ON we go! A much lower gear to this chapter compared to all the action in the previous one. Sad, I know, but it needs to be this way. Just four more chapters and an Epilogue to go…
Also, I'll be posting a questionable one-shot in a day or so. Check it out, if you feel so inclined. It's an… interesting one.
The Wrath of a Scorned Woman
It was warm… wherever she was. Soft blankets were wrapped snuggly around her aching body and a cool cloth was draped over her brow. She floated in and out of lucid thoughts, trying to figure out where she was and if her head would just stop hurting… Elsa didn't know how long she lay there in a fog, but rough fingers gently smoothed across her cheek soothingly. The feeling brought her comfort and something to focus on. A callused thumb stroked at the soft skin under her eye and a heavy weight settled next to her hip on the cushioned surface she was resting on. Finally, she was able to gain control of her eyes. The blonde swallowed thickly and cracked her eyes open, a dark blurry form dressed in green hovering over her.
The stroking stopped at her gravely query, and the warm hand withdrew to rest lightly on her shoulder.
"No, Domina. He is not here."
The soft rumble of the Gaul's deep voice issued from the figure above her and Elsa realized she was back in her office on the couch. A strange wave of disappointment and relief washed through her and she swallowed again, blinking slowly as her protector slowly came into focus. She sighed heavily and worked her right arm free of her swaddling, briefly registering that she had been changed out of her ruined dress and into a loose cotton shift.
"I'm sorry… he tended to wear the cooler colors like you do…" A memory of a navy jacket with gold epaulets and buttons flickered across her memory.
"I can wear red like I once did, if that would help?"
"No… I know you don't like red."
"No, I do not like red. It is the color of Rome."
Elsa smiled wanly through her headache and curled her stiff fingers around the thumb resting on her shoulder. "Then I will never force you to wear such a color."
The Gaul chucked softly, his white teeth flashing in the low light from the hearth. The moment was but a brief one, the memories of the attack slamming back to the forefront of her mind with a force to make her nauseous.
"Anna! Crixus, is she okay?" Her fingers tightened on his hand and her eyes grew wide with fear.
"She is alive, your Medicus was able to keep her from dying. But now she must fight infection and fever."
"She is infected? Already? I must go to her-"
"Domina, she may not yet be. Your medicine is much more powerful than ours was in my time, I only speak from my experiences." Crixus had to hold her shoulders down onto the couch to keep her from trying to bolt.
"But Anna! Kristoff! And… and Arendelle! Is the city well? There were explosions in the castle… how many died? Crixus I have to get up an-"
His stern command snapped her out of her fearful ramble that was quickly growing into a panic attack. He leaned forward and held her shoulders carefully in his large hands, his dark eyes meeting her icy blue in a steady and reassuring gaze.
"Anna will survive and Kristoff is in good health, you do not need to worry for them. Arendelle is in one piece. The attack was centered on the castle and that is where all of the damage is located. There was some damage, but nothing that can't be easily fixed."
"How many… how many people died?"
Crixus paused, choosing his words carefully. "The entire Counsel survived, but many of the servants and guards of the Keep perished to keep them and you safe. I do not know the exact number, but Mr. Rotte said that he would pay you a visit come morning… in two hours."
Elsa swallowed down the sour taste of bile as hot tears pooled in her eyes at the loss her home had experienced. The loss of all the people she used to see on a regular basis… and now many of them were gone. Forever.
"Gerda and Kai?"
"Alive… but your Kai will need to learn to walk again."
"He is making jokes of being a peg-legged pirate already… what ever that means… But Gerda is not happy with him."
This time, Elsa did sit up. Though her outburst was short lived when agony pierced her skull and nausea curdled in her stomach. Crixus sighed in exasperation and carefully pushed her back down onto the cushions, taking a moment to rearrange the damp cloth on her bruised brow. The monarch moaned pitifully and clamped her hands over her temples, tears leaking out from under long lashes.
