Chapter 11 - Storming Autumn's Castle
Kristoff had been Acting Regent of Arendelle for all of twelve hours and already he was at the end of his rope.
He shoved aside his empty mug and held his head in his hands, reveling in his first moment of peace since Anna had left last night. Even though the gates had been closed for the night, he somehow still found himself swamped with everything from grievances about a lost grain shipment to complaints about Olaf stealing kindling and flowers from local vendors. On top of that, the assassin he’d been planning to pummel had somehow gotten hold of a guard’s sword and instead of escaping, had impaled himself on it. So much for vengeance. Kristoff had only gotten to sleep a few hours ago. Now it was dawn and he was unsuccessfully warding off a headache induced by too little sleep with strong tea courtesy of Gerda.
“I was wrong…” He groaned to the empty kitchen. “Royals have it much worse than us commoners.” He rubbed his eyes, trying to motivate himself to go upstairs and face his first full day as Regent. He failed.
Kristoff sank further into his chair, sighing heavily. Anna had left last night just before sunset after quickly and bluntly telling him that they were expecting. Then with a quick, apologetic kiss on his cheek, she had hopped on Sven and set off in pursuit of her run-away sister. Again. It had been all Kristoff could do to throw her his tunic and cap as she dashed off. Only once she had vanished into the woods did the full weight of her words hit him.
“A baby…” His hands were trembling slightly. “We’re having a baby…” He pushed his eyes deep into his palms, making painful stars erupt in his vision.
He was about to be a father.
He wasn’t ready to be a father.
He took long, steady breaths in the solitude of the kitchen, desperately trying to keep himself together as his fears overwhelmed him. Kristoff didn’t remember his father. Or even his mother for that matter. Sometimes he doubted that he’d even had them. For as long as he could remember, he’d been on his own with his buddy Sven. Then he’d been raised by trolls who saw humans as a petty, if, adorable species direly in need of their love counseling.
Not a great past for a father to have.
“I cant even run a kingdom on my own for one night, how can I be a father?” Kristoff moaned into his hands. Usually, he was alright with being alone but right now, he really wished he had someone to talk to. Someone to understand his predicament.
Removing his face from his hands, Kristoff looked around, trying to confirm that he was indeed, alone in the kitchen.
He cleared his throat. “You’ll do better at that Kristoff,” He said in Sven’s voice. “Running a kingdom and raising a kid have nothing in common.”
“Oh yeah?” He answered in his own voice. “Both need constant attention, require a certain mindset and I have no experience in either case!”
“But no one said you had to… ah forget it…” Kristoff said, giving up. He slumped back in his chair, missing Sven immensely. The reindeer always knew just what to say. “It’s not the same. And geez…even in my head he’s still insufferable…”
Sunlight began to peek through the low window above the tables and Kristoff took that as his sign to get on with his day. He stood, gulped the rest of his tea and made his way up the stairs towards the throne room. Apparently, according to Kai, he’d need to meet with several advisers today armed with a believable excuse as to why Elsa was missing yet again. Then he had lunch with a visiting dignitary and an open audience for the townsfolk who were still a little shaken up by the impending winter and yesterday’s assassination attempt.
Nothing he knew how to do. Nothing that would be interesting enough to clear his mind of his worries. Only a few hours out on the ice might help with that. Not that that would be happening anytime soon.
He crossed the entrance hall, hands shoved deep in his pockets, frowning uneasily.
I just wish Anna had talked to me before she had to go again…
As if on cue, the front doors to the castle banged open and in stalked his wife, and his two best friends along with a cool blast of autumn air.
Any relief Kristoff had at seeing them so soon was dampened by two things: the absence of Elsa and the look on Anna’s face.
It had not gone well at all.
“Anna?” He asked, heading over to her. “Are you okay? What happened?”
She brushed past him. “Fine. Out of my way.” Her face was like a storm-cloud. An angry, strawberry-blonde thunderstorm about to break.
Kristoff stepped aside but followed her as she stalked down the hall towards the staircase. “Where are you going?”
“Library.” She replied curtly.
“Great. Okay. Why?”
Anna didn’t answer him but instead took to the stairs determinedly.
Sven moaned and nudged Kristoff with his antler. He paused just long enough to scratch him behind an ear.
Sven just looked at him with wide, determined eyes.
The message was clear. Talk to her.
Kristoff nodded and gave him a little smile, glad to have his best bud back and Sven ushered Olaf gently back outside. Taking the stairs two at a time, Kristoff jogged to catch up to his wife.
“Anna.” He called out, making her stop and face him as they reached the first floor. “We need to talk.”
“We’re talking now.” Anna replied, turning away to continue her way towards the library.
Kristoff grabbed her by the arm, tugging her back towards him. “No, Anna. Like really, really talk.”
Anna was quiet, still not facing him.
“You tell me we’re having a…a baby and then you just run off.” Kristoff said, trying to sound gentle instead of reprimanding.
He saw Anna tense slightly. “I had to go after Elsa.” She said simply.
He softly let go of her, letting his hand brush comfortingly down her arm. “I think there was a little more to it than that.” He said softly.
“What do you mean?” Anna replied, not moving even though he was no longer holding her back. “She left, I went after her.” One arm had drifted across her middle, fingers brushing the hilt of her sword.
“Are you sure you were just following her? Or were you also running away?” Anna flinched. “Anna, running away after someone who’s running away doesn’t mean you’re not running away.” The words had barely left his lips before Anna collided with him, burying her face in his shoulder.
Anna clutched her husband tightly, tears that she had clearly been holding back for hours pouring forth. “I’m scared Kristoff.” She wailed. “And now Elsa’s gone and I just…I cant…”
Wordlessly, he wrapped his arms around her in a hug. She clutched at his shirt, crying silently into his shoulder. For a moment, he let her cry, relaxing at the feel of her in his arms again. The knowledge that she was here and he was no longer alone.
He gently stroked her hair. “Elsa’s not gone…she’s coming back.”
“How do you know?” Anna mumbled into his chest.
“She came back last time.” Kristoff pointed out.
Anna leaned back and looked up at him, her eyes red and shimmering in tears. “That’s just because you went and got her!”
“Do you really think Elsa’s about to just leave you behind? Do you really think she’d run away again?”
Anna bit her lip, looking so dejected and upset that Kristoff immediately felt a hot surge of protectiveness gush through him. “I don’t know.” Anna whimpered.
