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The captain had never run so fast in his life, arms and legs pumping in a desperate attempt to propel him ever closer to his beloved. He had to be there in time! He could not fail, not at this! Rayce bounded around the corner sword drawn. His heart leapt to his throat at the sight of his wife on the ground, a deadly sharp stone blade pressed to her neck. Greger knelt beside her, smiling sinisterly up at the abject terror written plainly on the captain’s face.
"STOP! Greger, please stop this!”
"You did this, Captain! You lied to me, pretended to befriend me and all the while you were the one who killed my brother.”
“Greger, please. Let Elsa go, your quarrel is with me. She knew nothing of this before today.”
"NO. No, she lied for you. Protected you. Now watch the consequences your deceit has wrought. I will finish what my brother started…”
Rayce surged forward unable to stop the deposed prince from drawing the stone knife smoothly across his wife’s throat! Elsa’s screams echoed in his ears as bitter tears streamed down his face.
“ELSA! No! Gods, no! I’m sorry! I love you so much and I failed you! Forgive me dearest!”
The young king fell to his knees, cradling his wife’s lifeless body, rendered helpless by his grief. Rocking her gently, he waited for his former friend to strike the final blow that would reunite him with his beloved.
She awoke with a start, turning quickly to the other side of her shared bed to find her mate in obvious distress. Rayce lay beside her, exposed chest covered in sweat and heaving uncontrollably. His eyes were squeezed shut, tears running down, wetting his beard as he continued whimpering her name.
“Elsa! Please, I can’t... can’t go on without you...” he sobbed, hands clenching the sheets and spurring his wife into action.
“Rayce?” She addressed him in a soft voice, not wishing to startle him. He stirred slightly but didn’t awaken. She noted with worry that he seemed quite pale, something she never thought possible of her mate’s ruddy complexion. “Dearest, please wake up.”
The young king continued to struggle, seemingly too wrapped up in the hellish nightmare to register her presence. Thinking quickly, Elsa threw her legs over her husband’s waist and laid herself flush against his chest, touching as much of her cool skin to his in an effort to comfort him. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, squeezing tight and willing him to acknowledge her.
“Azim! Please, love, wake up. I’m here! I’m alright! You don’t need to be afraid.”
She waited, her panic steadily rising as he continued to struggle and whimper beneath her, still oblivious to her presence. She used her powers to cool her body further, hoping the sudden cold would be enough to shock him awake.
“Please, love. Open your eyes.”
“No,” came the whispered reply, surprising the queen.
“No, you’re just a dream… Elsa is… Elsa is gone…” he whimpered quietly, tears continued to slip down his cheeks, yet his eyes remained closed.
“I’m here, love! I’m right here and I will NEVER leave you.” She lifted her head from his chest placing her forehead to his, as he had so many times before when she had needed reassurance. “Please, love, I’m here.”
For a while there was only the sound of their breathing permeating the thick silence. She cupped his face in both her cool hands silently begging him to wake up. There was a hitch in his breathing and Elsa pulled back to gaze upon her mate’s tired face, eyes still brimming with tears.
“Elsa?” his voice cracked with emotion, as his eyes beheld what his heart couldn’t believe was true. “It’s you? You’re here?”
“As long as you’ll have me,” she told him with a relieved smile, tenderly kissing his cheek.
“Dearest!” His big arms wrapped tightly around her in a relieved embrace, his face buried into her neck, relishing in her scent. “It was a dream...it was just a dream...” he whispered to himself.
“It’s alright, I’m here,” she cooed while stroking his hair, relieved he was rising from his panicked haze. When his grip began to relax, she slid off his chest and curled into his side.
“I’m sorry I woke you dearest. It just seemed so ... REAL ... “
The young husband shuddered once more, the fear of losing his wife ever-present both in his waking and unconscious thoughts. Elsa reached up to lovingly stroke his face, hoping to ease his troubled mind. To everyone else, the king was strong and imposing, never one to show weakness. But with his mate, Rayce was allowed to let his guard down knowing she accepted his vulnerabilities and loved him for it. The pair had been through some truly harrowing events in their short marriage and like her husband, at times those terrible memories would come to the queen unbidden. In such moments, Rayce would hold her close to him and whisper assurances much as she was doing now.
