The queen paced at her sister’s bedside. Anna lay still against the pillows, her freckles lost in the red flush of fever, her breath ragged and labored. Her forehead was creased with pain, although her eyes were closed. There was a deathly silence in the room as everyone listened intently, afraid that each faint exhalation would be the princess’ last.
Footsteps echoed in the hallway, and Elsa swung around eagerly as the door was flung open. The man who entered was disheveled, dirty, spattered with blood and mud, but the queen rushed to meet him. Kristoff’s haggard face lit with relief as he looked past her at the bed. “How is she?”
“Fading.” Her hands kept twisting together, rubbing away the frost from her fingers as it formed. “Did you—”
“Yes.” Kristoff smiled faintly. He lifted his closed hand. “This can heal her.“
Elsa reached out, but he pulled his fist back and shook his head.
"I have to give it to her—because I took it from the mountain. That’s part of the magic. It has to be me."
She moved aside, making way for Kristoff to limp toward the bed. He touched Anna’s cheek gently, his rough, grimy fingertips brushing over her burning skin. The doctor cleared his throat disapprovingly, eyeing the ice harvester from his place on the far side of the room. He had objected to Kristoff’s presence when Anna had first fallen ill, muttering about dirt and unwholesome air. He had snorted when Kristoff offered to go to the trolls for help, for some kind of healing magic that might work on humans, and grumbled about superstitious nonsense, although he’d been happy to get the younger man out of his domain.
Kristoff knew why the doctor disliked him. The doctor was an old retainer, proud of his expensive education and his royal connections. But the old man’s opinion didn’t matter.
"Anna?” He smoothed a few strands of matted hair back from her forehead. She stirred, her eyes opening. Cracked lips moved, trying to say his name, but all that emerged was a faint, thready whisper.
“Shh, it’s okay. You’re going to be fine." He smiled at her. "Everything’s going to be fine. Here—”
Kristoff lifted her carefully, cradling her shoulders in one arm so that he could slip a leather cord over her head. Anna fumbled weakly until he helped her curl her fingers around the clear white crystal of the pendant.
“Wear this always,” he said. “Keep it against your heart."
Anna nodded, wincing as the movement hurt her. She tried to speak again but could only cough.
"Shh.” He hushed her again, stroking her tangled hair and cupping her cheek. “Don’t try to talk, it’s all right. Go to sleep. You’ll be better when you wake.” Her lips moved, shaping his name, and Kristoff kissed her hot forehead. “I’ll be with you,” he promised softly. “I’ll always be with you.”
With the princess still cradled in his arms, he started to sing, voice low and warm. There were no recognizable words, only a gentle, rolling melody. Anna’s eyes drifted shut. Her breathing grew deeper and easier, the breath of deep, renewing sleep. Her body slowly relaxed, as if the pain was melting away. The burning flush receded until her freckled cheeks were merely a healthy pink. And in her hand something was glowing between her fingers, getting brighter.
Kristoff smoothed her hair gently once more, his fingers trembling. Anna didn’t stir as he laid her back against the pillows. He bent to kiss her, murmuring something too low for anyone to hear. Then he got up, stumbling a little as he backed away.
Elsa barely noticed the stumble as she rushed forward. She nearly collapsed with relief as she felt her sister’s forehead, cool and free of the fever that had been eating away at Anna’s life.
“What did you do? That glow—”
“It’s a crystal. She has to keep wearing it, from now on. It's…it’s life.”
Elsa gasped. “Life? But—how much?”
“All of it,” Kristoff said softly. He shook his head at Elsa’s confused glance. “I can’t say how many years, exactly. There’s no way to know. But it’s a lifetime.”
“Thank you,” she said, tears in her eyes.
Kristoff bowed slightly. “I have to go.”
“Of course—you’re tired, you need a bath and food, I’ll send—”
“No! No, I have to—” He shook his head again. “I have to go,” he repeated. “And…If I don’t come back, don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.” He turned to leave, but Elsa caught his arm.
“What do you mean, if you don’t come back? What about Anna?”
“Everything will be all right. I promise. Just—tell her not to worry about me. Tell her—”
He took another step toward the door. And then he collapsed. His tall body crumpled to the floor like a felled tree, with no attempt to save himself. He simply fell, and lay still on the floor.
“Help me!” Elsa dropped to her knees, tugging at Kristoff’s tunic to roll him over. He was a dead weight. “Help me,” she snapped, glaring at the physician, who stood gaping uselessly at the sprawled form. It was Gerda who knelt to help, searching for an injury, a wound that could be stained. There was nothing. But as they frantically pulled Kristoff’s shirt open, they saw for the first time the pendant that he wore around his neck. Even as they watched its golden light dimmed, fading. The clear crystal clouded, turning grey. It cracked.
Kristoff’s chest was still.