“Yes you do, Anna.” He gently lifted her chin. “Think about everything that’s changed in the last few months, everything Elsa’s done for you. For us. For Arendelle.”
Anna sniffed pitifully. “But…but this time…she meant it!” She cried. “She told me she couldn’t tell me! She…she doesn’t trust me anymore!”
In all the time he’d known her, he’d never seen her break so completely. Seeing the woman he loved so upset and so hurt broke something inside of him.
Kristoff pulled her close again, letting her bury her sorrow in his embrace. He could feel her gentle sobs sending vibrations through his core, rattling the painful inadequacy he felt. “Elsa loves you, Anna.” He assured her. “She’s always loved you.”
They were both silent for a moment, Anna’s sobs slowly dying down to whimpers and hiccups. The whole time, Kristoff just waited patiently, providing unyielding support and occasional gentle kisses to her forehead, trying to make both of them feel better. “Why wont Elsa tell me what’s going on?” Anna murmured into his chest after a long while.
“She didn’t want you to know.”
Anna looked up at him but didn’t remove her head from his chest. “Why?”
Kristoff recalled the conversation he’d had with the queen several months ago in the mountains. “She thinks you not knowing will protect you.” He said honestly.
Apparently, there was something unbelievable in how he said those words because Anna roughly pushed him away and folded her arms stubbornly.
“I don’t need her to protect me!” She said, her damp eyes flashing angrily. “She and I have been through this over and over!”
“That’s not going to stop her from trying.” Kristoff tenderly reached for his wife’s hand, tugging it away from her chest. Their bangles grew together. “Anna, she locked herself away from the world for fourteen years hiding these powers because she believed she was keeping you safe. You’ll always be her little sister. She’ll always do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
Anna deflated, if only slightly. “Elsa needs me too.” She said, completely obstinate. “She never seems to realize that she needs me just as much as I need her. She needs my protection from assassins and men and…”
Kristoff raised an eyebrow. “From men? What, like her suitors?”
Anna blushed crimson. “I never said that…” She mumbled.
Kristoff took a deep breath, his headache threatening to return. “Anna, please don’t tell me you’re sabotaging potential husbands for Elsa. Because I can tell you that if she finds out, she will not be pleased.”
His attempt at humor only seemed to make Anna more upset. “Wont matter anyway.” Anna mumbled, crestfallen. “She’ll hardly ask my permission before marrying someone. She wont even tell me about these ‘secret friends’ of hers she’s run away with.”
Kristoff paused. “The people who took her last summer?” He asked.
“What did they look like again?”
“There was a girl and an older boy.” Anna described, pulled her hand out of his to gesture only semi-helpfully. “The man was about this tall with curly black hair and he carried a large axe. The girl was shorter, like this and she had long blonde hair down to here. I spoke to them briefly after Elsa was attacked but she sent me away to keep me from spying on them.”
Kristoff didn’t recall either of those two, nor did the descriptions match that of the mysterious girl from the ice fields of his childhood. But that only further proved Grand Pabbie’s point. There were others like Elsa, others that had found her. Others that wanted to take her away from Arendelle and lock her in a stone prison again. Away from the world. Away from Anna.
And he knew neither sister would survive that.
“Elsa wouldn’t say anything when I caught up to her.” Anna was saying, folding her arms around herself. “And I didn’t see anyone with her. I just wish I could find out more!”
Kristoff was still silent, an idea forming in his mind. “Anna, there might be a way to learn more.”
She turned to look at him, surprised. “How?”
“The trolls will know.”
Anna brightened incredibly, her smile rivaling the sunlight pouring in through the window down the hallway. The effect on Kristoff was even akin to that of a plant in bright sunlight. “You’re right!” Anna declared, her previous dejectedness forgotten. “Pabbie knew about Elsa’s powers and how to cure my frozen heart; he must know why she’s acting so strange. Maybe he even knows who those other two are!”
She clapped him hard on the shoulder and moved past him to head back down the stairs. “Let’s go harness up Sven! We can be there by tomorrow morning if we leave right now…”
She was stopped from descending by her husband’s firm hand on her shoulder.
“No Anna, you’re not going.”
Kristoff knew he should have braced himself or at least led into that gently. But it wouldn’t have mattered. His wife’s reaction would have floored him either way.
“Is this how it’s going to be every time?!” Anna exploded, screaming so loudly the windowpane and a suit of armor next to them rattled. “’Stay here Anna, don’t get into trouble Anna, I’ll be back soon Anna…’ When do I get to be the one making the journey?”
Kristoff waited a full three seconds after the echo from Anna’s outburst had faded (and he’d stopped fearing that she’d try to attack him) before gently responding.
“Anna, I’m sorry but I need some time with my family. My other family. A lot is going on and I need to clear my head. To think about…everything.” He risked a glance down at her stomach, even though he knew she hadn’t even started to show. Anna followed his gaze and self-consciously folded her arms around herself. “I’ll go alone,” Kristoff continued, “I’ll be back in two days at most.”
Anna’s heartbroken expression almost, almost made him reconsider. “But…but…Kristoff, I don’t want to be alone here, not again.”
Kristoff’s heart tightened. “I know, believe me I know.” He pulled her close again, this time as much for his benefit as her own. “I’m scared too Anna, so scared.” He admitted, feeling a gush of relieve at finally saying the words out loud. He could sense her surprise at the admission in how she squirmed slightly in his arms. “I’m scared of what’s happening to Elsa, I’m scared of running a kingdom on my own, I’m terrified of being an inadequate father but you know what helps me get past all that and be brave?”
Anna shook her head into his chest, hiccupping slightly.
Kristoff smiled. “You. Knowing that I’ll have you here when I’m scared. Knowing that I don’t have to be alone. Knowing that together, we can face anything.”
Anna softly pushed herself away from him, looking at the floor. “Kristoff, I…I’m sorry. For yelling at you…that was childish…I…”
He brushed her bangs back from her face, making her look at him. “You want to be doing something, I know. You want to be helping Elsa.”
“Arendelle needs a ruler right now.” Kristoff continued. “Elsa cant be worrying about her kingdom while she’s away.” He smiled reassuringly at her. “She wont worry if you’re here in charge.” Anna would certainly handle the royal duties ten times better than he ever could.
Anna groaned, throwing one hand dramatically over her face. “Does this mean more paperwork? Because I swear, if I see one more report about tax levies, I’m burning down the treasury.”
