Everything had happened so fast.
Iduna hadn’t even taken a moment to think before letting out the kulning. The clang of metal on metal, the cries of the injured and the rush of the elements, the boy laying limp in front of her—all of it was too much to process, but she knew it needed to stop, and there was only one way to do that.
The wind, at least, stopped raging; she had always seemed to like Iduna, so far as to sweep her away at the first hint of trouble just a few minutes before. As Iduna finished her call, the leaves around her chattered as the wind swept over to help. Normally she was the most playful element, tossing people up into the air, but she heeded Iduna’s panicked pleas to be gentle with the boy—yes, he was Arendellian, but that didn’t mean he should die. As the Arendellian soldiers and Northuldran warriors turned their attention to flying rocks and fire blazing in the trees, Iduna and the wind snuck to one of the carts. With a push from a strong breeze, Iduna quietly alighted inside, carefully guiding the boy down to rest. He didn’t look too worse for the wear, but…
She heard soldiers calling to fall back, to get the survivors back to Arendelle, and she fell back onto the floor of the cart. If they saw her, they might think she was harming the boy. She had to leave, but her fear froze her in place. But a quick breeze swept a nearby blanket over her head, and a stronger one silently urged her to stay still! She held her breath, tucking herself to be as small and still as possible as she heard running.
“He’s here! The prince is here!”
“Oh, thank god. Orvik, get him out of here as quickly as possible.”
“But Lieutenant, there’s…”
“That is an order, Orvik.” The man speaking let out a shaking breath. “Arendelle needs her new king home safe.”
Beneath her blanket, Iduna’s eyes widened. Prince? No, king? Was that who she’d saved? She started to peek out from under her blanket, but a strong wind rocked the cart.
“I’ll get the others to fall back. Get the king home!”
“Yes, Lieutenant Mattias!”
Not a minute later, Iduna heard the crack of a whip, and the cart started to move quickly. She finally pulled the blanket off her head, trying to keep from making any other noise as she was jostled with supplies and the still-unconscious b—king. They were moving to the edge of the forest; she knew her way around the forest, yes, but if she waited too long she ran a bigger risk of getting lost trying to get back in the chaos. She started to get up, only for the wind to blow her back down.
“Quit it!” she hissed in reply to the howling in her ears. “I need to get down now.” She tried again, only to be blown back once more. “What are you—”
The words died on her lips as the wind went still, and she caught sight of the gray mass heading toward them. It was mist, but…there was something off about it. This wasn’t the morning mist or even the heavy spring mists.
The wind blew at them again, making the soldier driving them whip the horses harder. The young king groaned as they hit a rock, and Iduna watched with growing horror as the mist drew closer and closer. She didn’t know what would happen when it caught up, but she knew enough of magic to know this was something terribly old and terribly powerful. And, given how fast it was coming, they wouldn’t be able to escape it.
The wind stilled, only for a moment, and a breeze lightly brushed against Iduna’s face, blowing her hair out of her eyes. The breeze hopped over to the king, ruffling his hair, before she lifted the blanket and tucked Iduna back beneath it before it stilled again.
Then the biggest, loudest gust Iduna had ever seen blew past them, spooking the horses into moving faster as the wind roared in their ears. She peeked over the blanket, watching as—no doubt with tremendous effort—a wall of air held back the mist. It followed them, just barely keeping the mist back until the cart reached the standing stones. Then, with one last rustle of fallen leaves as a goodbye, the wind dispersed, and mist covered the stones, leaving the forest hidden in a sea of gray.
Iduna’s heart pounded in her chest, and she just barely bit back a cry of grief as she watched her home disappear. She hadn’t wanted this. She’d just wanted to help.
But she’d made things so, so much worse.
The ride to Arendelle was long, but Iduna had little problem staying curled up and still. She’d shed a few tears, but she was too wracked from grief and exhaustion to move much at all. The king would periodically half-wake, causing her to fall silent as he mumbled half-words before going deathly quiet again.
