Chapter 14 - The Council Minus Winter
Some time later, the four were at last assembled in the chamber: Head Councilor Theonia, host of Branna the summer goddess at the head of the room, Hans of the Southern Isles, host of Død the autumn goddess at Theonia’s left with his hands bound in icy handcuffs, Scara, host of Livet the spring goddess at Theonia’s right and Queen Elsa of Arendelle, with the powers of Winter, opposite Theonia and closest to the door.
Elsa swore that the feeling in this room could not be accurately described by any known words. Everyone was tense and silent, their respective powers simmering and crackling in the air. Scara’s hair kept dancing in an invisible breeze, small specs of pollen appearing in the haze air around her as she stroked the delicate leaves of a toad lily that had sprouted from the wood of the table in front of her. Hans was resting his hands on the table, fingers occasionally tapping into the silence. Several dead leaves swirled around the base of his chair rhythmically and where his finger touched the table, the wood began to look wet and rotting. He glared at Elsa from his place but could do little else with the cuffs on.
Theo was easily the most unstable at the moment: her hair was constantly in motion from the breezes and the air around her was thick with a summer haze that stole its way across the table to engulf the others. There was no fire or sparks yet but she seemed only moments away from snapping and setting the entire table ablaze. Elsa glanced away as Theo looked up, distracting herself with controlling her own powers.
Hers were more subdued but that was mostly from apprehension. She had no idea what was about to happen. A light frost flickered in the air behind her that she kept willing away.
When the silence brooding had stretched on too long, Theo rose to her feet. She looked haggard and spent, tired beyond belief and with a dullness to her eyes that indicated she had recently been crying. The host of summer folded her hands and addressed her sibling hosts around her. “The Council is now convening.”
Without preamble, Branna burst forth from Theo in a plume of reddish smoke causing the girl to shake and breathe heavily. The summer spirit hovered above her host’s shoulders like a shadow. Her form was smokier than it had been last time Elsa had sat at this table and she figured it was due to the coming winter. Livet flowed out from Scara and Elsa finally took in her full form: a beautiful woman with skin as green as tender spring buds and brown eyes full of rich earthy warmth. Her silky blonde hair was composed of flower petals and pollen grains and buzzed with the hum of life.
Hans raised an eyebrow at the appearances but did not seem particularly surprised. Feeling Elsa’s gaze on him, he turned to her and sneered unpleasantly. Elsa glanced away and suddenly realized that everyone was looking at her expectantly. They were all expecting Isen to come forth.
“Still nothing, Elsa?” Livet asked through Scara, sounding deeply sad. Elsa nodded stiffly and glanced over at Theo and Branna. Branna was glaring but to Elsa’s surprise, not at her. All her fury was focused down on her host. Theo was watching Elsa, her face contorted in such a way that made Elsa think she was holding back a grimace of pain.
“Let my sister come forth.” Livet continued, addressing Hans now. “You cannot keep her from this council.”
“I’m afraid that’s not up to me.” Hans said, sitting back in his chair and looking strangely unimpressed for addressing a spirit. “She says, she wont come out.” He glanced at Elsa, eyes narrowed in challenge. “Not unless her big sister comes to meet her.”
Elsa looked away, guilt and shame squirming for dominance in her stomach. Anna’s face crossed her mind and she bit back a whimper.
Theo spoke in Branna’s voice, drawing all the attention to them with a single word. “Tough.”
The two spirits swirled above their hosts, becoming thick, formless clouds of smoke and pollen. Theo slowly stood, ashes and embers circling her frame. The haze she had been projecting melted away, sharpening to a charged wind that made the hairs on Elsa’s arms stand up. Elsa and Hans cowered away from the spirit as she grew in size, back to how she had appeared when Elsa first met her. A towering inferno of flames stretched upward towards the vaulted ceiling. Lightening crackled around the edges of the storm.
“Sister of the autumn winds!” Theo howled in a voice that rumbled with thunder. “I command thee, as Head Councilor, in the Witness of the Mother, to show yourself at this Council! Let all who are awake come forth!”
Hans winced, crying out in discomfort. He tugged vainly on the handcuffs, trying to snap the ice. His neck twisted at an odd angle, like something was grabbing it and forcing it in another direction than the one he wanted it to be in. His eyed rolled and briefly flashed the dull white color they had been in his palace. The prince bit down on his lip, blood trickling down his chin but he was losing the battle. A ghostly tornado of leaves slowly rose from Hans’ head, circling tightly. The spirit stretched, the leaves flexing in and out as if testing the air currents. Hans fell heavily on the table, his shoulders heaving.
Next to him, Theo collapsed in her chair, pale and panting as Branna resumed her smoky form upon her shoulders, smoldering as if stewing in a combination of power and rage.
The leaves whirling in the air slowly stilled, coming to form the shape of a womanly figure about the same size as Hans. Anything distinguishing about her however, was covered by the thick coat of leaves around her. Two dull white eyes peered out from the top of the figure, flickering around the room uneasily.
“Now…” Branna said as Theo grimaced in pain and coughed heavily. “We can begin.”
Hans slowly pushed himself back into a seated position, wiping the blood from his chin. He cast a fearful glance at the spirit clinging to his shoulders but said nothing.
A bit of color returning to her face, Theo slowly rose to her feet and extended her arms to the rest of the room. Red light glowed in her eyes, swallowing her pupils. Flames sprung to life around the hall, each burning a different color. Elsa caught her breath, feeling the intense heat upon her face. Theo’s eyes blazed with red light and smoke poured from her mouth.
Theo and Branna spoke as one, the words echoing in an eerie and potent blaze of fragility and burning passion. “By the Will of the Mother, which created the world and all in it. By Song of her eldest, the pure Isen which set the world turning, inspiring the Dance of the second twin, the boundless Livet which brought Life, prompting the Howl of her adoptive daughter, the powerful Branna that woke the skies and conjured the Breath of Død, the expelled twin, which began the cycle anew. The cycle gathers here now, to uphold the balance. To protect the Will.”
Slowly, the flames burned out. Theo sat down gracefully, folding her arms as the light faded from her eyes.
“We are here today to resolve this imbalance.” The Head Councilor said, glaring at a spot on the far wall somewhere between Hans and Elsa. “We are finally all here and we are going to discuss just what is happening that is causing the seasons to run rampant.”
