CHAPTER WARNINGS: pregnancy, graphic childbirth, blood, character death, viking funeral. Also, incest mentions (obviously).
[[NOTES: Yes, I know it's been a bit; I've been trying to struggle past my writer's block and get some Freeze Out written, and Cartesian has her own time constraints. We'll be wrapping this up very quickly now. And to those of you following this story for the wealth of smut, our apologies for this chapter having none but this has never been a purely smut-driven fic (despite indications to the contrary). Hope you enjoy this nonetheless!
REPEAT: NO SMUT TODAY. People complaining about there being no smut this chapter will just look like ninnies for not reading the author notes.
Also… keep your eyes out for an epilogue, plus an extra something after that. This is not the end!]]
Cold. So cold, damp and dark. And her bones ached. When Anna tried pushing herself upright, her body did not wish to respond. Every corner of herself ached – especially her skull and its contents. The dull throb only increased the more she came to her senses. Why was she in pain?
In a flash, everything came back to her. Elsa. Their game. Ghostfinger. The guards. King Rhys – gods, the king had arrived, seen the lay of the situation. Perhaps knew her identity. Feeling up to her face, she found the mask was still in place. Perhaps he did not know, but it seemed a vain hope in such dire surroundings.
Anna struggled to a sitting position and drew her knees up under her chin. Jailed. A princess of Arendelle had done something so insane, so ridiculous, that she had landed herself in the dungeons… and she'd done it to lie with her sister in ways that were against all moral and religious ideals in their world. She really did have a sickness, her mind was diseased. Maybe if she could be trepanated, or if there was a magical or herbal remedy, or... but no. Everything pointed to her heart being beyond salvation.
I'm sorry, Elsa, she thought to herself as fat tears began to slide down her face, wetting the dark fabric stretched over her nose and mouth. You and I... we knew it was wrong, and I know we talked about it enough and neither of us was coercing the other, that we were both ready for this to happen, but it was always wrong. We have ruined the House of Arendelle forever with our sin, our gluttony for more than a pure, sisterly love. This won't stay a secret forever, no matter how long this mask hides my face. We're going to be exposed. The crown is tainted. I tainted it. You just wanted to work in the study, and I was careless, I took a risk just slightly too big. I... I'm evil.
That last thought sank her heart, but she also wasn't sure it rang true. She didn't feel evil. Was she? Then again, where was her royal backside seated at the moment? Certainly not on a throne or in her soft bed. The chilled and unforgiving stone of the cell floor did more to drive home her predicament than any amount of internal strife could ever have done. Only a truly wicked child would take their parents' legacy, their hopes and dreams, and throw them all away purely to satisfy the cravings of the flesh. Now she'd wound up in the dungeons, dragging her only living relative's good name through the mud in the doing.
"I'm sorry, Mother," she sobbed quietly into her knees. "I'm sorry, Daddy... I'm so sorry! I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
~ o ~
Elsa checked and rechecked her provisions and attire, and went over her documents a fourth or fifth time. Most of the arrangements were already made, but there were a few things that had to be determined at the last minute. As she worked, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. Already she had brought shame and dishonor to the crown. If they chose to flee now, she'd be denying Arendelle an heir... but if they didn't flee, Anna would almost certainly be condemned to death. In Elsa's mind, there was no choice. To save her sister, they had to disappear and never be found.
It was nearing four o'clock in the morning when Elsa finally made her way down to the dungeons, wearing a very practical dress and her long, hooded traveling cloak. Anyone would naturally think she wore it to stave off the chill of the dungeons, but in truth it served to obscure the handbag hidden under her arm. The Queen made her way through the dank stone passages with purpose, arriving at the only occupied cell at the very end of the hall. Two guards stood in front of the iron door, their weapons at the ready.
"At ease," Elsa said clearly. "I wish to confront my assailant." The guards hesitated. "Leave us. Now."
Once the guards were around the corner, Elsa stepped through the door and shut it behind her. This looked exactly like the cell she'd been held in just before the Great Thaw; it sent a chill down her spine to be in such a place again. Her sister was barely visible, a dark, huddled creature chained to the wall and crying in the corner. Elsa practically fell to the ground by her side, throwing her arms around her shoulders.
"Anna," she whispered, her carefully-crafted composure falling away. "Oh, Anna, my love... I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" Then she pulled away, pressing her palms against the shackles around her sister's wrists. The metal creaked and complained as it was slowly frozen from the outside in. "Listen, we don't have much time. We're leaving."
"Elsa?" Anna croaked, finally finding her voice. "Wh-what are you do-" Just then, the restraints shattered from their exposure to the harshest of elements at her sister's disposal. "Ah! What are you doing here? I've been... you can't be seen helping me, this is crazy!"
"I know," Elsa replied as she pulled Anna to her feet and brushed the dirt off her shoulders. "But if we stay here, you'll be killed." She thrust the handbag into her sister's arms. "Hold this." Immediately after Anna obeyed, she turned and pressed her hands against the stone wall, gathering her courage and power. There was a tense moment; then a massive spike of ice pierced through the wall, making it crumble and exposing them to the cold night air.
"Wait!" Anna hissed as she clutched at Elsa's sleeve, glancing left and right to see if the startling display of power had attracted any attention yet. "Y-you can't really be serious, how can you even think about running away?! Who will lead Arendelle?!" When Elsa reached for her arm, she drew back, clenching her fists. "No, listen! J-just... just leave me here, or let me escape, but you- this kingdom needs its queen! They don't need me, I'm just an extra body! It's me who forced our relationship to become deeper, and it's me who deserves punishment! Let me get banished, or just run off, but you stay here, you lead our people!"