"Your Medicus said that you hit your head hard enough for a… con… concussion I think is what he called it. A very bad one. You do not remember, but I have been waking you every hour. He said… he said that some people die from these…" He cleared his throat heavily. "But I will make sure that you do not."
Elsa cracked her eyes open and peered up at him through damp lashes. "You are too good to me, Crixus." She told him quietly, her raspy voice a whisper.
Crixus was about to speak again, but a soft rap at the door brought him up short. The Gaul stood up and wrapped his long fingers around the hilt of his sword-Elsa then realized that he was still dressed in the clothes from the day before, his torso hastily wiped down but the bloodstains of his slain opponents evident on his dark trousers. He reached the door and let in a tired looking Claudius and an ever-serene Mr. Rotte, and then stood back to let the legless Draugr drag itself into the room. The Keep's Surgeon bustled over, still in his funny ensemble of nightgown and pants.
"Your majesty! I wasn't expecting you to be awake so soon. How are you feeling?"
"Claudius, do you really want me to answer that question?"
The only response she got from her tart reply was an equally stern quip. "If you don't tell me what hurts, I won't be able to help you feel better."
Elsa sighed heavily and let her hands fall onto her chest. "Everything hurts and it feels like someone beat me about the head with a frying pan."
"And the cut around your eye? I see you haven't messed with the dressing yet…" The man prodded around her right eye and she hissed when his poking aggravated the area.
"Well I wasn't aware I had a cut there…" She muttered darkly.
"Oh. Sorry 'bout that. Anyways, besides that cut and your concussion you only sustained minor bruising and abrasions. It was pure luck that you had been able to raise any kind of barrier to take the brunt of that nasty firebomb's blast. Though had you not hit your head, you would more than likely be up and about like Kristoff and this young lad." He jerked his head to the Gaul leaning against the mantel of the fireplace.
"When will I be better?"
"Oh, soon enough. Just take it easy until I say so or I will confine you to the Infirmary. The only reason you aren't there now is because your office was closer and Anna was still here when the battle was finished. I suggest you rest here for a bit longer before either coming to stay in the Infirmary or going to your own chambers."
"Please don't take offense, but I was in that place for too long just recently. I hope you don't mind if I move to my own bed when I am allowed…"
"Very well. Just do as I say and you can do that."
"I suppose a Queen doesn't have any authority when it comes to her own doctor, does she?" Elsa drawled dryly.
Claudius barked a short laugh and patted her on the knee. "I'm afraid not. Now get some rest, I need to get back to your sister."
"So she is well?"
The tired man heaved himself to his feet and stretched stiffly. "For now. I will be sure to send you regular updates on her, and you are welcome to visit her at any time."
"Thank you, Claudius. For everything."
"Just doing my job, Your Majesty." He nodded to her warmly and strode briskly from the room.
Mr. Rotte sidled up to the prone woman and took a knee next to her so he was on her level.
"Your Majesty, I just would like to remind you that you are fully within your rights to declare this attack an act of war. With that being said… I would like to urge for you to not follow this route." He paused briefly, watching her expression morph into curiosity. "I believe I have a plan, but I will wait to tell you until your brain has stopped rattling around in your head."
"Fair enough… Thank you, Mr. Rotte. I would expect a full report next time I see you?"
"Of course, Your Majesty. I will return later today. My men are posted at your disposal, you only need to ask and they will appear."
The Spy Master inclined his head in respect before rising to his feet and floating from the room like a shadow. Elsa watched him go, forever bemused by his misty character. Crixus yawned and took a seat on the floor next to her shoulder. He wasn't hovering nearly as bad as he had the first time she had been injured, and she told him so.
"It is very tiring to watch over a person so closely… I hope you understand."
"I do, and thank you… and just so you know, if you HAD then I would have kicked you out of the room by now."
"Good thing I didn't." He grinned broadly, scooting to the side so Svalinn could approach.
The Gaul just grinned a bit wider and watched the damaged golem drag itself up to them, bits of ice and snow trailing behind it.
Elsa smiled softly at the whispered greeting. "Svalinn, did any other golems survive?"
"Yes, Creator. Just three others."
