Chapter 7 - Unwelcome Visitors
When Theo finally returned to the temple, two whole days had passed since she’d turned Elsa away from the ice palace. She arrived on a summer gust, bringing with her small stinging particles of sand and a hazy, humid heat that made even her short hair stand on end.
Garret was the first to see her. “Back so soon?” He asked her as she stalked past him, trailing smoke and that heavy, hot wind. It did not surprise him at all that she was ‘leaking’ as he himself often described it. The summer host often threw silent tantrums in outbursts of sand and smoke as summer waned. Fire hated losing its power.
Garret had taken a break from research duty for a quick training session with his axe. He gently lifted it off his shoulder to rest blade-down on the stones in the entrance hall, wincing as flying sand scratched at his face.
“Where’s Elsa?” He called after Theo’s retreating form.
It was only the grace of the Mother that stopped his face from being burned off. As it turned out, he hadn’t been quite fast enough and the end of his hair had been singed by the blaze as he ducked.
Dropping his axe, he mentally prepared himself to immobilize Theo, calling up all the weak points on the summer host’s body. But as he looked up to avoid any more fireballs, he saw her standing in the middle of the hall, wide-eyed and positively broken with fear and self-loathing.
She’d never intentionally thrown fire at him before. Not even when they argued.
“Whoa…what did you do?” Garret asked, trying to make light of the situation to avoid any further fireballs.
Apparently this too was the wrong approach. “I did nothing!” Theo exploded, a small tornado of sand circling her. The torches around the hall all flared in unison and danced in the gust being projected down the long corridor. A few books fell off of the overflowing bookshelf near the door and several chairs fell over. “All this is her fault! She lied to us!” Her eyes were blood-shot as if she had been crying long and hard.
Garret dodged a flying shard of glass. He had to figure out what was going on before Theo lost control completely. “Elsa? About what? What happened? Did you find Isen?”
Theo threw her hands up in exasperation and with a noise like a cannonball, the tornado burst apart and shot around the room, sending drifts of sand and tiny shards of glass crashing into the walls. The books burst off the shelf and tumbled around in a mess of loose pages. The table flipped over. Garret braced himself and managed to stay on his feet as the compressed ball of heat and air smashed into him.
“See Garret?” Theo growled, clenching her fists to try to regain control as flames licked up the sides of them. “This is what happens when I open up! I lose control!”
She turned on her heel and stalked away from him, followed by the remnants of her tornado: a mixture of sand, smoke and hot air. Slowly, Garret pushed himself off of the wall and began to follow her.
Garret knew better than to chase Theo down, paralyze her and demand an explanation at a time like this. She was boiling and simmering like a volcano but desperately trying to keep a lid on it. One should not antagonize angry gods. Thankfully, this time she’d only thrown wind when she finally erupted. Plus, he knew he’d never actually get her to say what was on her mind if he used force. She had an astounding threshold for physical pain. Probably because she regularly accidentally burned herself with flames and molten glass.
So instead he followed her silently at a distance, letting her round corners before he entered the corridor. He’d never seen her this upset before. He could guess the reason for it well enough. There was only one thing Theo feared even more than killing innocents and the cycle falling apart.
“Oh Theo…” he sighed, smothering out a rouge flame burning on the wall as he passed. “Why did you let yourself believe this couldn’t happen to you?”
Garret abruptly stopped moving as he heard Scara’s voice just around the bend. He silently crept to the corner and pressed himself against the wall, listening.
“Are you alright?” The spring host asked, not at all afraid of whatever summer fury Theo was currently projecting. “What happened?”
“Nothing Scara, please leave me alone.” No hint of derision or anger. She would never lash out at Scara.
“Where she needs to be.” Tired. Defeated. And something else. Something he couldn’t place.
Cautiously, Garret poked his head out around the corner and peered at his two girls.
Scara was standing in front of Theo, her head tilted slightly as she surveyed the older girl. “Is she alright? What happened?”
“We didn’t find Isen.” This statement was blunt and Garret saw a few tiny particles of sand rise into the air and swirl around Theo’s feet.
Scara seemed surprised. “So you sent her home?”
“Yes.” He could see how every muscle in Theo’s back was clenching with the force of containing her emotions. If she threw even so much as an ember at Scara, she would never forgive herself.
“I had too.”
Scara might be young and inexperienced but she was by no means imperceptive. Garret saw her offer Theo a knowing smile. “You miss her, don’t you?”
A single muscle relaxed in her stiff back and Theo let her fists come unclenched. Her head fell. She didn’t say a word.
Scara reached out and gently grasped both of Theo’s hands in her own.
“Come on, let’s go play in the garden like we used to.” She said, gently tugging so that Theo was forced to turn slightly. “You can watch me grow the vines and open the flowers and you can craft a few glass balls to hang off of them. Then when it gets dark, you can conjure up torches and we can catch fireflies…”
Garret saw Theo’s face soften, almost imperceptibly. She nodded.
The Guardian settled back against the stone wall, melting out of sight again as the two turned the corner and headed for the roof. Only once he was sure they had gone up to the roof did he let an audible sigh escape his lips.
So Theo had let Elsa go after all. He’d suspected that their little trip to the ice palace would not end the way the summer host had wanted it too. Elsa had this way of completely unintentionally and often unknowingly pressing all of Theo’s buttons at once.
He suspected not even Theo understood the depth to which those two matched each other.
Garret headed back towards the entrance hall to retrieve his axe. Theo may be stubborn and hot-headed and secretive, even around him, the one who had shared most of the burden and horrors the world had chosen to heap upon her but she was also straightforward and blunt, especially about important matters.
He retrieved his axe, the wickedly sharp edge ringing against the floor as he hefted it.
But Garret knew that for Scara’s sake, Theo would always hide the horrors of the world, even those residing in her own heart.
“I know these past few weeks have been hard on the kingdom. I do not deny that it is mostly my fault.” Elsa swallowed hard as she paused for effect. “But this is the kingdom that weathered the legendary Years of the Great Siege and emerged triumphant, our ancestors defiantly survived the Endless Flood of Old. These very people survived the impossible: winter in the middle of summer. And together we will rebuild and regain our former strength. We will strengthen ties with our allies and forge new alliances to fill the gaps by trade severances. The gates will always be open, all are welcome in the palace. Long Live Arendelle!”
“Long Live the Snow Queen Elsa!”
Elsa felt herself starting to blush as the chant rose from the citizens gathered below her. She’d rehearsed public speaking in front of mirrors and, when they had been alive, her parents. But it was not the same as in front of actual people. Actual people could react and do things like this. At least it meant her words had struck a chord.
Elsa waved regally and stepped off of the balcony, breathing an audible sigh of relief as she stepped into the solitude of the drawing room away from the cheers and gazes. She wanted nothing more than to collapse in one of the chairs and stay there. But there was too much to do.
She crossed the room, pausing only to glance up at the imposing portrait of her father hanging on the wall. Elsa offered it a tentative smile.
I hope I made you proud, father.
As usual, the portrait neither confirmed nor denied her wish. It just watched her. Endlessly.
Elsa left the room, walking down the long corridor to her office at the other end of the castle. Why they had placed the two so far apart was a mystery known only to her ancestors.
The end of the month had come far too quickly and had offered her no welcome pockets to rest or travel to the ice palace to meditate, let alone spend more than a few precious hours a day with her sister.
Her heels clicked against the stone floors as she walked along the corridor, the end of her dress sweeping around her ankles. She didn’t know why but today she’d opted to wear the black temple dress. It was subtle but regal and it allowed her to feel her powers close to her without showing them off.
She traced a finger along the edge of the sleeve, feeling the cool design she’d imprinted there. The feel was comforting, soothing.
Elsa had already had three meetings this morning prior to the speech for her subjects. Her head was pounding from lack of sleep and her body was screaming for either food or a few dozen cups of strong tea. No one was giving her any headway or leniency about funding and trades. The stimulus deal was coming far too slowly to ward off worries of the coming winter. For all her encouraging words, they were at best a distant hope. Well, at least the people seemed happy for now.
Everyone wanted a share of the common wealth. But there just simply wasn’t enough.
What could she do?
The sound of hooves on the stairs shook Elsa from her thoughts.
She barely had time to step aside as Sven came barreling up the main staircase, tongue lolling out of his mouth, his antlers covered in bells that jangled in an disharmonic cacophony.