Elsa grabbed Anna's shoulders, holding her at arm's length. "No, Anna, listen to me. I knew from the day this began that someday we might need to run. All the arrangements have been made, there's no turning back now. Rhys will rule Arendelle; he's the rightful King now, and he's a good man. This is the very reason I consented to the title instead of 'prince-consort', so there would be no questioning his authority if this came to pass. I... I trust him." She pulled her sister close again. "And I refuse to ever be apart from you again, Anna. If I have to choose between you and the crown, I choose you. That's the end of it."
Just as Elsa finished, the sound of hoof beats broke the silence of the night. From around the corner, a sled appeared, steered by Kristoff and Sven. Elsa hadn't seen either of them since Kristoff broke up with Anna; she was glad to see he didn't look any the worse for wear.
"Kristoff?!" Anna babbled, still reeling from her sister's refusal to bow to any societal pressures or expectations of her status. The rugged mountain man raised an eyebrow, his jaw slack. "I... but... and you planned this all along?! Where are we going, and what is he doing here?!"
"Get on," Elsa ordered, tugging Anna towards the sled.
Kristoff stared at them both for a moment, his mouth open in disbelief as his eyes moved over the massive hole in the wall. "Now hang on – your letter didn't say anything about breaking anybody out of jail!
Elsa just shook her head and shouted, "There isn't time! Just drive! We need to get to the docks, right now!"
"Please," Anna half-growled into Elsa's ear as she was jerked bodily into the sledge. "You have to think about this! Okay, good, get me out of Arendelle so I don't die, but... b-but you're carrying the heir! Stay here, raise it with Rhys, then... then m-maybe come find me later, I don't know! But I don't want to be the reason you throw your whole life away!"
As Kristoff snapped the reins and Sven began to run, Elsa grabbed Anna's face. "Don't you ever say that," she snapped. "YOU are my life, Anna."
Melting instantly, Anna fell against her sister's chest, clutching at the thick cloak that hid her from both the elements and the world. "I'm so sorry!" Anna sobbed. "I sh-should have locked the door, I should have kept things to our chambers in the first place! Gods, I'm such an idiot!"
Elsa couldn't keep from crying herself. She held Anna close against her chest and sobbed into her hair as Kristoff's sled raced through the dark night. "I'm sorry, too. I should have stopped the game when I realized I couldn't stay quiet. Oh, but it doesn't matter now, Anna! What's done is done..."
What seemed like only moments later, Kristoff's sled came to a halt in front of the docks overlooking the fjord. As they climbed out, Elsa shoved a heavy gold coin into Kristoff's hand. "I can't thank you enough," she said softly.
"Um…you're welcome.," he stammered, looking nervously between her and Anna. "I wish I knew what was going on here, but—"
"It's better that you don't," Elsa interrupted, resting a friendly hand on his shoulder. "For your safety, and ours."
Kristoff did not want to accept that answer, but he knew better than to argue. He looked at Elsa for a brief moment, and then at Anna for a bit longer. "Okay. I… I hope you guys are alright."
"Me, too," Anna whispered. She wanted to say more, but nothing came. Their eyes met for a moment before he flicked the reins again and Sven took off at full speed, carrying the ice master out of their lives. The wave she cast in his direction was feeble, but heartfelt. Even after their relationship had fallen apart like a letter in a rainstorm, still he cared enough for the sisters of Arendelle to see them safely on their cowardly escape.
Sisters of Arendelle. No longer would they be thus. Who would they be if not defined by their status? Where would they even go? Perhaps Elsa had all that planned out, but she wasn't privy to that information. The future looked like a swirling black void to her right now, sucking in all happiness and love and replacing it with doubt and uncertainty.
"Okay, sis," she sighed shakily, voice still stained with tears. "Where to now?"
"This way," said Elsa. "Follow me."
She took Anna's hand and led her down to the furthest end of the docks. The sun was just beginning to rise, silhouetting the ships eerily against the reddening sky. Their ship was the furthest one down, an old and weathered-looking vessel onto which dirty, smelly men were loading crate upon crate of goods for export. Elsa strode up the gangplank with all the confidence of a queen, ignoring the strange looks the men were giving them. The captain, an old bearded man in a long coat, met them on deck. He looked like he was about to chase them off, but Elsa produced a piece of paper from within her cloak and thrust it towards him. His face went pale.
"Right this way, ma'am," the captain grumbled. He led the women below deck to a small room beneath the storage hull, in the deepest part of the ship. It was furnished sparsely, with only a bed and a rickety chair.
"Where's your destination?" asked Elsa.
"Corona," the captain replied.
"Perfect." She pressed another gold coin into the captain's hand. "You know the terms of our agreement. See to it they aren't broken."
The captain nodded. "Aye, ma'am. We set sail shortly." The man turned on his heel and left, leaving Elsa and Anna alone in the tiny room.
"You..." Anna cleared her throat and began again, but not after pausing to listen to the captain's footfalls heading up the stairs. "You really did have all this set up for like, weeks, didn't you? Wow... how long have you been hatching Plan B?"
How long had it been? Elsa thought back for a moment. "It was after the second time we made love," she said finally. "I was so terrified of what might happen if someone discovered us… and now I'm glad I was." She embraced Anna tightly, tugging off her hood so she could kiss her cheeks. "I promised myself then that I would never let anything take you away from me again."
With a light kiss to one of Elsa's cheeks, Anna wrapped her arms around her sister and clutched tightly, past crying and past screaming, past asking questions. For this moment, all she wanted was her sister, the one she had almost lost because of their inability to stay vigilant. "Sorry. Guess I was kinda stupid about that. Didn't even think twice about what we might do if we ever did get caught."
Elsa sighed. She had always known that Anna wouldn't think ahead to the possibility of discovery. It just wasn't in her sister's nature. Elsa had accepted that about her long ago, and was simply glad she herself had the predisposition to plan ahead. "It doesn't matter," she told her soothingly. "All that matters is that we're both here, safe."