Elsa nodded in approval and reached out with her right hand, noticing nasty scrapes across her knuckles. She rested her hand on the golem's shoulder and relaxed, letting her eyes slip closed and her powers flow like a gentle eddy through her body and out the palm of her hand. The tinkling sound of ice growing and crackling filled the dim office for a few moments while the tired Queen concentrated. She envisioned her task in the forefront of her mind, the form oscillating and spinning as she molded the thought into a physical structure. Finally, she released a breath and opened her eyes, letting her hand slide tiredly from the golem's shoulder.
Svalinn carefully examined his new legs, now smooth and powerful compared to the terrible design they were before. The plated ice armor had been refined all over its body to a more fluid pattern with remnants angles of the old, but the eerie angular face and jagged crown of ice remained. The golem climbed to its feet and tested its new appendages, nodding to itself as its gait flowed just as easily as before. The Draugr knelt before her and bowed its head in thanks.
"You are kind, Creator."
"Well I can't really have you dragging yourself around on my nice carpet, can I?"
The golem cocked a head at her quizzically and Crixus stifled a laugh from where he sat on the floor.
"Oh… that went over your head, didn't it? No matter… resume your post, Svalinn. I will call upon you and your brothers when I am well."
The golem nodded solemnly and rose to its feet, saluting once more before gliding from the room with quietly shifting ice. The Queen watched her creation go with droopy eyes, her gaze sliding back to the Gaul as he shifted closer. He sighed and sat right next to her with his legs crossed like a pretzel, his gleaming Damascus gladius resting across his thighs. Elsa couldn't help but let her eyes roam over the planes of his face, admiring how the light made his dark eyes shine warmly against his tanned skin and dark lashes. Her eyes wandered lower and watched his broad shoulders under his olive green wrap gently rise and fall with his steady breathing.
"Rest, Domina. I will wake you in an hour."
Elsa hadn't realized she had been staring unabashedly and blushed prettily. She cleared her throat and nodded weakly, forcing herself to turn her head and face away from him. If she didn't, she knew she would have just continued to oogle him… and that was not what she needed to be doing, no matter how badly she wanted to. The thought made a heavy sigh escape her chest and Elsa forced her eyes closed. The sound of the crackling fire lulled her back into oblivion in no time at all.
Luckily, a concussion is apparently much easier to get over than nearly dying. Granted, Elsa did have a few brief moments where her memory wasn't quite right and she did have dizzy spells and horrid headaches, but the episodes passed and soon she was back to her usual self. Anna on the other hand, had a close brush with death. The vicious wound she had sustained was luckily a clean cut and had miraculously missed all of her vital organs. How that bit of pure luck happened, they would never know. This time, it was Elsa's turn to sit at a bedside and keep the Princess from tearing her hair out in boredom. Poor Kristoff had been beside himself when the gravely injured Anna had been nearly comatose with fever, continually wiping her brow and whispering to her to be strong. The ruler had stayed with them as much as she could, but the putrid odor of infection made vivid memories of her late husband haunt her. The Mountain Man had been oblivious to her discomfort, but Crixus had not. The Gaul had watched her carefully through the ordeal and pulled her back to another task when he could see her start to become lost in her mind. Every time he did so, he would receive a small nod of thanks and that was that. He knew she appreciated what he was doing.
In between her visits to the infirmary and her own recovery, the Queen slowly eased herself back into the large task of ruling Arendelle. Her Counsel was very helpful in picking up the slack through the long and cold month of November as she recovered, and continued to assist her in Court through the beginning of December. Unbeknownst to many of the people around her, her anger was slowly taking root and growing like a poisonous vine. The few that did see it though, were working on ways to help her curb it. Crixus led her back into training as soon as she was given the go-ahead by Claudius, and attempted to push her skills the best he could. He drove her hard so she could vent some of the dangerous energy, even putting himself in harms way when she lost control of her head. The Gaul had escaped becoming a human Popsicle about four times now, and he was expecting the fifth to happen any day. The Queen had also been seeking the counsel of Grand Pabbie to learn more about Methuselah, which had thankfully been recovered when the courtyard had been cleared. Crixus had seen to the task himself, the memory of the warm stone clutched in his fist was one of comfort. That evening he had retrieved it they sat for a long time together with their hands clasped around the crystal, drawing strength through their meditation that the Trolls had taught them.