“SVEN!! Sven get back here!”
Sven bellowed and dashed out of sight around the corner.
“Kristoff?” Elsa asked in confusion as he pounded up the stairs, breathing hard and covered in what looked like streamers and ribbon.
“Oh Elsa!.” Kristoff said in a very high voice. “Sorry about…” he cleared his throat and his voice dropped back to its usual timbre. “Sorry about the runaway reindeer, he just doesn’t like dressing up. I know you said he had to stay on the first floor if I brought him but he gets excited easily. Anna isn’t back yet is she?” By the end of the rushed sentence, his voice had slipped back up into the high range.
Elsa had been wondering exactly what ‘dressing up’ a reindeer looked like and exactly what purpose it could possibly serve but his question stopped her from asking. Anna had gone out today but apparently not with the mountain man as Elsa had thought.
“I thought she was with you…”
Kristoff violently shook his head. “She wasn’t. Not that she wasn’t supposed to be! WAS, was supposed to be. I sent her on an errand for me. Not because I’m trying to order her around!” He was rambling worse than Anna.
“Is everything alright?” Elsa asked calmly, cutting him off.
Kristoff shrugged, the streamers hanging off of him fluttering. Under the ribbons, he was dressed in a deep blue dress tunic hemmed with silver. “Yeah. Maybe. Will be. Got to go catch…run-away reindeer…Bye Elsa.”
He scampered off, calling Sven’s name loudly. Elsa had neither the energy nor the means to fathom the man’s odd behavior. Both he and Anna had been acting strange lately.
She set off down the hall again as Kristoff’s yells faded into the west wing of the castle.
Anna had been being a little more secretive lately and Elsa had good cause to suspect it was because of the Ice Informers. Even though she was against the entire endeavor, Elsa had caved to her sister’s gentle persuasion and let Anna continue her ‘experiment’ with the orphan spies. Anna had taken over their mother’s old parlor and appeared to have renovated the room into an office. At least that’s what Elsa could guess judging by what she’d seen Anna and occasionally Kristoff dragging into and out of the room. She herself had not set foot in the room. Not because Anna was keeping her out, rather because Elsa was still trying to distance herself from the entire affair. It made her uneasy, the thought of children spying on the people like that. Her father had had no spy master, he had preferred to (at least before the gates closed) listen to the people himself and trust in them. But perhaps fourteen years of a sealed castle had driven a wedge between the royal family and the people. She didn’t want that to become a new norm for Arendelle. Not when the gates could finally be open again.
Elsa reached her office and took opportunity of the solitude to sprawl out in her chair and stretch her aching neck. She let a soft moan escape her lips as she let thin slivers of ice crawl up her back, massaging the stiff muscles.
Before she could fully relax however, there was a loud knock upon her door. Out of habit, Elsa jumped up, panicking slightly as she realized her gift was visible. Then she remembered and shook her head. Would she ever get used to this?
Kai entered the study, bowing slightly. “I hate to bother you so soon after your speech but the Southern Isles are demanding a meeting.”
He didn’t even blink as Elsa pulled the ice off of her neck and made it vanish. “I have not had a moment to myself all day Kai, can’t it wait?”
Kai offered her a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, your majesty but Prince Christian is being quite adamant. They have been here two weeks and they are growing impatient.”
No rest for the weary… “Of course,” Elsa took a moment to collect herself, trying to convince herself she had more energy than she actually did. “show him to the…”
“I’m sorry to interrupt my lady, but Prince Christian has already seated himself in the drawing room.” Kai informed her. “I think he intended to catch you after your speech…”
Elsa held back a grimace. “Very well, I will go to him.”
Kai bowed. “Would you like me to bring refreshments to the drawing room my lady?”
Elsa smiled, grateful as always for Kai’s thoughtfulness. “I do not intend for this meeting to last very long. But be sure to have something ready after in the kitchens.”
Kai smiled. “I’ll make the strong tea from Corona.”
Elsa could have hugged him in gratitude. “Thank you Kai.” He had always looked out for her, even during the years she spent in isolation.
Elsa left Kai behind in the office, walking a little slower down the same hallway she had just traveled.
She had been putting off calling upon the Southern Isle’s prince like she did visits to inspect the barracks, not only because she didn’t want to have to deal with the Isles attempting to apologize but also because she knew it would reopen barely healed wounds not only in herself but more importantly, in Anna.
As Elsa passed the staircase, she heard Sven’s bellow from downstairs followed by Kristoff’s gentle pleading. Vainly, she wished she could be next to him, helping him decorate Sven for whatever reason he wanted. Anything to avoid dealing with the sneaky Southern Isles.
Elsa paused just outside the drawing room and steadied herself with a deep breath.
This was just another diplomat. Just another meeting for the stimulus. For Arendelle. She opened the door.
Prince Christian was standing at the window, gazing out at the balcony Elsa had occupied only moments prior as she addressed her subjects. He turned as she closed the door behind her.
“Very nice speech.” He complimented her, stepping away from the window. “For all your years of solitude, you are quite the eloquent speaker.”
Although his back-handed compliment threw her slightly, Elsa let none of it show on her face.
She examined him thoroughly, trying to figure him out. “Prince Christian of the Southern Isles, I presume?”
She saw his eyebrow twitch slightly at her cordiality and gracious insult. She ignored the way his eyes traveled her attire with a curious but clearly judgmental air.
He was larger than his youngest brother with significantly more muscle and a thin, impeccably clipped beard clinging to his face and sideburns. But Christian had his brother’s hair and an identical, disarming smile and gentle air that made most trust him implicitly. Elsa had to remind herself of what had lain behind Han’s smile to avoid relaxing around him. She stared into his blue eyes, several shades duller than her own piercing icy-blue, mimicking his polite, charming smile.
“Welcome to Arendelle. It was a shame we missed you at my coronation.”
He chuckled and gripped the pommel of the sword at his waist. “Yes, unfortunate that I missed it. I hear it was quite a spectacle.” His eyes twinkled and he leaned forward slightly. “That you were quite a spectacle.”
Elsa remained quiet, her mask in place, her hands folded.
The prince was undeterred by her lack of response. Perhaps he had heard of her legendary stoicism in all political matters. “If I may be so bold…” He began, “My brother mentioned your…” He took a moment, apparently searching for the right word. “…abilities. And since my arrival that has been all the townsfolk seem to be capable of talking about. Would your highness honor me with a little demonstration?”
Elsa unfolded her hands slowly, making a big show of moving slowly and deliberately. Prince Christian leaned in eagerly but pulled back in embarrassment when Elsa merely brushed a loose strand of hair back into place.
“We both know the reason you are here,” Elsa said, tucking the strand in her braid. “let us not prolong the inevitable. I do not wish to hear any groveling or promises of compensation.”
The prince’s face sank into a sad smile. “My Queen, you simply cannot keep ignoring us.” He walked over to the couch but did not lower himself onto it. He would not sit unless she allowed him. “We cannot let this matter continue to slide.”
Elsa did not move or grant him permission to sit. “We are resolving this today, Prince Christian. I have no desire for this to hang over my kingdom any longer.”
“Our kingdoms have been allies for over a century and you are letting a little dispute overthrow years of good cooperation?”
“The only reason I called this meeting was because of that long-standing partnership between our nations. I wanted to give you a chance to defend your actions before I severed all ties.”
It appeared these words had struck the prince. He stepped back, his chivalrous gaze waning for the briefest of seconds. “Defend my actions? It was my baby brother who is to blame.”
Elsa had to fight hard to keep her hands ice-free. “Your brother tried to murder me.” Elsa said flatly. “He tried to strike Arendelle and claim it for himself. By all accepted definitions, he effectively committed an act of war. Had I been eager to take up arms, I would have taken it as such and returned the act swiftly. The men of Weselton committed a similar transgression and I cut off all ties to them as well. They have been our allies, however begrudgingly for nearly two centuries. But I could not forgive them. Do tell me, why should I spare the Isles the same treatment?”
The prince glanced briefly at her hands, his eyes sparking in curiosity. “My little brother’s actions do not speak for his country.” He replied, a hint of bitterness in his voice. “He acted selfishly and childishly for personal gain only.”