“I think we all know the reason…” Branna interrupted Theo. The smoky mass of the spirit shifted so that it was glaring at the spirit wrapped in leaves above Hans. The autumn spirit cowered, drawing in on itself until it looked like a formless ball of leaves.
“Why do you hide your true form, Sister?” Livet asked softly. The spirit extended a single golden strand of her hair towards the autumn spirit. As soon as the hair touched the mass of leaves, it shriveled and turned brown, right down to the root. Død raised herself slightly, a head taking shape from the mass.
“Show yourself!” Branna barked, making the other spirit flinch.
“Where is Isen?” A soft, husky voice came from Han’s lips, the timbre too high to be his own. Han’s eyes widened in fear and he tried to cover his mouth with his cuffed hands. “I need my Isen!” The spirit managed to scream before he silenced her.
“Make her stop doing that!” Hans shouted in his own voice as the spirit settled back into a formless mass, several leaves scratching the tabletop with a mournful skittering sound.
“It is the only way she can speak.” Theo informed him.
Hans glared. “Then maybe it’s best she keep silent.” He spat.
Elsa flinched as Branna swelled to twice her size in an instantaneous blast of heat. “Such arrogance! We are goddesses, human. We turn the seasons and make your puny lives possible!”
“And yet you need us to speak.”
There was a painful, deafening silence at the table following Han’s words. Even the spirits seemed speechless. Hans sneered across the table, folding his hands and retreating inside himself. The air in the room thickened, a stench of decay creeping among the occupants. Elsa shivered but this felt infinitely weaker than the Breath at the palace had.
“How is it that you are a host?” Elsa asked Hans, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. “I thought only women could be hosts?”
Hans glared at her but offered nothing in response.
“That is the big question.” They both turned to the summer spirit as it spoke. Branna smoldered on her hosts shoulders, her smoky form curling inward like a storm ready to break.
“Hosts cannot be male.” Theo continued for the spirit. “It was a decree of the Mother, one of her First Four. In 115 generations, all of our predecessors have been female without fail. So why are you here now?”
“Perhaps I was the only one worthy of wielding this power.” Hans replied smoothly. “Perhaps your mother decided it was time this power pass into the hands of someone who can use it properly.”
Branna snarled, sounding like a sputtering flame exposed to water. Livet shifted uncomfortably, her hair swirling around her in a long arc.
“And I thought one royal was bad…” Theo muttered darkly. “Now we have two…”
Elsa was completely caught off guard by the statement. It was so angry and bitter, two emotions Theo had not directed at her in a long while. It felt like a slap in the face.
“In your palace, you said you weren’t born like this…” Scara recalled, addressing Hans.
“So how did you come to be like this…Brother?” She looked around the table. “Do we call him that?”
“How should I know how this demon chooses her host?” Hans snapped. “I’ve had this curse for as long as I can remember…always hanging over me.” He flexed his fingers, rotting more tiny circles on the wooden surface. “But according to my father, it was not immediately apparent from the day I was born…”
“You discovered it on your own…” Elsa said softly, more to herself than to the table. Hans glared at her but she wasn’t paying attention to him. She remembered the first time she’d discovered her power, the day that Anna was born…
My hands…so cold…A perfect snowflake, hanging in the air…a tiny hand reaching for it…smiling…
But Hans’ power. She recoiled at the thought of a small child learning they could kill by touch. There was no beauty, no fun in that power.
“Who was it?” Elsa asked Hans softly. “Who did you strike?”
Hans visibly jumped and tried to jerk his hands free of the cuffs. Elsa was certain that if his hands had been free, his sword would have been back in his grip now and aimed at her throat.
“Don’t try to be all kind and friendly with me! This is all your fault!” He moaned as his eyes started to glow a dull white, the spirit on his shoulders twisting and writhing as if it shared his pain.
Elsa watching him, suppressing an urge to defend herself with icicles. “My fault?”
“Maybe it’s best if you stay out of this Elsa.” Livet said gently, her narrow gaze focused on Hans as he slowly sank back into his seat.
“What, why?” Elsa asked, surprised. “I was the only one he would talk to last time.”
“And last time you did he attacked us.” Theo snapped at her. Elsa turned to face her, incredulous that the summer host was treating her like this again. Theo met her gaze sharply, Branna mirroring her actions. “So unless Isen comes forth, I see no reason for you to speak at this Council.”
“Garret would have let me speak.”
The words were out before she even realized she wanted to say them. Elsa saw Theo’s fist clench and knew she was entering dangerous territory. Scara’s hands gripped the table tightly, tiny vines shooting across the wood. Even Hans was tense and still, all of them awaiting Theo’s response.
“Garret…is….not….here.” Theo managed to say, gritting her teeth. The edge of the table under her hand caught fire and burned slowly.
Elsa should have stopped there, she should have let the matter rest seeing just how short of a fuse the summer host had. But she couldn’t. Theo treating her like this again, like she had the first time they had met after they’d come so far…it hurt too much. “He would have at least allowed me a fair chance to speak my mind on this Council. To try to help.” Elsa replied, ignoring her instincts to shut up, ignoring the twisting hurt in her chest. “Not that you ever have.”
Fully expecting a burst of fire to come hurtling at her, Elsa readied her ice to defend herself. She was not prepared for Theo to throw herself over the table and tackle her head on, screaming in blind rage without a flame in sight.
Hands grabbed her shoulders and forced her backwards out of the chair. Elsa’s back slammed against the unforgiving stone wall of the chamber, Theo’s hands at her collar and her breath hot on her face. She felt her feet leave the ground and gasped in surprise. She’d never realized just how strong Theo was. Then again, she supposed she’d had to be to pull Elsa back up a cliff at the Death Palace.
“What do you know?” Theo snarled, the spirit on her shoulders vanishing back into her in a smoky haze. “You who have spent your entire life having things handed to you, having people supporting you in everything!? You met him all of twice before we left to find Autumn. He was my first friend!” Theo pressed Elsa harder against the wall, her knee digging painfully into Elsa’s hip. “He saved my life and helped me control my powers! We gave Scara a home, we took Goren in when his family cast him out! I have carried this temple on my shoulders since the day Branna awakened and the whole time, Garret has been at my side.” Theo’s voice broke but she plowed on. “He has been my only counsel. Don’t you dare try to tell me what I should be doing! And don’t you ever tell me what he would have wanted! It’s your fault he’s gone!”
