GREECE, 200 AD
It had been a year since Anna had come upon the fair-haired girl sobbing under a tree in the olive orchard.
Anna's heart had bled for the girl when Anna's husband Kristoff forced the girl into the house and questioned her ruthlessly. Affection had swelled in Anna when, upon taking a damp cloth to the girl's dirty, bruised face, she had flinched away - whether from the pain or shame, Anna did not know. Anna had watched as the girl, shoulders hunched in submission, had spent an entire year, day after day sweeping the house, tending the children, and most of all, picking the olives from the orchard.
In all that time, Anna had not heard her say a word.
Because of this, Anna did not know the girl's name. She suspected the girl to be older, somewhat, and were she to stand upright, taller. The day she had been found and questioned by the family, Kristoff had offered her a position as a slave for their household - the girl had made no answer and it was good enough for the man. Whether or not the girl disliked her role, one could only guess; she had adamantly kept up her silence, betraying nothing but neutrality when it came to her opinion on her own circumstances. Anna appreciated the help, but tried to stay out the girl's way, as the lack of speech disquieted her. The children, on the other hand, were enamored with the girl, not bothered by the fact that she was a mute. Chasing one another through the sunny orchards hardly necessitated conversation.
As it was, on a day almost entirely a year after the mysterious appearance of the fair-haired girl, Anna decided to take a cart to Thebes, in an attempt to sell some of their yield of olives and oil at the market there. The children and the girl were to accompany her, as Kristoff had some business to attend to out in the fields. Anna didn't mind - although a just and kind man, her husband's presence created a suffocation that Anna couldn't explain. Those times when she could get away from him and truly be herself were moments of pure liberation.
It was in such a state that Anna found herself as she walked alongside the handcart of wares. Gerda, her daughter, was riding at the front of the cart, dangling her legs off and chatting happily away to the slave girl, who was pulling the cart behind her. Her younger son Kai was making laps around the cart, stopping often to explore a tuft of grass or picking a flower which, after scrambling back to the cart, he handed to his mother with a giggle. She would smile gaily and affectionately, patting him on the head in gratitude before he was off again, robe rippling in the breeze.
The heat of the sun was making Anna lazy. Her fingers trailed patterns on the wooden edge of the cart and she could feel her sandals dragging slightly in the dirt of the road, kicking up little clouds of dust as she shuffled along. She glanced over at Gerda and the girl. Anna noticed that the girl's robe was drooping in the heat, revealing a portion of her neck and upper shoulders. Sweat dripped down the labor-hardened skin. The fists gripping the cart handles were red and chafed, and the girl's brows were knit above bright blue eyes, shading them from the offending sun. Despite the obvious physical discomfort, Anna saw that the girl was smiling at her daughter's antics, stealing glances over her shoulder at the child to prove her audience's continued attention.
The girl caught Anna's curious eye during one such backward glance. She quickly snapped her head forward once more, shoulders hunching with even more exaggeration as though to shield herself from her mistress' gaze. Immediately, and not quite knowing why, Anna picked up her pace to catch the slave up. Her hand had barely brushed the girl's forearm when she yelled and flinched away, causing the handcart to lurch sideways, the wares to topple, and Gerda to cry out in alarm.
"I'm sorry," Anna breathed, regretting her decision immediately. The girl's eyes grew wide as she realized what had happened. Next thing Anna knew, the girl was on her hands and knees, hurriedly pressing her lips to the dirty hem of her mistress' robe. Sighing, Anna kneeled down as well, placing a hand on the crown of the girl's head, which stopped the lips at once. Using just the tip of her finger, she used the girl's chin as leverage to bring her gaze to Anna's - the blue eyes were brimmed with unshed tears that made Anna once more regret her actions.
"There's no need for that," Anna said, smiling as hearteningly as she could. "I am not my husband."
She let go of the chin and stood, offering a hand to the girl, who merely stared at it, not expecting such kindness. Gerda, who had been watching the proceedings attentively, giggled and said, "Take it! Take Mama's hand! It's warm!"
At the outburst, a pale hand went to the girl's mouth as she held in a laugh, then reached out with the same hand and took Anna's outstretched palm. Anna pulled her up gently, and hesitantly set both of her hands on the girl's shoulders, wishing fleetingly that she could straighten them out but the girl's history and circumstances had permanently bowed them. The girl was trying to shy away from the contact, but it only served to tighten Anna's grip on her.