Elsa felt every muscle in her stomach tighten in an effort to hold the ice back at this. “He toyed with my sister.” Her voice had taken on a hint of ice that she made no effort to hide. “And he left her to die. That is not so easily forgiven as a mere power grab.”
A brief flicker of pain contorted the prince’s features. “What my brother did is unforgivable, I understand! So punish him as we did if you wish! Do not punish the land that bears the rotten fruit! The Southern Isles have not wronged you, Hans has.”
He paused, massaging the end of his sword hilt and breathing hard, trying to maintain his regality. It was several seconds before the conversation resumed. “Queen Elsa,” The prince began, his court manners flawlessly returning, “if I may be so bold, I would like to point out that your kingdom will be the one suffering more if trade is cut off. Your…unfortunate accident is a huge financial strain on the kingdom. Trading with the Isles again will help.” His voice held no hint of threat but the words carried all of Elsa’s worries and fears about her kingdom’s future.
“And yet, you were the one to seek audience with me.” Elsa observed. She moved across the room, standing in front of the fire, turning her back to him. But she listened carefully. She did not think he would try anything beyond persuasion but she couldn’t be too certain. He hadn’t let go of his sword the entire meeting. Her left hand lay loosely by her side, an ice spike ready to spring into being in her hand if he showed so much as an inkling to act against her. “I was not aware the Isles were so attached to our limited partnership.”
The prince sighed. “I requested this meeting not only to beg forgiveness but to inquire about the kingdom itself as well. My father has an odd attachment to your fair Arendelle and I know it would break his poor old heart if he were to hear you fell to ruin because his youngest foolishly ruined diplomatic relations. He has no intention of bringing our nations to war or allowing our long-standing partnership to fade.” Christian paused, long enough that Elsa almost turned to look at him. “And I fully intend to carry out my father’s wishes.”
Elsa did not acknowledge his dedication with a reply.
“Arendelle is in a precarious position right now,” The prince continued. “facing two winters in one year?” Elsa closed her fists tightly as snow began to gather in her palms at his words. Again, his voice was not threatening, merely pointing out a fact. But it still made her uneasy. “Please my lady,” Christian continued “do not turn away a gift for the sake of pride.”
Elsa stared into the fire, unable to accept that she was actually pondering his words. Trade with the Isles had always been strong. Never a staple of Arendelle’s economy but important nonetheless. Strengthening it would certainly help ease the stimulus deal up into that crucial area that would mean security.
What would her father have done?
As she turned the situation over in her mind, Elsa watched the flames curl and lick at the logs, smoke rising from the embers which glowed like eyes…
Horrifying, Elsa realized just who she had been thinking about while staring at the fire. She forced her thoughts back to reality and glanced over her shoulder.
The prince was still waiting patiently for her response, his polished court manners not slipping so much as an inch.
Trying her very best to conceal her lapse in focus, Elsa turned back to the flames. “I will consider.” She said after a long pause. “But in my own time. Now please, see yourself out.”
Prince Christian bowed deeply. Clearly, he had been expecting this. “Many thanks your majesty, I will return to my lodgings in Arendelle. Please call for me when you are ready to discuss.”
As soon as the door clicked shut behind him, Elsa felt her entire frame shiver and turn limp. A tiny moan escaped her lips as she wrapped her trembling arms around herself. It was happening again.
Elsa squeezed her eyes shut to avoid looking at the fire. She’d been trying so hard to forget what had happened at the ice palace when she’d gazed into those glowing coals of eyes. But it seemed like her meditation there had rewired her brain to make it impossible to forget for even an hour. Reminders snuck up on her at every possible moment. And when she did remember, the sensations were too much.
Her heart would start to beat faster, her stomach would clench and that tiny flame she’d felt spring to life inside her when she’d stared into Theo’s eyes would breathe back to life and smolder painfully in her chest.
Elsa tucked her head into her chest and breathed deeply, wishing for nothing more at that moment than her sister’s arms around her. Ever since her return, Anna had been sleeping next to her every night, holding her tightly. Elsa never told her, but having Anna there made the nightmares less scary. Her most frightening memories and fears kept resurfacing, dancing across her subconscious, breaking her sleep into tiny increments. But so long as Anna was there, Elsa could calm herself enough to drift back to sleep.
It was only then, when she’d fallen asleep after the nightmares that dreams of fire and sand invaded her thoughts. They were not nightmares certainly, but they terrified Elsa regardless. In some, Theo was building a thick cage of sand around her, confining her. In most, she simply just stared at Elsa, her glowing red eyes full of roiling emotions and unspoken words piercing straight to Elsa’s soul and breathing life into that tiny flame in Elsa’s heart those eyes had lit in the ice palace. Then there was one dream where Theonia had been crying out for help and Elsa had been terrified that she couldn’t find her…
Her eyes snapping open and her body straightening, Elsa released a torrent of snow at the flickering flames in the hearth. In a flash of steam, flames and snow vanished.
It did nothing for her emotional turmoil.
Elsa lowered herself to the hearth and sat back on her heels, curling and opening her palms as she pondered her next steps. Reopening trade with the Isles was unthinkable. Not after what Hans had done.
She had to figure all this out. These feelings were a problem. Theonia was a problem. So were the Isles. She could solve problems. That was what she did.
Elsa wrung her hands, not noticing that snow was beginning to fall down the chimney in her agitation. But the prince was right. Arendelle was suffering. Because of her. Unless some kind of hidden treasury was found or they somehow were able to triple trade with nearby nations, this winter could tear them apart. Reopening trade would ensure Arendelle’s survival. It could devastate Anna.
Elsa glanced again at the portrait of her father that hung in the corner of the room. As always, the painting offered her nothing but bittersweet memories and the desire to live up to that legacy the subject had handed her.
Could she risk losing Anna’s trust, trust she had only just been given back, for Arendelle?
So lost in thought, Elsa didn’t see more icy threads creep along the bottom of her dress, imprinting more designs on the temple fabric. Anna would understand. This was for the good of all Arendelle. She’d understand. Right?
Kristoff was pacing in the ballroom, something he’d never thought he’d ever do, not even just for the hell of it. Now, it appeared to be the only thing he could do to stop himself from panicking.
“…I know that this is what I want…ever since I met you…well, maybe not from the moment I met you but…” He stopped and took a deep breath. “…Anna. These past few weeks have been the best of my life. I know without a single doubt that you are the one for me. Would you do me the honor of standing in our grave and pledging our lives to the promise that we will not be alone in death?”
Sven snorted and gave Kristoff a pointed look that he knew meant: ‘really? That’s how you’re going to say this?’
“Stop it Sven, that’s not helping.”
The reindeer stomped his foot and shook his head, the bells and ribbons Kristoff had adorned him with jingling and fluttering.
“I don’t know how normal people propose!” Kristoff replied, throwing his hands in the air. “I was raised by trolls! They bury themselves in six feet of dirt for their weddings!”
Sven let out a bellow that Kristoff knew was his best friend’s way of laughing. The sound echoed deafeningly in the empty ballroom.
“Shut up…” He turned away from the decked out reindeer. “All I need from you on this is support, you make a useless Anna…”
“That’s because he’s a reindeer!”
Kristoff jumped at the voice then tried to still his racing heart as a snowman waddled into the room. “Olaf! Oh, wow. Olaf please don’t sneak up on me like that…” He brushed his hair out of his face.
“Are you upset?” Olaf asked.
Kristoff paused. “Huh?”
“Elsa tells me never to sneak up on her when she’s upset.” Olaf told him. “But sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
Kristoff crouched next to the snowman, feeling the cold air of his flurry against his face. “Has Elsa been upset?”
Olaf shrugged. “When she stares at heat she looks different. I guess that means she’s upset. Sometimes she looks like she’s going to cry. Crying means she’s upset right?”
Kristoff nodded, turning this information over in his mind. Elsa was troubled by something. There was the stimulus but somehow he doubted she would be brought to tears over something like that…
Olaf had lost interest in their conversation when Kristoff didn’t reply. “What are you doing?” The snowman asked, looking at Sven. The reindeer snorted, a streamer hanging over his face flying up towards his antlers. “Why is Sven wearing bells?”
“I’m…” Kristoff cleared his throat, hoping there was no quiver of fear in his voice. “I’m practicing for when I’m going to propose to Anna.”