Kristoff laughed. “Believe me, I know how you feel. How in the world Elsa handles all this on a daily basis is beyond me.”
Anna peeked through her fingers. “She’s special…and very dedicated.”
Kristoff smiled brilliantly. “That she is.”
And because he couldn’t help himself, he kissed the top of her head. “We’re going to get her back, Anna.” He promised with everything he had in him, his lips caressing her skin. “Don’t worry.”
“I cant help it.”
He pulled away from her, offering her a reassuring smile. “I know. But trust me. Everything will turn out okay. We’ll be together again and Elsa will be home for good before you know it.”
“Kristoff…” He looked down at the soft, pleading tone in her voice. Anna was wringing her hands but determinedly holding his gaze. “I…I need you too. You make me brave too. And if I have to be alone for awhile…I’ll do my best to be strong for both of us.” She reached out and gently took his hand. “No matter what happens, we wont face anything alone, right?”
Kristoff felt like the luckiest man alive. He kissed her long and hard, his hand drifting down to rest on her stomach. “I love you…Both of you.”
Anna looked up at him, unshed tears shimmering in her eyes. “I’m sorry Kristoff.”
“No, I’m sorry I have to leave you again.” He gently kissed her on the forehead again, taking a deep, calming breath for both of them. When he stepped away, he held both her hands in his own. “I’ll be back within two days.” He promised. “Then we’ll have a nice long talk about everything. You, me and Elsa.” This time, he wasn’t going to sugar-coat his words with Elsa about abandoning her sister. Elsa needed to understand the danger she put everyone in by making Anna feel unwanted. The pain she caused her little sister by pushing her away.
“Elsa and I need to talk.” Anna agreed, her voice uncharacteristically dejected. She looked up at her husband, her eyes glazed over with demons he thought they’d killed. “Bad things happen when Elsa and I keep secrets from each other…”
Kristoff nodded. He’d seen it happen. And he never wanted to see it again.
Within the hour, Kristoff and Sven were galloping as quickly as the tired reindeer could towards the Valley of the Living Rock. Olaf had wanted to come but Kristoff made him stay behind this time. Anna would need him for comfort if things didn’t get back to normal soon.
Arendelle vanished softly behind him in the morning light as Sven took the steeper trail up the mountain. The familiar woods were calm and silent with the breaking day, full of rules he knew and obstacles and expectations he had spent a lifetime learning. Kristoff breathed easier as the castle and the weight of royalty fell behind him. But still his heart was heavy with the looming uncertainty and dread he was galloping towards.
He had to talk to Pabbie again. There was something else going on here, something deeper and darker than the simple story of the cycle he’d been told. Although they hadn’t talked about it since that day at Isen Lake, he saw it in Elsa’s eyes, in the way she moved like she knew her days were numbered. A similar feeling had been in the eyes of that girl he’d once seen fall through the ice. Like the end was coming, or at least something just as bad. The old troll owed him at least the chance to ask his questions. And then, whatever answers he got, he was going straight to his wife with. It was time she knew.
He couldn’t keep a promise to Elsa that was killing all three of them like this.
Anna needed her sister. Elsa needed Anna. Kristoff wanted both of them to be happy and safe.
He thought back to his wife, to the secret she had share with him yesterday. The secret that was growing inside her this very minute.
Kristoff tightened his grip on Sven’s mane. A baby. Their child.
When the time came, he wanted his child to be safe as well. From whatever the danger was.
Anna called an emergency meeting. It was all she could do to help Elsa right now. And she had to be doing something. Something other than reading reports on late autumn fish exports and grain harvests. Otherwise her threat of burning something down would become a promise.
Ichtaca was the first to arrive. He slid through the secret door and offered Anna a smile that she couldn’t help but return. The boy had a way of making her feel safer by just his mere presence. She knew even without him saying so that he’d be willing to protect her or Elsa from any danger. As always, he was politely quiet as they waited together.
Dagrun arrived next, smelling of fish and cheap ale. “I was on shift by the Fish-tail.” He explained, naming the pub by the Arendelle docks. His clothes and hair glistened with fish slime and spit. “I’ve been stuck in a fish barrel for the past hour staking out any newcomers to see if the assassin comin’ after Elsa was here with friends.” He explained, sticking a finger in his ear and wiggling it incessantly.
Anna wrinkled her nose against the smell coming off of him. “Was he?” She asked.
Dagrun shook his head, a few flashing scales tumbling from his hair. “Nope. Looks like he was alone.”
Contrary to her usual habit of extreme punctuality, Reba did not show up in the room. After several minutes of uncertainty, Anna asked Dagrun and Ichtaca her whereabouts but they said they hadn’t seen her all day. “Sometimes she just disappears for a couple of hours.” Ichtaca said, shrugging. “She’s an escaped slave, so maybe this has something to do with festivals of her home country?”
Anna hadn’t known this about Reba. The girl kept far too much to herself. “She was a slave? Where?”
The boys exchanged a look.
“We dunno…” Ichtaca finally admitted.
“Never bothered to ask.” Dagrun said. “And you know her, she doesn’t really talk much…keeps to herself…”
That much was true. Anna had been trying to make progress with the girl, certainly. She’d even accidentally made the young Informer smile once but Reba remained an enigma that no one had been able to crack.
“Right, well, let’s get started.” Anna began. Reba would just have to get caught up next time. “I’m sure you’re aware that Elsa left last night.” She told the boys.
The boys nodded.
“I tried to follow her,” Anna continued. “but she caught me and…sent me back. So I want to know everything that happened here last night, anything I might have missed, particularly in regard to our guests.”
The boys looked at each other, silently deciding who should go first.
“Did anyone see the man and girl who took Elsa away enter the castle or at the festival?” Anna prompted.
Ichtaca nodded slowly. “No one saw them come into Arendelle, with the festival there were too many people to keep track of…but one of my boys in the kitchens saw them come into the castle at dawn just after the gates opened. They jus’ walked right in and wandered around. They left not long before you did that day, headed for the festival.”
Anna swallowed hard. She had been so close to them. She nodded her thanks to the older boy, wishing Reba were here. She knew Reba had to have seen something that day. She’d been too close to the action to possibly miss it.
“What about the prince?” She asked her Informers. “Any news of him?”
“The prince jus’ received a letter from his brother.” Dagrun piped up.
“Which one?” Anna asked, even though she already knew the only one it could be. The only one that would matter.
