Actions

Work Header

The Legend of Elsa

Chapter Text

 

Princess Elsa awoke with a start. It was in the dead of night, and outside murmured a balmy summer storm. She heard the soft patter of rain and the warm rumble of thunder. Slowly, she sat upright. There was a cold sweat on her brow. She looked around the dark room. She spent so much time in here that she could make out every detail therein with a fine precision, even in the gloom of the night. Everything was still.

She turned her head to look at the large, triangular window to her left. Occasionally, the window lit up in time with the distant sound of thunder. The rain fell against the window in a steady rhythm, though its tempo paled in comparison to that of Elsa’s beating heart.

She had the dream again. It went the way it always did, which meant that Elsa dreaded it more and more with each passing night. Even the way she felt when it began, before the event, even that was now touched by a dark worry. Every pounded mound of snow, every immaculate snowflake, every look of wonder - she still treasured those, but she mourned - so much - the cost. The cost was too great.

She experienced the dream at least once a fortnight, it seemed. Before that, it had been every other night. And before that, her every waking hour was plagued by the memory. She thought that she might never be happy again. She didn’t take meals at first. She lost weight. She became sick. In her feverish sleeps, she muttered always, “Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry…”

It had been some time now. In the day, nobody saw her. All her tears were behind a marble dam, her face carved from the same stone. She would raise her chin and cite her duty. She was the model of elegant royalty: poised, pristine, professional, and perfect. The singers sang of her beauty. Lords and ladies came to court to praise her: the beautiful princess, heiress apparent of the Kingdom of Arendelle.

But some nights, the dam broke. The marble cracked and shattered. It was better that she was alone when it did. She still hated herself for it. It had been so many years.

“Touched,” said the shadows in her dream, and they nodded in unison. She hated the shadows.

“It will only get worse,” said another shadow.

“Only one solution,” said yet another shadow.

“Or else, you let come what may,” warned the shadows.

“No,” said her father. “We’ll do what we must.”

“Please, Father,” said Elsa. The fear drowned her. She was choking on every word. “I promise… I… I’ll be good. Please. I’m sorry.”

Her father looked her full in the face, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. He knelt down and embraced her, his face buried in her platinum locks, but his arms felt cold. They always felt cold.

“It’s not your fault, honey,” her father murmured into her hair. She tried not to cry, but she always did.

“I’m sorry, I’ll be good. I promise. I’m sorry.”

She wondered if she had been sorry enough. What she might have done to prove it, she still didn’t know. When she cried, her tears froze the ground beneath her feet. She hated herself for that. She wanted to hit herself, pull out her hair, anything.And then she would awake, just as she and her parents drove away, her last plaintive screams drowned out by the patter of horse-hooves and the thundering in her chest.

Her heart felt heavy that night. It had been a long time since she had cast ice. She had attempted to bargain with this, once upon a time, but her parents just shook their heads. There was nothing they could do, and she knew they were right. It was for the best, really.

Elsa threw the covers off and slid out of bed. She walked over to the window and looked out at the falling rain. Raindrops slid down the window, each one tracing a different treacherous path across the polished glass. A flick of the wrist and they’d all be snowflakes. She couldn’t bring herself to do it, however. She wasn’t sure she still could, and she did not want to. The cost had been too great. She looked at herself in the glass, icy blue eyes boring deep into her own. Her lower lip trembled slightly.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the storm, and still the rain fell, and the thunder rolled, and night turned into day.

Chapter Text

Anna wasn’t like the other trolls. She was much taller, for starters. She towered over even the oldest of the trolls. Sometimes the other trolls would make a game of measuring her in their own height. They would climb on each other's heads, tottering about and trying to line up next to Anna. They rarely managed to stand still enough to accomplish the task, but sometimes they did. There was a lot of arguing about standing on tip-toes in those cases. Even when they didn’t get around to measuring, Anna had fun watching the trolls tumble, and mostly she ended up joining them.

She was different from the trolls in other ways as well. While they were short and squat, she was tall and slender. While they had stony gray complexions and big round noses, she had skin like a fair summer peach and a small, petite nose. While they had hair like tufts of grass and moss, she had long, frizzled hair, like a wildfire. While they had skin as hard as stone, she was cut easily by sticks and thorns. In fact, Anna was so unlike the other trolls that it puzzled her greatly. The Wise Troll told her she was a special snowflake, and unique, like all things that live under the sun, moon, and stars. But still, he never called her a troll. He just called her Anna.

For the most part, it didn’t bother Anna; it was only a matter of natural curiosity. The trolls were everything to her, after all. They insisted she call them “family.” They showed her the forest. They taught her how to catch animals, and forage for berries, and dig roots, and intimidate predators.

“Bears, now, bears are dangerous,” said Loot, an amiable troll who walked with a constant swagger. “Myself, I’ve only beaten bears a dozen times. If they get you, their bites can chip your skin something fierce. Take at least a day to heal. The best way to fight a bear is to find a large log-”

“You’re so dumb, Loot,” interrupted Rain, a troll with long, blue, grassy hair and an exceptionally big nose. “Anna doesn’t have rock skin. If a bear sees you, Anna honey, holler as loud as you can and raise your arms up high. If you can, grab some long sticks and wave those around. If you look big, it scares the bear, and a scared bear won’t do anything.”

As much as she learned about the lore of the forest, the trolls didn’t have much passion for exploring, which frustrated Anna. For her part, she often wandered far into the forest. Most of the time, her expeditions were limited to the nighttime, so she hooted at the owls and tried to catch mice. It was harder than it looked. She felt sorry for the mice the owls caught up, but she knew they had to eat somehow.

One time, however, she wanted to see the forest while it was still light out. So, in the late afternoon on one fine spring day, she woke up and crept away from the village, dashing into the forest as silent as a mouse.

The birds of daytime seemed to herald her coming, as they chirped and tweeted, and the forest came alive with all kinds of delightful sounds that she never heard during the night. At night, owls and crickets sang; but in the day, the whole forest seemed to hum with music.

After so many dark nights running through thick underbrush and jumping over gnarled roots and rocks, navigating the forest by day was much easier. She found she could double her ranging distance in the light of the sun. She went far, further than she ever had before, and found a shady clearing towered over by the mightiest tree she had ever seen. It was a broadleaf tree with big green leaves, and branches that hung low. Grabbing the lowest branch she could reach, she swung herself up and climbed the tree.

When she reached the top, she poked her head through the canopy and looked at the forest around her. An endless field of green, trees tall and short and green, rolling with hills. Off in the north, she could see a huge, white hill with a pointed top, wreathed in clouds. She knew it for the North Mountain. To the east, she saw a river flowing south. She felt thirsty.

She climbed down the tree and walked east, to the river. She had reached a thick pine when she heard a grumbling, guttural noise that made a chill run down her spine. She walked around the pine and saw the river. Next to the river, a young fawn was standing, still as a statue. And then Anna saw it, an enormous brown bear stalking the fawn.

Anna supposed that the bear had chased the fawn for a while now, as the little thing’s chest was rising and falling rapidly and it was out of breath. It was trapped between the river and the bear, and Anna swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. This is nature, Anna thought to herself.

The bear was creeping up to the fawn, which was too tired or too scared to move, and Anna wanted to close her eyes and flee. Bears can run fast and climb faster, she knew, but a bear wouldn’t give up a prized deer fawn for a little troll girl like herself. She could escape. But she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the scene unfolding before her.

Scare the bear. A surge of adrenaline rushed through her. She glanced quickly around, and saw two heavy branches that had fallen from the thick pine. She picked them up and screamed as loud as she could, waving the branches above her head and crashing them together.

The bear whirled around as Anna yelled and waved the branches. It stood up on its hind legs and bellowed, but Anna kept on yelling and banging the branches together.

An eternity seemed to pass there, as the two of them stood off. Then, without another growl or roar, the bear lowered itself back down to four legs and sauntered off. When the bear was fully gone from sight, Anna turned to the fawn. She realized that she was shaking, now; her, not the fawn, who was still unmoving.

The fawn looked at her for a moment, and then hopped away into the forest, in the opposite direction from the bear.

Anna made her way back home, and the sun was setting by the time she re-entered the village. The trolls asked where she had been, and she described her encounter with the bear. The Wise Troll was furious.

“Why in the name of the Earthmother would you provoke a bear like that?” he scolded.

“I was afraid for the deer,” Anna said.

“You could have been killed, Anna. Bears are unpredictable. Who told you to act that way around bears?”

Reluctantly, Anna explained what Loot and Rain had told her. The Wise Troll scolded them too, grabbing them by the ears. He forced them to work laundry duty that night. Rain felt bad, but Loot was so proud.

“I knew it, she takes after me,” he proclaimed triumphantly as he washed grass skirts in the stream. “Before you know it, Anna will have a dozen bear conquests under her belt. Why, I remember my first bear-”

“Don’t encourage her,” hissed Rain.

From that point on, Anna was forbidden to stray too far from the village, but this did nothing to diminish her wanderlust. As she got older, her curiosity grew stronger, as did her perplexity that she wasn’t like the other trolls. A queer feeling nibbled at her heart, one that told her she’d find no answer if she stayed, as the trolls did, in the forest.

One early morning, she was out near the brook, gathering berries for supper. It was just first light, and thin tendrils of pink and red sunshine played across the water. She loved the mornings. Though she usually turned around at daybreak, and finished her gathering, on that morning a mischievous thought crossed her mind. She could get away with just a few more minutes, she reasoned, nobody would notice; and so she went further up the stream than she ever had before. She came upon a section of the stream that was crossed by a narrow, brown, dirt pathway that twisted into the forest on both sides.

It was while she was standing there and investigating the pathway – she supposed it must be a road, though she had never seen one before – that she heard a faint rattling noise. She turned to look and saw something swerving down the path: a small reindeer, in front of a flat, wooden board with a curved end. Straps of leather hung around the reindeer’s neck and back, and were tied to the front end of the board, and on the board sat a troll – a troll who looked a lot like herself.

The troll pulled on the leather strips and the reindeer slowed to a stop, right next to her. It was a brown reindeer with a shaggy mane and two stubby antlers. It began sniffing Anna excitedly. Anna had an enormous fondness for animals, but right now she was looking at the troll with pale skin like hers and thin hair like hers, although this troll had hair that looked somewhat golden, almost yellow. He had a nose somewhat like the other trolls’, though it wasn’t quite as round. And his eyes were light brown, though her own were blue.

“Hi!” she said almost immediately, waving at the golden troll. “Wow! I’ve never seen another troll like you before!”

The troll’s eyes were narrowed before, but now they became as wide as saucers. “What? I’m not a troll!” he squawked in an indignant, boyish voice.

“Don’t think you can fool me, mister troll. I’m 9!” She held up nine fingers to demonstrate her point. She grinned.

“Oh yeah? Well, I’m 10.” He stuck out his chin at her. “If I’m a troll, what does that make you?”

“I’m a troll, too!”

The golden troll looked flummoxed at that. “No, you’re not. You’re a human, like me.”

Anna raised an eyebrow. “What’s a human?”

The golden troll opened his mouth as if to say something, but nothing came out for a moment. “Ah,” he uttered, after several seconds’ thought. “It’s what we are.”

“But we’re trolls.”

“No, we’re humans,” he said impatiently.

Anna frowned. “You’re not making any sense, mister troll.”

“I’m not a troll, and I have a name, you know,” said the troll with a frustrated sigh. “My name is Kristoff, and this here is my best pal, Sven.” He gestured to the tiny reindeer.

“Oh! My name is Anna.” She bowed. “Nice to meet you, Kristoff.” She turned to the reindeer and bowed again. “Nice to meet you, Sven.”

Sven the reindeer licked her face, and she giggled. “I’ve never seen a girl bow before,” said Kristoff.

“Really?” said Anna. “You must come from a very rude tribe.”

“I do not,” said Kristoff hotly. “Where I come from, girls curtsy.”

“What’s a curtsy?” Anna thought of curtains, but she didn’t know how that related to bowing. Maybe in this golden troll’s tribe, it was customary for lady-trolls to present someone with a curtain instead of bowing? It would be a bother to carry some curtains around all the time, though. What if you had to meet a lot of people in a single day?

Kristoff gaped for a moment, and then he threw his head back and laughed. “You’re funny, Anna.” He smiled at her. She smiled back, but she didn’t know what was amusing him so much. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you,” he continued, “but I have to get this ice into town pronto, so I can’t stay any longer.” He patted a cube of ice that sat on the wooden plank behind him. It was fastened to the plank with ropes tied in several large knots.

“Okay, Mr. Kristoff! Goodbye!” said Anna, and she bowed again. He laughed once more and took up the leather strips that were tied to Sven. He flexed them and said “Mush!” and the reindeer broke into a trot, pulling Kristoff and his ice. The both of them continued jostling down the path, the rattling of the plank becoming fainter and fainter as they pulled out of sight.

Anna watched them go, and then she took her berries and ran back down along the muddy stream towards her village. The sun was two fingers above the horizon by the time she got back. She deposited her berries with the berry master, who started mashing them up, and ran among the gray, thatched huts and grassy roofs of the troll village.

The trolls had an exceptional talent for hiding things in plain sight, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the construction of their elusive towns. In seemingly empty clearings and sections of wood, troll structures rose out of the ground, woven together with trees and bushes and brambles that played tricks on the eyes. They were always the color of their surroundings. Most humans had trouble noticing the trolls themselves, to say nothing of their villages, but Anna had a trained eye.

She ran up to the biggest hut, one which sat cozily between two large, silver-trunked pines. She parted the entry curtain – a thick tangle of moss and vines – and entered. The hut had a low ceiling that almost touched the top of Anna’s head, and the ground was simple dirt. In the middle of the hut, a stone circle surrounded a mess of burning twigs. She looked across the fire to see the old, speckled troll sitting on the other side.

The troll had a long, mossy beard and a thick tuft of grass on his head. He wore beads and the fangs of wild animals around his neck, and in his right hand he clutched a staff that was no more than a long, thin stick with a carved stone tied hanging to one end. Draped over him was a thick, dark green cloak of leaves. He greeted Anna as she entered his hut. “Anna! How was your foraging?”

“Wise Troll!” she said. “I met another troll who looks like me.”

His eyes narrowed at that. “Really? Where?”

“Along the stream. I found a dirt path that must be a road and I was looking at it when a reindeer and a troll with golden hair came up to me. They were using the road and everything, and the reindeer was pulling the troll, and he was sitting on a wooden plank and he had a block of ice. I know you said I shouldn’t stray too far from the village, but I didn’t go that far, honest! I just went a teensy bit further than usual!” Anna finished her speech with a look of feigned innocence that she hoped was convincing.

The old troll’s eyes softened and he stroked his mossy beard. He rumbled out a sigh that sounded like grinding oats. “I don’t believe you met a troll, my dear.”

Anna cocked her head. “Huh? He said that he was a ‘human,’ but I didn’t know what that meant.”

The Wise Troll was now staring at the fire. “I knew this day would come. Anna, do you know why you aren’t like the rest of the trolls here?”

Anna thought it was a trick question. “Because I’m unique and we’re all special snowflakes?” she recited tentatively.

He nodded. “Yes, that’s true, but you’re not a troll. You’re a human.”

“What’s a human?”

“It’s what you are.”

The Wise Troll stood up on his two stubby feet, and walked around the firepit. He took Anna by the hands and looked up at her, his gray eyes meeting her own.

“It’s time you learned the truth, my dear. You were not born of the Earthmother, like us trolls. You had two human parents. They were like you.”

“Parents?” repeated Anna, blinking in confusion. “Like me? Can I meet them?”

“I’m afraid not, Anna, dear.” He sounded upset, and after a moment he said, not unkindly, “You’re an orphan.”

“What’s that?” asked Anna.

The Wise Troll rubbed his temples sullenly with his thumb and forefinger. “It’s getting late,” he said. “You should go to bed.”

Anna wondered a lot about what the Wise Troll had said. She wasn’t sure what it meant. She went to sleep that morning thinking about parents, and had the oddest dream that day about snowy fields. When she woke the next evening, she asked some of the others, but very few seemed to have any idea what an “orphan” was.

“I think they call you an orphan when you have no family,” said Braffly, a troll bigger than most by half – both in girth and height.

“That can’t be it,” said Anna. “I have a family. I have all of you.”

“Hmm…” Braffly thought long and hard about this. His broad, coarse face scrunched up in deep consideration. “I guess I don’t know what an orphan is, then.”

Towards the end of the night, when dawn was breaking, Anna went foraging again. Just like the previous morning, she went far up the brook to where the path crossed the stream. And she waited.

Sure enough, it was soon after first light that Kristoff and his reindeer came sliding down the pathway again, rattling as they had done the previous morning. Kristoff saw her and waved, grinning from ear to ear. “Hey!” he called. “Wild girl!”

Anna puffed out her cheeks and crossed her arms. “Human!” she called back. She tried to make it sound mocking, but somehow it didn’t work; in spite of herself, she was beaming.

Kristoff pulled the leather straps attached to Sven, and the reindeer stopped right next to her. She looked at the wooden plank and noticed that this time he had no ice. Kristoff walked over to her, still beaming, and bowed low.

“Wild girl?” she repeated.

He straightened up, chuckling. “Look at you! You’re a regular forest child.”

She hadn’t taken into account the difference between her and Kristoff’s clothes, but now that she thought about it, it was rather jarring. She was wearing her usual green tunic of woven moss, and her legs were covered by a grassy skirt. Kristoff, by contrast, was wearing a pale yellow-gray tunic and had what looked like was a sheepskin draped over it. Around his waist, a knotted rope held up the strangest skirt she’d ever seen: a pale brown hunk of leather that covered both legs separately, all the way down to his shins. He was wearing two thick brown skins on his feet, and she was barefoot.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ve never seen anyone dressed in grass before. Who taught you to dress like that?”

“My family,” she said, her cheeks feeling warm. Was he making fun of her?

“Your family?” he said. “I’d like to meet them. Where do they live?”

“At the cairn,” she said, using the name they taught her for the stone clearing they slept in during the day.

Kristoff looked surprised to hear this. “The cairn?” he echoed. Anna nodded. “So, then… they wouldn’t be… are they… trolls?” His voice squeaked as the question tumbled out of his mouth. Anna nodded once again, but more slowly this time.

He seemed to take a few moments to collect his thoughts. “I see. I guess you really are a forest child.”

“The Wise Troll says I’m an orphan,” said Anna. Kristoff frowned, but Anna kept talking. “Do you… know what that means?”

Kristoff looked sad. “It means your parents are dead.”

“What are parents?”

“Y’know… parents!” Kristoff waved his arms around as if “parents” would spring from the forest and explain for him. “A lot of people have ‘em. I don’t, though, actually, because I’m an orphan too.” For a moment he looked dejected, but perked up just as quickly and patted Sven. “I don’t need parents though. I’ve got Sven, and Mr. Oaken helps keep me out of trouble.”

“Where do you live?” asked Anna curiously.

“In town.”

“What’s a town?”

“Uh,” Kristoff scratched his head. “It’s a place where a lot of people live.”

“Oh,” said Anna, understanding coming over her. “Kind of like the troll village, but for humans? Do humans all live in houses, too?”

“Mostly,” said Kristoff with a nervous smile.

Anna nodded. She looked at Kristoff’s sled and noticed the lack of ice. “So…” she said conversationally, “no ice this morning, huh?”

Kristoff’s eyes lit up at the mention of ice. “Yeah, ice is a bit unpredictable sometimes. Some mornings, the icers don’t have any ice to send back to town.” He shrugged helplessly.

They continued talking for a little while, exchanging questions and answers, until Anna remembered she had to get back to the village before sun-up. She bade Kristoff goodbye, and ran back down the stream, head swimming with fantastic notions about human villages.

Over the next few weeks, Anna came to the stream in the mornings to meet and talk with Kristoff, when he crossed. She asked him a lot of questions about town, but he was happy to oblige her. The way he described it, she decided she would like to live in a town filled with other people like her. She might even like to have a pet reindeer, or to deliver ice every morning. She wasn’t so sure about sleeping at night, though.

One evening, she went to the Wise Troll and asked what he knew about the human town.

“I know very little about the human town, dear,” he said. “I’ve never been there before.”

“Oh,” said Anna, feeling crestfallen. “I thought I might like to visit. The way Kristoff describes it, it sounds so intriguing.”

The troll eyed her for a moment, and grunted. “You know why us trolls don’t wander, right, Anna?”

“Because a rolling stone gathers no moss,” Anna recited.

“And that’s all we trolls are made of,” he said with a solemn chortle, running his thick fingers through his mossy beard. “But you – you are a human after all. Oh, very well. I suppose it can’t be helped. You may visit the town if you stay out of trouble.”

Anna couldn’t help it: a huge smile crept across her face. “Do you really mean it?” she squeaked.

He smiled at her. “Yes, my dear, I do. But remember that humans sleep at night, so you will need to rest up before dawn so that you can stay awake during the day.”

Anna agreed, and that morning she asked Kristoff about arranging a trip into town. She was so excited that she skipped up the brook, and when Kristoff and Sven came rattling into view, she bounded forward to meet them.

“Wild girl!” said Kristoff, as he dismounted his sled. It was called a toboggan, Anna had learned, that wooden plank. Usually it was used on snow, but Kristoff said it was only this last leg of his daily commute where the ground wasn't snowy.

“Hi, Kristoff!” she said, as she bounced up and down.

“So,” he said with a broad smile, “what’s got you in such a good mood?”

“The Wise Troll said I can visit the town with you!” she blurted.

“That’s great!” he said, and now he seemed as excited as she was. “I can’t wait for you to meet everyone. Do you want to go now?”

She nodded at first, but then she stopped and shook her head. “No, well, yes, I do – it’s just that the Wise Troll says I should get some sleep before I go into town.”

“Oh, all right, then,” he said with a nod. “How about tomorrow, maybe?”

The next morning, a well-rested Anna perched behind Kristoff on his toboggan. They were moving quickly, more quickly than Anna had ever moved before, as the sled bumped and rattled down the dirt road. At first, Anna was scared; but then she decided that she liked the feel of the wind in her hair.

On the way to town, Kristoff talked a lot about how excited he was to show Anna to everyone. Apparently, the people in town, and the good Mr. Oaken, didn’t believe there was really a forest girl wandering around the cairn.

“Why don’t they come to the cairn and see for themselves?” asked Anna.

“They’re scared of ghosts and ghost stories,” Kristoff mocked. “Not me, though. The only thing that wears a white sheet and scares me is the North Mountain.” He shuddered involuntarily.

“What’s so scary about the North Mountain?” The first time Anna had ever seen that mountain, she thought it looked beautiful. It was isolated, towering over the nearby hills and valleys, almost impossible in its tallness. Wispy clouds caught on the peak like wet clothes on a tree branch. And the mountain was always impeccably white. The North Mountain was alone, but stronger than anything and everything else around it. She asked the trolls about it, and they just said it was an old place wherein dwelt the spirits of old things.

Kristoff laughed, but he sounded anxious. “Have you ever seen it before?”

“It looks pretty, I think,” said Anna, after a brief pause.

“Yeah,” said Kristoff, dreamy for a moment. “Ice and snow… but they say that mountain whispers.”

“Isn’t that just another ghost story?” She heard a lot of such stories from the trolls: tales of snowy apparitions and woodland tricksters, mostly harmless spirits that some called ghosts. Spirits were shy by nature, and Anna had never seen one before, but sometimes the stories gave her gooseprickles all the same.

“It’s different!” replied Kristoff, his face turning red. “I’ve heard the whispers before, myself. Sometimes when I look at the mountain, I feel like it’s looking back at me.” He shuddered. “I wouldn’t climb it for all the gold in the world.”

They rode on mostly in silence after that, only interrupted when Kristoff remembered something else about the town that he thought Anna should know. She was starting to tune him out, though, as she looked at the forest whipping all around them, and listened to the sound of morningbirds beginning to chirp and tweet with greater vigor. She had never heard a mountain whisper before, and now she wanted to.

After a while, Kristoff began talking about the larger world, other towns, and even cities. Anna asked what a city was, and Kristoff said “I suppose it’s just a really big town.” He told her about a city that sat near the ocean, and in the city was a great castle, and there was a marketplace where people gathered from all over to trade things. The oddest feeling came over Anna as Kristoff talked, like a feather tickling at the corner of her mind. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“…it’s truly the greatest city in Arendelle,” Kristoff gushed. “I’d like to live there some day.”

“What’s Arendelle?”

For not the first time, Kristoff gaped over his shoulder at her; she was used to that look. But he must have become used to Anna’s ignorance on such matters, though, because he recovered faster than was typical for him. “Arendelle is the Kingdom! It’s all this that surrounds us!” He gestured dramatically at the trees and bushes that were flying past, at the sky above, and at the mountains off in the distance.

“I thought that was called ‘Earth’,” said Anna.

Kristoff was exasperated. “Yeah, OK, the whole world is called Earth,” he said, drawing out the word “whole” in an exaggerated fashion. “But this land, that we live on, it’s part of the Kingdom of Arendelle.”

“Oh,” said Anna. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that this Kingdom is ruled over by the Royal Family of House Arendelle,” said Kristoff. “I’ve never seen them before, but they live in a big castle in the city, and everybody loves them.”

“What do they do?” asked Anna.

“They rule,” said Kristoff. “They build the towns and the cities and the boats and the castles, and people do what they say, and they catch criminals and defend the kingdom against evil.”

“Kind of like the Wise Troll?” Anna offered. It didn’t sound exactly like the kind of things the Wise Troll did, as he certainly didn’t do any building, but the other trolls often did what he asked.

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” said Kristoff, putting one finger on his chin. “Except they’re more… y’know, more.” Anna didn’t know more what, but Kristoff didn’t say anything else.

A short while later, Kristoff exclaimed loudly. Anna looked over his shoulder just as they were passing over the crest of a hill. On the other side, the dirt path wound between a cluster of houses with slanted roofs. They looked a little like the troll huts, except they were taller, wider, and seemed to be made of sturdier stuff. She noticed that the foundations of the buildings were made of densely packed stone, rising just a foot or two over the ground, and on top of those rocky bases were logs and wooden planks that constituted the rest of the houses.

As Kristoff and Anna slid into town, rattling on their sled, they passed in front of one wooden house that was set further away from the rest. Anna saw the entryway, to her amazement, wasn’t a curtain at all but another plank of wood with a curved wooden handle mounted on it. In front of the door, a lettered sign was hanging down from a protruding section of roof above.

“Oa… ken’s…” Anna sounded out, not knowing until after she did that the symbols on the sign seemed to make sense to her.

This time, Kristoff’s astonishment pushed his voice into shriller registers. “You can read?” he squeaked.

Before Anna had any time to respond, the door to the house exploded outwards, swinging on two creaky wooden hinges, and a huge wall of a man stepped through the threshold. Anna had never seen such a tall troll before - er, well, human, she supposed. For that matter, she had never seen such a wide human before. He was wearing a pine green wool sweater and a thick pair of brown leather overalls. On his head, a shaggy mane of light auburn hair was barely covered by a cap that was too small. His face was wide, and every part of it seemed to smile: his big mouth, his green eyes, and his thin, wispy mustache.

“Hoo-hoo!” he tinkled in a voice that didn’t suit his frame in the slightest. He lifted a huge hand and wiggled his fingers at them. “Kristoff! I see you have my ice, ja?”

Kristoff stammered out a confirmation.

“Very good,” he said, and he turned his head to look at Anna. “Hoo! And I suppose this is your friend, the wild girl, ja?”

Anna hopped up off the sled and bowed to the huge man. “My name’s Anna. Pleased to meet you!”

The huge man bowed back. “My name’s Oaken, m’lady. The pleasure’s all mine. Kristoff has told us so much about you, ja?” He straightened up again, and turned to address Kristoff once more. “Kristoff, would you please bring the ice to the cellar? You know where it goes.”

“Y-yeah, of course, Mr. Oaken,” said Kristoff as he gathered himself. He saluted Oaken awkwardly and drove Sven around behind the house, bumping off the trail and onto the green grass wet with dew.

When Kristoff was gone from sight, Oaken looked at Anna and studied her for a long moment. His face became unreadable as his previous grin transformed into a horizontal line. “So, Kristoff says you live in the forest, ja?”

“That’s right,” said Anna happily. She decided that she liked Oaken, and his attitude, and his funny way of talking, and his too-small hat.

“Near the cairn?”

“Yep!”

“With trolls?”

“Uh-huh!”

Oaken put a big hand on his jaw, and stroked his chin. “But you aren’t a forest child, are you?” he asked in a soft voice.

“I don’t know what that is,” said Anna. “But Kristoff says I can’t be because I’m an orphan.”

Oaken nodded. “Ja, I see,” he hummed out.

After a few moments’ silence, Anna asked: “Oaken, sir, what is a forest child?”

Oaken seemed to brighten up at that. “An old myth,” he said, smiling once more. “It says that the children of the forest are spirits that bring good luck, and look just like human children, but dress in grass and leaves instead of hides and leathers.”

It was Anna’s turn to light up. “Ohhh, I see,” she said. “My family tells myths and stories, too! I’ve never heard any about forest children, but they talk sometimes about forest spirits, which sound kind of similar, and they also tell stories about goblins and ghosts and stuff like that, and also dragons and big animals and hidden places and forest monsters…” Her voice trailed off. She hadn’t talked to very many humans, and the way Oaken didn’t interrupt her made her uneasy.

“Hoo-hoo, a fellow enthusiast!” Oaken said, an amused expression crossing his face. “Ja, Kristoff told me so much about you that I just had to see for myself if the stories were true.”

“My family says that myths and stories are often more true than we care to know,” said Anna.

“Maybe,” said Oaken, now playing with his mustache, “but anyway, they are fun, ja?”

Anna had to agree, and Oaken began talking about his favorite stories, and the books that he learned about them from. The more he talked, the more Anna began to wonder about “books” and how they could tell a story.

“What’s a book?” Anna interrupted.

“That’s right,” said Oaken, realization spreading across his face. “I suppose you haven’t seen many books in the forest.” He looked sad for a moment. “And I bet you can’t read, either. That’s a shame, ja?”

Now Anna was more confused than ever. She was about to ask another question when Kristoff appeared from behind the house, with Sven trotting jauntily at his heels. Unlike Sven, who looked as happy as a clam, Kristoff had the look of someone who had just lugged a heavy block of ice down a steep set of stairs.

“Kristoff, good work today,” said Oaken, beaming at the doleful boy. “I think you’ve earned the rest of the morning to yourself. Why don’t you show Anna around our town, ja?”

Kristoff perked up at that, and so did Sven, so Oaken sent the three of them off to go explore the human village.

Anna, who had grown quite accustomed to the beauty of the forest, was stirred by the strangeness of the human village. There was a logic to it, etched in the straight lines and the sharp corners of the wooden houses. It was nothing like the forest, where rocks, trees, rivers, hills, stumps, logs, bugs, birds, and rabbits sat in haphazard fashion wherever they pleased, tumbled about by water and wind and time.

Anna followed Kristoff and Sven as they walked among the houses and the people, tall and strange and wonderful. They all greeted Anna kindly, and they were very polite, although Anna was struck by their strange activities and stared without meaning to.

One man, a stout auburn-haired person with a crooked nose and soft, green eyes, was chopping apart logs of wood with a curved, metal instrument. He told Anna that she had pretty hair. “Reminds me of me dear old mum’s,” he said with a wistful sigh, chopping another log in half.

A short woman was sitting on a stool, vigorously pumping away at what Kristoff called a “butter churn.” She told a joke that made Anna laugh.

One lady with blonde hair and a pretty white dress gave Sven a carrot, but when Sven threatened to eat the whole thing by himself, Kristoff scolded him for “not sharing” and ate the rest. Anna thought that was funny.

A few of the townspeople asked questions, like “where are you from?” and those who did only smiled when she described her family and the trolls. But one man with dark eyes and black hair demanded to know where Anna was “really” from, and Anna didn’t understand what he meant. When he realized no answer was forthcoming, he stalked off, brooding.

“Don’t mind him,” said Kristoff, frowning and giving Anna a friendly pat on the back. “That’s Eddy, he’s a grump. Just stay out of his way and you’ll be fine.” However, this didn’t reassure Anna but instead made her feel a little uneasy.

Kristoff showed Anna a well, which was a deep hole in the ground with water in it. Anna asked how you got the water out of the well, and Kristoff explained that a bucket was lowered down into the well, filled with water, and pulled back out again. Anna didn’t much see the point in that, when streams were so much more convenient, but Kristoff insisted the well was better.

Kristoff liked to talk, and the time passed quickly in his company. Anna was delighted by the town and its strange people and smells. She thought she liked it a lot compared to the forest, where, although you could talk to the animals and the trees, they never talked back.

The two of them had been walking around the town for a few hours when they passed between two cabins and emerged into a wide stretch of green field. Part of the field was cordoned off by a flimsy wooden fence, where sheep were grazing peacefully. Near the fence, a group of young boys that looked about Kristoff’s age were standing in a crowd. They were all fixated on something that Anna couldn’t see, and Kristoff snorted.

“Oh, they’re here,” he said in an angry tone. Sven snorted as well.

“Who’s ‘they?’” asked Anna, looking at Kristoff.

Kristoff folded his arms. “Just a couple of bullies.”

“What’s a bully?”

Kristoff sighed in exasperation, and did not answer. Anna looked back at the boys, and noticed that they were laughing at something. “What are they looking at?” she asked.

Kristoff just shrugged this time, and after a moment, said, “Let’s just go.”

Anna was unsatisfied by this answer. “I’m going to go see for myself then,” she declared, and started marching toward the boys, barefoot and leafy-garbed as she was.

“Wait, Anna–” Kristoff started, but by that time one of the boys had already noticed them. Soon after, half the group was staring at the obscured thing, and half the group was staring wide-eyed at Anna.

Anna reached the group and craned her head to see what the object of their attention was. She noticed most of the boys were a little taller than she was, and unlike the adults of the village, who had regarded her with kindness, they were looking at her with cold suspicion. Two of the boys had parted so that Anna could see what they had been surrounding. What she saw made her feel as though someone had plunged her heart into icy water.

In the center of the group, a tall, lanky youth with jet hair and a furrowed brow was standing over a pitiful little mousy-haired boy who looked much younger than any of them. His body was covered in bruises and scratches, and he was crying. By now, the jeering had stopped. Kristoff caught up to Anna and grabbed her elbow. He tried to pull her away, but she was stock still.

She had seen this sort of thing before, of course. She thought of the bear and that little fawn. She knew it was nature’s way, that she should leave well enough alone. But something about this felt wrong. This was a town of humans, it wasn’t supposed to be like the forest. It was supposed to have neat lines and nice people, not bears and fawns.

One of the boys in the circle spoke up. “Brendan-” he began, but he didn’t need to finish. No doubt the dark-haired boy had noticed that the laughter had died away, and he looked around, trying to find the reason why.

His eyes found Anna’s, and he fixed her with a cold gaze. He stepped away from the mewling, beaten child, and walked up to Anna. His eyes snapped to her left, and he scoffed.

“Kristoff,” he growled. “This must be your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend!” said Kristoff too loudly, his cheeks reddening.

“No?” The dark-haired boy’s lips twisted into a thin smile. He looked her up and down. “That’s too bad. She suits you.”

Anna had picked up that he was talking about her, though she didn’t know what “girlfriend” was supposed to mean. “What are you doing to that boy?” she asked as she tried to keep her voice steady.

The boy glared at Anna. He was still smiling that thin little smile, though his eyes smoldered with barely concealed rage. “This kid needs to learn to respect his elders,” he sneered. “Just this morning he tripped over my foot and he wouldn’t even apologize.” He shook his head, as if disappointed, and a nervous chuckle wafted through the group.

“I said ‘I’m sorry,’” croaked the mousy-haired boy, and the youth scowled and spun around, kicking the boy in the side.

“Don’t speak unless spoken to,” he shouted down at the boy, who yelped in pain again.

“Don’t hurt him!” Anna yelled. The youth turned to look at Anna again, all trace that cold smile gone from his face.

“Who do you think you are?” he said, his voice trembling with anger.

“I’m Anna, and I’m telling you to leave that boy alone!” she yelled, even louder this time.

The youth walked over to Anna and was right in front of her in just a few short strides. He towered above her. “What,” he breathed, “will you do if I don’t?”

“Scare you,” Anna retorted, her blue eyes matching his dark gaze.

He smirked, and raised his fist.

The blow was ill-aimed, and connected with her shoulder, but it was still quick enough and strong enough to take her by surprise. She stumbled backwards but kept her footing. Scare the bear, the thought came to her mind. She screamed at the top of her lungs and charged into the youth, leaping at him. His eyes widened in anger or surprise – she couldn’t tell which – and she bowled into him, knocking him down. She bit his shoulder and he yelped with pain, and she started battering him with her fists. He threw her off and she rolled across the grass. The youth jumped to his feet and walked up to her, a furious look in his eyes. He kicked her in the stomach, hard, and knocked the wind out of her. There was a commotion now. She looked up and saw Kristoff struggling to restrain the dark-haired boy. Suddenly, above the din of shouting children, a clear voice cracked across the field like a peal of thunder.

“WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?”

All motion seemed to stop. Kristoff unhanded the boy, whose face was fixed with a look of seething resignation. Anna sat up, a sharp pain shooting through her belly. She saw a tall woman with long, golden hair tied into two braids striding towards them. She looked livid.

“Brendan?” said the woman as she stared at the youth. “Would you care to explain to me what you think you’re doing?”

Brendan’s lip curled. “Just having fun, ma’am.”

She slapped him. He looked at her, awestruck, his cheek turning red where she touched him. “Don’t lie to me, you little brat,” she said evenly. “I will tell your father what I’ve seen today. I doubt Edward will approve.”

A flicker of what looked like relief crossed Brendan’s face, for a brief moment, but he kept his cool. He fixed her with a neutral look. “Yes, ma’am.”

The woman extended a hand to Anna to help her up. She looked at the rest of the boys, and noticed the mousy-haired child, now curled up in a ball. “I suggest you all leave,” she said to the group of boys. “Or I will tell all of your parents.”

The boys took notice at that, and left the field on fast-moving legs. At least one of them broke into a dead run, sprinting back to the houses. When they had all dispersed, the woman surveyed the three of them who remained, plus one reindeer.

Anna was breathing shaky breaths, half out of fear and half out of anger. She wanted to cry, but more than that, she wanted revenge on Brendan. She wanted to beat and humiliate him and make him apologize to the poor boy he was attacking.

The boy. Anna remembered him with a start. She spun around to look at the mousy-haired boy she had intervened to protect. The woman was now tending to him, who looked no better off even now that the gang had gone.

“Are you okay, Martin?” she asked, helping him to his feet. He managed to nod a tiny bit.

The woman turned to Kristoff. “Kristoff, please be a dear and escort Martin back to his home.” Kristoff acquiesced, and moved to support Martin with his shoulder, one arm slung around his back. Sven moved up on Martin’s other side, offering moral support if nothing else.

When they were on their way, the woman looked at Anna. Anna looked back at her. Hero, Anna thought. She didn’t even know where the word had come from.

A long moment passed. Before Anna could say something, the woman grabbed her, hard, by the wrist, and started pulling her towards the village.

“H-hey, lemme go!” said Anna, struggling against the woman’s firm grip.

The woman ignored her. “You are reckless,” said the woman. “Attacking a gang like that. They outnumbered you, and it’s a sure bet they were stronger than you as well. That was very foolish.”

Anna’s face was red-hot now. “They were being mean.”

“That’s no excuse for a stupid decision,” said the woman. “If I hadn’t shown up, who knows how much more they'd have hurt you?”

The woman dragged Anna behind a log cabin, one that was surrounded by fat trees. Behind the house was a clearing where the grass had been cut short. Against the back wall of the house leaned many different-looking tools. Anna recognized one – a stick with a curved metal end for cutting wood – but the rest she didn’t know. She saw some pegs nailed into the wall, and hanging from those pegs were some long, smooth, wooden sticks.

“I couldn’t just do nothing,” said Anna with as much resolve as she could muster, but she felt feebler than she sounded.

The woman let go of Anna’s wrist, but Anna didn’t run away. She looked up at the woman, who was staring at the clearing with a misty look in her bright blue eyes. Anna noticed that she was wearing brown breeches and a red tunic, both stained with mud. On her feet she wore two enormous boots. She looked strong, stronger than anyone else Anna had seen in the village, and stood with her back straight and her chin held high. She exuded confidence.

“I know,” said the woman. “The smart thing is hard to do, sometimes. Trust me, I know.” She looked at Anna with a wan smile. “I should not have hit that boy.”

“But he deserved it!” said Anna, her jaw slack.

“Yeah, he did,” admitted the woman with a shrug. “But I still shouldn’t have hit him.”

The woman walked up to the wall of the cabin and plucked off two of the smooth wooden sticks. She threw one to Anna, and she caught it with both hands after a short fumble. She noticed the stick was long and thin at one end, and at the other it was shorter and thicker and easy to grip.

“My name is Astrid, but from now on, you will call me Teacher,” intoned the woman. She placed her left foot behind her body, and straightened out her right foot, pointing at Anna with the long, thin part of the stick. “Do you understand me, ‘wild girl?’” she taunted, the corner of her mouth flickering upwards.

Anna eyed Astrid. “What are you doing?” she asked, still clutching her own stick with both hands.

Astrid smirked. “As long as you’re going to be making stupid decisions, you might as well learn how to make them and get away with it. Now, en garde!”

 

Chapter Text

 

Anna’s first lesson in sword fighting was a pitiful affair. Astrid challenged Anna to hit her, and at first she was reluctant. But she relented and gave her stick a half-hearted swing, missing badly. Astrid repaid the clumsy maneuver by knocking Anna over. Anna stood up with a grimace, and tried again. And again. She never touched Astrid, and all she got were bruises for her trouble, but still, she kept at it. It felt good to just try and hit something, or anything, after her encounter with Brendan.

After about an hour, Anna had calmed down. She was sore, but she wasn’t mad anymore. Astrid clapped a hand on her shoulder and guided her gently to the well. She drew up a bucket of cold water and poured some into a clay cup that was sitting nearby. She thrust the filled cup into Anna’s face.

“Here. Drink.”

Anna drank. The water was cool and refreshing. Maybe Kristoff was on to something here, she thought.

“Do you feel better now?” Astrid asked.

Anna bit her lower lip. She did feel better, but she also felt a little ashamed of what she had done. She looked down and nodded.

“Good,” said Astrid. “I guess we’d better go apologize, then.”

Astrid marched Anna up to a house that was wider than the rest, and sat on a slight rise. From the hilltop, Anna could see the entire rest of the town, and estimated there must be at least forty cabins spaced irregularly throughout the small valley it occupied. She saw the field with the sheep, and beyond that a fjord that glittered in the noon sun. Beyond that, she saw the North Mountain, white and beautiful, but she heard no whispers.

The house was made of black timber and the wood paneling was decorated with carved wolf heads. The entryway was two doors with dull metal pulls, and on the doors a fashion of a wolf hunting an elk was carved. Anna and Astrid stood before the doors. For a second, Anna thought Astrid was about to kick in the doors.

Astrid addressed Anna sharply before knocking on the doors. “You are going to apologize to that boy’s father for attacking his son,” she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “No matter what he says in response, you look sorry, or I’ll make you sorry.”

Anna nodded. Astrid knocked briskly on the doors. After a short wait, the door opened inward, and a man stepped into the threshold. He was tall, with a narrow face, and had short black hair, dark eyes, with a faint trace of hair on his upper lip and chin. Anna recognized him for the man who demanded to know where she was “really from,” the one Kristoff called “Eddy.” She hid her recognition, though, and adopted as best she could a look of contrition.