But no matter how much her heart hurt, she knew she had to figure out what to do next. If the wind kept the mist away from them, then it certainly wasn’t wise to go back home. But Arendelle…Arendelle was different. Mother had warned about their ways, their removal and abuse of nature. She couldn’t live there, could she?
It was too much to consider right now. For the moment, she would focus on making sure the king was safe; she’d risked too much for him to die on her. His hut would no doubt be big, but she was good at tucking herself into corners and peeking through boards. She’d just stay long enough to see that he was okay, and to figure out how to get back home.
“Finally. We’re almost there, Highness.”
Iduna looked up, poking her head out from under the blanket. She immediately bit her lip to keep from gasping outloud, eyes going as wide as possible. This…this was nothing like she could have imagined. Great stone buildings, higher than anything she’d ever seen, with windows that gleamed in the early morning sun. Paths made with different stones, with all manner of elegant carts and horses and people milling about. People made room as they rode past, and Iduna could hear the whispers from here. While she couldn’t decipher any words, worry filled the air so thickly she could almost feel it. But they had to turn into one of these houses eventually. Each one was grander than the next, but there was no sign of stopping. Iduna took advantage of an empty section of street to sit up, looking in the direction they were heading.
She couldn’t help the awed whisper, and she just barely dove back under the blanket as the soldier turned around. She’d expected a big house for the King of Arendelle. She hadn’t expected something that was practically a mountain of white walls and blue spires. Suddenly, it was much harder to stay still; if Arendelle was going to be her new home, then she needed to explore.
Finally, the cart came to a stop. Iduna held her breath as she heard footsteps and voices.
“What happened? Where’s the king?”
“Oh my god, is that the prince?”
“He’s injured. Take him inside and notify the queen at once.”
“And the king?”
“The king…has died.”
The several gasps masked the one Iduna let out.
“There was an unexpected battle with the Northuldran people. We lost the king and Lieutenant Mattias, along with others. But we’ll work with that later. For now, just get Prince Agnarr to his room and call a doctor.”
The cart rocked, and Iduna stayed as still as possible.
“No, no, leave everything else for Hekla. The prince…the king is our priority.”
The cart rocked again, and Iduna heard another soft groan from the boy.
“Oh, praise be to God, he’s still alive.”
The footsteps and voices faded away, and Iduna chanced taking off the blanket completely. This, she knew, was a stable; it was a lot grander than the one her family kept their reindeer in, but it was still a bit comforting to be somewhere almost familiar. She hopped down from the cart, stretching her legs after being tucked up for so long. All right, so…she was in Arendelle. She’d have to find a way to survive here somehow, but that was fine. She’d be fine. She was already fourteen, after all. She could do this. She just had to take that first step.
So she took a breath and stepped.
And almost ran into the woman undoing the horse’s harness.
For a moment, they both froze, startled by each other. But then the woman drew herself up, standing nearly as tall and strong as the horse beside her, her gray eyes narrowing suspiciously at Iduna.
“Guards!” she called, and Iduna’s heart leapt up to her throat.
“No, you can’t! Please!” she whispered, shrinking back against the cart as if it would shield her from any incoming guards. The woman set her hands on her hips.
“And why not? Stowing away is a crime, and stowing away to get in the castle is a crime against the crown.”
“I-I…I’m not staying in the castle! I just…I didn’t even mean to come here!” She cringed back, looking up at the woman entreatingly. “Please, please. I’m leaving right now. Just…please don’t call any guards.”
The woman’s lips thinned, but before she could answer, the thundering of feet came from outside the stable. She looked up, then gave a subtle nod toward the back of the cart. Iduna took the hint, quickly darting behind it to hide as two guards came in, swords drawn.
“What do you need, Hekla?” one of them asked, only to get an irritated sigh in return.
“You lot are always so jumpy, you’d think you had nothing to do,” she grumbled over the sound of restraints being undone. “I said Balder, not guards.” She patted the horse’s side. “If you ever took the chance to meet the horses, maybe you’d know the difference between their names and your stations.”