Elsa crumpled, everything but her eyes going limp as the harsh truth hit her. When it came from her own mind, it was tolerable. She knew how to deal with self-loathing, self-pity, self-hatred. But those same words, coming from Theo cut deeper than anything she had inflicted upon herself.
Elsa knew it showed in her face. She knew it was a sign of weakness, an opening to admit guilt. But she didn’t have the strength to hide it. It was true.
Every head in the room, spirit or human shot up at the new voice. Goren the troll had somehow entered the room without any of them noticing him. He stood in the doorway, slowly shaking his head at the scene before him in disbelief.
“Is this really how you honor the man who gave his life for you?” He asked Theo. The troll gazed around at all of them: at Scara looking on in fear, Hans twitching and glowering. “For all of you? By fighting among each other? This is not balance Theo, it is chaos.”
Theo sagged and her grip on Elsa weakened. The Ice Queen slid to the floor, breathing hard with one hand on her bruised collarbone as Theo stepped away from her, her eyes burning with tears. Elsa looked up at her and saw just a flicker of regret in those eyes before they flicked away from her.
“Chaos is all that remains.” Theo replied dully. She left the room, smoke and embers swirling in the air behind her.
Elsa took that to mean the Council was over.
The lilies were dying.
But he couldn’t help it, everything died around him. After a time, he’d just accepted it. He couldn’t walk through the palace gardens or else there would be an inevitable trail of destruction through them. His powers pressed all around him like a shield, flattening any plant and animal life in his wake.
So now he just avoided any plant life and touched nothing with his bare hands. He’d learned to stop wandering around to avoid his father’s inevitable wrath.
But when he’d left the Council hall, he’d found himself inexplicably drawn to this courtyard. This entire building seemed to have thoughts of its own, pulling him in whatever direction it deemed he needed to go. But why it thought he needed to be in the middle of a garden full of so many vulnerable, living plants was something he’d never understand.
Hans walked away from the now-wilted lilies, clenching his fists as if that would help him control his powers. The hanging wisteria he brushed past jumped away from his touch, browning instantly and hanging limply. He would destroy this entire place if he stayed. But why not? He’d eventually destroy it anyway. Such was the nature of his curse. It knew no bounds.
“I know it’s you!” A cheerful voice called from around a flowering bush on his left, making his head snap up. “You don’t need to hide from me.”
Hans came out from behind the hydrangeas, the flowers breathing an almost audible sigh of relief as his wilting presence faded from them.
“I guess I cant exactly sneak up on you.” He said dryly to Scara. She didn’t look his way, keeping her focus on a small bed of lilacs she was tending. Her motions were soft and careful, she hummed gently as she worked, tiny grains of pollen flickering in the air around her. She swirled her fingers around the empty patches in the soil and more lilacs sprouted and flowered, their scent permeating the air.
Hans found a genuine smile pulling at his face as he watched her. There was something…magnetic about this girl. Once he’d calmed his demonic tendency to murder her.
“I feel you coming.” Scara said as casually as if they were discussing the weather. “Your spirit projects around you.”
Hans snorted. “That’s just everything dying around me.”
Scara straightened up, turning to face him. The intense color of her green eyes momentarily stunned the prince. “That is your gift.” Scara told him, smiling.
“Call it what it is, a curse.” Hans felt something brush his sleeve and recoiled. The unfortunate frond of a potted fern shriveled at his proximity. “I kill everything that touches me, things lose their vigor in my presence.”
“A curse is only a gift that hasn’t been utilized properly.” Scara replied.
Hans scoffed. “Where did you hear that?”
“Livet told me.” The girl bent over again and tidied a small patch of empty soil. Her long yellow hair fell past her face, brushing the dirt gently. Grass grew under the touch. “She has odd things to say like that sometimes…”
Hans shifted uncomfortably, the handcuffs biting into his skin. “Well mine tends to only mumble nonsense or cry for her sisters…”
Scara beamed, her smile affecting Hans more than he was willing to admit. “So you have spoken to her!”
Hans smiled but his was a dry, humorous one. “Not so much spoken as listened.” His gaze darkened, “And then she takes control of my mind and forces her feelings on me.”
“That is why we must hold the spirits.” Scara told him, as if it were obvious. “They cannot handle their own emotions in this world.”
Hans shook his cuffs at her. “Did yours ever make you do something you never wanted to?” He snapped. “Take control of you and hurt someone you loved? She has done this to me my whole life! Her feelings are causing me real pain.”
Scara didn’t move throughout his outburst. Her eyes didn’t shine with pity or flash with fear. Instead, she looked at him as if she were searching for something in the outburst.
“Livet and I have come to an agreement.” The spring host said after a careful pause. “We have bonded during our shared time in this body. It helps stabilize our power.” She glanced at the cuffs then back up at his face. “It would work with Død too if you just…”
“I am not letting that…that unholy demon have any more control over me than she already has!” Hans shouted, ignoring the gut-wrenching wail the spirit in his head let out. “You have no idea what she has taken from me!”
Scara was silent again, giving him his moment to vent. She reached around him, making him flinch away from her and gently touched a wilted hydrangea flower. It burst into glorious bloom under her caress. Hans felt the same action create a bloom of envy within him. “I come out here when I need to make sense of my emotions.” Scara told him, pulling her hand back. She touched the tips of her fingers together very carefully, making sure her fingertips lined up. “Why I feel the way Livet does…why we both feel and what it does to us.”
Hans suddenly realized how young this girl must be. Where he was nearing his twenty-third birthday, she was barely on the cusp of seventeen, her face still round, her step still light. He was a full foot and a half taller than her. But she understood what it was to be like him, perhaps even more than he did. To have this power…to feel this way.
“And what do you need to make sense of today?” He asked her, for once actually managing not to sound mocking or patronizing.
If Scara noticed his change in demeanor, she didn’t show it. “Ever since Livet awakened, I’ve been waiting for you.” She admitted. “Not growing, not changing, not living, just…waiting.” She looked away, walking around the lilac bed to the peach saplings on the other side. They bloomed with her presence, the smallest of them growing a few inches as she ran a hand down the length of its trunk.
“And now that you’re finally here…I don’t know. I thought everything would make sense at last. But it doesn’t.”