“Yes?” said the dark-eyed man, glaring between the two of them.

“Anna here has something to say to you, Edward,” said Astrid in a level tone. She pushed Anna hard in the back, so Anna stumbled forward to stand before the man. Anna hesitated for a moment, unsure of what she should say.

“I’m sorry for attacking your son,” she muttered, looking at her shoes.

“What?” barked Edward. “I can’t hear you when you mumble like that, girl. And look at me.”

Anna turned her head up to look at him. His gaze was cold. “I’m sorry for attacking your son,” she said again, more loudly this time.

Edward merely grunted, and looked up at Astrid, his narrow face lined with contempt. “My son tells me that the girl didn’t act alone.”

“Your son was kicking Armin’s boy. Repeatedly. Without mercy. While he lay on the ground,” explained Astrid. “Since you weren’t there, I thought I’d do you the courtesy of doling out some discipline in your stead. I’m sure you must agree that it’s a foul thing for a boy his age to do, to treat his peers like that.” Astrid smiled and her voice sounded like honey.

Edward’s lip curled in a faint sneer. “Indeed,” he snarled, “but next time, let me handle disciplining my son. I’ve already had a talk with him about what’s happened today. I assure you that he won’t forget it for a long time. You touch him again, and I will make you regret it.” Astrid’s expression did not falter.

He swiveled his head to glare at Anna. “And you, wild girl, you stay away from my son. I don’t want him to start eating mud and wearing grass because of whatever diseases you might give him with your animal bites.”

Anna’s temper flared, and she opened her mouth to retort, but out of the corner of her eye she noticed Astrid give a quick but subtle shake of her head. Anna dropped her gaze. “Yes, sir,” she muttered, her hands balled into fists. As an afterthought, she bowed stiffly.

The man snorted and retreated into his house, slamming the wolf door in their faces. They stood in quiet, and then Astrid turned around and walked down the hill, beckoning Anna to follow her.

Anna was still seething when Astrid spoke up again. She was leading Anna to Oaken’s place. “Edward’s a sour buffoon, but he’s the trueborn mayor of this little burg, and that means that he rules.”

This did not improve Anna’s mood in the slightest. “He’s from the Royal Family?” she asked, shocked.

Astrid laughed. It was the first time Anna had seen real warmth or amusement cross her face. “No,” said Astrid, a grin broken out on her face, “no, gods, no. He’s just the mayor of this town. The Royal Family is a long way away.”

“Kristoff said that the Royal Family ruled the Kingdom, and that they were kind and just,” said Anna.

“The Royal Family can’t be everywhere at once,” said Astrid, still smiling. “There are parts of the Kingdom where others rule for them.”

Anna still didn’t like the sound of that. “Well, I don’t think someone so mean should be ‘ruling’ anyone,” she declared.

“That’s life,” Astrid said with a shrug.

Upon their return to Oaken’s cabin, they found the big man with worry written all over his face. Kristoff and Sven were there, too, although Kristoff’s attitude was more like annoyance than concern. At Oaken’s side, a tall, beautiful man with long, free-flowing blond hair stood wringing his immaculate hands. He wore a clean white tunic and gray breeches, and looked relieved when Anna and Astrid passed into view.

“Anders, brother,” said Astrid.

“Astrid, my sister, I was so worried about you,” the man replied, his voice as gentle as a breeze. “The whole town has been talking.”

“It’s been handled,” Astrid reassured him with a pat on the shoulder. He was taller than her by about six inches, and his shoulders were broad, but he still looked smaller than Astrid to Anna’s eye. “I just had to take care of the little wild girl here,” Astrid said, gesturing to Anna.

Anna could feel her face burning again, but Anders favored her with a fond look. “Kristoff told me what happened,” he said. “It was good of you to stand up for Martin.”

Anna said nothing but looked at her feet. It was stupid, she thought. Astrid was right. A silence fell over them, broken when Oaken clapped his hands together and said brightly, “Heck of a first day in town, ja?”

In spite of herself, Anna had to smile at that. She looked up and saw they were all smiling, too. Even Astrid. “The first kid with any balls in this town,” Astrid mused dryly, “and she’s a forest child.”

The ride back to the stream with Kristoff consisted of little conversation, as the boy fumed about Brendan and his gang. “They don’t even like him,” he complained. “His ‘gang,’ I mean. They only follow him because he’s a lordling. It’s people like him why I don’t hang around with other kids.” Anna was surprised to hear that, and almost said something, but a feeling in her gut instructed her to hold her tongue.

Upon her return to the cairn, Anna didn’t tell the trolls everything that had happened in town, for fear she would not be allowed to return, so over the next several months she went back every week. She might not have wanted to return to the human village after the ordeal, but she did want to see Astrid again. She had the good sense to stay away from Brendan and his boys, and though she occasionally saw them up to some mischief or another, chasing chickens or throwing rocks at houses, there were no more beatings. All the same, she was diligent about avoiding his dark gaze.

Every now and again, Oaken had some small task for Anna that she did without protest. Kristoff worked for Oaken by delivering goods to cottages around the town, and bringing in ice from the mountains in the north. Anna, meanwhile, helped by pulling water from the well, or bringing in firewood. Oaken said that she was never obliged to do anything, but she was always more than happy to help out.

Under Astrid’s tutelage, Anna continued to learn the art of sword fighting, and found that she liked it a lot. It felt good, and it gave her something to do when she had time to herself. She practiced at Astrid’s drills every day, swinging her arms up and down, side to side, jumping back and forth all the while.

Her enthusiasm grew when Oaken told her stories about great warriors and heroes, which were the kinds of stories Anna had never heard before, but found she enjoyed quite a lot. And Oaken knew a lot of these stories. Oftentimes, Anna and Kristoff sat on the grass outside of Oaken’s house, while Oaken told them about heroes and beasts.

“And then,” Oaken said, as he raised his hands over his head and clenched them together, “Hercules bashed the mountainside with his giant’s strength,” he brought his hands down suddenly, “and the mountain cracked apart, and a rock slide spilled out and crushed them both!”

Anna gasped. “Was Hercules okay?”

Oaken touched the side of his nose and gave her a knowing wink. “It takes more than rocks to kill Hercules, ja! But the hydra was not so fortunate.”

Kristoff yawned. “Rocks are just rocks. You know what’s really dangerous? Ice.”

Anna punched him in the shoulder. “I bet you wouldn’t like it if an avalanche fell on you.”

“Avalanches are mostly snow, y’know,” snapped Kristoff, rubbing his shoulder. “And they can happen anytime, anywhere. Not just when a super-demigod punches a mountain.”

“Snow is soft, rocks are hard,” Anna shot back. “I’d rather get hit by some snow than a rock.”

“A tightly-packed snowball can hurt just as badly as a rock,” retorted Kristoff.

They were still bickering when Anders appeared in the entryway of the house and announced dinner. Anders spent a lot of time at Oaken’s cabin, Anna had realized; in fact, he never seemed to be far from the place.

“They live together,” Kristoff had told her, when Anna had asked him about it.

“I thought people all lived in their own houses,” said Anna.

“No, usually families live together,” said Kristoff.

“But… aren’t Anders and Astrid a family?”

“Yeah, but, I mean,” Kristoff looked flustered, “They’re brother and sister, and they used to live together, but then Anders and Oaken got married.”

“Married,” repeated Anna without a hint of understanding. She shook her head. “Human life is so complicated,” she sighed.

So Kristoff proceeded to instruct her on the basics of human families and how marriage tied into the whole thing. At last he used a twig to draw diagrams in the dirt road as Anna looked on. The more Kristoff explained about parents, though he spoke in such a level tone, the more Anna began to feel sharp pangs about her own parents, whom she never met, nor much thought about. Seeing it drawn in front of her, however, it dawned on her that they were real people, as real as Oaken or Astrid or Anders; and, moreover, that she would never get the chance to meet them. The thought made her sad.

“…and when your parents have more than one kid, that’s how you get siblings,” explained Kristoff. Anna scratched her head, and nodded for Kristoff’s benefit, but she was not impressed.

“It’s simpler with trolls,” she said. “Everyone is part of your family when you’re a troll.”

Kristoff shrugged. “You’re supposed to love your family. How can you love someone you’ve never met?”

“Everyone in the troll village knows each other,” replied Anna.

“Maybe that’s it. Most people in the kingdom are strangers,” said Kristoff. “Anyway,” he said, stretching his legs out, “that’s why Anders and Oaken live together.”

Anna nodded again. Then she asked, “Where do you live, Kristoff?”

Kristoff stopped mid-stretch and looked at her, a blank look on his face. “I sleep in the stables. With Sven.”

“So maybe Sven’s like your brother?” she teased.

Kristoff tried to frown, but when Sven whinnied in appreciation, he couldn’t help smiling. “He’s like a brother, for sure,” he murmured as he patted Sven’s woolly mane. “He’s always got my back.” Sven nuzzled Kristoff with what looked like a dopey smile on his reindeer face.

Anna had found herself wishing she had a brother, or maybe a sister, as she watched Kristoff and Sven. The thought resonated with her until she went to sleep that evening, and that night she dreamt of a wide, snowy field. She was running through it, laughing, kicking up waves of snow behind her, and she reached a wide frozen lake. She jumped on the lake and began sliding, wind whipping through her hair. She was sliding fast, faster than she had ever moved before, faster than Sven and his sled, faster than hawks or eagles, faster than an avalanche. The wind chilled her to the bone, and she couldn’t move or feel her fingers or face, and she awoke with a start, shivering violently despite the muggy summer night.

Oaken got up when Anders announced dinner, and Anna was reminded of the story. “Wait! So, what happened next?”

The big man wrinkled his mustache. “Well,” he said, “the hydra was slain, and the city rejoiced. They called him a hero, but the gods did not.”

Anna frowned. “Why didn’t the gods call him a hero?”

Oaken tittered. “Hoo-hoo, that’s a good question, ja.” And he walked into his cabin. Kristoff and Anna trailed behind.

“Why do you think the gods didn’t call him a hero?” Anna asked Kristoff.

Kristoff hummed. “Maybe because… Hercules didn’t kill the hydra with his own two hands, he had to use a cheap trick? Or maybe because hydras were really common in those days, and any old fool could kill one.”

“No, I don’t think that’s right,” said Anna, a little peeved at Kristoff’s cavalier attitude. Kristoff just shrugged. They followed Oaken into the cabin.

The inside of Oaken’s cabin consisted of three small rooms: a front room, a kitchen, and his bedroom. The front room was the most spacious of the three, a thick bearskin rug covering a large portion of the floor. A fat stone fireplace sat in one corner, though now it sat disused while the windows were all open, a pleasant breeze blowing through the room. This was the room where Oaken entertained guests, as well as ate meals, and a low round table sat in front of the hearth, surrounded by stools and chairs. In another corner, a tall cherrywood set of shelves sat laden with dusty old books, large and small. Anna wondered why there were so many of them, and just what they were for, but had never gotten around to asking the question. She still didn’t understand how they could tell a story.

The kitchen Anna and Kristoff were rarely permitted to enter. This was not because of any conceit of Anders’, who ruled the kitchen and always welcomed the two of them with treats (and a carrot for Sven, who wasn’t allowed to enter the cabin period), but rather this was because Oaken said he wouldn’t have the two of them putting their grubby hands all over his food. False anger would fill his eyes every time he caught the two of them sneaking into the kitchen. “Hoo-hoo!” he would boom, and stomp after them. “Out of the kitchen!” Anders would just laugh, so Anna and Kristoff did too, and they would race between Oaken’s legs and out the front door, grubby hands filled with one or two goodies from his pantry.

Oaken’s bedroom Anna had seen only once, from the front room, when Oaken had gone in there to fetch a ledger. She saw the biggest, fluffiest bed she’d ever laid eyes on, and was at a loss to explain how anyone could manage sleeping on such a thing. “It’d smother you!” Anna had whispered, aghast, to Kristoff, who agreed. “Softest thing I’ve ever slept on was straw,” he’d crowed, and Anna said: “The softest thing I’ve ever slept on was snow.”

Today, Anders produced some black rye bread and a watery stew of carrots and onions, with a hunk of fish for each of them. Anna generally enjoyed eating at Oaken’s house, because the food was hot and filling, but she suffered from a limitless sweet tooth, and felt the need to chase every meal with something sugary. Among the trolls, this was a trivial matter, berries, apples, and pears being in such abundance. But more often than not, there were no fruits to be had in Oaken’s cabin, and only very rarely sweetened bread. The food was much better than nothing, and she was not ungracious by any means, but nevertheless she always felt a little listless after taking meals in the human town.

Once Anders had finished distributing bowls and bread chunks, they settled down at the round table in front of the still fireplace. The mid-afternoon light was warm and flooded the room with its sleepy beams. Outside the window, Anna could see a big group of clouds gathering in the north. They crawled southwards at a ponderous, leisurely pace.

Over the meal, Oaken talked some about his plans for a trading post outside of town, somewhere that would attract traffic from the ice fields and maybe even the city. “Finding a good spot is hard, ja,” he said.

“We could set up closer to the North Mountain,” suggested Anders. “There’s a lot of space, and there are hot springs near there. We could build a sauna.”

“A haunted place,” Oaken said with a shiver, and immediately swallowed a huge spoonful of hot soup. He must have burnt his tongue, because he immediately stuck it out and started fanning it with his big hands.

“That’s just a ghost story,” declared Kristoff. Anna snickered into her bowl. Just a few months ago you were shaking in your boots at that ‘ghost story,’ she thought.

“Now, now, Kristoff,” said Anders solemnly. “Oaken has a point. Even if we don’t believe in ghost stories, others still might, and they wouldn’t want to come to a haunted trading post.”

“Unless by living there you could prove them wrong,” Anna pointed out. “I mean… how haunted can it be if you’re doing well?”

“Ah,” said Anders in his gentle voice, “but if the trading post was a failure, because nobody came, because they were scared of ghosts, people would say that it was proof the trading post was haunted the whole time.” A shrewd gleam flashed in his eyes. “The most dangerous prophecies are the self-fulfilling ones.”

I wonder what Astrid would say to that, Anna thought.

Oaken, however, was playing with his mustache and looking pensive. “We could call it the ‘haunted trading post,’” he said to no one in particular. “I bet that would get some attention, ja?”

Anders agreed, and for a time they sat arguing about the exact wording of the title. Kristoff suggested “The Ghost Post,” which had Anna crying in laughter, especially when Kristoff looked so scandalized that she didn’t think he was serious. Anders proposed “The Whispering Trader,” but Oaken thought that was just a little bit too evocative, and not in a good way. Oaken stubbornly insisted on “The Haunted Trading Post,” but the rest agreed that that name was so boring as to not be worth considering.

Hours passed and it had become overcast outside, the northern clouds having overtaken the setting sun. They had moved on to the subject of ghost stories in general and, Oaken being a learned expert on the matter, was treating them to some short accounts of unexplained happenings and restless spirits. Kristoff scoffed at some of the more outlandish stories, but was less dismissive of tamer stories about things that went bump in the night. Anders good-naturedly pointed out the discrepancy.

“Some things actually do go bump in the night,” Kristoff elaborated. “Like, not ghosts, but wolves. Things that really can hurt you. The rest of those stories just sound like myths people tell little kids.”

“Oh, Kristoff,” said Oaken. “Surely, you don’t think all myths are false, ja?”

“Some are,” said Kristoff, resolute.

“Which myths are true?” asked Anna, wondering what Oaken would say.

Oaken tapped his chin. “I think they’re all true, in their own ways,” he said, and Kristoff rolled his eyes. Oaken ignored him and stood up, crossing the room to the bookshelf that sat in the corner. His thick forefinger ran quickly up and down the spines of the books until he said “Ah-ah!” and picked up the book his finger ended up resting on. “This is the truest of them all, if such a thing was possible, ja.”

It was a slender book with a teal blue binding, and he carried it over to the table the way a mother might carry a swaddled child. He set the book down on the table with the grace of a tea-setter. Kristoff stared at it, expression puzzled, while Anna squinted her eyes and looked at the letters on the cover.

“The Endless Winter,” she sounded out.

Everyone stared at her.

“W-what?” she stuttered, leaning back and low in her seat.

“You can read,” Anders observed.

Oaken’s mouth was agape. “How is this possible? You lived in the forest your whole life, ja?”

Anna felt confused. “What do you mean, I can ‘read?’ What is that?”

Kristoff snatched the book and held it up to her face. “This book has letters drawn all over it. Trained people can ‘read’ letters and turn them into words.” He looked almost jealous as the words tumbled out of his mouth.

Anna attempted to stammer a response, but Anders waved her quiet. “It’s a learned skill,” said Anders patiently. “You have to have picked it up somewhere.”

Anna’s shoulders scrunched up and she held out her hands in a helpless gesture. “I’ve never even heard of reading before!”

After a tense moment, their faces softened. “Just another mystery about the forest girl,” said Oaken with the faintest hint of a chuckle. “Maybe someday there’ll be legends told about you, ja?”

Legends told about me? Anna thought for a moment, panic temporarily driving all other thoughts from her mind.

“Never mind that,” said Oaken, gesturing for Kristoff to hand him the book. The boy turned it over, and Oaken put it back on the table. His normal airy tone deepened, and his voice seemed to rattle the ceiling shafters. “This is no ordinary myth. This is a history. A legend. This is the story of the Royal Family of Arendelle.

“A long time ago, when the Kingdom of Arendelle was first founded, there was a beautiful queen who ruled all the land. Once, she was beloved by her people, but she became cursed with a terrible ice magic and became wicked, and ravaged the land with an endless winter blizzard.

“She stole an artifact from the gods, and with that artifact, constructed an invincible palace of pure ice. From that palace, she ruled. Life under the Ice Queen was harsh and short, and her minions terrorized the kingdom. Crops withered on the vines, livestock perished in the relentless cold, and the sun never rose.

“It was when things seemed darkest that a legendary hero came forth, and pledged to end the endless winter. He pleaded to the gods, and they sent him on a grand quest to prove his valor. He defeated the Ice Queen’s minions all across Arendelle.” Oaken lifted a huge fist, and one finger for each minion:

One. “A wolf with fur as white as snow, and eyes as blue as ice.”

Two. “A dragon with the antlers of a moose, claws as long as men and teeth as sharp as obsidian, and breath as hot as frostbite.”

Three. “A kraken with as many arms as there are fish in the sea.”

Four. “A ghast with a touch as cold as the void.”

Five. “A spirit as old as the wind and sky.”

Oaken held up his other hand now. Six. “His own shadow.”

Oaken put his hands down and leaned forward. “One by one, the legendary hero faced down the minions, and defeated them all in combat, and when his work was done, he prayed to the gods again. They heard his prayers and granted him a magic sword that would bring balance to the seasons. He named the sword ‘Wintersbane,’ and then he went to the queen’s ice palace.

“Wielding the magic sword, he confronted the Ice Queen and shattered the stolen artifact into six pieces. Her power was broken against the sword, and he struck her down. After that day, the sun rose again, and summer returned to the land. The endless winter was ended.

“And the legendary hero hid his magic blade away and left as mysteriously as he came. Ever since then, we celebrate that day, when the sun is up the longest, as the day of the year to remember the gift given to us by the legendary hero, and the balance of the seasons.”

Oaken finished the story and leaned back in his chair. The atmosphere of the room seemed very close now, and Anna had been listening with intense fascination.

“A palace of ice,” whispered Kristoff.

“A magic sword,” whispered Anna. Her thoughts were racing as visions of a valiant hero filled her head, sword held aloft. She imagined herself, wielding the sword of Winter’s Bane, striking down evil monsters left and right, battling dragons and krakens and ghasts.

Anders smiled. “Of course, some people still call that a myth,” he teased Oaken.

“Many legends are called myths, and many myths are false, but that legend is no myth,” proclaimed Oaken with a firm nod of the head.

Kristoff scratched his head. “So how come this guy’s a hero, but Hercules wasn’t? They both slayed monsters and saved people, didn’t they?”

Oaken simply laughed. “What do you think, Kristoff?”

“I dunno,” said Kristoff. All interest had flitted out of his eyes once he seemed to realize this had become a mental exercise. He turned to look at Anna. “Any ideas?”

Anna honestly had no clue, so she just shrugged noncommittally. “So what does this story have to do with the Royal Family?” she asked, changing the subject.

Ja, that’s right,” said Oaken, looking like he had just remembered something important. “Well, it’s said that the Royal Family is descended from the Ice Queen-”

Kristoff interrupted. “There’s no way the Ice Queen had kids.”

Oaken waved a hand to settle him down. “It’s unsure, ja. Some say she had a brother who took the throne after she died; others say an estranged son, or a long-lost cousin. What is certain is that the first king after her was King Andrew the Cold, who had hair and skin as white as snow, but he was no sorcerer. There has never been a sorceress like the Ice Queen since, though it is said her ice magic still runs in the veins of the Royal Family.”

Kristoff looked skeptical. “No sorceresses ever since, huh?” He almost looked downcast. “No more ice palaces.”

Anders chuckled as his face brightened up in a flash. “All this talk of the Royal Family has reminded me. They’re passing through this village just next week on a pilgrimage.”

“What?” shouted Kristoff and Anna in unison. Even Oaken looked surprised. Anders nodded.

“It’s true,” he said. “They’ll meet with the Lord Mayor Burrows on their way to the North Mountain. They’ll probably pass by this very street.”

“More proof of their icy heritage,” said Oaken triumphantly. “Who, but those with ice magic in their blood, scales the North Mountain on a pilgrimage, ja?”

“To be fair, they only go halfway up,” said Anders. “And it’s a tradition. The princess is turning thirteen years old, and all members of the Royal Family climb the mountain at thirteen.” Anna noticed Kristoff and Oaken both give a troubled frown at this.

Anna herself was only turning ten, but she thought it sounded like a fun tradition. “I’d like to climb the North Mountain,” said Anna. “It can’t be that dangerous, right?”

“No one climbs the North Mountain,” said Kristoff, as though he was reminding Anna which way gravity went.

“Except the Royal Family,” put in Anders.

Kristoff scowled and Anna laughed. “So we’ll really get to see the Royal Family?” she asked hopefully.

Anders nodded. “The royal procession passes through the town next Wednesday. No doubt we’ll all get the chance to see the Royal Family.”

“Hoo-hoo, and their retainers!” said Oaken suddenly, jumping out of his chair. “Knights and courtiers will be attending them, and that means business, ja! I’ll need to set up my stall!”

As Kristoff drove Anna back to the forest that evening, they talked about what it would be like when the Royal Family came into town.

“I heard they dress in all kinds of fancy clothes,” said Kristoff. “I bet even you would be impressed.” He grinned at her.

She kicked him, but she was grinning too. “What’s a knight?” she asked.

“What?”

“A knight, you know, like Oaken mentioned,” said Anna, trying to remember the big man’s exact wording. “He said there’d be knights and cour- courtiers.”

“Oh, right,” said Kristoff. “Knights are like heroes who fight for someone. They pledge themselves to a lord and fight for them. I bet the Royal Family has a lot of knights.”

“Wow, cool,” said Anna, and she imagined a whole legion of heroes, all fighting evil in the name of the Royal Family. She thought of something, and her face tightened into a frown. “Wait a minute. Does Eddy- erm, does the Lord Mayor have any knights?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” said Kristoff. “I think he has a few sworn warriors though – y’know, warriors that swore an oath to serve him. I know Astrid is one.”

“Huh?” Anna was shocked to hear that. But the Lord Mayor is… he’s a jerk!

“You didn’t know that?” asked Kristoff. “She’s probably the best warrior in town.”

Anna didn’t doubt that much for a second, but she was still stuck wondering why on Earth Astrid would swear herself to the service of the Lord Mayor. She even called him a sour buffoon. Anna had more than half a mind to ask Astrid what she could have been thinking.

“Can you unswear an oath?” asked Anna.

“No,” said Kristoff simply. “I mean, I guess technically you can, but then people call you oathbreaker. Oathbreakers have no honor.”

Anna was still puzzling this out when he dropped her off at the stream. Honor, oaths… she shook her head. What good was all that when you had to serve someone like Edward?

She got to sleep early that evening and when she awoke, it was around midnight. The troll village was alive at this time of night, so it didn’t take her a lot of effort to find the Wise Troll. The Wise Troll was hard at work trying to make a watchman of poor Braffly, who looked floored by the complexity of the task.

“I don’t understand your confusion, my dear Braffly,” said the Wise Troll wearily.

“Uhm, uh,” said Braffly, trying to gather his thoughts like they were a lot of petals scattered by the wind. “It’s just the bears, Wise Troll. What do I do if I see one?”

“You remember where you saw it, and you come back and tell us,” explained the Wise Troll. “Never engage a bear with less than seven trolls. You know this, Braffly.”

“Right,” said Braffly slowly. “But what about a fox? Or a wolf?”

“If it’s neither a bear nor a monster, you have no reason to be afraid of it. Wolves won’t attack you if they’re alone, and packs of wolves don’t come near the village. If you see a pack of wolves, come back here and let someone know at once.” The Wise Troll finished in a tone that expressed he felt the conversation was over. Braffly collected his wits and waddled off, muttering to himself: “Bears, monsters, packs of wolves; bears, monsters, packs of wolves…”

The Wise Troll turned around and noticed Anna. He looked worn out. “Ah, Anna,” he said. “How was your day in town?”

“It was a lot of fun,” said Anna excitedly. “Say, have you ever heard the story of the Endless Winter?”

The Wise Troll narrowed his eyes for a moment, but said “Can’t say as I have. Why do you ask?”

“Well,” began Anna, taking in a deep breath, “Oaken told a story about the origins of the Royal Family and then Anders said that the Royal Family was going to pass through the town next week on their way to climb the North Mountain which everyone says is dangerous but I don’t think it looks that dangerous and anyway I was wondering since I thought I should probably ask you if it’d be okay if I went and saw the Royal Family when they pass through town next Wednesday?” She was out of breath, but at least she had said all she needed to say. She put on her most winsome smile. She didn’t know why she was nervous, the Wise Troll was so understanding and accommodating, of course he would say-

“No.”

“What?” Anna wasn’t sure if she was hearing him correctly.

“I said no,” he said. His eyes had grown wide during her speech, but now they were narrowed into slits, his brow furrowed. “I knew this business gallivanting around the human town was going to turn up trouble. I absolutely forbid you to go into town when the Royal Family passes through.”

Anna felt heartbroken. “But… but why?” she croaked.

“Because I said so,” and he turned away. “And don’t think you can just sneak out, either. I will post guards next Wednesday and make sure they know not to let you out.” And he stomped off.

Anna felt low, lower than she had ever felt before. What was the problem? Was it something she said? Why didn’t the Wise Troll want her to go see the Royal Family? The more she thought about it, the sadder she got. She didn’t even go to see Kristoff that next morning at the crossing.

She did her chores sullenly that whole week, and spoke little with the other trolls. Some of them asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t really want to talk about it with them. She wanted to talk to the Wise Troll, but it seemed like he was avoiding her. In fact, half the time it was like he wasn’t even in the village.

A few days later, she was picking berries by the brook with much less than her usual gusto. The sun was peeking shyly over the horizon when the impulse to go see Kristoff took her. She wouldn’t talk to the other trolls, but somehow she thought talking to Kristoff might help. She made her way up the brook, glancing over her shoulder to make certain she wasn’t being followed, her copper hair whipping around her as she swiveled her head forward and back.

She got to the crossing and waited until Kristoff showed up. He looked a little apprehensive. “Hey there,” he said. “I was worried about you. You weren’t here the past few days.”

“I know,” said Anna, looking at her feet. “The Wise Troll says I’m not allowed to go see the Royal Family.”

“What?” Kristoff’s jaw dropped. “Why not?”

“He didn’t give a reason,” Anna mumbled. She folded her arms. “He won’t even talk to me.” She didn’t feel like crying – she never cried – but she certainly felt hurt.

Kristoff frowned. He went up to Anna and put an arm around her. “Hey, don’t worry. The Wise Troll is like, king of the trolls, right? I’m sure he has a good reason.”

Anna said nothing. Kristoff removed his arm from her shoulder and said “I’m sure we’ll figure something out. I’m in a hurry today, but come back tomorrow, okay? We’ll think of a way to sneak you out.”

The next morning, Anna was there at the crossing again. Her mood was ever so slightly improved, but she couldn’t tell if it was because she now felt numb to the disappointment, or because she was preoccupied with thinking of ways to trick the guards. I could stay out all the previous day, she thought. But that would be dishonest, and then I’d get tired – and where would I sleep? What would I do? What if the Wise Troll got really mad and banned me from going back to town? Surely not, she thought – but then again, he had tried to keep her from leaving town back when she had scared that bear. At this, Anna felt a little more hopeless.

Kristoff showed up, and today there was a tied-up leather package on the sled, sitting next to the block of ice. Kristoff had a wicked grin on his face.

“So I talked to Astrid,” he began. Astrid, thought Anna. If anyone can help me, it’s her! So Anna allowed herself to grin too.

“She told me to give you this bundle,” Kristoff continued. “She said it’s some nice clothes if you’re going to make yourself presentable for the royal procession.” Kristoff shoved the package at her. It was light and tied with string. Anna’s grin faltered.

“How is this going to help me sneak out or convince the Wise Troll to change his mind?” Anna asked, a little more acidly than she intended.

Now Kristoff’s grin became a smirk. “She said she wasn’t worried about that, since you’re a bona-fide professional at making bad decisions.” He sniggered, and led Sven away with a wave good-bye.

Anna was mad at him, and this bundle. This bundle that had clothes in it. What good were clothes going to be?

She tore open the package, biting at the string to get it to snap. Inside the package was some green cloth. She pulled it out and held it in front of her, and she gaped.

It was a beautiful emerald-green tunic, inlaid with designs in sea-blue thread. The designs were spirals and wound around the fringes of the neck and sleeves, and looked like blooming flowers in a field of grass. The material was soft but strong, and it felt like air in her hands. The tunic was long, and she could see it reached almost to her knees when she held it out.

Also in the package was a pair of off-white leggings, some brown skin shoes, a slim brown belt with an unadorned buckle, and a folded piece of parchment. Anna unfolded it carefully, and read the lettering scrawled within:

Hey wild girl,

I heard you can read. Me too. I thought you could use some clothing better suited for sword-practice, so I put together this little number. Hope it comes in handy.

Kristoff told me you got into a fight with your folks. Believe me, I know what that’s like. Something tells me you won’t let it stop you from being stupid. Please don’t try proving me wrong.

Yours,

Astrid

Now Anna’s eyes were wet. She had to get into town now, she knew it. But how?

She spent the next few days skulking about the perimeter of the village in the mornings. There were guards posted every so often at odd distances around the outskirts of the village. Too few to prevent her from actually leaving, if she wanted, but she also knew Wednesday would be different.

Then there was Braffly, who dozed as often as not, and in general seemed to lack cunning. She remembered the conversation that he had with the Wise Troll, and her brain hatched a plan.

Come Wednesday morning, there were, indeed, a greater number of guards posted around the perimeter. Most of the trolls were turning in for the day, and activity was dying down throughout the village just as the sun began to rise.

Anna took Astrid’s rewrapped package up under arm. She clutched the letter from Astrid in one hand. Whenever doubt crept in, she would remember the letter, and clutch it more tightly. She milled around the perimeter for a little while, inspecting the guards as she went. Not one of them took their eyes off her until she passed out of their sight, and into the sight of the next guard.

She attempted to look as nonchalant as possible, but few of the guards seemed convinced by this show. Of course. They all had spoken to the Wise Troll. One even said, in a sing-song voice, “Aaannaaa, you’re not thinking of sneaking out, are you?”

“Nope!” she chirped back, and continued on.

At last, she got to Braffly’s watch. Braffly was scratching his nose and looked bored. Anna glanced around. There was nobody here but her and Braffly. She approached him.

“Hey Anna,” he said, as he kept scratching his nose.

“Hey Braff,” she replied. “So, uh, I’m going out today.”

“Nope, nope,” said Braffly, taking his nose-scratching finger and pointing it right at her. “The Wise Troll said that I’m not supposed to let you out.”

“That’s true,” said Anna, and she tried her best to look thoughtful. “But he also said you’re not supposed to mess with bears.”

“Bears?” repeated Braffly, his face blank. Anna nodded. “You’re not a bear,” he analyzed.

“No, I’m worse,” said Anna, giving him a mischievous smile. “Remember, I scared off a bear?”

“You did, you did,” said Braffly, and now it was his turn to look thoughtful. “The Wise Troll didn’t say what to do if I ran into a bear-scarer.”

“Can you think of anything else that scares bears?” Anna led him on. He shook his head.

“Monsters.”

He gulped visibly. “You’re not a monster, though, you’re just Anna.”

“I’m a lot of things,” she said, and she tried to look impressive, standing up straight with her chin held high. “I am Anna and a bear-scarer at least.”

Braffly was silent for a long moment, and he looked to be weighing his options. “Well, I guess, since you’re a bear-scarer…”

A noise came from behind Anna. Rock footsteps on the soft forest ground. No, thought Anna. “Wait!” came Loot’s familiar swagger. No, no, thought Anna again. She turned around and saw Loot and Rain stagger into view, both out of breath.

“Anna, you can’t go out there,” said Rain, panting.

“What are you guys doing here?” said Braffly, his face screwing up.

“We knew you’d be too dim to stop Anna from leaving,” snapped Rain. “So we came to supplement your poor judgment.”

“Speak for yourself,” edged in Loot. “I came to encourage her.”

Rain scowled. “This is no time for one of your jokes, Loot.”

“It’s no joke,” Loot insisted. He looked grim – uncharacteristic of the boisterous troll. He fixed Anna with a stern gaze. “You should go. I know you want to. You’re a bear-scarer. Whatever the Wise Troll is worried about, it’s utter nonsense.”

Rain was too shocked to say anything, and Braffly just looked confused. Anna eyed Loot suspiciously. “Why are you helping me?”

“Your place is out there,” said Loot. “Not here.”

A lump formed in Anna’s throat. “But you guys are my family,” she said. “This is my home.”

Loot laughed a short laugh, and his expression softened. “Yes, we are; and yes, it is. And we will always love you.” His face turned serious again. “But, well, when I was a young troll, I also liked to wander. I couldn’t stand being cooped up in one place for long. I know what it’s like to want to see the world.” He paused. “And that’s how I know the restrictions we are trying to put on you won't make a bit of difference in the end. You have to follow your heart.”

Anna could feel tears welling up in her eyes, but she forced them back. “Thank you,” she whispered. She looked at Rain, who wore a resigned expression.

“Are you going to tell the Wise Troll I snuck out?” asked Anna.

“Yeah, I am,” said Loot. “More than that, I'm going to tell him I helped you sneak out. He'll make me wash some skirts.”

Anna nodded. She turned to face Braffly again. He still looked bewildered.

“I'm going now,” she told him. “You're not going to stop me?”

“You're a bear-scarer,” he explained.

She ran past him, bundle still under her arm. The sun was rising. She reached the brook and tore off her clothes, setting them down in the shade of a squat birch tree. Out of the package, she drew the garments that Astrid had arranged for her and pulled them on. The leggings and shoes were strange. She felt like her entire lower half was being constricted, and she didn’t like the barrier she now felt between the ground and her toes. She ran as she dressed, and hopped up to the crossing still pulling the shoes on her feet.

She was just in time, the rattling of Kristoff’s sled growing louder as she approached the crossing. She hailed him, and he smiled goofily. “Nice outfit,” he said. She'd just have to take his word for it: she had no idea what she looked like in these new clothes.

At first, her heart was pounding. She disobeyed a direct order from the Wise Troll. She had accomplices, sure; and she wanted to go to town more than she wanted to listen to his rules. But a niggling worry complained at the back of her head. She would have to deal with it eventually.

Later, though. Right now, this was her time. Her day.

 

Chapter Text

 

When they reached the town, masses of people were crowding the road. Kristoff pulled over to the side of Oaken's cabin, leaning the sled up against one of the walls and untying Sven, before the three of them proceeded into the throng. Anna thought it was too many people for the forty-or-so houses that comprised the town proper, but she guessed that a good many of them were visitors from nearby, like her. Kristoff said that there were plenty of people that lived well outside the town, on farms and in secluded cottages, though they were all beholden to the same Lord Mayor.

Not me, Anna thought. I owe nothing to the Lord Mayor.

In the center of town was a large cleared section that Kristoff called the town center. Here, merchants had set up some stalls, and were shouting over the din of the crowd the prices and varieties of their wares. One merchant with a long mustache was selling smelly oils in glass bottles, and another merchant with a scar on his face was selling sinister-looking weapons with curved blades. There wasn’t much business at the moment, as most of the people in the crowd weren't there to buy things. No, they were there for the same reason Anna was: to see the Royal Family.

Her group passed through the town square, dodging people as they went, and reached the one merchant they were looking for. Behind a too-small stall, perched on a too-small chair, Oaken squatted and hawked his odds and ends.

Odds and ends they were, too: ropes, carrots, boots, fur hats, pickaxes, bags of beans, leather wallets, wool gloves, a wind-up clock, ink bottles, jars of pickled herring, jars of lutefisk, wooden bowls, long balls of yarn, rolls of twine, fishing rods. Anna had never even imagined wanting most of the things Oaken was selling, and yet people seemed interested. A line of people snaked around his stall, inspecting his things – but never touching. Oaken slapped the wrists of anyone who got too handy with his goods.

He was in the middle of a civil negotiation with a customer when Anna and Kristoff approached.

“No, no, that won't do. Supply and demand are a big problem here,” he said to a red-faced customer who was offering a bag of coin.

It didn't work: the would-be customer sulked off, and Oaken's attention was drawn to Anna and Kristoff.

“Hoo-hoo!” he greeted them. “Are you two ready?” His eyes twinkled, and for the moment all thoughts of the Wise Troll's retribution flitted from Anna's mind.

For a time they sat next to Oaken's stall while he continued to bargain and barter with comers and goers. Anna kept standing on her tiptoes, looking around, trying to find the slightest thing that would indicate the arrival of visiting royalty.

When Anders showed up, he announced that the royal procession wouldn't be coming through until about noon, so they had time to kill. Oaken had Kristoff run to his cabin and back to fetch some trinkets for the stand, which Kristoff did, grumbling. Anna, meanwhile, decided she might as well go look around.

The town square was situated at the base of the small hill upon which sat the Lord Mayor's black timber house. Anna shuddered when she saw it, remembering the horrible encounter with Edward and, before that, his wretched son. She walked off in the opposite direction, towards Astrid's house.

She found Astrid's house as it usually was: quiet, and hemmed in by fat evergreens. She went around back and saw that Astrid wasn't in the clearing. Frowning, she went back to the front door and knocked three times.

Half a minute later, Astrid answered the door, yawning. Her hair was unkempt and not yet tied up in its typical two braids, and she wore a long cherry gown that touched her feet. Anna had never seen Astrid wear anything “feminine” before: most of the women in town wore dresses or skirts, but not Astrid, being as she was more partial to trousers. Anna didn't really understand trousers, anyway, because all the trolls wore skirts. She fiddled at the material of the leggings she was wearing.

“What?” mumbled Astrid as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Anna stifled a giggle.

“I just wanted to say hi,” said Anna. “And I wanted to thank you for the outfit.”

Astrid looked at her through squinted eyes. “It looks good on you. Come in, I'll fix you some tea.”

Anna entered Astrid's home. It was smaller than Oaken's by just a little bit. The main room had a fireplace and a few chairs, and a low, flat, untidy bed sat in the corner. A small stack of logs sat next to the hearth, where coals were sparkling faintly, and the room was well-lit by half-a-dozen windows spaced throughout. One door in the back led to a cramped pantry chock-full of jarredfoodstuffs. A table in the corner was stacked with brown wooden plates and cups, and a single, out-of-place, pink porcelain teapot.

Anna’s favorite thing about Astrid’s house was not the furniture, nor the logs nor the cups, nor the way the morning sunlight lit up the front room without glaring. Rather, she found herself drawn to something that hung over the fireplace on two wooden pegs: a short sword, made of folded steel, with a hilt made of polished red wood. The handle was covered with tough, untanned leather, and the pommel was a small wooden sphere inlaid with a glimmering red stone. The crossguard was made of elaborately carved wood with the ends tapered and curved towards the blade; etched in the center was the detail of a single broad leaf. Anna hadn’t asked about the sword, but one time Astrid caught her staring at it and explained, with a faint smile, that it was a gift, and her favorite sword.

Astrid stirred up the coals in the fireplace and added a log. It started to smolder, and Astrid poured half a bucket of tepid water into a reddish-gray tea kettle and set it over the fire to boil. She walked to the other side of the room, where a piece of curved glass hung on the wall. She began brushing down her hair with brusque efficiency. “Have a seat,” she urged Anna, not unpolitely.

Anna sat down in a chair by the quickening blaze, and watched the tea kettle as flames licked up around it. She wondered if she should broach the subject of Astrid’s pledge to the Lord Mayor.

Astrid finished brushing her hair and walked over to the fire, her strong fingers moving nimbly as they tied two braids, one on either side of her face. Under the crook of her arm she carried two wooden cups and the pink porcelain teapot. After she finished her braids, she set the cups and teapot down on the small wooden table gingerly, and then she sat herself down heavily in a chair on the other side of the fire.

She was wearing her typical confident smirk again. “So, wild girl, what’s up?” She still called Anna “wild girl,” even though everyone else – including Kristoff – had long since dropped that moniker for her.

“Today the royal procession is passing through town,” said Anna. “I… disobeyed my family and snuck out of the troll village.”

Astrid waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “They’re always mad at you at first, but they’ll get over it.”

Anna hesitated. “Three trolls helped me sneak out.” Astrid raised an eyebrow. “Loot – that’s the name of one of the trolls who helped me – he said that my place was here. That I should follow my heart.” Anna wondered if she looked as uncertain as she felt.

Astrid sighed and sat back in her seat, her mouth a straight line. “Nobody can tell you if you made the right decision, kiddo. Only you can answer that.” Her eyes glinted. “So, what do you think?”

Anna didn’t know what she felt or thought. So she just said, “I wanted to see the Royal Family.”

Astrid’s smirk returned. “Well, you’ll have that, at least.”

Anna felt a little better now. Talking to Astrid always made her feel better.

The tea kettle started whining, so Astrid picked it up with a cloth mitt and poured the boiling water into the teapot, where the tea began to steep. She set the tea kettle down beside the fire, which was now crackling away merrily.

Astrid had just finished pouring tea into the two wooden cups, when Anna took hers and asked in what she hoped was a casual tone: “So, Kristoff told me you’re a sworn warrior.”

The sworn warrior paused for a beat, her wooden cup of tea halfway to her mouth. “Ah,” she said. “Yes, that is true.”

“Sworn to serve the Lord Mayor Edward Burrows,” Anna continued.

Astrid nodded in confirmation, taking a sip of tea.

Anna fidgeted. “Why?” she managed.

Astrid set her cup down on the table, her face drawn into a tired expression. Suddenly Anna felt a little guilty at bringing it up. There was probably a good reason why Astrid hadn’t told Anna or made mention of it before.

The corner of Astrid’s mouth lifted into a half-hearted smile. “Honor and duty,” she said in a low voice.

This did not satisfy Anna. “You said yourself that Eddy- that Lord Edward is a- I just don’t understand. You called him a sour buffoon!” Anna sputtered.

Astrid laughed lightly. “A woman’s got to make a living somehow, Anna. I’m the equal of any ten fighters that this little town has, and any twenty brigands that might seek to do it harm. Gods forbid, if any trouble came through…” She shook her head. “As long as I’m a sworn warrior, I can help protect the town, and the people I care about.” One hand was now worrying at one of her braids, and for a second her eyes glazed over. “The people I care about… are worth taking orders from a buffoon for.” She smiled, and comprehension dawned over Anna.