Olaf beamed. “Oh great!” he clapped his hands. “What does that mean?”
“It’s…it’s very important.” Olaf still looked confused so Kristoff resigned himself to explaining more fully. “I’m going to ask her a very important question. And hope she says yes.”
Kristoff stood up and straightened out his tunic. The plan was slowly all coming together. He had Elsa’s permission, now he just needed to wait long enough for Anna to be comfortable and plan carefully enough that the proposal was flawless. Perfect. Just because he wasn’t planning on popping the question anytime soon didn’t mean he couldn’t plan and practice.
Olaf glanced around. “So where is Anna?” Clearly, he did not entirely understand just what was going on here.
“I sent her on an errand for me.” Kristoff explained. Anna had been sent to the north edge of the city to find a very specific ice pick so that he could practice in peace. The stone crafted by the trolls hung heavily in Kristoff’s pocket and despite the bulge, he had to keep patting his pocket to assure himself it was there.
His family had given it to him just before he’d left to find Elsa.
“For Anna, when the time is right.” Bulda had said, pressing the ring into his palm like a peace offering for the terrible secrets the trolls had shared.
Kristoff had it all crafted to perfection in his head: Gerda, of course, had already caught on and promised she would prepare her finest treats for the day should Kristoff only say the word. His lute would be tuned so precisely it would have made his old master cry. He was planning to enlist the help of several palace staff he’d befriended to help him move his sled into the courtyard garden and decorate it as best he could when the day finally came.
He’d been trying out said decorations on Sven when this fiasco had started. Apparently, he wasn’t as smooth with words as he was with planning.
“Why?” Olaf asked, a bright smile on his face.
Kristoff gestured around the empty room. “So I can practice proposing!”
“Why do you need to practice?”
“I want to do this right.” Kristoff glared over his shoulder. “But Mr. Love Expert over here isn’t helping…” Sven chuckled again and snapped at a streamer dangling over his face. “I have to show Anna how much I care about her. How much I love her.”
“Why does everyone think they need to keep proving their love to Anna?”
“Elsa said the same thing just after the Thaw.” Olaf told the confused mountain man. “I told her Anna doesn’t need to be told how much you all love her, she has to be shown.” He shrugged happily. “But personally, I think Anna knows just how much you all love her.”
As always, Kristoff was amazed by the animated snowman’s clear, innocent but entirely accurate observations of life. “You’re right Olaf…” Kristoff touched the ring through his pocket. “But I still want this to be special.”
“After what happened to her last time…with Hans.” He couldn’t help but spit the name out. “I need this to be special. I know we haven’t known each other that long but…but I think this could be forever. I want to be with her forever.” He licked his lips nervously. “I just hope she doesn’t think I’m rushing her…”
The snowman nodded in understanding. Then he beamed as an idea came to him. “I’ll be Anna! So you can practice!” He waddled closer to Kristoff and looked up at him expectantly.
Although far from ideal, Olaf certainly was a step up from a sarcastic reindeer.
Kristoff knelt next to the snowman. “Anna,” He began, looking into Olaf’s wriggly, excited face and imagining it was Anna instead. It wasn’t too far of a stretch, he thought with a smile. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and…I know last time didn’t work out so well for you but…” he reached into his pocket. “I’m hoping to replace that bad memory with a good one.” Kristoff tried to free the ring from his pocket but his cuff link (who the hell put cuff-links on a shirt like this?) got caught on the inside of his pocket.
“Anna…will…you…” His speech fumbled as he struggled to free the ring from his pocket. Why had Bulda crafted it so thickly?
“Would….you do me…the honor…come on!!!...of being my… ah!”
With a yank, Kristoff had finally managed to jerk his hand free of his pocket by snapping the cuff-link. Unfortunately, the sudden break startled him so much that his grip on his prize loosened and the ring clattered to the floor, starting to roll.
“I’ll get it!” Olaf sprang after the rolling rock with both hands outstretched.
“Olaf be careful! Oof!” Kristoff had stood up too fast, slipped on a rouge bell and fallen heavily into one of the thick ballroom curtains. He flailed about, the curtain keeping him from hitting the floor but mercilessly wrapping itself around him as payback.
Kristoff waved as best he could. “Sven! A little help?”
But his plea fell on deaf ears: the reindeer had finally managed to catch a streamer and was indulging in gnawing incessantly on it, ignoring everything else.
Olaf almost caught the ring but due to its shape, it began to roll in tight circles on the ballroom floor. The snowman, not realizing he could stop it by simply standing still, ended up running in a tight circle with his arms still outstretched towards the precious stone. Kristoff moaned as helplessness overcame him and he sagged into the curtain’s restrictive embrace. This…was a disaster. At least it was only a very early rehearsal. How was he going to pull this off? Forget Anna’s comfort, it would take him years to be comfortable enough to propose to her.
So caught up were each of them in their own activities that none of them heard the door to the ballroom opening. But Kristoff heard the voice accompanying it.
Before he could detangle himself from the curtain, Anna entered the room.
“Kristoff? There was no way that merchant had the pick you wanted. He told me he’d never heard of such a thing and when I insisted…” Her eyes swept the scene: Olaf chasing a ring in tight circles, Kristoff tangled in a curtain, Sven chewing happily on the end of a streamer wrapped around his antlers. “What’s going on?” She felt the need to ask it slowly.
Kristoff looked up at her. The moment he saw her, all his planning, all his carefully crafted words and any possible excuse for his current predicament flew right out the window and danced mockingly across the fjord on the breeze.
But he didn’t mind at all.
Unable to keep starting pensively into a cold hearth, Elsa had retired from the drawing room to make her way towards the kitchens and Kai’s promise of strong tea.
I will not make a rash decision. She kept telling herself, wringing her hands to will the snow to stop forming. I will think it through, I will gather all the information I can, make my calculations…then I will talk to Prince Christian again.
She was still disgusted that she was devoting her precious time to this.
And she knew, ultimately, the decision would depend entirely upon Anna’s reaction to the news.
As she made her way down the hallways towards the kitchen, her mind switching to wishful thoughts of black tea, she heard a dark, menacing voice. “trust me…Queen Elsa will fold.”
She halted, thinking that someone else was in the corridor, trying to recognize the unfamiliar voice.
“We are not going to retreat, we are going to wait her out like good diplomats….I don’t care if it takes all year. Eventually she will realize this is the only way out.” It sounded eerily similar to Prince Hans…
Silently, Elsa slid into the opening of the servant’s stairwell at the end of the hall, glad once again that she had chosen to wear her temple dress today to better melt into the shadows. The voice became louder as she moved and she realized that she was hearing something just outside the castle walls, along the delivery alley next to the kitchens. “She’s hiding something.” The voice continued. “There is a treasure trove of wealth that Arendelle is coveting. I mean to unlock that, to restore glory to my family name.” The voice paused, then acquired a hint of pain. “I will not let that which I love continue to suffer.”
Elsa closed her eyes and pressed her ear against the stones, as if her proximity would somehow help the sound travel through the solid wall better.
“I must be returning to my lodgings...my brother will be waiting for my message.” Elsa heard the sound of footsteps on cobblestones, retreating into the streets beyond the castle.
Tea forgotten, Elsa hurriedly slipped down the servant’s stairwell, forever thankful that Kai had left it unlocked at both ends. She was very certain that it was Prince Christian she’d just heard beyond the wall but she had to be sure.
Upon reaching the bottom, she slid the door open and slipped out, racing for the wall between the stairwell in the alley. She ducked and found the old peephole Anna had discovered when they were children just in time to make out a familiar sword disappearing around the corner towards the marketplace.
Clearly her sister’s intuition had been right.
The Southern Isles were not just here to apologize and reopen trade.
Maybe it was her desperate wish for this crisis to resolve itself or maybe it was simply from lack of sleep and proper nutrition. Whatever the reason, Elsa didn’t even think, she conjured a small set of ice stairs and gracefully clambered over the wall. Once on the other side she took off after the prince’s form. She had to know who he had been talking to. Who else could be a potential enemy.
With quick, quiet footsteps, the Queen set off towards town.
The Arendelle market was best known for its pervasive odor. Even though the kingdom traded regularly with a great diversity of countries, Arendelle goods were best represented in the commoners’ market. And Arendelle’s main export (apart from ice) was fish. Even the thick walls of Arendelle Castle could not keep out the stench of fresh fish when the wind was just right. When she was younger, Elsa had used to open her window on such days, inhaling the slimy, salty scent and listening to the chatter and bustle of her subjects below.