The peach sapling in her hand strained to keep growing, its trunk thickening under her hand. Scara watched it with a sad resignation.
“I can’t control the growth. They all just respond like this. Anything I’m around bursts with too much life. The forest becomes overgrown and tangled with undergrowth whenever I walk through it in spring time. I reanimate recently dead animals and have to watch them limp away, alive without the grace of death to end their suffering. Nothing dies around me. More just comes, cramming in every space, never fading or moving on.” She plucked a leaf from the sapling and in her hand, it sprouted into a whole new plant. “Livet said once you were here, our gift would balance out and I’d be better able to guide the process.” Scara continued, dropping the creation where it fell. “But nothing’s changed.” Throughout her whole speech, she seemed distant, almost as if she wasn’t aware of his presence. But she never sounded sad.
Scara turned to Hans, meeting his gaze shyly. “You’re not really here, not until Død is with you. Until you two are like me and Livet.” It should have sounded like an accusation. But she said it gently, so innocently that he couldn’t believe for an instant that she blamed him for her lot.
The lilacs between them drooped as Hans’ jaw clenched. Scara raised a finger at them and they slowly stood back up.
“It feels like I’m still waiting.” Scara admitted, looking away from him.
Hans remembered the moment he’d first laid eyes on her in his palace. The rage that had flowed from the demon within him to poison him as she recognized her other half, the one that could have kept her under control, saved her from this terrible fate of sharing his body. But watching her now, he felt no anger, not even from the unstable goddess of death in his soul. Being around her was comforting. So long as she was here, the damage he did could be reversed. She could keep him under control. Even the spirit in his head, angry and vicious though it was, became muted somewhat as he watched her coax life back into the lilacs he had killed.
“I suppose…” He admitted, his voice going soft. “I’ve been waiting for you too.” They were both looking at the lilacs. But Hans swore he could feel her smile.
“Scara!” Both of them whirled, not realizing another had joined them.
A deep disappointment at being interrupted washed through the autumn host but he hid it behind an unfriendly sneer. It’s her.
Theo’s hair snapped in the hot breeze she was projecting around the courtyard. “Don’t talk to him.” She said to the spring host in a clipped voice. “Go inside.”
Scara picked up a small pot with a waving fern inside it and crossed slowly to where the other girl was standing. When she reached her however, she paused. “You cannot keep me from him, Theo.” She told the summer host. “He and I are bonded. Two sides of the same coin.” She leaned closer, her voice dropping to a whisper that Hans heard nonetheless. “He needs my help.”
Although her shoulders remained rigid, Theo’s face softened slightly at Scara’s words. “There will be a time for that.” Theo replied softly. “Just not now.”
Scara left but she shot a look over her shoulder at Hans that was all at once helplessly innocent and full of wisdom beyond her years. Hans felt a tremor go through him and he looked away. Why did she do this to him?
As Theo approached, he rearranged his face back into its confident smirk.
“Eager to speak to me alone, aren’t you?” He said to her as she approached, a hot breeze whipping him in the face. He briefly wondered if standing close enough to her for a long enough time would melt Elsa’s cuffs off of him.
Theo glared at him as if reading his thoughts and the wind slowly faded. “I am ‘eager’ to see this whole thing cleared up and the world regain some semblance of meaning again.” She told him, her eyes like chips of red-hot iron. “The fact that you are the only way to do that is merely the painful medicine I must swallow to accomplish this.”
Hans raised his arms, enunciating the icy cuffs holding him back. “Doesn’t seem that hard to keep me in check when Elsa’s around.” He made a mental note of how mentioning the Queen of Arendelle made the girl twitch. He gestured at the blooming garden around them. “And Scara does wonders to reverse my curse. I think she and I could become good friends.” He found he didn’t need to lie making that statement.
“You’re not befriending her. You’re using her.” Hans’ false smile slipped away at Theo’s biting words. “I know what kind of man you are. I know your story.”
Hans laughed darkly. “You know nothing of me.”
The two of them stood several feet apart, an uneasy mixture of summer haze and autumn chill churning in the air between them.
“Prince Hans of the Southern Isles.” Theo recited suddenly, making said prince’s blood run cold. “13th in line for his crown, youngest of the king’s 14 sons. Born in late fall approximately 23 years ago.” She smirked at his fury. “I write the records.”
Hans was quiet but the rapidly drying bush behind him reflected the strength of his feelings. “The Mother finally decided it was time to help us find you.” Theo continued. “Just after the Council, she gave me a vision of your childhood.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “Oh did she?”
“You’re not even aware of this are you? Of how you became Død’s host?”
“She has not granted me the pleasure of that knowledge.”
Theo made a motion with her hand as if she were tracing a quill along written words, trying to recall them. “There was a child,” she began after a moment “a little girl born as Død’s host in the Isles 23 years ago. She was named Anya and I believe she was the child of a palace servant. But your father had her put to death four days later, believing her to be a witch, as her powers manifested. Unsettled, Død had no choice but to manifest in the next youngest in close proximity who was strong enough to bare it. And that happened to be you, the unlucky thirteenth son, born not four days prior.” The bush behind Hans was nude and bare now, he could feel it. The lilacs started to droop.
Theo took notice but continued her tale. “But spirits are not meant to manifest in the male form and so she was forced awake too soon, practically the day she entered you. You’ve been fighting for dominance ever since, hiding your abilities under gloves, touching only when absolutely necessary, hiding alone when the winds of Autumn begin to blow. You grew up spoiled and selfish, everyone afraid of the curse you seemed to carry. You pushed Død to the furthest corner of your mind, driving the both of you mad in the process. And then one day, the spirit couldn’t take it anymore. She burst free of your suppression and sent shudders of death pulsing across the land, killing the father who had kept you imprisoned, cursing the land to go barren. So you ran. You made yourself King of Death and removed yourself to the wilderness to build your throne. And as you waited alone, you let your anger and fury grow and let it control you. You gave into your desire for revenge and let it corrupt the spirit within you. You summoned the sword and decided you would kill those Sisters that were so dear to the spirit within you.”
“I had a rather good role model to follow.” Hans said as casually as he could with these new revelations and bitter memories burning in him. “Queen Elsa did abandon her kingdom and throw herself into isolation to deal with her powers. It seemed to work out fine for her.”
Theo’s jaw clenched and several grains of sand floated in the air around her. “You are nothing like Elsa.”