“Oh – you’re protecting Anders… and his husband, and Kristoff, and Martin, and the butter-lady, and Jack the woodcutter,” said Anna.

“Yes, that’s it,” said Astrid, though her gaze had grown more distant. She closed her eyes and chuckled. “Plus it means I can get away with a lot of bad decisions.” Astrid paused. She looked at Anna’s hair, then she said “We have really got to do something about your hair.”

“What’s wrong with my hair?” Anna said testily. Astrid just laughed and stood up, moving first over to the table where she had left her hairbrush, and then back over to Anna, where she began brushing it down.

“Ow – that hurts!” said Anna as Astrid brushed her hair with hard, sure strokes, but she didn’t pull away. A silence settled over them, but it was one without tension. Anna closed her eyes and let Astrid brush. She kind of liked it.

They talked for the rest of the morning about more pleasant subjects, Anna pleased to find Astrid’s dignity intact. Anna was growing more accustomed to her new clothes – they were comfortable. The leggings still felt a bit clingy, but she was determined to just suck it up.

Midday came, and Astrid said “If you want to see that Royal Family of yours, you’d better get going.”

Anna was confused. “Aren’t you coming to see the royal procession, too?”

“Nah,” said Astrid.

“But why not?”

“Not really my thing,” said Astrid.

Anna frowned. “Oh, come on. It’ll be fun!”

Astrid looked at Anna with an expression that Anna couldn’t quite read. It was a fond, almost sad kind of look. It disappeared quickly when Astrid smirked. “All right, fine,” she huffed, her voice overflowing with melodramatic exasperation. “But you owe me one.”

“No, I don’t,” Anna countered. “I’m doing you a favor.”

Astrid chuckled at that, and the two of them left the cabin together.

Anna noticed that whenever Astrid left the house, she didn’t go unarmed. Unarmored, sure: Anna never saw Astrid bedecked in full leather armor, much less metal mail. She apparently had no need. She had her thick leather gloves, her red tunic and furs, and a hand-and-a-half sword slung across her back, and that was that. Anna hadn’t known for certain what kind of trouble Astrid anticipated, but now that she knew Astrid was a sworn warrior, it made sense that she would be ready to keep the peace. Of course, small boys tormenting smaller boys didn’t seem to require the use of much weaponry to stop.

Then again, maybe the threat of such was a weapon in itself.

Anna also noticed that Astrid never used the steel short sword that hung over her fireplace. Maybe it was too special to use for rote work? Or, more likely, maybe it was too short to intimidate people with – the sword Astrid was now carrying was much more menacing. Anna usually practiced with long sticks, and the steel short sword was a hand shorter than those sticks. Astrid always said the most important thing in sword fighting was reach, and that was why the best swordsmen were good archers. Anna had laughed at that, but Astrid looked serious.

“Why not teach me archery, then?” Anna had asked.

“I don’t know archery,” Astrid replied. “Besides, it takes a lot more work to become a middling archer than it takes to become a decent swordsman. Even so, without a shield, an archer will drop you before you can take one step.”

“When will I learn how to use a shield?”

“In good time.”

They got to the town center when it was a good deal more crowded than earlier that morning. Astrid shouldered her way through the mass of people with Anna trailing close behind, and they found the others standing around Oaken’s stall.

They exchanged greetings, and Anders looked amused. “I thought this wasn’t your kind of thing, dear sister,” said Anders. Astrid merely grunted in reply.

Since she hadn’t had the opportunity to sleep the night before, Anna was beginning to feel a little weary. She mentally remonstrated herself as the tiredness soaked her bones: Of course, because you shouldn’t even be here today.

But this was a once in a lifetime chance. She knew that. She just had to keep her eyes open, focus on being awake. The tea helped a little, but she still wanted to just take a nap.

She was also feeling a little hungry. She spied Kristoff munching on a long, orange carrot.

“Share,” she commanded.

Kristoff looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “This is reindeer food,” he said.

“Is that so?” she said. “Sven?”

Sven had already taken his cue. He snatched the carrot out of Kristoff’s hands, and a short struggle ensued. Kristoff won back the carrot, but he was now eyeing Sven suspiciously.

“Traitor,” he snarled, and broke off half the carrot and tossed it to Anna.

Anna ate her half with gusto, and winked at Sven.

Just then, a loud, blaring noise split the air, and Anna jumped. Daaa, dun-da-daaa, it shrieked. The sound had too much clarity to be from nature, and in fact it sounded almost musical. Anna looked around for the source of the noise, but found nothing. Anders noticed her consternation and smiled.

“A trumpet,” he said. “That blast was to announce the arrival of royalty.”

Anna’s eyes widened in understanding. “Is it time, then?” she asked.

Now they were all looking, and in the distant part of the square, coming down a cobbled section of road that went off into the south direction, Anna could spy several large poles with pointed ends and pieces of colored fabric flying from them. The fabric at points was triangular and rectangular, and there were all kinds of different colors: purples and magentas and yellows and oranges and greens and blues. The tallest pole was showing off a large, rectangular flag, upon which was emblazoned a six-pointed white snowflake on a field of ice blue.

Kristoff beat her to the question. “What’s that symbol?” he asked.

Anders said, “That’s the sigil of the Royal Family.”

As the procession neared, flags and pennants fluttering and people cheering, Anna realized with a sinking feeling that she was not tall enough to see over the crowd of people. They stood too near together for her to get through them, either. A moment of panic set in, before she thought…

She scrambled up onto Oaken’s stand, now ignored by the shoppers of a minute ago in favor of the new attraction. Oaken didn’t protest, which she considered a small victory. I’ve crossed enough adults today already, she thought.

At first, she didn’t know what she was looking at. At the head of the procession she saw several serious-looking men armed and armored heavily, riding along on prim, well-groomed horses. She had seen horses in the stables before, Kristoff had shown them to her, but these horses stood out. They were tall, and strong, and had soft, clean manes and shiny coats.

At the very front of the procession was a man in silver armor with a white cape slung over his shoulders. The cape was embroidered with silver and on his breastplate the fashion of a silver hawk was carved, mid-dive. Over his shoulder, the silvery hilt of a great sword peeked out. The man had long, white hair and a white beard, and looked old, wrinkles all over his face. He had a smile on his face, and his hazel eyes were beaming at all the onlookers. On his left rode a man in full steel plate armor and a steel helmet with a narrow eye slit and wings on the ears. He was otherwise unadorned except for a shield on his back with the six-pointed snowflake painted on it, and a long sword in a scabbard on his left side.

Kristoff had got up on Oaken’s stall too, and Oaken was standing on the other side of him. Anders came over to Anna and began explaining who was who. Anna looked for Astrid, but she seemed to have disappeared. But before Anna could inquire, Anders started talking.

“That’s the Lord Protector Erik Ulfton,” said Anders, indicating the silver man. “And one of his Royal Guardsmen,” indicating the man in steel plate.

“What’s a Lord Protector do?” asked Anna.

“The Lord Protector is the head of the Royal Family’s bodyguard,” said Anders. “His job is to ensure that the Royal Family remains safe at all times.”

Anna thought of Astrid and how she had taken up her vows in order to protect people. “I bet he must really like the Royal Family, then,” said Anna.

“He might,” said Anders dryly. “Though there have certainly been some Lord Protectors who resented their charges.”

Anna frowned at that. “That seems… dangerous,” she said.

“Indeed,” said Anders. “But it is few enough monarchs that put all their faith in just one person. Look, there’s the marshal, Ser Tore Seastone.”

Riding along behind Lord Erik was a man dressed much less spectacularly, wearing a forest green cloak and dull gray chainmail. His cloak bore the symbol of a blue-gray octagonal rock, and he wore thick dark leather armor with the same symbol and two thick brown gloves. His hair was a dark salt-and-pepper, and his beard was shaggy and unkempt. His green eyes scanned the crowd with a suspicious gaze. On either side of him rode two helmeted men with spears and hard leather doublets.

“What’s the marshal do?” asked Anna.

“He is the master-of-arms, and manages the knights and levies of the kingdom,” said Anders. “In a different way, he is also responsible for protecting the Royal Family. And the whole kingdom, at that. You might say you can’t have one without the other.” He smiled humorlessly.

Anna didn’t quite follow what he meant by that, but before she could chase it up, Kristoff made a noise of astonishment. The crowd began to cheer. Following Kristoff’s gaze, Anna looked – and saw.

Riding behind the marshal, a squat man in a green coat held the banner bearing the royal standard. And he preceded two beautiful horses, upon which sat two beautiful people – a man and a woman – smiling calmly at the adoring crowd.

The man was of an average height, and sat well on the horse, his back straight as an arrow. He wore a dark navy blue doublet with silver buttons, and breeches as white as snow. Slung casually over one shoulder was a maroon cloak clasped with a golden pin fashioned in the shape of a cross patteé, embossed in the center of which was the six-pointed snowflake. He had sandy blond hair that was well-combed, unlike Kristoff’s, and a brownish pencil mustache dusted his upper lip. His eyes were pale blue and serene.

The woman was half-a-head shorter than the man, but also sat proudly in her saddle. She wore a conservative burgundy riding habit that matched her dark auburn hair, and a violet bodice faintly trimmed with silver. At the base of her neck sat a small sapphire brooch that glittered and caught the sunlight, much like her eyes. She had a heart-shaped face and wore a look of quiet optimism, her neatly groomed hair kept in check by a silver tiara studded with a single small diamond.

Though the man wore no crown, which Anna was told was normal, she knew him for the King of Arendelle at once; the woman was no doubt his Queen, the ultimate sovereigns of the kingdom entire. They were so comely, so wonderful, so radiant in their glory, that Anna wanted to shout their praises until she turned hoarse. Long live the King! Long live the Queen! The words came up from within her, roiling in her stomach like a stampede of angry butterflies. They had almost escaped her lips, when something else stole her attention.

Riding behind the King and Queen, on a horse as beautiful as either of theirs’, sat a young woman doing her very best to match her parents’ contented expressions. She sat awkwardly on the horse, too far back in the saddle, almost hunched over. She wore a simple azure blue riding habit and a matching jacket, both trimmed with navy silk. Her pale hands clutched the reins on the horse tightly, and it was clear to Anna that she was uncomfortable. Nonetheless, her face was calm as still water, her blue eyes betraying not a hint of discomfort, her lips pressed into a thin line, closed and unmoving. Her straw blonde hair was fixed into a single large braid that hung loosely behind her, and she wore a simple unadorned black velvet hairband on her head. Not a strand of hair was out of place.

That must be the princess, Anna thought. She looks older than me. Then she remembered the princess was thirteen.

Anna was staring, now, struck by the princess’s nervous impassivity. She did a good job hiding it, but she was not at ease riding, and her knuckles were white with the stress of holding the reins, while her stony eyes were darting around the crowd. Anna didn’t know what could be wrong. The crowd was cheering – they adored her and her parents. She was surrounded by tough-looking warriors, some of whom had to be knights, Anna realized, and she…

She was looking directly at her.

The eye contact lasted, in truth, for less than a second. The princess’s gaze found Anna’s and froze. A pebble dropped into the still water. Emotion rippled across the princess’s face. Her eyes widened the tiniest bit, her lips parted, her jaw slacked. Just then, Anna felt a stiff cold breeze, and saw it rummage across the crowd, upsetting hats and hair.

The princess’s head snapped away suddenly, and she was staring dead ahead at the space between her parents, her jaw locked. She was no longer looking around at the crowd. The small hairs on Anna’s neck stood up, and a chill ran down her spine, even as the wind died and the warm summer stillness resettled.

“…the Royal Family,” Anders finished explaining. “Princess Elsa is the only child of the King and Queen, and heiress to the Kingdom.”

“Princess Elsa?” repeated Anna. She didn’t mean it as a question. She only wanted to say the words. For some reason they seemed impossible, like those words didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, and what Anders had just said was unutterable nonsense.

“Yes,” said Anders. “The girl in the blue dress, there. Elsa’s her name.”

Anna took a second. “That’s a pretty name,” she whispered. It was all she could think of to say.

Behind the Royal Family came a stick-thin teenage boy with shaggy brown hair and a doublet that was much too large for him. He also carried a pole with a flag on it, and that flag bore a standard of a black cross patteé, in the center of which was the six-pointed snowflake in white, all on a field of ice blue. Except for the cross with the wide-tips, it looked similar to the royal standard, Anna thought, and a little unnecessary. She recognized the cross from the King’s clasp as well.

Kristoff asked again, “So what’s that flag for?”

Anders explained again, “That’s the flag of the kingdom. The cross represents our strength and valor. Not once since its founding has the kingdom been broken. And we owe that to the Royal Family, whose heraldry you can see there in the center – that snowflake.”

“I recognize the snowflake,” said Kristoff. “It was just the other part.”

“What do you mean when you say the kingdom has never been broken?” asked Anna.

Anders smiled knowingly. “I mean that many outside forces have tried, but not one has been able to shatter Arendelle. They call us the glacier of the north. The most recent attempts, well, let’s see…” Anders scratched his perfect chin. “It was before my time, but fifty years ago the Kingdom of the Southern Isles attempted to invade and raid Arendelle. They braved the icy reefs in their longboats and landed just north of the capital city. They slogged through the Toadsmarsh in the bitter cold and expected to find the city warm and ready for plunder. They found it warm, all right – the embers were still glowing.” Anders grinned wickedly. “They had to slog back to their boats, where they found Arendelle’s army waiting – and their whole fleet burnt and sunk. They surrendered to King Heimdal the Torch shortly after that.

"Then, I was just a boy at the time, but ten-ish years ago, when the current king ascended to the throne, there was a succession crisis with the Duchy of Weselton. That one went about the same way." Anders didn't go on, and turned his head back to observe the procession.

Anna didn’t know that Anders knew so much about kings and kingdoms; in fact, now that she thought of it, he had some stories of his own to tell. Oaken had always told rather fantastic stories, but something about Anders’s stories, by comparison, seemed more tangible. Like they were things that actually did happen, and here was the proof, marching in front of her. And what she heard about war was usually more spectacular than mucking around in swamps and surrendering when your boats were burnt and sunk.

The procession continued on after that, with armored men in finely-adorned breastplates, lords in fine silk robes, and ladies in elegant dresses, many of them kept company by some more plainly-dressed attendants. Anders pointed out the knights and lords for the ones who wore a symbol of some kind, and described the great houses of the kingdom with exquisite detail.

The knights, Anna noticed, came in all kinds of varieties. It boggled her mind a little: some were handsome, some were ugly; some were tall, some short; some well-muscled, others fat; some with long hair, some with no hair; some with beards, some without, some smiling, others scowling. No two wore similar armor, either. One was so completely bedecked in steel plate that Anna was convinced he couldn’t see anything out of his tiny vertical eyeslits. Others, like Astrid, seemed to wear only the bare minimum for armor. Fewer still wore the kinds of shining armor you heard about in stories.

Many of the knights had a young boy, perhaps the princess’ age, maybe a little older or younger, attending them. They were, more often than not, laden down with shields and swords, and some of them held short flags bearing the knight’s standard. Anders explained them for squires, or knight-hopefuls, who would serve a knight until they were themselves knighted. This piqued Anna’s interest, but, to her dismay, not one of the squires seemed to be a little girl.

A great deal more wore no signs or symbols, and attended no lords or knights. “Freeriders,” said Anders. “They attach themselves to processions like this to move around the kingdom more safely.” Anna estimated the procession, in total, numbered at least a hundred. That’s almost as many people as live in the town proper, she thought. In fact, it might be more. Anna had never seen so many people before, all said, and she wondered if the Royal Family had taken their whole city with them.

Some wagons came at points along the procession, too, led by horses with woolly legs or big black cows, and the wagons were laden with barrels and crates and bags. “Provisions,” Oaken said, perking up. “Fodder for trading, ja.”

The procession made its way to the end of the town center, and coiled around the base of the Lord Mayor’s hill. Anna noticed that Lord Edward was standing there, at the top of the hill, his face sour as usual. On his right, he was flanked by his son, Brendan, and three shabby-looking men armed with spears and axes. On his left, he was flanked by some more soldiers, including, to Anna’s dismay, Astrid.

That makes sense, thought Anna. Of course the Lord Mayor is going to welcome the royal procession accompanied by his family and sworn warriors. But come to think of it, as far as family went, only Brendan was there. Unless one of those soldiers was Lord Edward’s partner? But no – they were all standing too far away. They almost seemed out of place next to the Lord Mayor and the son who was his spitting image. Anna wondered if Brendan only had one parent. Still more than me, she thought bitterly – and yet, his family was smaller. She almost pitied him for that.

As the Royal Family approached the hill, the Lord Mayor descended the steps going up the hill to meet them at the bottom. He began moving his mouth, and she realized that they were talking – and she couldn’t hear a word. She hopped down off of Oaken’s stall and wormed her way into the crowd, shoving and sidling her way past in an effort to get closer to the hill. Behind her, she heard Anders call, “Anna!” but she was already on her way.

She emerged from the crowd at the edge of the procession, even as still more freeriders and knights were continuing onwards into the open field behind the Lord Mayor’s hill. She looked and saw Lord Edward and his son and guards kneeling down before the Royal Family, who one-by-one dismounted gracefully to greet the Lord Mayor. The princess, her face impassive once more, was helped down from her horse by the skinny youth who had been holding the kingdom’s flag.

As Lord Edward and his men (and Astrid) bowed, he said, “Your Grace. You honor us with your presence.” His tone was so humble, almost groveling, that Anna could scarcely believe this to be the same man who had sneered at her all those months ago.

The King smiled warmly as Lord Edward rose out of his bow, and clasped the Lord Mayor’s outstretched hand with both of his own. “Cousin, it is good to see you,” the King said. He turned to regard Brendan. “This is your son, I take it?”

“That he is, Your Grace,” said Lord Edward. “Once my nephew, ‘till I adopted him.” Without missing a beat. “Assuredly of my blood, as you can see from the hair.”

Adopted? Yet another word Anna didn’t know. She sighed. Human families…

Brendan bowed again, perhaps a little stiffly. “Your Majesty.”

The King chuckled. “He has the manner of a Burrows, that is for sure. Gets it from his uncle. I am sure you have met my daughter?”

Princess Elsa stepped forward when mentioned, and Lord Edward and Brendan both bowed their heads to her. “My lady,” they said in unison. Brendan stepped forward, and hesitated. “You are truly as radiant as the singers say, Princess Elsa,” he said. She held out her hand to him, and he knelt and kissed it tenderly. The look she gave the lordling was calm, a careful, neutral smile pressed into her face.

Anna frowned. “No, Princess, he’s a big jerk!” she wanted to shout, but she saw Astrid and held her tongue. This was not a situation that would suffer stupid decisions, she reflected bluntly.

The various lords and sovereigns continued greeting each other, the Marshal and Lord Protector also making their introductions – though from the looks of it, they were already familiar with Lord Edward. At length, the most important of them – the Royal Family, the Lord Protector, the Marshal, the Lord Mayor, his son, some of the Royal Guardsmen, and a few of the Lord Mayor’s men – all climbed the steps of the hill and entered the black timber longhouse. The remainder of the procession moved around to the back of the hill, where tents were being set up.

One who did not enter the longhouse was Astrid, who stood around looking bored at the foot of the steps. Another guard who hadn’t entered was standing next to her, and Anna noticed he had a wide, square jaw and mouse-colored hair, and looked a lot older than Astrid. Slung over his back was an enormous hammer, and he wore a pleased expression. Seeing most of the procession had moved on, Anna approached Astrid.

Astrid noticed her and spoke first. “Hey, wild girl,” she said, smiling slightly. “Did you enjoy the show?”

Before Anna could respond, the other guard cut in. “Wild girl?” he echoed. He looked at Anna. “You’re the wild girl?”

“Uhm,” said Anna, unsure of how to respond. “That’s what they call me.” She smiled feebly.

The man knelt before her. “I owe you, wild girl. My name is Armin, and that was my son you rescued from… from the Lord Mayor’s son. He’s a craven – my son, I mean – but I love him still.”

Anna looked at Astrid. She was frowning, and in general being unhelpful. She looked back at the kneeling man.

“I… don’t mention it,” she managed. “I was only trying to help.”

He looked up at her and nodded once, content. “It was a knightly thing you did. I will repay you for this, I promise.”

Anna was flabbergasted, but fortunately spared the need to say anything more when Astrid spoke. “Don’t go calling her a knight, now, Armin,” she said. “I need her humble if I’m going to teach her anything.”

Armin stood up with a dry chuckle. “What are you teaching her, pray, Astrid? Sword fighting?” he said, a wry smile on his face.

“Yes,” said Astrid.

Armin’s smile vanished. “Gods. You teaching her,” he shook his head. “Soon enough we’ll have two Astrids, and I thought one was bad enough.”

Her teacher just laughed heartily at that, but Anna didn’t think it was very funny. There are worse things one could become than Astrid, she thought. Like Lord Edward, for one thing.

So Anna simply said, “Astrid’s a good teacher.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” said Armin. “I believe she could even teach my son a thing or two.”

Anna’s lip curled. She didn’t like the disdainful way this man spoke about his son, like he was someone to be ashamed of.

After a brief moment, Armin spoke again. “So, what’s your name, wild girl?”

“Anna,” said Anna.

“Anna,” repeated Armin. “That’s a pretty name. My father’s mother was named Anna.” He smiled genially at her, but something about hearing she shared a name with his grandmother rankled her. Not that she minded him, or his grandmother, whom Anna was sure was a lovely person – but Anna was her name. A snowflake’s name.

Well… maybe not. Maybe Anna was a common name, she thought dully. Maybe a lot of people are named Anna. Her heart sank. She felt a little less special now. Anna! Why couldn’t my parents give me a unique name? Like Elsa?

Or did my parents even name me? She realized she didn’t know why she was called Anna. She thought about asking the Wise Troll, and that just reminded her how much trouble she was like to be in when she went home. Her heart sank even further.

She was spared the shame of looking low when Astrid spoke up again. “Anna, how about a lesson this afternoon? I’m stuck on guard duty right now, but before long there’ll be some of those well-dressed knights falling all over for the honor to stand guard in sight of the King.”

Armin nodded. “Aye, that’s true enough. The King has hundreds of knights, all jockeying for his favor and attention.” He grinned impishly. “Makes you more appreciate being one of only six.”

“Only six what?” asked Anna.

“Lord Edward’s six sworn warriors,” said Armin. “It’s a small town, after all, and mostly farmers at that.”

The full meaning of what Armin said hit her. “Hundreds of knights?” she repeated, thinking of the town and its population of dozens.

Armin nodded. “The city is very large, and the kingdom much larger still,” he said. “This town is small, but near the mountains and ice floes. Only reason the Royal Family bothered to come is it’s the last warm spot before the North Mountain. I bet half the procession turns back tomorrow, and the other half will set camp at the mountain’s base and wait for the Royal Family’s return.”

“They ascend the mountain alone?” asked Anna.

“Aye. Crazy, eh?” chuckled Armin.

“It sounds like fun, actually,” said Anna.

“Oh, nothing fun about ghosts, Anna,” Armin said in a superior tone. Anna thought about arguing, but changed her mind.

Instead, she said “I’d better go find Kristoff and Anders, I ran off without telling them.” Armin waved good-bye, and Astrid said “See you later, wild girl.”

Anna made her way back through the crowd, now milling about and, at points, dispersing. But the bulk of the crowd remained, and were finding other ways to entertain themselves. Some people, dressed in brightly-colored clothes, were capering about and tossing items into the air, while others jeered and laughed at them. One man was sitting on a log, his fingers flicking a round wooden cudgel with strings drawn taut over a hollow in the side. There was a peculiar, slow melody coming from the thing, and the man was singing:

Far up north in the land of glaciers,

Icy snows and pitch-black fissures,

Where steel cracks and men’s teeth chatter,

Came Weasel-town men as soft as batter.

Anna wanted to stay and hear more, but her stomach started to growl. All she had eaten that morning was half of Kristoff’s carrot, and Anders was sure to have some cheese or bread to lunch with. She stifled a yawn and realized she was still tired, too, and recalled with a pang that Astrid had invited her to train that afternoon.

She found Anders and Kristoff in the middle of a discussion, standing next to Oaken’s stall. Oaken was busy bargaining with some traders, and paid none of them any mind, his face fixed into the demeanor of the friendly, easy-to-hoodwink trader that he used when doing business.

“…well, Ser Tore Seastone wasn’t a ‘Ser’ at the time,” Anna caught Anders saying as she walked up to them. “He was squire to Lord Wideriver.”

“Hey,” said Anna. “What are you two talking about?”

“Hey,” said Kristoff, turning on her. “Where’d you run off to? You missed the end of the procession. There were jugglers and dancers!”

“I wanted to see Lord Edward greet the King,” she replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but she had really been more interested in seeing the princess again.

Kristoff seemed to accept that, though. “Ah, well, too bad,” he said. “Anders is talking about the Weasel-town War.”

“That’s not what it’s called,” said Anders, his usual perfect smile disrupted ever so slightly. Kristoff was the best at damaging Anders’ calm, even if it only ever yielded minor annoyance, and Anders could usually pay him back in spades.

“Whatever,” said Kristoff.

“So what happened?” asked Anna, concealing a laugh. “In the, um, Weasel-town War?”

“That’s not what it’s called,” reiterated Anders. “It’s named the Weselton-Arendelle War of Succession.”

“That’s a lousy name for anything,” said Kristoff.

“It is what it is,” said Anders, a little testily. “Anyway, the war started when the current king ascended to the throne. Well, the Duke of Weselton claimed that the throne should be his, claiming regency for his nephew, the soi-disant King’s half-cousin once removed.” Anna’s head reeled at these strange terms, and made a mental note to ask about “half-cousin,” and “once removed” – in addition to “adopted.”

Anders went on. “It’s not the first time someone tried to claim the throne on spurious grounds, except the King’s grandparents only sired one healthy child – as all of the Arendelle Royal Family have ever done – and that was the King’s mother. But such questions are rarely decided by laws and books, and the new King was young and ascended the throne when his mother, the ruling Queen, took ill and died rather suddenly. He had scarcely time to be crowned when the Duke claimed the throne and marched his army across the border of Arendelle, to the east.

“The Duke’s army was split into two parts: the first part was his personal levy, one thousand armored knights and five thousand men-at-arms. A modest number, but nothing to threaten Arendelle with. The main strength came from the second half of his army, a band of Coronese mercenaries ten thousand strong, all afoot, all eager to prove themselves. They were led by the feared Friedrich von Aanhaal, a man said to sleep on a bed of the swords of his enemies. They were bought and paid for by the Duke’s personal wealth, for although he was stingy, he was more greedy still, and the thought of a throne won with a penstroke and another man’s sweat and blood no doubt tantalized him.

“The Duke’s plan was simple: Friedrich’s host would move in first and besiege the capital from the east, and the Duke would wheel around the north and besiege it from there. The Duke reasoned that the King could never summon his levies in time, and the war would be won in a swift stroke.

“The King realized the Duke’s plan when the mercenaries reached the city, but the Duke was days behind, lagging because of his lack of experience in leading an army to battle. The King had never fought in battle before, and knew little of strategy, so he summoned his mother’s most trusted commander – Lord Wideriver. He said to move quickly, and gather every man ahorse in the county. The advance must be stopped if we have any chance of gathering our strength, said the King. The Lord Wideriver said, I do not know how, but it will be done, my King, or I shall not return.

“Lord Wideriver sallied forth, squired by the young Tore of Seastone, a dolorous youth of fifteen-years, and lowborn, the son of fishermen, but skilled at arms; he gathered all men with horse in the city and the county. A sad number, not even fifty score in total, but they sat armored and unarmored upon horses of better and worse quality. They were more suited to driving oxen rather than lances, but Lord Wideriver spoke to them and said:

“‘I have been asked by the King, our King, your King, to do the impossible today. The enemy bear down upon us without so much as a declaration of war. He seeks to usurp the throne and break the line of Arendelle. He has brought southerners with him to bolster his numbers. Half of his strength there is ten thousand, and we are one thousand together. But they are green, and dream of oranges and warm beaches. They should not have come to the land of glaciers.’

“Lord Wideriver led his men east of the city, where Friedrich’s host awaited. They were ten thousand, truly, all with pikes, and separated into five blocks of two thousand each, with Friedrich standing proud behind the center block. A formidable force, it must be said, but an old lesson of war is that there are some things a trained knight can do that a hundred men afoot cannot. But what Lord Wideriver might have done that day, there’s no telling, for the mercenaries rose the colors of parley, and Lord Wideriver rode forth, his squire at his side, to meet them. When they were within spitting distance, one of Friedrich’s men nocked an arrow and it struck true, piercing Lord Wideriver’s neck. He had only time to mouth to his squire ‘Go,’ when he slumped and fell from his horse. Tore of Seastone quickly galloped back to the waiting thousand, the jeers of the mercenaries hitting his back, the arrows mercifully falling short.

“The knights and other horsemen were all now nervous, and none said a word, though fear was in their eyes. We must turn back, shouted one knight, and a few echoed him. Fearing all was lost, the squire roared at them. He said that it was now or never, and who must raise the colors of parley only to kill is a deceitful worm that will fold in battle like a house of cards. And so he lifted his lance, and said to them: ‘We punch the center. Charge, and do not falter, or we have already lost.’

“Tore of Seastone led the charge, and his one thousand knights formed a spearhead, pointed directly at the center of the formation. They charged at blinding speed, shouting as they rode, while the defending mercenaries lined up to receive them. The center group was as a porcupine, their pikes like spines, but still Tore’s men charged forward, undaunted, screaming.

“They smashed into the center group and drove hard, men screeching as they were trampled and stabbed, and the center group wavered, broke, and scattered. Still Tore charged forward, directly at Friedrich and his guard. It is said that Friedrich and his scarred, gaunt, sneering face was filled with terror in his final moments, when Tore’s lance took him and separated head from body.

“The battle was a rout. Tore’s men suffered thirty-seven casualties, yet all of the mercenary army was either killed, captured, or had fled. Tore presented the head of Friedrich to his king, and it’s reported Tore said that he wished he had a more suitable gift for the King’s coronation.

“When word of the defeat reached the Duke, he made to flee east, back to Weselton. The King had done with raising his levies and gave command of the cavalry to Tore. Hearing of the success of the young fishing squire, the King’s men rallied and formed – a host forty thousand strong – and marched into the Duchy of Weselton ahead of the Duke’s slow-moving army. One day later, surrounded and in hostile territory, the Duke surrendered.

“Little enough was demanded of the Duchy, which had to pay significant war indemnities – mostly from the Duke’s personal wealth – but that’s not what’s important,” said Anders with a slight smile. “That squire, Tore of Seastone, was knighted by His Grace the King, and officially declared Marshal the next day. Ever since then, he has served as the King’s man – loyal to the last.” Anders rounded on Kristoff. “And that’s why the Marshal is ‘only’ a knight.”

Kristoff huffed and rolled his eyes, his voice overflowing with drama: “You ask a simple question…”

Anna, meanwhile, was floored by the story. The sheer scale of it boggled her. Tens of thousands of knights? All fighting people – not monsters or dragons. It was strangely disappointing, but it made sense in a way. If knights are bound to do combat, and different lords – sometimes enemies, too – all had their own knights, it only made sense that they’d have to fight each other, too.

Then again, this Tore of Seastone sounded like a hero too. Sure, he didn’t rescue anyone. Actually, he let his knight die. And he didn’t kill any vicious beasts. But… he did kind of rescue the kingdom. And he avenged his knight. And he killed a sort of monster. Close enough.

But Weselton had knights too. Were they all evil? If so, didn’t that just mock the whole concept? No, likely they weren’t evil. They just served their own lord. That’s all knights really do, I guess, she thought. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a knight after all. She sighed. Maybe it was possible to be a hero and protect people without swearing any oaths? Her mind wandered to the Royal Family.

“Hey, Anders?” she said. “Do the Royal Guardsmen ever fight in war?”

Anders thought for a moment. “Very rarely,” he said. “Their most important duty is protecting the Royal Family… but they are still beholden to follow their orders, whatever they may be.”

“Enough about all that, ja,” said Oaken, interrupting them and stepping away from his stall. To Anna’s shock, there was a completely new assortment of items there, compared to that morning. “Let’s have some lunch. I’m famished!”

Anders broke out a satchel and they all enjoyed a cold lunch of simple fare: goat cheese, soft bread, some cabbage, and, to Anna’s surprise and delight, red apples.

“Got these apples for cheap,” said Oaken with a snigger. “Man gave me a dozen apples for a ball of yarn. He said it was for his wife, ja, but I don’t think his wife told him to make fool trades.”

They ate and talked, though Anna was mostly quiet, deep in concentration and still feeling tired. Once she had eaten her fill, and Kristoff and Oaken were talking about their favorite performers in the procession, she rested her back against Oaken’s stall and closed her eyes.

When she opened them, the sun had moved further down the sky. It was afternoon, and warm, and Kristoff was teasing Sven with an apple.

“This is no carrot,” he lectured Sven. “This is a luxury veggie, so if you want it, you’ve got to work for it.”

Anna stood up with a stretch and looked around. Anders was gone, and Oaken was still haggling with customers. She walked up to Kristoff.

“Hey, Kristoff. I’m going to go see Astrid for a little while,” she told him.

Kristoff nodded, but he wasn’t really paying attention. He kept talking to Sven. “You see, Sven, red is the color of fanciness, so if you want to eat a red apple, you have to be fancy.” Astrid wears red, Anna thought. Kristoff held out the apple and Sven took a slobbery bite. Kristoff clucked. “No, that wasn’t very fancy at all.”

Anna went to Astrid’s house, where she found the front door open. She peeked in and saw Astrid dozing in a chair by the dark fireplace. Anna knocked on the opened door, and Astrid awoke suddenly.

“Oh, Anna,” she said groggily.

“Didn’t get enough sleep last night?” joked Anna, fully appreciating the irony that Astrid was also tired.

“An annoying little kid woke me up this morning,” she grimaced. She rubbed her eyes and beckoned for Anna to come inside.

Anna entered the house and sat in the chair opposite Astrid. “So how was guard duty?”

“Boring,” said Astrid dolefully. After a few moments, she said “I don’t know if I feel like training today, kiddo.”

Anna wasn’t bothered by that. “Yeah, me either,” she said truthfully.

Astrid smirked. “Maybe I should make you do some drills just for being lazy.” Anna stuck her tongue out at her.

They sat in pleasant silence for a little while, until Anna remembered what she had been doing before her little nap. “Oh, yeah. Astrid?” she started. Astrid looked at her. “I was just thinking, because, Anders told us about the War of, um, Weselton, and it seems like knights do a lot of killing and stuff. But not for good or evil, but just because their lord tells them to do it.”

Anna paused. Astrid was watching her, but didn’t say anything, so Anna continued. “So I was wondering if it was possible to fight evil and protect the innocent without being a knight or- or even a sworn warrior, though I guess that if there was a way, you’d have taken it already, since…”

But Astrid was no longer listening. She had stood up and was walking over to her bedroll. She knelt down next to the head of the bed and stuck her hand under the feathery pillow, pulling out from beneath it a small leather-bound book.

She brought the book back over to Anna and handed it to her. Anna looked up at Astrid’s face, but it was expressionless – except for the barest hint of a smile. Anna looked back down at the book and read the title aloud:

The Life and Times of Jeanne d’Arc.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The book was small and bound with leather, tinted green. A faint yellow thread ran up the binding and the title was embroidered in silver-colored string: The Life and Times of Jeanne d’Arc, in slim lettering. It bore no other adornment, and the whole thing felt a little shabby in Anna’s hands. Tough, but shabby. And… old.

Astrid must have noticed Anna’s puzzled frown, because she began to explain. “Joan of Arc. She was a person who fought evil and protected the innocent,” said Astrid. “And she wasn’t a knight.”

Anna looked up at her. “Huh,” she said. “If she wasn’t a knight, how did she fight evil?”

Astrid blinked. “With her sword arm.”

“So… she just went around the land cutting up bad guys on her own?” said Anna, a little incredulously.

Astrid chuckled. “Not exactly,” she said. “You’ll have to read the book.”

Anna looked back down at the book. “Read the book?” she repeated, and she again turned her gaze back up to Astrid.

Astrid’s countenance fell. “You… can read, can’t you, Anna?”

“I think so,” she said, a little warily. “Oaken and Anders and Kristoff say I can. I just look at the letters and they… they make sense to me.”

Astrid seemed to relax again. She smiled and said, “That should be good enough.”

Anna looked down at the book again, pensive. Astrid put a hand on her shoulder. “Remember, you don’t need anyone’s permission to fight evil,” she said. Anna could sense her smirk. “But it helps.”

She was still thinking about those words when she rode with Kristoff back to the crossing. The sun was almost set, and as the stream grew closer and closer, panic took root in her mind. She was going to pay for disobeying the Wise Troll. She felt like she was going to her execution. She clutched Astrid’s book tightly in her arms. Even if he bans me from ever leaving again, she thought, at least I’ll still have this book.

“So you let me know if I need to beat anyone up,” said Kristoff, stopping the sled at the crossing. She wanted to laugh at him, tease him, say “You? Beat someone up? Get real!” But she just nodded and smiled. “Will do,” she said weakly. Kristoff gave her a thumbs up, and Sven whickered, and they were off towards the ice fields again.

Anna trudged down the stream, back to the troll cairn, her footsteps getting slower and more ponderous as she went. She was filled with dread by the time she stood at the place where she had left her grass clothes. She changed out of the clothes she got from Astrid and back into her usual moss-woven tunic and grass skirt. She noticed they felt a bit itchy.

I might as well get this over with, she thought, and walked to where she had left Braffly.

No one was there. Likely most of the trolls were asleep at this time of day, so fewer manned the watch. Anna let herself feel a little hopeful, for a second, but it was fleeting. The Wise Troll was either awake, or would soon be awake, and it made no real difference. She kept going.

By the time she was among the huts, she saw some trolls standing around in front of the Wise Troll’s hut and its two silver pines. She looked and recognized Rain, and Loot, and Braffly – and the Wise Troll. A few other trolls were awake, too, but they looked groggy.

The Wise Troll saw her coming and fixed her with a stony glare. She walked up to him, book in hand, and faced her judgment.

A long period of silence passed, and Anna inspected the faces of those gathered. Rain looked absurdly guilty, and fidgeted; Braffly, as ever, confused; and Loot looked smug and defiant. The rest of the trolls’ faces were a mixture of admonition and worry – but mostly worry. Anna felt bad. Of course they were worried. Her family was worried.

But why? Whatever for? She had been going to the human town for months now, and the only trouble she got in – well, she hadn’t told anyone about it. But really, didn’t that just mean they had no cause to be worried? Maybe the Wise Troll had told them something he hadn’t told her. Her previous feeling of contrition was replaced with one of slight bitterness. If there was danger, he should have told her exactly what it was. Then she wouldn’t have had to disobey him. She could have been reasonable, but he wasn’t.

The Wise Troll was eyeing her with a deep frown carved on his face. When the silence seemed like it had stretched on forever, he spoke. “Anna, you sneaked out this morning,” he said. His tone was not accusatory, just factual.

Anna couldn’t think of any other way to respond than, “Yes, I did.” She paused, then kept going. “But I only did it because I -”

The Wise Troll held up a hand and she stopped talking. “I know why you did it. Loot here had quite a few things to say in your defense.” The Wise Troll sighed. “I realize I was not forthcoming with you, and for that I apologize.”

Anna’s mind was racing. He was apologizing to her? But why?

“However,” he continued, “you still disobeyed me, and even if you thought you had a good reason for doing so, you must know that’s unacceptable. I only want what’s best for you, Anna. Do you understand that?” He looked sad despite the kindness of his tone.

Anna nodded sullenly. The guilty feelings were at the forefront of her mind again.

“I’m putting you on laundry duty,” he said. Anna breathed a sigh of relief. “You are banned from leaving the village for one month.”

Anna bit her lower lip and was quiet. Was that it? She dared to feel hopeful again. One month was nothing! She did her best to look downcast.

The Wise Troll looked at her for a long moment, and then said, “You must be tired, so off to bed with you. When you wake up tonight, I want you to take care of the laundry. Rain will be joining you.” He tapped the end of his rock staff against the ground. “That’s it.”

She nodded again, and turned to leave when a question came to her mind. “Wise Troll,” she said, “May I ask… why you didn’t want me to see the Royal Family?”

The Wise Troll took a deep breath and let it out in a rattling sigh before replying. “I was simply worried,” he said, looking away from Anna. “I thought it might be dangerous, with all the people there. Mayhap I was wrong,” he spared her a glance out of the corner of his eyes, “but that was my reason.”

Anna accepted this answer and replied with a courteous bow before she went off to her bed without another word. Her bed was quite unlike Oaken’s: it was a thin sheet of clean, woven moss, intended for caterpillaring up in. Like all troll-woven moss, it hosted no bugs, neither was it dirty nor itchy. But it wasn’t soft either. It was simply warm, and always guided her to sleep with perfect serenity.

Her bed was nestled in the corner of the cairn, at the foot of a big brown pine tree whose canopy blocked the sun and elements nicely. Sometimes, on clear warm nights when she had to go to sleep, she dragged the bed out so that she saw the stars when she lay down. She didn’t quite feel like doing that tonight, however, so she just curled up in the mossroll and thought. Her heart was pounding, she noticed, but the danger had passed. It hadn’t been that bad while it was happening, and now that it was over, it was nothing. The only scary part was the thinking about it beforehand.

Her lids closed heavily, grateful for the relief from the taxing effort of remaining open all that day. As she did, her mind wandered back to the events of the day. She relished them wickedly. She got to see the Royal Procession after all. The knights, the lords, the ladies, the Royal Family, Princess Elsa. Princess Elsa…

Dreaming. She knew she was. There was a snowman. She saw it in her mind’s eye: three misshapen lumps of snow, stacked on top of one another. Lumps of coal lined his torso like buttons on a jacket. Two arms made of twiggy sticks. His hair – ha! – his hair was also twigs, three tall twigs poking out of the top of his head. His nose was a carrot and his eyes were two black stones.

The universe was in those eyes.

She opened her eyes and beheld the empty ballroom. She stretched her fingers, and the air shivered playfully at her touch. Her heart was singing now, thrumming powerfully. Then there was the snowman. Her snowman.

She spun the snowman around and moved the twiggy arms. Her voice was like melting slush, it sounded so odd in her own ears: “Hi, I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!” She waved the twiggy arms vigorously as she spoke.

“I love you, Olaf!” She heard a happy shriek. She saw a little girl with red pigtails and glowing eyes run up and hug the snowman tightly around the middle. She gazed fondly at the little girl, and then… the panic set in. The girl was freezing, now, she saw it – where the snowman was touching her, ice was spreading. Quickly she tried to brush away the frost with her hands, but that only made the ice spread faster. She backed away and stumbled, falling. No, no, no, no, not again…

Anna woke with a sudden gasp, terribly surprised that it was warm out. She lay in her mossroll there for what felt like hours, letting the heat of morning wash over her.

Morning. She had slept too long.

A little shaken, she threw off the mossroll and proceeded to the stream, ready for a day of laundry.

That day and night, Anna did her chores without a peep, grateful for the light sentence so easily served. It was with a pang that she realized she couldn’t go to the crossing to see Kristoff for a whole month; and she wouldn’t be able to train with Astrid in all that time, either. Still, one month would pass soon enough.

Rain was also stuck with laundry duty, which she considered supremely unfair, as Loot had been given no apparent punishment. Since that night’s duty consisted of washing clothes by the moonlight with Rain, who was Anna’s only conversation partner, Anna suspected it might have been to keep Loot and his bad influence away from her. She thought that more than just a little unnecessary, since she had set her mind on escaping long before Loot told her to do just that, but it didn’t bother her much.