"Why do you even want me around?" Anna breathed into Elsa's silvery locks. "So yeah, um, we can drive each other's bodies wild, but other than that? I'm pretty useless. I don't contribute much. Just... sorry if this sounds pathetic, but I really do want to know what you see in me besides familial obligation and a bedroom buddy."
"You can't mean that, Anna," Elsa whispered sadly. "You're so much more than that. You're the only person who never, ever feared me, who never stopped believing in me!" She took her sister's face in both hands and kissed her forehead. "Your smile reminds me that I deserve to be happy. I can't live without you, Anna..."
Those words broke Anna open. She wept in earnest now, but not for her own life, or for fear that Elsa's love wasn't genuine. She wept because their love meant leaving the home of their ancestors behind. She wept for the loss of Arendelle, of Kai and Gerda, even of Rhys. And she wept that her sister had to give up a role that suited her like a horseshoe suits a hoof. All in all, though, she would most certainly rather be sailing into the unknown with Elsa at her side than alone in the wilderness.
Elsa held Anna as she cried, pressing soothing kisses all over her face and stroking her hair. She understood that her sister was mourning everything they had to leave behind, just as she was. Minutes later, Anna pulled back and sniffled, dabbing at her eyes with her gauzy hood. "So, um... Corona, huh?"
"Yes." the former queen replied softly. "Corona. At least at first. Look in the bag; I had both our personal inheritances converted to gold. We can go anywhere we want to go... but you know we have to disappear forever. Nobody can ever know who we really are from this day forward."
Nodding, Anna held her hand against Elsa's cheek for a long moment as she pulled herself together, trying to let no more tears spill. "Forever. That's a long time. But... but as long as I have you, it'll be okay. I could be happy anywhere you are."
"As long as we're together, everything will be alright," Elsa agreed softly, as much to reassure herself as for Anna. In truth, there was so much that could go wrong. What if they were tracked down and caught? What if someone recognized them? Elsa pushed those dark possibilities from her mind; for now, she had to believe they would succeed. "And we'll have the baby. She can really be OUR baby now, Anna, just yours and mine..." She felt her tears returning, and buried her face in Anna's shoulder. She felt evil for denying Rhys the chance to know his own child, but being able to raise the baby alone with Anna would be a dream come true.
"Our baby?" Anna looked up with a morose little smile. "Yeah... I guess I did say that to you. She comes from our parents. She is ours."
Her hand fell to Elsa's stomach and simply lay there for a long moment, humming softly with her tear-stained voice. Elsa was content to sit in near-silence with Anna for a moment. They both felt the baby stir and Elsa smiled at Anna through tear-filled eyes, lacing their fingers together over where she felt her moving.
At length, Anna's eyes swept over toward their nearby luggage as she whispered, "So... just... how much gold do our inheritances come up to, exactly?"
The practical question lifted Elsa from her pleasant reverie. "Ahh... well, it's about two thousand gold ducats." She paused, eyes darting to the handbag. "For each of us. I had each inheritance cashed in for its worth in gold, so it'll be accepted anywhere. That frees up our options. It's... a small fortune, Anna. If we live as commoners, without titles or servants and such, we'll have enough to finish out the rest of our lives comfortably."
"I can handle that," Anna affirmed quietly. Then, unable to stop herself, she broke out into a grin, stuffing her hands against her mouth to stifle a giggle. When Elsa merely looked at her questioningly, she burst out, "This might just be everything we've ever wanted! I mean, sure it might mean some hard times, but maybe we can take some animals to raise, chickens and pigs, cows to sell milk, which would make us more than comfortable, it would- and we could live like..." She trailed off, reluctant to voice the final thought yet.
"Like what?" she asked, smiling sadly at Anna. "Like husband and wife, a real family? You're right. It is a fresh start. We have to think about all that we'll he gaining… not all that we'll be leaving behind." She embraced Anna again tightly, kissing her cheek. "It'll be worth it, I know it will… it has to be."
"I love how you can do that. Just... pick up what I'm thinking. It proves we're right, that our love is true and real. And we can face anything together."
They stood like that for a long while, even after the gentle rocking of the ship increased when it shoved off from port. Nothing else mattered for the time being.
~ o ~
The voyage to Corona was charted to take a little under two days, if the fair weather held. Elsa and Anna managed to sleep through most of the morning, exhausted from the drama of their escape. It was hours later when Elsa awoke with a start, having dreamed that their bed slid across the floor. She sat up and gasped. Their bed actually had moved across the floor! Outside the room was the deafening roar of water hitting the ship, and as the ship was tossed from side to side, the furniture in the room slid back and forth across the floor.
"Anna!" Elsa cried, shaking her sister roughly. "Anna, wake up! Something's wrong!"
"Hmnah?!" Anna grunted, head whipping to and fro, a mad tangle of bangs sticking up every which way. "Whazzat? Who..." Then she swallowed when she saw the panic in her sister's eyes. "Wait... are you okay? What- EEE!"
Again, they were flung to the far end of the room, Anna whipping the leg that had been hanging over the side up and into the bed again just in time to avoid crushing it between bedframe and wall, though both women were still buffeted against it. Elsa managed to turn so her shoulder made contact first and took the brunt of the impact. She grabbed onto Anna with one hand and gripped the bedpost with the other to steady themselves. Outside, a deafening clap of thunder shook the wooden boards of the ship, the whole vessel groaning and creaking in protest.
"Gods, it's... a storm!" Elsa shouted over the sound of the rushing waves. Her eyes met Anna's, and she knew they were both thinking the same thing. This is how Mother and Father died.