“I ... I don’t know what happened,” he explained to her in a hushed tone, voice still raw from calling out. Before he could continue, the door to their room burst open and Skogerson charged in weapon drawn! Elsa yelped and moved to cover herself while Rayce sat up in bed, covering her further.
“Majesties! The guards heard screaming! I came as soon as I was able!”
It was obvious the Captain had come in haste as he was wearing little more than sleep bottoms and his sheathe. Had the queen not been happily married, she may have taken time to appreciate the Captain’s lithe, undressed form but as it was she was busy hiding herself behind her husband’s shoulder.
“It’s alright brother.” Rayce assured him, pulling the sheets tighter around himself and Elsa, suddenly aware that he too was in an undressed state. “I suffered a very vivid nightmare but Elsa was able to wake me and all is well. Thank you for coming so quickly, though.”
“Of course, sir. It is my duty to protect you, both as captain and friend.” Rayce smiled lightly at the other man’s sentiment.
“Of course. Good night, brother. We should all get some rest,” the young king continued, a slight lift in his voice. “For tomorrow we sail for The Southern Isles.”
A small frown flickered across the young captain’s face but he quickly recovered. “I bid you goodnight, Majesties. My apologies for the... um... intrusion.”
Throughout the exchange, Skogerson had made sure to avert his eyes from the queen’s unclothed form, a slight blush of embarrassment crossing his cheeks at having caught his monarchs in such a private setting. Yet it was his duty to investigate threats to the royal couples safety, no matter how uncomfortable a situation might be. He bowed slightly at the waist, sheathed his sword and exited the room, closing the door behind him.
“Well, that was awkward.” Elsa muttered, still tucked securely behind Rayce’s shoulder.
“Yes, it was...” he agreed with a chuckle. “I am not sure who was more embarrassed!”
“I assure you, it was me!” The queen fumed. “How am I supposed to command respect from him when he’s seen... ALL of me?!”
“Dearest,” Rayce sighed, pulling her gently from behind him to settle across his lap. She buried her head against his chest with a groan of frustration, pressing a small kiss to a puckered scar just beneath his collarbone. “You have nothing to worry about. But if it bothers you so, I will personally punish the Captain, just in case.”
Elsa’s head shot up at the notion. “No! Azim, he was just doing his job! It wasn’t his fault we were... we were... you know...”
“Oh, I know.” The king replied with a teasing smile. It was at that moment that Elsa realized her husband had been baiting her. She smiled sheepishly at him.
“I’m ridiculous aren’t I?”
“No, you are not ridiculous. But you should know, had I an inkling that any other man were gazing upon you improperly, Gods help the fool!”
“That is good to know. Despite the awkwardness, I am glad Skogerson is going with us tomorrow.” She replied with a small smile before a thought occurred to her. “Is that why you’re having nightmares, love? Because we’re going back there?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean...” Rayce hedged, not quite meeting his wife’s inquisitive gaze.
“Don’t. You will not lie to me Azim Askari Rayce! You and I have built this love on a foundation of honesty and I will accept no less. Is this trip the reason you are upset?”
The intense glare his wife was currently giving him was more than enough for the still-shaken young man to confess. “Yes,” was all he muttered still avoiding eye contact.
Elsa placed her hands gently on his face and lifted his gaze to her own, forcing her mate to make eye contact. She smiled softly at him before inquiring further.
“And why did you feel this was something you needed to keep from me?”
“ This was my idea. I suggested we return to The Southern Isles but the closer our departure got, I began to feel uneasy. I doubt my ability to protect you and on those isles was the first time I felt that way.”
“I see.” She replied softly, taking on a thoughtful expression. “I cannot say that I am not feeling uneasy about the prospect as well. However, you taught me that running from one’s fears does little good. I believe that there is nothing that we cannot face together. But that only works if you let me in.”