“Hans.” Dagrun replied. “Intercepted it myself and delivered it to ‘im late last night.”
Anna leaned forward over the desk, the pommel of her sword hitting the wood with a dull thunk. She hadn’t removed it since she’d returned. She didn’t plan on removing it again until Elsa was back. “What did it say?” She asked the boy, trying not to sound as desperate as she felt.
He shook his head. “Dunno, didn’t get a chance to open it but when I delivered it, he acted like it was some huge secret. Practically threw Lord Wilfred and me out of the room.”
This was news to Anna. “Lord Wilfred?” She recalled the somewhat creepy old man and his irritatingly dashing prince (who had stood a little too close to Elsa) from her wedding reception. “What was he doing talking to Christian that late at night?”
“They were exchangin’ info again.” Dagrun told her, as if it were obvious.
Anna frowned. “Again?”
“They met the night of your wedding, discussin’ Elsa and her powers.” Dagrun told her. “Oh yeah, and they said somthin’ ‘bout Arendelle being richer than they were lead to believe.” His eyes suddenly lit up as if he were remembering something very important. “Oh yeah! And Lord Wilfred said this:” He cleared his throat, gathered his thoughts and slowly repeated what he’d heard: ‘In the land o’ ice, where the water meets the…stones of old, the night comes alive with lights and…power. There, it begins. There, all dreams be found. A treasure greater than knowledge an’ wealth. Winter-Summer, Life-Death. All are there, in perfect balance…not a one alone. The daughters have come.’”
His report was met with stunned silence.
“…the daughters…” Anna repeated, feeling like she had been punched in the gut. She held a hand to her forehead, her mind racing impossibly fast with these strange words, a possibility that should have been all too clear to her.
There were others like Elsa.
Anna had never considered the possibility that people like Elsa could exist elsewhere. Elsa’s powers were just…well, they were Elsa. As soon as she found out about them, it just seemed right, like a piece of her sister that had been hiding in plain sight all along was suddenly polished to a fine gleam.
Elsa embodied her gift. She was as calm and regal as the falling snow and as beautiful and powerful as a howling blizzard. Even the way she moved: drifting slowly and purposefully like softly falling snow or running like a driving shard of ice on the wind…
But who could the others have been? If they had power, it didn’t show in them quite so obviously as it did in her sister. The boy, if he had any power, could have been fire she supposed, although he seemed far too pleasant and gentle…and the girl? Anna had no idea what to make of the strange blonde who had come to take Elsa away. What was her power, if any? She was bubbly and lively certainly but there was a darkness there too…
Anna glanced back at her Informers. The boys were looking at her curiously, confused as to why their report had rendered her speechless. Her eyes narrowed.
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” She asked them.
They took a step back, afraid of the hints of anger in her voice. She’d never been angry with them.
“We didn’t want to worry you, miss.” Ichtaca said politely. “It was your wedding day.”
Anna was about to reprimand them, to remind them that she had specifically instructed all of them to inform her of such important developments, especially ones regarding Elsa or Prince Christian as soon as humanly possible when a small wave of nausea passed through her, stopping her short.
She placed her hand on her stomach and closed her eyes in discomfort, wondering why on Earth she would be nauseous. She hadn’t eaten since…
She sat up in alarm, her eyes flying open. She hadn’t eaten since last night. Panic raced through her.
Oh gods, the baby!
Between chasing after Elsa, being upset about being sent home, seeing Kristoff off and calling this meeting, she’d completely forgotten for a few hours that another life depended entirely on her.
Despair crashed over her. She was a terrible mother. She’d neglected her own child before it was even born.
She wanted to cry but seemed to lack the physical stamina to do so. Suddenly she felt weak, so very weak and alone. She wanted Kristoff back, holding her tight and telling her it would be alright. She wanted Elsa gently stroking her hand, reminding her of all the reasons why she’d be a great mother.
A thought occurred to Anna that she rather wished she hadn’t considered: Would this child in her now exist if the Informers had told her of the meeting on her wedding night?
She knew the answer and it tore her apart.
Anna swallowed a pitiful sob and placed her free hand over her mouth. She would have abandoned her husband on their marriage bed and left to handle the problem had she known. And he would have let her go.
Anna felt terrible. She had been neglecting her husband with this whole project, never thinking of him in the grand scheme of things. Every night she’d spent caring for Elsa instead of sleeping next to him, every time she’d brushed him away over some Informer’s concern or trying to get Elsa to open up to her.
Since they’d been married, they’d hardly spent any time together.
And he’d never said a word.
Because he knew how much this meant to her, Anna realized. To both of them. And he was content to let her do whatever she needed to keep her kingdom and her sister safe. No matter how much it might hurt him in the process.
Anna blinked back tears and wrapped the hand on her stomach around her hip.
“An’ we told Elsa.” Dagrun continued timidly, still sounding worried that Anna was upset with them. “We thought she would tell you?”
Anna looked at him. Of course they would. Because they were just children and to them, her and Elsa were a team. In their minds, Elsa would have told her the next day, the two of them talking this through and thinking of a way to corner the Southern Isles prince and flush him out.
But Elsa would always keep her safe. Elsa had wanted her to have that perfect night with Kristoff as well. So she hadn’t told her. She’d carried that secret as well.
And despite being angry with Elsa for once again hiding from her, Anna’s heart warmed and just a fraction of her guilt faded away. Amazing. Even when both of them were away, Kristoff and her sister still managed to make her feel important. To make her feel loved. Not alone.
She had to be brave for them.
Anna’s hand fell away from her face. She would be better, she had to be. Not just for Kristoff now but for her child in the future. And for Elsa. Always for Elsa. As soon as they were all back together, she would make it up to them. The hand on her hip trembled. All of them.
Anna straightened up, her confidence returning with her newfound dedication. “Right, we need to step up observation.” She told the boys. “If Christian’s in contact with Hans, it cant be good.” She turned to the elder. “Ichtaca, I want someone on him at all hours and see if you can find that letter. Have someone tail Lord Wilfred and his prince as well. We need to know what they’re planning.”
Ichtaca nodded and slipped out the door to the rest of the castle. He’d sneak down to the servant’s quarters and don a page’s outfit, alerting the ears among the castle staff of the princess’ new plan.
Anna turned to the remaining Informer, her gaze very serious.
“Dagrun, I have something very important for you to do.”
