Elsa stood at the edge of the cliff, staring out over the expansive scenery below. In the valley were countless thick trees, crowding from cliff to cliff, and several dark blue lakes dotting the landscape. Distantly, there were rings of mountains with snowcapped peaks, showing that winter was gripping the rest of the world, even when there wasn't a trace of white below. As sentry against the cold, the valley was dominated by a large, conical mountain with its peak not capped in snow, but cratered by a large, respiring hole. Not even the trees seemed to go near it, as there was a ring of barren soil that crept from the volcano's base and far into the valley before reaching the forest, and it was in that area around the mountain that she could see buildings and homes dotting the darkness, with torchlight and windows sparkling against the black soil. The entire valley was beautifully dark, but it was the volcano that snared her eyes and wouldn't release her attention.
"Before you lay Fria," Yasha announced, perched on a blackened stone ahead of her and his eyes cast affectionately onto the land. He had noticed her infatuation with the mountain, but wasn't surprised. Fria was the land and the mountain, and they were equally breathtaking. He also knew that seeing the mountain would make the Heart rage within her, but was satisfied that she was handling it well. As she was preoccupied, he looked back to his kingdom and sighed heavily, feeling the weight of his return. It had been too long since he had come back and his eyes were focused on the homes, with the fires showing that the forges were burning hotly. As he had explained to her, very few people lived in the forest and most lived right under the mountain, in the fire and the ash. It was the will of Nazir and why he drove himself to change the bitter sight. By instinct, he had reached into his shirt and pulled his ring out, running his fingers over the misshapen metal while he glared at the homes, and also the mountain beyond.
His eyes were alive.
"I have come home for the last time," he said to himself, gripping the ring tightly.
"You said it means a lot to you," Elsa suddenly said, startling him. He looked to find that she had shifted her attention and had been watching him favor his ring. Her eyes were kind, though he appeared angry at her intrusion.
She didn't back away.
"It's a very strange ring," she remarked, "One that can't be worn."
He let out a slow breath, the ring gripped tightly in his fist. He looked back over to the mountain, trying to evade her. "It was a gift," he replied, pushing the ring under his shirt and letting his tired hands hang at his sides, "Now it is an oath."
"An oath to come back here and change Fria. To save my people."
She felt her instincts had been right about the ring. From the first time she had laid eyes on it, it had stuck in her mind as important, though she could never understand why. With him obviously more liberal about talking about his past, she also wanted to know more, and see if another of her instincts was correct.
"Who was she?"
He was surprised by her intuitive question, but didn't look away from the mountain, using it to delay his response. This was another dive into his past, though it felt less offensive than before. He shrugged lightly, but eyes were very focused on the memories that boiled up from the burning in his chest. "A child long after I was not, barely able to handle a blacksmith's hammer," he explained, and a strange smile came over him as he fell victim to those memories, "But that did not deter her, and she wanted to make it for me. She was enamored by my magic. She thought it was beautiful...special. What a foolish child." She watched his expression closely and felt a strange feeling welling in her chest. The affection in his voice made her lips hang loosely and she continued to stare at his heart, where she knew the ring was hanging.
"What happened to her?" she asked.
At the question, his lips pressed together and smothered out his tender smile. It was yet another sad tale.
"The mountain took her," he replied, "Long ago."
Without bothering to listen to her condolences, he jumped from the blackened stone and landed on the ground below, continuing on the path as it followed the cliffs down to Fria. She watched him with no words to offer, just the horrible feeling in her chest. If anything, the ring certified his claim that he was fighting to save his people, and that should have gone a long way to dissolving the doubts she felt deep inside, but the entire exchange had left her feeling something else entirely, something she didn't quite understand. A few whispers seemed to creep out from among the others, so loud that she swore she heard them from somewhere nearby. It even caused her to look around, not sure if they had been real or not.
"Beware the child," said a voice and she winced when she realized it was her own. Her fingers to her lips, she once more looked around, wondering why she had said it. Many strange things had been happening to her, but nothing was as disturbing as hearing someone else speak with her voice. While she was eager and afraid to understand what it meant, her eyes suddenly fell on Sid, who was floating there and watching her quietly. The will of the FireHeart was wild when she was nearby and Elsa felt she didn't want to face her without Yasha around, so she quickly followed after him, down the path towards Fria, her fingers still pressed against her lips and she repeated the words, over and over.