Hans smirked. “I think you’ll find she and I have more in common than…” Theo interrupted him with a harsh laugh.
“You? You’re a spoiled prince who couldn’t charm anyone to ally with you so you stormed off to the mountains and hid like a child. You were planning to use your power to assert yourself over others, not just the other spirits.”
Hans’ smile had faded. He couldn’t win this with charm or arrogance. He switched tactics. “Just like you.”
His statement had the desired effect. Theo went rigid, her eyes narrowing. “We are in no way the same.” She spat.
“Did you not force me into submission just now in the Council? How is that any different than me asserting my dominance with my curse?”
Theo was silent, her revulsion at the comparison apparent in her expression.
“And now, we’re both alone.” Hans observed. “How could anyone understand what you have been through?” He asked her, pacing around her still form. “How much you suffer everyday just to hold this council together…how much you sacrifice to restore balance?” He saw her tremble and went in for the kill. “And now you’ve lost your only ally.”
“I still blame you for that.” Theo replied, her voice shaking as she glared.
Hans shrugged. “You shouldn’t, it was Død who cursed the blade and drove me mad. I was aiming for Elsa.” He watched her twitch silently for a moment, gauging her reaction. “Do you know what set Død off this time? Why I cast a curse over my homeland and ran away?” He waited several seconds, letting the silence stretch. “It was her.”
Theo didn’t have to ask who.
“Elsa and her sister humiliated me. They sent me back to my brothers in shame and my brothers took it out in the worst way possible. They had been waiting for an excuse to punish me and Elsa handed them one. Up until then, I had it under control. Like you said, I wore gloves all the time and avoided touching anything. And it was working, by cutting off my emotions and only pretending to care, I stopped the curse of death from spreading around me. But when I returned after Elsa’s humiliating send-off, back into the unrestrained torment of my brothers and my father, my control slowly unraveled. The gloves became useless.
“My father was ready to have me executed after our crops failed again. But that was the very thing that sealed his fate. One insult, one outburst too many and I snapped. I killed him with the Breath…the very Breath that stole across my homeland, bringing sickness and death in its wake.” His fists clenched even as he tried to keep his face impassive. “I cant go back there. Leaving was the only way to take the Breath with me, to keep it contained so it wouldn’t destroy my home.”
“So did you hope to learn to control it?” Theo asked skeptically. “As Elsa has?”
Hans shrugged. “It was a vague delusion of mine for a little while. But I soon abandoned that. I don’t know for sure how Elsa achieved her fine control. I could never emulate it.”
“She says love.”
Hans actually laughed.
“I think there’s more to it than that.” He walked away from her, towards the carefully potted ferns that were nearly as tall as he was. “You know…there were rumors about Arendelle. Growing up, I heard a lot about that reclusive kingdom.” He lifted his hands and the edges of the ferns began to curl. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Theo stiffen but she made no move to stop him. “Some say they were favored by the gods. That’s why they were so prosperous despite their small size. Others said their king and queen had dabblings in dark magics, even dealings with trolls. Many believed that they were thieves of higher powers…”
“Higher powers cannot be stolen from.” Theo interrupted stubbornly. Hans paused, his fingers caressing the brittle frond of the dead fern before him. It crumbled under his touch.
“Did your warrior friend not steal his power from a spirit once?” He inquired. “Several lifetimes ago perhaps?”
The summer host seemed shocked. “How could you possibly know that legend?”
“The Southern Isles has an extensive library…” Hans said. “As I’m sure you saw in your visions, I spent many hours there as a child. And many a traveling bard has been known to tell stories of a god-like warrior-king who abandoned his country for some endless task in the wilds. Some of those same bards claim the man was an ancient king of the Isles. It wasn’t too hard to figure out once I met your little protector. No mere mortal man could have held his own against me for that long.”
Theo was quiet, examining the ground as if it could answer for her. Hans took her silence as an invitation to continue.
“So it is not impossible. Powers can be stolen. Spirits can die.” He smirked. “Perhaps Elsa is lying when she says she cannot wake Isen…”
Theo’s head snapped up, sparks dancing at her fingertips. “Do not speak such lies…” She hissed at him.
“Have you any evidence to prove she is not lying?” Hans asked innocently.
Theo was silent.
“She must have stolen the power somehow.” Hans concluded, the fern crumbling to dust as it gave up its fragile hold on life. As it succumbed to his terrible power.
As Hans spoke, the legend of the Sorcerer sprung, unbidden to Theo’s mind and she hastily pushed it away. The Warrior had been different from the Mother’s daughters; he was not protected by the Mother’s Grace. His power had been lost in a contest of wits and stolen through ancient sorcery that no longer existed. And he had merely been a servant of a higher spirit, not a child of the Mother herself.
A season couldn’t have their power stolen.
Smoke swirled around her as she thought. As much as she hated the explanation, it would explain so much: Isen’s silence, Elsa’s fine control, the absence of her name from the scroll for so many years. The enigma of the Snow Queen was finally being resolved with this dark possibility.
Hans was still speaking, apparently relishing his theory. “Elsa’s parents must have had something to do with it of course. Why else would they have locked her away for so long, keeping her a secret from the world? They could not control the monster they had created so they decided isolation would cure her of the power…”
Theo shook her head violently. She would not allow herself to be persuaded by his slick words. His words were nothing more than myths and speculation. Elsa couldn’t have stolen her icy magic…
…Because if Elsa wasn’t the host…that could mean…
“Enough!” Theo shouted, seeing Hans opening his mouth to continue talking. “I will hear no more of this. You are in my home now and you will not speak to me of such things! You will obey my commands and you will stay away from Scara.”
Hans only smiled at her without a single inkling of respect. Theo bristled, her summer wind returning. Why did no one listen to her?
“Why do you care for her so deeply?” Hans asked her, startling her. Surely he couldn’t know… “Scara, I mean.” Hans continued.
Unsure if she felt relieved or conflicted about which person he had meant, Theo replied: “She is my sister host.”
The autumn host took a step closer, his gaze arrogant and unwavering. “This is a little deeper than just that.” Theo held her ground as he came close, close enough for his breath to wash across her face as he peered at her. The prince’s face softened into mock pity. “You lost someone…didn’t you?”
“You know nothing of my life!” Theo spat, hating how this conversation had somehow come full circle and been turned on its head.