As Crixus spent more time with Elsa, he was able to see how much she truly cared for him and how far she went out of her way to make him feel comfortable and welcome. He hadn't realized that she had instructed her entire staff with brief history lessons of ancient Roman culture so they would know how to speak and act about him so he would feel safer. The Gaul probably never would have known had he not accidentally walked in on her and Kai (who was embracing his lack of lower leg with good humor) with some of the butler replacements, heavy tomes of history spread out between them on a large table. He had approached her on the subject later, but the Queen had simply left it as a courtesy from her to him.
That of course had led to yet another awkward conversation between them, and Elsa had stumped him again with her refusal of his more suggestive offers to help her more base urges… even though he was not keen on them. She had almost seemed offended that he had so thoughtlessly decided to just give up his body, and had asked him to never do so again unless he truly meant it. The Gaul had then had to explain to her that his old Domina, Lucretia, had favored him as well… but had used him, sometimes viciously. That the deceased woman's actions had been a norm that he was used to, although such a circumstance had been met very reluctantly. When he had told her this, he was certain that if it were physically possible to travel back in time, the Queen would have rent through it that very moment to slaughter the Roman woman. He had never seen her so thoroughly pissed off about a dead person before, or for his wellbeing. Crixus didn't know whether to feel thankful or flattered or embarrassed, and Kristoff thoroughly enjoyed teasing him about it.
So the days dragged on with Anna's slow recovering, Kristoff's incessant hovering and teasing, and the extremely awkward and loaded atmosphere between the Queen and the Gaul that just about everyone noticed. It was on the coldest day yet about a week before Christmas that Anna was well enough to go out and about for brief periods of time. Elsa, of course, was by her side as much as possible. She had nearly lost one of the most important people in her life, and no way was she going to squander her time away like she had for so many years before. Because of that, it was entirely too easy for Anna to weasel her way into the Queen's meeting with her Council.
Elsa sat quietly at Anna's bedside in the infirmary early one morning with a book in her lap. She had been unable to get a good night's sleep and had ended up finding that her feet liked to take her directly to her sister. Ever since there had been that nerve-wracking scare that the Princess wasn't going to make it, Elsa would sneak in and just watch her sleep. Sometimes the Queen would even rest her ear to her sister's chest, just to hear the steady thrum of her heart… which was exactly what she was doing now. The blonde was hunched over the sleeping woman, her ear gently resting on the soft cotton of a cream shift. Her eyes were closed and her brow was barely furrowed, reassured by the strong thump reverberating through the red head's chest. Elsa didn't know how long she sat there in her uncomfortable position, but she started when clumsy fingers brushed her messy bangs away from where they had fallen over her eyes.
"Hey, sis… 'so early, what're you doing here?"
"Oh! Anna, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up…" Elsa sat back up, hiding a grimace when her back cramped a little.
"No, you're good… What were you doing?" The Princess's blue eyes followed her older sister's movements, trying to blink away the sleep that clouded them.
"…I was listening to your heart. It… it was something that I did with Adam, and I couldn't help myself. It makes me feel better to hear it… to know you're going to be okay now."
"Hey, hey it's okay. C'mere."
Anna held out her arms to a tearful Elsa, who gladly accepted the offered comfort. The Queen rose from her seat and sank down onto the stuffed down mattress, carefully tucking herself into Anna's uninjured side and pressing her face into the crook of her neck. She finally let her tears fall and curled her arms around Anna's shoulders, trying to get as close as she could without hurting her. The Princess smoothed her hands over Elsa's back in soothing circles like their mother had done for them, whispering soft words to help ease her anxiety. Elsa's tears helped purge the fear and stress she had been carrying since the night of the attack. The harder she cried, the better she felt. Finally, after what seemed like an hour when it had maybe only been ten minutes, Elsa propped herself up in her elbow and pressed a fingertip into Anna's sternum.