He smiled broadly, nodding, happy that she no longer seemed upset with them.
Anna thought very carefully before giving him her instructions. “These…others that Prince Christian spoke of, I want you to find out everything he knows about them. Ask around, search his files, anything. I want to know who they are and what he wants with them.”
Dagrun grinned, winked and then slipped back out the secret passageway. Anna sat back in her chair, finally feeling the tiniest bit better about being left behind yet again.
Elsa may always be trying to keep her in the dark to keep her safe but Anna wasn’t that same little girl anymore. It was time to push the boundaries away, to hold a light up to the darkness and discover just what Elsa was trying to protect her from. It was time she fought the demons herself so Elsa didn’t have to and Kristoff didn’t have to pretend to be okay with it.
Anna stood up, looking out the window towards the fjord. If Elsa wasn’t going to tell her, Anna was going to find out. No more closed doors. No more secrets. No more hurting.
It was time for answers.
Elsa had always been afraid of the ocean.
Not just since it had taken her parents. Even as a child, she had never particularly liked the huge body of water surrounding her kingdom. It wasn’t fear, exactly, more like a constant wariness of a potential enemy lurking just outside your home. The kind of enemy you cant destroy, only wait for it to decide if you are worth destroying or not. It was the worst kind of feeling.
Elsa turned to Theo and tried to smile reassuringly. “Yeah…just…nervous.”
Theo offered her a smile and one of her hands twitched like it wanted to pat Elsa’s shoulder. But she didn’t.
Instead, Elsa felt Garret squeeze her shoulder reassuringly. “It’ll be fine.” He said soothingly. “Hopefully this will set everything right.”
Elsa nodded, swallowing the lump of fear and focused on keeping their raft intact. The last thing they needed was a dip in the waves because she’d lost concentration again. Thankfully, she didn’t need to constantly rebuild it because with summer over, Theo wasn’t putting off any searing heat-waves today.
She had slept remarkably well after talking to Theo, better than she had in weeks. It felt as if she’d left a great weight behind in that dark forest, giving her a burst of energy she hadn’t known since building her ice palace. Elsa glanced at the summer host out of the corner of her eye, wondering if Theo had been able to sleep after whatever her and Branna had been talking about. The dark circles under the girl’s eyes suggested she hadn’t but she seemed lighter, calmer somehow. For once, her expression held no hint of agitation or anger.
Garret and Scara gave no indication of anxiety either: Garret’s hand resting lightly on the head of his axe and Scara stoically and silently steering the raft with an unrelenting breeze.
The foursome had broken camp at dawn and had immediately set out across the remainder of the forest towards the shore. They had reached the beach by mid-morning and were now racing over the churning ocean on an ice raft, guided by one of Scara’s warm breezes. There was no land in sight, another cause for anxiety, but every so often, Theo would check a compass or mutter a few words to Branna and instruct Scara on how to correct their course. So they were definitely headed somewhere.
The waves curled and crested several feet underneath them, as choppy and foaming as they came in storms but the sky overhead was clear. Still, Elsa couldn’t help but check the horizon every so often. It offered her neither the solace of land nor the dread of rough weather.
“So…” Elsa began in an attempt to keep her mind off of the churning waves below them that had once swallowed her parents. “How does a Guardian know that that’s what they are?” She asked casually.
She saw Theo tense slightly and Scara cock her head to the side but the person she had directed the question at had no visible reaction.
“It’s not something that is physically proven.” Garret told her. “Nor did the Mother descend and decree that it was me. It’s just something you know.”
“But how?” Elsa asked. “When did you become aware of it? Did you know as a child?”
The Guardian sighed thoughtfully, seeming as if he were trying to recall something he only had a vague notion of. “Yes, I did know.” He admitted. “Deep down, in some part of me reincarnated by the Mother, I knew I was different. But until I looked into Theo’s eyes and recognized my first spirit, I didn’t have a name for what I was.”
“So you didn’t know what you were all through your childhood?”
Garret shrugged. “Honestly I don’t remember much of that time. Didn’t really leave an impression on me.” He said this as casually as one might discuss an animal they had seen wandering in the forest. “I was born, I grew, I wandered, I trained.”
“But what about your family?” Elsa pressed.
“I left.” He said this matter-of-factly, with no hint of importance or remorse. “My place was not with them.”
Elsa had no more questions. She could not comprehend the idea of leaving her family so young, so indifferently. No matter how different she was, she’d always had a place with her family. She missed her family every day she was apart from them.
“A Guardian is Called very early in life.” Theo explained, watching Elsa’s expression carefully. “The Mother reached out to him subconsciously and guided him to the place where he would train to defend us. It was Garret’s way of leaving a life he’d never been meant for so that he could discover the life he was born for.”
Garret nodded in agreement. “It is said in many of the scriptures that a Guardian does not exist until they find their first host. Sure they are born and they train and grow but until they are reunited with the spirits they are sworn to protect, they never feel truly here. Truly alive. The first twelve years of my life were like that: endlessly wandering, wondering if I was truly alive or just…being.”
The raft shook under them as Elsa tried to pull her thoughts back together. “But you just left your family?” She asked again.“Just like that?”
Garret seemed confused by her confusion. “I wasn’t whole there, Elsa. For the first nine years of my life, I felt nothing, I experienced no joy or fulfillment.” He gazed into her eyes, trying to make her understand what he was saying. “Leaving was the first thing that ever triggered an emotional response in me. I finally felt like I was doing something worthwhile.” He offered her a comforting smile. “Then I found you all and my life had purpose. I found joy and fulfillment. The moment I recognized Branna, my life began.”
Scara twitched suddenly and the platform fell several feet, breaking the crest of a wave and sending a wave of panic through Elsa. “We’re close.” Scara said in Livet’s voice as everyone righted themselves and shook the salty mist from their faces.
They all glanced the direction she was pointing and caught sight of something.
It began as a tiny speck on the horizon, so small and indistinct it could have been anything. But as they grew closer and the speck steadily enlarged, it quickly became clear that there was nothing else like this anywhere else in the world.
“That’s it.” Theo said in a blank voice. “The island…”
It was hardly the solace Elsa was seeking.
The island itself was small and pretty nondescript: typical southern climate, rocky shore battered by waves, a few trees and a tiny river meeting the coast.
The palace dominating it however, was awesome and terrifying.