She had often daydreamed of walking among them, perhaps as a fisherman’s daughter or a silk merchant from the far East. Haggling about prices, darting from stall to stall…
That was impossible of course, a queen could not mingle like that in such a place, especially not one with her tenuous grasp of interacting with other people in public.
Knowing this, Elsa took a moment to conjure herself a hood of black ice to cover her obvious hair before she stepped around the corner and dove into the bustling square after the prince. It had the intended effect: with the plain temple dress and matching hood hiding her head, Elsa was able to slip in among the people she ruled, to be bumped and jostled and yelled at by merchants like anyone else would have been. The feeling was strangely…liberating. And also a bit terrifying. She clenched her hands tightly in her dress, tracing the patterns along the bottom to keep herself calm. Twice, she nearly loosed ice by accident as someone yelled right next to her or jostled her particularly hard.
But, Elsa realized, this was her challenge. To protect her kingdom from the potential threat of the Southern Isles, she had to brave and survive this discomfort. She focused on dodging between people, keeping her gaze down as much as possible to dart and weave among the bodies of the market.
Elsa caught sight of a familiar tunic near a parchment stall at the edge of the market just as she was beginning to adjust to walking in crowd. She ducked forward and wove her way towards the stall as inconspicuously as possible, keeping to the shadows behind the stands along the castle walls. Ducking into a dark side-alley, she peered over a heap of fishy crates at the stall in question.
She could see him now. It was indeed Prince Christian. And he was…buying ink?
“300 for a cord?! That’s robbery!”
The nearby voice made Elsa jump and she whirled around. The stall behind her was mostly hidden from view by large stacks of firewood but Elsa could guess well enough what that local merchant was selling. The voice was that of a disgruntled customer she couldn’t see.
“My stock was exhausted during the freeze! This is all I have left.” Elsa shifted slightly and caught a brief glimpse of the merchant: a head of black hair with a small bald spot along the back of his head. “Don’t you province folks usually cut your own?”
Elsa turned back to her surveillance, watching Prince Christian select a thick roll of parchment from the merchant and dig through his purse for coins. But she could not block out the loud voices behind her.
“Please, my good man, I need this wood. We’ve exhausted the supply in the province grounds and trips further up the mountain will be impossible once the snows start!” The customer explained.
Elsa really shouldn’t have been listening to this conversation, not when more important things like keeping an eye on the prince were at hand. But the next comment made her forget Prince Christian entirely.
“Why don’t you just ask the queen to hold them back for you?” The merchant’s voice dripped with contempt and Elsa’s heart plummeted like she could see the obvious sneer on his face. Elsa had never heard any of her subjects speak of anyone in the royal family like that.
“I’m not sure that’s how it works…”The customer replied, sounding a little ashamed at the other’s response.”I think she can only create the snow, not hold it back.”
“What a useless power... does that mean winters will be worse?”
Elsa suddenly realized she had turned around entirely and was now watching the bobbing bald spot of the merchant rather than the back of Prince Christian’s head.
“She’s had these powers for years and winter hasn’t changed!” The customer said. “And she’s aware of the problems that she caused and she’s trying to fix them. You heard her speech this morning, her stimulus bill will provide aide to all to help us through this winter.”
The other man scoffed, clearly skeptical of Elsa’s heart-felt promises.
“At least she’s not the treacherous Prince Hans.” The shopper commented, as if trying to reconcile their differences.
The merchant actually laughed at this. “Prince Hans at least had the courage to walk among us. Under his rule, everyone had a blanket to his name when he needed it… and where was our queen when that happened? Hiding in the mountains?”
Elsa’s defender had no reply to that.
Her mind whirling, Elsa swept away before either of the two could turn around to see her lurking in the shadows behind the firewood. Prince Christian was long gone but she found she no longer cared so much about following him.
Her feet pounded dully down the dark alley, subconsciously guiding her back to the palace gates. Once she was far enough away from the market, Elsa tore off her hood.
She twisted the icy garment in her hands until it crinkled and crunched. She hadn’t received any reports about that. It hadn’t even been considered in the stimulus deal. How could she have overlooked something so essential?
Because no one asked. No one writing the reports considered it important enough to write down either.
If the surrounding provinces were already picked clean, it could be years before a steady supply of local wood could be reestablished.
Elsa’s hands continued to worry the ice in her hands. This revelation practically demanded that they accept the Southern Isles’ offer. Where else were they supposed to get the necessary wood from? Corona might be convinced to supply some but that could take weeks to arrive…
The economics and diplomatic uncertainties of the entire afternoon unsettled Elsa.
But it was the words about Prince Hans that bothered her the most.
Realizing the hood was now little more than a weak conglomeration of fine ice shards, Elsa dropped it to let it melt on the cobblestones.
Hans. The very thought of him made her feel like she wanted to run away again.
He’d cared for the people while her out-of-control powers had her cowering in the mountains. Hiding from responsibility, playing with her powers like a child. And he’d been here, picking up the pieces of her kingdom while she ignorantly danced in the cold air.
He was trying to steal my kingdom…win their trust with kindness and promises.
It would appear that with some, he had succeeded.
He was a better sovereign than she.
Elsa entered the castle gates, where more merchants were set up, taking advantage of the new open-gates policy to gather in the castle grounds to sell their wares. Without the hood, everyone immediately recognized her. Several people called out cheerfully in greeting or waved, confused that the queen was entering the palace rather than exiting it.
To Elsa, the greetings felt hollow. Insincere.
She crossed the courtyard and walked to the doors without acknowledging or replying to anyone.
As she entered the cool darkness of the castle again, someone tackled her.
Elsa was fully prepared to unleash the full fury of her pent-up emotions coupled with her shock at being grabbed so tightly. But a familiar, high-pitched shriek stopped her just in time.
“OH MY GOD ELSA!!! KRISTOFF JUST ASKED ME!! OH MY GOD, HE ASKED ME TO MARRY HIM!!!!!”
Elsa felt her chest try to rumble with laughter in her sister’s tight hold, all her previous anxiety melting away at the pleasant sensation. “…did he really think this was enough time…?”
It had barely been two weeks since they’d talked at the lake.
Anna released her and stepped back slightly to look at her. “You talked to him about this?” Anna’s eyes widened in shock and betrayal. “you KNEW?!”
Elsa bit back a mischievous smile, helped by her lingering discomfort with human touch. Though they had been getting better at it, the sisters hadn’t quite worked their level of intimacy up to spontaneous hugs yet. Anna had patiently tried several more commonplace touches and Elsa still found it difficult not to panic unless she was properly prepared for it. But at least this time Elsa hadn’t frozen half the room in surprise. She supposed her walk through the market had helped with that.
“He asked my permission to ask for your hand.” Elsa told Anna in response to her sister’s incredulity.
Anna opened and closed her mouth several times, no sound coming out. Elsa stifled a giggle behind her hand.
“When?” Anna finally managed to ask.
“When he brought me back.” Elsa replied.
Silence descended as the raw topic was brought up. The sisters stared at each other blankly.
Elsa wrung her hands as gently as she could. She still had not told Anna anything about the temple, the other hosts or her two-day absence. She knew it hurt Anna that she was dangling such a secret in front of her with no explanation but she could not bring herself to tell Anna the truth. Something about the thought of Anna knowing left a sticky taste in her mouth.
Anna for her part, was displaying remarkable grace and an uncharacteristic patience regarding Elsa’s silence on the matter. She was waiting her out, Elsa knew. Which was surprising given that Elsa was well-known for her impeccable patience. After all, she’d waited fourteen years to hug her little sister again.
As further proven by the fact that Anna broke the stretching silence between them. “So…” Anna nervously tapped one foot. “what did you say? To Kristoff.”
Her sister’s head shot up at Elsa’s imploring tone. “You said…yes…?” She asked, a hint of hope in her voice.
“Anna, your answer is the only one that matters.” Elsa replied.
Anna shook her head. “I’d never marry anyone without your blessing.”
Elsa wanted to cry from the conviction with which Anna said those words. “Don’t deny him an answer because of me.” She advised Anna, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “He doesn’t deserve that.”