After the long trek down and while resting near the edge of the forest, Yasha had left Elsa by herself as she rested on a fallen log, hidden away in a small clearing. With him was Sid, still annoyed and not bothering to hide it to him. Her tiny body was raging and her voice had been pitched so high that he had trouble listening to her without wincing. "The guards should let us march right into the Chamber. Why are we sneaking around like this?" she fumed. He was looking at the homes in the distance and the smoke rising from the forges. Just seeing them this close made him long to see his old house, knowing it would be painful to find its blackened bones still reaching out into the dark sky. It was strange to cling to the pain of the past and he brushed away those painful memories dragged out by his conversations with Elsa, still unsure why she had the power to bring them out.
"Nazir has allowed us to return, but I do not wish to involve the people in this. That includes the guards. We are about to turn this world upside down, Sid. We must stay out of sight," he replied. She snorted and looked back into the clearing, where Elsa sat quietly on the log, her hand raised gently into the air to try and cup the floating ash in the moonbeams around her. Her beautiful blue dress and platinum hair were a stark contrast from the black soil and dark forest around her, and she seemed to glow under the columns of moonlight.
It fueled Sid's foul mood.
"I don't know how you think you're going to sneak her anywhere. She doesn't exactly fit in, you know," she remarked dryly. Yasha looked back to her basking in the clearing and found himself captivated by the scene, and in the way she didn't fit in anywhere. It was the most unexpected things about her that bedeviled him and something about her posture spoke to him of her gentle nature, and how displaced she was from the malice of their fate.
His expression revealed his mood and his voice became softer.
"No, she does not."
Sid glared at him, not liking that lofty tone at all. Seeing him influenced by her was maddening and it drove a fire inside of her like she had never felt before. Flaring, she fluttered in front of his face, so close he could feel the heat bleeding off of her. "I hope you've got your head in the right place and you remember what you have to do when you get to the FireHeart," she snarled.
He scowled. "Do not lecture me, Sid. I have not forgotten Nazir's task," he said, then slowly shifted his eyes past her and back to Elsa in the distance. Joining with the FireHeart and assuming its power had lost no sway over him, and no small part of him was intent on accepting Nazir's offer and taking his reward, but as he stared at her and felt the connection they had found on their journey, the idea of assaulting her once more made him feel a sense of self-loathing that nearly rivaled his disdain for Nazir.
It was becoming impossible for him to accept his inevitable betrayal of her.
Sid seemed to pick up on the doubts in his eyes. "You can't seriously be considering letting her freeze the FireHeart," she groaned. Yasha's eyes moved to her, but he said nothing. Sid flared even more. "I don't believe this! He'll make you king, Yasha! It's everything you've ever wanted!"
The remark made him scoff and feel angry. "Will he? Nazir does not seem the type to give up power," he hissed.
"The King's Oath has existed as long as the FireHeart itself. Prove your worth to the Heart, and become its master and king. It's the oldest tradition in Fria," she reminded him passionately.
"Then why has Fria known no other king but Nazir?" he fired back.
The question took her off guard, and she had no immediate answer. It was strange that countless generations had gone by with no one worthy to claim mastery over the FireHeart, but those were details she didn't care for until he had already entered the Heart and proved that he was the only one worthy of it. The fact that he was only questioning it now meant that the Snow Queen's influence had gotten deeper into him than she imagined, and that also drove the panic in her. "It can be you, Yasha. You can be the first. When you're king, you can do what you've always wanted and move everyone away from the mountain," she cried, "You can save them!"
"I know," he said, clenching his teeth.
"With the power of the FireHeart, not even Nazir could stop you."
"I know," he repeated, a little louder.
"Then forget about freezing the Heart! Take the power, kill the queen and become the king!"
"Why?!" he suddenly roared, making her reel back and causing Elsa notice their exchange. He was too infuriated to care and he glared at Sid with his emotions boiling over. "Why must I sacrifice the innocent to save the innocent? Why must that be the burden I bear?"
Sid was panicked and thrashed about, desperate for some way to convince him. She had never before seen him so frenzied, and she had never before resorted to using such tactics against him.
"If she freezes the FireHeart, you'll die," she whispered in a strangled voice.
"We both will."
