A/N: There was a whole bunch of jumping up and down and waving my arms around that went into this story, because it was hard and difficult to write. However, because of a specifically unnamed friend of mine, I actually ended up writing it anyway. So many thanks to him for coercing me into writing this when I was having trouble with it. "The Frog" was actually written while I was procrastinating on the middle part of this chapter.
The mountain range to the south of Isa's kingdom was still largely unexplored, the permanent layer of snow at the top forbidding easy passage from one side to the other. Those who lived in the mountains enjoyed the harsh and lonely life away from the keen eye of the law that governed the lands beneath them. The tax man came once a year to gather a load of pelts and wood and otherwise left them largely alone. But now with the threat of invasion drawing closer, the large tunnel system that many of them used in the winter time had been appropriated by the people of the valley as a refugee camp and their once meager population had exploded with the influx of mostly the very young and the very old and those unable to fight who had been sent away from possible danger.
When Isa and her retinue arrived, tensions were already extremely strained. The threat of the billowing plume of smoke on the horizon barely restrained the two very different populations from starting a war of their own, and even so there was plenty of petty squabbling already erupting. Lines were firmly drawn and suspicious glances often cast.
Thus the war to the north took second place to developing a way to keep the peace in the southern mountains. Isa spent the days walking among the people, and the evenings discussing matters with her counsel and the heads of the various factions. The nights found her reading Elles's story by the light of the fire to any who wanted to listen. She started back at the beginning, and by the third night she had to move the nightly readings to a large cavern farther back in the system of caverns, so that there was enough room for those who wanted to listen. The children gathered the closest, and then the older folks. And her son, though already six years old, always sat on her lap, snuggled into her chest to hear her read.
Isa always began her re-telling of the story in the same way each night: "I am afraid my inflection is not that of the original storyteller, nor is my speaking ability near as good. However, if you would like, I will tell you the story as it was told to me. I am not very loud, so you will need to be quiet, and I cannot read very long. But now, if you will listen well, I will tell you the next part of a quest for a time without end." Each time, the cavern would hush in expectant stillness, and all would lean forward to hear their queen read them a bedtime story. For a brief moment in time, people relaxed and let their hearts be lifted by a story of fantasy, adventure, and love. When they left in the evenings they would retell the tale to those who couldn't come, tuck their children in, and fall asleep with hearts that were just a little bit lighter.
Every night Isa left her son with his nurse maid and walked to a knoll looking out over the sloping forest and the valley below. There, by the pale light of the moon, she could almost see the dark shadows of farming towns tucked in among the nearly-abandoned farms and fields. With her guard watching from a little way off, she would softly talk to Elles. Not that she thought he was there to hear her, but she talked as if he were listening, as if he could offer her comfort from the many distresses she was facing. Only when she had thoroughly examined her list of worries would she return to her bed and fall into a short, dreamless sleep, waking only marginally refreshed to the sound of the refugees beginning to prepare breakfast and glancing worriedly at the smoke that billowed from the horizon.
Refugees continued to stream in throughout the next week, and with them came the first reports from the front line: the enemy was strong and fast, but was so far being held back by the combined forces of the southern kingdoms. The horses the enemy rode were stymied by the combined river-and-valley to the north, but the enemy was still worryingly powerful and far outnumbered the forces fighting them. Already there were many families mourning the loss of a father or a brother, a friend, a loved one.
That night, Isa arrived her little knoll somewhat later than normal, just beginning to relax after having to calm a heated debate about water access. She was surprised to find the half moon shining down on someone seated on the rock overlooking the valley, looking out as she did so often, giving no indication that they heard anyone approaching. Her guard was even more surprised, and immediately raised his cross-bow to point it at the cloaked figure, gruffly ordering them to reveal themselves. The figure stood and turned with a surprising amount of grace, kneeling into a low bow right in front of where he had been sitting. He remained quiet until the guard ordered him to speak, and then said, "I have come to offer my services to the Queen."
Isa's heart stood still. That voice was so familiar. Even after all this time. She moved toward the figure, heedless of the guard's warning, pushing aside the arm thrown out to stop her, eyes fixed on the hooded head in front of her. She crossed the distance between them in a daze, kneeling in front of him to get a better look at his face. She peered under the hood, almost afraid to see the face that was being covered, afraid that she was wrong even as she was wildly certain she was right.
A small smile tugged at the corner of the mouth the moonlight illuminated as the figure pulled back the hood slightly so she could see his face. "I am honored that you remember me." His voice had an unusual accent to it now, as if he really was a foreigner. His face had thinned out and become more defined, proving that he too had undergone the change from child to adult. There were creases where that hadn't been before, and shadows that were maybe the fault of the moonlight and maybe the fault of time and experience. But he was still, undeniably, Elles.
She reached to touch his face, just briefly, just to make sure he was flesh-and-bone and not some figment of her sleep-deprived and overly-taxed brain. She still couldn't talk, but an answering smile quavered into existence on her face as she breathed in slowly, the emotional turmoil within coalescing into tears that began streaming down her face. It wasn't entirely due to Elles, and she thought he maybe understood since he just held her hand as she leaned her head onto his shoulder and silently wept.