Anna beamed. “Oh I already said yes.”
Elsa blinked. “That…you…I.” Unable to find the right words, she just forced a regal smile into place.
Of course, it didn’t fool her sister for a second.
“Don’t do that Elsa, I can tell something is bothering you.” She stepped forward and gently stroked Elsa’s shoulder. “What is it?”
Elsa took a half step away, her mind trying desperately to make some kind of decision. Of course she was happy that Anna and Kristoff would be together, she’d said as much to the mountain man herself. So why did it feel like she was about to lose control?
“is it that I’m rushing things with Kristoff?” Anna asked quickly. “Because this is nothing like what happened with Hans! I promise! Kristoff is so different, we…”
But Anna had seen the flicker of anger at the mention of Han’s name.
“it’s the Isles, isn’t it?
Elsa clenched her hands into fists, ice leaking between her palms as the events of the day weighed heavily on her.
Hans. She didn’t think she’d come to hate him more than she already did.
Completely ignoring the ice, Anna gently took her sister’s hand and tangled their fingers together.
“Come on,” she said, gently tugging her sister towards the kitchen. “Let’s get you some food and tea, you look like hell.”
Three cups of tea later, and a much clearer conscious about the state of Arendelle, Elsa felt like a weight had been removed from her shoulders by telling Anna all about her meeting with Prince Christian. She hadn’t mentioned her encounter with the fireplace or her excursion into town. Both of them would require far too much explanation. And the last thing she wanted was for Hans to be brought up again.
But even with these massive details still weighing on her heart, Elsa still felt immensely better.
How had she dealt with so many secrets all by herself for so long?
“So the Isles do want a deal…” Anna said, leaning back in her chair. She picked up a cookie and munched thoughtfully on it. “And they still can’t be trusted.” She continued, spraying crumbs across the table. Elsa found herself smiling at her sister’s adorable lack of manners. And also at how quickly and completely things had changed between them.
“Reopening trade with them will guarantee that the stimulus pulls through.” Elsa told her, cupping her tea in her hands, enjoying the warmth.
“But you don’t want to.” Anna guessed.
Elsa shook her head. “Not without more information. I don’t trust Prince Christian.”
“Glad we agree on that…” Anna picked up another cookie and stuffed the whole thing in her mouth. Elsa didn’t even bother to stifle her giggle.
This was the first time they were discussing diplomacy together, the first time they were dealing with Arendelle business as a team. And the first time they were enjoying a secret snack in the kitchen in fourteen years.
Elsa felt her heart swell. Anna really had grown up. And here she was discussing courses of action while still managing to be her adorable, uncultured self.
Anna swallowed the large mouthful before she spoke again. “So what can we do?” She asked Elsa. “We need to make sure that the people have what they need this winter without putting Arendelle in danger.”
For the first time all day, Elsa finally had a clear idea of what she needed to do to work on this problem.
“Anna…” Her sister turned to her, clearly worried by the serious tone in the queen’s voice.
Elsa took a deep breath, still astounded at what was about to come out of her mouth.
“I think it’s time I met Dagrun.”
This was definitely the oddest place Elsa had ever had a meeting.
She pulled her ice hood tighter over her hair as two loud servants bustled past, melting into the shadows under Arendelle bridge. While still technically inside the castle grounds, the bridge over a small offshoot of the Great Arendelle River didn’t get a lot of traffic except by the servants who collected firewood. It was more for the convenience of the royal family, for when they wanted to cross from the castle to the woods without leaving the gates. Elsa had not been out here since before her parents died.
She stepped back out into the half light as the voices faded, her shoes sliding a little in the crumbling dirt of the river bed. Since it was still late summer, the river was running incredibly low, allowing Elsa to stand in the shadow under the stone bridge.
Waiting for a child spy her sister had enlisted.
It was all too unreal.
She waited as patiently as she could, still not fully believing she was actually doing this. She was about to ask children to spy on her people. To protect them. She kept reminding herself. The excuse was sounding weaker and weaker.
The portrait in the drawing room came to mind. Would father have done this? Would this make him proud?
Elsa experienced an intense longing for Anna to be at her side. Anna had decided not to come mostly because she wanted to spend more time with Kristoff solidifying their engagement but also because she had decided that, it would probably be best if Elsa met the Ice Informers on her own. After all, they were a secretive group, and Anna knew Elsa had some secrets she did not wish to share in front of her sister.
The sun was setting. Still, Elsa saw no one.
Her head snapped up at the soft voice.
A small head of curly hair was peering down at her from the arches of the bridge. The mouth attached to it smiled brightly at her.
The boy swung himself out over the lip of the bridge and carefully and effortlessly climbed down the stone supports. He hopped the last few feet and landed in the soft dirt with a quiet poof.
In the fading light, Elsa could make out his features: he was small and thin but with a rounded face and bright green eyes. His unruly hair was tightly curled and very fair, nearly as white as Elsa’s except for the sandy streaks through it. He couldn’t have been older than six or seven.
Looking at him, Elsa begrudgingly admitted to herself that, had it been her who’d met him, she probably would have named him Dagrun as well. He looked very similar to the illustrated book the princesses had read years ago. In addition, he had an air about him that brought to mind his namesake: he was quiet and timid but seemed to brim with strength underneath that was just waiting for him to mature enough for it to burst forth.
Elsa pulled her hood back slightly, letting a bit of her platinum hair poke through. He smiled at her but this one seemed more like an awed amazement than happiness.
Elsa smiled kindly at him for the compliment. “You’d be Dagrun then, I presume?”
He closed his mouth and bowed his head slightly, nodding an affirmation.
“I’m glad to finally meet you.” Elsa said genuinely. “My sister has told me much about you.”
Dagrun blushed and looked up at her. His expression clearly indicated he had something he wanted to ask but felt too shy to speak up.
“What is it?” Elsa asked kindly.
Dagrun bit his lower lip and traced one foot nervously in the dirt. “Could you…? Show me the ice?” He asked in barely a whisper, meeting her eyes.
Although she could see he was clearly nervous making this request she noted that he held himself proudly and boldly.
She found herself liking him more and more.
Elsa held out a hand and effortlessly sent several glowing snowflakes in his direction. They danced above the amazed boy’s head before sinking to the ground and melting in the warm soil.
Elsa closed her hand. “Shall we get to business then?” She asked him.
Dagrun nodded. “I brought some friends, as Princess Anna requested.” The boy said. He glanced up at the bridge and whistled softly. A small girl and an older boy that Elsa had not noticed stepped silently from the bridge overhead and slid down the embankment into the shadows to join them.
“Princess Anna calls them Ichtaca and Reba.” Dagrun told Elsa indicating the boy and the girl respectively as they came close.
Elsa resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her sister’s cliché choice of names. She’d taken these from a book about a brother and sister who run away from a slave master to hide in the woods.
The boy, Ichtaca was taller than Dagrun by about a head and with substantially more muscle. Elsa placed him at maybe ten years old. He had hard, brown eyes and close-cropped black hair but Elsa saw a distinct warmth in his gaze that one attributed to fathers and men who were fond of animals.
“Ichtaca is my big brother!” Dagrun told Elsa. “Well not really, but we’re like brothers! He’s working on getting more kids from the docks involved.” Ichtaca smiled politely at Elsa and nodded his head. Dagrun gestured at the girl. “Reba’s charge of makin’ sure everyone knows what they’re doing and how to do it.”
Small and slight, and obviously not much older than Dagrun, Reba was quite an enigma. She had a distinct foreign look about her, the country of which Elsa could not place. Her face was closed off and emotionless, she watched everything with fast, sharp green eyes that seemed to pierce the darkness. Clearly she was more comfortable watching and listening that she was leading. Her hair was also cropped very short, very much like Theo’s was but the stubble was a brilliant shade of ginger-red. She met Elsa’s gaze and an understanding seemed to pass between the two of them. In many ways, Elsa saw a bit of herself reflected in the young girl.
She turned back to Dargun. “How many of you are there now?”
“Princess Anna told us never to let her know that.” Ichtaca said quietly in a deep voice that was suited to a boy much older than he. Reba nodded in agreement. Elsa was starting to doubt that the girl could speak at all.
“But we have a lot of friends.” Ichtaca continued. “All of them trustworthy and clever. They wont let us down.”
