway to her right before turning to Maren’s confused expression.

“Nothing,” Elsa whispered before gently leaning in to softly kiss her lips, “I just wanted one more second alone.”

They both smiled as she pulled away.  She lightly gasped as a hand suddenly pressed against her back, sending her the stumbling step forward, and Maren drew her close once more.  Their lips were much hungrier this kiss.

Elsa thought she could get used to the idea of being locked in one’s bedroom again.  She had truly contemplated that reality this morning.  Sadly, duty called.

When they again parted, Maren’s coy smirk incited a roll of the eyes.  The soldier adjusted her uniform, stood straight, and primly gestured to the door.

“My Lady.”

Elsa tried to mask her smile, cleared her throat, and opened the door.

Books lined every speck of wall space in the library save the fireplace and the wall lined with windows.  Elsa found not much had changed here, recalling her last visit when she finally learned to properly communicate with the other spirits. Without the stress of impending battle, it was easy to imagine curling on the loveseats or couches with a book.

Tea cups, a kettle, and plates of various cookies and biscuits littered the table in the center.  Crumbs leading across the wooden surface straight to where Olaf sat on the floor indicated where many of them had met their demise. 

Kristoff sat in the chair to the side, perusing a novel.  Anna lounged on one of the couches, leaning against an armrest, leafing through bits of parchment.  Elsa noted her outfit was a rather muted teal dress in comparison to the eccentric tastes she had seen thus far.  The queen’s hair, however, was stacked precariously high in a grand, twisted bun of sorts, appearing almost like a top hat. 

Anna looked up as they entered, grinning.  “Good morning.  Sleep in?”

Elsa returned the smile as she started waking to the sitting area.  “Yes.”

“Odd,” she commented nonchalantly, looking back down to the papers in her hand, “When I sent the staff to wake you, they didn’t find you in your room.”

Elsa froze in place midstride. “Oh? And?”

Her sister shrugged, still looking at the parchment.  “Just interested in your morning, if the castle’s accommodations are what you remember.”

She swallowed, standing a bit straighter.  “They were quite accommodating.”

“And you, Maren?”  Anna’s eyes flashed to the woman standing at attention behind Elsa.

“Extremely accommodating, Your Majesty,” Maren replied smoothly, odd expression in place.

“You’re sure?  Not too cold?” The devious mirth was practically oozing from Anna’s pores.

Maren’s lip twitched into a small smirk as she quipped, “I enjoy the cold, Your Majesty.”

Elsa groaned loudly, pressing a hand to her forehead.  “You two are the worst.”

The queen’s barking laughter now filled the room.  Kristoff too was grinning madly as he shut his book.  Maren looked utterly too pleased with herself.

“It’s still way too easy to embarrass you.  I’m glad last night went well,” Anna giggled, gesturing to the couch across from her, “Come sit, both of you.”

Elsa looked incredulously to Maren, who winked.  She couldn’t fight the little smile that now appeared on her own lips.  As they settled on the sofa, Anna tossed her papers to the table.

“So, we’ve done our advertising and flashed you in front of the whole world.  Morale is high, allies have opened their purses, and our enemies are quaking.  Now we need a battle plan,” she surmised, crossing her arms and reclining back into the couch, “I met with the top generals and discussed Maren’s reports from Halvor and Arne.  We’re the magic experts. And the enemy seems to use the same kind of magic. Then there’s this matter of old frozen soldiers when Elsa’s magic hits them just right.  There’s something we’re missing.”

Elsa looked from Anna to Kristoff. “Have you consulted the trolls?”

“They were the ones that tipped us off about the silver,” he answered, leaning on the arm of his chair, “Apparently our ancestors used it against curses or undead.  They can remember bits and pieces of the past and sense magic, but they have no memory of dark magic actually walking around like this.”

Elsa frowned.  The spirits’ collective knowledge still came up blank on the likeness of any Shadows throughout their history, and she had been meditating quite profusely on the subject since Halvor.

Following the silence, Anna waved her hands histrionically, closing her eyes.  “Let’s start from scratch.  What do we know about the history of spirits in general?”

Everyone then turned to Maren, who opened her mouth to speak, but Olaf eagerly jumped atop the table, excitedly rambling, “Elsa comes of age, finally masters her powers, awakens the other spirits.  Spirits are super angry, act all crazy.  Elsa tames them.  Elsa goes spelunking.  Elsa finds out the truth, dies.  I die.  It was tragic. And then Anna breaks the dam to restore peace amongst the spirits and the people and, oh, we all come back to life again!” Olaf triumphantly finished a pantomime with a dramatic flourish of his branch-like arms.

A recollection of emotions swept up Elsa’s frame. Anger, doubt, guilt…

She spoke up, “Now that I can feel them, the initial revenge of the spirits wasn’t just a conscious decision.  They were...corrupted somehow,” she continued, trying to put vague sensations into words, “They felt sick all that time when the forest was behind fog.”

She tried to focus on the fireplace nearby to clear her vision of the haze that settled.  Fog.  Forest. Fear.  Whispers kept creeping through her mind.

Maren nodded, tilting her head thoughtfully. “What if you fixed a symptom, not the illness?  What if the spirits are still sick somehow?  Maybe that would explain your headaches again?”

Elsa shook her head, still staring at the mantle beside them. “I feel fine, it’s just...We feel…” she trailed off before suddenly asking, “Is that Mother’s shawl?”

Her eyes immediately focused on the magenta fabric draped across the mantle of the fireplace. A few statuettes, picture frames, and candlesticks lined the surface to hold it in place, but she could still easily identify the patterns she had known since childhood.

Anna offered a sad smile as she replied, “I couldn’t bring myself to wear it after you left. Turned it into a display piece of sorts.”

While she spoke, Elsa stood and approached the decor in question. Her fingers traced the detailed embroidery of the abstract snowflakes lining the edges.  Maren had once explained the meaning of the pointed runes, the four that surrounded a central entity.   Elsa herself.

And yet, despite years of observing her mother wearing the shawl, she suddenly felt as if she was looking at the cloth through new eyes, now narrowed in thought.

The design also clearly bore two dots on either side of each star-like image.

Elsa turned to the others, magically producing a small snowflake that hovered above her palm.

“Did you know, while all snowflakes are unique, they almost always contain six points?” she stated factually before exterminating the spell and gesturing back to the mantle, “There’s more than just the four runes here.”

Maren frowned in confusion. “There’s the center, the fifth element.  You.”

“Well, yes.  But here?” Elsa pointed to the two small purple dots.

It could easily be a simple artistic liberty, an embellishment by the weaver.  However, the mathematical precision and architectural quality of ice did not lie. A shawl descended from an old Northuldran family would certainly take pains to maintain accuracy, wouldn’t it?

Six.  Yes, Elsa believed now this was what laid beyond the fog of her mind, even if she still could not see it.

The silence in the room told her she was not the only one.

“Impossible,” Maren mumbled, eyes wide in awe and disbelief.

Anna raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Are you saying there’s two more crazy powerful spirits running around we just never knew about?”

“What moves through the elements?  What gives the spirits our magic?” Elsa proposed, drawing a line with her finger to connect the dots through the center of the pattern.

Why would they be illustrated differently than the main runes?

Anna nodded to Maren, arms still crossed. “What does Northuldra say?”

Maren pondered for a moment before explaining, “A lot of our traditions were erased after your grandfather attacked.  We lost so many people, and we pass down most of our history orally.  Everything has always been mysterious myths since then.  There’s some stories, songs...” she trailed off somewhat defeatedly before rapidly snapping excitedly to attention and exclaiming, “Wait. The lullaby!  ‘River of memory.’  That’s it!”

“Lullaby.  So babies?” Olaf interjected from where he sat directly on top of the table, mouth full of biscuits.

Maren shook her head, a smile widening as she looked to Elsa. “No. Time.”

Time. Elsa frowned. Time had not been terribly kind to her lately.

The Northuldran rattled on, gaining momentum and excitement, “Why else were you frozen for five years? And able to see the past when you first entered Ahtohallan with the help of Water?  Time must be an entity we’re dealing with here.”

Visions from the night of the fjord swam forth.

The supreme storm, the grand wheel, Elsa at its center, struggling to maintain balance of the spirits around her unleashing their energies.

They were still unbalanced, still unable to see what laid at the opposite ends, beyond the fog, tipping the scales. The other awakened three struggled and strained to see with her.

Sick, still sick. Six.

“It’s possible,” Elsa conceded for now, raising a hand to rub her temple that began to pulse and ache.

Anna hummed in thought loudly before declaring, “Assuming you’re correct, then there’s another.” 

Maren hunched forward, elbows on her knees, deep in thought. Elsa, even with her headache and worries of war, fought a smile at how giddy she looked to be debating the philosophical theories of magic.

“The main five are physical. We can interact with them,” Maren reasoned, pointing at Elsa as an example, “Time isn’t, or at least, we can’t really see it.  This other spirit is across from Time. So it probably isn’t either.”

She huffed, resting her head in her hands and glaring at the carpet. Anna and Kristoff shared a look. Elsa glanced back at the shawl to try and inspire ideas before Maren launched to her feet, almost knocking Olaf from the table.

“I’m an idiot,” she promptly announced, then she whipped around to one of the walls of books.

Elsa glanced at Anna, who only shrugged. Maren was crawling on the floor now, inspecting the bottom shelf.

“Your father’s notes,” she announced over her shoulder, “He also speculated not just the source of your magic but its function.”

Maren paused in her motion of shuffling like a crab on the floor to explain, “The spirit of spirits itself, like energy.  Aether.  The quintessence of life,” she rambled intently before turning back to the stacks, “It’s in his journals around here somewhere.”

Elsa frowned. “Why did you read those?”

“She was looking for clues on magic and how to find you, silly,” Anna chided gently from the couch.

Oh, right.  She really had to stop being surprised at her lover’s persistent dedication.

Maren’s voice called out from behind a desk in the corner of the library, “It turned out to only be theoretical, and I thought we understood more than he did at the time.”

A brunette head popped up from the floor, and Maren briskly walked towards their table with a stack of smaller leather-bound books.

“He originally thought this power was the center element. They didn’t know then what you were or how critical you were to the natural balance,” she explained as she plopped the books on the surface and began leafing through the pages, “He speculated that all physical properties were husks without this aether to move them, to give them purpose and emotion.”

Elsa walked over from the fireplace as the others leaned forward to more closely inspect the pages in her father’s handwriting. Maren had settled on a sketchy diagram of a circle, four points along the circumference, and a point in the center. Arrows, scrawled notes, and question marks littered the space.

The map from the shipwreck. The mysterious runes. Now this? Her parents had poured so much, even their own lives, into understanding her magic.

There was still so much fog and unknown.

Kristoff scratched his head, hesitantly summarizing, “So it’s the five we know, plus Time and...space? Energy?”

Maren nodded before confirming,  “This is what the king called Aether.”

Silence fell upon the room.

Fog. Anger, doubt, guilt. Elsa frowned, still staring at the page. The wheel. The map. The runes. Weakness, fear. A cloud of emotion and her at the center.

“Well?”

Elsa snapped up from her meditation to see Anna’s question had been directed at her.  Her eyes fell to the carpet as she sorted through the feelings and memories Bruni, Gale, and Nokk eagerly offered up.  Besides herself and the Giants, there were no others with magical abilities in their collective knowledge.

“The other spirits do not recall beings like this,” she stated slowly.  

Nokk’s images then washed over her of a raging sea, coasts devoid of life centuries ago, and Ahtohallan standing solely against the chaos.

Elsa translated and continued, “But they do speculate, as Ahtohallan is older than them, there are likely aspects of her magic even they do not know.  It is hard to prove something is real that we cannot see, but it does make sense.”

Her gaze returned to her father’s drawing and murmured, “The balance has felt off, like pieces are missing.”

Six. A migraine began to drill into the center of her skull as she glared against the mental fog. Six points, one center, the perfect snowflake, all haunting her.  It was infuriating.

Anna huffed from the couch, “I hate to be the party pooper, but we have real problems to focus on. Even if these other spirits do exist, or Elsa has magical bad vibes, how do we even know it’s related to the war or the Shadows?”

“We don’t. But Ahtohallan might,” Maren replied smoothly, not phased by the queen’s outburst.

Kristoff nodded. “Maybe look again through Elsa’s ice sculpture memories?  Especially if the Shadows look like them?”

The Silver Hand asserted confidently, “It can’t be a coincidence. Ahtohallan’s the mother of everything, including magic, it all comes from her,” she looked pointedly at Anna as she continued, “Plus, something always bothered me. Why the attack on two fronts? Why would the enemy labor to get through the mountains to clash with Northuldra? Why split your forces?”

The proposal was so simple, and yet, it seemed to shatter on the floor as it fell from Maren’s mouth.  Elsa’s head throbbed.

Anna’s eyes went wide as she whispered their shared realization, “It would mean they never wanted Arendelle. We’re the distraction.”

“They want Ahtohallan . Maybe they just don’t know where or what she is exactly. Maybe they simply knew the forest and spirits had magic and therefore must protect its source,” Maren theorized, “We were just too busy surviving before to ask why.”

The pain was too much and threatened to crack her head like ice.  Elsa shakily stumbled to the couch and collapsed on the cushions.  Kristoff and Anna leaned forward to stand, but Maren was immediately sitting beside her, hand rubbing her back, asking what was wrong.

Fire, Water, Wind writhed in the corners of her mind. Like an elderly grandmother citing the ache of the bones to predict a storm, her body was shuddering and anxious for…for what?

When the dizziness settled somewhat, she held up her hand to try and smooth everyone’s alarm.  “I’m fine, sorry.”

“You said that last time,” Maren mumbled, clearly seeing beyond her white lie.

Elsa sighed, trying to blink past her swimming vision, still foggy, “Nokk, Gale, and Bruni feel it too. Like...the ache before the fever.”

“Sick,” Anna echoed grimly, “Before you said they felt sick all those years ago when we first went to the forest.”

Fog. Six. Storm. Wheel. She wanted to scream. What was it she was supposed to know? Why did it feel like she had forgotten something so important?

But can you brave what you must fear

Can you face what the river knows

Elsa took a long, calming breath, biting down against the void and hurt.  

Ahtohallan is likely our best hope. We must go.”

As soon as she said it, the headache vanished. Elsa felt immediate relief and the subsequent confusion.

Just another day in the life of a spirit, apparently.

She gave Maren’s leg a quick pat to assure her she was fine, and the other woman seemed pleased with her agreement to venture to the iceberg. Her sister however, was chewing her lip.  Anna looked hard between Elsa and Maren. After a moment, she firmly nodded. The royal ruler had been convinced, or at the very least, trusted them more than her uncertainty.