Rayce sighed and laid his head on his wife’s shoulder, breathing in her cool, clean scent and allowing it to calm him. Moving to kiss her neck tenderly, he finally spoke.
“I’m sorry for keeping this from you. I only wish to protect you however I can. Even if that is from my own misgivings.”
The queen pursed her lips before responding. “I don’t forgive you.” She stated simply, though her voice held no anger. Rayce was flabbergasted!
“What! Why not?”
“Because there is nothing to forgive. I love ALL of you! There should never be a time when you are hiding away pieces of yourself.”
“I have to be strong for you!” The king protested. “If I am weak...”
“Then I will be strong. This is not a one-sided partnership Azim. We share the burden equally or not at all.”
“Do you remember what I told you when I gave you the nursery?” She waited for a response but the king only nodded, sufficiently chastised. “Yes, you are strong, possibly the strongest person I have ever known. But here, with me, you can be weak if that is what you need. No one can be strong all the time, I would know.”
The king knew all too well what is wife meant. Elsa had spent thirteen years living behind a façade of strength, distancing herself from even the ones she loved. At the time, the young woman had felt that she was protecting her loved ones yet she had in recent years found out just how wrong she was. Elsa had made substantial strides towards being emotionally open with her loved ones and she demanded that her loyal mate keep up.
“You may not believe in yourself but I know without a shadow of a doubt, you will fight with every fiber of your being to keep me whole and safe. You should know,” the young queen continued whilst her mate remained lost in thought, “I have never felt safer than when I am with you.”
“How can you say that? I nearly lost you in those caves, to Greger’s madness, on that ship, here in our own castle! The list of my failures is long and undeniable!” The king’s voice rose in anger at his perceived deficiency.
“And yet here I sit, whole and unharmed.”
“Elsa,” he replied, evenly. “Your recovery had nothing to do with me...”
“I beg your pardon?” she countered, becoming frustrated at the manner in which her husband continued to downgrade himself. “Who got me to Katerine in those caves? Who risked impalement on a stony spike to rescue me from Greger? Who followed me into the bowels of a sinking ship? Who convinced Grand Pabbie to come down from his mountain to treat me? Who did those things for me, Azim?”
“I did...” Rayce mumbled in response.
“Who cared for our sons so tenderly, even when his heart was breaking over my perceived demise?” There was a slight catch in the young woman’s voice at remembering the night she bore their sons and nearly paid with her life.
“There was no other choice. Our boys needed me.” He replied in resignation.
“That wasn’t my question. I asked, ‘who did those things for me’ Azim?”
“I’m sorry? Do speak up, love.” She chided him with a self-satisfied smirk.
“I did!” he repeated louder, some of his confidence returning.
Rayce stared at his wife shocked! Elsa never used coarse language, even when they were fighting; yet there she sat astride his lap looking pleased as punch that she had used a curse word without flinching.
“What?” she grinned at him, amused she had caught him off guard. “It seemed appropriate!”
Rayce couldn’t stop himself from grinning back as he flipped them over, pressing her into the mattress. He loomed over her as he took a moment to gently stroke her hair and face.
“You are amazing,” he told her with appreciation. “How could I ever doubt myself with you at my side?”
“You can’t. I won’t allow it,” she replied with a mock scowl. “And I think you’re quite fetching, as well!” she finished with a small laugh.
“Such high praise!” he chuckled before bending to kiss her. “Perhaps I can earn some more...”
“Perhaps,” the queen began before she was cut off by a jaw-popping yawn! She covered her mouth embarrassed but Rayce just laughed and kissed her nose playfully.
“It seems the lady is in need of rest after coming to my rescue. No matter, there will plenty of time for such activities on our honeymoon. “
He reached around Elsa to further drape her in the warm blankets before settling off to her side and drawing her against his chest.
“Mmmm... I look forward to that,” Elsa murmured against his skin, the night’s frantic events finally taking their toll on her. She snuggled in as close as possible before she began to doze. Rayce leaned his head atop hers and let the queen’s rhythmic breathing lull him into a warm, dreamless sleep.
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