It rose like an obelisk from the center of the island, commanding the eye to gaze upon it, the heart to regard it with dread and acknowledge its power over what lay below it. Sharp pointy peaks and turrets rose like knife blades from thick mud-brown walls, piercing the sky and making it bleed. There were no windows or balconies, no sign that anyone was living there. For it was not a place of Life but of Death. Not a dwelling but a catacomb.
What’s more, everything surrounding the place reeked of death. All the trees were bare and lifeless, sticks stuck in the ground. No undergrowth to speak of except piles of decaying leaves. Nothing moved on the island. No birds flew over it, even the waves seemed to slow somewhat as they approached the shores. Heavy, dark clouds hung over it that seemed unmoved by wind.
The utter and complete stillness was beautiful and shocking.
Seeing it filled Elsa with chilling trepidation.
“it’s exactly like my vision…” Theo whispered in a small voice. Her fists clenched tightly, trying to stop herself from shaking. “Horrible...”
“We’re going in there.” Scara decreed and the wind suddenly picked up, shooting them right at the terrifying sight at a blinding speed.
Elsa could make no comments; she was too focused on making sure they didn’t fall into the sea as Scara sent them hurtling towards their destination. Garret and Theo were stumbling around, trying their best to avoid falling off.
Within two minutes, they had reached the shore. Scara threw her arms up and the breeze they had been riding blasted them up towards the cliff the castle rested upon. As soon as the ground was under them, Elsa evaporated the ice raft, sending all of them tumbling several feet onto the clifftop.
Scara had barely hit the ground before she rolled back to her feet.
“Why did you do that?” She snarled at Elsa, sounding completely different from the joyful, pleasant girl Elsa had come to know. “We could be inside by now!”
Before Elsa could open her mouth to respond, Garret placed a hand on Scara’s shoulder and she relaxed considerably.
“Scara.” He said sternly. “Stop. Look.”
They all gazed up in silent horror at the behemoth before them.
They had landed several feet from the edge of the cliff, sandwiched on a narrow strip of rock between the drop to the waves below and the edge of a large moat that reeked of tangy iron and salt. Rising above them was the Northern wall of the palace.
“Oh Merciful Mother…” Scara said quietly, her voice trembling.
From a distance, they had assumed the walls to be made of dirt or mud. Now that they were closer, it became all too painfully clear exactly what this place was constructed of.
Elsa swallowed hard.
They came in all sizes and shapes and states of decay from horse flesh falling off the bones and fully intact dead pigs down to the tiniest crumbling leaves. It seemed impossible that they could all stick together so solidly and yet they did. In a dark, decaying mosaic of the dead. Indiscriminate and all encompassing. A tally of what had once inhabited this island.
Among the corpses were small piles of soil that stank: it was a dark, dank musty smell, like old books that were being eaten by worms or scraps left in the sun too long. It wasn’t quite the smell of fertile soil yet, it was still stuck in the decay phase.
Unable to fully comprehend what lay in front of her, Elsa looked down. And nearly vomited. The moat was filled with blood. Not bright-red just-bled blood but thick, congealed brownish-red blood that slopped and frothed as if on fire. She stumbled away from it, one hand clasped tightly over her mouth and nose. Theo wrapped a strong arm around her shoulder and placed a steadying hand on her back. Her face was twisted in revulsion and she trembled almost imperceptibly but she seemed much steadier on her feet.
“I had no idea it would be this bad…” She said quietly, more to herself than to Elsa, who was gulping large mouthfuls of the salty air. Her hand rubbed Elsa’s back absently as they stood there together. And for once, neither one of them abruptly broke the contact out of shame.
Scara stretched out a hand towards the palace but recoiled as if she had touched boiling water. “The energy of this place…it will instantly kill any living thing that steps inside…” She said, shaking her hand. “Død’s Breath…”
Seeming a little reluctant, Theo left Elsa’s side and went to stand beside the Guardian, who was gripping his axe tightly. “it’s worse than we thought…” She told him. “She’s too far gone. The Breath has consumed this place. You’ll need to stay here Garrett. Our spirits will protect us.”
“The Mother’s grace will shield me.” Garret assured her. He swung his axe with easy confidence and rested it on his shoulder.
The summer host’s gaze darkened. “We don’t know that…” Theo argued. “this is the Breath itself. It’s different than anything in Branna’s scriptures.”
“I must protect you all.” Garret told her sharply. “Her too. She’s one of mine now, always has been. This rescue is just as much my mission as it is yours.”
Theo’s jaw tightened. “What if the Grace doesn’t protect you from this? What if you look into her eyes and she attacks us?”
“It will. I wont. I’ll protect you all.” He replied simply.
“You cant be certain of any of that.” Theo argued.
“You cant be certain the Breath will kill me.” Garret returned evenly.
“Nothing escapes the Breath.” Theo pleaded with him, sounding like she was quoting something.
“’The Grace shall shield their Guardian.’” Garret snapped at her.
“’Only once the Guardian binds to them.’” Theo shot right back. They glared at each other silently for a few seconds.
Elsa and Scara watched the entire exchange quietly. Elsa had never seen the Guardian and the Head Councilor go at each other like this before. From the look on Scara’s face, she hadn’t either.
After several tense seconds of silent glaring, Garret lowered his head obediently. “As you wish…” He swung his axe back into its holster and crossed his arms.
Theo turned back to Elsa and Scara, seeming relieved. “The Breath is strong, certainly, and it’s only going to get more powerful as we go. Livet and Branna will make Scara and myself immune but…” She glanced at Elsa and the queen realized the reason for her trepidation. She guessed Isen couldn’t protect her if she wasn’t awake. “Maybe you should stay behind as well.” Theo suggested.
Elsa shook her head stubbornly. “Oh, no. No chance. You dragged me out here, I’m helping.”
Theo bit her lip and for a moment, looked like she was on the verge of arguing. Garret raised an eyebrow but made no comments. “Fine.” Theo finally said. She turned away, gazing up at the palace. “But if you drop dead, I have ‘I told you so’ rights…”
Now Elsa raised an eyebrow. “How exactly would that work?”
“Doesn’t matter, I’d still have them.”
Elsa bit back a smile as Theo turned to the spring host. “…Scara…” She began slowly.
“I’m going in there, Theo.” Scara said stubbornly causing both Elsa and Theo to recoil in surprise.
“Scara...”Theo pleaded, sounding like she was attempting to placate a petulant child.