His smirk returned. “Ah…so you have…”
The summer host fought to control the rising blaze of sadness in her, the faces that swam into her memory. “I have lost many…” She admitted. “One more than I should have thanks to you. I will not lose her.”
Hans shrugged. “You don’t have to. I am not planning to harm either of you.”
“This coming from the man who was threatening us with the Blade of Death in his palace.”
“The spirit was upset, she wanted to destroy…you know the tantrums Death can bring when it’s in the mood…”
Images and legends sprang to her mind from that of the summer goddess. Proof of his words that she did not want.
“Death feels every imbalance,” Hans continued as she fought the onslaught of Branna’s endless knowledge. “she has been crying for years…practically since she came to share my body. What happened in Arendelle a few months ago was merely the final tipping point. You said yourself that my anger corrupts her. Well, Elsa is to blame for my rage and the spirit feeds on that rage, driving us both mad for revenge. Until the imbalance caused by Elsa is removed, she will not cease her tantrums. I will not cease my fury.”
Theo was breathing heavily now, the thoughts under control but his words quickly taking their place. Everything he said hurt worse than any physical torture Branna had inflicted on her.
“You want to restore balance, you want to tame me, you want to protect Scara and your precious temple…” Hans continued but the words could have just as well come from the spirit inside her head. “I think you fail to notice that all this can be accomplished with one simple task.”
Hans knew he had won. She could tell that he saw it. He could see it in her posture, the blank look in her eyes, the way she cowered and shivered at his words.
Theo let out a long desperate sigh. “And what task is that?” She asked, raising her head to look Hans in the eye.
The prince smirked. “We have to take away what Elsa loves most. And force her to suffer as we have.”
Theo closed her eyes as memories of months of agony revisited her. She had known that since she’d first heard the name.
“No. I wont.”
You know what has to be done. It is what I have been telling you for months.
Theo was pacing in her mediation room, the soot on the walls peeling off layer by layer and circling tightly around her. She’d left Hans in the garden a few minutes ago, needing to be alone to contemplate this. “How am I expected to do this?” She cried, hot fingers running through her hair, not noticing how the action was singeing off the locks that had begun to grow. “After everything that has happened?”
I loathe admitting it, but Hans is right. Elsa must be subdued for balance to return. Either we must wake Isen through great tragedy or Hans’ theory is correct and Elsa somehow stole my sister’s powers…
“Wouldn’t you have felt it if Isen had been harmed or killed?” Theo shouted. “Shouldn’t you know? You seem to know everything else!”
We didn’t feel Død’s last host die. Even the records did not show it. And Elsa would have been born around the same time as you. I was sleeping then, I would not have felt it.
“Well that’s just great! So you don’t even know?!”
We can find out.
“Is this really the only way?”
Theo shouted in frustration, a burst of fire flying out from her and scorching the walls of the chamber. The explosion drained her and she stumbled, struggling to stay on her feet. Branna stayed silent through her outburst, letting her host catch her breath and finally think. Theo leaned heavily on the wall, exhaustion, pain and her emotions welding together into a yoke denser than iron that hung heavily on her.
Enough. One way or another, this had to end. She was sick of Branna’s lofty commands, of the never-ending pain her rebellion was causing her, of the endless sacrifices she had made. All of them for Elsa. Elsa. ELSA.
Elsa who remained ungrateful and oblivious to the damage she was causing. Elsa who broke every rule and left her to pick up the pieces. Elsa who understood the burdens of leadership and listened with such compassion and sympathy…
Theo sobbed dryly, burying her eyes in her hands, smearing soot all over her face. But despite everything, she still couldn’t fold. She couldn’t stop protecting what she cared about. Even at the expense of the world.
Elsa meant too much to her.
The idea came out of nowhere, like a gift from the Mother herself. “Maybe there is another way…”
Branna was silent. She’d already seen the idea take shape in the mind they shared. Theo took this as an invitation to let the idea expand.
“He could…couldn’t he?” It was a way out of a painful burden. A saving grace. So why didn’t it make her feel better?
He undoubtedly wants his revenge on Elsa. Given that he suggested it, I have no doubt he would complete the task gratefully. But only if you are willing to risk letting him loose.
“We can handle Hans.”
Do not be so arrogant, Theonia. If he turns on us, we would not be able to handle him. He has already proven he is unstable and powerful and we are weak as the solstice approaches. Once we release him from the cuffs he could very well summon his Blade and cut us down.
“And if he doesn’t?”
If he doesn’t, this plan might just solve all our problems. But we must approach this carefully.
Theo slid to the floor in a heap, her arms around her knees. “So what are you proposing?”
We can offer him his chance at revenge…it will secure for us what we want: we will know of Isen’s whereabouts and then be able to control Død.
“What about Hans? He will be harder to convince than the spirit.”
When the time is right…he must be killed.
“Is that your solution to everything?” Theo asked humorlessly even though the spirit ignored her entirely.
We must have a female host for our sister…Hans has done nothing but harm us all. If he remains the King of Death…nothing will be spared. Autumn will just have to manifest again in a proper host body. It will give us more time to correct Isen’s imbalance.
Sand began to trickle from Theo’s fingers. She watched it pool and form tiny dunes around her, filling in the cracks in the floor and mixing with her soot. “So why not just kill him now?”
It would not solve our issue with Elsa. I thought you wanted to use him to avoid this particular task?
Theo flinched at the spirit’s wording, true though it was. “If…if Elsa really isn’t a host…” Theo began, wondering if she really wanted to know the answer to the other question that had been brewing in her mind, “if she’s just…Elsa. That…that would mean her feelings…they’d be real. Right? Not just the attraction between you and Isen…”
Branna paused long enough for Theo to realize she’d caught the spirit by surprise. Despite her own legendary love story, Branna couldn’t seem to fathom Theo’s continuing obsession with the Queen of Arendelle.
Now is not the time to think such things, Theonia. You may have to kill her too.
Theo sat up in surprise, the tiny desert around her abruptly melting into lumpy, molten glass. “What? Why?”
If she has stolen the powers of a goddess, even unintentionally or without consent…there is no penalty other than death.
Her panic returned, breathing became a chore. “No…no…” She clasped her hands over her ears, as if that could somehow dampen the voice in her head.
The spirit had the nerve to actually sound concerned.