He cawed, not needing her to remind him. "Just one more distasteful joke upon us. Could I spare you that fate, I would. Could I save everything at the cost of this life that stands ready to be taken from me, I would! What mockery that the world sees fit that my life be spared at the expense of others. It is as if fate itself handles me like some helpless toy," he raged, pushing his hair back roughly as he groaned.
"Do nothing and I die. Destroy the Heart and you die. Become king and she dies! Why must the only choice I have be death?"
"Then pick the choice that has life. Save all of the people in Fria, the ones that helped raise you and the ones that love you. This Elsa isn't part of your world. She's ice and snow, and you're not. It's easy, Yasha. Just…" she argued, her voice wavering as she floated closer to him, "Enter the FireHeart. Take the power. Be the king everyone needs you to be."
"You would have a king who cannot walk any path but the one arranged before him, one that casually throws aside the life of a stranger because it is convenient for him," he spat furiously. Taking a deep breath, he stared at Elsa, his hand twitching. He wondered what decision she would make, had she had been in his place. Would her timid heart give her any more insight into their woven fate, or would it devour her as it was slowly devouring him? Could she bear the burden of trading one life for many? The only reprieve he had for not speaking to her was that he didn't have to know the answer to those questions.
He didn't want to see her torn apart by them.
"When we enter the Scoria Chamber, it will end," he suddenly barked, then stepped around Sid to head back towards her with one last oath on his breath, "One way or another."
As he approached, Elsa noticed the anger in him and the blood boiling under his skin. She couldn't hear what was said at the distance, but she had never heard him lash out in such a way. It concerned her. "Is everything all right?" she asked as he came to her, taking great care to examine his face.
He avoided her eyes. "It is nothing to be concerned about. Sid…" he said, throwing a glance back to the hovering sprite. A sigh escaped him and he slowly turned back, his eyes tired and his voice hoarse, "Sid thought it better to force our way into the Chamber, however I do not wish to involve anyone I do not have to," he lied, though he hid it well among a few truths.
"Our only task is the Heart."
She watched his every move, pursing her lips. Seeing him worked up made her heart race. She knew there was something behind the argument and that he was hiding it poorly but she had learned that there was little chance she could pry it from him when his eyes showed their resolute locks. She knew his stubbornness better than anyone, a sad statement considering their short history.
"I'm right here," she offered out of nowhere, for both the task and his raging heart, "Whenever you need me."
He looked at her and grimaced. Her kindness made his attempts to map their fate even harder and the weight of his lies were making it difficult to meet her eyes. Feeling rushed, he knew they had to get to the Heart before she stripped away what little resolve he had left to resist her. "We must make our way through the town, but we must stay out of sight. Do not draw attention to yourself and do not speak carelessly. We must be cautious and get to the mountain as quickly as we can," he instructed, looking forward. Oddly, he found that Sid was no longer in sight, though he felt that was probably for the best. It was likely that Nazir already know their every move because of her, perhaps even his temptation to assault the FireHeart itself, but none of that mattered. He had done nothing to stop them so far, so there was no sense in changing his plan, even if he barely had one.
"Stay close to me," he instructed and began to lead Elsa through the buildings and forges, creeping ever closer to the stone stairs that led up the mountain and to the chamber where the FireHeart awaited them. They moved quietly, staying in dark alleys and away from the movements of people. There weren't many out other than guards, which made their task easier, and he moved through the place he obviously knew well, with her following him as quietly as she could. It had been progressing well until some noisy movements made his pace slow and he paused behind a home, pressing back against the wall and pushing his hand back to stop her. Not expecting it, she found that his arm crossed the top of her chest and his hand grasped her opposite shoulder, pinning her back against the stone wall with a muffled yelp. A blush on her face, she bit her lip and clawed her hands into the wall, staring forward as she felt the heat from his arm as it pressed against her skin, her breathing pulsing through the nape of her neck. On the wall behind her, two crests of icy magic were spreading out from her hands, cracking the ancient mortar and stone. It was difficult to control her emotions and her magic when he was so close, so she was greatly relieved when the clamor passed and he slowly slipped his hand down from her, leaving her gasping quietly and clenching her hands across her chest.
He was oblivious to the whole thing and waved her on as he dashed to another building.