"You do not need to be afraid of me," Anna said. The girl was avoiding her mistress' gaze, slumped inward and back, away from her. Anna sighed again and let the girl go, not wanting to make the situation worse and push the girl farther away. The girl appeared drained from the encounter, never having interacted with Anna in such a way. By this time, Kai had wandered over to see why they had stopped and had also been listening to the conversation. When they stopped talking, he looked intently from one woman to the other with a curiously intense expression before grabbing one of each of their hands and bringing them together. He turned to the slave girl and said matter-of-factly, "Mama wants to be your friend, like me and Gerda are."
The girl's look of astonishment mirrored the one Anna felt on her own face. The women's eyes met over the boy's head and Anna recovered enough to say, "That's right. I want to be your friend." Although the girl didn't smile, her eyes shifted and the cool hand gripped Anna's as she nodded. Anna smiled in relief at this breakthrough in the mysterious girl.
"My first act as new friend is to offer you help in pulling the cart. Will you allow me?" The girl's eyes widened, torn between the idea of her mistress performing her duties and outright denying her request; both would surely end in punishment.
Reading her like a book, Anna quickly added, "my husband will never know. It'll be our little secret," and winked at the girl, who smiled back involuntarily. Anna turned back to her son. "Want to help pull the cart with us?" He nodded vigorously, enthused at the prospect of a different kind of adventure. He ran to position himself between the handles of the cart which matched the height of the young boy's head. He reached up to grip the wooden handles and locked his gaze straight forward, ready to run an Olympic race. Anna indicated wordlessly to the girl that the two women were to each take up one of the handles from each side, giving the boy the illusion that it had been his own herculean strength that had propelled the cart to their destination.
It was in this formation, the weight of the cart distributed (albeit unevenly) between the trio, Gerda pretending that they were horses and she their roper, that they reached Thebes. The game allowed the time to pass quicker and Anna was pleased to see that even the girl seemed to be taken out of herself - her very demeanor had changed to one of mirth. Slave or no, it was difficult for Anna to witness anyone in such a profound and prolonged state of misery. As they went along, she also couldn't help but notice that the girl kept shooting her mistress glances across the cart with an unfathomable expression that Anna only identified when they had arrived in Thebes. It was of complete admiration.
At this realization, Anna felt herself flush with pleasure at what she recognized as the first good thing she was sure she had done for someone else in her whole life.
"Mama," Gerda said as the foursome entered the bustling city. The girl almost had to shout to be heard over the new noises of the crowd they had walked straight into. "Mama, why are you so red?" The blush became more pronounced at the mention and she merely said, "Oh, the sun's hot, that's all!"
"I'm tired," Kai complained as he shuffled along, hands at his sides, not even pretending to help pull the cart anymore. The party came to a halt so Anna could reach over to pick up Kai and the slave girl could slip back to her original position between the two handles.
"You are so strong and the pulled the cart so far, you deserve a break, little one," Anna said, hoisting him up to sit next to his sister, who immediately prodded and engaged him in another game.
With her children preoccupied, Anna's attention returned to the slave girl, who had already set off toward the market, pulling the cart by herself once more. Now that they were in the city, it would arouse suspicion if Anna was helping her slave with the handcart of their wares. Despite not wanting to let it on to the others, Anna had been fatigued significantly after only carrying the weight of half of it, and she now fully appreciated the girl's burden. Anna fell into step with the girl, pretending to be admiring the general splendor of the city around them, but she said out of the corner of her mouth, "Thank you. For everything. I cannot imagine how hard everything must be for you. I know you have no reason to trust me, especially after Kristoff's treatment of you, and I am not going to make excuses for my husband's behavior, but I sorely wish you would trust me at the least, because I honestly do wish to be your friend." The girl wasn't looking at her, but Anna could see the corners of her mouth twitching as she continued.
"I respect your silence as well, but sometimes I would like some confirmation that you understand, that you are even listening and that I am not rambling to myself." Anna was beginning to get worked up now; she could feel the frustration from her unsatisfying marriage and the years that lacked emotional human connection bubbling up inside of her. She didn't notice that in her irritation her hand had fallen to grip the nearest cart handle inches away from the girl's.
Anna sighed. "I don't even know your name."
A surprisingly cool and rough hand gently set itself atop Anna's where it rested on the handle.
"Elsa," said a small voice.
Anna's head snapped to the girl's, eyes meeting the blue that now glinted with another unrecognizable emotion - determination?
The girl took a shaky breath.
"My name - is Elsa."