The next morning, after a long night of carrying clothes to the stream, washing them, hanging them to dry, and carrying them back to the village, Anna was exhausted physically - but not mentally. She lay down in her mossroll, her arms crossed behind her head, and thought.

She remembered the book that Astrid gave her, and pulled it out from the folds of the mossroll where she had stowed it, a very thin, green book that blended well with the moss. She stared at the cover for a long time, and then she cracked the book open to the first page:



THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JEANNE D’ARC

A curt, modest record of the life of Jeanne d’Arc, her passions, and the politics she paid no heed, as written by Lord Oliver Bagrush of Bagrush Hill



IT HAS NOT BEEN many years since the conclusion of the Long War, which the west of our great continent had long been embroiled in. I have not taken it upon myself to render a complete history of the war, much less its hazy beginnings, but rather I have decided to chronicle the efforts of the one woman most responsible for its final conclusion. She has been called many names in the short years since, some creative, some unflattering, some reverent, some inhospitable – but she is most commonly known as Jeanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc in the Northern tongue.

Before I discuss the life of Joan of Arc, I will briefly delve into the background and circumstances of her birth. By the time she was born, the Long War had been raging for 70 years. The exact reason for its start was hazy, and still is today. What is known is that the Kingdom of Lutetia and the Kingdom of Albion were at war, and the kings of both countries claimed the crown of Lutetia for their own. The original claimants were long dead, but their sons carried on the fight.

The Kingdom of Lutetia is an old kingdom, and traces its roots to the Helvetian Empire that once sprawled across the continent. There were two other kingdoms that inherited the Helvetian legacy, being the Kingdom of Corona and the Kingdom of Lotharia. The Helvetian Empire was also known as the Empire of the Sun, stretching, as it did, from east to west – sunrise to sunset. Upon its breakup, the kingdoms of Lutetia and Corona based their heraldry on this heritage – Lutetia opting for a shining star, and Corona opting for sunbeams. Lotharia, meanwhile, was the middle country between the two greater kingdoms to its east and west. Except at noon, then, it was said that Lotharia constantly lived in the shadow of its neighbors. They were dubbed “the land of shadows,” and their heraldry was a purple crescent moon on a black field.

Over the years the Lutetians grew quite superstitious when it came to the light and the sun. Though there was no such thing as an organized religion to this effect, Lutetians became known for phrases like “the Sun knows,” and “may the Sun shine upon you.” The Lotharians, meanwhile, went in exactly the opposite direction, and spoke of shadows and darkness. It was a stark enough difference, to be sure, and over the ages each kingdom’s faith became maligned, even forbidden, in the other. Lutetians disavowed witchcraft and shadowy arts, and Lotharians shunned the light.

The Kingdom of Albion is also old, though not quite as old as Lutetia. The kingdom was originally formed when a Lutetian duke named Shreccus the Great – an ogre of a man, it is said – led his army across the Straits of Albia and deposed King Farquad the Unready of the Kingdom of Duloc. While an interesting story, it is a long one, so it will be left for another time. Today Albion is bordered by the Kingdom of DunLoch in the north, and the rump Kingdom of Duloc in the west.

Returning to the point at hand, Joan of Arc was born in Lutetia, in a time of an endless war between two proud and old countries. There was much enmity and strife in those days, in those lands, so it is remarkable indeed that she should have turned out the way she did.

Joan of Arc was lowborn, the child of two peasant farmers of turnips. Little enough is known about her parents, but it is clear that they were loving, honest folk, pious and loyal to Lutetia. They instilled these same values in the young Joan, who, growing up, used to say that she loved three things most: “The Sun, Lutetia, and Lutetians.” She was an exceptional peasant, but not special because of that. No, from a young age she was unusual in that she entertained a great enthusiasm for swordplay. Often she ran around her village, wooden sword in hand, playing with the boys and pretending to be one of the ancient Helvetian Warriors of Light.

Where exactly she acquired her martial skill is unknown. Whether it was a simple gift from the inscrutable heavens, or the result of training with a hidden master, no one can say. However, by the time she was 16, she possessed a latent military genius, apparent only when she won her first victory.

This victory was all the better fortune for Lutetia, because the kingdom was on its last legs. The hosts of perfidious Albion were pushing ever further. They laid siege to the city of Orléans, the white citadel – a gleaming city on a river, with high white walls. Orléans occupied a strategically important position for Lutetia, it being the last bastion before the Lutetian heartlands would be laid bare to the invaders.

When Joan of Arc heard the news, it is said that she prayed to the light to show her how she could help; and it is said that the light told her to beseech the king, and go to Orléans.

The Lutetian king’s court was in disarray once the news of Orléans’ siege came through. The king’s council, led by the supercilious Chancellor Claude Frollo, were a mistrustful and suspicious lot, though they made a good show of being faithful. The king was young, and timid, and relied on them for much.

So when Joan of Arc gained an audience, and told him that he must give her an army and march on Orléans, the councillors scoffed. “She is just a peasant girl,” sneered the Chancellor Frollo. “Vermin. Orléans is the white citadel, the Albionese will break themselves against it as waves break against a cliff side.”

“I am a peasant, my lord,” Joan of Arc admitted. “And I am a girl. But I tell thee, Your Majesty, I speak the light’s truth. I have seen victory at Orléans, and defeat should nothing be done. A cliff may weather one wave and be unchanged, or even ten, but can it weather ten thousand?”

Despite the jeers of his council, the king saw goodness in her heart. He dared to feel a spark of courage as he saw this young woman brave all just to speak to him, and he said: “May the Sun shine upon you! I will give you what I can spare.”

The machinations of the councillors did not permit this to be very much, however, so in truth Joan was given the dregs of a following. Still, she was undeterred, and made her way to Orléans. Along the way, she spoke and preached to the frightened people of the towns and hamlets she visited. When she talked of the way the light had spoken to her, people were moved to tears, and they began to take up arms and join her.

When she got to Orléans, she was followed by a host of men, mostly simple, all of whom believed in her and the light, and fought for no lords but rather for the young Joan, from Arc, and Lutetia.

Joan happened upon the city as the besiegers were snoozing, flat-footed and unwary, in dead of night. She fell upon them with her host, and though they rallied, she beat them back and over the rivers, around the hills, and through the forests. When all was said and done, the Albionese had fled, and Orléans was saved.

When word of the lifting of the siege reached the king and his council, they were shocked. They left for Orléans in great haste, and arrived to find the city celebrating Joan, of Arc, and hailing her. “The Maid of Orléans!” they cried, tears in their eyes. “Hail to Joan of Arc!”

The king was frightened by this turn of events, fearful that his people should love her more than him. He asked the council what he ought to do, and they schemed.

Finally Chancellor Frollo said to the king, “The peasant girl Joan’s work here is foul sorcery. She claims to serve the light, but she fought the Albionese under cover of darkness. What servant of light would do such a thing?”

The king decided to put Joan of Arc on trial for witchcraft, and he himself presided. He asked Joan bluntly: “Joan of Arc! You stand accused of dark sorcery, a great crime in the Kingdom of Light. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” said Joan stoically. “I serve the light and the kingdom.”

“Nonsense!” cried Chancellor Frollo. “Is it not true that you attacked the Albionese in darkest night? How is this the work of a true servant of the light?”

“My lords,” said Joan, still calm, “I am a simple girl, and I love only three things: my country, my countrymen, and the light. All my life I have only wanted to serve Lutetia. When word of the Siege of Orléans reached me, I prayed and fasted for a week to know what I could do. Then the light spoke to me, and told me to beseech my king, and to go to the city. I did this thing, and I put myself at the mercy of the good king. Is that wrong? If it is, you may burn me for sorcery – but I shall not admit to darkness when, in my heart, I have only served the light.”

The king was moved to tears by Joan’s confession, and he declared the trial over. “Not guilty!” he exulted. “O, Joan of Arc, truly you are the spirit of Lutetia. I pray thee forgive me for doubting your purity.”

And Joan said to him, “My king, I serve at your pleasure, and at the realm’s. Forgiveness is not mine to give.”

But the council was not so touched, and in fact now they grew fearful of Joan’s influence. The king was growing fond of the Maid of Orléans, and if she kept winning battles, soon his ear would be hers to command his attention - and hers alone. Dear reader, you may know as well as I that Joan had no such interests – but that is hardly relevant. Men such as those on the king’s council are deceitful and mistrustful by nature, and see the same in all others.

Realizing he was running out of options, Chancellor Frollo hatched a final plan. He went to the king with the council at his back and told the king that the Kingdom of Lotharia had moved against him. The Chancellor said that the Lotharians moved all their forces to the north to help Albion, and left their great castle bare. This was a perfect opportunity to strike, said the Chancellor, and Joan must be put at the head of an army sent east to storm the castle and force Lotharia to surrender. The king thought it a good plan, and thanked his council for finally trusting Joan.

That night, Joan had another vision, provided by the light of the moon. The light told her that she must go north, but not east, if she desired glory.

The next morning, Joan spoke to the king thusly: “I know my next move, my king. I am to go north. I desire your leave and your blessings before I take my host and march.”

The king was inconsolable. His council and Joan were asking for conflicting things. He asked Joan: “Why must you go north? Albion’s forces are gathered in strength there. You will be destroyed.”

“The light told me to go north,” she explained simply.

The king dithered long on this point. At last he said, “My council has told me that you must go east, to seize Lotharia’s capital and force their surrender. Surely you can see the wisdom in such a move? The north is folly, I am sure!”

Joan merely shook her head. “My king, it is the light’s wish, not mine.”

The king realized Joan would not be persuaded. So he said, “I shall go north! I will take the bulk of my men and go north, if you go east. That way I can do as the light commands, and you can do as my council requests.”

Joan knelt before the king and said…



Anna stifled a yawn, closing the book as she did. Reading was hard work, and required all of her concentration, and so tended to tire her out quickly. Some of the bigger words were a struggle to get through, and it was slow going. Still, she was almost finished.

It had been a month, now, with her sneaking slow, short periods of reading in the mornings before she slept. Tomorrow – or tonight, rather – the term of her punishment would be up, and she could go back to the village, be free to wander again. She couldn’t wait to see Kristoff and Astrid. She hoped her skill at sword fighting hadn’t slipped too much. She had tried to get in some practice with misshapen branches and twigs, but it wasn’t the same, although it was better than nothing.

The next morning, after receiving a confirmation from the Wise Troll that her punishment had indeed been served, she changed into her human clothes – tunic, leggings, belt, and all – and went to the crossing, skipping the whole way. She hoped that Kristoff would be passing by today, but on the other hand she worried for a moment that something might have changed in the past month, and maybe Kristoff didn’t pass by anymore.

The worry was dispelled when, in short order, Kristoff came rattling down the trail. He looked no different than he had a month ago, perhaps a little more dour than usual, but then he saw Anna and his face lit up.

“Anna!” he shouted, and he stopped Sven at the crossing. She beamed at the two of them. “Gods, I thought you were never coming back!” he said to her as he hopped off the sled.

She smiled at him. “The Wise Troll banned me from leaving the village for a month. But… that month is up, so…” She kept on grinning.

Kristoff laughed. “So, what have you been up to?”

Anna shrugged a little bit. “I turned 10 years old, and mostly I’ve been washing laundry, and I’ve been reading a book Astrid gave me.”

Kristoff had looked impressed enough at the 10 years old part, but upon hearing about a book his jaw half-dropped in envy. “A book?” he repeated blankly.

Anna nodded. “It’s about Joan of Arc, a hero of –”

“What’s it like? Reading a book, I mean?”

Anna shifted uncomfortably from one shoed foot to the other. “It’s… I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like listening to a story, but… a lot slower, that is, slower than hearing a story like the ones Oaken or Anders tells.”

Kristoff scratched his chin, a thoughtful frown on his face as he stared off into space. Anna punched him in the arm. “C’mon! Let’s go into town! It’s been too long since I’ve been there!” So the two of them got on the sled and Sven started moving.

Oaken and Anders were overjoyed to see her again, and asked a lot of questions about what happened. Anna explained that she had been banned from leaving the village for a month, but, well, that month was now over.

“You were grounded, ja,” said Oaken.

“What did you do in all that time?” asked Anders.

“I mostly did chores,” said Anna. “But I’ve also been reading a book that Astrid gave me.”

“Really?” Oaken’s eyes lit up. “What book?”

“It’s a book about Joan of Arc,” Anna began saying, but was cut off by a short laugh from Anders.

“Yeah, Astrid loves that book,” he said with a chuckling sigh. “It’s certainly a nice enough story.”

Anna frowned. “Isn’t it true?” she asked.

“Mostly,” conceded Anders. “It’s truth of a sort.”

They continued talking until Oaken remembered he needed Kristoff to make a delivery for him. Anna took this opportunity to seek out Astrid, so she excused herself from the company of the men and went to Astrid’s house.

Upon her arrival, she heard sounds coming from the backyard – grunts and rustling. She wound her way through the fat pines surrounding Astrid’s house and entered the clearing in the back, where she saw Astrid sitting on a stump and struggling to fasten a thick, white string to both ends of a long, yew stick. The string was too short for the stick, so Astrid had to bend the stick near in half to get the ends close enough.

Seeing Astrid was deep in concentration, Anna decided not to disturb her with a “hello.” She stepped forward quietly, careful not to startle Astrid at her work. Then she stepped on a twig, which snapped with treacherous loudness.

Astrid’s head shot up, her concentration lost. She released her hold on the stick and it straightened out again, string and stick-end further apart than ever. For a second, her eyes were wide and startled, her expression tense, her mouth drawn into a thin frown; but as she realized it was Anna, she seemed to relax.

“Wild girl,” she said. “Long time, no see.”

“A little bit,” said Anna. She felt bashful. “Sorry for, um, disturbing you. What are you doing anyway? That looks really difficult. Do you want any help? Maybe I could… um…” She stopped herself from rambling anymore. Her face was burning.

Astrid just kept on looking at her, and then she smiled. “No worry, I was just practicing.” She set the stick down on the ground and rolled up the string, depositing it into a pocket on her trousers.

“Practicing what?” asked Anna, curiosity overpowering embarrassment.

“Stringing bows,” said Astrid. “Like the kind archers use.”

“Oh,” said Anna quietly. “Um, I thought you didn’t know archery?” She winced as she said it; the tone was more accusatory than she would have liked. “I mean, not that I think you couldn’t do it, but it’s just, the last time I asked about archery, you said -”

Astrid laughed and waved Anna to silence. “You’re right, I am no archer. But stringing bows is a useful talent still, and I just wanted to make sure I could still do it.” She sounded genteel enough, but Anna wasn’t convinced.

“So you were just stringing a bow for fun?” asked Anna flatly.

Astrid sighed and rubbed her temples. “No,” she admitted. “But it’s a long story.”

“I have time,” said Anna chirpily, and she skipped over to a stump opposite Astrid and sat down.

“Maybe later,” said Astrid. “What have you been up to this past month?”

“I did a lot of chores,” said Anna, reciting now for the third time the exploits she’d been up to that past month. “And I have been reading that book you gave me.” She paused for a second, and then remembered. “Oh yeah, and I turned 10 years old.”

Astrid smiled at her and said, “Happy birthday. Do I need to get you something?”

Anna looked at her, puzzled. “Why would you need to get me something?”

“For your birthday?” said Astrid blankly. That this meant nothing to Anna must have been apparent to Astrid, because she went on. “In human society, it is customary to give gifts to someone on their birthday.”

“Oh,” said Anna. “In troll society, we don’t really make a big fuss about it.” Anna thought for a second, then added “Except for 15th birthdays, I think. Because that’s when trolls become adults. The village gives the troll whose birthday it is one special gift based on who they really are. Deep down.”

“Well, humans give gifts for every birthday,” said Astrid with a smirk.

“But you already gave me a gift,” protested Anna. “Two, actually. No, wait – three. You gave me these nice clothes, and-and the book about Joan of Arc, and the free sword fighting lessons, and…” As she talked, she realized that Astrid had done a lot for her in the few months since she met her. She began to feel absurdly guilty and privately vowed to pay her back, somehow.

Astrid just laughed and smiled fondly at her. “All right, all right, I get it,” she said, spreading her hands in surrender. “So, you’ve been reading the book about Joan of Arc? Did you finish it?”

Anna shook her head. “No, I… to be honest, it’s kind of hard to read.” She gave Astrid a sheepish grin. “I mean, I’m not exactly used to it. Reading, I mean. I only read a little bit every day. I’m getting better, though!”

Astrid nodded. “So what do you think?”

Excited at the opportunity to talk about Joan, Anna launched herself into discussion. “I really admire Joan,” she said. “She’s strong and noble, and fights on her own, for her own reasons. And when she talked to the people, they rose up and joined her! Even the king respects her!”

Astrid kept on nodding, and when Anna stopped, she asked “How far in the book are you?”

“Um,” started Anna, gathering her thoughts. “The king asked Joan to go east, but… she had a vision telling her to go north.”

“And?”

“I stopped reading,” said Anna.

Astrid looked taken aback. “You stopped? But you’re coming up on the best part!”

“The best part?” That surprised Anna. She wondered what triumph of Joan’s Astrid was referring to. Maybe she defeated the king of Albion in some grand showdown?

“Yeah! You should try to finish the book tonight, and then come back tomorrow so we can talk about it.” Astrid grinned toothily at her, and Anna couldn’t help smiling back.

“Okay,” she agreed.

They continued talking, sitting on their respective stumps in Astrid’s backyard, for a long time. Anna never learned what Astrid’s reasons were for practicing bow-stringing, but since they discussed other things it flitted from her mind. Astrid mentioned that it was probably time to start training Anna with a shield as well, since she now had the basics of swordplay down.

After they finished talking, Astrid drilled Anna in some sword fighting exercises, and when she was too tired to do any more, she was dismissed.

“Just as well,” said Astrid. “You’ll probably need to head back with Kristoff soon.” Anna agreed, and moved to hand Astrid the wooden practicing stick. Astrid regarded the stick, in Anna’s outstretched arms, with a long and thoughtful gaze.

“Um,” said Anna. “Here you go.”

A devilish smile crossed Astrid’s face. “No, that’s yours, now. Happy birthday, kiddo.”

Anna gaped at her, and a queasy feeling developed in her stomach as she remembered all the other things Astrid had done for her – but even as she thought this, excitement trampled guilt. “Do… do you mean it?”

“Yeah. It’ll be good for you, to practice when you don’t come to town. Just take good care of it, all right?”

Anna smiled wide. “Thank you!” she squealed, and she ran up and hugged Astrid around the middle.

For a split second, she felt oddly cold as she hugged Astrid, like she had jumped into a snowdrift – but when Astrid returned the hug, it was warm and comforting. “Don’t mention it, wild girl,” she said softly.

When Anna left the small house and its fat pines, she began to feel somewhat parched – and a little hungry. On the one front, she decided she could solve part of her problem by taking a detour near the well, to draw up some water to drink. So she took a different path back to Oaken’s cabin.

At the bottom of the well hill, behind a lousy old shack, Anna heard voices talking. When she rounded the corner of the shack, she saw a dark-haired boy and a small gang of accomplices surrounding a short, mousy-haired boy. The younger boy was unharmed, but clearly terrified. Anna felt bile rise in her throat. Brendan and his gang. Martin. Again.

“Martin, I’m not asking for much,” said Brendan savagely. “I just want a bucket of water. So go up that hill and get it for me. My boys here will make sure you don’t fall in, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

“Yes, Ser, right away, Ser,” squeaked Martin.

“Ser? SER?” screamed Brendan suddenly, stepping forward to shove Martin. The boy tumbled backwards and landed on his back. “What the ruddy hell do you think you’re doing, addressing me ‘Ser?’ I’m a LORD!”

“Sorry, m’lord,” whined Martin. Brendan took another step forward when Anna cleared her throat loudly, and raised up her stick.

The gang all whirled on her, surprise, unease, and disgust variously splayed on their faces. There were four of them, in total – fewer than last time. They still well outnumbered Anna, and they looked older than her, but Anna was determined not to let it come to fighting. Not after last time. But if they do attack, she thought, I’ll just go get Astrid. She’s not far. But maybe I can whack anyone who gets too close with my stick.

“Oh, you,” spat Brendan. “The filthy little wild girl.”

“Yeah, me,” agreed Anna. She tried to keep her stick level. All the boys except Brendan were eyeing it now. That’s good, thought Anna. I’m too tired to fight, not for real, but maybe the stick will scare them anyway. “You should go away from this place,” she informed the boys helpfully.

“Or what?” sneered Brendan.

“Did you know Astrid lives very close by? She lives in a cabin about forty paces behind me. I could scream and she’d hear,” said Anna.

A dark look passed over Brendan’s face. “Astrid,” he growled. “I’m not afraid of her.”

I’ve got him now, Anna thought. “If you say so,” she said. She opened her mouth as if to scream, but before any noise could come out, Brendan’s gang broke and ran.

“Cowards! Imbeciles!” Brendan shouted after them. His eyes were angry. He stared daggers at Anna, his furious gaze darting between her practicing stick and her face, which was still poised to scream.

“When I come into my birthright, you’ll be sorry,” he said darkly. With that, he walked away in the direction the other boys had fled.

When the danger was passed, Anna let out a sigh of relief, and she let down her trembling, sore sword arm. She walked up to Martin, still lying on the ground, eyes wide with shock. She extended a hand to help him out. She racked her mind for something cool or heroic to say. “So, Martin, was it?” she said. That’ll do, she supposed.

“Y-yeah,” he stammered, and he took her hand and stood up. He was a small boy, thin and short, and, Anna supposed, a little younger than herself – with hair as brown as a field mouse and eyes like yellowgrass. He had a fair complexion, but no freckles, and dressed plainly in a tan tunic and breeches. He still looked terrified.

An awkward silence fell. Anna struggled to think of something else to say. “Why do those boys bully you?” she asked at last.

Martin looked at his feet, his face now scarlet with shame. “Because I’m too weak to defend myself,” he said placidly, almost rote.

Anna looked at him, askance. “Who told you that?”

“My father,” the boy said meekly.

Then Anna remembered this boy’s father. Armin. A polite man, who smiled warmly… but she also remembered the way he talked about his son. Anna looked at the boy long and hard, and almost pitied him.

After a few moments of looking at his feet, the boy’s head turned up and he stared at Anna. “Thanks. F-for saving me,” he mumbled.

“No, I’m glad to help,” she said, though on the inside the accolades made her feel good. “I think you ought to learn to defend yourself, though. Can you fight with a sword?”

Martin turned red again and shook his head. “No,” he said.

Anna frowned. “Can you use, um… spears? Axes?” The boy kept shaking his head. “Did your father never teach you to fight?” Anna found that a little unbelievable, since this boy’s father was a sworn warrior, like Astrid, so surely he’d have taught him something.

Martin shook his head again, and then seemed to hesitate. “Well… Astrid says I have a talent for bows and arrows,” he said tremulously.

Anna raised her eyebrows. “Really?” She was dubious, but if Astrid really said that… then that was impressive. She felt a twinge of envy.

“But I think that’s nonsense,” he said quickly. “No. And my f-father says bows are a craven’s weapon.”

Anna looked dubiously at Martin. “Astrid says archers are dangerous.”

The boy shrugged weakly, and looked back down at his feet. Anna suddenly had a thought. “How old are you?” she asked.

“Eight,” said Martin, and Anna’s eyes widened. So Brendan was… five years older than him? Anna felt a surge of rage.

“If you ask me, Brendan’s the coward,” she said sharply. “He has to pick on people five years his junior.” Martin didn’t seem to respond to that, and kept looking at his feet, and soon Anna’s rage dissipated. Why was he so… yielding? Defeated?

“So…” said Anna, “who taught you to use a bow and arrow?”

“No one,” said Martin, still not looking at Anna. He did sound a little less frightened, though. “S-sometimes… I… when I pick up a bow and arrow, something about it just feels so…” He took a deep breath. “Right. It just feels right. I used to play at it a lot, but my dad put a stop to that. He wanted me to learn how to use real weapons, he said.” He finally looked up at her. His expression was still sad, but his tone was no longer cowed.

“That’s silly,” said Anna, and she smiled reassuringly at the mousy-haired boy. “You should do what you like. I’m sure if you talk to Astrid, she’d help you out.”

A pause, and then, “I did talk to her, and she… she said she’d do what she can. I was just going to see her right now, when Brendan…” He shuddered.

In an instant, Anna realized what the bow Astrid had been stringing was for. “Oh, all right. Do you want me to walk you to her house?” she offered helpfully.

Martin shook his head. “No, I’ll be fine,” he said, and a faint smile appeared on his face. “Th-thanks again.” He went off in the direction of Astrid’s house, and Anna watched him go. She felt good to hear that Astrid was helping him out, too. Anna felt like he really needed it. He was only eight, though – that was impressive. She couldn’t remember what she had been like when she was eight, but she was certain she didn’t have Martin’s evident self-control.

Nor his cowardice, she thought dully. She sighed. She really did pity him.

She got her water from the well, drank deep, and continued on to Oaken’s house. Oaken was out back, sawing away at some wooden planks, and Anders and Kristoff were nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Kristoff?” she asked Oaken.

“Making a quick delivery, ja,” said Oaken. “He will be back soon I think.”

She sat down on the grass and watched Oaken saw. The sun was warm, and shining down on her. The temptation to lie down was strong, and she would have been really drowsy if she wasn’t so hungry.

Kristoff arrived shortly, Sven in tow, and deposited a small jingling pouch with Oaken. “Thank you, Kristoff,” said Oaken, and Kristoff merely mumbled an acknowledgement.

“How is Astrid?” he asked Anna.

“She’s well.” Anna thought it perhaps best not to mention her run-in with Brendan. “I also ran into Martin.”

“Martin?” echoed Kristoff with a bewildered look. “That’s funny, that kid normally doesn’t leave his house. What was he doing?”

“Getting water from the well,” lied Anna. Kristoff just nodded. “He seems like a nice kid,” she added.

“He is,” said Kristoff. “He just has a bad habit for attracting trouble.” Anna frowned. It’s not his fault that Brendan picks on him, she thought.

Anders came out the back door of the cabin just then, and noticed Anna with a warm smile. “Anna, Kristoff says you had a birthday this month!”

“Oh yeah,” said Anna. “Astrid said those are a big deal in human society.”

Anders nodded and beamed. “Yes, we usually give gifts to people on their birthdays. Oaken and I have just the gift in mind, for you.” He and Oaken exchanged a knowing glance.

“No, no, no,” said Anna quickly. “I don’t need any gifts. I’m fine, thank you.”

“Nonsense!” boomed Oaken. “You will love it, and it is a small thing.”

Before Anna could articulate any further protests, Anders produced a small gilded box with little silver hinges. It clearly wasn’t real gold, but it looked gaudy enough. He presented it to her with a flourish.

She took the box and stared at it. “A box?” she asked. She wasn’t exactly disappointed, not having expected a gift in the first place, but being presented with a small fake-gold box certainly left her nonplussed.

Kristoff laughed. “Open it,” he urged.

Tenderly, she opened the box by its lid, and spied inside a small, dark brown ball. “What is it?” she asked.

“It’s called chocolate,” said Anders. “It’s a delicacy from Aztlan, far across the Great Ocean. They mix a special plant called cacao with milk and sugar and… well.” He chuckled.

Oaken piped in. “We know you like sweet things, ja? Well, chocolate is very sweet. I had to pull a few strings to get this, but I think it is worth it.”

They were now all looking eagerly at her, waiting for her to eat it. “Thanks,” she said, and she grinned warmly at them. She plucked the chocolate ball out of the box with a thumb and forefinger, and popped it into her mouth.

She chewed, and the taste was incredible. It was sweet and rich and delicious… and familiar. As she swallowed the chocolate, a strange feeling came over her. I’ve eaten this before, she thought. She knew. Then her vision blurred, and Kristoff, Oaken, Anders, Sven, Oaken’s cabin – they all fell away.

An enormous castle. An enormous room. The room was quiet, and empty, and dark. She flew to the door. It opened noiselessly, and she glided to a huge triangular window. The stars glittered down at her, dancing with light and color, and the moon was as white and bright as fresh-fallen snow.

“Go to sleep!” said the moon.

“I can’t,” she replied. “The sky’s awake, so I’m awake, so let’s go play.”

The moon said nothing. One by one, the stars vanished, until the only thing remaining in the inky night sky was the moon and its pale, placid face.

A hard, cold grip seized her heart and she gasped in pain. She looked up at the moon. Everything else was dark, but not the moon. The moon still shone. She reached her arm out, though it was frozen solid.

The moon disappeared, and all that was left was the black, black cold.

 

Chapter Text

Loud-growing murmurs pecked at her head like a flock of angry crows. She opened her eyes against the light of the day, and, amidst the pained fluttering of her eyelids, saw that Kristoff, Anders, and Oaken were all standing over her with expressions of stark concern.

She was lying on the grass. How did she get here? Her recent memory resurfaced: the chocolate. It was delicious, as promised, but also… Her head was swimming as she recalled the feeling.

“You’re awake!” said Oaken.

“Are you okay?” asked Anders.

Anna opened her mouth to respond but only a feeble whine came forth. She converted it into a grunt and tried to sit up, fighting against the thundering turbulence in her skull. “Yeah,” she said at last. “I… I don’t know what happened. The chocolate…” Her voice trailed off.

They all frowned. “Allergic, maybe?” proposed Oaken, clearly distressed.

“Queerest allergic reaction I’ve ever seen,” said Anders dryly. “How does your stomach feel, Anna?”

“My stomach?” The only pain Anna was experiencing came from her head, but even that was now ebbing away. Her stomach felt fine. “It feels fine. Normal.”

“That’s strange,” said Anders.

“Maybe the chocolate was so delicious it knocked her out,” said Kristoff. Oaken snorted in laughter before he checked himself against the graveness of the situation, and Anders shot Kristoff a sidelong glare.

“No,” said Anna. “It was just… an odd feeling, when I ate the chocolate. Like I’d eaten it before. And then everything went dark.”

“Troubling,” said Anders. “I’m afraid I have no idea what this means.”

“Whatever it is, hopefully it will pass, ja?” said Oaken, adopting one of the most tentative smiles Anna had ever seen. “Some tea will help clear your mind, I think. And warm you up – you’re cold as death!”

He helped Anna to her feet, and the four of them went into the cabin for a cup of tea.

The three others drank their drinks and conversed while Anna huddled in a blanket and sipped quietly. They made small talk and gave Anna occasional glances, apparently to make sure she hadn’t slipped into another fainting spell. She was sure she was safe, though. As she sat, she racked her brain and tried to remember the dream she had, the pain of her awakening now no more than a dull phantom. But the memories grew harder to grasp the more she thought on them, so she just sipped her tea and sat in silence.

“Sorry about your birthday gift,” Anders said finally, with a sheepish smile. “We’ll make it up to you.”

“There’s no need,” Anna said quickly, at which Kristoff laughed loudly.

“Well after that last gift,” Kristoff teased. Anders, and Oaken scowled at him but he just laughed harder. Anna just looked at him while he laughed uncontrollably, and then she felt herself smile a little; and then she giggled too.

They left the village on a good note that day after all, with Kristoff making light of the situation with jokes where he thought of them – about the trees and the birds and so on. When they got to the crossing, his expression turned serious.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked.

Anna nodded tentatively. “Yeah, I think it was just a one-time thing, you know? Like something weird.” She smiled a little mischievously. “Like ghosts.”

Kristoff smirked in reply. “Well, then, nothing to worry about!”

She walked back to the village, pausing by the bank of the stream where she left her troll clothes to change into her troll village outfit – and to deposit the practicing stick that Astrid had given her. She wondered briefly whether she should tell the Wise Troll about what had happened, but decided against it when she considered that her first day back in town after so long was better reported as wholly positive rather than dangerous in any sense. She settled in for an early nap so that she’d be awake for the evening.

At the end of the night, when morning loomed and Anna was prepared to go to sleep that day, she settled into her mossroll and suddenly remembered the book. She drew it out of its hiding place and leafed to the page that she had marked with a wide blade of grass. It had left a little green stain on the pages but the printing was still readable.

She picked up where she left off:



The king realized Joan would not be persuaded. So he said, “I shall go north! I will take the bulk of my men and go north, if you go east. That way I can do as the light commands, and you can do as my council requests.”

Joan knelt before the king and said, “Yes, my king, I shall do as you command.”

Thus Joan spake, and she took with her an army unlike the one she marched into Orléans with: the king felt uneasy with his decision to send Joan astray of the path the light had picked for her, so he sent with her his finest knights and best soldiers. Joan had what was needed to do the task asked of her – but not, as it happened, the task she would actually have to do.

She and her host entered Lotharia amidst little resistance, through dark twisty forests and across oozy sour streams, and finally reached the moated Castle Malefice. The castle was a grand sight to behold, with hundreds of gargoyle statues lining the walls and perched on the crenellations, blackened stone comprising every tower, keep, gate, and wall. And the moat was deep and wide. Still, the castle could be sieged, and Joan had her men construct ladders and siege towers using the timber of the surrounding forests.

But it was in the dark of night, when half her host was asleep and the other half keeping a tender watch with small nightfires to keep them warm and company, that from the shadows a great mass of Lotharians fell suddenly upon them, butchering them in their sleep and slashing their horses down. Joan beheld her entire army crumble, and rose her hand to beseech the Lotharians take her prisoner, and spare the survivors. They recognized her as the Maid of Orléans, and bound her in chains and took her to their queen.

“Aha, the Maid of Orléans!” said the queen of Lotharia, when Joan was brought before her. “Speak to me, the one they call Jeanne d’Arc. Why have you come here?”

“It was on the orders of my king,” Joan responded.

“Fool!” the queen hissed. “You went to your death. If you were highborn or noble, you might have made a useful hostage – but you are merely a witch of the light. And for that, the laws of my country demand you be held to account for your service to the light.”

And so a trial was held: Joan’s second trial on the charge of witchcraft. But rather than being tried for working shadows, she was tried for working light, and therein lay her undoing. For you see, dear reader, news of Joan’s first trial had spread across the lands, and her defense was well-known. While many Lutetians weeped with joy to hear of Joan’s acquittal on the grounds of her lightly piety, the Lotharians were infuriated.

Thus came the trial, and the queen said, “Jeanne d’Arc, you stand accused of doing the work of the light. How do you plead?”

And Joan said only, “Guilty. I have served the light, and Lutetia, all my life.”

To which the queen responded, “I hereby sentence you to death.” And at dusk that day, Joan of Arc was tied to a stake, and burnt alive for the crime of heresy.



Anna stopped reading with a sharp pang. No, that can’t be right. Why was Joan of Arc killed? What for? How could this be a good story? One of Astrid’s favorites, at that? Her heart was pounding. Was there some mistake? She kept reading:



News of Joan’s death went across the lands of both Lotharia and Lutetia, and all heard that the Maid of Orléans had been put to death. All across Lutetia she was mourned, and none



Anna slammed the book shut. She felt angry, sad, confused, betrayed, heartbroken – so many feelings were clamoring for release inside her. Astrid had said Joan of Arc was a hero! Anna accused Astrid in her mind. A hero? Heroes don’t die!

She took the book up and jumped out of her mossroll. The sun was slithering up over the horizon, so she still had time. She dashed to the stream, not even stopping to change, and ran up the brook to the crossing.

Kristoff looked like he was going to say something, but she cut him off. “Not right now,” she said, more sharply than she intended. “I need to see Astrid.”

The boy simply murmured “Okay” and they went on their way to town, Anna sick with grief. When they stopped, Anna jumped off the sled and tore off in the direction of Astrid’s cabin. Her teacher was in the back, if the sounds of chopping wood were any indication, and she wove between the fat pines and burst into the clearing, chest heaving.

Astrid glanced up with a look of surprise and a woodcutting axe heaved in her hands. “Wild girl,” she said, blinking. “What’s the matter?”

Anna held up the book and, for a moment, was at a loss for what to say. Then it roared out like a waterfall. “She died!”

Astrid blinked again. “Who, Joan?”

Anna stared up at her teacher dumbly for a moment. “Joan, yes. Joan died. You didn’t tell me she died!”

Astrid lowered her woodcutting axe to the ground and leaned on the end of it wearily. “Wouldn’t that defeat the point of reading the book?”

Anna felt a surge of rage. “What is the point then? How can she be a hero if she gets killed? What’s so heroic about that?”

Astrid leaned more heavily on her axe. “Did you finish the book, Anna?”

“No!” shouted Anna, her face a little warm now. “How can you expect me to finish this book when – when she died? And all because she listened to that stupid king!”

Astrid’s eyes narrowed. “Do you really think it was the king’s fault?”

“Yes!” said Anna immediately.

“Going east was her own decision, Anna,” said Astrid

“Well, it was the wrong decision!” yelled Anna, and only then did she feel the tears in her eyes. She threw the book to the ground and ran off, not in the direction of the rest of the town but in the direction of the mottled woods that lurked clumsily around its outskirts.

She ran stumbling through the growth and trees for several minutes before she stopped and sat down against the trunk of a heavy oak. She was out of breath, and terribly upset, and guilty for a lot of reasons. She didn’t know why she was so sad about Joan. It wasn’t like she knew her, not really. Not like her… mom and dad. Well, she didn’t know them either. At least she knew a little bit about Joan.

She wiped her wet eyes on a dirty forearm. Joan was killed. What else did it matter happened after that? Why bother reading more? The injustice of the whole thing stung her in the heart. How can you defend and protect people and do good if you’re dead? Some hero. Some story. I hope it’s not true, like Anders said, she thought. But she didn’t really know.

Is it true? she wanted to ask.

Is it a true story?


 

By the time she was 13, Anna was getting pretty good at sword fighting.

At least, Astrid had grudgingly said as much.

She didn’t talk with Astrid about Joan any more since that morning. She abandoned the book and left it alone. When she did go back to Astrid, it was just to practice. And practice she did: she had worked hard these past three years, filling most of her spare moments with drills and other various tasks Astrid set before her.

“Strength is important,” said Astrid, and she had Anna carry buckets of water, lug firewood, and pull carts.

“Dexterity is also important,” and she had Anna catch rabbits bare-handed, snatch fish out of streams (a lot harder than it looked), and dodge things that Astrid threw at her.

“Also endurance,” and Anna did the aforementioned tasks, and others, often; tasks that, Anna observed, almost always had some secondary utility, usually for Astrid’s benefit.

The first time Anna successfully caught a rabbit, she brought the wriggling furry gray thing to Astrid, clutching it as tight as she dared though it tried to cut her arms with its clawy paws.

“I did it,” she panted, out of breath. “I caught the rabbit.”

Astrid grinned. “You caught lunch.”

Anna gaped, and almost lost her hold on the rabbit. “You don’t want to eat this little rabbit, do you?”

“Well, yes, Anna,” said Astrid. “I’m hungy.”

Anna remembered the bear, and the scared look in the its victim’s eyes – the fawn’s eyes. It suddenly occurred to her that capturing helpless little rabbits and eating them ran contrary to her impulse to help the helpless. “No,” said Anna firmly.

Astrid sighed and crossed her arms. “Anna, why not?”

“Because,” said Anna, “I want to help the helpless, not eat them.”

“How is this any different from eating fish? You don’t complain about catching and skinning fish.”

Anna thought for a moment. “I suppose it’s no different at all,” she decided. “So we shouldn’t eat fish either.”

Astrid laughed. “You’re really more of a forest child than I thought. Anna, it’s true that the creatures of the wild are living things too, and they deserve our respect… but they aren’t people. They don’t live in our society.”

She knelt down to look Anna in the face. “Animals face injustice every day of their lives. They kill and eat other animals. That’s nature’s way. We can choose not to live like that, true, but if you let that rabbit back into the wild, you aren’t doing it a kindness. It will die some other way, randomly, at the whim of nature. The wild knows no justice.”

Anna felt deeply troubled by this insight, and frowned heavily. Astrid stood back up to her full height. “Besides,” she added lightly, “meat makes you strong, and if you want to be strong, you have to eat meat. So.”

The taste of the rabbit was good, she supposed, but eating the little guy still rankled her. So as she ate, Anna paused for a moment to say, aloud: “Thank you, Rabbit, for letting us eat you.”

Astrid stared at her in shock for a long moment before she threw her head back, howling with laughter. “Okay, okay, I was wrong,” she gasped out between laughs. “You are a forest child. Completely.”

In the midst of training, Astrid didn’t laugh so easily. She was very serious, then, and hardly ever smiled. Guard like this, like that; don’t lunge like that, keep your footing; faster, now! Despite the difficulty, Anna felt things come more easily to her the more she trained, and slowly but surely she felt more comfortable at swordplay. Anna was more than a little proud when Astrid informed her she was ready for training with a shield. Unfortunately, it only got harder after that, and many days Anna went back to her mossroll feeling quite sore.

But Anna didn’t train alone. Martin had started showing up at Astrid’s cabin with some regularity. He was shy about training in front of Anna, but sometimes she stuck around and watched from behind a tree. It was a different kind of training, his, though: Astrid worked with him at stringing bows and fletching arrows, but she let him alone when it came to loosing them. He didn’t seem to need instruction. He just picked up the bow and… moved like the wind.

One day, Anna caught Martin after she had been spying on his “training,” which she began to suspect was just an excuse to practice his bow without his disapproving father around to see.

“You’re really good at that,” she complimented him. The boy went red and studied her feet at that. In return, she got a stammered thanks, mumbles, and silence.

“Why are you so afraid of me?” she asked, hurt. He met her eyes and gulped visibly.

“I’m sorry, it’s not you, I just- I don’t know what to say,” he replied with a watery voice. “I’m not used to… to people saying I do anything really good.” He inspected the ground.

“Well, take it from me,” she said in an authoritative tone. “You really do have a talent for those bows and arrows. I bet if Brendan knew you had that kind of skill, he wouldn’t bully you as much. Hey!” She gave him a light smile. “I bet that’s why he’s been leaving you alone lately. Right?”

The boy opened and closed his mouth soundlessly, before saying “No, it’s because… because you’ve been in town, if I’m honest.”

She was taken aback. “Me?” she repeated.

Martin nodded quickly. “Yeah, I-I think so. He’s always grumbling about… about, ‘that wild girl,’ how she, um, you – that is – never let him have any fun. That’s… his words, anyway.”

Anna thought for a moment. “No,” she said slowly, “I think he’s actually afraid of Astrid. And he knows that I’m not afraid to go get Astrid if he tries to start trouble.”

The boy shrugged. “If you say so,” he said.

Despite Anna’s humble attempts to brush off Martin’s flattery, she was inflated by this new piece of knowledge. Rather proud. Like the sword lessons were paying off – although, if truth be told, the past three years had been good to Martin, at least as far as Brendan was concerned. Inwardly, she was convinced that he was really afraid of Astrid; he had to be, after all, because he was three years older than Anna, but… she walked back to Oaken’s cabin with a self-satisfied grin that evening.

Lately, Oaken’s cabin hadn’t been seeing as much of Oaken as Anders or Kristoff, or even Anna. Oaken had been a lot busier since he set up a trading post close by the foot of the North Mountain, and it was a day’s ride to or back from the cabin. He was constantly working there, building and making additions to the post. He announced his desire to move to The Haunted Trading Post eventually, to Anders’ annoyance.

“I’m not even convinced the business will be better,” said Anders bitterly, as he poured tea for Anna and Kristoff, huddled before the stone hearth in Oaken and Anders’ cabin. It was late autumn, and becoming quite cold. “The North Mountain doesn’t get a lot of traffic anyway. What’s the sense in setting up a sauna and trading post there, again?”

