“Now what?” said Kristoff as he pulled Sven to a stop. Opening her eyes, Anna saw an old woman sitting in the middle of the road. Dense woods surrounded them on either side.
“Hello? Can we help you?” Anna called.
The old woman looked at them, and held up a deflated water skin. “Got anything to drink?”
Anna looked about the floor around her feet. “I’m sure we have some spare water.”
“Water? I don’t want water.” She struggled to her feet. “What do you have to drink?”
“I think you should give the nice lady some wine,” said a man’s voice from behind the sled.
Both Anna and Kristoff turned around, and saw two men standing on the road behind them, one holding a crossbow, the other a club. Then they saw four more emerge from the woods on either side. Two positioned themselves in Sven’s path, the other two stayed at the side. Sven lowered his head, antlers forward, preparing to charge. Anna grabbed the reins, ready to make a quick get-away.
Kristoff placed his hands on hers. “Not this time, Anna. We can’t outrun arrows. They have us.” Then to the men surrounding them: “What do you want?”
“What do we want? How about everything you got.”
“Robbers,” said Kristoff, under his voice.
A smaller person emerged from the woods, a child. About Gerda’s size, she appeared older and more strongly built. She went to the old woman and grabbed her wine skin.
“Ursla! Give that back, you little hooligan!” the older woman said, angrily, as she tried to take the skin back.
The men watched with amusement.
“Mother, I think you have had quite enough. So what do we have here? Oh, a nice reindeer. He will make a fine meal.” Ursla responded.
“What? You wouldn’t dare!” Kristoff attempted to step off the sled, but a club crashing down on the railing stopped him.
Ursla produced a small knife, waving the weapon at Sven. “Sure I would,” she said as she walked to the sled. “What do we have back here?”
“What’s going on?” Gerda said, standing and rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“Oh, look! A new playmate for me.”
Gerda saw Ursla and her knife, and screamed. She backed into a corner and tried to make herself small.
“Where’s my wine?” asked the old woman.
“Oh, all right.” Ursla looked about the rear of the sled, found a full wine skin, and threw it to her. “There you go. Now what shall we do with this lot?” she asked.
“Take those two and kill ‘em. The rest we take back to the castle,” a robber responded.
Kristoff looked at Anna. “It looks like we’ll have to take our chances fighting.”
Gerda jumped to her feet and grabbed Anna. “You can’t kill her! She’s a princess!”
The old woman lowered the wine skin. “A princess?” She looked intently at Anna. “Who are you?”
Flustered, Anna answered; “I’m Princess Anna from, ah, Lapland.”
“Princess Anna of Lapland eh?” asked the old woman. She turned to the men. “She may be more valuable than all the rest of this junk.”
“Right,” said one of the men. He pointed to another of the robbers. “You, get on the sled and make sure they don’t try anything. Let’s get back.”
Ursla jumped off the sled, and another man climbed on, his club at the ready. Surrounded by the robbers, Kristoff urged Sven forward. The robbers guided Kristoff off the road, though a gap between the trees. After driving about a mile across snow-covered terrain, they came to a decrepit old castle.
Anna looked at the near-ruin, as Kristoff drove through an opening in the wall. All the windows were frameless holes. The walls were cracked, and covered with half-dead vines. Here and there she saw gaps in the walls. Inside, the robbers had made camp among the remains of the great hall. Conditions looked barely better than camping outside. The damaged walls and roof provided some protection from the worst of the wind and snow, but little else.
“All right, stop right here, and get off,” ordered the robber in the back of the sled. He watched as Anna and Kristoff stepped off the sled, and then followed. He ignored Gerda.
“Now in there,” the robber said.
“There? That looks like a cage you’d keep pigs in,” complained Kristoff.
Another man pointed a crossbow at Kristoff. “You don’t have to go in.”
His frustration showing, Kristoff knelt and crawled into the cage, Anna following. A robber locked the door with a large rusty padlock.
“Let’s see what we got,” he said, walking back to the sled. He climbed into the back and started tossing supplies onto the floor. Several others sifted through them. Yet another unhitched Sven.
The little robber girl took her knife and scraped it against Sven’s neck. “Now you’re going to be good, right?”
“Sven, don’t resist,” called Kristoff. Soon, one robber led Sven off to a far wall, and tied him to a hitch.
“So, how’s my new playmate?” Ursla said, as she climbed into the sled.
“Don’t hurt me!” screamed Gerda. She stood and tried to move farther away, squeezing herself into a corner of the sled.
“Oh, I’ll be nice, as long as you behave.” She waved the knife at Gerda, and then put it away. “What’s your name?”
“Gerda,” she replied in a tiny voice.
“I’m Ursla. You want to play?”
Gerda shook her head.
“Well, what do you want?”
“I want to go and find my best friend, Kai. Please, you got to let us go.”
Ursla stopped and said in a more serious voice, “You have a best friend? I’ve never had . . . would you like to be my best friend?”
“We can be friends,” Gerda answered tentatively.
Ursla smiled and took Gerda’s hand. “Here, let me show you my stuff.” She climbed off the sled, pulling a somewhat reluctant Gerda after her. Together, they walked through the great hall to a far corner. Gerda saw a makeshift bed of straw and rags. Broken cups and plates, old clothing, bits of metal, scraps of wood and various other items littered the floor. However, what caught her attention were all the cages on the wall. A dozen small cages were hung there, each holding a bird.
“Why do you have all these birds in cages?”
“They’re pigeons, and they’re my friends. They were the only ones I ever had. Before you came.”
Gerda looked at the pigeons. They cooed softly back. “They do not want to stay here. They want to go free.”
“I don’t want them to go. They’re my friends.”