Shaking her head, Anna gripped her love by the forearms and snapped, "No, Elsa! The same thing won't happen! Th-these captains, they train their crews like dogs to know how to handle a situation like this! We're going to be-"
But a thunderclap drowned out the rest of the princess's words. This was no light drizzle; stormy seas were under them, and unless they managed to claw their way up to the deck, they would have no idea how bad things truly were.
Anna's comforting words had come too late; Elsa was already panicking. The crew of their parents' ship had probably been well-trained, too, for all the good it did them. As the bed was thrown across the room again, a heavy frost started creeping across the floor, and the air took on a dense chill. Was this the end? Were she and Anna going to die here, in this very bed?
Just as a small snow flurry began making its way down from the ceiling, Elsa felt a sharp pain in her belly, and a trickle of warm water made its way down her thigh. "AAAGH!" she cried, buckling over in pain.
"Okay!" Anna burst out, breath fogging on the air as she watched the liquid darkening the front of Elsa's dress. "You're fine, just stay calm, this… isn't... oh gods, you can't be! Can you? Y-you're- oh gods!"
"No!" Elsa shouted over the din of the storm, clinging to Anna for dear life. "No, no! I can't- not now- it-it's too early, I-" She was cut off as a second contraction hit her like a ton of bricks, this one worse than the last. It was a wrenching, twisting pain that started in her lower back and spread through her whole abdomen. "AAAAGH! Annaaaa!"
"SHIT!" In a flash, Anna was up and pacing the room, twisting her hands in front of her as she ranted and raved. "What do we do? Boiling water, that's part of it, right? And fresh linens - but where do you get fresh linens on a boat out at sea? And is salt water okay, or- or do we need fresh water? They won't be happy about that, water's in short supply! Something to cut the cord! What if they want to use some rusty old pirate's saber to hack through it?!"
"Goddamn it, Anna!" Elsa cried, grabbing her sister as she passed and pulling her back towards the bed. "Shut up, y-you're not helping!" She gripped her sister's shoulders and looked her in the eye, her voice shaky and breathless. "Anna, listen to me! Y-you need to calm down! I need you to be calm, okay!?"
Nodding slowly at first, then more rapidly as the words sank in, Anna took several deep breaths, then whispered, "Shouldn't I tell the captain or something?"
"No," Elsa replied quickly. "No, not until the storm's over. We should not try to leave the room." She pulled Anna close, holding her tightly as she tried to remember everything the midwife told her about labor and delivery. "The contractions will go on for a while. W-we can wait until the storm is over. But I need you calm, Anna, because you're going to have to help me! I can't do this without you..."
Those last words pierced the fog of Anna's panic. Closing her eyes for a long moment, Anna focused on Elsa and only Elsa, so that when she opened them again her mind was a lot sharper, clearer. "Okay," she said as she took Elsa's hand. "I'm not leaving your side until I have to go boil water or whatever."
"Okay," Elsa echoed her sister softly. "Okay. Th-thank you, Anna. I… AAAAAGH!" Another contraction cut her off, only seconds before the bed was flung across the room again. Elsa cried out in pain as her back slammed against the wall. "Stop moving!" she shouted, as though the bed would hear her and obey. With a violent wave of her hand, she froze the bedframe to the wall and floor, anchoring it in place. "Okay," she panted. "Th-that's good enough for now. H-help me out of my clothes, Anna."
"O-ok-okay," Anna stuttered, slightly taken aback by the blatant display of the ice powers over which she normally kept such tight control. "Clothes, got it."
With slow and agonizing care, Anna and Elsa were able to get her cloak and her outer dress tucked under her to help keep her back elevated. Elsa also seemed to want to take the rest of her clothing off, but Anna had a sneaking suspicion she might need to ask one of the crewmen for help, and she felt very protective of letting anyone but herself see the former queen in all her nude splendour.
Dressed now in only a thin chemise, Elsa laid in the bed with her back supported by her bundled-up clothes. All she could do now was ride out the contractions and the storm. The ship tilted every which way as it was rocked by the waves, but the bed stayed in place, and Elsa managed to stay on the mattress by bracing herself with both hands against the headboard.
"The midwife said this part takes a while," she panted between the deafening claps of thunder. "Hours, maybe..."
Anna nodded as she pressed her lips to Elsa's forehead gently, one hand on Elsa's stomach and the other clutching the bedframe to maintain stability. She was burning up. This was the only time she had ever felt Elsa warmer than average body temperature; in fact, she usually ran a bit colder.
Elsa lay there with Anna for what felt like ages, her face buried against the younger woman's shoulder as she weathered the contractions. If the pain that Anna gave her during their games made her see white light, this pain was empty and black, an entirely different sensation that filled her heart with anguish and panic. She squeezed Anna's hand so tight that she was sure she heard her knuckles popping. Perhaps she should apologize for that… someday.
~ o ~
Gradually the thunder grew farther apart and more distant, and the rocking of the ship slowed. Several hours after they'd woken up, the storm seemed to be over. To Elsa, it felt like years had passed. Her contractions had become stronger and closer together, leaving her less and less time to brace herself and catch her breath.
"Anna," she gasped. "L-listen to me… go above-deck and speak to the captain. We need that boiling water, plus string, scissors, and lots of clean linens."
Nodding numbly, Anna disentangled her body from that of her sister and stood, but stooped to press a brief kiss on her cheek. "Just... try to remain calm while I'm gone, okay?" Elsa smiled by way of agreement, and then Anna was off.
The captain stood at the prow of the boat, issuing orders to a pair of men. When Anna came up to him, at first he seemed alarmed, then angered. "Hey, I thought I said no womenfolk on deck! They're cursed bad luck!"
"Oh, stuff it!" Anna snapped, in no mood for anything that might delay her. "My, um- my friend just went into labour!" Why had she referred to her sister that way? Perhaps because it would raise less questions, so long as the captain was unaware that the "friends" were royalty. The earlier she began thinking of their relationship that way, the easier the transition into their new life would be.