Elsa couldn't move. Why his touch had such an effect on her, she didn't understand, but she could not focus long enough to see that he had left her behind. With so little experience in the touch of men and even less in the sensations that accompanied them, it was a miracle she hadn't turned the entire building into an ice cube and her muffled panting was filling the quiet night. She was still trying to recover when she noticed that he had moved on and she couldn't see him anywhere. Panicking, she pressed against the wall and arched her neck to try and find him, though it was impossible in this alien place. She even thought about calling out, but knew that it might arouse the ears of others.
"What is this?" called a voice and she suddenly froze. It was an old woman and she was gazing at her from the other corner of the home, darkened in the shadows of the building. She was hunched over with age, with white hair and leathery skin. A long scar ran down her face and many of her teeth were missing. By all accounts, she had a frightening appearance and Elsa's chest kept rising higher and higher, not knowing what to do now that she had been discovered. The old woman glared at her, her face showing her surprise. "My poor home cracks and freezes, and I find such a strange young woman standing here. Who are you?" she asked in a gravelly voice. Elsa took a step back, but realized she couldn't go any further without stepping out into the open. Once more, she felt like her magic was causing unnecessary trouble.
"I'm sorry. I was just resting here. I didn't mean any harm," she said, holding her hand out defensively. The old woman stared at her silently, running blackened, knobby fingers across her chin. This was no situation to be dismissed with casual excuses and Elsa had no idea how to get out of it. She only wished that Yasha would come back for her.
Suddenly, a hand reached out and took her arm, which made her squeal wildly, though the touch was followed by a scolding, but hushed voice.
"Quietly now! I told you to stay close."
She turned and found Yasha, but not even his angry eyes could defuse the relief she felt. Trying to catch her breath again, she placed her hand on his arm and leaned against the wall, relieved she was no longer alone. "Thank goodness it's you. I looked away and you were gone," she wheezed, trying to get her heart rate down.
He sighed in frustration, then was startled when he heard the voice of the old woman pierce the darkness.
"Is that Yasha?"
His hand to his dagger, he had been put on edge and leaned out from behind Elsa, then was surprised when he met eyes with the old woman. His hand fell away from his dagger and he relaxed instantly.
With a smile cracking her leathery features, the old woman cupped her hands to her face and stumbled towards them, obviously delighted at seeing him. "Oh, my boy," she cried, taking his hands, "It really is you." He smiled as well, but then grunted as she yanked him down to her height and threw her hands around his face, squeezing it tightly and kissing him on the forehead. "I thought I might not see you again, my precious boy. I am so happy you are well," she said, kissing him more and resisting his attempts to break free of her grip. Soon, she began to paw all over his body with firm hands and look him over with a motherly gaze. "You are not hurt anywhere? Your body is still strong? Oh, you are nothing but bones. You have not been eating enough again."
Yasha squirmed. "Please, Oma, I am no longer a child for you to grope senselessly," he protested, though he couldn't get away from her or deflect her wandering hands. The old woman fawned over him, making Elsa snicker slightly behind her hand as he tried to fend her off. It was moving to see him so flustered, touched by a glimmer of humanity and she was happy that he had people who obviously cared for him.
"And this young woman?" the old woman asked, turning her attention to Elsa, "Who is this young woman you bring home, my Yasha?"
"Oh, I'm..." she began, but he was quick to cut her off.
"A friend, Oma. She is a friend," he said, giving her a sideways glance. She was confused by that but just looked at him with a furrowed brow. With someone so close to him, she was curious why he was so quick to intervene with ambiguous lies.
She also felt that 'friend' wasn't the most appropriate word for them.
The old woman smirked. "A friend, you say? Never have I seen such eyes on you when speaking to a friend, my boy. But no matter. It makes this old heart sing to know you are no longer alone. And such a beautiful young woman," she remarked, reaching up and touching the end of Elsa's chin softly.
At first she didn't follow, but the meaning did finally make her blush and take a step back, looking at him nervously and waving those assumptions way. "Oh no, it's not like that. You…you're misunderstanding why we're together. Not that we're together together or anything. We're just...you know...just together," she stuttered, with him once again breaking in.
"By the mountain, Oma, it is not what you think," he sighed, mirroring her embarrassment.
The old woman gave him a dry response and he exchanged an uncomfortable glance with Elsa. In spite of an utterly incoherent response from her, he felt the exact same way. Eager to dispel the atmosphere and move on, he quickly looked back to the old woman and put his hand to his belt. "But it is fated that I should see you. I have something for Marat," he said.