“I cant do it!” The host leapt to her feet, walking barefoot on the liquid glass. She didn’t even feel the heat through her agitation and fear. “You are asking too much! How can I possibly cause intentional harm to her, let alone kill her?” She stopped, sinking up to her ankles in the hot liquid, glass hardening and spreading around her the same way Elsa’s ice did. “I can’t…it would destroy me…I’d have to rip my own heart out and burn it to nothing…that’s the only way I’d survive…I can’t Branna…I…I cant.” She sank onto the glass floor, tears sliding from her aching eyes.
Branna was quiet for a long moment, leaving her host to sob and clutch at her aching chest. Theo felt she had finally broken. She could fall no further, take no more pain. If Branna so much as gave her a headache right now she would fall to her knees and do whatever the spirit commanded. She had no will left to fight. There was no way she could do this and remain whole.
There was no salvation for her.
…There is another way…
No pain accompanied the words, only a quiet hesitation. Theo sat bolt upright. “What? What other way?”
It would allow us to overpower Hans…and you would avoid emotional trauma for what is to come.
“What is it?” Theo asked, the glass cracking in her desperation as she struggled to stand again. “I’ll do anything, anything else!”
If you do this Theonia…you could die.
She actually laughed. “Does it matter? The cycle is already so out of balance, perhaps my death will right it, if only briefly. All I want is to set things right.”
It is dangerous but if it works…you will be cleansed of this emotional pain that torments you…and the physical pain that has been inflicted.
Theo was quiet but didn’t silently request Branna to stop either. The spirit continued.
It will also allow me to attain my full strength, just as if it were the summer solstice…But…you must give up your soul to me, Theonia…if I overtake your emotions completely the way I did when we bonded, you will have the strength to complete this task…physically and emotionally.
Theo considered the offer being extended to her. There were stories of Head Councilors who had tied their souls to the spirits. Given up their own autonomy for power. Access to such power was inconceivable. There was a story several generations back of an autumn host who had done such a thing and created a plague such as the world had never known. The host had died soon after with no apparent cause. Branna was offering to take the pain, to shoulder it all so Theo would not have to experience it. It would ensure they had the strength to stop Hans should he turn on them. It would shield her from the horrors she had to commit. It would probably also kill her. “I’ll be able to do it?”
We will be able to do it.
Theo looked down at her feet, encased in cracked glass that was dirtied with soot. “I’ll feel no remorse?”
You will feel nothing. I will feel it all. We will remain bonded until I chose to leave you or you are killed. All of your emotions will exist only in my consciousness, as my heat and fire. Our souls will become one.
Thin tendrils of flame snaked across the glass, melting it back into liquid. “I wont feel anything…” The glass slowly sank under her feet, running under the soles until she was supported completely by the hot liquid.
That is correct. I will feel for you.
“All I need to do…”
Elsa was back on the roof, staring off towards the North Mountain far in the distance. The rain had finally cleared, allowing her a shadowy glimpse of the rearing peak among fading clouds and cool autumn fog.
She was hiding again. It was like the door, her solitude. Whenever it became too much, she had to put on the gloves, close the door and be alone.
Her arms were wrapped tightly around her middle, trying to keep her from crumpling onto the stones. The snow swirled around her, even as she wished she could send it away. Elsa clasped her hands tightly in front of her, ice crystals pricking her palms. Had she really changed so little, even after all this time? After all she’d been though, everything she’d done? She was still just the scared little girl hiding from the world. Hiding from her guilt at hurting someone she cared about.
Theo’s words continued to haunt her, echoing inside her head even now, in her solitude...
“Why are we meeting in secret? I don’t think your over-protective friend would like this very much.”
The voice was familiar. Too familiar. Elsa whirled, looking for Hans. He was nowhere to be seen.
A light chuckle came from behind the turret to her left, a laugh that undoubtedly belonged to Scara. “I just wanted to show you something.”
As quietly as possible, Elsa inched around the structure until she could see the two of them. They were standing at the roof edge, the spring host holding a small maple sapling in her hand that was putting out leaves and dropping them at regular intervals. Hans was standing close to her but with his cuffed hands carefully out of the way.
“As long as we’re together, this tree will be fine.” Scara said. “It will have to fight and struggle between two extremes but it will live. Actually live instead of just being alive.”
Hans said nothing but Elsa saw his face contort into a look she knew all too well. A sneer of malice. But just as she opened her mouth to come between them, Scara spoke again, her voice low and vulnerable. “Like us. We need to be together to live. Without the struggle, without the balance, we’re just alive.”
Han’s smile slipped back into charming territory. “Theo wont like this…” He warned her. “She seems determined that I stay away from you.”
“Theo worries too much.” Scara said to the Southern Isles prince, stepping the tiniest bit closer to Hans. “I know you.”
For a moment, Hans’ face softened. Elsa drew a surprised intact of breath. He actually looked…human. Vulnerable and hopeful. Scara smiled at him. She reached up with her free hand, her fingers stretching towards him. Hans leaned forward just slightly, seeking the contact…But just before her fingertips could brush his cheek, he violently pulled away. “You know nothing of me.”
The autumn host raised his cuffed hands and touched the sapling Scara held. It choked, twisted and died completely. Without a word, Hans turned and walked away from her. He crossed the roof and descended the stairs back to the temple.
Scara watched him for a moment, the dead tree in her hands slowly leafing out again. Then she too descended the roof, leaving Elsa alone.
Elsa leaned against the turret, pouring over what she had just seen and unable to make any sense of it. Hans and Scara. She had never encountered two people more different. Why then, did they get along so well, even after Hans had tried to murder her? Why was Scara, seeking him out? Why was Hans pretending to be human only to her?
Scara’s words came back to her: actually live instead of just being alive…
The snow queen turned at the sound of her name and paused in shock. “Theo…?”
The fire-girl stood there silently, her hands clasped tightly behind her back. She had trimmed her hair back to its short stubby length from the previous summer and she was dressed in the black tunic and pants Elsa had seen Garret wear everywhere.
But that was not what had startled Elsa. Theo was staring at her unblinkingly, her gaze sharp and piercing. Her eyes seemed different, Elsa couldn’t quite explain it but she seemed to be more distant, almost as if she weren’t really here at this moment. It was unsettling.
“I’m sorry about earlier.” Theo began in an empty voice. “I lost my temper, it wont happen again.”