"Gods, no," one of the shipmates breathed.
"Gods, yes! And we need fresh linens, water to boil, string and scissors – and any of you who know anything about this kind of thing, too, because I'm... only an apprentice midwife!" It wasn't quite a lie; she had sat in on a few sessions with the midwife Elsa had chosen, soaking up the most basic facts.
"Plenty of linens and all that, but no midwives here," another crewman offered. When the captain nodded at him, he and two other men ran to fetch what she might need, but commanded them to stay above deck. The less people mixed up in the messy business of birthing, the better, as far as he was concerned.
"Okay, I'm back, I'm here!" Anna called down as she pushed open the door, piles of linens in her arms. "How far apart are they now?"
"I don't know!" she snapped. While Anna was gone, Elsa had mostly tried to focus on breathing through the pain. Alas, her mind couldn't help but wander, and she couldn't keep from worrying that something was terribly wrong. There remained two weeks until her due date, and neither she nor Anna were truly equipped to deliver a baby. By the time Anna returned, Elsa had worked herself into a mild panic again, causing a heavy frost to creep across the floor and ceiling. "It's not as if I'm counting! Aaah! Gods, Anna, it hurts!"
"Okay! I- okay, here, take my hand!" Dumping the linens unceremoniously between Elsa's feet, Anna allowed Elsa to clutch for her while the current contraction came and went, then gulped as she stood back. Elsa squeezed Anna's hand so hard that both their knuckles turned white, groaning through her teeth as she rode out the pain. She gave a whimper of protest when Anna withdrew. "Right, that was- wow. The crew is upstairs boiling the water, I'll be right back!" And with that, she was racing for the stairs again.
"Please hurry," Elsa sobbed, holding onto the headboard instead of her sister. She didn't want to be alone a moment longer than she had to, but she knew her sister had to leave and get the things they needed.
When Anna came back in with droplets sloshing over the side of the bucket, she grimaced at the pallor that had stolen over her sister's face. Things were looking quite serious. Wasting no time, she dunked the scissors she had brought up earlier into the water, making sure they were sterile before moving on to the linens. "Just hold on, Elsa... can... can you think straight enough to help me remember what I'm supposed to be doing next? Elevating your feet? What do I do?!"
"I don't know!" Elsa shouted back, her voice strained and panicked. "I- ah- n-nothing yet, just… just waiting." She gritted her teeth and groaned in pain. "Aaaagh… gods! I think you're supposed to see if I'm dilated yet. The midwife said that when you can't see the neck of the womb anymore, it's time to push. I think."
"Oh." Anna gulped, fidgeting with her fingers. "Erhm... I guess I can do that. Let's, um, take a look."
But then she hesitated before twitching up the hem of Elsa's dress. There underneath lay what had heretofore been one of the most erotic sights of her life, and part of her could not reconcile the way she was about to witness it being used. Yes, she had known all along this was a casualty of childbirth. Yes, she had heard this explained by both Elsa and the midwife, and knew that if she herself were to ever lose her wits and decide to embark on this particular journey, Elsa could wind up suffering the same fate. Still...
Meanwhile, Elsa had noticed the squeamishness that crept across Anna's face. "Please, can you focus and pay attention?!" she snapped. "J-just tell me what you see!"
"Okay, okay!" Anna grunted, flinging the chemise up to settle atop the round belly holding their child and easing Elsa's legs apart. When she finally managed to open her eyes, she was greeted by a disturbing sight. "Whoa, Nelly! It looks more like a horse's right now!"
"REALLY, Anna, NOW?!" cried Elsa. "You're making me feel so much better! Hurry up and check if I can start pushing yet!" She gave a frustrated groan and let her head fall back against the pillows.
"Umm..." Fighting down the diametrically opposing feelings of arousal and disgust at the sight before her, Anna slid one careful finger inside her sister. "I… um… I don't think I can feel it. What does that mean?"
"I don't know," Elsa gasped with a weak sob. Another contraction hit her like a ton of bricks, harder than any of the last. As a heart-wrenching cry tore from her throat, the pressure in her abdomen moved lower, and it felt like her hips were being forced apart with a pry-bar. She grabbed her sister's wrist and squeezed with an iron grip. "AAAAGH... aaaah, gods! Anna, I have to push!"
"Okay!" Anna said as she withdrew her dampened hand and fumbled to spread the linens under the area that would receive the child. "Push, come on! Here…" With that, she placed her sister's feet up on her own thighs and then reached forward to find one of her hands. "Good, now dig in for me! We can get through this!"
Elsa braced herself firmly against Anna's leg and squeezed until her hand felt numb, bearing down with all her might. "...aaaaAAAAAAGH GODS!"
"Ow, ow, ow, that's my hand!" Anna squealed as her eyes flew open at the sheer power in her pregnant lover's grip. When the pain subsided, she whispered, "That's it, you're doing so great, Elsa! Just a little longer!"
Alas, it wasn't a little longer. Another hour or so dragged on as Elsa alternately rested and screamed with effort. It felt like the longest hour of Anna's short life, and it felt like a true eternity to Elsa. Over and over she bore down and hardly felt the child move at all. But then, finally…
"Look!" Anna shouted, nearly standing up from surprise. "It's crowning! Holy Allfather, I can see the head!"
When Anna said she could see the baby's head, Elsa hoped it would be over soon. She pushed so hard her vision went black and she thought her throat would bleed from screaming; but once again, she barely felt the child move at all. "I- I can't-" she stammered. "Anna, something's wrong..."