“More convenient for icers,” said Kristoff happily. He was 14, now, and his voice had recently been dropping into lower registers. It kind of creeped Anna out, to be honest, but every now and again his voice would crack like a glass bottle and squeak like Martin’s. Anna thought it was hilarious when that happened, and the look of embarrassment on Kristoff’s face only exacerbated the hilarity.

“Icers,” brooded Anders, sitting down with his own cup of tea and sipping at it.

Anna decided to tell Kristoff what she had learned from Martin that day, about what Brendan had said about her. She retold the story proudly, but when she was finished, Kristoff didn’t seem nearly so enthused as she was.

“Despite what Martin says, I think Brendan’s really afraid of Astrid,” said Anna.

“I think you’re right,” said Kristoff. “But I wonder what Astrid’s going to do when he becomes the Lord Mayor. For that matter, I wonder why Lord Edward hasn’t done anything already.”

“She is one of his sworn warriors,” Anna pointed out.

“Yeah, sure,” admitted Kristoff. “But, I mean, Brendan’s Lord Edward’s kid, right? That has to come higher up on the list of folk-that-matter than one of his soldiers.”

“Astrid’s important,” Anna insisted. “She said so herself, she’s the equal of any ten warriors this town has.”

“The town only has six warriors,” Kristoff countered. Anna scowled at him.

“That’s beside the point,” she replied hotly. But she did think about it. Brendan had reached the age of majority in human society when he turned 16, and as the Lord Mayor’s adopted son and lawful heir, wielded some influence to that effect. Anna was content to flatter Astrid as the reason Brendan stopped bullying, but then again, if Brendan gave Astrid an order, she had to follow it. Because of the law, and stuff.

So that meant it had to be Anna that he was afraid of. No doubt because she was growing so skilled with a sword.

One day, after training, Anna hoisted her practicing stick over her shoulder, sweat beading her forehead. She set down the iron-ringed wooden shield that she now also used for practicing. It was a battered old thing, and heavy, and slowed her down. When she complained about its unwieldiness, Astrid told her “You can either be unwieldy, or dead. So which is it?”

“Good job today, wild girl,” said Astrid. Anna nodded in acknowledgement.

“If I see Martin, shall I tell him to come by?” asked Anna.

“If you would,” said Astrid wearily.

Anna decided to pay a visit to the well, to bring up some water and refresh herself, and was on the way there when she encountered Martin coming in the opposite direction.

“Hey, Martin,” greeted Anna. She looked him up and down. The 11-year old was still short, shorter than her, with unkempt mousy hair and a gentle, wide-eyed demeanor. He had slung over one shoulder a strung yew bow, and at his opposite hip was a quiver of arrows fletched with gray goosefeathers.

“I see you are all ready to practice,” she said with a wry grin.

Martin blushed a little. “Um. Yeah,” he said. His fingers worried at the wobbly string on the bow, picking at it as he refused to meet Anna’s gaze.

She inclined her head at him, and continued on towards the well.

“W-wait!” said Martin from behind her, a strange note of concern in his voice. “Where are you going?”

“The well,” replied Anna, a little puzzled at this outburst. “I’m thirsty,” she clarified, and turned her head to look back at him.

Martin shifted his weight from one foot to the other uneasily. “The well?” he repeated.

She nodded. “For some water.” She looked at him, worry building up in her at his strange reaction. “Is something the matter?”

“It-It’s just,” he swallowed, “Brendan and his… friends are there,” he said. “Throwing things down the well, like rocks.”

“Oh,” she almost laughed, and relaxed. She gave a nonchalant wave of the hand. “Not a problem, he’s scared of me, remember?”

Martin didn’t seem assuaged by this reassurance. In fact, he looked completely mortified, his mouth gaping a little in shock. But he didn’t say anything, so Anna just gave him a friendly smile and continued on her way to the well, leaving the archer boy behind.

Sure enough, the well had some company – Brendan, at least, quite tall and dark-haired as always, and three friends. Gordan, a beefy, thick-necked boy with curly brown hair; Jon, shorter than the rest, thin but with a fat, froggy face and straight blond hair; and Jeor, inclined to plumpness, with a face beset upon by pimples and the scraggly black beginnings of a beard.

For a shadow of a moment, Anna was apprehensive about approaching the well. The four older boys were all throwing rocks down the well, jeering occasionally, and talking amonst themselves. It was considered an ill thing to throw dirty rocks into the well, for the sake of polluting the water, and yet here Brendan was, throwing small stones down the well with complete impunity. Tak, tak, tak, tak, plish, the rocks fell, one after the other, bouncing off the walls of the well as they plummeted down, the sound of their descent echoing up and down the stone edifice.

The fear ebbed as Anna thought about it. Brendan’s afraid of you, remember? she reminded herself. No need to go get Astrid, don’t even think about interrupting Martin’s lesson. Just go to the well and get your water.

She adopted a confident stride and strolled up to the well. Though the boys noticed her, they said nothing. When Brendan saw her, he snorted. He was sitting on the edge of the well, between her and the bucket. Her fingers grasped the handle of the wooden stick still resting on her soldier more tightly, and she walked up to him and fixed him with a contemptuous glare. He returned the gaze with daggers of equal measure.

“Move, please,” she ordered him. “I need to get some water.” She briefly considered adding “for Astrid,” but convinced herself it was unnecessary.

Brendan’s thin dark eyebrows rose, and the fury in his eyes stirred like a low-burning fire touched with dry kindling. “Excuse me?” he said softly.

“I said, move, please,” repeated Anna. “I need to get some water.” She tightened and relaxed her grip on her practicing stick, reassuring herself that it was there.

Brendan swung his legs over the side of the well, planting his booted feet on the grassy ground softly. He leaned on the well side with both hands resting now on the well’s stone wall. “Tell me what exactly makes you think you can talk to me like that,” he said coolly.

Sheer panic settled in. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. “Astrid,” she blurted, and when she saw his brows knit in anger, hastily added, “For Astrid, I mean; the water.”

“I’m not afraid of Astrid,” he growled, and jumped upright. He advanced on her. “What makes you think-”

Judgment deserted her, as well as all thoughts except “get away.” She noticed the three other boys moving on her. Quick as she could, she twisted her hand and struck one of them in the face with the end of the wooden stick. She heard a smack, and a howl of pain, and just as quickly she felt meaty hands grab both her arms and shoulders. She struggled but Brendan grabbed her right hand and pried the wooden stick from her fingers.

When she stopped struggling, tired and panting and hurting from the tightening grips of the hands on her, she took in the surroundings. Brendan was holding her practicing stick in his hand, and one of the boys – the fat one, Jeor – was cupping his nose with both hands. “I thi’g ib broken!” he sobbed.

Brendan snarled at him. “It’s not broken. She didn’t even draw blood.” Jeor drew away his hands and she saw a good deal of blood trickling down from the nostrils. Brendan glowered at the wound, and then at Anna.

“What the hell gives you the right?” he said coldly to her, “to come on my hill, in my town, and demand to use my well? You’re thirsty? Is that it?” He motioned to the two boys grabbing her arms and shoulders, and they pushed her bodily towards the edge of the well. Brendan grabbed the neck of her tunic and thrust her head over the side, so that she was staring down into the gloom of the well. Deep, she thought.

“I can give you a drink,” Brendan promised. Anna struggled against her captors, kicking her legs and trying to move her arms, but to no avail. Brendan kept talking in a manic voice. “That’s what good lords do, isn’t it? Make sure their subjects have plenty to drink? I can make sure you don’t run out of any drinking water for a good long time to come, if that’s what you want.”

“Hey, stop!” cried out the squeakiest voice Anna had ever heard. Oh no, she thought. The boys relaxed their grips and they all whirled around to see the source of the voice. Anna craned her head under the crook of her arm to see…

Martin, standing a few yards away, yew bow drawn and arrow nocked. His hands were remarkably steady, and the arrow was aimed just out of sight – directly at Brendan, if Anna had to guess.

“Martin,” said Brendan singsongingly. “What are you doing with that toy? That coward’s weapon?”

Brendan reddened visibly, but his poise remained tense. “Stop,” he repeated. “Let her go.”

“Or what?” hissed Brendan. “You’ll shoot me? You’ll shoot me?” Brendan sounded almost incredulous.

Slowly, to Anna’s amazement, the timid little boy nodded a silent “Yes.”

Brendan released his grip on Anna’s tunic. “Let her go,” he ordered the boys, and they followed suit. Anna sank to the ground.

“Now drop the s-stick,” said Martin, his stutter betraying him for half-a-second.

Anna looked up at Brendan’s face and noticed an amused smile. “S-sure,” he mocked, and threw the stick down on the ground hard. It bounced harmlessly off the grass. “S-say ‘h-hi’ to y-your d-dad f-for m-me.” He stomped off, his dazed and bloodied friends trailing behind him, glaring all of them between Anna, who still sat kneeling on the ground; and Martin, who looked more frightened than Anna ever saw him look before.

It might have been nothing to what Anna was feeling, though. She was shaking. The well was deep. Before she had known what happened, everything was out of her control. What had gone wrong?

Martin ran up to her, seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then went to the well, hastily drawing up a bucket of water. He poured some water into a clay cup and handed it to Anna.

Wordlessly, she accepted the gift and drank the water. “Thanks,” she managed to croak at last. “You… didn’t have to do that. I owe you one.”

Martin laughed mirthlessly. Anna looked up in surprise. She had never heard Martin laugh before, much less see him smile. “I w-was repaying a debt,” he said with a strange, weak smile. “Come on,” he urged. “W-we better go s-see Astrid.”

But Anna didn’t move. She looked at the yew bow slung over his shoulder, and the untaut string haphazardly looped around the edges. “That bow is poorly strung,” she observed. “You probably couldn’t have stuck him with an arrow if you tried. You strung it yourself, today?”

Martin bit his lower lip, and nodded quickly. “J-just practicing,” he said.

Anna looked at him warily. “Doesn’t your father disapprove of your talent?” she said with an unintentional edge in her voice. Martin’s silence was all the answer she needed. She tried to soften her tone. “That was brave of you,” she said, unsure even if she was referring to his risking his father’s ire or threatening Brendan.

“I’m not brave,” said Martin. “I’m- I was afraid.”

She stood up, and then knelt back down to pick up her stick. “Let’s go see Astrid,” she said, and the two of them went to Astrid’s cabin.

When Anna regaled Astrid with a short account of what just happened, her face was still. They were all seated in the chairs situated around Astrid’s hearth, which smoldered with lightly burning coals. She first turned to regard Martin.

“Brave of you, Martin, if a little foolish. It is an ill thing to threaten your liege lord. It’s a good thing Brendan is more cowardly than cruel, and will balk at telling his father.”

“I’m not brave,” said Martin again, and realizing he was contradicting his elder and teacher, added “I mean, er, if it please you, ma’am-”

“It does not please me,” she said, waving him to silence. “It was brave.”

“But I was afraid,” Martin insisted.

She smiled at him. “That only proves my point,” she said. Martin gave her a puzzled look in return. “Go out back and practice stringing bows, Martin. I must have a word with Anna in private.”

When Martin was gone, Astrid’s impassive demeanor changed suddenly to one of cold disappointment. She stared at Anna for several long, silent, uncomfortable moments, before finally saying “You know, it’s not meant as an endearment when I say that you have a habit for making bad decisions.”

Anna’s temper flared. “He was – I was only trying to get some water.”

“I know what you were trying to do,” said Astrid sharply. “Gods, Anna, why would you provoke Brendan like that?”

Anna was reminded of the time that the Wise Troll reprimanded her for scaring a bear. But that was a good thing she did, wasn’t it?

Her teacher kept talking. “Clearly I’ve given you a false impression of your own skill if you think you can disable four older boys with no more than a wooden stick at your age.

“But more than that, Anna, I’ve failed you because, for some reason, you think it’s appropriate to start a fight with someone for no other reason than because you want to. Is that right, Anna? Did you think he feared you? Did you want to prove it?”

Anna said nothing. A tidal wave of shame washed over her, and drowned her anger. She felt wet, limp, and defeated. And very foolish. She stared down at her lap and closed her eyes tight.

“I thought he was afraid of me,” she confirmed.

When Astrid spoke again, her tone was no less hard, but it was kinder somehow. “It may be that he was,” she said. “Because you stood up to him before. But you went out of your way to challenge him in front of his friends. Anna, a cornered animal will fight. Believe it.” Astrid chuckled. “He doesn’t fear you anymore, that’s for sure. But at least maybe he will think twice about pushing Martin around.”

“Martin said that he was probably afraid of you.” Anna turned her head up to look at Astrid. “Brendan. He said that Brendan was afraid of you.”

Astrid frowned at that. “Could be,” she said thoughtfully.

“Why?” Anna asked, remembering what Kristoff had said about the whole thing. “Aren’t you one of his subjects? Won’t he inherit his lord father’s position one day? Why should he be afraid of you?”

Astrid said nothing and turned her head to stare at the burning coals in the small cookfire hearth. Those coals never went out, because she used the fire for cooking. It had to always be ready to cook something.

“I used to think I could teach him,” she said after what felt like an eternity. “His father always resented me for that. I’m so sure that’s why Brendan started being more careful about where I was before he would… I really did try to teach him. But I didn’t know how.”

Suddenly Anna remembered something. “You slapped him,” said Anna, her tone almost accusatory. “How could you… get away with that? Why wouldn’t the Lord Mayor punish you for that?” Her heart caught in her throat. “Astrid, why are you Lord Edward’s sworn warrior?”

“Because,” Astrid said, looking Anna in the eyes once again, “I know one of his secrets.”

Anna’s mouth was dry. “What secret?”

Her teacher sighed heavily, leaning forward in her chair, her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. She slowly removed her hands from her face and turned her eyes to the glowing coals. She fixed her gaze there, her pale blue eyes reflecting the orange light of the embers, and began to speak, in a low, careful voice. “When I was a child, I lived on an island called Berk,” she said. “A rocky island, far east of here. It used to be a roost of dragons. I was named for a princess of that island who went by the name ‘Dragon-Tamer.’

“My brother and I often visited Arendelle when we were young. We loved Berk, but there’s something special about Arendelle. We couldn’t keep away.” She smiled wistfully at the memory. “One day, in the city, my brother met the son of an upland trader, and, well… he was smitten. We concocted some pretext to visit his hometown, and that’s where I met Lord Edward.

“He wasn’t Lord Mayor, yet. He was… well, Edward. I remember when I first saw him, he was trying to fight with a longsword. In the back of that ridiculous little hill he lived on. His ‘teacher’ was trying to teach him to fight with a low-guard. I never had good sense as a young woman. So I mocked him and the teacher said ‘You think you can do better?’” Astrid huffed loudly out her nose. “Well, I did, and the bruised old man tried to lecture me about respecting my superiors. But Edward thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen. He laughed, I remember. ‘You’re done,’ he told the old man, and he bid me replace him.”

Astrid stopped talking for a second. “I still think about that. How I was wrong. How could I be wrong? Gods, the way he laughed. The way he grew his hair too long, and it fell in his eyes, and he kept having to brush it back. The way he smiled. We had fun, but I…” She shifted her gaze to the floor. “Then my brother and my father had a fight. My father said that it was improper to court a lowborn, that my brother had a duty to the isle of Berk first and foremost. I guess I also felt like I couldn’t stay there. So we ran away.

“At length, we… I became with child.” Astrid’s voice was a little unsteady now. “And when I told Edward, everything changed. He sent me away. He said sweet words to try to soften the blow, but still he sent me away. I couldn’t go back to Berk, so I lived in the city. I had the child. Some Godswives from the monastery helped me. They called me wicked, for siring a bastard. But they helped me all the same.

“The child was beautiful. And as he grew, he was the spitting image of his father. I took him back to town. I had to show his father. He was Lord Edward, now. His father died fighting in the Weselton war. At first, I thought Edward might have been happy to see me. But he wasn’t happy to see his son. He threatened to have me banished… so I threatened to tell all. No one who looked at his son would doubt it even for a second. Especially since it’s a small town, and everyone knew that we were close.” She chuckled unhappily. “So he adopted him. Pretended he was a nephew or some distant relation.”

When Astrid was finished, she looked back at the coals. Anna’s heart was pounding. The whole thing seemed unreal. Impossible. This was not the Astrid she knew. Her and the Lord Mayor? Anna’s stomach turned.

“So that’s why you became his sworn warrior,” Anna stated against the raging tide of emotion swirling in her gut. “So you could stay close to your son.”

Astrid looked at Anna wanly. “It doesn’t seem to have worked out, does it?” She waved a hand in that dismissive way she often did. “There were other reasons, too. Like you, I was impulsive, running away, living on my own, coming back, and… sometimes I just didn’t like having to make difficult decisions. I always felt like I messed something up. The thing about being a knight is that all of the most important decisions are taken out of your hands. But some vows, some things… are still more important than others. So on the day I swore myself to Lord Edward’s service, I tied my hair into two braids: one for each person I would vow always to protect.”

“Your son… and Anders?” asked Anna.

Astrid shook her head and gave Anna a sad smile. “My son and Lord Edward.”

There were tears in Astrid’s eyes now, and they menaced to roll down her cheeks. Anna couldn’t bear to see her teacher, the person she admired most of all, brought so low. And she felt absurdly guilty, guilty for her pride, guilty for hating Brendan. She realized how little she really knew. She jumped out of her chair and ran at Astrid, throwing her arms around her teacher in a warm, tight embrace.

She thought of snowmen and, for the first time in years, of Joan of Arc.

That evening, as the sun dipped below the western horizon yawnily, Anna curled up in her mossroll, head buzzing with thoughts that denied her any peace. She looked at The Life and Times of Jeanne d’Arc, which Astrid had lent to her again. She had seemed almost surprised when Anna asked about it, but handed it over just the same.

She had done some reading in the time since then. Different books, mostly belonging to Oaken. Thick and thin books, almost all of them about fantastic tales and stories. She loved them. Anders had tried giving her a musty old tome entitled The Rise and Fall of the Helvetian Empire, but it was terribly boring, and it bored Anna terribly. Anders was annoyed to hear that, but Kristoff simply quipped that he was glad he couldn’t read, in that case.

Anna was much better at reading now. She leafed through the pages of the short, thin book, until she got to the place she remembered she had stopped reading, three years ago.



Thus came the trial, and the queen said, “Jeanne d’Arc, you stand accused of doing the work of the light. How do you plead?”

And Joan could only say, “Guilty. I have served the light, and Lutetia, all my life.”

To which the queen responded, “I hereby sentence you to death.” And at dusk that day, Joan of Arc was tied to a stake, and burnt alive for the crime of heresy.

News of Joan’s death went across the lands of both Lotharia and Lutetia, and all heard that the Maid of Orléans had been put to death. All across Lutetia she was mourned, and none mourned her so much as the king of Lutetia himself.

But news came late to the king. He had already moved north, and found the Albionese army completely by surprise. As the light had promised Joan, he won a glorious victory, routing the Albionese forces and capturing the Mad King himself. The war was won, his army cheered! Victory for Lutetia! Vive la Lutéce!

However, word came to the king that the Maid of Orléans had been captured and burnt at the stake, and he fell to his knees and cried out in misery: “O, woe is me! For I have won the kingdom, but lost its heart and soul! May darkness take me, for I have done a wicked thing.”

He held a vigil for seven days and seven nights, and at the end, the light spoke to him, and said, “You are the king of Lutetia, now do right! The light commands you.” Thus, when his mourning was finished, he moved against those who had counseled the Maid of Orléans’ doom. He banished them all to Lotharia, except for Chancellor Frollo, whom he interred in the darkest, deepest dungeons of his castle. And he decreed, henceforth, that the longest day of the year would be Joan of Arc Day, to celebrate the gift of light and day, which all Lutetians could be assured of thanks to the brave efforts of the Maid of Orléans.



Anna closed the book gently, her mind astir. That’s one way of putting it, she thought. She wondered how the queen of Lotharia felt. She wondered whether the king of Lutetia really mourned the Maid of Orléans. She wondered if the Lotharians had a holiday for the shortest day of the year. Maybe they called it Joan of Arc Day, too.

She set the book aside and laid her head down, and let the warmth of the mossroll wash over her. It was snowing lightly, but the trollish mossroll repelled all the elements, and kept her nice and toasty. She remembered, vaguely, something Anders had once said about Joan of Arc, after Anna had told him how disappointed she was that she died.

“The book is rather romantic,” he said. “Joan went east because of the good it does for Lutetia. But it was actually a mistake, you know. An honest mistake. And she wasn’t burnt at the stake directly. She was offered for ransom. And the king of Lutetia wouldn’t pay it. One thing that’s true no matter how you put it, she had more value to either side as a martyr than a hero.”

That hadn’t made Anna feel better at the time, but now it gave her a strange sense of peace. Which way would I have gone? She thought to herself. North or east? If I had a choice? She went to sleep thinking of Astrid’s braided hair, and dreamt of snowmen in summertime.

 

Chapter Text

 

The trolls had a general habit of making much ado about nothing when they could get away with it, which was all the time. When it came to something worth making ado about, then, they went positively crazy. In this particular instance, it was the matter of Anna’s 15th birthday.

It was the warm of summer, and the troll cairn was alive day and night in the week leading up to Anna’s birthday. Everywhere she looked, trolls were hard at work with the preparations: weaving festive skirts, carving signs, setting up pavilions and games, preparing food, singing – it was considered ill luck to do work without somebody singing in close proximity – and in general tripping over each other and themselves even more than was usual.

Anna was wearing a long, woolen green tunic over a white undertunic and thick white leggings, and two high boots of brown stained leather. She wore her coppery embrous hair pulled back and tamed with a leaf green hairtie, and buckled to her belt on her left hip was the wooden practicing stick she’d used since she was ten. She was also quite bored, for although she had insisted the trolls let her help, they would have none of it. One does not prepare for their own coming-of-age party, they said. It simply isn’t done. That’s all well and good, thought Anna, but in the meantime, what am I to do?

At the moment, she was sitting on a tree stump and listening to three idle trolls argue loudly about what profession Anna would choose when she came of-age. For the benefit of her company, they had posed the question as a friendly discussion on the merits and drawbacks of all the different troll specializations, so that she might make a decision in good knowledge; although in truth it was not a discussion so much as an unfollowable shouting match.

“Nope nope nope,” bulled Braffly, raising his voice to speak over Rain and Loot. “She’s gonna be a watchman, like me. She’ll be the best watchman ever. She’s a bear-scarer, you know.”

“I know she’s a bear-scarer,” snorted Loot. “I was the one who inspired her to scare bears, remember? That’s why she’s going to be a hunter.”

“You’re both so stupid,” snapped Rain. “Those jobs are for meatheads. Anna’s got so much cunning, she’ll be a better Wise Troll.”

“Guh?” said Braffly, confused. “What about the Wise Troll?”

“What about him?”

“What’ll he do?”

“He can be a Wise Troll, too.”

“Now who’s stupid?” said Loot. “You can’t have two Wise Trolls.”

“Why not?” said Rain.

“Because you just can’t,” said Loot testily and he stomped his foot.

Rain made to object, but Anna interrupted. “I think Loot’s got the right of it, Rain,” she said, her voice clear, but not loud, and curved by a slight laugh. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t make a very good Wise Troll.”

Rain crossed her trollish arms and grunted, and Loot gave a superior smile. “Hunter it is!” he declared, and that began a whole new round of arguing.

Anna smiled fondly at them. In truth, she wasn’t really excited about any of the career options they were championing. As a matter of fact, most of the troll village careers failed to excite any real passion in her – except one. She was long past the point of worrying about it, since she’d made up her mind privately, and only hoped that not too many of her beloved family would be crushed by her decision.

Time was, the trolls were everything to her. They were her family, and she did really believe that. But in recent years her heart had grown heavy with the prospect of an entire life spent at the troll cairn. Every time she caught a glimpse, from high trees or hill-crests, of the Far-Offs, the Up-And-Downs, the Springway, the North Mountain, the distant mists and fogs that might as well have been World’s End; when she saw these things, there was nothing in her that didn’t want to get out there. Somehow, the wide, unseeable world made her feel alone. She wasn’t alone, she knew, not really – not among her friends and family, not among Astrid and Kristoff and the rest. But she felt something was missing, that a part of her was cut out. The dreams were another thing, the dreams that went back a way, the dreams that seemed stitched in, an afterthought, patching on a quilt. They were inscrutable to her, and made her restless – such that she didn’t sleep so much anymore. Then on, many a sleepless day or night went by where she lay awake and watched the slow pink clouds with their lazy orange sheets, or the twinkling stars in their ticklesome vigil; her constant, restive companions, they the wind and sky.

Loot had told her about his adventures going to the far parts of the woods. He had seen the ice fields, the foot of the North Mountain, the barrowings. He’d seen every corner of the forest, except for that north of the Mud River – because it would be “madness” to go so far. “The Mud River is wide as it is long,” he said nonsensically. “And on the other side is the Gobwoods, where the goblins live.”

“You’re not afraid of goblins, are you?” she asked.

“No, of course not,” he blustered. “But, they’re tricky, goblins are. They can’t take you in a standing fight, so they have all kinds of traps and gadgets, whizmos and contraptions. The sly folk, we call ‘em.”

Anna knew what the trolls called the goblins, and also what they thought of them, and indeed how very negative those thoughts were. “Those ufgoody goblins” was a common turn-of-phrase for whenever something went wrong. She wasn’t clear on the history there, only that trolls seemed to mistrust the goblins fiercely. She had half a mind to visit the Gobwoods and see for herself, but she knew to voice such an intention would be to invite a torrent of “oh no, don’t bother”’s, voiced in every pitch and tone available to the trollish timbre.

When she had decided she’d heard enough of the trolls’ debate, she excused herself and took her leave. The bustle of the troll cairn was dying down in the emerging light of morning, and she had a mind to visit the town that day. Burrowstown was its proper name, and the men and women of House Burrows had mayored the modest little hamlet since time immemorial. Or at least since the Ice Queen united Arendelle under her icy fist.

She left the troll cairn and went to the stream where the berry bushes bustled, kneeling before the running water and cupping some in her hands. She threw the water in her face, and let the errant droplets roll down her cheeks and nose before undoing her green hairtie and washing her face and hair in the river. When she was finished, she pulled her hair back and tied it up again. She had taken to doing this since Astrid had mentioned that controlled hair didn’t restrict the vision or confound head movements as much as hair allowed to be wild. Short hair too, but Anna was less fond of that option.

She had considered braiding her hair in the style of Astrid, in two pigtails, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Astrid tied her braids in honor of those she had promised to always protect. Anna had no such persons, so instead, she wrapped her hair up in a tight bun.

Standing up again, she patted the hilt of her practicing stick. It had been about a year since she had used it in training; she only kept it with her because it was better than nothing – and it was hers, at Astrid’s insistence many years ago. Lately she had been training with a dull-edged iron blade, of a length with the stick but much heavier, which Astrid secured through her connections with Oaken.

“A kind they use for practicing, and in some tourneys,” said Astrid.

“Tourneys?” Anna had questioned, waving the sword around, getting a feel for its weight and balance. “Isn’t it true that it’s anything-goes in most tourneys?”

“That is true, but some lords are more squeamish than others, and prefer not to have any bloodshed among the competitors. There’s always risk, anyway. Like when the current Lord Protector, Erik Ulfton, hacked an opponent’s head off with a dull tourney blade.”

“I heard about that,” said Anna with mild disgust. “Anders said that he did it in one clean sweep. Actually. That was unsporting of him, wasn’t it?”

“Some say,” agreed Astrid. “But the opponent in question was Ser Jarl of Eastgreen, who declared for the Duke of Weselton the moment his armies crossed into the county.”

“Ah,” laughed Anna. “Stiff justice, then.”

“Ser Jarl had been pardoned by His Majesty the King, but the Lord Protector reckoned that too merciful by half. ‘His Grace should have subtracted his head, so I did it for him.’”

Anna decided that the Lord Protector seemed like a loyal sort of man, if a bit ruthless, if half the stories were to be believed. Once a serving boy had poured the king some wine, and when the king coughed after sipping it, the Lord Protector immediately demanded the boy’s head be removed, and moved to do it himself. When the king regained his breath and said “No, please, it was merely a spiced wine from Euzaro! It took me unawares,” all the guests laughed about it, except for the serving boy, who never poured wine again; and the embarrassed Lord Protector, who grunted that he was “just being sure.” And from that day forward, the story goes, the Lord Protector appointed three separate food-tasters for the king, and he only trusted himself to serve wine. Kristoff said that story made the Lord Protector out to be cracked, but Anna said there was a difference between lunacy and doing your duty.

“Is there, though?” Anders had mused.

When Anna reached the crossing, she turned in the direction of the town and continued on her own way. It had been some time since she last waited for Kristoff, let alone rode in the toboggan, and anyway there was something peacefully serene about walking through the forest in the morning light.

She was almost 15, truly, and in troll society that made her an adult. By the standards of Arendelle law, she still had a year to go after that, until she was officially at the age of majority. Not that it would mean much for her – she was the heiress to no titles, lands, or property, and so it didn’t really matter if she was 15 or 16 as far as the laws of Arendelle were concerned. But among the trolls, 15 meant she chose her profession and received a special gift commemorating her adulthood. She had no idea what the gift was going to be, what it could possibly be. The trolls didn’t stake an awful lot in personal property, and as such more than token trinkets or general amenities were very rare.

Anna let her mind dwell on gifts as she walked into town, intent on paying Anders a visit before continuing on to Astrid’s house. If she was lucky, Oaken would be at the cabin today. He had announced that he was going to sell the cabin in town, and move all the earthly belongings of him and his husband Anders to the foot of the North Mountain – an announcement that Anders tolerated with a thin-lipped veneer of approval.

Anders was indeed home and, to her surprise, so was Oaken. They were discussing loudly about something in the front of their cabin when Anna strode up, and they both fell into sudden silence, regarding her with a curt nod from Anders and an abashed frown from Oaken.

“Good morning, Anna” said Anders. “Hoo-hoo,” said Oaken. Anna nodded back to them.

“What news today?” she asked. When nobody spoke, she said again, “Is something the matter? I thought I heard raised voices.”

“No, erm,” said Oaken, a giant hand scratching the back of his neck. He had grown a fantastic mustache, which connected a peculiar beard that was thin on the chin and wide on the sides. “Nothing is wrong, ja, Anders and I are merely having a conversation.”

“Indeed,” confirmed Anders mysteriously.

Anna didn’t know what to make of this, and didn’t feel like guessing, so she changed the subject. “Has Kristoff come by today?” They shook their heads, but then she heard the pattering of reindeer-hooves. “Hoo-hoo, here he comes now,” said Oaken, and Kristoff appeared, riding a big dark brown moose with the woolliest mane and the friendliest muzzle.

If Kristoff and Anna had grown over the years, the same could be said ten times for Sven, now a titan of an animal. Kristoff was tall, now, taller than Anna for sure, broad in the shoulders and strong in the chest. His hair was still an uncomely mat of dirty straw, and his nose was still a touch big, but more importantly he still had his kindly and expressive face. He wore stained and faded breeches and a studded leather jerkin over a ratty blue tunic, and he wore a blue fur cap over his straw-colored hair. It was summer, which made the fur cap an odd choice, but Kristoff didn’t seem to mind the heat, and anyway it was always unseasonably cold near the ice fields, no matter what the weather was elsewhere.

“Hey, feisty-pants!” he greeted Anna. A ridiculous nickname, but one she could not disabuse him of, since “wild girl” stopped being as appropriate, and Kristoff thought it terribly amusing that Anna hardly ever wore skirts or dresses anymore. Sven whickered.

“Hey, numbskull,” she replied with a defiant crossing of her arms. She was proud of that one. Numb skull, because he liked ice so much that his head was probably full of snow. The nickname had not half the effect on him as his had on her. He considered it with a point of pride, actually. “If my head is full of snow, it’d explain a lot,” was his usual reply.

He laughed in response and turned to Oaken. “I dropped the ice and sled off at the Post.”

“Kristoff,” bristled Oaken, “What is the full name of my North Mountain trading post?”

Kristoff sighed melodramatically. “The Haunted Trading Post. I dropped the ice and sled off at the Haunted Mountain Trading Ghost.”

Anna laughed at the unexpected play on words, and even Anders chuckled lightly, the shadow of his previous demeanor flitting away for a short moment. Oaken scowled at them all and pouted his lips sulkily.

“You came upon them at a bad time, I think,” said Anna to Kristoff. “I believe they were fighting.”

“Really?” said Kristoff, his brow knitted in concern. “Not about the Ghost Post?”

“No,” said Anders quickly. “Not fighting, and not about that.” Oaken reddened and nodded in agreement.

“Then what?” said Anna, and before any more could be said, a loud noise echoed through the valley. Beeeoooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrr, it sounded, at first faint but growing louder as it neared.

“What was that?” asked Anna as the sound faded, and then the the horn sounded again, beeeoooooorrrrrrrrrr, and it was much closer now. Oaken and Anders now put on worried looks, and they all looked around for the source of the noise.

A horseman in a leather half-helm and dark gray cloak came galloping up the road, his face red, a horn of carved bone swinging from his neck as his black mare’s hooves pounded the sparse pebbling of the road. When he passed by Oaken’s cabin, he reared and slowed to a trot. From some of the nearby houses, people had come out to see what the commotion was about.

“Hear ye, hear ye!” he cried, so that all in the vicinity could hear. “The king and queen are dead!”

“What?” said Anna and Kristoff in almost perfect unison. Oaken’s jaw dropped. Anders hailed the man: “Good rider, how came you by this news?”

“Oh, ‘tis terrible!” moaned the rider. “’Twere in the city this past weekend, aye, and the king and queen put to sea with a mind on visiting their cousins in Corona. But the ocean is cruel, and a storm sank their ship with all hands, yes it did!”

“By the gods,” breathed Anders.

“What about the princess?” another onlooker called.

“She is safe, thank the gods,” said the rider. “She were in the city, yes she was, in the royal castle. The line of Arendelle continues!” There were murmurs among the onlookers as they repeated the old refrain. “But aye, ‘twas an ill thing, this storm, fer the Lord Protector was with the king and queen also, and surely as drownded now as either of them.”

Anna clapped a hand over her mouth in shock. “The king and queen and Lord Protector, all lost at sea, dead?”

“Aye, ‘tis so,” said the rider mournfully. “The king were a good king, and too young, but the princess shall inherit.”

“Praise the new queen!” someone yelled. Then someone else, “She’s not the queen yet, you fool.”

“When is the coronation?” asked Anders of the rider.

“A fortnight hence,” said the rider. “’Twould have been proper were it a longer time, I think, more time fer grieving, but Ser Tore is insistent the coronation is done soonly.”

“Why?” asked Oaken.

“Ser Tore, you said?” said an onlooker. “Tore the Headsman! Bet he wants not another Weselton attempt on the throne.”

The rider nodded. “Aye, ‘tis so. The good Ser Tore said he couldn’t pull th’ same miracle twice.”

“Aw, a modest man, Ser Tore Seastone.”

“Who’s the new Lord Protector?” asked Kristoff.

“There is none, lad,” said the rider. “The queen shall pick a new Lord Protector when she is coronated, she shall.”

The rider continued through the town, yelling for all to hear of the deaths of the king and queen. Anna was speechless and deeply troubled.

“Gods,” said Kristoff. “I always thought if that lunatic Lord Protector was with them, they should expect to live to their nineties.”

“He isn’t a lunatic,” said Anna crossly. Wasn’t, she corrected herself.

“He did his job as well as he could, ja,” said Oaken sadly. “But how do you protect your charge against the gods themselves?”

They stood in silence for a little while, and Anna suspected each of them were mourning inwardly. She still remembered when she saw the Royal Family pass through town, how wonderful they looked. And the princess. Anna’s heart skipped a beat. That nervous girl. Now she was a woman grown, but still, the king and queen were all the family she had in the world, and now they were gone. Anna imagined for a second how she would feel if all the trolls and Astrid and Kristoff vanished suddenly, and she felt her eyes mist. Her heart went out to the princess. I hope you have a long, happy reign, Princess Elsa. And not a lonely one.

When a time had passed, Kristoff had dismounted Sven and put him up with some water, and they were sitting around on the porch of Oaken’s soon-to-be-sold cabin. They had moved on to other topics of conversation, and while occasionally cutting back to the troublesome subject, Anna found herself thinking of the Lord Protector, and other affairs of state. “Anders, how is the Lord Protector picked?” she asked.

“It is an appointed office,” he said. “Traditionally held for life, and traditionally a title only held by the best of the best. Lord Protectors can rarely be bested in single combat.”

“But they don’t always win tournaments,” said Anna.

Anders bowed his head. “That’s true. It’s really more the idea that counts. The Lord Protector is also Captain of the Guard, since Marth the Certain implored Queen Bryn to unite the two jobs.”

“The Royal Guardsmen? That makes sense. What if the Captain of the Guard wanted to do the Royal Family harm?”

“What if the Lord Protector did, too?” said Anders sharply.

This time Anna was ready. “But no Lord Protector ever has, have they? Betrayed their liege.”

For once, Anders was speechless. “Yes,” he admitted, after a momentary pause. “But still, it could happen.”

“But it hasn’t,” Anna pressed triumphantly. “And in fact, Marth the Certain only united the two jobs when he proved the Captain of the Guard was a traitor.”

Oaken boomed with laughter, and even Kristoff was impressed. “If I was appointed Lord Protector, and I had all that prestige and money,” said Kristoff, “I wouldn’t want to hurt the people who gave me that title, I can tell you that much.”

Anna had done a lot of reading on the various famous knights of Arendelle, many of whom served as Lord Protector, out of Oaken and Anders’ library. Lord Protector was a hard job, and largely thankless, and all of the burden of the Royal Family’s security was upon it. But in the many years since King Andrew the Cold, no Lord Protector was ever so ill-chosen as to hurt their liege, or end the line of Arendelle, though they always had the power to do so.

“It’s just good luck,” said Anders stubbornly. “The Royal Family is lucky.” Anna wasn’t sure what kind of good luck sunk your ship beneath a heavy storm, but she left it at that, satisfied she had made her point.

After discussing her birthday plans briefly (Anna was insistent on nothing too lavish, just like every year, but just like every year they always vexed her on this one small request), Anna eventually excused herself from their company to go see Astrid.

Martin was training with bow and arrow, alone, in Astrid’s backyard. He was still a small boy, with a thin figure and small bones, despite his father’s prolonged insistence that he eat more meat.

“Well met, Martin,” she called to him, and he was startled and lost his concentration, unknocking his arrow and whirling his head towards her.

“Oh. Anna. Hello.” He blushed.

“Have you seen Astrid?” she asked, perhaps unnecessarily – but she found that asking the boy easy questions was a good way to move him towards other objects of conversation, lest he become paralyzed in an intense study of the ground and feet.

“Yes, ser. I mean, ma’am. She’s in her house.” Just as I thought, thought Anna. Still, it was a good excuse to see Martin hard at work. Despite his extended troubles with Brendan in the past, the lordling no longer even talked to Martin. That’s probably due to a mixture of things. One, he now reckons Martin as dangerous. Two, Brendan’s a man grown, at 18, so surely he’s moved past that now. And three, his Lord Father was still alive, and still unlikely to protect him from Astrid’s wrath.

For a split second, Anna’s stomach roiled. She didn’t like thinking about that.

She left the boy to his archery – he was absurdly good now, but nobody in the town knew it except for her and Astrid, and Kristoff couldn’t be made to believe. “If he’s that good, prove it,” and she tried to get Martin to show off for Kristoff, but the boy just stood there, stammering, head locked in a floor-inspecting position. “You were spearing apples down the stem at a hundred yards,” she told Martin later that day, disappointed. He said nothing, and speared an apple down the stem at a hundred yards.

Sure enough, Astrid answered the door and invited Anna in with a kind smile. She fixed them a pot of tea and, over the rim of her wooden cup, asked Anna, “So, have you given any thought as to what you want for your birthday?”

Anna ignored the question. “Did you hear the news?”

Astrid mumbled something that might have been “Yes.” Her teacher was still as imposing as the day Anna met her, with powerful, wide shoulders and strong arms, her round face with its long nose framed by two thick golden locks of braided hair. And her eyes – deep, sad orbs of blue.

“Bad luck,” said Astrid. “Both the king and the queen.”

“And the Lord Protector,” Anna inserted.

“At least the princess still lives.”

“She must be feeling quite lonely and sad,” said Anna wanly.

“I should expect,” said Astrid, and she sipped her tea.

They sat in the warm silence of the late morning, Astrid’s cook fire smoldering and casting its smoky lights around the room. They mixed with the beams of the morning sun, and all the cabin was heavy oranges and trickly yellows.

Still standing out among all things in Astrid’s quaint little cottage was its most precious adornment. Perched above the mantle of Astrid’s fireplace was the short arming sword with the polished redwood hilt and the glittery red gem in the pommel. Astrid’s favorite sword, Anna remembered, and beautiful to look at. It seemed untouched by the dust of years, its folded steel blade looking almost gilded in the sunlight. It was calliopic in its colors, a mixture of autumnal browns and summery golds and dusky reds.

Astrid had told Anna a little about the sword, once, after Anna had started using a dull tourney blade and found herself curious about proper swords. “That knight sword was my first sword,” said Astrid. “A gift from my mother.”

“Was your mother a fighter, too?”

“Yes she was,” said Astrid. “Life on Berk is not as it is in Arendelle. On Berk, all women are trained as warriors, just as the men are.”

“All people on Berk are warriors?” said Anna, incredulous.

“Yes they are,” said Astrid with a smirk. “We had to be, since the days the dragons roamed. Berk is rocky, cold, and lifeless, and dragons often stole away our sheep in the old days. So we all had to fight. A better attitude than you have in Arendelle, I think.”

Anna frowned, her pride wounded despite never really feeling any particular attachment to the so-called “Kingdom of Arendelle.” “In Arendelle, men and women inherit equally,” said Anna. “Anders said so. It is different from Corona, and the Southern Isles, and the Svithron states, and all that.”

“That is so,” admitted Astrid. “But women are rarely ever knights, and rarely ever chosen to fill high offices, are they, Anna?”

Anna supposed that much was true. “On Berk there are no such delusions,” said Astrid. “In the old days, you were either dragon-killer, or dragon-food. At least, until the Dragon-Tamer came. But even then, you were either dragon-tamer, or dragon-food.” She laughed with a snort.

Anna smiled at the memory, and Astrid caught her staring at the sword while she was lost in thought. “Do you want to know what I named it?” she asked.

“What?” said Anna, blinking her way back to the real world.

“Do you want to know what I named that sword?”

“Oh, you named it?”

“I did,” said Astrid. “When I ran away from Berk.”

“Well, what did you call it?”

“Summer,” said Astrid simply, and sipped her tea.

Anna had never known Astrid to attach much sentimentality to names of swords or shields or anything like that. She called it a frivolous distraction, especially for weapons that were undistinguished. “Many a sorry knight names his sword for only the reason of naming his sword,” she had said. “Names like ‘Giantslayer’ and ‘Dragoncutter,’ tedious things like that, when for all they ended up doing with the sword they might have called it ‘Nail-Cleaner.’ It is ill-luck, and pathetic besides.”

Summer was not a name Anna would have picked for the sword, and definitely not a name she’d expect Astrid to pick for… well, anything, really. “Why did you choose that name?” she asked.

Astrid shrugged. “I liked it.”

“Doesn’t sound like a name you’d pick.”

Astrid smiled mischievously. “Would you have expected ‘Winter?’”

“No,” said Anna. “Just… not Summer.”

When they trained that day, with banded iron shield in one hand and tourney blade in the other, Anna traded blows, stabs, and swipes with her teacher, and without even realizing it, found that she had her teacher on the defensive. She observed this with mild surprise, unsure where exactly she had gone right. She was living in the moment, blow-to-blow, acting and reacting as the fight evolved.