"You are NOT allowed to die, do you hear me?" She peered down with a watery glare, determination gleaming in her reddened eyes.
"Aye aye, capitan. You don't have to tell me twice."
"We're going to figure out something so you can defend yourself. Okay?"
"Wait, what?! You're serious about this…"
"I am. I'll not have you defenseless again."
Anna conceded and just smiled up at her sister. "You're the boss, Battle Queen."
A crackling fire roared merrily in the hearth, warming the dim room with red-gold light in the late evening. The Keep was quiet, the witching hour upon them as the Queen's small Council met secretly in her office. Kristoff was also present, fussing over a bundled up Anna in a comfortable chair next to the fire. Her Court Secretary, Mr. Rotte, the Royal Treasurer, the Head of Commerce, Aster, Crixus, and the head of Arendelle's Ambassadorial Council were also present. There was no round table to sit at this time, so they were all standing or sitting in the small lounge space in front of the fire. Their voices murmured quietly over one another as they discussed their various topics, but fell quiet when the Queen gently cleared her throat.
"Thank you all for attending, I know it is late so I will be brief." She met every gaze.
"I want Craffus dead. And I want it done as soon as possible." Murmurs of both assent and decent sprang up around her but fell quickly away when she held a hand up.
"But I have been advised that full attack could seriously jeopardize this time of peace, and I am not willing to do that to our Kingdom. So please, just let me speak my thoughts and then I will take questions and comments."
The room fell silent, and the grim Queen paced in front of the hearth, the light glinting off of the gold embroidery of her bodice.
"We know where he is. We know his routine. What we don't know, is how closely connected he is to the Royal Court in the Southern Isle. I propose that a diplomatic party sail to this Kingdom and see if any agreement can be met. However!" She held her hand up again when voices began to speak up once more.
"However, please listen, a small contingency of Mr. Rotte's men will be assigned to removing this distasteful man and any of his sons from the face of the earth. I also request that this Council give me the authority to bring half of the Royal Navy of Arendelle as a supporting force should negotiations fail."
"Wait… you're going there?" Anna piped up from her bundle of blankets.
"Outrageous! I will not agree to that, you Majesty! It is too dangerous!" the Master of Treasury exclaimed.
"Jostein, please! Going there into the lion's den is the very last thing I wish to do… but I fear that this is the final course of action that must be taken." She told him ruefully.
"But… surely there is a better way?" Maartin, the Head of Commerce ventured. "Perhaps they hadn't received your letter about altering the embargo?"
"They have… I've even met and penned out rough drafts with their ambassador. It just seems that Craffus has taken this into his own hands. And this is why we must act."
A few of the men grumbled at her decision to throw herself head first into danger, but they didn't speak out. They trusted that she knew what she was doing, and that she would have adequate security to keep her safe. This was not to be the last meeting about this, but it got her ideas out into the open. She let them mutter amongst themselves for just a moment longer before calling for their attention yet again.
"May I have your permission to take this route?"
One by one the members of her Council gave their word that she would have what she needed, despite their obvious reluctance. Their meeting broke and soon they were bidding each other goodnight. Aster stepped up to the Queen at her gesture and bent so she could speak quietly into his ear.
"I want you by my side with Crixus on this little… soirée. Leave your top three men here in the Keep, but assemble a small platoon of fifteen to attend with us. If possible, use those who were with us on the way back from Rome."
"Not but half of them remain in the living with us after the assault on the Keep, your Majesty. Should I pull new recruits for the rest? Many of the older boys and men are vying to be in your service after news of the attack spread."
"…yes. We need to keep our experienced fighters evenly distributed to protect not only me but also our home. Do what you must, Aster. We have about a month to prepare."
"Yes, your Majesty."
Aster saluted smartly and strode from the dim office, leaving only Mr. Rotte left with the Royals and the Gaul. The Princess sat up and tried to make herself look a bit more in charge than she felt.