“If the enemy is truly searching for it, we’ll need to be secretive, or we’ll lead them to it,” she surmised tactically, already plotting the next move.

Maren offered, “My squadron could escort her. I can summon them from Halvor.”

Anna, however, shook her head. “No. Smaller. Us.”

There was a long stalemate-like pause. Elsa glanced from her sister to Maren. Their friendship was a curiosity.

“Your Majesty’s presence isn’t exactly unnoticeable,” the colonel stated carefully, wincing slightly.

“I can be sneaky,” Anna pouted.

Maten sighed, saying much more bluntly, “The council will be pissed.”

“What’re they going to do, fire me?” the queen countered before looking to her husband, “What about you?”

Kristoff merely shrugged from his armchair. “It’s your call. I’ll always be by your side.”

Anna looked back to the rest of them and firmly declared, “There. It’s settled.”

Maren breathed heavily through her nose. Elsa tried hard not to smile.

Olaf happily cheered from the table, “The old gang is back together!” 

“I guess I can’t argue with that,” Maren conceded, reclining more comfortably into the couch.  Elsa sympathetically bumped her shoulder with her own.

Anna clapped her hands together in excitement. “Excellent.  We’ll leave tomorrow before daybreak.  Can you make the preparations, Maren?  Or is it Honeymaren again?”

Elsa thought she saw the Northuldran’s eye twitch at her sister’s bantering. “Whichever Your Majesty prefers.”

“OK, seriously, if we’re going to be sisters-in-law, you can drop the formalities,” Anna quipped, leaning forward to snag one of the few cookies Olaf hadn’t obliterated.

Elsa tilted her head. She hadn’t told her sister they were engaged yet.

As her mind caught up, she turned to Maren and asked, “Wait, she knew about the løfte before I did?”

“You were gone, we bonded,” Anna snickered, chomping down on her snack, “You should’ve seen how moody and brooding she was about it though.  ‘I shall be called Maren henceforth, there will be no Honey, no sweetness in my life without her,’” she mimicked with a deep, dreary voice.

Maren looked at Elsa and deadpanned, “I’d forgotten what a joy siblings can be.”


“New bow?”

Maren glanced at the wooden weapon sticking out of her quiver.  Eagle wings were carved on the surface; she had picked it up at Arne.

“Maybe.”

It was her third this month.

Anna narrowed her eyes.  “Did you drop it this time like at Gottenburg?  Or throw it again?”

Maren shrugged as she tossed a bit of jerky into her mouth. “I was out of arrows.”

Anna laughed heartily before taking a swig from her water skin.

They had left very early and travelled all day, sharing saddles on two horses (reindeer and Water spirits drew too much attention).  As the sun began to set, Elsa confirmed another hour or so through the forest would eventually bring them to rocky beaches closest to the Black Sea and Ahtohallan .  Maren had proposed a brief rest before they plunged into the depths no true mortal had ever seen.

Kristoff was looking for wood to start a fire after grumbling something about proving he was still an outdoorsman.  Olaf insisted he go with him as a guard.

The colonel finished her jerky and wiped the grease from her fingers on her pants. She had managed to find some brown trousers and a green traveling blouse to avoid any detection in her uniform.

She glanced back up to the woman stretching on the log in front of her.  A large, silver great axe rested beside her.  Anna’s version of ‘sneaky’ was a black tunic, black trousers, black boots, and a black eye patch. Her hair was in a neat bun.

She blended…if they were going to a funeral.

Both women looked up as thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Great,” Anna grumbled, looking up at the darkening sky.

“A little rain is fine.  Good cover,” the ranger commented, glancing over to Elsa’s back, who sat on the edge of the clearing a few feet away.

“Ugh, you’re so chipper and optimistic now, who will I complain to?” the redhead pouted, “Hopefully this weather isn’t dramatic foreshadowing for our trip.”

Maren looked pointedly back at the queen, holding back a witty remark.  Though her friend had told her to start acting more casual...

“You’re the dramatic one,” Maren drawled.

A huge smile grew on Anna’s face as she quickly retorted, “Sorry we all can’t love hugging trees in the pouring rain like you do.”

The Northuldran snorted, looking around at the surrounding greenery, easily spotting familiar varieties of wildlife. Her eyes still settled on the blonde.  Elsa was absent-mindedly petting anicy rabbit sitting beside her, Nokk’s compact form of travel for the day.

Maren smiled at the view and declared, “These aren’t just any woods.  It’s home.”

“I know.  Sorry we couldn’t stop by the village.”

“We have an eye on things with Bruni and Gale there. Secret mission wouldn’t be very secret if we visited,” she replied as she waved off Anna’s apology, “Soon.”

Anna hummed in agreement before a comfortable silence fell between them.  She was right; Maren felt changed. Hopeful. Right now, she was on the way to the Ahtohallan with the love of her life, for once full of promise they could do something to actually end the war. They could truly go home. She could bring Elsa back to their village with the nightly fires. They could rebuild, heal, and she would be with her wife.

By the Five. Her wife . She watched as Elsa rested her head in her hand, leaning heavily on the nearby trunk of a thick tree where she sat. Nokk, snowball tail wiggling, hopped on top of her.

“Go on.  You keep staring.”

Maren’s attention flashed back to her friend. Anna’s face bore a knowing smile as she nodded to her sister.

With a quick grin, Maren was on her feet and making her way to where the Ice spirit sat on the dirt and grass.  Elsa’s eyes were closed, her fingers rubbing the side of her head.  The white rabbit was curled up on her lap.  She gently reached out to touch her shoulder as she kneeled beside her.

“Elsa.” 

It felt divine to say her name aloud now. Not Highness, not Lady. Just Elsa.

Eyelids slid open to reveal darkened sapphire.  Elsa’s hand fell from her face, and she offered a small smile as she instead linked the now unoccupied limb with Maren’s.

“Hi.”

“You alright?”

“I’m…” Elsa responded quickly by default before trailing off at Maren’s quirked eyebrow. They both knew she wasn’t just fine this time.

“The headaches are getting worse,” she admitted, voice a bit shaky but otherwise seeming calm.

Maren frowned, looking out to the woods. She hated not knowing how to help her.

“You can commune with the spirits now. Wasn’t last time when they were trying to warn you?”

“They feel it too now. But we don’t know what it means.”

Elsa looked down at the small spirit resting.  The glowing eyes dimmed slightly, as if sleepy.  Maren, however, was still very much inspecting Elsa’s profile.  She squeezed her hand.

“Are you still afraid? Like at Arne?”

“A little. It’s not as bad as a ballroom full of people,” she joked lightly before turning to face Maren,  “Are you?”

“No,” the soldier answered confidently, “Not as long as we’re together.”

“Well, I did make a promise. A few, actually,” Elsa whispered, her other hand brushing near her neck where they both knew the concealed pendant was safely secured.

Even with the setting sun, growing cloud cover, and cooling nighttime air, Maren felt the warmth spread through her chest. Elsa’s chilly skin against her hand felt even more exquisite in contrast.

Then the hair on the back of her neck stood up.

Both Elsa and Maren suddenly twisted their heads to the east.

“You can feel it too?” Elsa whispered.

Maren nodded. “Magic.  Shadows.”

In a flash, they were both immediately on their feet, Nokk expertly landing with a plop on the ground.  Elsa immediately took cover behind the tree she had been using as a backrest.

Maren’s hand instinctively went for her quiver as she hissed behind them, “Anna.” 

The woman on the log looked over, immediately jumping from the log and grabbing her axe at the sight of Maren’s equipped bow and defensive posture. Their bond had been forged in battle before. When Maren pressed a finger to her lips and gestured to the woods, Anna nodded once in understanding. She held up two fingers and slowly turned to sneak off in the other direction.  She was going to get the boys.

Maren pressed her back against the bark of the large tree, shoulder roughly bumping against Elsa’s. She slowly and carefully poked her head out, eyes narrowing in the dim light.

A light, drizzling mist began to descend over the forest, inciting a delicate hum amongst the leaves. Maren strained to hear the silent steps in the distance, searching for the slinking voids she knew so well.  Instead, she saw the swirling arcane twisted and hunched over.  Slow and heavy, multiple forms inched forward, big heads turning. Waiting. She saw threatening spikes protruding from their snouts.

Rhinoceros. Maren had only heard of the exotic beast from an Arendellian in her battalion after a day of trading stories on the road. In distant lands far to the south, even beyond the Isles, the horned giants had a reputation for wild power, charging aggressively like spiked battering rams.  Few had even heard of such a creature after Arendelle released their control of those territories under Elsa’s father.

The idea of a Shadow utilizing the solid construction of this foreign predator made Maren’s heart rate spike. Her and Anna could keep up with a normal Shadow on a good day.  These would be impossible.  Three of the deadly monsters with their eerie purple sheen were lurking in the darkness a few yards away. 

Elsa raised her hand, poised to strike, and Maren gently grabbed her wrist.

Ahtohallan ” she breathed more than spoke.

They couldn’t alert the enemy Elsa was here. They were practically on Ahtohallan’s front door.  If they were right, if the enemy wanted the glacier, they would surely know it was close.

The Ice spirit swallowed and nodded. 

Red hair caught Maren’s eye.  She glanced to a neighboring tree to see Anna squatting, axe ready. Kristoff was close by, holding Olaf in his arms.  Maren held up her hand for them to wait before turning back to their foes and the forest.

Their destination was north, their assailants were east. They could still sneak by if they were careful.  It would mean abandoning the horses tied off to the south of their little clearing, but Maren couldn’t risk the lives of the three most important people in all of Arendelle, her future wife and friends. She would probably be thrown in the dungeon back at the castle if she turned up with the entire royal family gone.

Maren turned, pointing their path out to Anna, indicating she would lead them on her mark. More nods. Kristoff’s wide eyes were glued on his wife, nodding as she whispered to him. 

She glanced at the woman beside her to make sure she was ready. Elsa winced, but nodded.

The ranger looked again and held her breath, staring at the Shadows, waiting for an opening. They were spread out, but they were slow. She lifted her arm behind the tree, ready to give the signal.  The one closest was stepping to the south, one more second and then—

A hand grabbed hers and squeezed powerfully hard. Maren turned to see Elsa’s eyes screwed shut, biting down roughly on her bottom lip.  She was clearly in immense pain.

Panic flared though Maren’s veins, but she clung to her training. She stowed her bow as quickly and quietly as she could. The grip on her hand loosened as Elsa slid down the trunk of the tree, and Maren fell to her knee to try and steady her.

Short gasps and labored breathing. Limbs rigid and knuckles white.  Maren looked down Elsa’s body, searching for any wounds but found none.   No cuts, no blood on the grey tunic she wore. Whatever this was, it was purely internal.  She bit her tongue; she couldn’t ask what was wrong or risk speaking too loud.

Elsa’s eyes snapped open, staring wide at some unseen horror.

She rasped weakly, “Siege of Weselton.  Battle of the Glittertinds.”

Maren gripped Elsa’s shoulders, trying to make their eyes connect.  But Elsa still quaked with fear and pain, looking beyond her. 

Why would she be naming battles during the Crocus War from over fifty years ago?  Were these more strange memories, like at Arne?

Eyes darted to the trio still waiting.  This was wrong. Really wrong.  The worry and confusion was readily apparent on the other’s faces, and Maren was sure it mirrored her own.

She leaned back, looking around the tree, trying to track the Shadows. They were still way too close.

“It hurts so much.”

Maren quietly hushed her, wrapping her arms around her, trying to surround her and comfort her as much as possible.  Her body was tense, straining against a silent enemy Maren couldn’t stab with an arrow. The soldier dumbly hugged her tighter, not knowing how else to assist.

Elsa’s hand flew to her mouth to muffle a cry.  Maren could see the tears starting to stream down her cheeks.

Maren said she wasn’t scared before. She was now. She didn’t know what to do.  If she could take the pain instead, she would’ve gladly volunteered.

Eyes frantically darted around for a solution.  They settled on the white rabbit still nearby, ears upright and alert, glowing eyes intensely focused on Elsa.

“Help, please,” Maren begged softly.

Nokk turned slightly to look at the Northuldran. The beady nose twitched.  Then, they lightly hopped to the nearby shrubs and disappeared from sight.

The rain was beginning to fall properly now, and Maren hoped the sound would help muffle the whimpers escaping the woman in her arms.  Water fell between the tree’s limbs and started to soak their clothes. 

Branches in the distance loudly snapped. Maren quickly poked her head around their tree. White blurred behind the Shadows at immense speed, heading east.

Two of the lumbering beasts immediately charged after the movement.  Thank Ahtohallan . Nokk had managed to pull the majority away, all without incriminating magic.

One Shadow, however, still remained, ghastly illuminated eyes scanning the thicket.

Shit. Maybe they could still sneak around now, the pouring was loud enough to—

Elsa’s body suddenly went limp, and Maren’s attention flew back to her. Her head drooped against Maren’s shoulder, eyes closed.

She murmured feverishly, “Anger...memory…”

“Elsa,” Maren dared to whisper, touching her lover’s face. It was glacial, colder than usual.

The mumbling continued, “Doubt to freedom.”

Hunched low, Anna and the others appeared at their side.  The trunk of the old, large pine could barely conceal all of them, even with the thick shrubs close by.

“What’s wrong?” Anna muttered.

“Don’t know, she’s hurt.”

Anna’s hand touched Elsa’s shoulder.  Kristoff peeked around the edge at their sole enemy, Olaf holding his breath in the man’s arms.

“Guilt...passion…” Elsa whined.

Maren whispered, “She’s delirious.”

“We’ll carry her.”  Anna began to firmly grip Elsa’s arm.

Elsa’s eyes snapped open. “What is strength?”

“Shhh,” Maren soothed, shooting Anna a panicked look.

“Strength?” Elsa questioned again, head beginning to toss.

“Not weak?” Anna muttered, trying to calm her sister, “We have to move you, Elsa.”

Maren was trying to stand and lift at the same time, but Elsa was starting to fight and pull from her.

“No.  Pain.  Need to balance.”

Maren stopped their struggling. Elsa was freezing in her arms.  She looked helplessly at Anna, who shook her head. Kristoff turned back from monitoring the enemy.

“What is strength?” Elsa whispered.

“Fighting?” Maren tried quietly, unsure of the answers, unsure of how to save them.

They were going to die and there was nothing she could do.

“Acceptance.”

They all glanced at Kristoff, who was offering Elsa a small smile.

“Strength is acceptance,” he murmured gently as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Elsa stared, mouth agape.