A high strike by Astrid met Anna’s shield, and Anna then thrust her right arm forward to jab Astrid in the gut. “Oof,” said Astrid and she stumbled the tiniest bit, and Anna pressed the advantage, hammering Astrid’s shield with blows, pushing her back and back to the edge of the clearing.

“I yield,” said Astrid from behind her shield. They were both out of breath, and the day had grown late.

For a moment, Anna was stupefied. “I won?” she said blankly. The two of them often ended drills and exercises with scrimmages, but Anna never managed to win one before. She sometimes came close, but more often than not she would make just enough of a crucial misstep to surrender to Astrid – either in being weakened by the blows, or in being too tired to continue. The bruises would settle in afterwards.

“Yeah,” said Astrid in a weary voice as she set sword and shield down, peeling off the heavy leather armor that they both used to train with. “You’ve gotten too fast for me, wild girl.”

Once Anna might have been deliriously proud to hear that, but now she was just puzzled. “I barely knew what happened,” she said. “Only that you were attacking one minute, and defending the next.”

“Your defensive posture is quite good,” said Astrid. “I can’t outmaneuever you, and you dodge or parry my most powerful blows nimbly. I suspect you’d be unstoppable on the offense.” Astrid gave Anna a sweaty smile. “Gee, you remind me a little of myself. Of course, at your age I mostly used an axe.”

“You don’t own any axes,” Anna observed.

“Tastes changed. Anyway, that was well done. Very well done indeed.”

Anna bowed in courteous respect. “As you say, but I’m sure it was… I’m sure I was just lucky. Or you were tired.”

When Astrid cracked open in laughter, Anna snapped her head up, face warm. “What?” she demanded, a little perturbed by this sudden outburst.

“Gods, nothing. You’ve just changed so much, wild girl,” said Astrid kindly. “I remember when you first came to town, starting fights with older boys and being terrible at swordsplay. And now, here you are, defeating me in scrims – yet you’re as demure as a proper lady.”

Anna felt herself redden further. “Or as humble as a knight,” she retorted.

“Yes,” said Astrid with a gleam in her eyes. “I hope you make such a good knight you change all of their minds.”

That did make Anna feel a little proud, and gave her queer butterflies. The rest of that evening, she thought long and hard about being a knight. The best knight in all the land. Noble, chivalrous, charitable, kind, just. And humble, that’s important. Try as she might, she couldn’t convince herself her victory over Astrid wasn’t a fluke.

And let’s be honest, self, she thought, if Astrid really wanted, she could kill you.

It’s only a shame that there’s no “knight” profession among the trolls. Becoming a knight was no easy task: you had to prove your valor. And if Astrid was right about one thing, it was that there were very few opportunities to prove your valor as a woman in the Kingdom of Arendelle.

The day of her 15th birthday rose on sleeping trolls. The festivities were all prepared for that night, and all around the troll cairn the bundles and packages, streamers and banners were waiting in the gusts for the moon to rise and say “Happy birthday, Anna!” There was an excitement to them, those inert bundles, like they could hardly wait. But they would have to wait a little longer, because now was the sun’s time.

Anna woke late in the morning. She allowed herself to sleep in so that she could spend the day in Burrowstown, as Oaken had made it quite clear that she was to report in town that day for her birthday festivities. Two birthday parties, well – she knew she shouldn’t complain, but it really was a lot of fuss over very little, she thought.

She came upon Oaken’s cabin in humble silence and not much sign of life. The sign that had swung over the front door had been removed at Oaken’s behest. No doubt it now adorned Oaken’s Haunted Trading Post. Or perhaps it had been used as kindling, and a new sign took its place. Either way, it was gone now.

She knocked on the front door and was greeted by Oaken in short order. “Hoo-hoo, happy birthday!”

“Thanks,” was all Anna could say. She smiled her most winsomely.

Anders had outdone himself for Anna’s benefit that day, and for supper had prepared roast wild goose flavored with lemons and garlic and stuffed with onions. Savory buttered turnips and fresh-baked bread imbibed with raisins and pickled fishlings garnished with cloves were all in company – the whole affair was so rich-tasting that Anna was shocked, and a little impressed in spite of herself. It was a feat to accomplish for any chef, and though Anders had always possessed a sort of culinary ingenuity, and Oaken had his ways when it came to trading, Anna knew that Anders’ background was not so humble as all that. Perhaps a cache of squirreled-away silver had aided in the preparations. As such, it was a terrific supper, prepared with love, and Anna felt her heart turn to mush at the thoughtfulness of it all.

Most impressive was the dessert, a flaky baked crust of floury bread filled with apple cuttings and syrup, doused with goat cream. They rarely made mention of the chocolate incident, as Kristoff had come to call it, but by unspoken agreement had made sure that Anna never received chocolate as a gift again. They sought out other sweets for her, and though Anna was appreciative, none of them ever compared to the chocolate, now such a memory as to be the subject of many a wistful recollection. The apple crust was still delicious, but it was no chocolate.

They ate and laughed their way through the supper, the four of them, exchanging japes and stories as the fancy came to them. When all was eaten, and they sat lazing, Oaken clapped his hands together and said it was time for Anna to receive her presents.

Usually, Anna received presents of a rather modest or humble nature, and never in addition to a fine meal such as this. But as the supper was also unprecedented, so were the presents. Anders produced a folded goatskin, which Anna unfurled to find was a highly detailed map of the Kingdom of Arendelle. She gawked at it – it was richly colored across all corners, and little trees and mountains dotted the map, interspersed with circles and words and small drawings of towers, houses, and castles. Kristoff was also floored by the look of it, and the two of them hunched over it, admiring the art and trying to find Burrowstown.

As Kristoff could not read, the latter task he left to Anna. “There,” she exclaimed, and pointed to a small dot labelled “Burrowstown.” A line ran through the town north and to the east, through a forest called the “Rockwoods,” in the middle of which was a small illustration of standing rocks, in turn labelled “The Cairn.” The road ran east through the forest until it reached a blue patch simply called “The Ice.”

Further north and to the east of the forest was the North Mountain, lonely amidst the unlabelled surrounding hills. South of that was a long road that passed through fields, hills, forests, and towns – the Springway, Anna knew, the road that connected much of Arendelle.

At the end of the road, situated on the innermost bank of a long thin inlet that let out into a vast ocean beyond, was a thick dot labelled “Crystalwater,” and an illustration of a castle beside that.

“Crystalwater,” Anna read aloud. She looked up at Anders and Oaken. “What’s that?”

“That is the home of the Royal Family,” said Anders. “The capital city of Arendelle, after it was rebuilt by King Heimdal the Torch. And that castle is the Arenborg.”

“Arenborg?” repeated Kristoff.

“Yes. It’s the largest castle in Arendelle, and the seat of the Royal Family. From the Arenborg, they rule the kingdom.”

Anna looked back down at the map. It was full of details and illustrations – she would surely have to delve into it more closely, but later. She folded up the map carefully and thanked Anders graciously. “This is beautiful,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“Ah, nevermind about that,” he chuckled.

Next came Oaken’s gift. “I thought you might like some headwear to go with your tunic, ja,” he said. “So, I, well, I sewed this.” And sewed he did: it was a long, green hat of tightly sewn felted-and-dyed leather. Anna gasped when she saw it, and immediately put it on her head. The tail of the hat went down to just below her shoulders, and her ears stuck out over the brims, but it fit snugly and nicely over her head.

“I love it,” she said, and Anders and Oaken smiled at each other.

Just when she thought that had been the end of the gifts, Anders and Oaken began to shift around anxiously, eyeing each other with expectant looks, such as they were privy to a secret jest; Kristoff twiddled his thumbs. They all had an eager, apprehensive look to them.

“Anna,” said Oaken, “Anders and I have been talking about… children. And who will carry on our legacy.”

Anna gave him a puzzled stare, but said nothing.

“We have already discussed this with Kristoff, ja, and he, well, Anders and I have agreed to adopt him, and name him our heir.”

Anna’s eyes widened at the sound of that. “Oh, that’s terrific!” she said, and beamed at Kristoff. Kristoff smiled back.

“There’s more, ja,” said Oaken with a tremulous smile. “We were wondering if… perhaps… since you are coming of age in the troll society, but not yet in the human society, we thought it might… we thought we might adopt you, as well, if you wish it.”

That was unexpected. Anna was dumbstruck. “Me?” she nearly squeaked. Anders and Oaken both nodded “yes” in slow motion.

“It would grant you more legal privileges and protections,” said Anders pedantically. His tone softened, “And, to tell the truth, Anna, we’ve grown quite fond of you. And since you are an orphan…” his voice trailed off.

Anna still didn’t quite know what to say. It was a kind offer, but… “I have a family,” she said.

“Yes, and we would not want to replace them. We would be your parents.”

Anna sat back in the chair, overwhelmed by the offer. “I’ll have to think about this,” she said, and then she stood up. “Thank you for the gifts and the supper. Really, it is too much for me.” She bowed. “I promised I would see Astrid today, so if you would please excuse me. I promise to have an answer for you this evening.”

They nodded their assent and she was off to Astrid’s again.

As she walked the dusty dirty road to Astrid’s pine-swaddled cabin in the swarthy heat of the late-afternoon sun, the impact of Oaken and Anders’ offer hit her like a mad bull. In truth, they had been everything like parents to her. They had certainly treated her more kindly than Martin’s father treated him. She was glad that Kristoff had been adopted, at least, because she knew he deserved it. He worked tirelessly for them for years, and didn’t even have a home of his own. He’d be an icer now, and they’d live at the foot of the North Mountain… But Anna was not sure if she wanted that kind of life for herself. What would they expect of me, she thought, if I were their adopted daughter? Any differently? Could I still run off and see the world?

Astrid was seeing Martin off by the time Anna came to the door. Martin had slung his bow and a quiver of funny-looking arrows over his back, and passed Anna with a curt, timid nod of acknowledgement.

“How was your lesson?” chirped Anna, not about to let him get away without a word.

“It was good,” said Martin bashfully. Anna noticed that the arrows in Martin’s quiver were all long and made of silvery wood, fletched at the back end with long, blue feathers that waved happily in the light breeze. They looked like a patch of shiny flowers, sticking out of a flower pot on Martin’s back.

“Those arrows,” she marvelled. “They’re beautiful.”

“They are,” agreed Martin. “Astrid made them. For me.”

Anna turned to look at Astrid, who was watching the two of them with a dry expression.

“A princely gift,” said Anna. “Take good care of them, Martin.” She patted him on the shoulder, and he looked up at her, swallowed hard, and nodded.

When Martin had left, Anna gave Astrid her full attention.

“Happy birthday, wild girl,” said Astrid.

“Those arrows that you gave Martin are incredible. What is the occasion?”

Astrid shrugged nonchalantly. “I am in a gift-giving mood. Speaking of which, I have something to give to you. Meet me out back.” Astrid went inside without another word and Anna, bemused, went to the cottage’s backyard and waited.

When Astrid came back, she had a serious look about her. Both of her arms were behind her back, her hands holding something unseen.

“Anna,” said Astrid. That got her attention. Usually Astrid addressed her as “wild girl” or “kiddo” or some variation thereof. Almost never did she call Anna by her name. “You come of age in troll society today,” she said. “That means that at least someone in this world now reckons you an adult. And a few days ago, you beat me sparring.”

Anna opened her mouth to protest, but Astrid cut her off. “Don’t interrupt me. I have seen you come a long way. So, I…” she paused for a long moment. “I want you to have this,” she said quickly, and whipped her hands out in front of her.

She was holding a sword in a leather scabbard embroidered with gold thread in florid shapes that ran up and down its length. The hilt was a dark red wood, the crossguard wooden with a fashion of a broad leaf etched into it, the handle of tough leather, and in the pommel that familiar red stone.

Anna lost her breath. “Astrid, no…” she said.

“Anna, yes. This is my sword. Ever since the day my mother gave me this sword, I dreamed of the day I’d pass it on to my… I’d pass it on to someone else. I knew that day would come. It’s a good sword. I hope that… I hope it serves you better than it served me.”

Anna gingerly, carefully accepted the sword with both hands. She looked up at Astrid’s face, and she felt her cheeks were wet. Astrid. If anyone was going to be her adoptive parent, why couldn’t it be her?

Then she realized. If Anders adopted her… Astrid would be her aunt. And she knew, in that moment, what her answer was. Tears in her eyes, she embraced Astrid, who embraced her back. Her teacher. Her friend. And soon, her aunt.

When Anna pulled out of the embrace, she drew the sword from the sheathe and gazed upon it by the light of the bronzing sun. Its folded steel blade caught the light and reflected it, sparkling as she turned it in her hands. She stepped back and gave it a cut, a stab, a swing, testing the weight and feel of it. It felt made for her hands; utterly, ineffably right.

“I named that sword Summer,” said Astrid, her voice oddly distant, “when I left Berk. I knew I was going to live in Burrowstown. I felt like my life was perfect. Like the sun was always shining on me. Summer.”

“Summer,” repeated Anna, and she stared at the blade.

The daylight was tiring out, and so Anna bid Astrid farewell and made her way through the village to Oaken’s cabin, where she would agree to the proposal. Her mind was full of what it meant. She would have parents, of a kind. Perhaps not her real parents, but who knew what had come of them? Or why she was raised with the trolls? Oaken, Anders, Kristoff, and Astrid were all practically family to her anyway. She’d just be making it official.

And she’d always have the trolls.

On the way, she had to go through the rather crowded town center. Though most were packing things and preparing to leave after a day of bartering and socializing, many were lounging around and simply talking, swapping skins of ale and enjoying the lazy sunset. Anna passed through, Astrid’s sword strapped to her hip, and noticed, at the foot of the Lord Mayor’s hill, Martin and a very tall young man, with a short close-cropped beard and a messy mop of jet-black hair, and dark eyes. He wore a silver-studded leather doublet over a dark gray tunic, and strapped across his back was a long greatsword. He was dangling Martin’s quiver of silvery-blue arrows over the younger boy’s short, short head.

Gods, thought Anna. I thought he was finished pushing Martin around. It felt like the same thing every time. Brendan. She felt like a pot of boiling water that threatened to spill over. She quickly turned her gait in the direction of the hill.

“Give it back!” snarled Martin with uncharacteristic vigor. It surprised Anna to hear Martin speak this way, and she began to feel somewhat anxious.

It took Brendan by surprise too, apparently, though he seemed to derive a greater amusement from Martin’s befuddlement. “Where did you get these? Tell me now, you little thief.”

“They were a gift!”

“A gift?” Brendan’s eyes bulged. “Who would give you a gift like this!”

“Astrid!”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Brendan mocked. “And how could that – that nobody afford to give you silvyrwyd arrows as a gift? You know what I think? I think you’re lying and you stole these from my Lord Father, and he’ll thank me for taking them back – and cutting off your hand for thieving!”

Anna looked around. The square was clearly not deserted, so why was everyone ignoring this? Everyone – really, truly, because she saw at the top of the hill two guards standing impassively, looking at the square with grave disinterest.

One of them was Armin. Martin’s father. His face was rock.

The rage boiled over. I have to do this every time. Nobody else does anything. She was awash with bitter anger. But Brendan was alone, this time. None of his cronies was around. She walked up to him, eyes burning.

“It is not nice to take things from people,” she said coolly.

“Oh, good gods, the wild girl,” he said. “Are you going to tell Martin it’s wrong to steal from his liege?”

“Aren’t you eighteen? Aren’t you a bit old to be bullying someone Martin’s age?”

“Bullying?” he echoed with confusion. “I’m governing. Do you have a problem with that?”

“As a matter of fact,” she drew Astrid’s sword, “yes, I do.”

He blinked at her, eyes going to her sword. “What exactly is your plan here, wild girl? You’re going to bare steel against your liege lord in public, with two of his guards in plain sight?”

“I will do more than bare steel,” she promised. “I will cut you down unless you give Martin his arrows back.”

His face screwed up, contorted with anger. “That’s a threat. A threat!” he shouted very suddenly, and many in the square stopped what they were doing to watch the unfolding spectacle. “My honor has been questioned!” He threw the quiver onto the ground, arrows spilling out of it into the dusty road, where a scrambling Martin picked them up. Brendan drew his greatsword, four feet of blackened steel, and leveled it at Anna.

By comparison, Astrid’s sword was a miserable two-and-a-half feet, and even that might have been overstating it. But Anna bore it just the same, clasping the handle with both hands and raising it in a high guard. She eyed Brendan intently. His stance was unpracticed. Intimidating to someone who didn’t know what they were looking for, perhaps, very much the picture of the heroic warrior – but his hands were nearly wrapped around each other, and he held the sword awkwardly: forward and low. He will attack first, and it will be like that time I tried to hit Astrid. If I can match his speed, that is.

That sword is sharp, though. And long.

He slashed clumsily, and she danced around the blow, attempting to move in on him. But his sword was long, and he brought it around to block her counterattack. There was now a clamor in the square, as people gathered around to watch. She wasn’t paying attention to them, though. Live in the moment. Fight in the moment.

She jumped back and resumed the high guard, and he gave a clumsy low strike. She slashed down and parried his blow, jumping away from his sword as she did. She didn’t have a shield, or armor, she reflected soberly. One wrong move and I’m dead meat.

But Brendan was getting frustrated. A vein was throbbing in his temple and his eyes were blackened coals. He screamed and lunged, greatsword high and coming low. A blow meant to kill, she knew, to cut her right in half. She turned her blade sideways and blocked the greatsword while it was high; she slipped out from under it, and it slammed harmlessly against the ground.

Now was her chance. He’s off-balance and defenseless. She jumped in close, too close, and slashed at his left hand. She felt her folded steel bite flesh, and saw a splatter of blood, and for a quickened moment her heart stopped beating.

Brendan had dropped his sword now, and was clutching his bloodied hand, now with two stumps where a ring and little finger used to be. They rolled in the dusty road. The smell of copper assaulted her nostrils and spun her stomach like a spit.

She backed up several paces, chest heaving, both hands still holding the hilt of her now reddened sword. There was blood on her hands, too. And her tunic. Brendan was screaming, looking at his wounded hand, crying fearful tears, his eyes bulging.

The two guards from the hill had started coming down when the fight broke out, and upon the maiming of Brendan’s hand, were split between advancing on Anna and helping their liege lord’s wounded son.

The guard who was not Armin spoke first. “You. You did this,” he pointed at Anna. “We saw it. Put down your sword, you’re under arrest.”

Defensively, she clutched her sword even tighter, and held it up. “He started it,” she said shakily.

“Aye,” said an onlooker, a man with auburn hair. Jack the woodcutter, she knew. “That boy Brendan struck first, he did.”

The door to the Lord Mayor’s longhouse burst open, and there stood the Lord Mayor Edward Burrows with his dark hair and faint goatee. He surveyed the square with fierce eyes, and settled them on Anna. Anna with a bloody sword held high, and his own son with a bloody hand.

His face melted in fury. He flew down the steps and across the square. “What is the meaning of this?” he roared, and chills ran down Anna’s spine.

“My lord,” said the guard. “The wild girl attacked your son – and severed two of his fingers.”

The Lord Mayor looked Anna up and down. The blood on her hands and tunic were all the proof he seemed to need. “You. You.” He was shaking in anger. “I thought I told you to stay away from my son. Wild girl! I’ll have your head for this!”

“He started it!” she repeated, shouting this time.

This time no onlooker came to her aid. The Lord Mayor eyed Anna coldly and turned to Armin. “Is it true, Armin? Did my son purposefully engage this nattering, filthy forest child?”

Anna looked Armin in the eyes, as fiercely as she could manage, though water was blurring her vision now. You owe me, she tried to say with her eyes. You owe me.

And Armin gave her the saddest look she had ever seen in return. I know, that look seemed to say, and he said “No. She attacked him.”

The Lord Mayor clenched his teeth. “I knew this would happen. You, wild girl, you…” He stopped suddenly, as his gaze fixed on the sword she was holding. His eyes went huge. “That sword…”

By now the surrounding crowd was thick, with no doubt everyone in town turning out to see what had happened. In the midst of them, Oaken, Anders, and Kristoff had pushed to the front – and on seeing what had unfolded, went pale as ghosts. Anders retched at the sight of the blood.

On Anna’s other side, Astrid had appeared, and was marching up to the scene. She was controlling her expression diligently, her mouth ironed into a flat line, but the lack of color in her face betrayed all.

I really messed up, thought Anna horribly, and she felt sick.

“Astrid,” hissed the Lord Mayor softly. “The wild girl has your sword.”

“Yes, she does,” said Astrid simply.

“I mean to have her head for this.”

“No.”

The Lord Mayor stomped his feet, his dark gray eyes glistening slightly, his hands trembling. “Damn you, woman. Look at what she’s done to my son!”

Astrid looked at Brendan. If she felt any emotion at the sight of him lying on the ground, moaning and sobbing as he clutched at his maimed hand, it did not cross her face. She swiveled to look at Martin, who was still as a statue, eyes like tea saucers.

“Martin, what happened here?” she asked.

Martin swallowed visibly. “B-Brendan asked where I got these a-arrows. He said I stole them f-from the L-L-Lord Mayor. I t-told him I didn’t, that they were a gift from y-you. B-But he didn’t b-believe me. He s-said he was going to c-cut off my hand. Th-Then Anna showed up, and th-they drew their s-swords, and B-Brendan attacked her.”

Nobody spoke, until Armin cleared his throat. “He’s lying, my lord,” he said. “My son is a craven and a liar. He is only defending Anna because he desires her, and she has led him on with her womanly ways.”

“I do not!” said Martin with sudden vigor. “I am not a liar! Astrid gave me these arrows and Brendan was trying to take them away!”

“I did give him the arrows,” said Astrid, and she shot Armin a baleful look.

A bold onlooker, unseen in the throng, shouted then. “The wild girl bore steel first, but Brendan struck first! I saw’n it!” Murmurs of agreement lifted out of the crowd.

The other guard shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “’Twas a duel, then. The law…”

“Don’t talk about the law,” snarled the Lord Mayor. “I am the law.”

“Edward, I will not allow you to do this thing,” said Astrid.

“Then what?” shouted the Lord Mayor. “You would deny me my vengeance? Is she to get off, free as a bird? I will not allow you to cully me on this!”

“You will not harm a single hair on her head,” said Astrid. “I gave her the sword. I taught her how to use it. She is my responsibility.”

“Then I will have both of your heads,” Edward said darkly.

Astrid’s eyes were cold as she stared at the Lord Mayor. “There is another way.”

The Lord Mayor matched her gaze with a contemptuous glare of his own. “You must swear to never speak to him again,” he said in a low voice.

“Agreed.”

“Very well, then,” said the Lord Mayor, and he turned back to Anna, his eyes spilling over with hatred. “Wild girl. Anna. Whatever your name is. You are hereby banished from Burrowstown and all its holdings, fiefs, and vassals. May the gods judge you for your crime in the hereafter. If you ever return, I will kill you myself.”

It was as if someone had pushed her off a cliff. She was reeling, dizzy from a falling sensation in her gut. “Banished?” she croaked.

“Yes, banished,” said the Lord Mayor through gritted teeth. “Now, go. GO!” He thrust out his hand and index finger, pointing, by chance, in the direction of the troll’s forest.

Unsteadily, Anna backed up, taking several steps, her heart pounding. Then she turned and ran. She ran until she got to the end of the village, just before the hill at the end of the forest, where Oaken and Anders’ cabin was. At some point, she sheathed her sword. Her hands were still bloody. She was well out-of-sight of the center of the village. She doubled over and cried silently.

She heard footsteps behind her, and her heartbeat quickened. Just taking a breath, she thought; I’ll be gone in no time, please don’t kill me. She stood up straight, drying her eyes on a tunic sleeve, and looked over her shoulder.

Martin was approaching, with Astrid behind him. Of course, Astrid wants her sword back. When they both stood before her, Anna clumsily unbuckled the leather scabbard, and held the sword out to Astrid.

But Astrid didn’t take it. She didn’t even look at it. She was silent, and staring at Anna with a hard, desolate gaze. That hurt more than anything.

“Astrid,” said Anna weakly. “I’m sorry.”

Without a word, Astrid turned around and walked away. Anna watched her go, her heart sinking deeper and deeper as she went. The hand holding the scabbard dropped limply to her side. No one was in sight now, except for Martin.

“Where are you going to go?” said Martin, after a malingering quiet.

Anna let out a shaky breath. It was hard to talk right now. “I don’t know.”

They stood in a renewed silence, until Martin spoke again. “Thanks for helping me, again. I’m sorry that…”

“No,” said Anna. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have gotten involved.”

Martin looked taken aback. “But if you didn’t get involved… I’d have lost my arrows. Astrid’s arrows.”

A beat. “That’s true,” admitted Anna.

“So, thank you for that,” said Martin. “And I’m sorry.” His head fell. “I was just thinking, since… since you’re leaving the town forever, and my father…” He paused gulpishly. “I was wondering if you would take me with you. As a squire,” he added quickly, a hopeful wrinkle in his brow.

Anna was so floored by this suggestion that she laughed incredulously. That wounded Martin, whose expression collapsed at that, so she said hastily, “Oh, no, I just – I’m not a knight, you know. How can I take you on as a squire?”

Martin shrugged feebly. “You’re the most knightly person I know.”

Anna had to smile at that. In spite of the terrible situation, in spite of what she just did – still Martin called her knightly. She didn’t feel knightly, but maybe that was part of it. “I don’t know where I’m going, as I said.”

He shrugged again. “I don’t care. Not back to town.”

She nodded her agreement at that. The sky was darkening, and that reminded her. “Right, I need to go to my home village for just a short while tonight. You can come along, if you want. It’s just a birthday party.”

“Oh, okay,” said Martin. “Wait, is that the… do you mean the cairn?” She nodded yes, smiling slightly, and continued into the forest – Martin trailing close behind, after half a moment’s bewildered deliberation.

They got to the crossing and continued down the stream to where the berry bushes sat happy and ignorant. Years now she had been coming and going to this stream, and years now those berry bushes still sat, growing berries as they always did, and never even one time cutting someone’s fingers off. In a strange way, she envied them their simple existence;anything would be better than feeling this way.

When she got there, she remembered, as the coppery smell lingered about her, that her tunic and hands were still stained with blood. She frowned deeply. “Martin, do you know anything about removing blood stains from clothing?” she asked dubiously.

“A little,” said Martin. Anna removed her overtunic and inspected her smallclothes and leggings. Clean, mostly; of blood, anyway. She washed her hands and arms in the river until they were sufficiently clean, and presented the tunic to Martin. “Any ideas?”

If Martin’s knowledge on clothware care was “a little,” she shuddered to imagine what “a lot” must be; Martin immediately set to work on the tunic, washing it in the stream and running it through with water, scrubbing viciously with fingers and pebbles. By the time he was done, the tunic was sodden, but clean of any apparent blood stains.

She pulled it on over her head, and Martin gasped. “You’ll catch a chill!”

Anna laughed lightly. “No, I won’t. I never catch chills. To be honest, the cold doesn’t really bother me.” She smiled warmly at him. It was true. Not that she couldn’t feel the bite of a cold day without warm clothing, but the cold sort of passed through her like sand through a sieve. She felt it, but it didn’t touch her. Except in her dreams, where it would stick to her, and hurt and burn and tear at her. But those were only dreams.

She set down her sword beside the stream, resolving to come back and get it when she had finished with the trolls. Best they not see it, she thought. She turned to Martin. “Alright, let’s go.”

They went into the troll cairn, and were greeted by such a sudden uproar that Martin jumped a yard into the air. The festivities were all prepared, and of such an impressive scale that even Anna was a little shocked to see it. Streamers and banners waved everywhere, tables were stacked and criss-crossed the cairn haphazardly, loaded high with rich salads heavy with berries, nuts, fruits, and vegetables of all kinds. Roasted fish, baked potatoes, stewed greens were in company as well, occupying stone basins and wooden bowls strewn everywhere. And trollish pine ale was in tremendous quantity, overflowing barrels and spilling in gallons.

Immediately Anna was assaulted with questions about the guest she had brought. “Cutie!” said Rain. “Is he your boyfriend?”

“No,” said Anna, chuckling. “He’s my squire.”

“A squire? But he looks like a human,” said Braffly.

“A squire, not a square, you ding-dong,” said Loot.

Martin was silent as he always was throughout this, and for a moment Anna was sorry she brought him. But then the trolls provided him a tall flagon of pine ale, and he coughed and sputtered over the first gulp. When he came up for air, his face was like a beet. This’ll be good for him, she hoped. The trolls are kind, and treat everyone like family. It’s better than being around his father, surely.

Anna didn’t have much of an appetite, but the trolls did – and Anna urged Martin to eat, since he had been drinking ale. The revelry lasted a good while, and by the end of it, all had had their fill, and were lolling lazily, some snacking on the remaining morsels, some drinking to their health (and, by volume anyway, everyone else’s as well), and the rest jesting and japing pleasantly in the light of the kindly half-moon. Then the Wise Troll stood up on a dais and shouted loud in a deep, booming voice.

“Welcome, all, to Anna’s five-and-tenth birthday!” Raucous cheering.

“I know many of you have given Anna her birthday blessings, and the rest will no doubt do so before the night is up – but now, now is the time of the Adulting!” More cheers.

“You all know how this works, so I sha’nt bore you with the details. Anna, if you would please come up here!” He smiled his big white smile, his big ears wiggling.

The Adulting was the official coming-of-age ceremony in a trollish fifteenth birthday. The tradition was that first the troll who was coming of age would stand on the dais and announce their chosen profession; then, the village would, collectively, give the troll one gift. By good fortune, the one gift was usually in line with the profession. A troll who sought to be a farmer usually got a hoe; a fisherman, a fishing rod; a hunter, a spear. Sometimes it required a little imagination to connect the gift with the profession – such as a watchman being given an acorn necklace – but it was generally the case that the two went hand-in-hand.

In Anna’s case, she hadn’t spoken a word about her chosen profession before the fact, and thus was certain the gift would have nothing to do with it. That didn’t bother her, though. The profession was in itself a gift. So long as she had that, she had all she wanted.

She stood up on the dais and surveyed the beaming crowd of trolls. She smiled happily at them, though there was a tinge of melancholy that stroked her heart with an anxious touch.

“Anna,” rang the Wise Troll. “You are now an adult troll in our humble village.” More cheering still. “Please, Anna, tell us: what is your chosen Profession?”

Anna took a deep breath, and let it out, to steady herself. “I want to be an adventurer!” she announced loudly.

No cheers whatsoever. Mostly puzzled looks, some shocked. Confused mutters skittered across the cairn.

“Adventurer?” repeated the Wise Troll. “You are… sure about this? No troll has elected to be an adventurer for…”

“Many years,” finished Anna. “Yes, I know. I have thought long about this, and I have decided.”

“You’re leaving us?” called one troll. The muttering grew in volume as the implication of her decision became clear.

“I know this is hard,” said Anna, trying as best as she could to keep the quavering out of her voice. “But I want to see the world. I want to see all of Arendelle. I want to see the world, but I will come back and visit! I promise!”

A definite pall had fallen over the celebration, though it was cleared somewhat by Anna’s promise to visit occasionally. “You are my family,” she said, and repeated, “I will visit. I promise I will.”

She turned to look at the Wise Troll, who nodded solemnly. “All right, Anna. Adventurer. Anna the Adventurer!” he proclaimed, to scattered applause.

“To be honest, Anna,” the Wise Troll went on, “I had a feeling you would choose this path.”

“How did you know?” asked Anna, with a raised eyebrow.

He spread his hands out. “Call it a hunch. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but you’re not a standing stone after all. A cairn is no place for a rolling stone. But still, moss is important to all of us. It is life and purpose. It thrives in all places, and always points the same way: north. It may be, on your travels, that you have need of such direction in your life. So…” He snapped his fingers. From a nearby table, a troll grabbed up a leafy bundle, and on stubby feet brought it up to the dais.

“Open it,” said the Wise Troll, as the troll presented the leafy bundle to Anna. She took it carefully, and peeled back the leaves on the bundle one by one.

Within the bundle was a large, thick, wooden shield. It looked like it had been lopped off the side of a tree wholesale, with its jaggedy uneven edge – except for the design of a large flower on the front, painted in scarlet relief against the earthy dark color of the wood. On the back side, the shield was perfectly smooth to the touch, and had two thick leather loops for putting the arm through. Yet another brilliant gift. The trolls were looking on eagerly. They had no idea – this was exactly what she needed. Wanted.

It was almost too much. People had done her so much kindness today, and all she had done in return was shorten someone’s hand. “It’s… it’s beautiful,” she choked out, unable to articulate anything more.

“Its name is Moss,” said the Wise Troll. “That way, even though you are a rolling stone, you’ll still have Moss.”

Anna looked up at the crowd of trolls, all half sad and all half glad. “Thank you all, so much. For everything.”

After that, the revelry continued for a while, as all the trolls went back to their gaming and singing, japing and drinking, and all of them wanted a turn to say their goodbyes to Anna. When asked where she was going to go, she just shrugged and said “Anywhere.” Under the influence of ale, Martin was meanwhile regaling some trolls with stories of Anna’s bravery. She appreciated that despite his slight inebriation, brought on by a few sips of pine ale, he maintained the good sense to not talk about any acts of violence she may have committed, especially in the past day or so.

Eventually, the party died down, and it was only then that Anna realized the night had grown old. Trolls were rolling off to fall asleep, or had just fallen unconscious at their seats. There was little activity except for a few stout trolls still grunting over stone flagons, and a couple of other trolls doing their very best impression of a tree in a storm, an activity they no doubt thought of as “dancing.” Martin had fallen asleep, and was dozing underneath a nearby broadleaf’s willowy canopy.

Anna was lost in thought, admiring the painting on her new shield, when the Wise Troll approached her. “That was an interesting reaction to have for a gift that’s little more than an accessory,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that a shield’s just a shield, and not much use by itself.”

Anna felt a blush creep across her face. “How do you know I wasn’t just being polite?”

The Wise Troll chuckled. “Oh, Anna. I know you. You wear your heart on your tunic. That was genuine excitement.”

Anna said nothing, and turned her face away from him to admire the painting again. She could feel the Wise Troll smile. “It’s okay. May I look at it?” he asked.

Slowly, she nodded, and stood up. She led him to the stream where she had left the sword, and picked it up. With a sudden stab of fear, she remembered that she hadn’t cleaned the blood off the blade. She resolved to keep it in the scabbard, no matter what.

“That’s a pretty hilt,” observed the Wise Troll. “And is that a ruby in the pommel? Hm… I haven’t seen a design like this in… many a year. A kingly gift.”

She nodded stiffly, mind still fixated on the latent danger.

The Wise Troll cocked his head. “May I see the blade?”

She locked her jaw, and shook her head. “That’d be dangerous,” she said, attempting to clarify, and cringing at the irony in what she just said.

“I’ll be fine. My skin is hard as rock.” He smiled. “And I assume you have training in how to handle a sword, since someone seems to have thought it appropriate to gift you with one.”

Anna hesitated, her fingers drumming the hilt as she tried to think of another excuse. The Wise Troll seemed to notice her trepidation, and his smile fell slightly.

“Please?” he asked, his voice ringing with a faint hint of concern.

She exhaled heavily and, slowly, pulled the sword from the scabbard. Even in the moon-and-starlight, the blood on the sword was clearly visible, dull red against the starshining steel.

The Wise Troll gave a heavy sigh of his own and rubbed his temples with a thumb and forefinger. “Oh, Anna.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” but her voice was as hollow as it had ever been.

There were no words for a few moments. The whistling of the crickets and the yawning of the wind were the only sounds. Anna’s beating heart pounded in her ears.

“Where are you going to go, Anna?” asked the Wise Troll.

“I don’t know,” said Anna. Then, she remembered. “The king and queen are dead. The princess is to be crowned in a week and some days. I may go to the city, to see. After that – I don’t know.”

The Wise Troll grunted. “I knew the king and queen. May the Earthmother conduct their souls to the World Tree.” He gave her a wary look. “You mean to go to the city?”

“Yes,” said Anna.

“Will you hear one last piece of advice from me, before you do?”

“Of course, Wise Troll.”

“Don’t,” he said, his voice crackling with finality. “Don’t go to the city, and don’t see the coronation.”

Anna had no intention of heeding this advice. But she had to know. “Why not?”

“Because it’s dangerous.”

She could have laughed. Instead she just smiled dryly and, sliding the sword back into its scabbard, said “I think I am well-equipped for dangerous, Wise Troll.”

“Yes, you do,” he said sadly.

A lump formed in her throat. She swallowed it. “Thank you, again. So much. I think I will leave before… before light. I don’t want to have to say goodbye again.”

“As you will,” said the Wise Troll. A pause. Then, “We love you, Anna. We just want what’s best for you.”

“I appreciate that,” said Anna. “I really do. But… I think this is what’s best for me. To follow my heart.”

“Your heart,” repeated the Wise Troll, his eyes clouding over for a moment. “Yes… Well, I cannot stop you. Just promise me you’ll come back whenever you need help. Will you do that for us? For me?”

Anna smiled and nodded. “Of course.”

Anna slid back into the cairn on silent feet, and woke up the sleeping Martin.

“Whazzat?” he muttered, and rubbed his eyes.

“Martin,” she said. “My squire. We must go.”

“Now?” he said groggily, sitting up.

“Now.”

They gathered up their things – scant belongings that they were – and left the cairn quietly, stopping by the stream only to refresh themselves and wash Anna’s sword before continuing on to the crossing. Light was breaking by the time they reached the place the path and stream crossed. She looked to the right. All until now, she had gone right at this crossing, because that was the way Burrowstown was. But that being no longer an option, she looked left. That way was the Ice Fields, where the icers worked year-long at gathering ice; between here and there was the end of the Springway, the long road that went all the way to…

The sound of galloping broke her concentration. From her right, a horseman was coming up the road. No, not a horseman – the steed had too many antlers to be a horse. It was a reindeer. Sven. And riding him was…

“Kristoff!” shouted Anna, and her heart leapt into her throat.

“Feisty-pants!” he shouted back. He was wearing an enormous satchel strapped around his back, from which dangled two pans, a pot, and a lute. That ridiculous lute that he loved to play when he thought nobody was listening. He rode up to them and hopped off of Sven, pots and pans jangling when his boots hit the road.

“Kristoff, what are you doing here?” she said, after an instant of speechlessness.

Kristoff looked puzzled at that. “I came to join you.”

“But what about… Your family? Oaken and Anders?”

“Ah, yeah, that,” he said a little sheepishly. “After your little… ah… ‘spat’ with Brendan in the main square, we talked long and hard about it. There’s no way they can adopt you now, without the Lord Mayor banishing them, too. They argued about it, like they always argue, about whether they should adopt you anyway, and who would take care of you.”

“I don’t need anyone to take care of me,” said Anna indignantly.

Kristoff ignored the interruption. “They couldn’t think of a way to help you. So I told them to forget about it, to stay and open up their trading post, and I’d go with you and help look after you.”

“I don’t need looking after,” said Anna, pride now well and wounded.

“Oh no? How many provisions do you have for your journey? Waterskins? Anything for cooking and cleaning? How will you start a fire?”

Anna opened her mouth to respond and, upon being unable to find a good reply, grunted and folded her arms. “I’d have managed,” she scowled.

Kristoff laughed and rolled his eyes. “I brought all that stuff. But if you don’t want my help…” his voice trailed off.

They stood there for a tense moment, glaring at one another. “Um… you guys?” said Martin, and then Anna and Kristoff both burst into laughter. Anna ran up and pulled Kristoff into a hug.

“You’re a good friend, Kristoff. Thanks.”

“Hey, what are friends for?”

“Are you sure about this?” she asked, pulling away. “It’s a lot to ask of someone.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” He reached behind him to pull a foldied piece of goatskin out of a pocket on the huge satchel on his back. “You forgot this, by the way.” He handed it to her.

“The map!” she exclaimed, and unfolded it hurriedly. All three of them crouched over to inspect it.

“So, where are we going, Ser Anna?” asked Kristoff.

She snorted at him, and pointed to the end of the long road called the Springway. “There. Crystalwater. The capital of Arendelle, the seat of the Royal Family.”

“That’s a long way,” said Martin.

“About a week’s journey by horse, I should think,” said Kristoff, shrugging. “Probably longer on foot.”

Anna frowned and folded the map up, stowing it in a pocket on her person. “We’ll have to go fast, then, to make it in time for the coronation.”

And so they were off, turning left at the crossing and continuing down the road, away from the troll cairn and away from Burrowstown. As they walked, Anna checked her belongings. Her new shield called Moss was slung across her back, and she had her new map in her pocket. On her head was still the green hat Oaken gave her the day before. And at her hip was her sword, her new sword, with whose help she had gotten herself banned from a village that had only ever shown her kindness.

She pulled the sword from the scabbard to inspect it, twisting it back and forth and watching as the morning sun sprinkled its light all over it. It drank the sunbeams like a man dying of thirst, and spit them back out like a fountain, its folded steel shooting reflected light in all directions.

Kristoff whistled. “Nice sword. What’s it called?”

She remembered what Astrid named the sword, and why. Summer, because she felt like the sun was shining down on her. Anna didn’t know what the future held, but she didn’t think it would be easy. Summer doesn’t last forever, and her summer had come to an end. She had time, though. Time before the winter of her life. She looked at the broad leaf etching on the crossguard.

“Autumn,” she said.

Kristoff hummed thoughtfully. “I’d have called it Brat-slayer, myself.”

Martin laughed, and Anna smiled in spite of herself. Not a bad name, except Autumn hadn’t slain any brats. Summer, though…

The folded steel glinted in the sunlight, and Autumn seemed to agree.

 

Chapter Text

An enormous boulder marked the place where the Springway began, a short cut away from the path that led from the troll forest to the ice fields. Carved on the boulder in large, bold letters were the following words:

This stone marketh the Nor’end of the springway, as were laid down by His Majesty King Andrew the First. T’west, thou findeth the wolfswoods. T’east, thou findeth the frozen fjords. T’north, thou findeth the great mountain. T’south, thou followeth the springway.

Carved under that, in smaller letters of a different print, more slender and oddly shaped:

Here be the final resting place of the First King. May he find in death the peace he never knew in life.

Anna studied the boulder for a long time, and then pulled out her map and inspected it thoroughly. She tapped a small gray dot with her index finger. “We are here,” she announced, and showed the map to her bemused compatriots. She traced her finger down the length of the long black line extending south from the dot. “This is the Springway.” Her finger rested at the end of the line, on the little drawing of houses and a castle. “And this is Crystalwater, our destination.”

Martin nodded and Kristoff stepped from one foot to the other. Though Sven was with them, Kristoff did not ride him, instead opting to load Sven with the large bag of provisions he had brought for the journey. Sven didn’t seem to mind, though, and probably considered it preferable to carrying a 16year old boy around.

“So… we just follow this road?” Kristoff gestured to the dark gray and black-blue cobbled path that shot like an arrow to the south, away from the boulder. The path went out as far as the eye could see, and stopped abruptly a few yards away from the base of the enormous boulder with its carved message.

“I think so,” said Anna, and she folded up the map after a final inspection, then surveyed the boulder again. “But that is an odd stone.”

“What’s odd about it?” Martin asked.

“The message,” said Anna. “It mentions a few locations nearby, like a ‘wolfswood’ and ‘frozen fjords.’ But there are no places like that listed on the map.”

“Maybe their names changed?” offered Kristoff with a shrug. “It’s an old boulder, right? Maybe the ‘frozen fjords’ are an old name for the ice fields.”