When the tears finally stopped, she finally sat back with a tired sigh, her look becoming one of slight confusion at the scrap of cloth he held out to her. "It's used to wipe the face," he explained, that tiny smile still ghosting around the corners of his eyes. She hesitated, letting go of his hand to take it, carefully wiping her eyes and nose before looking at it and then at Elles again, uncertain of what to do with it. Elles gently took it back, tucking it into some pocket hidden underneath the shadow of his cloak.
"Are you back?" Isa finally managed to ask, her voice soft.
"Not permanently," he replied with a regretful smile, "but I can come now and again." There was a short pause, as Isa continued to hang on to his hand with a death-grip, trying to re-memorize the face before her. Elles gently clasped her hand again and pulled her to her feet, moving so that she could sit on her usual knoll, settling back down onto the balls of his feet in front of her, his face now mostly hidden in shadow. Isa frowned a bit at that, and then narrowed her eyes when his hand reached half-way to her cheek before his eyes flicked to the guard and he pulled back. With an impatient flick of her hand, Isa dismissed the guard who quickly melted back into the shadows of the surrounding trees. He could be heard crunching back in the direction of camp, stopping out of sight range but well within hearing range in case of emergency.
Once he was gone, Isa turned back to Elles with a smile and reached over to fully tug back the hood he was wearing. Her heart gave an odd sort of stutter as the moonlight glanced off of his hair, still light as new snow, pulled back from his face and tucked under the neck of the cloak. Isa's free hand moved to his face, gently mapping it, feeling with the lightest brushes of her fingertips the planes and angles of Elles' face; his forehead, down the side of his cheek, across the jaw line, up to the eye brows, across his eyelids, down the other cheek, leaving off without touching his mouth, gently drawing back her hand which was just as gently caught in Elles' own as they hesitated, eyes locking. Isa felt as if the whole of creation paused there in the moonlight as she tried to draw him out through his eyes, tried to discover his past and present in their depths.
And then Elles sighed with a regretful smile. "I truly came as a bearer of glad tidings, and I should surely take care of such business first." He paused for half a second as Isa also sighed and sat back, a similar smile on her own face as she let her hands fall to her lap, still entwined with Elles', and inclined her head to indicate that he could continue. "You perhaps already know that your enemy to the north is led by the prince of a country to the far northeast?" When she shook her head, he continued. "We have had past dealings with this nation, which counts for prestige the amount of land controlled by an individual under the direction of their king. It is under his direction that this wide-spread raiding began, and under the direction of his son that it has been so successful. However, we recently received news that this king is very ill and likely to die, and is therefore recalling his sons to assess who shall become ruler the kingdom after he dies."
"Is it not normally inherited by the eldest?" Isa tilted her head slightly as she digested the new information.
"Not necessarily. According to our information, the next ruler is determined by a tribunal of elders, and so each candidate needs to exert their influence to its fullest extent to receive the votes needed from the tribunal. Thus, the heirs must quickly return home when the king begins to fail, to influence his opinion before he dies."
Isa narrowed her eyes at Elles. "It is late and I am not in the mood for riddles."
Elles chuckled lightly, and his eyes crinkled as he suppressed a smile. "I am merely saying that there is a good chance that the son who is currently intent on destroying all of the lands to the mountains will soon return home with his army to join in the conflict for the throne and to wait and see how the political situation will effect the future policies of the empire." Isa stared at him for two full seconds before rising to feet and starting to pace a short route near her seat. Only marginally aware that Elles continued to smile slightly as she turned the new information over in her head.
When Isa finally stopped pacing, she looked down at Elles seriously. "Thank you, I will discuss the implications of this with my advisors tomorrow. Would you like to be present for the discussion?"
"Do you think my presence will be necessary or helpful?"
Isa tilted her head again as she thought, this time staying in one place. "No, perhaps not." She paused and swallowed, reaching for his hand again. Her voice cracking as she asked, "will I see you again?"
Elles felt her grip on his hand tighten as she blinked in an effort to dispel unshed tears. He smiled gently as he stood up, brushing himself off in the process, and then tucking back a lock of hair that had fallen into her face. "I wouldn't be much of an official story-teller if I abandoned my post before I finished the story now would I?"
Isa frowned up at him. He had always been taller than her, but now he was inconveniently taller, though still willowy and slim. "I don't just want to hear you, though, and I don't just want to hear the story, either. I want you."
Elles' mouth twitched. "You ask for quite a bit, your highness."
Isa's eyebrows flattened a bit in worry as she asked, "is it too much?"
Elles smiled gently. "If you wish for me to come, I will."
Isa looked at him in consideration, and then pulled her hand free so she could use both hands pull his face down toward her. She paused a second before pecking him on the lips and letting go. "See that you do so," she said, as imperiously as she could manage.
Elles smiled down at her and Isa felt her cheeks flush as the look in his eyes changed slightly as he pulled her back for another soft kiss, this one lingering in the moonlight for as long as they could bear. A promise.
They pulled back, and Isa silently watched Elles disappear through a portal to another part of the woods, perhaps a different forest altogether. She noticed that he was much more confident in his movements than when they had first tested his abilities so long ago. And then he was gone, empty air where he had once stood, leaving just a faint warmth on her lips and a memory in her mind.