“I know they wont.” Elsa told him. “I trust my sister’s judgment.”She held out the cloth bag she had brought with her. “I brought this for you.” Inside it were clothes, a bit of food and a few small toys she’d enjoyed as a child. She saw all of their eyes light up upon seeing it. All of their clothes were ragged and either too big or too small (Ichtaca’s pants barely came to the middle of his shins and Reba’s dress had two long tears in the side). They were not starving but clearly hungry.
Elsa promised herself that once Arendelle was financially stable again, she’d do whatever she could to help children such as these.
Dagrun took the bag from her but did not open it as Elsa had expected him to. The three of them waited patiently for her to speak.
The queen closed her left fist, feeling the cold swirl around her closed fingers. “First things first,” Elsa began, a little surprised at the childrens’ commitment. “I’m making you an official Arendelle service. You know what that means?”
Dagrun glanced at Ichtaca and then they both looked up at the queen with large eyes. Reba’s gaze softened ever so slightly in surprise.
“It means you uphold the honor of Arendelle.” Elsa said. She opened her palm to reveal three small glittering snowflakes resting on her palm. “I’m appointing you three as the heads of this new service, henceforth known as the Ice Informers. Our safety is in your hands and you carry Arendelle’s name proudly on your chests.”
The children stepped forward and timidly took the badges from Elsa’s palm. They carefully stuck them on the undersides of their collars; out of sight but able to be felt by the wearer at all times. Elsa silently approved. These children clearly knew the importance of keeping a low profile for this kind of work.
Dagrun and Ichtaca were carefully examining their snowflakes, as if they were medals of honor given only to the bravest soldiers. They clearly felt honored to wear them. Reba showed little emotion but Elsa saw a tiny flicker of pride cross the girl’s face as she gently ran a finger over the new badge.
Dagrun looked up at Elsa when he’d finished admiring his badge. “What do you want us to do for you?”
“You know the visitor from the Isles? Prince Christian?”
The boys nodded and Reba gave a quiet, affirming noise.
Elsa took a deep breath, knowing that once she said this, there would be no going back. “I want to know what he’s doing: who he meets with, who is working for him, messages he sends, everything. You will deliver that report once a week to relay what you have discovered to myself or Anna, no one else.”
The three children nodded in understanding. “Anna was right…” Elsa continued. “something is going on. I do not want to put my people in jeopardy by being too quick to solidify agreements.”
Dagrun grinned. “Don’t worry, my lady. We’ll be so close but so invisible he wont even realize we’re there!” He picked up the bag and saluted her so sloppily Elsa had to stifle a giggle. The Ice Informers began to head deeper into the shadows under the bridge.
“Another thing.” Elsa called after them.
They all stopped and turned to face her. “Yes ‘um?” Dagrun asked.
“Everything you hear from the townspeople, anything about Prince Hans or worries about the winter…please report that to me as well.”
Elsa watched as the three exchanged a look.
“Just ask Princess Anna.” Reba told Elsa in a voice that despite its thick accent, sounded as regal as Elsa’s did. “We already report that to her once a week.”
Then they scampered off, under the bridge and up the embankment into the gathering darkness, leaving the queen alone with her thoughts.
After the meeting with the Ice Informers, Elsa found herself, in a rare moment of solitude, wandering towards the castle library instead of returning to the pile of paperwork on her desk or seeking out Anna.
In her childhood, when not stuck in her room surrounded by unwanted icy creations, Elsa had practically lived among the musty books and creaking old shelves of the Arendelle Royal Library.
Elsa entered the room quietly, like how one would enter a church. Someone had lit a fire in the hearth, probably Kai, anticipating her use of the room. Elsa was tempted to put it out after what had happened last time she’d been around fire but stopped herself. She needed the light.
She had several things on her mind after this incredibly long day. First and foremost was Anna’s engagement. But that was hardly a cause for worry or stress. Elsa chuckled as she recalled the story Anna had told her about catching Kristoff in the middle of a proposal rehearsal. It appeared that his tendency to plan and prepare far ahead had been his undoing on that front.
Elsa had to stifle a full-on giggle as she thought of what poor Kristoff must be having to endure at the hands of her sister right now. While she knew Anna was not about to have the wedding next week, she knew that wouldn’t stop her little sister from planning everything, right down to the color of the napkins.
She’d let them have their time alone. They deserved it. And she still didn’t trust herself not to panic at the thought of Anna finally being married off.
Anna’s not going anywhere. Elsa reminded herself. She promised. And Kristoff would never do that to her. They will be so happy together.
Elsa shook herself out of her thoughts on that matter and returned to her task at hand: some much needed research.
Now that she finally had a moment to herself, all the questions that had been shoved to the back of her mind as she worked were worming their way forward again, demanding her attention.
First, she wanted to look into Prince Christian’s claim that Arendelle was ‘hiding wealth’. Elsa had reviewed and in some cases, written extensive reports of all of Arendelle’s tradable goods and country services. After the freeze, everything possible was being utilized to its fullest. She had made sure of that last week.
Mentally, Elsa estimated where the best books would be for that pursuit. Could there have been something Arendelle had that her father hadn’t told her about? Had he even been aware of it himself?
Second, she wanted to search for any mention of the temple in Arendelle’s history books. Judging by its position relative to the North Mountain, the temple could have been situated just on the edge of Arendelle’s north-west border with the untamed wilderness. If so, she may be able to claim sovereignty over it. She was willing to try anything to free herself from its influence.
Then of course, there was the question she had been trying to ignore that had been burning in her mind for the last two weeks: was Theonia one of her subjects? All of the ice gatherers of the Northern Province where Kristoff had been raised typically hailed from Arendelle’s northern villages and cities.
Against her decided priorities, Elsa found herself wandering over to the ledgers containing the familial legacy of Arendelle. They were stored just to the left of the fireplace, along the eastern wall of the library. The castle’s birth records were by no means comprehensive, given that they were only taken once every six years or so and relied on the honesty and memory of the people they encountered but Elsa could probably send a messenger to the northern villages to inquire about births twenty some-odd years ago. It was worth a shot if it could somehow give her control over the summer host’s decisions.
She ran her fingers over the ledgers from 20 years ago, contemplating where to start. Exactly how old was Theonia?
“I like this library.”
Elsa whirled, releasing ice so quickly her head spun.
Garret didn’t move an inch, despite the wickedly sharp icicles that now surrounded him in a barricade, all pointing at his throat. “It’s nice and sturdy, solid walls, thick shelves. You could get lost in here.” He was sprawled casually on one of the room’s couches, wearing his temple robe and completely weaponless. He’d been so still and silent that Elsa had walked right past him in the gloom of the darkened library.
Elsa took a breath to calm down. “What are you doing here Garret?” She asked, waving the ice away. “Don’t you know better than to sneak up on me?”
“Couldn’t resist.” The man said, sitting up straight as the ice faded. “I haven’t had years of practice with you. And I wanted to see how the Mother’s grace would protect me from ice.”
Elsa smiled but let it quickly fade when she realized that his face lacked any hint of humor.
“I always loved books…” Garret said conversationally, standing and striding to the bookshelves. The light from the fire licked at his form but was quickly devoured by the black clothes he wore. His eyes grazed slowly over the titles, hungrily drinking in the names. “They were always the perfect escape when life became too much. You don’t happen to have Edwin the Wise’s The Price of Penalty do you?”
Elsa knew every title in the library. “Yes. Why?”
“I saw it mentioned in one of the temple books and I’ve been dying to get my hands on it since.” He turned to face her. “Would you mind terribly if I borrowed it?”
Elsa walked over to the shelf he was standing in front of and pulled the book down without looking.
“Why are you here, Garret?”
His eyes glanced ambiguously down at her attire then shot back up to her eyes. “I’m just checking in.” He said. He took the book from her and turned away.
“You snuck in.” Elsa accused him.
“Surprisingly, it’s not very hard.” He plopped back down on the couch, cracking the book open and running a finger down the contents. “You might want to look into that. And even though it is polite, I couldn’t just walk through the gates, the guards would have stopped me. Or asked my name and affiliation. How would Arendelle’s queen have explained meeting an unknown, title-less man alone after dark?”
“I wouldn’t have let you in.” Elsa replied, crossing back to the ledgers and fighting the urge to have the Guardian thrown out right now.