“Yes,” she sighed, frost glimmering in the air from her lips.  Eyes fluttered shut and her breathing steadied.

More thunder rumbled, much closer than before. Then again, and again, closer and closer, the ground beginning to shake.  Maren whipped her head towards the trees, realizing it wasn’t thunder.

It was footsteps.

The Shadow turned towards the noise just before a stony arm burst from the trees and punched the monster across the face.

An adolescent Earth Giant roared at the dark creature, still towering above the rhino, as tall as the trees.  When the Shadow lunged to counter, rocks and a massive foot slammed down upon the ground in a furious stomp that quaked the ground.

Another original spirit had returned. Maren looked down at Elsa, who now stared back lucidly.  She nodded quickly with a smirk.

Thank the Mother.  Elsa was better, and they could escape. Maren wasn’t about to sit around and ask questions.

“Hurry,” she commanded to the others as she and Elsa shoved off the dirt, the loud trembling of the ground from their huge savior easily masking any noise.

The heavy rain concealed them as they circled around behind the Shadow beginning to charge at the Giant.  Its black horn barely scraped the Earth spirit’s tough exterior before the boulder-like skull headbutted at the darkness. Maren lost sight of their continuing battle as she began to sprint northward.

Forest blurred by as they bolted forward.  The pounding sounds of the Giant’s attacks grew muffled and then disappeared as they rushed on. Maren kept them vaguely pointed in the right direction, the lingering image of Elsa’s painfully contorted face making her push and push until even the trained warrior needed to stop, the worry and adrenaline spent.

Hopefully, they had escaped.

Maren panted as their run slowed to a brisk walk, looking to Elsa, “How did you do that?  You just brought the Giants back with no magic?” 

Elsa showed no signs of depleted energy from her episode or any physical exertion from running. She shook her head.

“I’ve been so stupid.  It was never my magic that summoned the spirits. It was my emotions,” she asserted, eyes wide, “I was so angry at Halvor. And then there were those weird flashbacks at Arne and again today.”

They all followed her as she continued to move forward, batting away branches and ranting, “These memories and feelings I’ve been experiencing, the intense ones that I can’t tell if they’re mine or not. Dealing with them, balancing out the opposing forces, I think that’s what woke the spirits.  My magic just happens to reflect my emotions, so there was always this fallout.  It hurt, but I was able to contain it this time.”

She paused, turning to them all earnestly, hands jerking about as she spoke, “I know it sounds insane.  I can’t explain it. But I know it’s all connected. The Shadows, the spirits, all of it.”

Maren paused and placed a hand on her shoulder. She was just relieved Elsa was alright now, but they still had more urgent concerns.

“I believe you. Do we stick to the plan?  Ahtohallan ?”

Elsa nodded. “It’s the only place that might have answers.”

“Then we need to hurry,” Maren warned, looking at the others.

Kristoff adjusted Olaf in his arms, still breathless from their exit as he asked, “Do you think that episode blew our cover?”

Maren sighed, “Hard to say.  If we’re right the Shadows can somehow report back to the Islanders or whoever controls them, they might do the math.  New spirit comes back, Elsa has to be nearby.”

“Agreed.  Let’s be quick about it then,” Anna asserted, already moving forward again.

“Wait, can’t we rest a minute?” Kristoff gasped, leaning his free hand on his knee to crouch.

Anna narrowed her eyes on his stomach.  “I told you to lay off some of the wine.”

“It’s grapes.  Fruit!  That should be good for you!”

“You’ll be fine,” his wife muttered, nodding to Maren.

The Northuldran shot the prince a sympathetic look before she turned and began leading the way through the remainder of the woods.

She worried less about possible noise, hoping the continuing rain would keep them concealed to any other patrolling Shadows.  Instead, she focused on speed, jogging in bursts before allowing Kristoff short walks to catch his breath.  Bow in hand now, her eyes scanned the trees and twilight.

Dim, grey light pulled them from the forest and onto the far northern beaches.  What little of daylight was left remained hidden by the storm clouds.  Gravel and rocks lined their path rather than welcoming, soft sands.  The rain was steady, bordering on torrential. The Black Sea had a reputation for ferocity and did not disappoint. Waves churned menacingly beneath cracks of lightning. Maren glanced hesitantly at Elsa.

Had she really crossed this all on her own the first time?

Her betrothed smiled as she stepped forward towards the ocean, and Maren turned back to see an animal emerge from the water; translucent Nokk whipped around the fluffy, seafoamy tail of a fox and sat patiently at the shoreline.

Elsa looked to the rest of their party. “Ready?”  

Maren looked at the others. Anna shrugged, moving to properly holster her large axe to her back.  Kristoff placed Olaf on the ground.

The Northuldran steeled herself for whatever came next, taking the remaining steps to Elsa’s side.

Nokk turned to the horizon, ears twitching.

Water receded drastically like an instantaneous low tide, exposing the sandy underbelly of the shore.  Maren frowned at the sudden surge, squinting out to the sea. The line where water met sky started to rise too quickly.

The mortals gasped as a tsunami approached them.  Elsa and Nokk remained still as the deadly, towering wave rolled and bent towards the beach.

Maren tensed under the impending crash, instinctively holding her breath before they were swept under.  But none came.  Instead, the torrent splashed into two, spraying the shore on either side of them with powerful bursts of saltwater.

When the wave calmed, Nokk licked a paw before a wall of water held back by an invisible force. Maren felt her mouth fall open as a fish swam beside her. Ocean surrounded them on either side now, held back by an unseen barrier.

She loved magic.

“Sweet fuck.”

“Olaf!” Anna admonished, looking down in shock at the snowman.

They all turned as he gestured wildly with his branches to the new watery windows, shouting, “What?  You were all thinking it!”

Elsa cleared her throat with a small smile before gesturing to the fox and their way forward. “Shall we? Nokk will close the gap behind us, buy some more time if needed.”

The Northuldran tried to remain calm and collected as she stepped forward to begin their literal walk on the seafloor to the center of all living things: Ahtohallan .

She generally accepted the work of the spirits with ease, but even this was beyond incredible. Seaweed squished beneath her boots as she trudged forward, staring wide-eyed at the imposing grey mass that surrounded them.  Nokk’s bubble protected them as they continued forward and the ground slipped down as the waters depended.

This definitely beat some of the legends she had heard around the village growing up.

Maren shook her head. Yelana would’ve wet her pants to see this.

“How did you know there were Shadows earlier?” Elsa asked after a few moments of walking, looking at Maren, “You seem to sense them like I do, like the spirits.”

Maren shrugged, not fully sure herself. “Take your pick. Northuldra has always been more in tune with magic in the forest. I’ve also fought Shadows for years. I always felt this...pull to you. The Shadows feel like that, but wrong.”

She was enjoying Elsa’s little smirk at the more romantic part of her commentary, but Anna’s voice called out and interrupted from behind them.

“New couples always say such cheesy lines,” Anna said as her voice grew shrill and syrupy, “‘Fate has tied our heartstrings, I am pulled to you’.”

Maren glanced over her shoulder to see mocking, puckered lips blowing kisses at a snickering Kristoff.  They were clearly adapting well to the fact they were in the middle of the ocean.

“We’ve technically been engaged for five years.”

Anna continued on in high spirits, “Did I ever tell you about the time Elsa told me I couldn’t marry someone I had just met?”

“Everyone told you that,” Kristoff mumbled, stepping over a large formation of barnacles.

“Fair enough, but did she really need to enter a coma and have a lengthy engagement to prove a point?”

Elsa chuckled lightly at her sister’s outburst before smoothly commenting, “At least you knew both your engagements were, in fact, proposals.”

Maren goaned playfully, “I’m never hearing the end of that, am I?”

“You’re family now, we love bringing up past, cringe-worthy memories,” Kristoff laughed, loosely wrapping his arm around his wife’s waist as they walked forward.

Elsa nodded in agreement.  “This family is definitely more unique in that department.”

“You’re telling me.  I’m the most normal one here,” Olaf stated confidently as he physically removed his carrot nose to brush some sand off of it. 

Anna flatly replied, “Your mother stirred you together out of snow.”

“‘Mother’ seems a bit drastic,” Elsa added hesitantly, the discomfort clear on her face.

Anna’s high-pitched voice countered, “Oh? Sorry, his creator . Is that less dramatic?”

Maren had to bite her tongue to keep from smiling as Elsa sighed at her sister.

Olaf immediately looked up to the blonde and asked, “Mom, are they bothering you?”

Amidst a sea of giggles at her expense, Elsa leaned over to ask Maren, “Any regrets?”

The Northuldran glanced at Olaf and the others before looking into her girlfriend’s glittering blue eyes.

“Not at all. I like kids.”

Maren smiled as Elsa blushed.

Chapter Text

Even before Nokk’s watery fox stopped in place, Elsa knew they were close. With a simple tilt of her head, the wet seafloor easily obeyed her command to solidify and then rise. The icy platform deposited their party on Ahtohallan’s doorstep, the magnificent glacier glowing eerily in the rain.

The fortress of ice, across the ocean at the end of the world, welcomed her.

She tossed her braid over her back, standing tall before the steps leading to the entryway.  Even if her last trip hadn’t ended pleasantly, she did not fear Ahtohallan .  Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire were now fully aligned with Ice; beyond the forest, this was home, a friend, the Mother.

She would find the answers to end the war.

“Wow. My inner ice nerd is freaking out a little,” Kristoff crooned beside her, earning a light slap to the shoulder from Anna and giggles from Olaf.

Elsa turned, looking for the other member of their party, and saw Maren kneeling, looking up at the huge structure with awe.  Her fingers touched the ice with a reverence that made Elsa smile.  It felt intimate somehow. This was an intrinsic part of her soul, and Maren had cherished it even before they had met.

“She’s beautiful,” the Northuldran murmured, looking from Ahtohallan to Elsa.

“It’s cold,” Anna countered grumpily, crossing her arms.

“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.” Elsa teased as she offered a hand to Maren to help her stand.

Maren offered a sober smile as they all turned towards the entrance of the impending structure.

Elsa took a deep breath and then took the first step.  The others followed, and the descent into the icy belly began.

She brushed her fingers against the familiar tunnel, smooth and sparkling like glass as they walked forward. When the slick ground began to slope downwards, rather than happily slide down the familiar ramp, she manipulated steps into the surface behind her to assist the newcomers.  Pedestals rose from a dark chasm, evidence of where Elsa had literally leapt in excitement to cross during her last visit. She now easily expanded the ice to form a bridge for safe crossing.  They pressed on to the opening of a grand room.

Ice somehow captured the beauty of the aurora in impeccable stillness. Fluid colors and magnificent hues of blue, green, and purple were forever crystallized to form the heart of the glacier.  Elsa easily spotted the runes she had once placed on the floor here.

Something was missing.

“Odd. Last time I was here, I froze the memories.  This place was filled with them.”

Anna called out from behind her, “And?”

Elsa turned and looked at the others. “Where are they?”

Kristoff and Olaf glanced around the vast space, as if hoping to locate a secret hiding place. Elsa pointedly noticed Maren’s hand fall to rest on the hilt of her sword.

Her sister shrugged back, “Maybe they dissolve?”

Elsa frowned, and for the sake of saiting her own curiosity, slowly turned in place. Mist kicked up at her feet and lazily spread across the gapping space.  Statuettes soon covered and dominated the area as the haze cleared.  Much like her first visit, some even moved, mimicking their real life counterparts.

She smiled as she watched everyone’s surprise turn gleeful, moving to inspect the pieces of the past. Kristoff and Anna immediately were pointing at old versions of themselves. Olaf was running around excitedly.  Even Nokk was amused.  When she glanced at Maren, however, she noticed she was still, seemingly observing one memory with serious intention. Elsa took a step closer.

Ryder’s frozen twin was smiling at them.

She recognized the snicker, having seen the same on his sister’s face, though she did not recall the past moment in which this memory was captured.  A handful of various acorns, however, hinted at the story her betrothed had once recalled.

A sad smile alighted Maren’s face when she murmured, “Thank you for sharing this with me.”

“Of course.”

Her pale fingers brushed the woman’s back.  All she could offer was a brief second of comfort; they were already on borrowed time, quickly running out.  But the soldier seemed to understand.  She always did.

Maren gave a single nod.  Elsa smiled before turning away.

“I think what we must be looking for is farther in,” she then said loudly, gaining the attention of the others. 

She traced the path from last time. Through the gap, down the tunnel, deeper and darker until only dim blue light traced the faded silhouettes of trees.  The walkway swept further and further down until they reached a pointed ledge and peered down at the absolute blackness beneath it.

“That’s deep,” Kristoff commented with a whistle.

Anna glanced hesitantly at her sister.  “Is that where you froze to death last time?”

Elsa nodded. “It won’t happen again.”

When the queen still looked doubtful, she added, voice firm, “I’m stronger now.  The ice is mine.”

“No offense, but what about us? It’s already pretty chilly.”

“I’m not worried,” the literal snowman quipped at their feet.

“Thanks for your concern about the rest of us,” Anna deadpanned, glaring down.

“You won’t freeze.  Trust me,” her sister reassured her.

A hand touched her shoulder.  Maren’s small smile greeted her.

“I’m with you.” 

Anna’s voice was calmer now when she added, “So are we.”

Elsa looked at each of her family and friends. Trust. Love.

She cupped her hands, and a small pearl of shimmering white light hummed into existence above her palms. Translucent but filmy, the bubble of light expanded steadily until it encompassed Nokk, Olaf, and the others completely.  While Elsa didn’t feel much of a difference, her companions visibly grew less rigid and stopped shivering under the halo of dim light that held back the cold darkness.

With a nod, Elsa then stepped off the ledge into the plunging nothingness.   A panel of ice instantly manifested beneath her. With each step, stairs unfolded under her feet. The others hesitantly and cautiously followed her until their feet eventually hit the thick ice of the pit.

With a puff of breath, more mist stretched into oblivion, and more frozen memories emerged in a hazy blue outline in the shadows.  Elsa recognized these figures from her previous descent.  Echos of the Northuldra walked and posed here, illustrating memories from her father’s childhood, maybe even older, when Arendellians first met the People of the Sun.  Maren’s eyes were wide with wonder, darting between the remnants of her ancestors.  Elsa resolved to bring the leader back when this was all over.

As they pushed on, the stinging cold and black void beyond their small light seemed to grow, feeling heavy and oppressive compared to the upper levels of the glacier.  Their steps echoed in the grand emptiness. Elsa felt the alert anxiety amongst them and recognized the caution on her allies’ faces.  Secrets buried so deeply brought the risk of danger, and despite her assurances, one fact seemingly remained in their consciousness:  Elsa died here.