“You shouldn’t keep friends locked up,” said Gerda, as she continued looking at the birds. “That one says he would stay if you opened the cage. He says he is old and could not find food on his own anymore because he is weak.”
“How do you know that?” asked Ursla.
“He told me.”
“No one can talk to birds. You are just making it up.”
“Yes I can!”
“No you can’t. Here, I’ll prove it.”
Ursla opened the pigeon’s cage. He flew through the opening and landed on the floor. The pigeon hopped around on the ground, looking for food. After pecking and eating a few fallen seeds, he found an old crate, jumped onto the box’s edge and perched.
“See? I told you,” said Gerda. She knelt to look at the pigeon. “He says he will stay here as long as you keep feeding him.”
Ursla looked at Gerda, her eyes filled with wonder. “You really can talk to birds. What do the others say?”
Gerda looked at the birds one by one. Suddenly, she became quite excited. “This one says she saw Kai! She says she saw him a few days ago. She saw the Snow Queen locking him away in her palace of ice!”
“I just caught her yesterday. Who is the Snow Queen?”
“She is an evil old woman. She has magic powers and can make snow. I saw her kidnap Kai. I’ve been trying to find him so I can save him.”
“You must really care for him,” Ursla said softly. “Especially if you’re going to try and rescue him from an evil sorceress. You must be very brave.”
“He’s my best friend. We have to save him. Please let us go,” Gerda pleaded.
Ursla considered for a long time before she finally relented. “You’re a good person. I can’t bear the thought of you being without your best friend.”
Gerda smiled a large, radiant smile. Then, worried, she looked about the hall, noticing that all the men had vanished. “Where is everyone?”
“They’re out looking for more travelers. You have time to escape, if you are fast. But you must be quiet.” She pointed to where her mother had fallen asleep while sitting at a table. She still held the wine skin.
Gerda ran to the cage containing Anna and Kristoff. Ursla quickly followed, catching Gerda as she arrived at the cage. “You cannot take them,” she said, her voice hushed.
“But they got to come. And Sven. I cannot leave them here.”
“There’s no choice. I don’t have the key. It’s with one of the men.”
“Actually, that’s not a problem,” said Anna. She reached between the bars, slid the lock off the hasp and opened the door.
“How did you do that?” asked Ursla.
“A, uh, friend showed me how to pick locks. It’s actually been unlocked for several minutes now. We’ve been waiting for a chance to sneak out.”
Kristoff immediately ran to Sven and released him.
“Be quiet, and be quick,” said Ursla. “I don’t know when the others will be back.”
Anna started reloading what supplies she could find. Much had been plundered and scattered about the room. Still, she recovered some food, water skins, and Kristoff’s tent.
Soon Kristoff had Sven hitched to the sled. “We’re pointing the wrong way, and the sled is on this stone floor. When we get going I’ll have to have Sven pull us around and out. It’ll make a racket. We’ll have to be fast.”
“Fast is good. Gerda, are you ready?” asked Anna.
Gerda turned to Ursla and gave her a hug. “Thank you for letting us go.”
“Ursla, we can take you too. Would you like to come with us?” asked Anna.
“No, I should stay here to take care of mother.” She turned to the cage and climbed in, closing the door and locking the lock. “This will fool the others. Gerda, good luck with your friend Kai.”
Kristoff waited while the two girls climbed into the sled and took their seats. With grim determination, he called to Sven, “Sven! Go! Go as fast as you can!” He gave the reins a sharp shake, and then hauled back the right one.
Sven bolted to the right, dragging the sled about. Then he ran for the gap in the wall. The sled continued to rotate, slid sideways, and threatened to overturn. Various items left on the floor flew about as the sled plowed through them, clattering against the walls and along the floor.
“Wha? What’s going on? Get back here!” The noise awoke the old woman. She tried to stand and give chase. With the sled fishtailing wildly behind, Sven ran from the hall and into the snow.
“We need to go downhill. It’s faster and we need to go as fast as we can. Anna, see that lever? It’s a brake. Pull on it to keep us from going too fast and tripping Sven.”
A crossbow bolt buried itself in the sled’s side. Anna looked to their left, and saw two robbers, reloading their crossbows. Closer to the sled, a few feet off its left side, she saw the ground drop away into a narrow gully. “Over there!” She called, pointing to the left.
Kristoff had already started guiding Sven to the right, away from the robbers. Anna reached for and pulled on the left rein.
“Wait!” barked Kristoff, too late. Sven turned left, toward the edge of the gully. He jumped, and the sled followed him over the edge, falling eight feet to the snow below. Sven hit the bottom and stumbled, and as luck would have it, he managed to stay on his feet. The sled leaned way to the left before coming falling back onto the runners. Two crossbow bolts shot above everyone’s heads, and struck the slope to their right.
“Are you crazy? You almost got us all killed!” yelled Kristoff.
“It worked didn’t it? They can’t shoot us down here,” replied Anna.
“Give me that and let me drive!” Angrily, Kristoff took the rein from Anna. “Now get on the brake!”
Sven continued running downhill, along the bottom of the steep gully. The sled accelerated, while Sven ran as fast as he could. As they drove downward, the sled’s weight pushed forward on Sven, threatening to trip him, until Anna pulled the brake lever, swinging the braking board downward, into the snow.
“Do you think we lost them?” asked Anna.
“No, not yet. They’ll follow us. I want to get to the plains. It’ll be night soon, and the wind there will blow snow over our tracks. With no tracks, and in the dark, they’ll have trouble finding us.”
Kristoff continued guiding Sven along the gully, making what speed he could. After an hour, the slope flattened, and the land opened before them.