“Maybe,” said Anna. “Anyway, if we go directly south, it’ll be a long trek and we’re unlikely to meet anyone. The Springway splits at a place called Vardale. The southern fork continues on to Crystalwater, but the western fork goes back to Burrowstown.”

“Ah, oh yeah.” Kristoff’s face lit up. “That’s the way that horseman came, a few days ago, I think. It’s a popular detour on the way to the ice fields or – gods forbid – the North Mountain. No one much goes up this section of Springway, as it’s mostly barren. But with the Ghost Post, that may soon change.”

Now there’s an idea, mused Anna, but not the one she was having. She was more worried that Vardale might give them a chilly reception on account of close ties with Burrowstown. Keep a low profile, she thought, and we should be fine.

“There’s another reason people don’t go up this part of the Springway,” said Martin, shivering visibly. “The eastern hills are – are fraught with bandits and wildmen.”

“We’ll be careful,” she assured him. She patted him on the shoulder and smiled. He still had his yew bow and the quiver of silver arrows that Astrid had given him. Something about the way Brendan had talked about Martin’s arrows made Anna doubt that Astrid had really fletched them. Brendan called them “silvyrwyd.” She had never heard of such a thing before – and neither, apparently, had Kristoff, nor Martin, who was convinced they were a gift from Astrid, made with her own hands, and guarded them jealously.

The road was long, but well cobbled, and rarely twisted or changed directions. Moss and weeds grew in some of the cracks between the stone bricks in the road, but on the whole it was in good condition. The weather was slightly foggy, and a damp, cold smell followed them everywhere. They left the forest behind a short way from the stone, and for the nonce, they were in a wide, open section of country. To the west and north, they could see the rolling pines of the trolls’ forest, and, to the east, large hills, with low, wide mountains looming in the distance.

That night, they made camp at the side of the road. Kristoff attempted to start a fire on a damp assortment of kindling he scavenged from the wood side, but didn’t have much luck striking a blaze. At last he gave up with a huff and instead sullenly drew a thin ragged blanket around his shoulders. He distributed some cold hard bread and split an apple into thirds, and they supped on that. Then, shivering in the evening chill, they laid out their bedrolls and huddled up together. For a time, Kristoff and Martin talked idly, probably to get their minds off the cold. But Anna, who was exhausted, and yawning, and quite comfortable swaddled up in her mossroll, fell asleep quickly.

In her dream, she was staring into a vanity. Her teal blue eyes stared back at her, unsmiling. Her finely kept eyelashes did not move or flutter. Not this, not again. Unease slid through her veins. Though the air was still, the wind blew through her, black and heavy.

Her blonde hair was drawn up and carefully arranged in a close bun, every strand neatly tucked away, all held together by a brilliant silver clasp studded with small diamonds. She wore an azure dress without unseemly ruffles, and a violet bodice laced with blue and silver vines. Just the kind of outfit to receive returning royalty. But she knew it would be replaced, later. Later, for the mourning.

A knocking at the door. “Come in,” said a faint, cold voice, and she turned away from the vanity.

The door opened, and in entered Gerda. Faithful, old Gerda. Just like last night, and the night before. She wore a somber look, her cheeks shiny with newly-shed tears. “Your Grace, terrible news…”

Her throat became thick. Dread enveloped her. “Gerda? Good heavens, what’s the matter?”

She dismissed her servant afterwards with a quiet thanks and turned back to the vanity, her heart hammering at her throat. Her face was still, still as stone. Or ice. She impulsively jumped up and strode over to the window to gaze at the sky, huge and empty and filled with stars. She threw open the window and let the frigid night air touch and kiss her.

That is it, she thought, and she stared out at the city and the vale beyond. That is it. I am alone now. Are you happy, you damnable gods? I am alone. Alone with my kingdom.

Anna woke to the sounds of talking and the smell of dew-wet grass. It was still an hour until dawn, but she and Kristoff were both used to such early risings. Kristoff was happily shearing off parts of a hard block of cheese and breaking his fast upon them, chattering merrily as he did; Martin was not nearly so spry, but awake all the same.

They hit the road again, Martin yawning widely, just as the sky started to shed its evening blacks. The fog was heavy, and they couldn’t see the horizon, but that was not important to them. As long as they kept to the Springway, they’d find their end one way or another,if they didn’t get turned around by mistake.

They talked a little on the road, Kristoff occasionally remarking on a passing tree or a moment of clear sky, and whistling jauntily the rest of the time. Martin, meanwhile, was looking rather dour, and walked with hunched shoulders and eyes cast downwards. Did he regret coming? she wondered. Or was it just the weather? On that point, at least, she sympathized with him. The air was thick, wet, heavy, and cold. What this valley needed was a good, stiff wind.

Without the sun to go by, it was difficult to tell how much time had passed – though it seemed little enough before Kristoff began to complain of being footsore. “We should have taken some horses from the town stables,” he grumbled.

“But stealing is wrong!” Martin gaped at him.

“A lot of things are wrong,” said Kristoff vaguely. Anna narrowed her eyes at him.

“We can try to trade for some donkeys in the next town,” she said.

“With what? We don’t have much to trade.”

“We have all the supplies and things that you brought.”

“We also have the things that you brought.” Kristoff turned his head to face Martin. “And his arrows.” In return, Martin gave Kristoff a dirty look.

“Everything I brought was a gift,” said Anna, offended. “It would be wrong to trade it.”

“What if it’s the only way to get to Crystalwater before the coronation?”

Anna bit her lower lip, and turned back to face the road ahead. “Well… it still wouldn’t be worth it.”

“Oh no? There are other swords, but Princess Elsa will only be crowned once.”

“There aren’t any other swords like this.”

Kristoff shrugged. “They’re all just slabs of steel. One is much like another.”

Anna swiveled hotly on him. “What if I said that about blocks of ice?”

“That’s different!” said Kristoff, his voice rising. “Every slab of ice is unique, like snowflakes are…”

“You know Anders says that’s not true? That most snowflakes are the same?”

“Oh, that’s just Anders being cynical. You know how he gets,” said Kristoff testily. “Every block of ice is its own block. It has all kinds of tiny imperfections – air bubbles, scratches, marks. No two ever form the same way, but those imperfections unite them all. You wouldn’t even be able to say two blocks of ice were the same if they didn’t look just a little bit different. You wouldn’t even think of it!”

“Maybe, but the same is true of steel, I assure you.”

Kristoff snorted. “Well, if your stuff and Martin’s stuff is out of the question, then the fact remains that all we have to trade are a few common provisions and some simple cookware and tools.”

“That may be enough, if we find a desperate buyer. Did Oaken teach you nothing?”

“Okay, so I’m not exactly a genius at haggling,” said Kristoff, waving his arms dramatically.

“Maybe we could sell Sven,” teased Anna. Sven seemed to give her an offended look at that. “Oh, you know I’m just kidding,” she said sweetly to the reindeer. She turned back to Kristoff. “Kristoff, why don’t you just ride Sven?”

“It wouldn’t be fair to you guys,” he said, a sheepish note seeping into his voice.

“I won’t mind,” promised Anna. “And neither will Martin. Will you, Martin?”

“Hm?” said Martin, snapping out of an apparent daydream. “I – uhm – no, of course not, ser. I mean, m’lady.”

“Cut that out, I’m neither,” said Anna, and Kristoff laughed, but he didn’t mount Sven either, and that was the end of the discussion on being footsore.

Eventually a northerly wind began to rise in the valley and slowly the fog began to drift away in patches, while the clouds above peeled back to reveal blue sky. Off in the north, she noticed, tall, black clouds were gathering. So much for the change of weather, she thought bitterly.

Martin had the same thought, apparently. “Storm clouds,” he pointed out.

“They’ll be on us by nightfall,” said Kristoff with a frown. “Hopefully we’ll find some shelter before then.”

As luck would have it, they did. The sky was darkened by clouds and the setting of the sun when they came upon a small huddle of buildings on the edge of a lake. A two-story timber building sat in the middle of the huddle, and warm lights glowed in the windows all around it. Connected to it on the left side was a round stone tower, easily forty feet tall, with a bell at the top. On the right, another wooden building stood, one story tall with wide doors and a high roof. “A stable,” said Kristoff, excitedly. “I’ll bet this is an inn.”

Anna looked over her map. There were no labels between the end of the Springway and Vardale, and certainly nothing to indicate the presence of an inn. “Maybe this is Vardale,” she said with cautious optimism. But if that was true, then they’d have gone a full fourth of the Springway in one day – and she really doubted that they made such good time.

“A bit small to be a town,” Kristoff deadpanned. He was right – from what they could still see in the gathering darkness, there was nothing else for miles.

They approached the front of the inn and knocked on a thick oaken door. Above the door an iron sign hung. In the dim light, Anna couldn’t quite tell what the sign was supposed to be, but it looked like an absurdly fat rooster in mid-crow.

The door was answered by an absurdly fat woman in a brown homespun dress, with a great mass of chins and huge wobbly arms. She was taller than any of them, as well, and her waist must have been four times Anna’s around. On top of her head was a thick black coif of hair that tumbled over her shoulders, and her hazel eyes gleamed at them from a very pale face, flushed red with life or alcohol – Anna couldn’t tell.

“Ay, young travellers! Welcome to the Fat Rooster! What’ll it be that yer needing?”

“Lodging for three, and a stable for our reindeer,” said Anna.

She looked between the three of them with a surveying glance. “And how’ll ye be payin’ for the pleasure?”

“We haven’t got any silver, but we have some trade goods,” said Anna, hoping Kristoff would pick up.

“Ah, right,” said Kristoff, catching the hint. “Mostly provisions, some cookwares, skins, odds-and-ends – that sort of thing.”

She scratched her chin with a fleshy hand. “Hmm… might be we can work something out. Ye wouldn’t happen t’ have a shovel?”

Kristoff’s expression fell. “No shovel, but I do have rope and a pickaxe.”

“What kind of rope?”

Kristoff produced an intermediate length of rope and demonstrated its make and quality for her. She insisted on seeing for herself, and picked up the length and tested it by pulling on it and picking at the weave. “Turns out, I’ve got a need for some rope like this. One of my idiot sons gone and done lost the rope we’s using for the well, so’s might be I can replace it with this. I love my sons – I’ve got seven of ‘em, strong and healthy – but they’re all idiots. I say this’ll buy yer lodging, but if it’s supper ye’ll be wanting…”

“We have onions,” said Kristoff. “And potatoes. Take your pick.”

“Both, aye, that’ll do.”

They paid in their goods up front, and while Kristoff went to put up Sven in the stables, Anna and Martin were let in to the common room. It was dimly lit by a single sconce at a table near the back and a fireplace in the corner, and interspersed with occasional tables and chairs. Three passageways at the back led to the stairwell, the kitchen, and the dining area respectively.

The common area was largely unoccupied: only an old man with a bushy gray beard, wrapped in a gray cloak, sat dozing in a chair near the fireplace. Sounds of merriment and diversion were coming from the dining room. Anna and Martin were shown to their room on the second floor. The room was a dismal affair, but it was shelter: a single large straw bed, no doubt riddled with fleas; a trunk; and a water basin were all the amenities provided to them.

“There’s a privy out back for when nature calls,” the fat woman told them. “Come down for supper soon as ye please, it’s first come first serve.”

When the woman left them, Anna went to the basin and removed her hat, throwing it down on the bed. She dipped her hands into the water and rinsed her face and hair. The water was cold and left her feeling clammy, but it was refreshing all the same. She was exhausted from a whole day of walking, and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep immediately. But she was hungry, too, and when she was finished washing, Kristoff had entered the room. “Let’s go get supper,” she told him and Martin. “Some hot food sounds great right now.”

“Sure thing,” said Kristoff. “By the way, there were several horses already in the stables when I brought Sven there.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

“No,” said Anna firmly.

The dining room was long and filled with barrel tables, stools, and benches. A small number of stout, quiet individuals sat throughout, nursing tankards of ale and eating a grayish stew out of trenchers of hard bread. At the far end of the room, near a large burning fireplace, a group of four men were drinking and eating merrily, and talking loudly. A ribald jest hit her ears, and she found herself blushing uncontrollably.

But it wasn’t the fact that they were loud that caught Anna’s attention. No, it was that they were armed: all of them were wearing studded leather doublets and chain shirts, and big cloaks of varying shades of gray and dark brown, with different weapons slung across their backs or buckled at their hips. One man had a long sword at his hip, another had a long axe whose wickedly curved head peeked out over his shoulder. The third man had two daggers, one on either hip, while the fourth man had a crossbow, not attached to his person but resting on the table next to his tankard of ale.

Anna led her group to sit as far away from the four men as the geometry of the room permitted, and shortly the big woman came and presented them with their food: hard bread and greasy, lukewarm stew. It was better than nothing, though, so Anna ate.

At length, some of the other individuals filed out of the room, each one bidding the innkeep a “Good night, mother,” until all that were left were the four men in the corner and Anna’s group. The innkeep came by now and again, refilling ale and stoking the logs in the hearth with a long, sharp, iron poker.

Later still she brought them honeyed milk, which Anna drank gratefully. It was sweet and refreshing, and even a little cool. She asked the innkeep how far off Vardale was.

“Vardale, ye said?” she repeated. “Aye, I think maybe it’s about a day and a half’s ride from here.”

“A day and a half?” blurted Anna. “Riding?”

“Aye. Have ye business in Vardale?”

“We’re going to Crystalwater,” said Kristoff.

“Well, it’s easily six days’ ride to Crystalwater.”

Anna felt her eyebrows go up, mirroring her alarm. Six days! By horse! She’d thought they were much closer than that. Their prospects for getting to Crystalwater before the coronation were looking grim.

Martin brought up another subject with the innkeep. “You said you have seven sons?”

“Aye, that I do,” she said, with an look that was a cross between a beam and a grimace. “A bumbling lot, but they do what I tell ‘em. They all live in the bell tower. Whenever I needs them, I just rings the bell.”

“You climb the belltower just to ring the bell?” asked Anna.

“No, don’t be silly, girl. My kitchen’s at the base of the belltower. There’s a great big rope in there that I pull to ring the bell. My sons are all strong, and each one is bigger than the last – so don’t go starting trouble now, you hear?” She winked at them and guffawed, and then went off to refill the flagons of the men near the fireplace.

Anna sipped her milk and brooded on the journey ahead. Try as she might, no good solution for getting to Crystalwater in time came to mind.

The three of them sat mostly in silence, though as the night grew older, the chill grew stronger. Though Anna was stubbornly insistent on staying away from the fire, Kristoff was not so convinced. “The fire is warm, and I’m cold,” he complained.

“It’s not that cold,” said Anna.

“Too cold for me. I’m going over there.” Kristoff stood up and walked across the room, settling in a place on the bench by the fire.

Muttering invectives against his pigheadedness, Anna reluctantly followed, and Martin trailed behind. “We could have gone into the common room,” she hissed at Kristoff, as she sat down across from him.

Kristoff gave her a baffled look. “What does that matter?” he said.

“Because,” she whispered, “I don’t want to sit next to them.” She jerked her head in the direction of the four men, sitting a table over, still drinking and talking, and now also leaning over a pair of dice.

Before Kristoff could respond, a rumble from one of the men shuddered through the room. “Yeah, arright, give it here,” boomed the man with the crossbow, a thick bald man whose squashed face hosted an unkempt hairbrush of a brown mustache. He cruped a big pile of silver coins over to his end of the table, and dumped them in a thick brown pouch. He set the pouch with a heavy jangle down on the table.

“Now you buy the next round of ale,” said the man with the longsword. He had a thick golden beard, green eyes, and a sharp nose.

“Bugger that, buy your own ale,” said the crossbowman. He banged his empty tankard on the table. “MORE ALE!” he roared at the doorway.

The fat woman – whose name, Anna realized, she did not know – came in with a flagon and poured him some sour-looking brown ale. “More for the rest of ye?”

“Not me,” said the man with the axe, who stood up shakily. His voice was wattled and throaty, like his neck. “I’m sick o’ this lout and his cheats. I’m off to bed.”

“Bugger you too,” said the crossbowman, and he gulped down his drink greedily.

The axeman staggered away, and the innkeep filled the rest of their flagons. “Did you hear about the Royal Family, my dear Madam White?” said the longswordsman conversationally, addressing the big woman.

“Aye, ’spect I did,” she replied. “It’s only the tenth or so time ye’ve mentioned it t’ me.”

“Perhaps if I mention it another ten times, you’ll pay your due respects.”

Madam White snorted. “Respects! Can’t say I have respects for them what goes gallivanting around on boats in the season of storms.”

The longswordsman smiled and turned his hands out. “Surely you must agree that everyone makes mistakes now and again?”

“Not me, aye, and ye’ll never catch me on a boat out at sea, ’specially not in the season of storms,” said Madam White stubbornly.

“No boat would fit you, you old hag,” grunted the crossbowman.

“Watch yer tone, ye drunken lout, or I’ll call my sons.”

“Bugger your sons,” said the crossbowman, and he drank.

“You’re in a buggery mood today,” said the longswordsman dryly. “Mayhap you’ve had too much drink.”

“Not bloody likely. I needs drink to my health and the Royal Family’s. Oh, poor Royal Family, you died much, much too soon! What’s a poor sellsword supposed to do in a time like this?”

“Shut up, Robert,” said the man with the dirks. His face was barely visible beneath the hood he wore, and his shadowed chin was only very lightly brushed with black hair.

The crossbowman grunted and drained his flagon. “I wonder about that daughter o’ them’s. I heard she’s a pretty sort. I wouldn’t mind giving her a turn, if she’s half so pretty as they say.”

A bilious feeling curdled in Anna’s stomach, and she narrowed her eyes in the direction of the three men. She thought she noticed the hooded man staring back, so she quickly averted her gaze and jerked her goblet up to her mouth, spilling a little milk on her hand in the process.

When Madam White left again, the hooded man spoke to Anna. His voice was not unkind, but something about the way he was looking at her made Anna feel as though someone had dumped boiling water down her spine. “Little girl. Was there something about my friend’s comments that upset you? I assure you, there is no cause. He has simply had too much to drink. He is a rambler.”

The crossbowman turned his beefy neck to stare gawkily at Anna. His mustache ruffled. “What did I say? I didn’t say nothing.”

Anna found her voice. “No, nothing. I was merely… surprised to hear him speak so frankly. That is all.”

The hooded man continued staring, but the longswordsman laughed. “Yes, he has an exceptional talent for speaking frankly. It’s like as not to get him killed someday.” He smiled and gave the crossbowman a sharp look.

“Bugger that,” said the crossbowman, and he put a protective hand on his crossbow. “A man’s allowed to complain about his bad luck. Why not?”

Yes, thought Anna; it was bad luck. But not yours.

“Robert,” said the longswordsman. He smacked a hand on the table and gestured to the dice with the other. “Let’s go again. Double or nothing.”

“Double or nothing?” repeated the mustache, waving along in time with the words. “No, you cheat, you’ll cheat me. I’ll keep my something. First the Royal Family, and now this? Bad luck I have friends like you.” The crossbowman was standing now, and swaying in place. “I bet you ensorceled that storm and made off with the reward yourself, I bet, you damn cheat.”

The longswordsman was white as snow now. A flush of stark alarm filled Anna. She bolted to her feet just as the longswordsman and hooded man rose as well. Her hand went subconsciously to her belt, inches away from Autumn’s hilt.

“Reward?” squeaked Martin. “F-For what?”

The hooded man growled. “Damn you, Robert, you damn bloody fool. Look, he’s a stupid sod. Robert, just sit your arse down-”

“Shut up!” Robert roared at the hooded man, and he banged the table with his fist. The table rattled and upset his tankard, which spilled off the edge and clattered against the floor. “I’m sick of squatting here! I’m sick of you ain’t tellin’ me shit! And for what? Job’s done, innit? We ain’t got no reason to stay!”

“The job isn’t done, Robert,” hissed the hooded man. “Now be quiet.”

The crossbowman’s eyes boggled at him. “Isn’t done?” he repeated, almost wonderstruck. “Who…? The princess…?”

“You mean to kill the princess?” Anna gasped. “That’s treason!”

The hooded man ground his teeth audibly. “It is,” he said, and then looked at Anna. His eyes were fire, and seemed to stare directly through her. “Please forgive my friend for his big mouth.” His hand went to his belt.

Anna drew her sword in response and held it in front of her. I’ve done this a million times before, she thought. But even so, her knees were shaking treacherously. Focus. Focus. Deep breaths.

The crossbowman looked at Autumn for a long moment before his face contorted in rage. “You think I’m about to be afraid of a pissant little Arendellit bitch? Who do you think you are, anyway?”

Her knees steadied. An electric calm filled her body. Her every muscle tensed. “I am Anna, the Sword of Autumn,” she heard herself say. “And I kill traitors.”

“I ain’t no traitor,” snarled the crossbowman, and he jumped back and grabbed his crossbow.

Anna tried to move in, but the longswordsman was fast, and before she could take one step, he was standing between her and the mustachioed man, his own steel drawn. “We don’t want any trouble, little girl,” he said evenly.

“We have it whether we want it or not,” said the hooded man plaintively.

A noise came from the entrance to the room. They all turned their heads to the door, except for Anna and the longswordsman, whose eyes were locked. Slowly Anna shifted her footing to catch a view of the entryway.

Madam White had entered, her hands full with flagons of ale. “More ale for ye-” she stopped suddenly as she took in the scene. What little color she had fell out of her face like water. “Good gods, what’s going on here?”

The hooded man swiveled his cloak around him and walked up to the innkeep, his right arm extended in a conciliatory gesture. “My dear Madam White, this is a misunderstanding. We are merely having a discussion.”

“A discussion?” repeated Madam White incredulously. “Yer baring steel at the poor girl!”

“I know what it looks like, trust me, but we should not want to awaken the wrath of your sons, would we? We have been guests here for how long, now?”

“For quite some time,” she replied uneasily.

“And we appreciate the guest right as good as any civil men, do we not?”

“Aye, that’s so,” she said.

“So for our sake, won’t you please just… turn away?” He smiled handsomely at her.

She looked like he had just asked her to swallow a spider. She pursed her lips and raised her chin up high. “I won’t allow ye to harm any guest while they’re under my roof. What ye do out there in the hinterlands is no business of mine, but under this roof I’ll have no quarrels. I must ask ye to put up yer weapons, or else I will get my sons.”

“That’s a shame,” sighed the hooded man, and he grabbed Madam White’s arm with his outstretched hand and yanked her close. Her eyes widened, and the hooded man’s left hand flew up and opened her throat from ear to ear with a long, cruel dagger. She gurgled for a moment, stumbled backwards, and then collapsed to the floor in a great heap. Anna felt her heartbeat quicken, and she took a few careful steps backwards, her grip tightening around the hilt of her sword so much that it hurt.

“You killed her!” the crossbowman wheezed at the hooded man.

“Yes, and before the night is out, we’ll have left four bodies in this room.” He spat. “You better be sure that woman’s sons will be after us by the ‘morrow.”

“Four bodies?” repeated Anna aloud. The hooded man twisted his head to look at her, his hand shifted slightly…

Anna jumped to the side, narrowly dodging the dagger as it landed with a dull thud against a barrel behind her. “Martin, get behind me! Kristoff-” a savage swipe from the longswordsman broke her concentration. She brought Autumn up to parry the blow, just barely meeting his steel. Cling, clang, clang, their steel sang and they went back and forth. He had the reach on her, but she had speed, and she nimbly dodged and met his blows, whistling her blade around his relentless strikes.

The crossbowman was now swearing loudly, and had backed to the corner of the room where he was attempting, drunkenly, to load his weapon, his thick fingers fumbling at the winch. The hooded man had drawn a long knife with a serrated edge, and was slowly advancing on Anna, even while she was occupied keeping the longswordsman at bay.

Suddenly an arrow appeared in the longswordsman’s shoulder, a blur of blue and silver that lodged itself firmly between his arm and chest, and he staggered back, one hand losing its grip on his sword. An opening, she thought, and Anna tried to move in, but the hooded man slid his knife in with a wild jab. She had to jump back, and knocked into a barrel. It fell away behind her, and as she fell, she saw the longswordsman’s blade cleave the area her head had just been.

She scrambled to her feet just as a twang came from the corner of the room, and a small gray dart zipped by her head. Sudden pain erupted from her right ear. She bit back a cry of pain, and stepped back several more paces, until she felt the wall behind her. Carefully, she drew her shield from her back, and settled it on her left arm.

Another arrow came from the corner of her vision to thud into the longswordsman’s chest, and he fell to his knees. “Robert, get the kid,” growled the hooded man. “Stop groping with that damn thing and-”

Anna screamed and leaped forward. The hooded man yelped and tried to intercede, but she bashed his hand away with a strong thrust from her shield. The hooded man staggered backwards, and Anna spun around and drove the point of her sword into the longswordsman’s belly with a savage yell. She felt the sword puncture his leather jerkin and part the chain links of the shirt underneath.

“Two against one, that ain’t fair,” said the longswordsman hoarsely. He smiled and blood dribbled out of his mouth, staining his teeth, lips, and chin.

She sucked in a choking breath, and for a moment time seemed to stop. Frantically, she pulled her sword loose, and he fell to the ground. Her heart was slamming against her ribcage. The surrounding world seemed to spin and blur. Then, suddenly, like a beacon fire in the dark, a thought blazed across her mind. The fight, the fight!

Another twang. Everything came into focus. This time, she jerked her shield up to catch the bolt. It stuck harmlessly in the wood of her shield, and she whirled on the man with the long knife.

He was now backing away from her. “You lucky bitch,” he rasped. “If Wat was here, he’d tear you apart. He could take all three of us without breaking a sweat.” He kept walking backwards. “Wat… Wat…! WAT!”

Anna charged at him, shield first. The man brought his knife low and wide, and tried to stab her in the side – but it was the wrong side. Her shield caught the blade and reflected the blow, knocking the knife out of his hand. She pushed him against the wall, pinning his right hand down with her shield, and brought her sword edge up to his neck. Though the man was taller than her by a head, he looked positively frightened, his hooded features drawn with terror.

“Please, have mercy…” gasped the hooded man.

She hesitated. Uncertainty washed over her like a dense rain. What am I doing? she thought. A queer sense tugged her eyes down, and she saw the hooded man’s free hand move behind his back…

She drew her blade across his throat in a quick, clumsy motion. A ragged gash followed her blade, and the hooded man’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came forth. She backed away and let him fall to the ground.

Numbness. Her head was blank; barren of emotion or feeling. Finally, a thought spawned: “One left.” She turned on the crossbowman, whose crossbow was loaded and ready to fire – and trained on Martin.

“You little she-demon,” whispered the crossbowman, his face red, his mustache twisting. “You killed my friends.”

Her eyes darted between Martin and the crossbowman. Martin was shaking, his bow was drawn but no arrow was knocked – and the crossbowman was shaking too, his trigger finger quivering against the release. She felt herself tense.

“You killed that woman,” said Anna, trying to keep her voice level. “And you spoke of killing the princess.”

“Now what’s so bad about that? Man’s got to make a living, somehow. A shame, though, since I hear’d she was a pretty young thing. One crossbow bolt is all it would take, though.” The crossbowman smiled wickedly, his teeth nasty and brown. “Least nowways I ain’t got to split no reward. ‘Spose I can thank you for that.” He shaked his crossbow menacingly in Martin’s direction. “Now, you just drop your sword, little girl, and maybe I’ll let your little friend-” He was cut off when a heavy iron poker slammed into his skull from behind. He dropped his crossbow, which clattered against the ground loudly.

Anna dashed forward, grabbed the man’s collar and held her sword up to his neck. He struggled, and she pressed the blade harder against his Adam’s apple. A thin trickle of red appeared. “Who offered the reward?” she demanded. “Who wants the Royal Family dead?”

His eyes were wide now, and his unsmiling lips were twitching. “I- I don’t know! Honest I don’t! Let me go! I ain’t from Arendelle, I ain’t no traitor!”

“Where do you come from?”

The man hesitated, and Anna was about to press him again when Martin spoke. “Anna,” he said shakily. She looked at him. He was pointing at an embroidered sigil on the man’s leather jerkin, partially concealed by his thick clasped cloak. She tore the clasp away roughly with the tip of her sword, and his cloak fell away to reveal the sigil: A black stoat on a field of crimson.

“House Weselton,” she said. Of course, it was just like so many stories. The duke was still bitter that the king of Arendelle confounded him all those years ago. She looked the man in the eyes. “You were sent to kill the king and queen by the Duke of Weselton, weren’t you? But they already died in that storm, so… so you were going to kill the princess, instead?”

“I ain’t know, honest! I – It was a secret! Don’t kill me!” The man was sobbing now.

Don’t kill me. The words rang empty in her ears. What’s one more death tonight? she thought horribly. She wanted to just stab him again and again. But would Joan of Arc do that? Or Erik Ulfton, the former Lord Protector? She watched his jowly cheeks and big mustache become wet with sloppy tears. Pity washed over her. She shoved him, and he fell backwards, sobbing, on the floor.

She turned to walk away, and noticed a man in the doorway – the graybearded man in the gray cloak, the one who had been dozing near the fire in the common room. A moment of sheer panic came on her. What if he was with them? She readied her sword.

The man was not looking at her, though – until suddenly his eyes snapped to hers. “BEHIND YOU!” he shouted.

She spun around as quickly as she could and found the crossbowman lunging at her with a short knife. She slashed his face mid-spin, and he went tumbling to the floor again, face-first.

“My face! You bitch!” he screamed.

She stabbed him in the back of the neck.

When she pulled her sword free, only then did the rank, bloody stink of the room hit her, and she felt like she was going to be sick. Her sword was red, the floor was red. She looked down at her hands and body. More red.

Kristoff dropped the bloody iron poker and looked at his hands. “We’re murderers,” he said hollowly.

“No, not murderers,” said the gray-bearded man, who crossed the room in a few long strides. “Killers, at most. And only the girl, at that.” He nodded curtly at her. “Well fought.”

She did not respond. She only looked at her hands.

The gray-bearded man grunted. “Your first kill, is it? You wouldn’t know it, judging by the way you savaged those men. You are a brutal fighter. You shouldn’t turn your back on a man who just saw you kill his comrades-in-arms, though. Especially if he’s drunk. And an idiot.” His voice was sharp, brittle, and gravelly, like someone hammering at a boulder with a pickaxe.

She closed her eyes. “Yes,” she said vacantly. She opened her eyes again and sheathed her sword and shield.

The gray-bearded man surveyed the room. Anna saw that his face was coarse and wrinkly, and his hair was gray with flecks of white. His eyes were a pale silver and he was missing teeth. His right cheek had a nasty scar on it that ran from the bottom of his eye to his jaw. He spoke: “Boy, gather your arrows. Also take their cloaks – we may need them. And cut the Weselton badge off of that man’s tunic.” He turned to Kristoff. “You, go to the stables. Take two horses and that elk you brought.”

“It’s a reindeer,” protested Kristoff.

The gray-bearded man gave Kristoff a withering stare. “Of course it is. Just get the horses saddled up. You look like you know your way around horses. Kill the horses you don’t take – except for the black one. Do these things, and be quick! What are you waiting for?”

Martin walked up to the longswordsman’s collapsed body and yanked the arrow out of his shoulder. To Anna’s surprise, the arrow was perfectly clean – no blood or any other marks to indicate it had just been lodged in someone just a few seconds ago.

Anna went to leave the room when the gray-bearded man grabbed her by the shoulder. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“To my room,” she responded. “To get my hat.”

He blinked at her. “Your hat,” he said. “Very well. Hurry!”

Anna left the room in haste and turned to go up the stairwell, quickly entering the room that the innkeep showed them. The bed looked so warm and inviting, and it didn’t have any blood on it – but she knew she couldn’t stay. She got her hat and fit it tightly over her head, and looked around to see if she had forgotten anything else. No, that’s good. Best leave as little trace as we can.

She hurried from the room, and in her haste nearly ran into someone in the hallway. “Oops – I’m sorry, I didn’t…” she paused and looked up at the person she ran into. It was the axeman from earlier. The fourth mercenary, whose name was Wat.

She remembered what the hooded man had said about the fourth of their company. “Oh, I just – excuse me, I’ll just be going now.”

“I heard noises from downstairs,” the axeman said, his voice a rattle.

“Really? I heard nothing,” she shrugged, and turned, and sprinted down the hall and down the stairwell, taking the steps three at a time. He knows, she thought. I’m covered in blood.

She paused in the common room and looked over to where the kitchens were. The bell, she remembered. She ran into the kitchen and was met with a maze of ovens, cupboards, and tables, all piled with plates, bowls, and cutlery. The room was large and circular and made of stone bricks. In the middle, she spied a hole in the ceiling, through which dropped a thick rope with a knot at the end.

She weaved through the maze of objects, grabbed the rope, and yanked, again and again. Distantly, she heard a clang, clang, clang; the sound of the bell. Releasing her hold on the rope, she ran out the way she came.

She was halfway to the front door when she heard a roar of outrage from the dining room. The axeman is there. He knows for sure, now. But the woman’s sons, they’ll be waking, and they’ll come down and deal with him. They have to.

Bursting out the front door, she looked around. It was dark, and raining.

“Anna! Over here!” shouted Kristoff, huddled on Sven under one of the sellswords’ cloaks. Next to him was Martin, awkwardly astride a small spotted gray-and-white horse, and also huddled under a cloak. On his other side was the gray-bearded man in his gray cloak, atop a black horse.

Anna ran up to them and inspected the horse they left for her. Golden brown, and tall. She knew very little about riding, truth be told, it being the province of the lordly; but she did know most of the simple aids. Kristoff, the unofficial stable-boy for the town, had tried to teach her, once, but she didn’t think she had a real knack for it. And Sven wasn’t really one for riding.

But Anna did know animals. She put her hand on the horse’s snout, and pet him gently. “Hey there, big guy,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not a very good rider. Do you think you can help me out?”

As if in answer, the horse whinnied and, amazingly, knelt slightly to help her mount him. She put her foot in the stirrup and launched herself into the saddle. How do you sit in one of these things, again? she found herself wondering.

“Here,” said Martin, and he shoved a mottled dark-green and gray cloak at her. She threw it over her shoulders and drew the hood over her head.

“Okay, I’m ready,” she said.

The man moved his horse closer to Anna. “I heard the bell ring. Was that you?”

“Yes,” admitted Anna, uneasily. “The woman’s sons – they’ll deal with that fourth mercenary, won’t they?”

The man did not respond. He turned to Martin, still squirming uncomfortably in his seat. “Do you know anything about riding a horse, boy?”

Martin shook his head.

“It’s easy,” came Kristoff. “Just don’t hold too tight and don’t make any unnecessary movements. Sit like this-”

“That won’t do,” interrupted the man. “We must needs gallop. Come down from there, boy. Come up on my horse – there you go, up now. Hold onto the pommel tight. I won’t let you fall, now.” He rode over to Martin’s horse and produced a long, thin knife from nowhere. He lodged it in the beast’s neck, and it fell over with a croaking whinny. Anna gasped involuntarily, and clapped a hand over her mouth.

There were sounds of tumult coming from the inn: shouting, and loud noises. “Let’s go!” the man said harshly, and took off south down the road. Anna choked down her shock. She put her heels into her horse, and thundered into the gloom after him.

They rode long into the little hours of the night; the relentless patter of rain, the pounding of horse-hooves, and the clanging of Kristoff’s pots and pans were the only sounds that accompanied them as they galloped hard down the Springway. After a time, the man slowed his horse down to a stop, just as they were passing the crest of a hill and into a small wooded section, silent except for the hoots of owls and the nearby gurgling of a river.

The man dismounted, and led his horse off the path and into a small clearing near the road. By then, the rain had died down to a very light drizzle. “We have made good time. This is the southern branch of the Rockwood. We can rest for a while. But not for too long. That fourth sellsword will be coming for us, though he will be slowed, since his horse is dead. For the nonce, anyway.”

That surprised Anna. “But Madam White’s sons!”

The man snorted derisively and spat. “Good lads, I’m sure, but no match for that sellsword, if he is who I think he is. You did them a poor favor by ringing that bell, girl. A deadly favor, in fact.”

“But they’re seven and he’s one,” said Kristoff.

“Too bad that won’t be enough to convince the Bastard of Beast’s Keep.”

“The what?

“Enough,” said the man, and he raised his hand. “Let’s rest now while we can.” He looked at Anna and snorted again. “And you should clean yourself up, unless you like the feel of congealed blood between your fingers. Wouldn’t be the first young warrior I met who did. Nor the last.”

She clenched her fists, still sticky with blood; though the rain had seen some to that, blood stains were clearly visible. “I don’t like the feel of blood.”

“As you say. Then you should wash up. Especially your sword.” He pointed a crabbed finger into the woods. “There’s a river near here. A vassal of the Mud River. Just don’t stray too far. And don’t kill anything, if you can help it.”

“Who are you?” said Anna hotly. “Why should I do what you say?”

The man stared at her for half a moment before turning to snap at Martin. “Boy. Go gather some kindling. Anything will do, if it’s dry. As like there’s none to be found with this rain, but might as well try.”

Martin gaped for a moment, looking between Anna and the man. “Sorry, ser, erm – m’lord – erm, but, uhm,” he jerked his head in Anna’s direction. “I’m her squire.”

That seemed to amuse the man. “Oh, really? She’s a knight, is she?”

“She m-might as well be,” said Martin, in a tone that sloshed with unease.

The man barked a short laugh. “Fine, then. Girl, tell your squire to fetch some kindling.”

“Do as he says, Martin,” said Anna, and stalked off into the woods, towards the sound of moving water.

She walked for about a minute before she came to a clear, small river, about six feet across and flowing quickly. The rain had stopped, and the moon was out now, licking the running water with sheets of white light.

She knelt by the riverside and drew out Autumn, the blade alternately silver and brownish-red in the light of the moon. She was reminded of just two nights ago, when she stood by the berry bush brook and showed her sword to the Wise Troll. The look on his face; the look on Astrid’s face; the look in the longswordsman’s eyes as the light of life left them… Her stomach lurched.

Gently, she set the sword down in the soft black sand of the riverbank. She lowered her head into her hands, and cried softly.

“Oh, gods, what have I done?” she sobbed. She knew, though. She knew that knights never really fought monsters or rescued the helpless. They only killed. “What have I done?” she repeated, quietly.

“What have you done?” came a soft, sweet voice. For a second it sounded like Astrid, but – no. It was calmer. Lighter. Whispery but clear. Anna turned her head up and looked around, startled.

Across the river, an enormous white wolf with bright blue eyes was sitting on the bank, her paws resting lightly just at the water’s edge. She was so huge that, even while sitting, her shoulders rose twice as high as Anna’s kneeling head. Anna felt her eyes widen. “A wolf!” she said, breathless.

“Yes,” said the wolf. She flashed her teeth. “No one has prayed in these woods since… well. For a long time.”

“Prayed?” repeated Anna. “I wasn’t praying, I was just…” Her voice trailed off.

A thin silence stretched between them. Anna was looking into the wolf's eyes, blue and cold. “You are not like most humans,” observed the wolf. “The smell of the forest is strong on you.”

For several seconds, Anna didn’t know what to say. “I was raised in the woods,” she said finally. “By trolls.”

“Just so,” said the wolf.

Anna’s eyes were transfixed on the wolf. Her white fur seemed platinum in the moonlight, and her blue eyes were cold and bright. Anna felt she ought to be terrified, but somehow the wolf gave her a strange sense of calm. Before she knew it, her mouth was moving. “I killed someone,” said Anna. “Three people.”

“Just so,” said the wolf. “I felt it. I see it now – it blackens your soul.”

Anna swallowed a lump. “Is that it?” she whispered. “Am I wicked?”

The wolf bared her teeth in what must have been a smile. “Are you?”

“I… I don’t know.”

The wolf waved its bushy white tail from side to side. “Were the men you killed wicked?”

“Ye- maybe. I don’t know.”

“Then why did you kill them?”

Anna hesitated. “They spoke- they were plotting to kill the princess.”

The wolf cocked her head. “And what is she to you?”

That threw Anna for a loop. For a second her mind froze, her thoughts congealing into an unknowable mess. Her head throbbed uncomfortably. “My... liege lord,” she said, after a pause.

“Is that so?” The wolf smiled again. “How very human of you.”

Anna felt her face warm up. “She is my liege, and… her parents died. Only recently. Those men were speaking of a plot to kill them, too. I couldn’t just let them… who knows who else they might have killed?”

“Or whom else you might yet kill? Everybody dies, Anna, Sword of Autumn,” said the wolf.

Anna felt a pinch at her heart. “How do you know my name?”

“You are in my forest. I know many things about you. And I know we will meet again.” The wolf turned its head upwards to look at the moon. “Everybody dies, Anna, Sword of Autumn. The only difference is in the manner and choosing of our deaths.”

Death. The word pounded through her head like a running elk, all meaning seeming to flit away from it. Just another word. A sound in the void.

“Are you going to kill me?” asked Anna softly.

The wolf’s eyes bored into Anna’s with an intense gaze. The entire forest seemed to fill with an eerie blue glow. “Wash your hands. You have slain three evil men tonight.” There was a distant howl, and the wolf’s head shifted slightly. A cool breeze lifted the air. “Perhaps... Perhaps you will slay a fourth. Though my blood runs in his veins, there is a darkness in his heart of hearts.” The glow faded, but the white wolf remained. “I ask you a favor, Sword of Autumn. From henceforth, when you take a life, say a prayer over their body, in my name. Will you do this?”

“Yes,” said Anna, her mouth dry. “Though I do not know your name. What is it?”

“My name?” The wolf grinned and stood, towering. She said, “I am Aren,” and slid between the moonbeams and vanished.

 

Chapter Text

After the wolf disappeared, Anna sat in silence for several long moments. She looked at the surface of the river, clear and fine beneath the starry sky. Gingerly, she inserted her hands into the flowing water, and rinsed the blood from them. She had to scrub with her fingernails to get at the stains, but when it was finished with her hands looked clean.

She looked at her hands. Small, but rough – tough, actually, beaten with callouses, the product of years of training. Years of training, for this. She remembered the first day she ever practiced with an actual metal blade. She had tired herself out. She was sitting on a log in Astrid’s back yard when her teacher came up to her and looked her in the eyes.

“Remember, Anna, a sword is not a toy, but a burden,” Astrid had said. “Swords do not save lives, they take lives.”

Anna remembered frowning at that. “Well, what’s the point, then?”

“Because you can save lives, but only you. The sword can’t do that for you. It can’t make you know when and where to take a life, it can’t make you know what you have to do to save one either. All of that comes from you. A weapon is a tool of destruction and, like all tools, depends on its wielder for guidance.”

Anna looked at Autumn, still laying in the sand. Have I guided you wrong? she thought, and willed the blade to give her an answer.

There was none.

She washed the sword in the river, and did what she could with her clothes and shield, and then made her way back to the clearing. She heard the howl of a wolf fill the night air, and she shivered.

The gray-bearded man was crouched over a pile of burning kindling that was more smoke than fire. Martin was watching him blow at the leaves and stoke the flames with glazed eyes. Kristoff sat next to Sven, his face quiet and troubled as the brown beast nuzzled him comfortingly.

The man looked up as he heard Anna enter the clearing. “Ah, girl, you're back. And cleaner, I see.” His eyes went to the side of her head, and an eyebrow rose. He stood up out of his kneeling position with a grunt. “Your ear. Doesn’t that hurt?”

“My… ear?” said Anna, and her hand went up to her right ear. It came away red and sticky.

“You’ve been riding like that all night?” said the man.

“I just… I didn’t notice it,” said Anna.

The man snorted. “Tough girl. Just a scratch, though. A graze. You should wrap it up so it doesn’t get touched by sickness. And you should get some rest. Not very long. All of you should. I’ll take the first watch.”