The memories slowly changed. Haunting statues weakly lit in the chilly indigo light began to line their path. Soldiers upon soldiers forever paused in mid-fight, with only brief seconds of movement illuminating plunging swords and shattered shields.  Indeed, death was entombed here as scenes of battle overwhelmed them as far as they could see.

Something even more troubling caught their eye.

“It’s the old Arendellian uniform again,” Maren observed quietly.

Elsa kept scanning the thousands of memories.  “As we get deeper, they must get older.”

“These look like during the Crocus War.”

Just like her own painful visions.  Their gazes briefly met before cautiously continuing to push forward.

From the thick darkness, Elsa’s light suddenly reflected off a wall of white, opaque quartz.  A large chunk of ice protruded into the vast, seemingly never-ending room.  As they drew closer, the familiar diamond symbols of the spirits circled around a central point, accompanied by two small squares on either side.  Etchings of a snowflake connected the shapes like branches of a tree.

Elsa tried to remain calm.  Six points.  The wheel.  The snowflake.

This was what they were looking for.

“The runes formed a similar pattern when I first arrived,” she announced.

Anna added, “Your two little dots are there too, in the design.”

They simply needed to open it.  The Ice spirit looked down to her Water counterpart.

“Any ideas?”

The fox lifted a sole paw.

Simple enough, Elsa thought.  She reached out and placed her palm against the barrier.  The center rune began to glow white.

“Now you?”

Nokk shook their head. They trotted up to the wall, touching their nose to the ice. Nothing happened.

Elsa dropped her hand, and the light of her rune died. She looked back down at the other spirit.  More cat-like than a fox, Nokk began to brush against Elsa’s leg, sending ripples of thoughts to the woman.

“Is it broken?” Anna asked.

Elsa frowned. “Nokk keeps saying ‘together,’ but I don’t understand.”

Water paused, glancing back up with bright eyes.  Then the icy fox began to dissolve into snow. A blue orb of light hovered in its place.

The light shot into Elsa’s body.

Her vision swam. Bruni’s lizard body lounging on a rock by the Northuldra border went up in flame, a red light shooting to the sky. Gale whipping through the trees, before swirling into a vortex of purple. The newest Giant pausing in the pursuit of a Shadow, growing calm and gentle, stone crumbling into dust and producing a green orb.

Blackness, night sky. An aurora appeared, bending colors, breathing light.

Ahtohallan and her friends returned with her sight. Maren’s lips were moving, looking intently at her, but Elsa couldn’t hear.

Red, purple, and green lights brightly reflected off the walls. They all turned to see three balls of light surging towards them. Elsa extended her hand, and they eagerly joined her.

No words could explain. Science and logic had no place here. But Elsa suddenly knew and understood. Through the sacrifice of their bodies, the magic of the spirits was made more potent. Fusion granted them her deep pools of energy. And in turn, their powers were hers. Yes, souls together, balanced, united, this was stronger, better.

This was her role as the center element, in the name of securing balance. Together .

Sound returned to her, and it was loud.

“Elsa, what happened?”

Elsssssa .

Shall we open the door, sister?

“I’m alright,” she muttered to Maren, blinking profusely as she tried to focus on the wall before her. Them . The four spirits all strained to see through her eyes, all speaking, all existing at once.

Snowflake. Storm. Wheel. She was no longer just in the middle, but encompassed all of it.

Elsa fought the dizziness and extended her hand. Her skin was glittering with frost.  When she now touched the wall, each rune lit up. Blue, red, green, purple, and her own white splashed across the designs, the aurora flowing through the engravings of the snowflake.

The ice disappeared. A perfect hexagonal archway now offered a way forward, though she could see only fog and darkness.

Elsa inhaled deeply and slowly. The opposing elements were like screaming children packed tightly in a cramped space.  It was as if she alone was attempting to keep a lid closed on a bottle about to explode.

TOGETHER .

Which way, which way?

When she refocused, her friends were inspecting her with a mix of concern and awe.

 “You’re very glowy,” Olaf assessed next to her.

“The spirits are inside me now.”

She concentrated on breathing through her discomfort as Fire irritated Water, Earth resisted Wind, and they clashed like disgruntled siblings. 

Maren tilted her head. “But you were connected with them before.” 

Elsa looked down at her hands, inspecting the white light radiating from ice beading on her skin. She winced, unsure how to explain. 

“Our minds touched before, but this?  Their souls are here, using my body, my energy.  Existing all at once. It’s a bit overwhelming.”

“Why don’t you take a seat then? Rest. Stay awhile,” a voice drawled behind them.

They all turned to the long, echoing chamber behind them from whence they came.  The new figure wore the signature blue of the Southern Isles, coat and pants clearly of royal quality despite looking a little worn. In fact, the jacket seemed too thin to assist with the cold, but Elsa could sense the acute magic at work, just like hers.  Deep bags under the eyes made the overall facial expression rather sinister.

Hans was smiling at them.

“I’ve been waiting so long for you, Highness. He said you would come,” he practically purred at them, dipping into a mocking bow.

Anna quickly drew her axe and growled, “Why am I not surprised my shitty ex-boyfriend would be behind this?”

“Please, our nations are at war, and you believe your pathetic attempt at romance is behind all of this?” he scoffed before grinning deviously at the other sister, “Lady Elsa is my prize today.”

“Over my dead body,” Maren grunted, the string of her bow already tightly pulled back.

“That can be arranged. But let’s not be so hasty. We should savor this. It’s been a long time.”

“Here comes the villain's monologue of their dastardly plan,” Olaf grumbled behind them.

“I’m not the villain. You are,” Hans spat, his charismatic mask cracking, eyes growing wild.

“We’ve already played this game, Hans.  You’re not taking Arendelle,” Elsa stated calmly but sternly.

“On the contrary, I’m taking the whole world. I think I’ll make quite the fine king. Emperor? Overlord? Titles are still being workshopped,” he explained chipperly, slipping back into control, “But where are my manners? Thank you so much for bringing the key.”

“What key?” Anna barked.

“Really?” he crooned, looking back at Elsa.

The door.  The Ice spirit shuttered.

“It’s not that he couldn’t find Ahtohallan . He just couldn’t open it,” she whispered in horror.

What had she done?

Hans clapped his hands together in mock applause.

“And that’s why she’s the smart sister. Though perhaps not smart enough,” he jeered, “But I suppose I should be glad that little attack on the fjord didn’t kill you like I originally intended. When I snuck in here that night, the magic lock was a surprise. It was very disappointing to have to wait so long for you to show up again.”

Elsa swallowed.  What curse or magic had allowed him to survive here for five years?

“Fort Arne. It was to capture her, not kill her.” Maren muttered, an arrow still aimed at the man’s head.

Hans sighed dramatically, “What a waste of energy. That was before I realized, if I simply waited a little longer, you would come here all on your own.”

“Whatever you’re after, we won’t let you pass,” Elsa intoned resolutely, raising her hands.

“Oh, Highness, I’m not here to let myself in,” he crooned back, gesturing to the opening behind them, “We’re here to let him out.”

“Hello, my granddaughters.”

They all whipped their heads to the new voice.  The fog parted.  A face Elsa had only seen in paintings and books stared back.

The face of King Runeard of Arendelle, her grandfather.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” Anna uttered in disbelief.

“The greatest warriors know how to cheat death,” Runeard countered, confident and calm.

As he strolled towards them, Elsa’s stomach lurched.  His presence, his stride, each step seemed to tap against her forehead. She felt him, felt it.

Something tethered her to this entity.  This was another spirit.

“It’s not him,” Elsa grunted, sudden pressure pushing down on her chest.

As he continued forward and emerged fully from the darkness beyond the glacial archway, catching the light, the forest green of his uniform unnaturally darkened, his face and form flashing black.  His whole figure reflected an ominous purple around the edges as black swirled across his body. Like a Shadow.

Runeard’s deep voice questioned back, “No? What is a man if not his memory? His reputation?”

His words shook her, jagged vibrations knocking her skull, inciting aches in the others inside her.  Echoes of a time when they were once sore and shivering with madness.

Elsa gasped, “You…you were what made the spirits sick so long ago, turned them against the Northuldra. So much anger and hatred.”

Another step forward, and the illusion of a man easily fell back in place to nullify the obsidian gleam.  Runeard looked down as he continued slowly stepping around their group, brushing at his royal sash.

“Anger is healthy. Anything else breeds weakness. Yes, I’ve been locked away in this prison for decades. But anger kept me alive. Even if it required a filthy tool like magic, but I’m not above getting my hands dirty,” he explained evenly, white gloves disappearing as he tucked his hands behind his back and under his cape.

The pain was spreading.  Elsa doubled-over, hands pressing to her stomach.

“You poisoned it.  Them,” she choked out.

Runeard looked unphased at her comments, keeping his head held regally high, expression set with his heavy eyebrows and mustache.

“I had drive, something you would know nothing of.  After all, even with your little incident with the dam, you still failed to fully eradicate what I left behind.  I waited for so long.  Whispering in the darkness,” he surmised to the room as he continued walking around them, before his eyes narrowed on Elsa with a menacing smile, “But that’s the beauty, isn’t it?  There’s a dark corner in everyone’s heart, listening.”

As he leered at her, the collective souls in Elsa's body recoiled at anger, doubt, guilt, fear, and the flood of emotional turmoil that shot through her.  The desire to unleash her all her energy, to destroy, to dominate, it taunted her as the only remedy.

All this time she had been the conduit for all spirits, and this master of tainted panic and foreign sensations had been subtly toying with her. Here and now, it was in full force, in a pain so absolute, the other elements screamed and battered inside her.

“I will not answer your dark call,” she hissed through gritted teeth.

Hans groaned, “So dramatic. Don’t worry, I did. He showed me how to make my revenge quite sweet.  Shall I show them, Your Majesty?”

Runeard shook his head as he came to a stop beside the Islander.

“Allow me to edify my grandchildren.”

He merely waved his hand.

Four voices in Elsa’s head screamed as her own shriek broke from her throat.

Here, in the heart and Mother of all things, connected and close as they were, she felt the anger and hatred slice through her like stinging hot iron, ripping away her energy and feeding it to the corruption unfolding before her.  Tears of black ink ran down the faces of each frozen memory she had created.  As the extension of her magic was vilely twisted, she felt the memories themselves grow inflamed and infected. The delicate mirror of the past hardened and corroded. Blood and war, Runeard’s armies, the innocent soldiers slain, the obsession slammed against her, swirling and darkening and spoiling until only Shadow remained. 

The others gasped as the frozen figures fully bled to black, the manifestation of his wrath complete.  The Shadows stood at the ready.

“Impossible,” Elsa whispered.

Was this Aether’s power?

Runeard frowned with a lifted brow.   “You’re surprised. I expected more from my descendants. Your sculptures were very easy to animate, full of life. The perfect army. Under your guidance, such wasted potential. Under me, limitless.”

His dark pupils flashed.

“Just like the rest of your magicks.”

Invisible hands began to choke Elsa’s throat.

“You shall make a vessel suitable to return to the physical world,” the phantom continued, voice booming in her head.

For the first time in her life, Elsa felt cold.  She strained to resist, unable to breath.

She continued to watch helplessly as an arrow shot through Runeard’s body, simply phasing through and clacking against the ice behind him. The silver tip did nothing to the unflinching form.

“Elsa!” Maren’s voice shouted somewhere far away.

Agony seemed to stretch on into endless eternity, infinite nothingness.  Her sight blurred.

Anna appeared before her, hand touching her, lips moving in front of her, but the sound was distant and muffled.

The quiet was surrounding her.  Body and soul were to be separated.  He, it, this spirit, was draining her magic and spirit.

A shadowy abyss beckoned her.

Together .

Voices began to chant, filling the silent void.

“No.”

Four souls held on to hers.  

“No!”

Her scream banished the pain, sight and sound returned. Elsa caught her breath and straightened, nodding briefly to the others.

She then glared at this other spirit. 

Runeard sighed as if bored, “Hm. Too many souls to rip out. Disappointing, but not unexpected.”

He turned lazily to the side. “Thankfully, I prepared an alternative.”

Hans suddenly started clawing at his own throat.

“No! You said I would lead the new world!” he screeched, wheezing against an unseen force.

“And you shall, more or less,” Runeard mused nonchalantly, tilting his head, “Your body will, at any rate.”

An inhumane shriek ripped from Hans’ body as a translucent white veil seemed to split from his skin.  They all watched in stunned horror as the cloud-like mass mimicked Hans’ face and form.  Runeard drew it forward, then cast it aside to the cold ground, a forgotten ghost expelled into nothingness.

The Shadow of her grandfather then stepped to the remaining husk like it was merely a change of clothes.  The spirit was made whole with soul and body.

Elsa grimaced.  A spirit that could remove souls and enter bodies.  This was beyond her magic, any known magic.  Impossible.  And yet, had the other souls not just entered her own body?  Had she not this darkness tightened its grip around her own heart mere moments before…?

Hans’ face smiled, but the voice wasn’t his.

“A real body,” Runeard’s deep voice hummed, eyes closed, rolling his new shoulders, “Much better. Now to finish what I started so long ago before my pathetic son turned to groveling and peace.”

Eyelids slid open.  Dark, inky pupils glared at them.

“Arendelle will be the global empire it was destined to be.”

“Last I checked, I was queen,” Anna barked back, giving her axe a spin, “so I’ll be deciding Arendelle’s fate, thanks.”

Elsa, in the face of death, smiled.  Her sister held no fear, even now.

She glanced at the archer still determinedly aiming an arrow at their enemy.  The golden eyes slid to meet hers.  Maren nodded.

Love.  Water, Wind, Fire, and Earth swelled within her chest.

Elsa had freed all the other spirits. This one had remained hidden, festered, but it was her duty to restore balance. Whether this was Aether, Time, or something else, she was bound to it, and it to her.

Elsa stated firmly, “Your wrath is no longer welcome in this world.”

Runeard merely shrugged.  “Pity. Then die.”

As he turned his back to walk away, the hundreds of black memories he had summoned surged forward, and Shadows suddenly surrounded them.

Elsa immediately held up her hand, channeling magic forward.  Rather than ice, however, a cyclone of wind blasted forward, throwing Shadows wildly back yards away.  Even the caster stumbled backwards from the unfamiliar, pressurized vortex.

Gale, always so free and untethered, had easily gone first.  The others were eager to catch up, pricking at her veins to fill with their energies.

She winced and tried again.