Scara would not be swayed. “This is my mission, my responsibility to rescue my sister. You’re just tagging along for me” She snapped. “Don’t even think about trying to talk me into staying behind.”
“But Scara, if we all just march in there and…”
“’Only Life can truly stand against Death.’” Scara quoted. “Were you really planning to just walk in there alone to capture Autumn?”
Theo looked away from her, refusing to answer.
Scara glared at her, the face marring her features until she was almost unrecognizable. It was an ugly expression and it looked wrong on her. “I’ve waited a long time for this Theo. Don’t keep us apart any longer.” Her anger was terrifying and it seemed to project a dangerous snap to the air around her, as if she were capable of lashing out without warning at any provocation. Even Theo took a half-step back.
Waving a hand, Scara blasted herself upwards on a burst of air. She rose in a steady, graceful arc, descending gently to land on the far side of the bloody moat. She turned around with an expectant look on her face. “Coming?” She called.
Elsa turned to Theo.
“Be my guest.” Theo said, gesturing at the moat. Elsa lifted her hand and an ice bridge materialized above the liquid. It was simple but sturdy, Elsa made sure to include a handrail, she had no wish to even think about falling into a pool of blood.
Theo turned back to Garret. “We’ll be as quick as we can.” She promised.
He stepped forward, gripping her forearm in a tight, comrades’ grip. “You’d better, otherwise I’ll have to come in there after you, Død’s Breath or not.” A small smile danced across Theo’s face and she squeezed his arm back before letting go.
“It wont come to that.”
Theo stepped up onto the bridge, walking across with confident, even strides as her years in the ice fields helped her effortlessly balance on the ice. Elsa followed, torn between glancing back at Garret, looking up at the nightmarish palace or watching Theo’s mastery of the coveted skill. Thankfully, the walk wasn’t long enough for her to accomplish all three.
As soon as they stepped onto the far side, Scara was off again, walking briskly along the palace wall. Elsa and Theo hurried to keep up.
The palace walls towered over them, casting long shadows from the midday sun that they could not keep out of without risking falling into the moat. There was a chill in the air that Elsa suspected was coming from the shadows themselves. The stench coming off of the walls made the air even more difficult to breathe, especially with the lack of wind. Elsa knew she would never consider the midday-summer stench of the Arendelle stables worthy of being called unpleasant again. Not after this. She felt bile rise in her throat again and fought to keep it down. But there wasn’t much to look at that wasn’t vomit-inducing.
A few feet in front of her, Scara walked purposefully, as if she neither noticed nor cared what the palace looked or smelled like. She hugged the wall, occasionally brushing up against it with no sign of discomfort or revulsion. Where her hands ran along the wall, dead leaves grew green again, skulls and carcasses crumbled to soil and sprouted plants. But they didn’t last long before the spell consumed them, making them wither and fade back to their original states or degenerate into a mound of dry, infertile soil.
They had only been walking for a few minutes before a door appeared in the wall before them. Stark white bones cross-crossed and jammed into each other to form a hard, jagged barrier that stretched halfway up the palace battlement. Scara immediately stepped forward, her hands outstretched but Theo caught her by the arm.
“You don’t have to…”
Scara shrugged her off. “I’m going in Theo.” She placed her hands on the bones and pushed. The door cracked in the center, splitting open and crumbling to dust as the interior of the palace was revealed. “You cant stop us.”
She strode inside, leaving the other two to tail apprehensively after her.
As they crossed the threshold, a mighty gust of wind blew by them, sending all three stumbling.
It was a chilly exhale that seeped into their skin and rattled their bones around like dice. Elsa stumbled and struggled to right herself. It felt as if a great weight had settled upon her, intent on crushing her to the ground and holding her there until she gave up. She could feel energy leaving her body, flowing out with every exhale and tumbling from her skin to fizzle and die in the air. On her left, Theo was breathing hard, her fists clenched tightly.
“It’s…it’s too strong…” She said through clenched teeth.
The only one seemly unaffected by the wind was Scara. She stood still and resolute, her eyes hard. A cloud of pollen had formed around her head, snapping softly at the air around her. Slowly, the shape of the Life spirit rose from within it, causing Scara’s long blonde hair to levitate slightly. Livet drew a great breath in, seeming to soak up all the air in the room within herself, swelling above Scara to accommodate. Scara’s eyes blazed and green light poured from her hands. It spun around the threesome, wrapping them all in the soft smell of pollen and the warmth of a spring breeze.
Elsa’s nose twitched at the smell and the stony chill seemed to pull back slightly from her, hovering at a safe distance. She felt her strength start to return, the familiar cold of her snow seeping back into her veins. She glanced left. Theo’s skin had taken on a faint reddish hue and Elsa could see her eyes glowing with Branna’s presence. As the cloud continued to thicken, sparks snapped at the fire-girl’s fingers and smoke leaked from her lips.
Elsa looked down at her hands and where they were touched by Scara’s light, saw a tiny hint of blue crackling along her skin like lightning.
That’s…that’s Isen…she’s in me…
Frantically, she reached out with her mind, calling, pleading, asking…
The Breath passed around them and continued on.
Slowly, the glows faded. Livet sank back into Scara’s body tiredly and without a word. Scara stumbled slightly as the spirit re-entered her. “I’m fine.” She snapped as Theo tried to steady her. She firmly planted her feet and marched onwards.
Elsa and Theo exchanged another glance, this one slightly breathless, then wordlessly took off after her.
The interior of the palace was dark and damp, probably because there was no natural light or torches. The entrance hall contained only staircases, seven of them to be exact, each one carved of bone and carpeted with stretched skins and completely identical to the others. They all stretched upwards into the unknown, curling out of sight within a few steps.
Theo clasped her hands tightly together and gently breathed into her cupped palms. A tiny ball of light rose from her palms and hovered unsteadily in the air above her outstretched hand.
It did little against the gloom.
“Which one…?” Elsa asked, glancing around at the staircases.
Instead of replying, Scara turned on her heel and began to climb the closest staircase, the one just left of the one opposite the door. Theo and Elsa shared a look than, with a mutual shrug, followed. The flickering light let them see the steps directly in front of them but little more. The darkness became more oppressive as they moved up. Elsa had to stop herself from looking around and trying to see things in the darkness. She’d already seen more than enough of this place.