"Wait..." Anna patted Elsa's hand briefly with her own before squatting down further, pressing aside the wet folds of skin and trying not to think too much about what she was seeing or doing. "This... I don't think this is the head at all, it looks- this the other end. Elsa..." Her heart sank as she sat up to look her sister in the eyes. "Elsa, I think she's coming out backward."
Elsa's face went pale. "B-Backward?" she gasped. "No. Oh no..." The midwife had promised her a difficult labor, but this was another matter entirely. Elsa wondered suddenly if this was the end, if she was going to die today in this very bed. "Anna, what do we do!?"
Biting her lip for a moment, Anna then reached forward and grasped her sister's hand with twice the tenacity as before. "Elsa, listen to me. I am going to get you through this. I w-want our daughter to come through this okay, too, but..." Then she took a deep breath, her voice breaking as she forced herself to finish the somewhat ugly thought. "You are my first concern, okay?"
Shaking her head desperately as she grasped Anna's meaning, Elsa breathed, "N-no, Anna. Whatever happens, I want you to take care of our baby." The tears that had already welled up in her eyes flowed freely now. "Whatever happens to me, you take good care of her! Promise me!"
"NO!" Both sisters were surprised by Anna's outburst, and a moment later she herself was in tears. "Damn it, I know how that sounds, I know I'm a horrible person! But a world without you... I... I can't..." Biting back the rest of her sentence, she cleared her throat and said in a shaky voice, "But that doesn't matter, because you are both my family and you are both making it through this! Now push!"
"Okay," Elsa whispered, still stunned and consternated. "O-Okay..." She closed her eyes and bore down as hard as she could, biting down on her lip in a vain attempt to muffle her scream. This time she felt the baby shift down just slightly. "Is she coming?" she gasped.
"Yes, just... hold on!" Squinting one eye closed, Anna worked her fingers in, felt up along the small form inside her sister and found a tiny ankle. A few more seconds and she had both of them. With great care, she held the ankles still and said, "Listen, I'm going to try to get the legs free... are you ready for me to push the baby in some ways you're probably not going to find comfortable?"
"I don't care, just get it over with!" Elsa whimpered. She grabbed the headboard with both hands and braced herself firmly. "AAH! I have to- I'm g-gonna push..." She bore down with all her strength, her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her fingernails digging into the headboard.
First, Anna tried to pull the legs out, but it seemed there was no forcing the baby back up into Elsa in order to do that. Therefore, she bit down on her lips and bent the legs back. It felt utterly sick and wrong to do, but how else were they going to get their daughter free?
"H-hurry, please, Anna!"
"Go, push!" Anna encouraged as she felt the bottom coming free, cupping one hand underneath it to help catch as her other held the legs in place. "Just a little further, that's it! You're doing so well, just work with me, come on, Elsa!"
"AH! Oh GOOODS!" Elsa cried, lifting herself up on her elbows to see as she pushed with all her might. After a long, painful moment the child moved again, and a little tug from Anna was all it took to pull her legs free. Elsa heaved a sigh of relief. Already she was in less pain, and she could tell they were on the downhill stretch. "I-I have to k-keep pushing! C-Catch her, Anna!" Again she bore down, groaning and sobbing as the baby finally slipped free.
"Him!" Anna half-laughed as the little red body emerged, feeling her heart seize at the knowledge. "My gods, Elsa, look at the size of him, he's..."
And that's when she saw it. The cord wrapped around his neck, his little cheeks blue, his eyes shut…
Panic exploded in Anna's chest as she practically tore the cord loose, feeling the side of the throat for a pulse. Nothing. She pounded him on the back, she had heard that to be something midwives did to get them moving and breathing. Nothing. He was still as a statue.
"It's a boy?" Elsa gasped. "It's a boy! He's..." Her face fell when she realized the baby in Anna's arms wasn't moving or making a sound. "A-Anna?" she stammered breathlessly, the temperature in the room suddenly dropping. "Anna, why isn't he crying?!"
The look Anna gave Elsa when she looked up was completely blank. "I... don't know, he's not breathing, he's... I d-don't know what else I can do, I did all the things the midwife said to try, I..." Gulping, her eyes darted between the baby's still face and Elsa's stricken one. "Wh-what do I do? What else did she tell you about?"
"What do you mean, he's not breathing?!" Elsa cried. "Give him to me!" She sat up just enough to snatch the child from Anna's numb arms, holding him tight against her breast. "Breathe!" she shouted, patting his back firmly. "Breathe! Cry! Something, please!" Her face twisted into a mask of grief as she realized her child was not going to stir, now or ever. The room suddenly became bitter cold, and frost covered every surface. "Anna, he's… he's-"
"No," Anna cut her off. "There has to be something more we can do! Y-you're- you have powers, use your powers! Do something, he can't- no. No, I refuse to accept that this is it, come on, you have to-"
"WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO, FREEZE HIM?!" Elsa shouted. "It won't help, Anna! He-"
Elsa suddenly fell silent and her eyes widened as she felt another contraction, and the now-familiar sensation of her hips being forced apart. Was that normal? It was supposed to be over! But this had to mean… "Anna!"
"I'm sorry," Anna sobbed, laying her hands gently on Elsa's arm and shoulder, trembling like a leaf. "I d-didn't mean it, little baby, I- I really wanted you to live, I wasn't-"
"No, Anna, it's not over!" Elsa cried, shaking Anna's shoulder roughly. The realization that she was having twins should have thrilled Elsa, but with the first child now dead, she had little hope for the second. His sibling was likely in the same state. All these months of hoping and worrying, all these hours of agony, would be for nothing. She held her stillborn son tightly in her arms as she sobbed, "Anna, I can't do it again… I can't..."
"Wait, y- what do you mean, it's not over?" Then she recognized Elsa's pushing face and drew back in shock. "What?! There can't be a- no, Elsa, a second child?! OH!" Then her brain connected that fact to the way Elsa was still shaking her shoulder. "Me! I mean, I have to help, I- hold on, Elsa, I'll be right there!"