With a twist and a punch, flame erupted from Elsa’s knuckles as a burst of purple fire engulfed the monsters charging them.  They screeched madly as the inferno consumed them.  The icy floor began to crack under the intense temperature.  Elsa halted the heat; while the glacier was large enough to endure, she would not risk sinking and drowning her friends by bringing down the whole of Ahtohallan upon them.

Bringing her hand to her chest, Elsa flinched against a growing ache and tried to feel the feelings of another soul. Moisture beaded on the fractured, melted ice below, droplets now levitating into the air.  She could feel the ocean sighing beneath Ahtohallan ; Elsa breathed in, Nokk breathed out.

Both hands pushed out and sent a tidal wave bursting from the fissures below. She stumbled back from the velocity of her own jettison. Salt water and brine streamed through a group of the monsters, their black mist quickly dissolving before more creatures took their place.

Elsa sloppily dodged Shadow after Shadow and flung her hands forward, hoping the right magic would fly forward.  It had taken her over twenty-five years to master her element alone; beginning again and learning in the milliseconds between attacks was not ideal.  Ice was control and precision.  As Wind and Fire leapt forward without thought and consumed greedily, Elsa exerted great mastery to reign them in.  Water required temperament between calm tranquility and devouring abyss.  Earth’s blind, obliterating strength needed direction and careful aiming.

With each power, emotion pumped through her, each heartbeat like a shuddering stab.  The excitement, the passion, the anger, all of it raw and bleeding together, each element’s fears and dreams, the good and the bad, spiraled in Elsa’s core.  Only she could control the chaos of multiple spirits so absolute in their natures fusing and colliding.

Shadows grew too close as she struggled to maintain momentum, juggling the souls locked inside.  Maren’s arrows flew past her, and she could hear the guttural hacking of Anna’s axe.  One of the tainted beings spun towards her, swinging scythe-like arms in a violent dance.

Instinct demanded ice, but urgent need accidentally summoned fire. The Shadow dodged the blast, twisting speedily back.  Black blades sliced into her right forearm, and she leapt back with a mangled yelp.  The beast, however, still pursued.  She raised her left arm to block the incoming attack.

Again, Elsa willed her ice forward to protect herself. Again, another answered. Her arm hardened, but instead of the familiar cold, a grey, mossy stone surfaced on her skin.  The Earth deflected the cutting edge, sending sparks flying.

She dropped, kicking her leg in a sweeping arc.  Wind shot her leg forward at breakneck speed, and the Shadow burst into dark haze as she sliced through it.  Elsa twisted out of control and slammed facedown against the frozen ground.

It did little to help with her headache.

She dizzily hopped up and glanced down at her injured arm from the Shadow’s cuts. Frost already glistened upon the surface, the bleeding stopped.  Her magic was working, just not when she wanted it to.

With a frustrated shout, Elsa slammed her foot down, and earthen, rocky spikes shot from the ground to exterminate dozens of Shadows still incoming. She turned to see Kristoff’s silver sword parrying an enemy’s attack, Olaf huddled at his feet. As soon as she raised her hand to issue a frozen pike, a fireball launched forward instead.  The blow singed the Shadow, but Kristoff narrowly avoided grabbing Olaf and jumping back to save themselves from the flame.

Her skull wanted to split in half. They were all pushing to escape, to feel, to exert their powers.  She couldn’t keep fumblingly switching between them as if they were separate.

She breathed.

Control. Balance. They were all pieces of a whole.

Together .

She pointed to the sky, fingers slicing through the air, making it thick and hot.  Fire and Wind immediately fused together, pressure shifted, and energy exploded.

Lightning pounded down from the top of the icy dome down onto the Shadows, each strike rocking the ground with a thunderous clap.  The creatures scrambled to dodge out of the way.

Elsa bent at the knees, firmly grounded, and commanded Fire and Earth merge.  When her open palm pushed forward, a surge of molten lava blasted across the moving fray of monsters, the wave dissolving them into dust. As the impossibly hot magma hit the ice, the ground sizzled and steamed as it melted.

Water easily escaped from the ice, and Elsa bid it join the lava. Wind joined in the cooling.  The glowing red ooze speedily darkened and hardened to rock.  Earth cracked huge chunks and sent them barreling into the hoards.

She pulled the steam and smoke still lingering from Fire’s touch on Ahtohallan’s skin.  Water’s moisture.  Wind’s breath. Glowing mist and fog rapidly billowed across the chamber.

Then Ice demanded everything freeze.

The haze hardened and immediately encapsulated each enemy. Only crystallized statues remained. Their pocket in the glacier grew silent.  Elsa simply bowed her head, and the frozen monsters crumpled into snowdust.

She and the spirits had exterminated every Shadow.  Together.

Then, she crumbled under their joined weight.

Elsa fell to her knees, hands crashing against the ice.  Screwing her eyes shut and gritting her teeth, she struggled to hold back the power still crackling through her. Her ribcage felt like a pathetic prison against the spirits all shoved in her heart, clawing for space, feeding on her energy. Differing personalities and alignments would be impossible to balance like this.

Five souls was too much for one body.  Even if she was never drained of her magic, the pain would kill her.

Hands touched her shoulders.  Maren’s voice was beside her.  “What’s wrong?”

“It’s too much.”

“Release them.”

Voices pleaded with her, raised in unison.  Regenerating their bodies would take too much time and deplete their energies. Runeard had to be stopped now.

Elsa explained between gulps of air, “We need them, their power. Without bodies, they can’t help us.”

“Then share them.”

Her eyes flashed open. Maren looked completely serious, kneeled beside her.

“How?”

The ranger frowned slightly in contemplation, but her gaze never wavered.  Elsa winced past the pain to keep meeting the golden intensity staring at her, the woman she loved.  Maren’s chin lifted.

“Spirits, I am the leader of Northuldra, People of the Sun,” she intoned firmly, “I offer my body in the service of Ahtohallan and Lady Elsa.”

Before Elsa could react, an invisible hand punched her stomach, lungs expelling breath. Foggy frost pushed past her lips and flew to Maren’s.

Sensations that weren’t hers filled Elsa’s veins. Flashes of life through Maren’s eyes blinded her vision.  The cold kiss of air whipping past her as she rode her reindeer across the plains. Elsa’s own hair blowing elegantly in the fall breeze. The brush of an arrow feather against her cheek as she released her bowstring. Untethered, unafraid. All Maren’s, and yet, now Elsa’s.

Gale, Wind, the Spirit of Freedom, had chosen her.

Maren stared at her, eyes wide.  “I can feel you.”

They both looked down between them.  A miniature tornado swirled in Maren’s palm.

Some of the ache in Elsa’s head subsided. In its place, she sensed Gale, sensed Maren.  Her breathing, her emotions…her. Connected.

“Right, us next.”

She looked up to see Kristoff and Anna stepping towards her.  They each offered their hands. Elsa firmly gripped both, and they hoisted her up from the ground, the surge of energy ripping through her arms and flashing across her eyes.

The fierce determination to climb an insurmountable mountain to save her sister. The unflinching loyalty to family, to love. The rage of a swinging axe to the sound of cannon fire. The feel of the crisp sun on her skin and the warmth of Kristoff’s smile. Red hair, boiling blood, hot-headed, a daughter of the Summer Solstice.

Bruni, Fire, the Spirit of Passion had passed to Anna.

Hard ice. Harder winters. The love and protection of the rock trolls. Endurance, resilience, patience.  The smell of hay and barns and Sven’s fur.  Acceptance. The solid ring of gold on the left hand.  Weathered, but unbroken.

Giant, Earth, the Spirit of Strength selected Kristoff.

Their hands separated. Elsa swayed slightly, but the relief was immediate as the weight was lifted, the cacophony in her head reduced to its proper volume. Water expanded, more easily filling the now emptied cup. 

“I will now accept my powers of Water to command the seas!” Olaf declared, sashaying up to Elsa with his twigs held high in the air.

Gentle Nokk, however, nudged Elsa towards a form slumped against the wall.   It was crying.  Quiet sobs shivered the white mass curled on the ice.

Hans’ soul, or what was left of it, expelled from the body Runeard had stolen.

She tilted her head in contemplation of the other spirit’s guidance.

“He has no body.”

Ease and assurance washed over her.  The shapeshifter had no qualms with using a puppet.  

Without question or hesitation, Elsa spun a finger over the ground.  A small flurry of snow gave birth to a perfect, icy replica of Hans.  She touched its shoulder, Nokk swam forth, and they began to walk forward to the discarded soul.

“Elsa?”

The eldest sister turned and quieted her sister’s concern with a small smile.

“What…what’s it doing?”

They all turned towards the anxious voice cowering in fear of the approaching ice sculpture.  Nokk reached out and touched what was left of Hans.

Elsa closed her eyes as the flood began.

The backs of so many brothers, all turned. Faceless but imposing.  Lineage. Prestige. Sand between the toes. The kind, wrinkled eyes of the old fishermen at the market.

Stinging embarrassment and shame in the rotting ship’s hold sailing from Arendelle. Backs of brothers forever turned away.  Whispers.

The taste of salt. A small knife peeling away the scales of a fish.

The anger, the fear. Whispers, another voice, promising revenge, redemption. A knife in the backs of so many brothers, blood on Elsa’s hand, Hans’ hand.  Warships blocking the horizon. Bloody sunsets. Bloody hands.

Bright days. Glistening waters.  Childlike hands happily picking up shells.

“What’s happening to me?” Hans’ fearful voice broke through Elsa’s visions.  His visions, his memories.

“Nokk is showing you what you’ve forgotten, what Runeard took away when he tempted you with power. Your love of the ocean. The love of your island, your country,” she explained, stepping towards him.

The prince’s soul still stared bewilderedly at the puppet kneeling before him, touching his arm.

“I just wanted to make them proud,” he whispered between shuddering breaths, “He spoke to me of the glory I could bring.  He was in my head for so long, keeping me alive down here for years, making me control the dark ones…” Hans trailed off and closed his haunted eyes.

Elsa spoke gently as she stood above him, “You still can. Water, the Spirit of Memory, has chosen you. What are you really fighting for?”

The haggard crying slowly stopped as they waited in the quiet.  The ghost slowly opened his eyes.

“I remember now.  I will help you.”

He touched Nokk’s face cheek, his cheek. The shimmering white of the figure faded.  The sculpture’s chest began to rise and fall naturally.

“I don’t like this,” Anna grunted.

Elsa calmly replied, “I can feel his soul as clearly as I feel yours now. As you feel mine.”

Hans stood, looking down to his frozen hands before turning to the others.

“Let me fix what I’ve broken.”

“You better,” the queen muttered, strapping her weapon to her back and picking up Olaf.

“We have to stop Runeard, or whatever that entity was, before he reaches the continent,” Elsa announced.

The spirits that connected them all reacted in unison.  They all began to run.

As they bolted across the ice, Maren called out to Hans, “He showed you how to control the Shadows?”

“Yes and no,” he answered between breaths, “ It takes a lot of energy to summon them, at least for me. But that actual act of it is very easy.  I would focus on my feelings and just...will it to happen.”

Elsa glanced over her shoulder at the others as they talked. “Feelings?”

Maren nodded to her. “Like your magic.”

“Like our magic now.”

“If Aether is real, it must still be sick.  You never freed it.  Like how the other spirits used to attack,” Kristoff huffed as they pushed on.

Elsa sighed, “I hate that we can’t see what or who we’re really fighting.”

“I can see my axe going into darling Granddad’s head just fine,” Anna declared, jogging even faster.

Hans quipped, “Careful, that’s my head currently.”

Chapter Text

As soon as Anna safely deposited Olaf at the mouth of Ahtohallan, Elsa wasted no time darting to the churning water of the Black Seas and leaping off the island of ice.  Caps of solid white blossomed beneath her feet as she charged across the ocean.  Rain pelted the Maren’s face as the rest of them followed with surprising ease, the mortal body no longer feeling as limited as it once did.  Gray skies, however, kept the soldier sober to why they were here, why a spirit’s power now connected her to Elsa.

The pursuit was quick.  Keen senses and sharp eyes easily spotted Runeard’s form slowly walking on water towards the coast.  An eerie slime shimmered and floated in the wake of his footsteps like spilled torch oil. When Elsa paused, the frozen path halted forward momentum, instead stretching out to the sides.  They stood at the ready on this new stage.

Their enemy looked lazily over his shoulder.

“Hm, still alive. Well, if you want something done, best handle it yourself,” he mused half-heartedly.

He snapped his fingers.  The violent sea stilled as choppy waves peaked above the waterline, halted at their crest. The gray saltwater barely visible to the mortal eye under the storming, nighttime darkness swirled further upwards, mutating, blackening further.  The haunted shine of Shadows’ eyes flashed amongst the murk.

Maren grimaced.  Water held memory, and he could manipulate it.

The phantom Runeard walking on water slowly began to levitate, crossing his arms as he circled above them.

Maren felt their collective gasp.  Whatever this was, man or spirit or monster, it had shown power over Ice, Water, and now Wind.  Somewhere inside Maren, Gale billowed.  Wind could never be his.  The Northuldran was inclined to agree.

Elsa calmly flipped a hand palm-side up.  The slight gesture immediately summoned a disc of ice.  As she stepped aboard, the circular, glass-like panel immediately flew her to Runeard’s height, and together they drifted, staring each other down.

There were no words. Elsa’s will trembled through the others in their connected minds.  The former queen would take the former king.  Maren had to focus on the fight below and trust Elsa to handle hers. Everyone else steeled themselves as they focused on the fully manifested Shadows now gliding across the open ocean directly for them. 

Her hand fell to her to her bow, snatching it from her quiver, instinct rapidly guiding and preparing for the quick toss to her other hand, readying arrows, firing into the abyss, and—

Something else took over. She flung her bow into the choppy waves with a splash.

What in the name of Ahtohallan was– 

Ssssssstupid!

A Shadow leapt towards her before she could object to the voice in her head. Maren took a step back to dodge the oncoming attack and found herself roughly tossed upwards by a stream of air shooting from her boots.  She shouted as she fumbled and flipped backwards before thudding against the ice with her shoulder.

It shockingly didn’t hurt as much as she expected.  But a black halberd head swinging towards her face didn’t allow her to dwell.  Maren rolled, and the Shadow's limb skewered into the ice.

With a grunt she bounced to her feet.  The urgent impulse to draw her sword cut through her.  Her hand did not answer.

Focussssssss .

Maren swiveled on her toes as the monster kept hacking towards her, and she hastily hopped back with each strike in retreat.  For once in her whole military career, she did not feel as if a mere fraction of a second had saved her life against these monsters.  She was different now. She was faster.