“It’s alright.” Elsa assured her, standing up and taking a step forwards. “I… I’m sorry too…and I know you think I don’t care but…I do. I know how you feel…” she said, stumbling over her words. “To lose someone so close…a member of the family…… I went through hell and back after my parents died. It was awful.” She looked over her shoulder towards the distant mountain. “Without Anna, I don’t think I would have made it.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Elsa thought she saw Theo convulse, as if the mention of Anna had physically harmed her in some way. But before she could inquire about it, Theo spoke again.
“Garret is gone.” She said in a voice stripped of all emotion. “We will not have a Guardian for several years now. But we must continue.”
Elsa nodded. “Yes. He would have wanted us to…”
“Finding out where Isen is now is out greatest concern.” Theo continued as if Elsa hadn’t spoken. “We need all of us together if we are going to survive this tumultuous time.”
This wasn’t the Theonia Elsa knew. She sounded cold and calculating, almost like one of Elsa’s generals in a board room meeting. But before Elsa could inquire about the change, Theo spoke again. “I want you to visit your ice palace again before you go back to Arendelle.”
Elsa furrowed her forehead in confusion. “Why?”
“We felt Isen there before. I think returning there is a good place to start looking again. We need to wake her up if we are ever going to get Død to cooperate.” Theo stepped forward to stand next to Elsa on the rooftop. She gazed towards the North Mountain without appearing to really see it. “The solstice is soon, Isen’s sleep will be shallowest then. She may wake if we can call loud enough.”
Elsa could not take her eyes from Theo. “Are you coming with me again?”
“No.” Theo replied seemingly without any form of reaction on her part. “I will stay here with Autumn. He and I have much to do.”
Now Elsa knew she was not imagining this. Theo was different somehow, there was something off about her. She still stared out towards the mountain as if she were looking at another landscape entirely.
They had done this before. Elsa and Theonia had stood on this same rooftop discussing a trip to her ice palace many months ago. They had come so far since then, before the meeting this morning, Elsa would have even called them friends. Now, she felt she stood on this rooftop with a stranger.
“Theo,” Elsa reached out, placing a hand on the girl’s forearm. It was burning hot, hotter than any normal person’s skin should be. Nevertheless, Elsa held on. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
Red eyes shot to hers and Elsa noticed a fleeting look of panic cross through them before it was swallowed up by the stoniness that had come to define her features. Elsa knew that reaction well.
The same look she knew she’d had whenever someone reached out to her.
Theo’s arm tensed but she did not pull away. “Elsa, please.” She said, not quite begging but close to it. “Trust me. Going to the palace on the solstice will awaken Isen.”
Elsa opened her mouth and tightened her grip, about to protest but noticed that the arm under her hand was trembling.
“Just go.” Theo said dully, looking away from Elsa, seemingly unaware of how her body was betraying her fear. “Take Scara with you, I know she’s been dying to see it. And Livet might be able to help coax her out.”
Elsa was silent for a moment, trying to make sense of what was happening here, why nothing was making sense. Theo was afraid, scared and yet…she wasn’t acting like it. She was buried so deep it was like she had no emotions at all.
This wasn’t the girl Elsa knew.
“Theo please…” She begged, squeezing the arm in her grip gently, trying to hide her own fear. “you don’t have to be afraid…you don’t need to be here alone……I……I’m here. I can stay. I can help you.”
The shaking under her hand stilled and Elsa looked up. Burning red eyes bored into her own, swimming in tears of liquid fire. In a flash, Elsa could see the girl she knew once again.
Somehow, with those few gestures and words, Elsa had reached her. The real her.
Without warning, the summer host surged forward and captured Elsa’s lips with her own. Elsa didn’t even step back in surprise. Her eyes slammed shut and her mouth pressed back, blowing a gust of icy air into the fire pouring into her mouth.
A thick cloud of steam engulfed them that neither was coherent enough to see. Snowflakes and flames danced away from them in a strong breeze, colliding and eliminating each other.
Elsa was lost in the sensation: not just the physicality of it, although there was plenty of that to lose herself in. Rather, the emotion of it captivated her and held her there, desperately kissing back.
It was as if every emotion Theo was holding back from her surface was churning and pouring out of that kiss. Elsa could feel it all: the rage, the sorrow, the crippling loneliness and guilt, the sense that this was goodbye…she fought to try to force some of her own emotions outward and into that mass of pain: comfort, security, a promise that she wouldn’t abandon her…
As always, Theo was the one who pulled away. Her eyes were closed, her breath calm and steady across Elsa’s face. A burning hot thumb stroked her cheek and tears glistened in the corners of the closed eyes before her. For a moment, it looked like she wanted to say something.
But as her eyes snapped back open, Theo quickly abandoned all contact and stepped away from Elsa. She turned and headed back towards the stairs off the roof. Still breathless, Elsa could do little but watch her walk away, her heart and her mind swirling at impossible speeds, trying to once again make sense of what was happening between them. Why they could never seem to be at the same place together at the same time. At the door, Theo paused, glancing back to meet Elsa’s gaze. A smile that didn’t reach her eyes graced her kiss-swollen lips.
“Don’t worry Elsa, when you return, everything will be alright. Everything will be as it should be.”
Hooves pounded down the mountainside.
Kristoff leaned forwards, desperately clinging to Sven’s mane as they raced back towards Arendelle. Overhead it was dusk, nearing nightfall but you’d never guess it from the sky. All day, the orange-grey clouds had been gathering, coalescing and churning, bolts of blue lightning crackling among them and discontented whispers of wind spilling from their depths. Not too far away, a storm was breaking. Kristoff was positive it was breaking over Arendelle.
Sven rounded a corner at top speed and Kristoff would have been thrown off if not for his years of experience. As he righted himself, the words Pabbie had spoken churned in his mind, sickening him and urging him onwards.
The things he had heard…it changed everything. Everything hinged on one thing.
“Kristoff…” Pabbie had told him, as he’d leapt on Sven to begin his journey back. “you must protect Anna…if anything happens to her…all could be lost. Her bond with Elsa is too strong, Elsa will lose control entirely…nothing will stop Winter’s fury…”
Sven raced along a canyon, loose rocks tumbling hundreds of feet into a valley from the pounding of his hooves. Kristoff barely noticed them. His mind was completely focused on one thing, the most important thing.
He had to get back to Anna.