At the top of the stairs was a long, dead-end corridor with seven identical doors. Elsa was beginning to sense a pattern. Scara didn’t even hesitate, she took the first door on the right, leading them down a long, twisting corridor full of complete animal skeletons that loomed eerily out of the darkness as their light bounced off them. At the end of this gallery was another set of seven, only this time seven blank tapestries. Scara pulled the one all the way on the right away from the wall and slid behind it.
Elsa and Theo followed her, not wanting to linger or even contemplate what was in some of the corridors and rooms they passed. And whenever they lingered too long and Scara got too far ahead of them , the Breath began to nip at them again, teasing and taunting until they could slip back under Scara’s protective proximity.
The further they went, the more convinced they became that Autumn was some kind of insane genius. The labyrinth they were navigating was staggeringly huge, seemingly impossibly so even given the outside mammoth size of the palace. For another, it was entirely based on the number seven. Seven staircases, seven doors, seven passageways, seven taxidermied (they hoped) animals.
Elsa couldn’t see how they were going to find anyone in here, much less navigate their way back out. After the fifth choice of passageway, she lost track of the route they had come. But Scara was like a dog with a scent, she never hesitated at a turn or obstacle but plowed ahead, Elsa and Theo tailing awkwardly behind with the light. She led them down many long, dark corridors, leaves crunching underfoot, tiny plants sprouting in her wake. She seemed to know exactly where she was headed.
“This has been easy…” Theo said after awhile, startling Elsa from her thoughts.“…too easy.”
“You were expecting something difficult?” Elsa asked, her voice unusually raspy from lack of use. She cleared her throat, hoping her intended sarcasm would be more effective next time.
“I was expecting a confrontation.” Theo admitted. She glanced sidelong at Elsa. “I mean, your retrieval set quite a high standard.”
Elsa didn’t know if it was more the atmosphere of the gloom around them or her frayed nerves but Theo’s teasing was a welcome respite from both nonetheless.
Theo seemed to notice this and offered Elsa a half smirk that almost looked seductive in the bad light. Elsa blushed and looked away.
“She knows we’re here.” Theo continued, glancing up at the walls as they walked through one of seven archways of rat skulls that Scara had picked. “She’s been waiting for us to come.”
“But why?” Elsa asked. “Wouldn’t she not know about us? I didn’t.”
“Død might have told her.” Theo replied. “Branna certainly talked my ear off about you before we came to our agreement.”
Elsa was startled. “Really?”
Theo nodded. “Yup, she kept saying: ‘Isen is coming…find her for me.’ And other such variations. It drove me mad, seeing visions of Isen without knowing what I was seeing. ”
Elsa felt her chest tighten. “What did you see?”
Scara stopped so suddenly, Elsa and Theo nearly ran into her.
She stretched her hand towards the wall in front of them. “It’s here.” Livet’s voice said in a breathy whisper. “The throne room is just beyond this wall. She is there.”
They all gazed up. Instead of the usual pattern of seven, in front of them was a blank towering wall of dead leaves. Scara placed a hand on it, turning a few leaves green but they quickly colored and dried back into their dead state. Elsa placed a palm against the wall and pushed. Leaves crunched under her palm but it was like stone, it didn’t move or give way.
“Looks like we’ll need to burn our way through.” Elsa said. She stepped back and looked at Theo. “Can you do it?”
“I’m weakened, not invalid…” Theo muttered with a slight twitch of her lip. She stepped up to the wall and looked around at the others.
Scara nodded, her green eyes blazing with a silent determination to finally see her other half.
Elsa could only manage a curt nod, ice curling nervously at her fingertips. Her heart was thrumming slowly in her chest. As if it knew what waited in the room beyond. And it didn’t like it.
Theo raised a hand and with a snap of her fingers, set fire to the door before them. The dead leaves curled and smoked relentlessly as they slowly burned and shriveled to ash. The door slowly shrank away, leaving behind a stench of decay and the smoky reek of smoldering leaves. When the doorway was clear, the three stepped cautiously into the throne room of the palace.
The room they entered had a towering ceiling that ended in a high vaulted ceiling held up by an enormous polished ribcage. Elsa didn’t even want to think about what manner of beast had contributed that to the palace’s design. Several thick bone pillars ran in uneven lines through the hall, their loads invisible in the gloom. Low-burning torches hung off of the pillars, casting a dim pallor over the floor and making the rafters of bone glow.
Elsa looked down. The floor was carpeted in thick, dried grass.
Well, at least there was no blood here.
They had come in through the back, that much Elsa could tell. For one, they could see an enormous door of skulls across the cavernous hall, much like the one they’d used to enter the castle.
For another, the ornate back of the great throne in the center of the room reared up before them.
Without even looking at the other two, Scara plowed determinedly ahead, her footsteps scratching along the grass underfoot. Where she stepped, brilliant flowers and vibrant grass sprang to life, lifting upright as if they’d finally seen the sun. But as soon as her foot left contact, they shriveled and died again.
Elsa felt like the floor was sending tiny pulses of dark energy through her with every step. Like Death was nipping at her heels again. She shuddered and resisted the temptation to freeze the floor entirely. Movement on her right caught her attention. Theo’s hands were twitching, minuscule sparks snapping at her fingers as if she too were contemplating destroying the floor in some way.
In a moment of desperation and companionship, Elsa reached out and clasped Theo’s hand tightly in hers. Steam curled into the air around them as nervous ice and embers met and extinguished each other. Theo looked at her in surprise, then smiled softly. Elsa returned it.
They continued to hold hands until they reached the center of the room. Then, finally they rounded the high throne.
None of them was ready for what greeted them on the throne of corpses.
Elsa stopped in place, her mind having gone blank at the information just presented to it.
Theo’s eyes narrowed, her hand slipping from Elsa’s. “So it is true…” she breathed into the deathly silence.
Scara was still, her eyes wide and blank as she took in her host twin.
The person on the throne however, had eyes only for the snow queen.
“Hello Elsa.” The host said, lips curling up in a twisted smile. “I was wondering when you’d finally come.”
Elsa gazed up at the throne, at the long fingers gently tapping the skull they rested on. At the thick, auburn hair the color of dying leaves. Into the familiar, stony gray eyes that sang the mantra of the deceased.
Eyes that had once loomed over her, calling for her death.
Elsa supposed that, given what had happened, it was only fitting that this be the way the cycle was balanced.
Or rather, it made perfect sense that this was why the cycle was out of balance.
The name was a sharp probe piercing her tongue.