But her body refused to listen to much else. As she effortlessly dodged each assault, the soldier’s instinct to grasp her hilt was squashed and dismissed by something else inside her.  Gale’s hissed whispers demanded she do better with no instruction.  Spirits, this was insane!

As she jumped back in pure desperation, Maren punched at the empty space before her.  A mere puff fled from her knuckles, only briefly slowing the beast, shaking its head like an animal whose fur had been inconveniently ruffled.

It was no better than a belch.

Shit.

The Shadow easily countered, sending Maren on the defensive once more. Others were joining in the fray, and she hopped and bounced as multiple of the black, morphed weapons fell down upon her.

Fire flashed nearby.  It seemed Anna was doing much better.

Maren grimaced as she bounded about the icecap.  She had seen Elsa obliterate masses of Shadows with huge blasts of air mere moments ago, after the Ice spirit had only gained the control of Wind minutes beforehand.  Certainly Maren could do better than this?

Another punch briefly stunned an attacker with a puff of air before it pushed forward once more.

What was wrong? 

She couldn’t let down everyone she loved.  Their lives, the whole damn world, were at risk.

A punch, a kick.  Breezes practically caressed her opponents.

Doubt pricked at her; she couldn’t do this.

Fear stung her as the dark beings inched closer, barely missing her.

Wait.  Emotion. Elsa always said emotion controlled magic.

Maren flipped over a charging enemy, landing precariously near the edge of the berg.

Freedom.  That had been Gale’s true nature.  Unhinged and undoubting.

She was the leader of Northuldra.  She did not fear magic.  There was no room to doubt herself.

Surrendering to the spirit inside, Maren immediately launched herself directly at the nearest Shadow, throwing her whole body towards the beast and its edged blade. The air behind her exploded with a sonic boom as she vaulted forward at obliterating speed.  She tore through the void, dark dust quickly vanishing as she exploded through.

Gale’s laughter heartily flew through Maren’s throat.  It was odd sharing a body, to say the least.

She immediately whipped around to meet the next one, kicking her leg across her body.  A burst of wind arced out, slicing through the Shadow before it melted into smoke.

She pushed on.  Maren learned quickly.  The fist was heavy; the open palm was lighter with swift chops.  Air could cut like a fine, fast blade.  Strong wind was a paradox; it was speed that made invisible nothingness fierce, not weight, not more power.  Light and rapid momentum from her dexterity, not her strength.  Decisive confidence.  No time for second-guessing.  

Like pulling a bowstring, she inhaled.  Release.  A shrill whistle pierced from her lips that made the inky forms around her begin to quiver and vibrate, releasing their own maddened screeches.  The stunned targets easily went down with a few swipes.

More came, and Maren began again.  And again.

Elsa was a damn artist to think and create so quickly.  Maren physically felt invincible as she somersaulted over the hoards and obliterated dozens with a sweep of her arm, but the mental challenge of creation, the surges of magic clinging so absolutely to her emotions was draining.  How had Elsa not gone crazy?

Heat pricked her skin, distinct against the cold rain atop the ice.  Maren glanced over her shoulder to see the head of Anna’s axe wreathed in flame like a huge torch.  The queen cleaved a Shadow in half as it burst into fire and smoke.  Kristoff barreled into view, swinging an arm coated in brown, mossy stone, delivering a punishing punch to another.

Pressure shifted, and she whipped her head around to see a monster leaping towards her.  Maren darted forward ready to strike, but a torrent of water shot across the ice and collided with the beast.  She turned to see a smirk on Hans’ face.  Maren nodded.

She quickly assessed the icecap.  Gray horizon, rain, a glowing Ahtohallan .  No more black Shadows crawled amongst them.

Looking to the sky above, her mouth dropped.

White blurred against the brooding clouds.  Icicles surged forth at impossible speeds from Elsa’s rapidly moving hands.  Runeard’s own mirrored her actions, and the radiant bolts became saturated in black and indigo as they looped around him to vault back at the Ice spirit.  The volley continued back and forth without interruption.  Only Maren’s newly enhanced eyes could follow the duel of spellcasters before her, and even then she could barely keep up.

Elsa’s disc shifted with her movements. A simple, quick adjustment would cause a stray arcane bolt to miss her head by inches. When she leapt to dodge an attack, it swished below and caught her before she could plummet to the churning seas.

So many moving pieces to control. Elsa was incredible to withstand his assault alone.

They needed to help.

Maren whirled her hands around her head before shooting a gust at the figure wreathed in a black shroud, his gaze still trained on Elsa. The burst pushed him but did not break his smooth levitation. She pushed further, maintaining the pressure. His body seemed to naturally push back.

As Runeard turned to Maren, a barrage of icy needles sliced into his shoulder. A large spike stuck out from his chest.  Maren pushed harder, hoping he would succumb after Elsa’s successful hit, but he still withstood the escalating winds.

The glimmering icicle filled like a glass vial, the clear crystal darkening to something dark putrid. Then Runeard snapped it from his body like brittle charcoal and tossed it away.

“Is that all?” his voice boomed over the wind and rain.

“A Northuldran killed you once, I’ll gladly do it again!” Maren shouted back.

“Doubtful.”

Before she could counter, inferno answered, a blast of fire shooting over Maren’s head towards the Shadow king.  Runeard did not move, did not dodge, did not even flinch as the crimson flared and singed his body.  The fire’s smoke around him grew thick. Contaminated. Indigo flame sprung to life and raced towards them.  Maren heard Anna curse before she dove out of the way. Then, there was the splitting of glass and she felt the fragments hit her back.  The iceberg beneath her shifted.  As Maren pushed herself with a gust of air, she saw where the ice had been severed and split in half, expertly parted to ensure Runeard’s strike had plunged into the water harmlessly.

Elsa.

White and black again blurred above them.

Maren ran as the quivering island of ice began to settle from the sudden shift.  Gale turned her head to the ice puppet standing near the edge.  Hans was lifting his arms, pulling a long tendril from the ocean beside them.  They locked eyes.

She understood instantly.  Her hands swiftly circled each other as she focused completely on Hans’ waterspout.

The childlike wonder of spinning, whirling, collapsing, looking at the sky, filled her. The spirit of Freedom showed her how to feel the vortex.

The saltwater surged before them, expanding quickly as spray cut through the space above them.  Hans fed it more and more of the ocean while Maren bid it dance. It grew angry.  Hungry. Together, they shoved its mass towards Runeard .

Elsa was fast, her floating disc whishing by them. She easily accepted their gift and added her own power. Maren felt the control slip away, felt the air sting with winter’s kiss. Hail whipped forth and sliced at their enemy as the ice funnel barreled into him, and he disappeared into the tornado.

The ranger held her breath. The spinning slowed. Gray water darkened. Ice blackened. Onyx drifted to a stop, paused in midair. 

Runeard lowered an outstretched hand and leered at them with a smile between the levitating rocks amongst the pouring rain.  Maren’s heart dropped as the chunks fell from the sky and into the waves below.

Scarlet erupted, and the Shadow was gliding away. Glowing lava again leapt forward as Kristoff hurled a large boulder into the sky, and Anna’s screams made them burst into molten heat. The ruby liquid managed to coat Runeard’s leg.

Maren exhaled, blowing fiercely towards the lava. Hans and Elsa too eagerly summoned water and ice to cool the hot substance.  She could feel the Giants shuddering and Kristoff groaning to expand and hold tight. Heavy earth would bring him down, surely?

“This is growing tiresome.”

The rock crumbled as Runeard flexed.  Huge stones defied gravity, circling around him. They grew and darkened as they gathered speed with each revolution.  The Shadow raised his hand and snapped his fingers.

Swollen and infected, the massive meteorites launched towards them.  Tourmaline poured down, smashing against the ice, and Maren leapt away as the platform violently buckled beneath them. Gale’s velocity aided her jumps, but as she breathlessly jumped and rolled between the falling boulders, she realized she was quickly running out of surface. Ice crumbled. The others shouted.  She jumped towards the water.

Her feet hit something hard.  White surged upwards beneath her.

Elsa looked down at her, hand extended. She smiled.

Black barreled into the blonde, and Maren screamed.

Her hands whipped forward, but before she could summon wind, a pillar of ice shot from the rough ocean surface.  Elsa flipped and landed roughly on the block, whipping around and flinging slicing snowflakes back at the attacker.

Surges of energy lashed back and forth, and time blurred for Maren.  She relied on Gale to track the others, to ensure their blasts strictly landed on their foe, not their friends. Fire burned against the dark and stormy night, and ice shined like concentrated starlight as Elsa majestically bounded across the waves, making them solid. Earth and Water too lashed out at Runeard .

Maren glared at the king and seethed. All those frozen memories of her people, the ancestors and history she would never know. Because of this man. Because of this killer. She focused her magic.  Air, wind, pressure, it all shifted.

She pointed, and a bolt of lightning, harsh and jagged, tore through the air at the Shadow.  Direct hit.

But just like all the other elements, it grew dark as it touched him.  It became something else. With a twisted smile, Runeard pointed back at her. Haunting, black sparks flickered at his fingertips. Maren heard Anna gasp near her before it flashed towards them.

Kristoff and Elsa moved in complete synchronization, spinning into Maren’s vision and throwing their hands up.  A huge barrier of rocky stone and glacial chunks rose to block the blast, and they could hear the crunch of the dark magic colliding against the other side.  The saviors strained to surge their power and maintain the protective shield. Black energy flared and peaked around the sides of the wall, still strong, still pushing.  The rock and ice began to crack.

Both blondes looked over their shoulders at their partners.  Maren and Anna drew their arms back together.  Hans, Nokk, saw what they could not beyond the barrier, tucked beneath a stray chunk of ice.  Maren felt them all draw their collective breath, five humans and five spirits linked.

The sound of rushing water was quickly followed by the disruption of the inky essence jettisoning towards them.  Elsa and Kristoff dispelled their shield, leaping away as Anna and Maren thrust their arms forward, palms open, shoulder to shoulder. Their target was shifting away from Hans’ steady stream of seawater, but their aim was true.

A firestorm erupted from their fingers, Anna’s flame further incited by Maren’s gust of wind. The queen howled in anger, and the soldier heartily agreed. Like breath to an ember, flames roared forward in a viscous funnel and fully engulfed the king.

It expired. And yet Shadow remained.

“It’s impossible!” Hans shouted as he ran up beside them.  Maren grunted and moved to step forward, refusing to give up, but a hand gripped her shoulder and stopped her.

Blue eyes were not upon her, but the enemy.  Elsa’s skin began to shimmer white, as it had in Ahtohallan . The Ice spirit stepped past her.

Thunder roared. Through Gale, Maren understood the unspoken command. It was time.

The storm was here.


Elsa had conserved her strength for this moment. They had exhausted all other options.  The only way to defeat this phantom was together. Utterly and completely.  She bid the Spirits return to her.

She poured her magic into the surrounding air and sea. Her ice leached into the dark clouds thundering above and hardened the pouring rain.  A supreme blizzard engulfed them.

The vortex began to rapidly build around them. Them. Her friends, her family, her lover, her spirit siblings. Loose hairs escaping her braid whipped across her forehead and cheeks as she glared across the surging waves at the Shadow of her grandfather.

The storm that had sent an entire fleet to its watery grave five years prior paled in comparison.  The eye of the hurricane was transfixed upon them.  Perhaps she was no longer a monster as she had once believed.  But she was the center.  The anchor.  The storm was hers.

Her mind and heart were resolute. She would annihilate him, for the sake of humanity.

She offered everything. Every emotion, every drop of power at her disposal. Complete and absolute release, the perfect mastery, and Spirits flowed from the others’ bodies and back to her. All souls exploded in blinding white magic. 

The snowflake with her at the center. They were all together.

As the others placed their hands upon her glowing skin, Elsa brought her outstretched arms together, and directed a beam of glittering light directly at the evil spirit.

Runeard’s Shadow reached out his arms and spread his hands wide, as if to embrace it.  The spell made direct contact with a blinding burst, but there was no scream, no shout…just laughter.

The snowflake shattered. The scale tipped at the missing piece.

Elsa tensed, eyes wide.

No, their magic would not destroy him.  It merely fed him, just like all their attacks.

The deep oblivion tainting his flesh began to swirl, smoky tendrils leaching out.  The warbling mass began to push back. Ink bled into Elsa’s icy stream as black met white in a colliding wave. 

Spirits and humans alike screamed as the corruption cut through them, feeling every sensation of the dark magic overtaking their own spells.  He, it, was them. They were it.  All connected. Anything they offered was immediately returned to them in a perfect counter. It was all consuming.

Maren buckled and dropped to her knee beside her, and she heard Kristoff shout something against the screaming wind. The black blast kept pushing forward.  Elsa grunted trying to hold back the oppressive weight of night with her remaining light.

She was out of ideas.

They were out of time.

When all is lost, then all is found.  The singing voice drifted on the wind, a memory from a dream.

“I need help,” she whispered into the raging storm.

She blinked.

The tempest was gone, and all sound had vanished. Elsa stood on the island of ice, surrounded by calm ocean and the night sky. Glittering starlight and the gleaming aurora danced above her.  Ahtohallan glowed against the gray seas a short distance away. Peaceful. Quiet.

Everyone else was gone, save for one figure: The image of her mother stood before her.

Iduna lazily admired a glass ball in her hand, the orb reflecting back the stars and colors from up above. She seemed unalarmed by her sudden appearance and the sudden silence. Her blue eyes glanced to Elsa, and she patiently waited.

Elsa almost ran to her.  Almost. She so desperately missed her mother…and yet…

“You aren’t her, are you?

The entity bearing Iduna’s visage smiled softly. “I thought perhaps a familiar face from the past would be easier to greet.”

The voice was eerily recognizable, not because it was Iduna, but because Elsa had heard it recently in her thoughts. Her dreams…

Past . Elsa’s eyes widened.

“You’re the Spirit of Time,” she muttered in awe before offering a polite bow of the head, “You’ve been trying to speak to me.”

The spirit mirrored her bow. “I promised you a respite when you needed it most.”

“Thank you,” Elsa grinned sheepishly before asking, “Should I also be thanking you for my five year break?”

She nodded, thumb brushing the crystal sphere in her palm.

“Is this why I’ve been faster?  How I’ve healed quickly?”

Time shook her head.  “You are powerful in your own right.  I have merely aided you by delivering you to when you needed to be, giving your powers ample time to grow,” she explained calmly.

Elsa breathed deeply, contemplating the response. There were so many questions, but she could not waste this precious moment the spirit had granted. There was one question that demanded an answer more urgently than the others.