Anna practically vaulted over one of her sister's legs to land back in the catching position, tears still rolling down her sweat-covered cheeks. When she was in the proper position, she ground out, "Push! We have to do this, I'm sorry but we have to get this done, n-no matter what! Please push!"
Elsa was ready to lie down and give up; she would probably have done so if Anna hadn't been there to help. Only her sister's voice gave her the strength to keep going. Laying on her back, with her stillborn child still cradled in one arm, Elsa pushed as hard as she could with every bit of strength she had left. After a few breathless, silent moments, she gave a heart-wrenching cry, and she felt her baby's head crowning.
"It's the head this time," Anna assured her breathlessly, one of her hands passing up and down Elsa's thigh as she waited patiently. "It... yes, this baby's going to come out the right way! J-just hang in there, sis!"
A massive sigh of relief fell from Elsa's mouth at the news. This time it was going alright; perhaps the baby had a chance. Elsa pushed with everything she had left. As she felt one more contraction starting, she bore down hard, teeth clenched. She gasped in relief as she felt the child's head and torso emerge, followed easily by the legs afterward. Almost right away, she pushed herself up on shaky arms, desperate to see if her baby was alright.
"A-Anna," she whimpered. "Anna, is she...?"
"This one's moving," Anna whispered. "Hold on, I have to..." Arms shaking, she bent the baby over her leg and patted its back several times, mind solely focused now on making sure it would survive before any other thoughts could be entertained. It took a few tries, but then she saw several droplets of fluid land on the cabin's floorboards, which was immediately followed by a loud, piercing wail. Elsa gave a cry of delight and relief when she heard it.
"Listen, Elsa! Do you hear? Do you hear our..." When she turned her over and confirmed, Anna said in a whisper that barely could be understood over the crying, "Do you hear our daughter?"
"Our daughter?" Elsa repeated, her tears of grief and pain replaced by tears of joy. "Our daughter! Our… our baby!" She held out her arms to receive her child, gently passing the stillborn boy to Anna, as she needed both hands to hold the squirming, crying little girl. Just as the midwife had instructed her weeks ago, Elsa brought the child to her breast immediately. To her delight and relief, the baby eagerly rooted for a nipple and grasped at her mother's breast. "She's alright," Elsa breathed. "She's strong, she's... oh, Anna, she's beautiful..."
"I..." Anna glanced between happy mother and daughter and the unmoving babe in her own arms. Such disparate scenes that she couldn't reconcile the two of them. "W-what has happened here? What do I do now?"
Elsa stopped, her smile melting away as she looked back at their son. Her eyes met Anna's, and she knew her sister was feeling exactly what she was; the painful combination of joy of grief was confusing and overwhelming. "Twins," Elsa whispered sadly. "And to think we had no idea..." She leaned back weakly against the headboard. Meanwhile the babe in her arms had latched onto her breast and was suckling vigorously, oblivious to the tragic scene around her. "I don't know," she sobbed quietly. "I… I don't know. I can't just… she needs me and I'm so happy, but I don't want to let him go, Anna!"
Gently, Anna laid him down amid the crimson-soaked linens, caressing his peaceful little face. Then she made for the blade she had sanitised earlier and cut his cord, set it down and retrieved the shoelace she had also been given in lieu of needle and thread. "I know," she said in a hushed voice as she tied their daughter's cord just at the belly button, as tightly as she could manage. "Gods, this is isn't fair, but... but we have still been blessed with just what we expected. Even if it came in an unexpected way. I hate myself for saying it, though."
Perhaps Anna was right, but in that moment Elsa was disgusted with her sister for saying it. That would pass. As Anna took care of things and her daughter nursed, Elsa closed her eyes and cried. A part of her wondered if they deserved this; perhaps the gods were punishing them for their unholy union. "At least clean him up," Elsa pleaded. "Let's at least do that for him. And swaddle him in some linens, I... I need to hold him, just for a little while..."
"Elsa!" Anna choked out, the barest, harshest whisper as she tried not to break down in a sobbing mess. But she wouldn't refuse her. She didn't have it in her to try. Within a few minutes, their daughter had been moved to suckle at Elsa's other breast and Anna was placing the cleaned and swaddled form of their son on the opposite side.
"What shall we name them?" Anna asked gently.
Elsa paused as she wondered what to name the twin babes. The girl finished nursing and began to whimper, so Elsa handed her to Anna to be cleaned and bundled. "Let's call her Clara," she suggested tearfully as the infant passed into Anna's arms. "What do you think? It sounds awfully regal, and she is a princess, even if she'll never know it." Elsa cradled the boy over her heart, his fragile little body still warm against her breast. How could she give him a name only to say goodbye immediately after?
"Are you a Clara?" Anna was asking the writhing little girl in her arms as she dipped another cloth into the bucket and gently wiped her clear. One of her little fists lashed out and bopped her in the nose. "Ow! Goodness..."
But Elsa wasn't listening. She pulled back the linen around her son's head to see him better, gently stroking his tuft of black hair and his round little nose. "He looks like his father," she sobbed.
With a heavy heart, Anna turned back with the clean and bundled daughter to gaze down at what might have been their son. "He does. I can see it." As she gently rocked the slowly-quieting Clara back and forth, she said in a subdued voice, "I... think we know what we have to call him. Don't you?"
They both shared a nod.
"Rhys," Elsa whispered, pressing a gentle kiss against his forehead. "I'm so sorry, Rhys. I… I already loved you so very much..." Then she cried for what felt like ages, just imagining the happy, healthy little boy he might have been, putting him down only when Clara began to cry to be nursed again. Eventually, the little girl fell asleep at her mother's breast, and it wasn't long before Elsa slept too, exhausted from her ordeal.