"Mr. Rotte? I have a request."
"Of course, Princess Anna. How can I be of service?" The Spy Master approached and bowed lowly.
The recovering woman shot her confused sister a look that told her she knew what she was doing. "I wish to learn how to defend myself… if you would be willing to teach me."
The Spy Master's surprise was visible for once, that she had asked rather than commanded and the nature of her request. It was only a flicker though, and with a quick calculating glance towards the Queen, he made his tentative decision.
"Wouldn't you rather learn from Crixus? You know him better than you do me."
"No-and I mean no offense to anyone! It's just… I can't see myself swinging around a sword. I mean I can, but… I'm a pretty clumsy person. I'm not a dancer like Elsa is. I feel like I would do better with something smaller… or not at all. I think you would be better skilled in that regard."
Mr. Rotte studied the fidgeting red head for a moment, his bland eyes catching the quiet Gaul's attention. "What do you think, Crixus?"
"Me?" His surprise was palpable.
"Yes, you are the only one in here besides me capable of teaching such a dark art." His voice lilted over the crackling fire, and the Gaul crossed his thick arms across the loose black tunic he had finally started wearing in the cold days of winter.
"I think… You have a better grasp of the skills she wants to learn. I will aide where I can, but I feel that your hands would be more sure than mine."
"Ah… not an answer I was expecting. Very well."
"But I do have one request." Crixus stepped forward, and yet again Mr. Rotte paused.
"I wish to learn as well… for you to teach all four of us. Your knowledge would be very useful to all of our needs and I am only trained in the ways of a Gladiator."
The Spy Master chuckled and propped his hands onto his hips. "Well since it looks like popular vote is ruling, I will gladly do so."
"Gratitude, for your willingness." The Gaul spoke, casually clapping a fist to his chest with a short bow.
"The pleasure is mine. I will be in touch on this matter within a day. Now if you would kindly excuse me?"
"Of course, thank you!" Anna piped up again, a noticeable weight lifted from her shoulders.
Mr. Rotte bowed once more and slipped from the room quietly, leaving the four alone in the lowly lit office. The Queen sighed heavily and took a seat on one of the armchairs, the just as tired Gaul taking the chair between her and the door. Anna relaxed back into Kristoff's side with a small grimace, shifting about until she found a more comfortable position that took the pressure off her still-healing side. Elsa studied her three companions in silence, memorizing their faces and branding them into her thoughts. She didn't know if she was going to come back from the Southern Isle alive, so it was important to her to try and make the most of the present. While she was doing this, she hadn't realized that her fingertips were touching the circular scab around her eye. She had been told it would scar, but it was a grim reminder of how fragile her life was and she was grateful for it.
"You match Crixus now." Anna commented nonchalantly, breaking the blonde out of her thoughts.
"Your scar… you both have one around your right eye now."
Of course Elsa had realized this a few days ago, but she hadn't realized that someone else would comment on it. She felt self-conscious about it now and folded her hands in her lap.
"So we do." She smiled tightly.
"And your wound matches mine." Crixus rumbled, hiking up his shirt to show the puckered scar on his stomach.
Anna laughed and prodded Kristoff in the shoulder. "You're the odd man out, babyface."
Elsa laughed lightly and sat back to watch her sister and brother in law bicker good-naturedly. It had been a short time since she had seen such a display of teasing and it warmed her heart. She sighed heavily and just watched, content to just sit and be a part of the group. A moment later, she felt Crixus's eyes on her face. She turned her head to him and noticed he was looking at the mark on her brow. His face was grim though, and she could tell he wasn't happy that she had sustained such an injury under his watch. Elsa tilted her head and caught his eye, breaking his stare with a look that told him she didn't hold him accountable. His mouth quirked into an accepting smile and nodded to let her know he understood. The Queen nodded in a way to say that was that, and sank back into her chair just as Anna made a red-faced Kristoff splutter in indignation. Yes, she would cherish these moments dearly; because the road ahead was sure to be bathed in blood.