She glanced at the stage of their battle, now so oddly still and peaceful.

“What must I do?”

“That is for you to decide.”  The tone wasn’t patronizing. Merely factual.

“He’s so strong.”

“Fear and anger often are,” came the smooth, pragmatic answer.

Elsa sighed, “I can feel it.  It’s been so long, the pain runs so deep.”

Time smiled sadly. “It often does.”

“But I’m connected to it,” she replied hesitantly.

“We all are. But some of us more than others,” her companion mused, “You freed the Four but not all.”

Elsa did not mask her surprise.

“Then it really is another spirit.  We were right,” she muttered in disbelief.  Maren had solved the riddle back in the castle library.

“Aether, I believe, is what you called it.  The Inbetween, the Unseen.  The Spirit of Emotion,” the spirit hummed thoughtfully, “They have had many names.”

“My grandfather twisted it in his malice, with the memories of his wars that killed so many. It infected the others, even after he died.”

“Aether bends to all our wills.  To maintain the balance as it connects us all. In this case, however, the scale has been tipped too far.”

Water. Wind. Fire. Earth. Now Time and Aether. Six points surrounding Ice. The snowflake, the wheel, was now skewed too heavy and flawed at Aether’s end. Sick.

“We need to rebalance. But there’s no more dams to break. Runeard himself is already dead,” Elsa assessed anxiously, “The more we try to stop them, the stronger they become. How do we right this wrong?”

The entity before her stared back with sagely indifference.

“I do not know.”

The simple statement from Time stung, piercing like a sharp needle. The natural balance would remain in chaos. People of Arendelle, Northuldra, the world would suffer. Maren would die. Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf would die. And it would be her fault for not stopping it.  Fear pricked her skin, anxiety churning in her stomach.

The spirit’s hand, the hand of her mother, slowly lifted the crystal ball in her palm before continuing, “But I do think, perhaps, the past has already told you.”

Elsa stared at the glass. The reflection of stars swirled in place like floating snow. Beautiful, architectural constellations unfolded and connected in harmonious mathematical precision. Numerically luscious, she watched them angle and project through time.  Castles were erected.  The inanimate animated. Hardening, then melting. Unfolding and building and creating, and cycling again and again around one central thought. No, a feeling.

It stilled. The perfect geometry of the snowflake beckoned her.

She slowly inhaled, the fear settling. Yes. Perhaps she did know.

Elsa beamed. “Thank you. Again.”

A small grin alighted her mother’s face in response.

The aurora above swirled steadily faster like bleeding watercolor. Stars blinked and winked as the flat surface of the Black Sea began to lap at the edge of the iceberg where they stood.  Their frozen second was melting.

Another breath.  Elsa was ready.

“To Ahtohallan ,” she called out, just as she once had to her other magical siblings.

Time raised a solitary eyebrow, as if surprised. Before Elsa could question it, however, the spirit bowed her head and returned the blessing.

“To Ahtohallan .”

Elsa closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

“Stop.”

Maren shuddered as Gale twitched against the command spoken so softly from Elsa’s lips, she almost didn’t hear it against the howling cyclone.  She felt the invisible conduit shut, and Wind’s magic no longer poured through her, into Elsa, and into the world.

“We’re simply feeding it.”

Maren winced against the violent storm still screaming around them, still struggling to hear her girlfriend’s words.  When the other woman lowered her arms, ceasing her magic, the Northuldran desperately reached forward to grab her arm.

“Elsa, we can’t give up.”

Blue eyes flashed towards her.  Shockingly, amidst the chaos, the threat of death came second to a more important truth.

Elsa smiled.  And Maren loved her.

The blonde’s hand covered the limb that had grasped hers.

“Even if you don’t forgive, you have to let it go,” Elsa stated firmly over the tempest, her thumb brushing the skin on the back of Maren’s hand, “Let it go.”

Pale fingers fell away.  Then, she calmly stepped towards the eviscerated darkness before them.  Runeard’s mask was gone, and a foggy outline remained.  Black seethed from the vaguely humanoid void, whipping into the swirling mass of thundering clouds that surrounded them.

“Elsa?” Anna called out, looking bewilderedly from her to Maren, who slowly lowered her outstretched arm.

They had to trust her.

Elsa held her shoulders back, and addressed the Shadow.

“I never met my grandfather,” she called into the maelstrom, “I once wondered if that would have changed anything. If his fear of magic would have waned knowing his own flesh and blood was touched by it.”

She simply cupped her hands before her. A small bead of light glistened. The shimmering, like milky opals, expanded until their little band was fully encompassed.

Maren immediately felt the chilling, slicing winds disappear.  Ahtohallan .  They had seen Elsa banish the cold just like this in Ahtohallan .  She watched as Anna and Kristoff exchanged nervous glances.

Elsa’s next words came more clearly in the warm haven of the bubble.

“Because of his fear, I spent most of my life behind a door. Because of his fear, a little girl became a witch. A monster. Wondering if it was better to perish than risk those she cared for.”

Wisps of black smoke flared against the large sphere’s surface, dissolving against the light.  Chunks of dark ice glanced off the barrier.  

“And yet,” Elsa murmured, “Without those trials, I never would have learned the secret to my own fear. Truly unlocked my power, my potential. Found what was worth fighting and living for.”

The light inched further, keeping the storm at bay.

“So his fear, eventually, is what secured a future brimming with magic,” she muttered, “What a beautiful irony.”

Their foe no longer had a proper mouth, but the creature unleashed a horrific screech.  Elsa, however, did not flinch.  She merely glanced over her shoulder, and with that single look, Maren forgot the hate in her heart for the king’s Shadow.

Elsa had overcome everything.  Elsa had saved her people, their people, had even died, twice, to make things right.  Had shown her that even the most powerful person could be the most gentle, the most caring, the most concerned for everyone except herself.  Maren would do anything for the woman she loved, the woman that knew boundless love for all.

She would always follow Elsa. Gale would always volunteer first, as was their nature.

Maren stepped beside her love, staring down the Shadow at the hurricane’s eye.

“On behalf of Northuldra, I forgive Arendelle for what it did under Runeard’s banner,” she shouted, “Our nations are now sisters, and our fates are bound. Our future is fuller and more united now. Your wounds of war healed, and you are forgotten.  I release my doubt and hurt. I believe in all our people, together.”

She felt a hand touch her shoulder.  Her friend, the queen, looked to her, then to Elsa.

“War was his crown jewel,” Anna recounted with a frown, “He made so many enemies in his grand conquest and then dumped them on Arendelle for Papa, Elsa, and now me to clean up.  I never wanted glory in battle, to be this kind of leader.  I never wanted fire and blood and death for our people,” she breathed deeply before declaring, “But I will not let the past define my reign.  I can do better.  We can do better.”

“Yes, we can.”

Permafrost sparkled across Hans’ snowy skin as he nodded to Anna.

“Our ancestors killed each other over our lands. I carried a lust for revenge for too long.  We love our countries enough to choose a better path now.”

Maren felt the sunshine expand around them. Elsa bowed her head at each offering, and mirrored Kristoff’s small smirk when he stepped forward and cleared his throat.

“I might be a prince now, but I wasn’t born that way.  My parents were normal people that got caught in someone else’s war and died.  I didn’t even want to be a prince,” he laughed, before looking at Anna, “But I wanted to be a good husband.  Now I feel like a good father to a bunch of people who need someone to protect them.  We accept people for who they are, magic or no.”

Maren inhaled deeply, chest full, soul brimming. She held her breath as Elsa calmly stood in place.

The sphere pulsed, grew, expanded. Storm clouds swirled and vanished against pearly shine.  The Shadow twisted and convulsed as the darkness it fed the storm was consumed by the piercing light.

Runeard’s voice echoed in the air with a guttural snarl, “How?”

Elsa just shook her head, a sad, sympathetic smile on her face. “Spirit of Emotion, you’ve forgotten the most important one.”

The warmth of their pocket exploded. Overwhelming sound returned, the vacuum and pressure snapping. Maren grunted against the shockwaves that rocked the ice below them.

Gale burst from her lungs to join Elsa.  Maren fell to her knees at the sudden absence of energy, weary and tired and now alone with her mortal body.

She dizzily squinted against the blinding light now before her.  Her girlfriend was glowing again.

Maren smiled as she blacked out.


When the spirits returned to Elsa, she did not feel as if she was threatening to burst at the seams. There was no struggle to subdue opposites and bickering, no stretching to accommodate overwhelming souls. There was simply existence, together. Harmony. Balance.

They had accepted Aether, no matter what.

When the light finally encompassed Aether, there was no screech or piercing cry. Deep purples and black bled away.  The infection was purged, the sickness expelled from the Spirit of Emotion. The anger, doubt, guilt, pain…vanished.

In their wake, Aether mirrored what it was shown, returned what was given.  The naked eye could never tell, of course. The newly glowing mass of gold and silver had no face, but Elsa felt in her soul the essence of a smile. The drop of happiness.  The emotion of love, capable of melting the coldest winter.

When the light faded, and stillness returned, a statue stood in its place. Opaque snow, a frozen memory. Runeard stood, empty gaze across the ice, the trace of a tear descending his cheek, carefully preserved. Elsa waved her hand, and the ice dissolved, snow gently fading into the gentle breeze.

She turned to check on her friends, but they were gone.

Four spiritual companions stood in their place. Nokk’s watery mane billowed as the horse tossed its head. Snowdust rustled at Gale’s touch. Bruni simmered with a delightful sigh as smoke drifted from the ice. A juvenile Earth Giant sat and played with their toes. 

Starlight bled. Aurora gleamed. Moonstone encircled her. Elsa felt the familiar chill of Ahtohallan embrace her. Nokk whinnied, and the Ice spirit turned, in the center of the glacier, to find Time regally poised with her crystal ball.

Elsa stood a bit straighter. “Are my friends alright?”

“Perfectly fine.”

“Did we…did we free Aether?”

Time tilted her head with a smirk and countered, “What does your heart tell you?”

Elsa thought of the glittering gold light.

“Yes,” she breathed, her body relaxing as she spoke, “Aether is well again.  There is balance.”

A snowflake with six points, restored.

Time offered a single, firm nod.  A small grin still played on her lips.

Elsa studied the image of Iduna. Their first meeting had been brief, but certainly now there were more than fragile seconds…

She blurted out, “Are you Ahtohallan?”

The spirit maintained their slight smile, looking almost bemused at the question.  After a contemplative pause, they slowly stated, “I am not.  But I have served the Mother since before Arendelle’s ancestors walked this earth.”

Elsa replied with a sheepish grin, “Right, the Mother.  I thought perhaps since you chose my mother as your appearance.  And you’re here,” she added as she glanced at the other four elements still nearby.

Time nodded patiently.

“I know this is Ahtohallan,” Elsa continued, gesturing at the surrounding glacier, “But the Northuldra and the spirits always speak of a person or energy.  She. Her.”

The implied question was met with silence.  Elsa looked back to Time.  Iduna’s eyes were inspecting the glass sphere in her palm.

“They are correct,” they affirmed softly, “ Ahtohallan is the glacier but much more. She is Ice.  She is the Beginning of all things, frozen, before the Dawn.  The River of Time flows from her, magic flows from her, the elements, life.”

Time returned her gaze to Elsa, voice growing crisp and firm, “Above all, to be the Mother is to create life.  None of the spirits can do that, except her.  Ice.”

“But I’m…” Elsa began but didn’t quite know how to finish.

She was Ice.  That magic was hers.  So if that was the Mother’s…

Olaf, Marshmallow. Frozen memories with the touch of life Aether had manipulated. Life. Hers.  The Mother’s.

Ice. Life.  The center of the snowflake that linked all spirits.  No, she couldn’t possibly–

She gasped, fumbling for the words, “It’s me?  I’m Ahtohallan?”

Time merely offered a nod.  

“But, I-I’ve been Elsa my whole life,” she stuttered, still bewildered.

A raised eyebrow. “Why not both?”

“But that would make me...a god?” Elsa whispered, eyes growing even wider.

Her companion shrugged.

“More or less.”

Elsa felt her mouth dangle open. Time delicately raised a hand, and Nokk cantered forward. Fingers gently stroked their snout.

Nokk nodded. Nokk understood. Through their connection, Elsa felt it, but what?

Then the Spirit of Memory trotted to her. She raised her own hand without question.

Water held memory .  As the wet nose touched her palm, Nokk gave her Time’s gift.

There was nothing. Blackness. An endless void. Cold. Elsa felt bored. Lonely. She waved a hand. Stars began to glisten like frost.  An aurora rippled like a river. She created Time to mark progress, Aether to feel its weight. Balance.

Then, Elsa, alone, in her bedroom as a child. Shaking, quivering, staring at her gloved hands. Lonely.

Elsa floated in the limitless sky. She gave birth. Water and oceans and rivers washed over the world.  Earth sprang up, brown and green and ready.  Air to cool it.  Fire to warm it.  The spirits, her children, lavished.

Architecture, castles, bridges, forts, fabric, clothing. Structure. Building blocks. Foundation. Creation. Elsa loved books. She wanted to create.  Stuck behind a door, her imagination was her only gateway.

She kissed the world. Plants sprung up to grow. Animals started to crawl. People began.  The spirits and people adored one another. Elsa was happy. She gave them a ball of light to guide them in the darkness.  She named them the People of the Sun.

Elsa was smiling by the village fire. Northuldra and forest surrounded her. Maren grinned, golden eyes only on her, like she was special. Elsa was happy.

Fear. Hatred. War. Death. Elsa frowned. Humans were a balance of light and dark. The spirits did their best, most of the people as well.

Then a king’s sword spilt blood upon the whole world, a dam standing tall in the distance.

The white of Ahtohallan stung her awake as her vision cleared.

“I asked you to remind me and the other spirits when I was ready,” Elsa murmured, wincing slightly as her own memories flooded her consciousness, “I wanted to enter the mortal world so I could fix the imbalance.  A child born on the night of the Winter Solstice.  The very granddaughter of the one that soiled so much, a child of Arendelle and Northuldra,” she breathed as her eyes went wide.

She frantically looked to Time, who nodded.

“As we all once whispered to you, you and your sister are the bridge.  And it is in my experience, you are not without a sense of humor and irony in your work,” they mused with the knowing look of a friend.

Elsa breathed. In and out. She shifted through images of lifetimes forgotten.

Maren’s playful smirk beckoned her, a hand stretched toward her in the luscious hills of Northuldra.

She sighed wistfully. “I had missed the People of the Sun so much.  No wonder I was drawn to them.”