~ o ~
The next day was sunny and clear on the open ocean. Elsa bathed and dressed with Anna's help, and leaned on her sister's shoulder as they made their way up to the deck of the ship. Upon hearing the sad news from Anna, the captain had agreed to clear the deck and allow the women a few moments of privacy to lay the stillborn child to rest.
While Anna held Clara, Elsa laid Rhys in a wooden crate lined with clean linens and soaked in whale oil. She kissed him once more, her tears falling onto his sweet little face, before she placed the lid on the box. Then they lowered it slowly down to the water on a length of rope, watching it bob on the surface as Anna dropped a lit match. It went up in flames right away, and the burning crate floated steadily away from the ship, carried by the calm ocean's gentle current.
"Just like the warriors of old," Elsa mused sadly as she and Anna watched the box disappear on the horizon. "Oh… there's one more thing."While Anna and the crew had been preparing the box for the boy, Elsa had spent the better part of an hour writing a heartfelt letter. She produced it from the pocket of her cloak, now sealed with a cork inside a glass bottle, and tossed it into the water.
"What was that about, anyway?" Anna asked as her fingers trailed through the whitish peach fuzz on their daughter's head. "I saw you scratching away at the parchment, but..."
"It was a letter to Rhys," Elsa replied sadly. "Telling him everything. That I'm so sorry we had to leave, and about his children. I know he'll probably never see it, but… it made me feel better to write it all down." She wrapped an arm around Anna, resting her head on her shoulder. "I have to believe he'll forgive me someday..."
At that, Anna turned Elsa slightly so she could embrace her more fully, carefully trapping Clara between the warmth of her two mothers. "It's okay. In his heart, I'm sure he has to understand why this happened, and... he knows who I am, he always knew I came first in your life. He'll work through it eventually."
Elsa held Anna tight, melting into her embrace as she cried softly. She took Clara from her and cradled her against her breast. "I hope you're right," she sighed. Elsa winced in pain as she turned to move. Her whole body ached from her protracted labor. "Will you help me get down the stairs?"
As Anna helped Elsa descend the staircase, she took a final look at the flames licking up from their son's funeral barge as it washed away from them. A stinging filled her heart, but she fought it down and forced it away. No looking back. He would have to be remembered as a part of their old lives, as a member of the royal court. It befitted him.
"Farewell, Prince Rhys," she said under her breath. "Walk with the gods."
Back in their small cabin, Elsa laid back in bed with little Clara resting on her chest. Every time the pain of her lost son stabbed her heart, Elsa looked at her daughter and found a bit of comfort. She would just have to take all the love she had for both children and give it all to one. Clara would be the best-loved, happiest little girl in all the world if Elsa had her way. As she gazed down at Clara, a smile broke through her tears.
"Oh look, Anna! She's awake... oh, look at her beautiful blue eyes!"
"They sure are!" Anna breathed, bending as far over the bedside as she could to gaze into Clara's crystalline irises. "Oh, those definitely came from her mommy!" Unconscious of her actions, her arm draped around her lover's shoulders as she leaned farther in. "It... it was all worth it. Every moment we had to go through to get here. I mean it, Elsa."
Elsa smiled sadly at Anna. She wasn't sure she felt that way now, but she knew she would with time. "Clara was worth it," she said softly. Then she paused. "But… I never, ever want to be pregnant again." She sat up slowly, leaning against the headboard. "Listen, Anna, I've been thinking. We need to talk about what we're going to do when we reach Corona."
"We do." Fidgeting for a second, Anna more or less blurted, "Do you want me to be the husband? Because if you do, I will, I'll go into town and buy things we need, and you can stay at home with Clara – or I could get a job in a livery, or a smithy, I- I'm strong enough! Plus, I've been learning fencing here and there, so I ought to be able to protect our home if I keep practicing! But I guess our first job will be to find a house, won't it?"
"The husband?" Elsa chuckled, bemused at her sister's sudden excitement. "I think it would be best if we told people that I'm a widow and you're my sister or cousin. But… if you want to get a job, that's fine. Yes, we'll need to find a house. A place in the country would be best."
With a nod, Anna leaned one hip against the bed. "The peace would be good for us and for Clara, but... I'm not sure we should let on we're sisters." When Elsa seemed surprised, she added, "That could make it easier for the soldiers of Arendelle to track us down, if they know two sisters live nearby. Saying we're both widows of two brothers is better. Besides..." She took another deep breath. "Um, us being sisters would confuse Clara when she's older. Honestly, she's bound to notice we don't treat each other like relatives, no matter how hard we try to keep it from her. Maybe she's as thick-headed as me, but it's just as possible she'll be smart like you, and it's more important to me that she knows we're in love than that we're kin."
"You're right," Elsa agreed reluctantly, shifting to get more comfortable. "That's probably best. I just hope she'll be alright growing up with two mothers. So we'll say we're from Corona, and that our husbands died at sea." She paused to mull over her words. "We shouldn't stay in Corona, you know. We should go farther – ideally a country that isn't allied with Arendelle, one that wouldn't cooperate with extradition even if we were found."
"But I liked the idea of Corona..." After a few more seconds, Anna nodded glumly. "We can't stay, though. You're right. We'll buy a horse and cart there, and... and we'll just go further inland. Miles and miles. Somewhere, there'll be a place for us."
"Somewhere," Elsa repeated softly, squeezing Anna's hand. "It'll be a hard road, but… as long as we're all together, I know we can do it." Clara gave a little yawn, and Elsa held her close for a small kiss. "Isn't that right, little one?" she crooned. "We'll always have each other."
Anna placed one hand over Elsa's where it supported their daughter. "Always."
END CHAPTER TEN