Garret nodded. “And that was the second problem.” Garret flicked a few pages and scanned the text with his eyes. “This is why it is easier to stay at the temple.” He commented off-handedly.
Elsa turned back to the ledgers in front of her. “Not for me.” She resumed her search, eyes scanning the shelves of records.
“Looking for something?”
She glanced over her shoulder at Garret. He was still absorbed in his book but she got the idea his true attention was elsewhere. “Nothing that would concern you.” Elsa replied, pulling down a record from twenty years ago and opening it to a random page.
Garret stood up, leaving the book on the couch behind him. “Anything that concerns you, now concerns me.” He came up behind Elsa and briefly examined the ledger over her shoulders.
“Theonia will be 21 come the winter solstice.” He supplied helpfully.
Elsa felt herself stiffen guiltily. “I wasn’t..!”
“Yes you were.” He grinned at her as she made to protest. “Don’t worry, I wont tell her.”
“Why would she care?” Elsa found herself snapping even as the thought of Theo made her hands tremble.
Garret noticed the shaking but gave no indication that he knew what it was for. “She likes to know what’s going on, what threats could potentially arise so she can know how best to respond…”
The description was so uncannily similar to Elsa’s current state of being that she wanted to scream.
“If she finds out you’re trying to gain control over her, she may drag you back and lock you away.” Garret said in that same conversational tone.
“I’m in control.” Elsa reminded him in a carefully calm voice. “I don’t need to be locked away again.”
Garret shook his head. “It’s not just that.” He stepped away from her and walked towards the fire. Elsa turned to watch him. “Do you really think we’re insisting because of some neurotic tendency Theo has? Don’t answer that….”
Elsa couldn’t help a small smile twitch at her features as he threw that last part over his shoulder.
“No host can be tied to a nation the way you are.” Garret continued. “What if a war were to break out? Who would you fight for?”
Garret winced at her unabashed, immediate reply. “Exactly. And your side would not lose. You could forge an empire, destroy any and all foes with a wave of your hand...”
He stared into the flickering flames, letting his words sink in. The light lit up his features softly as if afraid to completely illuminate him.
“But I will not.” Elsa finally replied to break the tense silence. “I have no desire to expand our borders or start any conflicts.”
“And you think your good word will keep other nations satisfied? While here you are trying to forcefully take over the temple?”
Elsa found her head dipping slightly in shame.
Garret continued to stare into the fire. “We not only lock you away to keep you safe and in control but to keep the nations of the world content as well. Out here, you could be seen as a weapon of war, a tyrant. People would enslave you in order to ensure the outcome of a war.” He turned slightly to look at her. “These are the things Theo thinks about all the time. Everything that could possibly happen because you are outside her protection.”
The inevitable mention of the fire-host did nothing to improve Elsa’s mood. “It’s not her job to protect me,” Elsa practically growled. “I am perfectly capable of…”
“Theo’s job as Head Councilor is to bring you all together and make sure you stay together.” Garret interrupted her harshly. “Out of the possibility of danger or the temptations of war and power. Mine is to keep you all safe.” He stepped away from the light and crossed back over to her. “Your only job is to make our jobs easier.”
Elsa stared him down as he approached her. “Theo was the one who told me to come back here.” She told his hard black eyes.
“She acted rashly and most likely without the Mother’s consent.”
“So have you come to drag me back?” Elsa wondered if he’d actually be capable of such a thing. She couldn’t imagine how his whole paralysis thing worked but she was willing to bet it was slower than her ice.
But Garret made no move against her. Instead he sighed and looked away from her. “No. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. It is not the Mother’s wish, apparently.” The Guardian glanced at her. “No, I merely made the three-day journey here on foot to talk.”
Elsa was surprised. “About what?”
He fixed her with a glare Elsa could only describe as terrifyingly harsh. Defensively, she took a step back, her hip hitting the lower shelf of the archive.
“I don’t like to see my girls upset.” Garret told her in a low voice. “Whatever you did to Theo back at the ice palace, she’s still suffering from it.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Elsa protested.
Garret was still glaring but it had softened slightly. “You lied to us. That’s all I can get out of Theo.”
Her forehead creased in confusion. “Lied to you? How? About what?”
“That’s why I’m asking. What did you tell her there?”
Elsa threw her hands in the air. “Ask her! One minute she was caressing my ice and the next she was flying away on a tornado after I mentioned my little sister being on her own here…”
“Your sister?” Garret interrupted, his voice seeming to slice through the darkness of the library. Those two words seemed to snap the entire room into awareness of the two. The fire even popped in response.
“Yes. Anna. My sister. The princess of Arendelle.” Elsa felt the need to add that last part. Why was her having a sister getting this odd disbelieving action from all of them? Surely they’d had families as well?
The guardian paused at her words, his eyes widening. “…You never mentioned Anna...” He said slowly, his voice shaking. His entire frame seemed to deflate slightly as if he were shrinking back in fear.
“Was it important?” Elsa asked.
Garret stared evenly at her, searching her face carefully as if he were looking for a one particular needle in a set. But after a moment, he sighed and stepped back, looking away from Elsa. He said nothing.
Silence descended on them as Garret returned to his spot in front of the fire and stared into the flames. He had his arms folded tightly against his chest. Elsa was instantly reminded of her father when he was deeply troubled by something.
She stepped closer to him until she could see his conflicted face in the flickering light. “My place is here, Garret. With my sister and my kingdom. Surely you can understand that. They need me.”
“We need you.” He said quietly but in a voice like iron.
“Garret,” Elsa began. “I understand how important this is, really I do. But it was never my fight. I will assist you in whatever way I can but I will not leave Arendelle. I can’t just abandon my kingdom.” The events and revelations of the day swirled in her mind. “Especially not now.”
“Elsa, the sake of the entire realm is in jeopardy here,” Garret told her, still looking deep into the flames. “We are testing fate by waiting, hoping that Autumn’s host and Død will not snap at each other one too many times and trigger a disaster. If you do not find Isen and come to some kind of agreement with her soon, we wont be able to retrieve Autumn and convene the Council.”
“I can cast my ice well enough without Isen’s help.” Elsa reminded him.
Garret rounded on her, his arms dropping to his sides. “That’s only half the battle. Once we have Autumn, the real challenge will be convincing Død to calm down. And that may take all the spirits.”
Elsa tipped her head in acknowledgement. “Fine. Then I shall follow Theo’s orders and stay here while trying to contact Isen.”
“I cannot argue with you or with her. I can only do my best to keep you all safe.”
“So why did you come here?”
“I thought I could reason with you.” He looked up at her and Elsa thought she saw tears shimmering in his eyes but it may have been a trick of the gloom. “But I cant.”
Silence returned again for a moment as the Guardian looked at his wayward charge and the Ice Queen looked at the man she could not entrust her protection to.
“Leave.” Elsa finally commanded him. “Don’t come back. And
tell the others to stay away too.”
He bowed respectfully.
She turned away from him and returned to the ledger. She knew she should have offered him a chance to stay the night and leave in the morning rather than casting him out into the darkness and cold. But she really didn’t want him around. What if Anna met him?
Garret retrieved his book from the couch but paused on his way out as if contemplating something.
“You’re one of my girls now too, Elsa.” He whispered into the darkness. Elsa trembled as she heard the words, memories of her father threatening to overcome her. “I know our acquaintance has barely begun but I don’t want to see you suffer.” The Guardian paused, contemplating his next words. “Sometimes…we have to make personal sacrifices to fulfill our destiny.”
Elsa turned to look at him. “I am not putting Anna or Arendelle in jeopardy.” She told him in a voice that left no room for argument.
Garret’s gaze darkened considerably but the anger was gone from his face. “You may not have a choice.” His face looked as though uttering those words had physically hurt him. He turned away and crossed the room. At the door he paused, the borrowed book clutched in his hand.
“Be ready by just before the winter solstice.” He told her without turning around. “By then we’ll hopefully have located Autumn and be ready to retrieve her. I’ll be back to collect you before we head out together.”
Elsa nodded even though she knew he couldn’t see her. He seemed to understand anyway. As he crossed the threshold, he called out one last time to her over his shoulder.
“And tell that little talking snowman of yours that next time he tries to hug me he should give me a warning. I don’t want to accidentally kick his head off again…”