From the satchel at his belt, he pulled out a small sack and handed it to her like it was full of gold, and she received it the same. The old woman gasped tearfully, holding it tightly to her heart. "You are an angel, my Yasha! May the mountain bless you," she said, squeezing his arm tightly, "I will go give it to him immediately. You take your beautiful lady inside and wait, and I will soon feed you both as you explain to me how mere friends could hold one another so closely in their eyes."
Once more, Elsa blushed and looked away in embarrassment, but he just sighed and plastered his hand over his face. "I cannot even begin to explain this, Oma, but we do not have the time to stay," he groaned, though he obviously held her close to his heart and offered promises he hoped he would be able to keep.
"I promise to see you after I am done in the Scoria Chamber."
"All right then. You need not humor this old crow when you must hurry your lady along. I am sure there are better things for you two doves to be doing," she replied, feigning disappointment at his dismissal but very much enjoying the discomfort they both had at her teasing. Kissing the small bag once more, she then disappeared into the village and left them to their discomfort.
Elsa was eager to dismiss the atmosphere, and the blush on her face. "What was in that sack?" she asked, rubbing her neck with a hot hand.
He sighed at the old woman's antics and fixed his satchel on his belt, avoiding her with his eyes. "Medicine from your Arendelle," he explained, "It is more effective than our herbs."
"Medicine?" she asked, surprised.
"Yes. The children here often get sick from the ash. Her grandchild has been ill for some time. I hope it relieves him," he said, looking towards a distant home. It was stark reminder why he had to put an end to their suffering in the mountain's shadow and his eyes once more showed the seriousness of his cause.
Elsa was shocked. Even as he plotted to kidnap Anna, he had gone out of his way to buy medicine for a sick child. His duality disturbed her and she felt that her blushing wasn't going away as quickly as she wanted it to. The old woman's leering about them being together for amorous reasons made her squirm, but the revelation of his selfless actions made the idea not so ridiculous, at least not to her beating heart. Oddly, in light of the constant chaos in her heart and mind when dealing with him, she began to consider the old woman's words as explaining some of the strange feelings she had, and that as strange as it seemed, she didn't mind those assumptions as much as she pretended.
That realization alone drew her breathless when her eyes wandered his way.
"There is one more thing," he said, bringing her back to reality, "You must not tell anyone who you are. The people know Nazir's task is for me to kill the Snow Queen. I cannot say what they may do if they should find you out, but it would most certainly complicate our task."
It was his genuine fear, as he didn't know what he would have to do if he was forced to choose between the well-meaning efforts of his people and her safety, which he had pledged to Anna with just as much sincerity. There were already too many impossible decisions to consider, and he wanted no others. She was nervous as she looked at him, not only because of the old woman's comments, but because she also knew how perilous that decision would be. Honestly, she had no expectations of her chances. She knew he would pick his people, but that decision would weigh heavily on him and drive him further to the darkness. Oddly, she felt as if she was beginning to understand him, past all of the masks and hidden intentions. There was his core self, somewhere deep inside, and it was that part of him that was the person she had these feelings for, as chaotic as they were. She actually found it easier to admit that they existed at all, because they were for a person she might never meet, though the scariest prospect of all was that by freezing the FireHeart and saving him, she might be forced to come to terms with him.
And her heart.
Oblivious to her glances and her turmoil, Yasha suddenly sighed as he leaned against the building, looking up the side of the home and wondering how he didn't realize where he was. It was the last home he had known before his exile and he had essentially grown up there, yet he had been so focused that he hadn't recognized it at all. That realization made him feel heavy as he placed his head against the wall, then he looked slowly over to Elsa. Seeing her still flustered, he admitted that the old woman's words had a similar effect on him, though he was able to dismiss them easier. There was no more time to think of what might have been. There was no more time to think of her, even as she stood right before him.
There was just no more time.
"Well then, shall we try again, together this time?" he asked, watching as she embraced the chance to get away from her thoughts and stand straight, nodding resolutely at him. Her resiliency had impressed him and he was slowly losing his ability to see the path without her, though he was singularly glad there was no more time and no more chances for impossible decisions.
With the task in twilight, it was one less burden for him to bear.