A few steps away, Anna slept on, oblivious, the crystal over her heart glowing with life.
The queen knelt over the body of her ice master, staring aghast at the cracked and darkened crystal. “You can’t,” she said helplessly, shaking him. “You can’t, you can’t, it will kill her!”
“But your majesty, he saved her,” Gerda protested.
“And when she wakes up and he’s gone? She’ll never forgive me,” Elsa said incoherently. “She’ll never forgive me if he dies. This isn’t right. Acts of true love shouldn’t end like this. True love should save both of them. It—” She stopped, straightening. “They need to be together. Help me move him.”
“What? But your majesty—” The physician’s protest cut off under the queen’s glare. He felt frost forming on his curled mustache, weighing the waxed ends down into icicles.
They managed to heave Kristoff’s heavy form onto the bed. He lay limp and filthy on top of the linen sheets, his chest unmoving. In her sleep, Anna turned toward his body, curling into his side. She sighed softly without waking, and nestled closer. The pendant over her heart grew brighter.
Everyone watched, silent, tears on their cheeks, waiting.
A faint light glimmered on Kristoff’s chest, a wavering flicker. It pulsed, brightened, sharing the glow of Anna’s crystal. Kristoff breathed.
Anna woke. The windows were dark still, the night barely half gone. Her head was nestled on Kristoff’s shoulder, his arm a warm weight around her waist. For a little while she lay quiet, listening to his heartbeat, feeling the gentle movement of his chest beneath her cheek as he breathed. Usually it was enough to lull her into sleep, like the soothing rock of cradle. Not tonight. Tonight she found herself wide awake, while Kristoff slept the deep sleep of physical fatigue. He’d worked a full day on the ice while she was snug in their cabin, waiting for him, and the unintentional nap she’d taken in front of the fire explained her wakefulness now.
Despite the dark outside, a glow enveloped their bed. Kristoff’s face was bathed in light from the crystal that shone on his chest, his skin turned golden and ethereal. Anna’s crystal was hidden between their bodies, although she could feel it, a warm pressure against her breastbone. But her crystal was whole, perfect and flawless. Gently, she freed one arm from the blankets so that she could curl her fingers around Kristoff’s pendant. Her thumb stroked the familiar shape of a crack that marred the smooth surface. It had broken when the last of Kristoff’s life, poured into it by magic, had poured out again, transferred to her, as though it was water emptied from one cup to another.
She had been on the verge of death, from an illness that not even magic could cure.
But Kristoff had been the one to die.
They argued about it, when they both woke up and she understood what he’d done. It’s hard to argue with someone who died for you, but Anna had managed. Knowing that he’d planned to disappear into the woods before his strength ran out, to die alone, with some misguided idea that it would be easier for her, that had helped.
She’d shouted. He’d been quiet. She’d screamed at him not to treat her like she was too fragile to argue with. He’d left for the mountain, and she’d paced herself into exhaustion, stomping through the castle. At least, she thought she’d paced herself into exhaustion.
She’d been weak on her feet the next morning, lightheaded. There was an insistent ache in her chest, as if something was hooked under her sternum and tugging, tugging.
On the second day she fainted. She’d stood up, the world had wavered like a reflection in water, and then she’d been looking at the ceiling.
Kristoff had been barely conscious when Sven galloped into the castle with him. The reindeer had bypassed the stables to trot directly into the hall—although Gerda claimed later that he’d paused to wipe his hoofs—and up the stairs. Anna was still in her nightdress when Kristoff stumbled into her room, nudged forward by Sven. They’d blundered into each other’s arms and collapsed there on the floor, curled into each other. The ache in Anna’s chest had eased, like a taut bowstring relaxing.
Kristoff had poured his life into her, refilling the empty well of hers. But somehow it had been poured back into him, shared between both of them. When they were separated that thread of life grew thin. Touching renewed it.
They’d gotten married soon after that. Everyone had agreed it would be best, for respectability’s sake—especially when they’d realized that skin on skin contact was best for keeping the crystals bright.
Anna smiled, letting go of the crystal to spread her fingers over her husband’s chest, and turned her head to kiss the skin of his shoulder. He’d offered to give up his position as ice master, to give up his mountain. She’d refused to let him give up anything more than he already had. Their compromise had proved to be very satisfactory. They still lived at the castle much of the time, but during the harvest she came with him, always nearby. Sometimes that meant camping, which had been an adjustment. Usually, though, it meant this cabin, and this nest of furs and blankets, and her husband’s body tangled up with hers as their bond recovered from a day spent apart.
Kristoff stirred in his sleep, turning onto his side, his arms tightening around her. He mumbled incoherently into her hair. She smiled into his chest, finally closing her eyes again. Unlike a candle or the sun, the light of the crystals didn’t penetrate eyelids, but the warmth of them was ever present, a reminder of a promise.
I’ll always be with you.