“So…there’s no threat?” asked the second guard.
“Not unless you count my quickly decreasing patience a threat, no.”
Iduna let out a silent sigh of relief as she heard swords being sheathed.
“Sorry, Hekla. Just…with what happened with the king…” the first guard started, but abruptly stopped as if shushed.
“Wait. Something happened to the king?” Hekla asked.
“It was the Northuldra,” the second soldier interjected, voice hot. “They probably used magic to…”
“They didn’t use magic, Lisken, they don’t have magic. But I guess peace talks went sour, and they killed the king in the fight.”
“There’s a doctor heading to the prince right now, don’t know what shape he’s in.”
Over the horse’s back, Iduna caught Hekla looking down at her, the suspicious look back in her eyes. Iduna hugged herself tighter as she looked up at her pleadingly, shaking her head slightly. Hekla let out a long breath through her nose, then turned back to the guards.
“Well, then we’d best pray Prince Agnarr makes it, hadn’t we?” The noise of leather and chains returned. “I’m sure I’ll hear all about it in a bit, but someone has to take care of Sigurd here. She looks fit to drop.”
“Didn’t…you say his name was Balder?” Lisken asked timidly, but Iduna could catch the fierce look from her as she looked back at the guards, and the two promptly went on their way.
Once they were gone, Hekla’s fierce face dropped, and she knelt her head against Sigurd’s back, murmuring what sounded like a prayer. As Iduna stood up, she lifted her head to look at her.
“Thank you,” Iduna said softly. “I…I swear, I didn’t know anything about the king. I just…everything was such chaos and…” Hekla held up a hand, and Iduna quickly shut her mouth. She stayed quiet as Hekla undid the harness without so much as looking at her, though she fidgeted with her hands as the silence dragged on. Was she going to call the guards back? But then why would she have sent them away? What if she was going to make an example of her? Have her arrested and…and…strung up in the middle of Arendelle? Gearrall had said that they sometimes did that to criminals and Hekla had said that she was a criminal and…
“What’s your name, girl?” Hekla finally asked, nearly making Iduna jump out of her skin.
“Me? I’m…I’m Iduna.”
Hekla nodded, pulling the harness off and backing away to let the horse trot away for some rest. “You don’t need to tell me what you are, I can tell by your clothes.” She looked over Iduna for a moment, face stern. “Now, there’s two ways this could end, Iduna. I alert the guards again, and you’re taken down to the dungeon…”
“No!” Iduna gasped, but Hekla held up her head.
“Or you keep hidden and go as fast as you can to the cottage just outside of these stables and wait for me there. Then you tell me everything.” She raised her eyebrows. “So. Are you a smart girl? Because a smart girl would take the latter option.”
Iduna nodded silently, and Hekla turned to put the harness away.
“Best get moving, then, Iduna. Otherwise I might think that you snuck in on the prince’s cart.”
Iduna took a breath, then nodded. “Thank you,” she whispered once again, then quickly turned and kept low as she ran to the cottage.
“So, then, you’re Northuldran.”
“And…you think you brought on that mist when you saved the prin—the king.”
Hekla looked hard at Iduna for a moment, then sipped from her steaming mug in silence. Iduna shifted in her seat, looking down at her untouched cup of tea. She’d untied the shawl around her waist a little while ago and now pulled it tighter over her shoulders. Even so, the cottage was drafty, and the sea breeze snuck through the cracks in the walls and the uneven window panes.
“The tea will help.”
Iduna looked up as Hekla spoke, then silently took the mug and sipped from it as the older woman watched her keenly.
“You might be able to go back,” she suggested. Iduna looked up as Hekla sighed, crossing her arms. “But it’s a long journey. And if you really were tucked up under that blanket the whole time…”
“…then you’ll have no idea how to get there, would you?”
Iduna bit her lip as she slowly shook her head. Hekla sighed, head falling back. “Getting a ride would be a pain, and you haven’t got a søl to your name, besides. There’s always the orphanage, I guess. You could stay there for a bit…how old are you?”