“They were your first and greatest gift of mortal life.”

Elsa frowned. “Does this mean I’ll live forever?”

“As Ahtohallan ?  Oh, yes.  Her vessel, Elsa of Arendelle?  Perhaps,” Time trailed off nonchalantly, lifting her orb, which was beginning to shine, “Would you like to?”

“No!” Elsa called out too quickly.

Time lowered the crystal ball, not hiding their amused grin.

Elsa cleared her throat and gently added, “Though finally having some peace and quiet would be nice.”

Her mother’s eyes dreamily gazed at the ice above them.

“I think there will be a few pleasant surprises,” the spirit hummed.

Elsa sighed, relieved. Godhood was not precisely what she had expected, but perhaps her and her family could finally relax.

The memory of Maren’s smile, youthful and eager, still sat contentedly in her mind.

“Actually,” Elsa slowly stated, a smile of her own growing, “I have a surprise in mind.”

Time beamed in pleasure, extending the crystal ball forward once more, summoning the aurora and stars.

“Then let’s begin.”


Maren groggily opened her eyes. It was really cold.

She lifted her cheek from the hard ground and blinked. Ice. That would explain the cold.

Altohallan. King Runeard. Elsa!

The Northuldran immediately hopped to her feet and eagerly accessed her surroundings. There was no sign of their enemy or Shadows. There was no storm, only a calm night sky.  She swallowed hard in dismay as she frantically failed to spot Elsa. Gale’s soul was no longer with her, the connection lost. Something was wrong. 

Her hand reached for the hilt at her hip, but she felt nothing, only air.  When she looked down, her sword, sheath, and belt were missing.  There was something new in their place. Or rather, something old.

Maren was in her fur-lined tunic from back home.

Her hands pressed against the soft material, trying to make sense of reality.  Could she be dreaming?

A groan sounded behind her, she immediately whipped around.  At the sight of Anna’s red hair, she rushed forward to help the queen stand.

Her armor was gone, replaced with a simple dress. There was no eye patch.

“Why are you wearing those clothes?” Anna muttered in confusion before her eyes went wide and she whispered, “Why can I see those clothes?”

She waved a hand in front of her face. Maren stared dumbly at her friend.

“Your eye.”

Anna pointed to Maren’s face. “Your scar.”

Maren touched her upper lip. It was smooth.

“My stomach!”

The shout from beside them came from Kristoff, gleefully groping his torso, looking much slimmer than he had in some years.

Olaf stumbled into view, looking cross-eyed, twigs fumbling with his nose.

“Does this carrot look more orangey to you?”

“My body…”

They all turned to see Hans no longer composed of ice.

Echoing footsteps summoned their attention. Elsa appeared at the mouth of Ahtohallan , and Maren sprinted towards her with the others, heart pounding with a million questions.

“Did we win?” Anna blurted out first.

Elsa glanced around at the other four spirits that had escorted her out of the glacier before answering.  Maren noticed the wardrobe change on her girlfriend as well; the white tunic, flowing long hair, and bare feet were back.

Beautiful, of course, but what in Ahtohallan’s name was going on?

“Aether has been freed from Runeard ’s fear and corruption,” she confirmed, proudly beaming now at the humans present.

Thank the Spirits . Anna jumped into Kristoff’s arms with a triumphant shout. Maren reached out to touch Elsa’s shoulder, rubbing her arm.

“How did you know how to beat him?” she asked gently, not hiding her awe.

Elsa leaned into Maren’s embrace, looking contemplative.

“It was never about defeating him, not really,” she explained, looking at the others, “The strongest emotions take time to grow. They always start as something small, but if left alone too long, can fester and hurt. Aether grew sick in fear because of Runeard . The people’s fear of magic, my fear of myself, all our insecurities and guilt and anger, they control us. Trap us. Like monsters in a cage.” 

Her eyes grew glassy, and Maren gave a reassuring squeeze. Elsa’s smile grew warm once more.

“The only way to achieve true balance and freedom from fear is love.  The answer was always love, like Anna taught me so long ago,” she explained eagerly, “By letting go of our hate, Aether had nothing to feed on.”

“That’s great and all. Seriously,” Anna stated firmly with a genuine smile before pointing at everyone’s clothes and asking, “But any clue what’s going on with this blast from the past?”

Elsa’s countenance grew more serious, business-like.  “The Time Spirit and I agreed to wash King Runeard ’s stain from this world for good.  Only us here now will remember the missing five years, so we can ensure history doesn’t repeat itself,” she stated firmly, like a strict parent.

All eyes fell on Hans.  He looked down at his boots.

“I know you’ll never trust me.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Anna crooned, crossing her arms.  Maren tried not to snort.

“But perhaps Nokk will vouch for me,” Hans continued, voice cracking, “We’ve all been inside each other’s minds. You showed me a better path. I will defend our future this time around rather than eradicate it.”

The queen narrowed her eyes and hissed, “If you think you get to just–”

“Anna, please,” her sister chided.

“Right. Letting go. Lots of love,” Anna sighed, rubbing her temple.  When her eyes snapped back open and rested on Hans, they lacked their usual fire.

 “You’re on a short leash…but let’s meet soon more officially,” she muttered, crossing her arms. 

Hans smiled. Maren noticed Nokk’s tail swishing happily.

“It shall be done, Your Majesty,” the prince intoned with a modest bow. His voice lacked its signature, sarcastic bite.

Kristoff coughed and said, “Not to ruin the moment, but did you say you spoke to the Time Spirit?”

Maren looked expectantly at Elsa, as did the others. Could a fresh start really be possible? Did that mean all those they had lost would be back?  That she could have her brother back?

Elsa nodded, and the relief was overwhelming.

She turned to Maren with a wide, proud smile.  “They’re real. Time and Aether. Your theory was right.  And now we have a second chance.”

The Northuldran beamed. Maybe she didn’t make such a bad Arcane Advisor to the royal family after all, even if it was a silly title. But above all, she was impressed with Elsa’s mastery of magic.

“You’re the amazing one that literally turned back time,” Maren chuckled, bumping Elsa’s shoulder with her own.

“With help,” she gently corrected with a soft smile.

Then the corner of her mouth twitched.

“Actually.  Apparently.  It would seem...” she trailed off and shyly looked away.

That wasn’t good. Maren frowned, reaching out to console and reassure her.

Elsa then mumbled, “I am Ahtohallan. ” 

Maren froze, her body ridged.

What?

That would be insane.  Impossible.  She must have misheard her.

But then, why was everyone else so quiet too?

Oh, no.

Olaf was the one to finally speak up. “Um, I’m going to need to hear that one again, I think I just hallucinated.”

Elsa ran a hand through her hair, looking flustered.

“The Time Spirit borrowed my memories for a bit, actually, from all the spirits, but, well,” she stammered before standing a bit straighter, licking her lips.

“I am Ahtohallan ,” she declared clearly and slowly.

Maren found herself furiously counting all the times she had ever sworn or cursed using Ahtohallan’s name.  Every fire at the camp they had in her honor.

No. No. There was no way.

Anna’s voice was a pitch higher than usual when she asked, “Are we talking about the same Ahtohallan ? A god. The goddess?”

Elsa nodded slightly, and Maren gulped. What did that mean?  That she was betrothed to, what, the creator of everything? She had spent the night with—

She felt her cheeks grow hot despite standing on the cool glacier.

“I can see it.”

They all stared at Kristoff, who was nodding firmly, rubbing his chin.

“Excuse me?” Anna asked incredulously.

Her husband shrugged. “Only ice nerds would get it.”

Maren remembered what they had all said about family, about this family. Accepting the unique and mystical was a significant part of her culture, and her future in-laws certainly took it to the extreme.

But Ahtohallan ?

She turned and looked at the woman standing still and quiet. The blonde was avoiding her gaze, wringing her hands.

Oh, Elsa. Still her sweet, nervous self. Restored peace and harmony for all the world. A goddess. Perhaps that would take some adjusting.  But Maren realized at that moment she couldn’t care less about all that.

The soldier lifted her hand, fingers brushing against Elsa’s jawline. She delicately tilted the woman’s chin so they were face to face, so Elsa couldn’t hide from her.

Timid eyes returned to her.  She gave them time to inspect her, to assure their owner there was no hatred, no disappointment, nothing but love on her face.

“Are you still my Elsa?” Maren whispered.

The smile that blossomed before her was worth enduring the years she had spent without it.

“Always.”

As Maren placed her lips against Elsa’s, she thought maybe, just maybe, this Time spirit wasn’t so bad if it all ended like this.

Somewhere nearby, she heard Olaf exclaim, “And that’s my mom!”

Chapter Text

“Settle down.”

Gale was restless. Leaves from nearby trees rustled endlessly as the sprint danced wildly back and forth. Light streaming down from the setting sun blinked in and out with the swaying branches.  Elsa simply shook her head; the Wind spirit’s nervous excitement was unnecessary. If anyone had a right to be anxious, it was Elsa.

After all, it was her wedding day.

Elsa slowly paced the small clearing, bare feet against the soft dirt near one of the former sites of the Northuldran camp.  They had agreed the location of their first meeting to be the ideal setting for something like this.

A village fire. A baby reindeer. A lullaby.

Gale suddenly swirled in place and barreled to the east. A figure emerged from the tree line.

A herder with a charming smile. Indeed, this spot was filled with wonderful memories.

Honeymaren’s hair was free from her usual braid, long and free-flowing. She had told Elsa she was loath to cut it after spending years with it so short.  The pragmatic tunic and hat of the shepherd were gone, instead replaced with a simple dress.  Embroidery decorated the edges of the cloth, reminding Elsa of her mother’s shawl, of family and the history of Northuldra.  Deep, golden eyes sparkled against the natural tan material.

Elsa never tired of seeing her. Rolling up her sleeves in the field, walking into their shared tent, excitedly recounting her day, pulling Elsa’s body against her after they retired from the nightly fire…

This new outfit had her beaming. A wedding outfit. Their wedding.

“Wow.”

Maren shrugged, “I’m still trying to forget that stuffy uniform.”

Elsa grinned gently at the seemingly half-hearted joke.  Maren still awoke gasping and sweating in the middle of the night, fighting off nightmares of a war so few remembered now. Elsa would catch her staring at her brother or going out of her way to talk to Yelena. When phantom pains of battle wounds haunted her under unscarred skin, Elsa kissed every spot with deliberately soft caresses.

They were learning, together.

“You look wonderful,” Elsa firmly reassured her, gladly accepting a kiss on the cheek as the other woman walked up to her.

“Look who’s talking,” Honeymaren quipped with a smirk, glancing down at the Ice spirit’s signature white tunic.

Elsa shook her head, trying to hide a smile. “I wear this every day.”

“And every day you look lovely,” she replied with a wink before extending her arm,  “Ready?”

Elsa easily accepted the offer and allowed herself to be guided. Linked arm in arm, they casually and contentedly strolled through the clearing. Gale rustled and huffed nearby in a small patch of soil, marking their destination.

They settled on their knees on the ground, and Elsa looked expectantly at Maren.

“So, it’s pretty laid back compared to the capital. We don’t wear anything fancy or have a bunch of people watch,” she explained, her fingers beginning to move the earth before them, “Dig a hole. Plant the acorn. Normally, we’d thank Ahtohallan,” she paused and pointedly looked at Elsa, “Thank you for choosing me.”

Elsa rolled her eyes, but her smile never waivered.  “You chose me. Elsa. Not a monster or a powerful spirit. Just me.”

“I was still a little star-struck when I first saw you.”

“Was that before or after Olaf put all of my past drama on a theatrical display?”

“He is pretty talented,” Honeymaren admitted, snickering as she continued to dig, “Aren’t you glad he’s planning our wedding for the city?”

“I can’t believe Anna,” Elsa sighed, “You’d think she’d have her hands full enough with just her wedding.”

“For us, it’s been a hard five years. It’s nice to have something so happy to celebrate.  Plus, she’s technically been married already, even if no one else remembers. Not as exciting for her,” Maren reasoned, whipping her hands on the sides of her dress.

“At least we’ve proven our love is truly timeless.”

“That was pretty cheesy, even for you, dear,” Honeymaren teased, reaching out for Elsa’s hand.

“Now seems like the time.”

“Fair enough.”

They admired each other for a moment in the warm tones of the sun dipping below the horizon.  Gale still hovered amongst the swaying branches nearby, but it was calm.  Peaceful.

“I’ll save the fancy vows for the formal affair,” Maren started, thumb rubbing the back of Elsa’s hand, “But I hope you know there is no time or space that can keep me from you. I will always find you, and I will always be by your side. War and peace. Cosmic spiritual destinies or simple nights by the fire. I’m yours.”

Despite promising herself she wouldn’t turn into a blubbering mess, Elsa felt the tears sting her eyes.  Emotions came to her so much more easily now, especially around Honeymaren.

“With you, I know no fear, only love.  I am balanced with you in my life.  You are my peace, and I hope to bring you some, day by day.”

They leaned into each other gently. Sighs against soft lips sealed a promise.

With a shared smile, they pulled away slightly.  Honeymaren cupped her hands and nodded towards Elsa.

“May I?”

Elsa bowed her head, and the ice draped around her neck levitated up from her skin.  The simple chain and pendant she had created began to melt away.

The acorn landed in Maren’s hands with a light plop. It was gently deposited in the ground, and she began to cover the hole. Elsa eagerly helped, their fingers brushing in the freshly overturned soil as they buried the seed. When they were done, Maren gave the spot a firm pat.

“Now, no cheating and making it grow all at once with whatever special spells you have planned.”

Elsa dispelled the dirt from her hands with a mist of ice.  She proceeded to make a show of screwing her face in mock thought.  “Hm. Can I send Nokk to water it?”

“Nope! We have to do it. Without magic,” she quipped back as she clapped her hands to remove the bigger remnants of soil.

“I guess I could manage when you’re working with the herds,” Elsa bemoaned playfully.

“Better.”

Elsa admired the other woman’s smirk.

“What are my other duties as a shepherdess’ wife?” she murmured teasingly.

Honeymaren paused in the process of cleaning her hands on the edge of her dress and glanced at her bride.

Her voice was husky when she replied slowly, “Shall I take you to our tent and show you?”

Tempting offer.

“Your brother, Yelena, and the entire village are waiting to celebrate,” Elsa reminded gently.

Honeymaren rolled her eyes, and the fire was dampened. For now.

“Oh, fine. I do like the idea of showing off my new wife,” Maren said as she stood up, reaching down to offer Elsa her hand, “Let’s go home.”

Home .

Elsa smiled as she took Honeymaren’s hand.

She was finally home.