Hekla rubbed her face. “That’s awfully old for the orphanage.”
Iduna sipped her tea, looking around the cottage as Hekla mumbled some more half-formed ideas of where Iduna could go. It was pretty sparsely decorated, with a few personal items here and there. Next to the door, there was a fine set of bells on a long leather strip. It nearly looked like the one her father had been gifted the first time the Arendellians had come through. Hopefully it sounded just as nice on a horse as it did a…
“Reindeer!” she said, sitting up straight. Hekla lifted a hand from her eyes, thick brows furrowing as she looked at Iduna.
“I-I…my family, we raised reindeer, and we use them a lot like how you use horses. So...” She swallowed, adjusting her shawl before she gave Hekla an entreating smile. “If…if you need someone to help with the stable…?”
Hekla stared at her, then shook her head sharply. “No. No. Absolutely not.”
“I’ve already saved your neck once, I don’t need a brat who’s never so much as touched a horse underfoot.”
“I won’t be underfoot! I know how to muck and herd and…”
“You don’t herd horses.”
“But I bet I can calm them down!” Iduna clasped her hands together, leaning her elbows on the table as she looked up at Hekla. “Please. I don’t have any money or-or any way to get to another town. I don’t have anything anymore. If you let me stay, I’ll be the hardest worker you’ve ever seen.”
Hekla glowered at her, then let out a long breath through her nose as she shut her eyes. Iduna held her breath. Please please please…
Hekla’s face screwed up. “I can feel those cow-eyes you’re giving me.” She rubbed her face again, then sighed as she opened her eyes. “Well, I can’t do anything,” she said. As Iduna’s face fell, she added, “But…I can put in a request for an assistant and put it a good word for you.”
Iduna let out a gasp in surprise, then started to jump up before Hekla interrupted, “And if you hug me I’ll chuck you back up to the forest myself.”
Iduna plopped back down in her seat, but she couldn’t stifle the relieved smile on her face. It wasn’t much, but at least she had some sort of hope of a plan. “Thank you, Hekla. I…”
“Don’t thank me just yet,” Hekla grumbled, getting to her feet and grabbing the pitcher of water on the table. “I’m taking you up on the offer of being the hardest worker I’ve ever seen.” She dumped the water over the fire, putting it out with a loud hiss. “There’s some blankets in the corner there, you can get cozy in those for tonight. I expect you up with the sun, and be sure to get all that hair out of your face.”
Iduna nodded, getting to her feet to settle in with the blankets. Once she reached them, she turned as she heard Hekla very quietly say, “Iduna.”
“You can’t tell anyone where you’re from,” Hekla said, looking at her very seriously. “They told us what happened before I came in. If anyone knows you’re Northuldran, especially in this castle, you could just lose your head for what your tribe did to the king.”
Iduna swallowed, hand automatically going to her neck. Well, she already hadn’t planned on saying anything, but that was certainly a good incentive.
“You…you won’t tell anyone, will you?” she asked quietly. Hekla shook her head.
“I’ve no skin in this game, and I’m willing to bet the king wasn’t as innocent as the soldiers would have us think,” she muttered before absently adding, “God rest him.” She took a breath as she set the pitcher back on the table. “But don’t you worry, girl. Your secret is safe with me.” She nodded toward the blankets. “Now get to sleep. I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had; the horses need to be taken care of first thing in the morning.”
Iduna nodded. She pulled off her shawl, carefully folding it and setting it beside the blanket before she pulled off her boots. The blankets weren’t particularly soft, but she formed them into a cocoon around herself and was the warmest she’d been since she’d woken up in her bedroll this morning.
Had it really just been this morning? It seemed so long ago.
The thought made a sob bubble up in her throat, threatening to escape. But, just barely, she managed to swallow it down. There would be time to mourn later. For now, she just had to find a way to become Hekla’s assistant and stay safe.
From then on, everything else could be weathered. She just had to be strong enough.
And she really hoped she could be.