Anna narrowed her eyes. “No. I'll take first watch.”

The man blinked his eyes at her, and then barked a laugh. “Ha. Girl, if I wanted you dead, you’d already be dead.”

“Would I? You don't have any weapons.”

“That you can see,” he corrected sharply. “Dangerous to make assumptions, girl.”

“I have a name, you know,” said Anna. “It's Anna.”

The man nodded. “So you do. I as well. I am called Ser Magnus. Pleased to make your acquaintance, and all that. Now, enough talk. You must needs sleep.”

“Ser Magnus?” repeated Anna. “Are you a knight, then?”

Ser Magnus grunted. “Apparently.”

This information sat right with her, and the tension flooded out of her body. A knight – that boded well. She relaxed and nodded. “First watch is yours,” she said.

Ser Magnus grinned crookedly. “Thanks for the permission.”

The fire was still smoking by the time Anna rolled up in her mossroll, ear freshly bandaged in a white linen wrap (which, Kristoff complained, would be stained by the blood); and Kristoff and Martin were laying in their own bedrolls. Though she was tired, sleep would not come to her, and every time she closed her eyes she saw the men in the inn, or the white wolf.

The white wolf. “Aren,”she had called herself. Thinking back on it, she was almost convinced she had simply imagined the whole thing. The wolf was huge – impossibly so. She knew what Anders would say:“You were exhausted, so your mind was making things up.”

On the other hand, Oaken wouldn’t be so skeptical.

She lay unsleeping for what felt like hours, and then abruptly got up and wriggled out of the mossroll. Kristoff’s snores were clearly audible. She looked over at the low-burning fire and saw Ser Magnus huddled under his cloak. She went over to him and sat by the fire.

He eyed her. “You should be getting some sleep,” he said in a resigned tone.

“Sleep wouldn’t come,” Anna replied.

The man said nothing, his eyes focusing again on the fire. She also looked into the flames, the orange snake-tongues writhing through the sticks and kindling, slapping the sides of the one damp and petty log that refused to burn properly.

“I was just thinking about stories,” said Anna. “About the gods.” She stopped. The man didn’t reply or seem to give any indication that he heard her. She went on, anyway. “Specifically this one that I knew… about a white wolf that called herself Aren.”

He broke his eyes away from the glow to stare at her. “A funny thing to know a story about. How did it go?”

She took a deep breath before speaking. The air tasted like smoke and chill. “A girl killed three murderers and went to a stream to wash her sword. The wolf appeared and told the girl to wash her hands and pray whenever she killed again.”

He looked at her for a long time. “Interesting,” he said. “I knew a different story about the wolf called Aren.” He halted, and for a long moment Anna wasn’t sure if he would continue, until his gaze wandered back to the flickering red and he began to speak.

“A long, long time ago, there was a valley. A small valley. In the valley, no men ruled, only a white wolf. It was her valley, and the wolf let no man enter. One day, a brave woman came to the wolf and demanded that she share her valley with all humans. The wolf refused, and so the woman fought her. They fought for a moon’s turn, and at the end of the fight, they were both too exhausted to continue. Finally, the wolf agreed to give the valley to the woman, but only if the woman would rule in the wolf’s name.”

“Aren,” said Anna.

Ser Magnus nodded. “In those days, the word for valley was ‘dale.’ The woman took the name ‘Aren’ for her own, and became known as ruler of the dale.” Ser Magnus’ eyes glinted. “Hence, Arendale.”

“Arendelle.”

Ser Magnus shrugged. “Times, pronunciations change.”

“I haven’t heard that story before,” said Anna.

“Few have,” said Ser Magnus. “My brother told it to me. He heard it from the king.”

“Who is your brother?” asked Anna.

Ser Magnus’ expression hardened. “You may know him as Lord Erik Ulfton.”

“The former Lord Protector?” Anna felt a pang.

“The same.”

“I’m… sorry for your loss.”

“Me, too.”

“Were you close?”

He gave her an odd look. “In a manner of speaking. We lived in the same castle.”

“The Arenborg?” exclaimed Anna with mild surprise.

“That’s the one,” said Ser Magnus. “I am castellan there.”

“Castellan?” repeated Anna. One word among many that Anders had taught her. “Charged with the martial affairs and defense of the castle?”

“Indeed,” said Ser Magnus. “Though I’m a bit far from Crystalwater to be doing that now. And on an errand, as it were.”

“What kind of errand?” asked Anna, and then a terrible thought came to mind. “Am I under arrest? For murder? Ser, I mean – I didn’t mean to kill anyone. They were committing treason, and treason is punishable by death!”

Ser Magnus chuckled darkly. “Punishable by death, for sure – but by the king’s men, not little girls from the sticks.”

Anna’s stomach clenched. “So am I… under arrest, then?”

Ser Magnus shot her a doleful glare. “No. For one thing, I still have an urgent task to complete.”

“Where are you taking us, then?”

“I’m taking you to Vardale. Where you go from there is your own lookout. For another thing, you’ve done me a favor by dispatching three of those men on your own.”

“I wasn’t on my own,” said Anna. “And what do you mean I’ve done you a ‘favor’?”

Ser Magnus’ eyes narrowed, and he scratched his gray beard. “Don’t you think those men were a bit far north to be working on assassinating the Princess? No, Anna, I believe I was their target. It was only a matter of time before they recognized me.”

“But… they said…”

“Maybe they planned to kill the princess later. But I was their target. Lucky for them, I am on my own, far away from any friends, on a doomed mission. Unlucky for them, you came by.” He scratched his scar impatiently. “Unlucky for us, the fourth sellsword still lives.” A nighttime howl hit the air again, and the hairs on Anna’s neck shivered.

“What is this ‘task’?” asked Anna.

Ser Magnus snorted. “Just something my brother asked of me. Call it a last request. And I think he knew-” He stopped suddenly, his head perking up. He sat in that alert position for several moments before he slumped his shoulders and looked back down into the fire.

“What’s wrong?”

The knight said nothing, his fingers picking at the clasp on his cloak – which, Anna could now see, was a dull iron fashion of a hawk in mid-dive.

“Well,” Anna said into the growing silence, “thank you for your help.”

Ser Magnus nodded curtly, but did not look at her. “And thank you for yours. I don’t know what kind of peasant girl from the sticks kills three battle-hardened sellswords without suffering a scratch.” His eyes flashed keenly. “Where are you from, anyway? The Up-And-Downs? Are you perhaps a wildwoman from the barrowings? No –you’re too well-dressed for that.”

Anna frowned. “I’m from Burrowstown.”

He blinked at her, his brows knitting in confusion. “You are from Burrowstown?”

“Yes,” said Anna.

“And your name… is Anna?”

“Yes,” said Anna again, more uneasily this time, and briefly she wondered if news of her deeds had traveled ahead of her on the road. But no – that was ludicrous. It hadn’t been that long yet, and there was no way this man had heard anything while he was at the Fat Rooster.

In a quick motion, the knight crouched and moved around the fire over to her. He was close now, and his silver eyes were looking into hers with a befuddled, searching expression, his long gray beard twitching all the while.

“Anna… from Burrowstown?” he asked again, his voice now sounding hoarse, his eyes wide and wild.

A loud howl blasted through the clearing, and the man jumped to his feet with a start, each hand producing a long thin shortsword from somewhere in his tangle of cloak. Anna fell backwards, startled, and also scrambled to her feet. Martin turned in his bedroll, and Kristoff stopped snoring.

“What was that?” said Anna.

“The fourth sellsword,” breathed Ser Magnus. “Draw your sword, girl – now.”

“Why?” said Anna – and then she saw why.

In the shadows at the edge of the clearing, two golden eyes were peering out at her, lost in a sea of darkness. Slowly, they crept forward into the light, the snout and head of an enormous gray wolf becoming illuminated. Still forward it came, but the rest of the body was not like a wolf’s at all – it was huge, and lean, like some muscular bear, all covered with mottled gray-and-black fur. Its paws were large, furry hands, with long, sharp claws at the end of each finger. The wolf-thing smiled, and its teeth seemed iridescent, lit orange by the glow of the fire.

Anna fumbled at her sword hilt, and pulled Autumn out of its scabbard after a struggle. She put on her shield and assumed a ready stance.

“You killed my horse,” the beast growled. Its deep voice rumbled around the clearing like a ton of falling rocks.

“It doesn’t seem to have mattered much,” said Ser Magnus.

“I followed the scent of blood.” The beast licked its chops with a rough pink tongue, and eyed Anna’s bandaged ear.

“A mean feat for Wat, the Bastard of Beast’s Keep, I’m sure,” said Ser Magnus.

The beast snarled and bared its teeth at the knight. “Watch your mouth, swine. I heard you tell the child who you are.” He made a gasping, clicking, guttural sound. It sounded oddly like laughter. “You were right under our noses. Even mine. If Lyam were alive, he'd be embarrassed as could be. Too bad he’s dead.”

“You can thank the child for that,” said Ser Magnus. “She slew all three of your foul comrades. Didn’t even break a sweat, from the look of it.”

The beast looked at Anna, briefly, before turning back to Ser Magnus. “We looked for you in Crystalwater. You were nowhere to be found the day the ship went down. We were certain you’d be among the mourners.”

“My brother had a final request of me.”

The beast growled. “A Royal Guardsman and the castellan of the Arenborg, dispatched just days before the royal carrack sank beneath a mysterious gale at sea. Surely your place was with the princess, in these trying times?”

Ser Magnus ground his teeth. “It still is.”

“No,” said the beast. “Now your place is here. I will kill you and these younglings, and feast on your flesh. I am hungry. That woman’s sons were mostly gristle. I will take your head to my prince. And then I will kill your princess.”

“What did the duke offer you?” asked Ser Magnus. “The Beast’s Keep? You have no right to it.”

The beast snarled. “The Keep is MINE! My father was a foolish romantic, and my half-brother, too! The barrowings cannot, should not, be ruled by such weak stuff. The strong must rule! That is how it is in Arendelle! In the world! I will take what I want by force!

“You can try,” said Ser Magnus, and he lifted his blades, “but you will need to kill me, first.”

The beast roared and leaped at Ser Magnus, fangs and claws bared. The old man sidestepped the leap and slashed at the beast’s face and arms with his two swords. He gashed the monster, but the beast was unperturbed by the knight’s attacks, and threw out a huge claw that ripped the air and caught Ser Magnus on the arm.

The sound of the roar fully woke Martin and Kristoff, at first groggy and then terrified. “Martin!” said Anna, the panic clear in her voice. “Get your arrows. Kristoff, stay back!”

“What is that thing?” yelled Kristoff.

“Kristoff! Just stay back!” she shouted, and stepped closer to the beast, shield raised and sword at the ready.

Ser Magnus was constantly on the retreat, forced to slash and sidestep as the beast’s relentless attacks came and came. Anna jumped in from behind, stabbing with her blade. She jabbed the monster, and he whirled on her with a roar, claws swiping out at her face. She blocked with her shield, and the sound of scratching wood nearly deafened her.

The knight took the opportunity to launch a flank attack of his own, but the beast spun again and jabbed Ser Magnus in the chest, slashing down across his belly, a huge red gash following the trace of the monster’s claws. Ser Magnus staggered and dropped both swords and the beast moved closer.

“No!” yelled Anna, and she stabbed again, jabbing Autumn deep into the beast’s back. He bucked, and she stumbled and fell, losing her grip on her sword. She looked up, dazed – her sword still lodged in the beast’s back.

But the monster paid Autumn no mind. The beast lowered its head and its jaws clamped down on Ser Magnus’ shoulder with a bone-crunching sound, the knight screaming in agony.

Anna lurched to her feet and jumped on the beast’s back, scrambling over his shoulders and locking her arms around his monstrous neck. The beast bucked again, and threw her across the clearing. She felt herself hit a tree, and she collapsed on the ground, dazed.

The beast had stopped attacking Ser Magnus now. She could see him stalking over to her, molten gold eyes boiling with anger. “I will kill you now,” those eyes said. Suddenly there was a flash of fire, and Kristoff jumped in front of her, waving a burning branch in the beast’s face. The monster backed away from the flaming stick, only a step or two, paws raised to shield its eyes from the blaze.

“Martin, now!” yelled Kristoff.

A terrifying shriek shattered the air, and Anna saw a silver arrow sticking out of the beast’s neck. He recoiled and collapsed on the ground, writhing. “It burns!” he roared in a voice that shook the leaves of all the nearby trees.

“Stay away from my master!” shouted Martin, his voice higher than ever.

Anna forced herself onto her legs, though they wobbled and her head throbbed. She limped over to the beast, now lying on the ground in a huddled mass. Occasionally, one of the beast’s paws would attempt to swat the arrow, but it was to no avail. The beast was well and stuck, and whimpering in pain.

Anna pulled Autumn out of the beast’s back, and it moaned pathetically.

“Cut off its head,” rasped Ser Magnus.

Anna looked at her sword and looked at the beast. “How?”

“Just hack at its neck,” spat the knight. “Just hack.”

“That’s cruel.”

“That’s justice. It is the only way to kill a beastman.”

Anna swallowed and brought her sword up. The beast's eyes swiveled up at her, two pale golden orbs burning with hatred. Autumn flashed the air, and parted the neck with a soft, slight swish. The head rolled on the ground.

“Oh, gods,” said Kristoff with a dry retch, and he turned away, throwing the burning branch back into the firepit.

Gingerly, Anna knelt down before the dead animal, and placed Autumn’s tip in the dirt. She closed her eyes. “In the name of Aren, I slay thee,” she whispered to the beast’s head.

Ser Magnus groaned, and Anna realized with a start that he was very seriously injured, and lying on the ground next to a short pine tree. Anna went over to him and knelt at his side.

He was bleeding profusely from a large gash in his torso, and the clothing around his neck and shoulder was torn and ripped, a black wound weeping from the deep bite marks left by the beast. “Oh my gosh,” said Anna, “you’re…”

“Dying,” finished Ser Magnus. He winced in pain and pulled himself up so that he lay against the pine.

“Wounded,” said Anna. “You’re not dead yet.”

The knight laughed humorlessly. “A beastman bite will fester and kill as a sure thing. Unless you happen to have a poultice made from green porcupine spines?”

“No,” said Anna miserably, and the knight laughed again.

Martin approached, and Anna heard him gasp. “Oh, no- Ser Magnus!”

The knight’s eyes fluttered. He reached out a hand, as if he was grasping for something. Anna took it and held it in both of hers. His eyes shifted to her. He held her in his eyes for several moments, and a gleam filled his face, the corner of his mouth tugging up.

“Yes… I… I see it now…” he whispered, and passed out.

He flitted into and out of consciousness several times over the next few hours, each brief moment of lucidity more delirious than the last, and Anna tried to stay awake in case there was anything she could do to ease his passage. Martin urged her to sleep, but she didn’t want to. This was partly her fault. If I had just been faster, she thought, stronger… Her lids grew heavy. Martin brought her the mossroll, and she lay on it. Only for a few moments…

When sleep took her, she was in the atrium, the red velvet rushes and their golden designs spreading out in all directions. Wide stairs fell down from the huge double doors that marked the entryway to the ballroom.

“Do you really have to go?” she asked. They smiled at her, and her father nodded slightly.

“It’ll only be for a couple weeks,” he said. “I’ll bring you back something nice.”

She cast her eyes to the floor. Her mother spoke, “Oh, Elsa, don’t be so glum. We’ll be back before you know it.” If only, mother.

She pulled her into a hug, and broke it off only at length. “We love you, Elsa, sweetheart.”

Go on. Say,“I love you, too.” But the words didn’t come. “A couple weeks,” she said, instead, and sighed heavily. “Okay. I think I can manage.”

“Atta girl,” said her father, chuckling. He shouted over his shoulder. “Erik, my man, let’s away! What is taking you so long?”

“Yes, Your Grace. I was merely having a word with my brother.” The white-haired Lord Ulfton nodded curtly in her direction as he strode up to them. “Princess Elsa. You are as lovely as ever. Rare to see you out of the library.”

She curtsied congenially to him. “And you are looking quite handsome, my good Lord Protector.”

He smiled, and the king tapped his shoulder. “Your brother?” asked the king.

“Yes, Your Grace. I… mayhap it would be best to discuss this more privily.”

“You think so? Then we shall do so. Later, however! Come, Ideen, the royal carrack won’t wait forever!” He laughed heartily, hugged his daughter, bid her a final goodbye, and left for the last time ever.

After the doors closed, she turned and walked up the stairs. The ballroom.

Ser Magnus appeared, and startled her. “Oh!” she exclaimed, and clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry, my good Ser Magnus, you merely startled me, is all.”

“Please, Your Grace, the error is all mine. I only wondered if we might have a word?”

She blinked at him. “Of course. Whatever is the matter?”

He hesitated. “I only wondered if… Gods, it sounds absurd, but if you knew if perhaps there was some princess I should be protecting that I don’t know about.”

A beat. “You mean, other than myself?”

“Yes.”

Crack. She shot him a painted smile. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, good Ser. Is this some humorous jape? I’m afraid you have the advantage over me.”

He ground his teeth. “My brother’s been playing me for a fool again. Well, I won’t have it, this time.”

She looked at him carefully. “Ser, perhaps you had better explain?”

“I would rather not waste Your Grace’s time. Suffice it to say, your Lord Protector must find it amusing to send your castellan about on wild goose chases.”

She forced a laugh. “Oh, but that does sound amusing! Forgive me for laughing, Ser Magnus. I do hope your chase is merry.”

He gave her a begrudging smile. “Well, I’ll make the best of it, my princess. I’m sorry for startling you.” He bowed and took his leave.

She did not enter the ballroom. If it was a jape, it was a cruel one. She would have words with the Lord Protector when he got back. But he won’t come back. They never do. She hurried to the library. Anything to drown out the thoughts, the Anna, Anna, Anna…

Anna awoke to the sound of Ser Magnus hoarsely rasping her name. “Anna, Anna, Anna, come here.” She shot up like a rod. How long had she been asleep? The morning sun was dazzling the sky. She crawled over to Ser Magnus, still propped up against the trunk of the pine tree. His eyes were wild, his face gray; he seemed to have aged several years in mere hours.

“Anna,” he said when she was close to him. He extended two trembling hands and clasped hers. “The sickness takes me…”

“No,” said Anna. “It’ll pass.”

“Do not be foolish. Listen to me. There is no time.” He sucked in a rattling breath. “You must go, Anna.”

“Go where?”

“Stop talking, please, just listen. You must go. You must go to her. She is in danger. You must…” He stopped to cough wetly, and regained his breath with several long wheezes. “Go to the princess. Protect her. She is in danger.” He was trembling violently now. “There is money in my purse. The silver from those sellswords. Take it and go to Crystalwater.” He coughed again. “You must protect her! The princess! Swear to me you will! Swear you will protect Princess Elsa!


 

“There it is!” exclaimed Martin, just as the city came into view.

Crystalwater was, functionally, a very new city, although its heritage was very old. After King Heimdal the Torch burnt the city down to confound pillaging South Islanders, he rebuilt it to be better than ever with the victory gold from the war. It was a marvel of architecture: ivory spires shot up all over, tall blue and gold buildings of every shape and size comprised everything from lesser residences to the grander manors. The whole city, impossibly huge as it was, was surrounded by high, thick walls of bright white stone. Hills throughout the city hosted grand structures. There were the Crystal Towers, also called the Unburnt Towers – an ancient fort of nevermeltice, allegedly put down by the Ice Queen herself. There was the Grand Merchant’s Manor, the seat of the Hugoss family, who owned so many ships they controlled the lion’s share of trade into and out of the city. There was the Black Temple, where the godswives dwelt and worshipped the southern gods – apparently very popular in Crystalwater, though neither Anna, nor Martin, nor Kristoff had ever heard anything about them.

But more impressive than any of these was the castle at the city’s edge, half in the fjord and half on the land, with tremendous cerulean walls and a high-towered blue-and-white keep that dwarfed the entire rest of the city: the Arenborg, the seat of power, the house of the throne of Arendelle.

They had made good time, resting very little and pushing their steeds when they could. Martin rode on Sven with Kristoff, the reindeer’s mild temperament proving an ample cure for Martin’s uneasy riding style. Five and a half days it took to get to Crystalwater. This was even after spending a night in Vardale, where the sellswords’ silver afforded them good lodging and baths, and taking the time to bury Ser Magnus’ body back in the Rockwood.

Though she had not killed him, she had said a prayer over his body in Aren’s name. That was how she knew he must be buried. Kristoff objected, at first, but came around soon enough. Finding dirt soft enough to dig through was another matter, though. They moved his body to the stream and dug him a shallow grave there. She marked it with three big river stones, all perfectly smooth.

The body of the beast they simply left in the clearing. Food for crows. Nothing told her to bury him. Let him be eaten by his fellow-travelers, she thought. I hope some wolves have a bite.

Judging by the throng when they queued up at the city gates, Anna guessed that she wasn’t the only person from the country who had come to see the princess crowned. The crowd wasn’t moving, and none were on horse. Slowly she directed her mount through the crowd until she reached the gate, with Kristoff and Martin close behind.

A tall man in bleached leather and a long, blue jacket slashed with gold and black was standing by the gate. He was leaning against a long halberd, and when he saw them approach, moved it sideways to block their going through. “Quota,” he called up to Anna. “No entry unless you can pay the toll.”

“How much?”

“Twenty silver pieces.”

She frowned. The bag they had collected from Ser Magnus was just shy of threescore silver pieces. A good amount, but they lost twelve in Vardale, and this toll was almost half of what remained.

“That’s highway robbery,” said Kristoff, rearing up besides Anna.

“It’s to help pay for the coronation. The crown collects its due.”

“Do you barter?” asked Anna.

“No. Don’t waste my time.”

“You mentioned a quota. How long is the wait until we can enter for free?”

He shrugged. “Beats me.”

Scowling, she produced the coin purse and counted out twenty silver pieces. The man collected them in a huge satchel, counting them out one by one as he did. “This is only eighteen.”

“Like hell it is,” said Kristoff. “Can’t you count, you ignorant buffoon?”

“Twenty is the toll,” said the guard.

Anna produced another two silver pieces. The guard lifted his spear, and the three proceeded into the city.

“The nerve of that man,” swore Kristoff once they were passed through the gate. “I wonder if he does that to everyone he passes through.”

Anna was inspecting the remaining silver. “We have about twenty pieces left. Enough for a few nights’ lodging at a cheap inn.” She stowed the pouch and turned to take in the city.

The streets were wellcobbled with white stone, lined on all sides with buildings both squat and tall, and many-branched trees hung all over with colorful drapery. People young and old pushed carts filled with clams or turnips around the streets, shouting out the cost of their wares, and stalls that lined the alleys and thoroughfares saw constant patronage.

The people, in particular, were a peculiar sight. Many wore finely embroidered robes, cloaks, and tunics, with many bright colors and elaborate details, and some more elegant-looking individuals had fingers stuffed with rings and wore thick chains of jewels around their necks. There was also a good deal of homespun clothing as well, but even the most drab had some color to it. Blue was the most popular color by far, especially azure.

From most of the buildings and the occasional guardhouse, pennants and flags waved in the breeze, flying blue and white and bearing the royal standard of Arendelle. Streamers, decorations, and tinsel-decorated poles were all over the place, especially in the common areas, where people gathered to watch others sing and jape about.

A horse cart passed by, and from the back of the cart a group of women in blue-and-gold summer dresses waved handkerchiefs at passersby. “Tomorrow, tomorrow!” they cried. “Tomorrow is coronation day!”

The three of them made their slow, meandering way through town, unburdened by any destination. Anna was overwhelmed by all the festivities. Though the trolls were no strangers to hard play, there was an undeniable energy here. The city had a pulse, quick-beating, and Anna could feel it.

They went through the docks district, which, Anna estimated, by itself had to be twice as large as Burrowstown. She had never seen a boat in person before, and the sight of them surprised her a great deal. A salty, rank smell came from the pier, and the docks were busy with men hauling nets filled with fish and loading and unloading the galleys with crates of goods.

Some boats looked more ornate than the others, or were slightly different in other ways, and Anna noticed these were located closer to the castle as well. They flew different colors, had bolder mastheads. One ship had sails that were a kaleidoscope of colors, a long, low hull, and a masthead that looked like a serpent with a human skull for a head. Anna craned her neck to get a better look: the people on board had tinted, tanned skin, and some wore tall, ornate headresses made of multicolored feathers, and long, colorful jackets of emerald green and scarlet red; the rest wore breezy white tunics and white breeches. One portly man in a fabulous headdress even had strange apparel on his face: two round glass lenses mounted in a thin golden frame that sat on his nose and wrapped around his ears. He was shouting orders to the crew, but Anna couldn’t understand a word he said.

The next ship over had a wide, thick hull, no doubt good for holding lots of trade goods. It wasn’t seeing as much activity as the previous vessel, but Anna did notice the flag flying from the top of its mast: a black stoat on a field of red. Weasel-town, she thought bitterly, and kicked her horse into a trot to pass by more quickly.

When they passed out of the docks district, Anna realized they were quite close to the castle now. They ascended a short rise that emptied out into an enormous town square with a fountain in the middle. People were gathered around the fountain, drawing water out of it, talking. The place was bedecked in streamers and even flowers, and across the square, a squat gray gatehouse sat at the short bridge that led to the main gate of the Arenborg.

If the Arenborg was impressive from afar, up close it was positively magnificent. The walls were huge, and even so, behind them the keeps and towers jutted into the sky. From every tall point on the castle, the six-pointed snowflake of Arendelle waved in the cool summer breeze. At the center of the whole thing, one great tower spiked high into the air, tall and proud, dwarfing the surrounding edifice, its windows enormous and colored, though at a distance Anna could not make out the details. Old, that tower seemed, and invulnerable.

As they crossed the square, they came upon a lively demonstration near the gatehouse. A squat man with a balding pate and ginger sideburns was speaking boomingly to a small crowd. It was indistinct from afar, so Anna beckoned to Martin and Kristoff and moved in closer.

“As is Arendelle tradition, on the coronation day, Her Majesty will host a tournament of great knights from all over the kingdom. A dueling tournament! And, as is tradition, the Queen will grant the winner one wish, will fulfill any request that he might have, so long as it is in her power to grant it!”

Anna gasped audibly, and Kristoff noticed. “Oh no, what are you thinking, feistypants?”

“Quiet,” she shushed him, because the man was still talking.

“I have gathered you today to give you this chance to register for this tournament. You are among the most esteemed knights of Her Majesty’s most esteemed guests, and you will honor us with your competition!”

A ragged cheer came from the small crowd, and Anna looked at them and noticed that they were all dressed finely, and not at all alike – each of them wearing doublets and vests and cloaks and jerkins with different standards, designs, and colors. A few were even dressed in armor, both chain and plate mail.

The man stepped down from the podium, and the crowd bustled up to the large stall behind him, where several dour-looking clerks presided over the registration.

Anna turned to her companions. “A tournament!” she told them. “And did you hear that about the prize?”

“What kind of wish can a queen even grant?” scoffed Kristoff. “She’s not like a djinni or anything.”

“Gold?” offered Martin. “Maybe titles? A knighthood?”

Kristoff snorted. “Well, it doesn’t matter. The tournament is for knights only. And you’re not a knight.”

“She is so!” said Martin heatedly. “Just… it isn’t official. Yet.”

“Good luck convincing them with that argument,” said Kristoff.

“She could be a knight when she wins the tournament. That could be her wish!”

Kristoff looked at Martin incredulously. “Are you even listening to yourself? How is she going to join in the first place?”

“Kristoff, leave him be,” snapped Anna. “It was just an idle fancy, that’s all.”

But it wasn’t. Her mind was racing in spite of the words she spoke. Any request The possibilities were wild, even as Kristoff’s cynicism leached in. Not any request, surely. But others…

Anna patted Autumn’s hilt for luck. “We should put up our horses while we’re in the city,” she said. “No doubt we must seem ungainly trotting about like lords.”

“I saw some stables near the docks,” said Kristoff. “Give me some silver and I’ll take care of it.”

Anna nodded and dismounted her horse. “Good, thanks. Martin and I will wait here in the square for you.”

“You had best find some lodging for us,” Kristoff warned. Anna only smiled at him, gave him some silver, and he walked off, Anna’s horse and Sven in tow.

Anna watched him go, then said to Martin “Come, let’s see what the requirements are for registering.” The boy’s eyes lit up, and he nodded. She led him into the small gathering near the large stall, and walked up to one of the clerks.

“Excuse me,” she said; and the man paid her no attention, hand scribbling away at a piece of parchment. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Excuse me” she said, more loudly this time.

The man’s head shot up. He had a long hook nose, and thinning brown hair, and a tiny mouth. A scraggly beard painted his chin. “Yes? What is it?” He sounded like wool being wrung dry and then stretched.

She hesitated for a moment. “I want to join the tournament.”

His eyes shot wide. “You?” he squawked.

She stuck out her chin and nodded.

His mouth opened and closed for a few moments before he shooed her away with his off-hand. “What nonsense. You are a girl, a child! Women cannot compete in the lists, especially not peasant women.”

That took Anna by surprise. “Why not?”

“Why n- Why not? You might as well ask why the sun comes up in the morning, or why plants don’t grow in the barrowings. Now, go away, or else I’ll call the guards.” His head snapped back down to his parchment, where he resumed scribbling.

Seething, Anna stepped well away from the table and crossed her arms. She glared at Martin for a few moments, even though it was not him she was mad at – she only felt like glaring.

“If it’s any consolation,” Martin started, “they probably wouldn’t have accepted me either. Because, you know, of our lowborn status.” He shrugged meekly.

“There has to be a way,” said Anna, and she meditated in silence.

Eventually, Kristoff returned and said he had stabled up the horse and Sven. “What’s the damage?” asked Anna. “One silver piece,” said Kristoff, “and the rest of our carrots.” Anna nodded approvingly.

“Did you find us an inn?” asked Kristoff. “Preferably a cheap one. But not too cheap. No fleas in the beds would be nice. Also, beds would be nice.”

“No,” admitted Anna, and her eyes involuntarily flicked over to the large stall.

“Wait,” said Kristoff. “Are you actually thinking of joining the queen’s tournament?”

“I can’t,” said Anna testily. “They don’t accept women.”

Kristoff seemed taken aback at that. “Oh. Really? Why?”

“Might as well ask why the sun comes up,” mumbled Anna sullenly, and she clenched her fists. “It’s just not fair. And I’m also lowborn, so they wouldn’t let me compete even if I was a man.”

“Lowborn have competed in tournaments before,” pointed out Kristoff. “Remember the tale of Robin Hood?”

Martin squeaked in recognition. “Oh, yes! He joined an archery contest!”

Anna frowned. “But how? Wasn’t he an outlaw? Wasn’t his face, well, everywhere?

“He applied in disguise,” said Martin excitedly, jumping up and down. “A mystery competitor! They must only unmask themselves when they are defeated! It’s an old-” He stopped suddenly, his eyes widening. Anna met them and comprehension dawned; she grinned hugely.

“Oh, no,” said Kristoff. “Anna, this is a really bad idea. First of all, it would still be against the rules. Secondly, you cant just-

The first order of business was finding Anna a helmet, and whatever other heavy armor would do to conceal her visage as much as possible. With only twenty silver pieces to spend, their budget was low, but a cheap armorer would be able to aid them – or so they hoped.

“You might just wear a hood and a mask or something,” suggested Martin.

“A helmet would be better. Safer,” said Anna.

“And more expensive,” grumbled Kristoff.

After asking for directions, they found their way to the armorers’ district, which was really more of a series of alleyways hot with the fires of constantly-burning forges and loud with the din of hammers and tongs.

“You know,” said Kristoff, “anyone who sees us buying this gear is going to know who has it when you compete. If you compete. Won’t that ruin the whole thing?”

Anna frowned; he had a point. “Well… what if we split up? Buy each individual part separately?”

“That still narrows things down to three people.”

“Does it matter? This city is big.”

Kristoff rolled his eyes. “O-kay,” he said, “but don’t come crying to me when they’re chopping off your hands for breaking the law.”

Anna involuntarily rubbed her wrists. “You’re just trying to scare me.Why don’t you want me to compete?”

“Gee, I dunno, maybe because it’s dangerous and stupid?”

“You don’t think I can win?”

“Anna, think about it. Most of the competitors have been fighting their entire lives. And those lives have been much longer than yours. Remember that story about when Lord Ulfton cut off that guy’s head in a melee?”

“That was for treason, Kristoff. I’m not a traitor.”

“That’s not my point. I’m saying that accidents happen, and sometimes really deadly ones. And even if you win, when you reveal yourself, then they’ll still cut off your hands. For, y’know, breaking the rules. Hell, they might even chop off your head for shaming them so much.”

“I’ll just use my one request of the queen to ask for pardon.”

Kristoff rolled his eyes again, but said nothing. Martin cut in, his high voice quiet and unsteady as always: “I have an idea. About the gear, I mean. What if I bought all of it? And then I can pretend to be your – erm, the mystery knight’s squire. Nobody would think that was strange.”

Anna blinked at him. “That’s a really good idea, Martin. You see, Kristoff? At least Martin supports me in this.”

Kristoff folded his arms, shooting a daggery glare at Martin. “Well, whoop-de-doo. You still need to find some cheap gear.”

Cheap gear proved hard to find, however, and the day was nearly done when they happened upon a dinky little shop at the end of an alley. On the stoop outside, a hunchbacked old woman in a patchy pointed hat was throwing scraps of food at some ragged old alleycats, variously mewling and hissing pathetically.

On display next to the stoop, on several long wooden pegs, was a variety of odds and ends – among them a small, beaten gray iron greathelm with a T-shaped slit in the front. It was mostly unadorned, except for a fluffy, garish red plume that stuck out of the top like a ponytail. Next to it was a small, stout, dull breastplate lined with fur. The whole assortment looked perfect. There were some other goods on display as well, but Anna only had eyes for the helmet and breastplate.

“I wish I could try them on,” said Anna in a low voice to Martin. “But that would be too risky. I think this is as good as it’s going to get.” Martin nodded and took some silver and went up to the old woman.

“Um, excuse me,” offered Martin. The old woman looked up at him and narrowed her beady eyes. Her hair was stringy and green, and her face was lined with wrinkles. “I was wondering – that is, I wanted to buy these two things, and I thought – that is, I was wondering if you might like to bargain for them?”

Anna might have groaned. It should have been Kristoff, she realized suddenly. At least he’s spent a lot of time around Oaken. She could feel Kristoff stifling his laughter.

“Eh? What’s that, sonny?” said the old woman. “I can’t hear you so good, you’ll have to speak up.”

Martin blinked and reddened. “I wanted to buy these two things-” he began again, with more volume.

“Louder, son, my hearing ain’t what it used to be,” said the old woman.

“I wanted to buy these two-” said Martin again, his voice rising almost to a shout.

“Louder, son!”

“I wanted to buy-”

“LOUDER, SON!”

Martin roared, “I WANTED TO BUY-”

The front door of the shop burst open suddenly, and out came a much younger woman, brow knotted in frustration. “All right, who is making all this damn noise?”

Martin went green and lost his speech, stuttering an incoherent non-reply. Anna sighed inwardly and stepped up to the stoop. The old woman was bent over in wheezing laughter, and slapping her knee repeatedly with one hand. “Oh-hoho-ho! That’s good!”

“Sorry,” said Anna to the young woman. “My friend here was just trying to buy something from your shop. We’ll be on our way, if that’s not too much trouble.”

“Buy something?” repeated the young woman. “You’re a customer, then?” Her face lit up, and she smiled big. “A customer! Well, that’s just great! What do you need? We have a special on love potions today, it’s been a good harvest for frog wings this year.”

“I, erm, what?” said an utterly baffled Anna.

The woman blinked at her. “Well, this is a potions shop, don’t you know? That’s fine, maybe love potions aren’t your speed. We have a draught of invisibility, well, it’s just a mite unpredictable at the moment, maybe it disappears your clothes instead of your body, or the other way around, though in the heat of summer maybe that’s not so bad?” She winked and grinned hugely. Her face was tanned and flushed, and she was missing a front tooth, though the rest of her teeth were pearly white. She wore a pointed brown hat and had short green hair that curled around her ears, and her eyes were alsobright green. She wore a frilly purple dress that went down to her knees and left her tan arms bare. Anna estimated that she was probably a year older than her, at most.

Her thoughts on the subject matter proved harder to marshal. “I’m sorry, potions?” she managed to say. “I thought this was an armor shop – the helmet and the breastplate…”

“Oh, those old things?” The young woman cocked her head, her smile gone, lips pouted in a professional display of innocent curiosity. “What do you want with them?”

“I, um – um,” Anna struggled to think of some cover story, but nothing came to mind. Nothing good. She smiled nervously. “I’m a collector?” she offered feebly.

“A collector of old helmets and breastplates?” repeated the young woman incredulously. “That’s pretty boring, if I’m being honest. What do you think, Grandmama?”

“I think this little lady’s not telling us the goddess’ own truth,” said the old woman, and she scratched her chin with a wry smile. “Go on, now. What’s your real interest?”

Anna shrugged. “I’m just interested in collecting armor and stuff, that’s all,” she said firmly, resolving to double down. They couldn’t prove she was lying, after all.

The old woman cackled lightly. “All right, missy. How about we play a little game? You try to guess my name, and I try to guess yours. If you guess my name correctly, I’ll give you the helmet and breastplate for free. If I guess your name correctly, you have to tell me your real interest in ‘em. That sound fair?”

“Uh,” said Anna. She supposed she didn’t have anything to lose, though it was a strange offer the old woman was making. “Okay, I guess.”

The old woman grinned like a cat. “You go first.”

Anna thought for a moment. What kind of name do old women have? “Sophia?” she asked.

The old woman shook her head. “That’s one.”

“Rumplestiltskin?”

The young woman laughed, and the old woman shook her head again. “That’s two. Good guess, though. I knew that guy. He was a bit of a mook, to be honest.Got so famous he ruined his own game. Here, I’ll give you a hint. Think of something sweet.

Anna screwed up her face in concentration. Something sweet. What was the sweetest thing she’d ever eaten? “Chocolate?”

The old woman chuckled and shook her head. “No, and chocolate is bitter, not sweet. My name is Syrup. And now I get to guess yours. Ready?”

Anna frowned and nodded her head. Syrup? What kind of name is syrup? Better than chocolate, she supposed. Not that there was much that was better than chocolate.

“Anna,” said the old woman at once, and Anna felt her jaw drop open.

“How did you…” began Anna. She narrowed her eyes. “You cheated. You didn’t guess at all. You already knew my name, didn’t you?”

“You can’t prove anything,” said Syrup. “Now, then, we had a bet. Why do you want those old pieces of tin?”

Anna hesitated, and absentmindedly wrung her hands. “Well, I… it’s for me, you see. I need a disguise.”

The young woman’s face flickered with interest, and the corners of her mouth curled upwards. “Ooh, a disguise!” she chirped. “How devious! What for?”

She had said too much, and she knew it. She shut her lips tight, and the young woman’s eyes shot to the sword at her side. Right, thought Anna, duh.

“Oh, it’s true! A warrior girl! Grandmama, your crystal ball was right.” She looked Anna up and down and then hopped up to her, until she stood only a foot away. “You didn’t mention she would be so cute, though.”

Anna felt herself turn red, and she had to swallow the knot that formed in her throat. She threw her eyes everywhere but at the eccentric woman standing in front of her.

“Tellyawhat,” said the green-haired girl, her voice lowering as she moved her face closer to Anna’s. Her green eyes flashed with a mischievous gleam. “I’ll give you a special discount. Get you everything you need for your disguise. Just so long as you tell us what you really want the disguise for. Pretty please?” She winked, eyelashes fluttering.

“Uh…” said Anna. “There’s just the tournament tomorrow, and I… want to compete…” She tried to smile coolly, but imagined she just ended up looking goofy.

The young woman laughed, her voice like soap bubbles hitting windchimes. She stepped away. “All right,” she said. “My name’s Maple.” She stuck out her hand, and a beat later Anna took it and shook. Her hands were surprisingly smooth and soft.

Maple didn’t let her break the handshake though. She seized Anna’s arm with sudden strength and pulled her close, turning Anna’s palm upwards and inspecting it closely with narrowed eyes.

“Good lines,” she commented. “Too bad your rivers are crossed and stuff. But it looks like you’re gonna win tomorrow. Wow, lots of callouses.” Her head snapped up. “I’m messing with you. I can’t read palms. That was all made-up. Except that part about the callouses.” She released Anna’s hand suddenly and went over to the pegs where the armor pieces were hanging. She plucked the helmet and breastplate off the pegs and skipped back to the shop’s entrance, disappearing inside.

When Anna didn’t follow, she stuck her head out the doorway and blinked at her.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Come on!”

Not knowing what to say, Anna began to move on automatic towards the entrance. She cast a look over her shoulder and saw Martin with a dumbfounded expression, and Kristoff with an eyebrow raised and a faint scowl on his face. Strong hands grabbed her by the arms and pulled her into the shop, and the door slammed shut behind her.

The inside of the shop was dark for a few moments until Maple lit a candle and set it on a low wooden table. The dancing flame cast twisty shadows around the room, small and cozy. Shelves stacked with jars and weird glass ornaments lined the room. There were little dolls, books, a dried toad nailed to a wooden plank; there was a mask with a frightening visage painted on it in, in so many colors that they seemed to change every time Anna blinked. In the corner, sitting on a low stool, was a metal stand that held a pale blue orb that seemed to suck in the light. Anna was mesmerized by it for several seconds, until Maple snapped her fingers and caught her attention.

“Hey, freckles, focus. We have work to do.”

Maple set the helmet and breastplate down on the table next to the candle, and plopped herself down on a cushioned chair. She leaned over the armor and steepled her fingers together. “Hmmmmm.”

She continued hmm’ing for a long time, while Anna just stood there, confused, looking at the green-haired girl peer over the unmoving armor. When it felt like minutes had passed, she cleared her throat lightly.

Maple’s head snapped up. “Hm? Oh, yes, how rude of me. Please sit down, Anna.” She licked her lips. “Anna. That’s a good name. It drips with destiny.” She slammed her hands down on the table, just as Anna was lowering herself into another cushioned chair. The sudden motion nearly made her jump.

“So you need a disguise. Well, this would do, but I can’t imagine anyone would willingly look like this, not if they could help it.” Her eyelids shuttered rapidly, and she shot a glance over Anna’s shoulder. “Your shield. May I see it?”

“Um, sure,” said Anna, and she retrieved Moss and handed it to the green-haired girl.

Maple took the shield carefully, running her fingers over the red paint relief of a flower on the front with a reverent, gentle touch. “Aw, it’s scratched,” she whined. “Bear claws, by the look of it. Or something. Tussle with bears a lot?”

“Occasionally,” joked Anna, and she chuckled weakly.

Maple smirked at her. “Not fair for the bear, I imagine. This shield, though, it’s been around the block a few times. Troll-made. Wonder where you got it?” She wrinkled her nose. “I think our mystery knight is going to turn a lot of heads. Tell me you can see it, too: she shows up, dressed in armor that looks like it was pulled out of a swamp and rubbed with grass. My gosh, he looks like a proper revenant! That’s what they’ll say. I bet that’ll be scary.”

Anna frowned in confusion. “I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”

“The decorations, silly. And the make. Don’t tell me you were gonna wear this stuff without even trying it on first? Trust me, it wouldn’t be comfortable.”

“Do you have a suit of armor that would fit me?” asked Anna. “How could that be?”

“Not right this instant, but in a few instants, yeah.” She flashed her teeth, her missing tooth pitcher than ever. “Just so you know, this is a special service. I want you to win. Mostly because I can just see the look on all those fancy white knights’ faces when you take off your helm and bow before the queen. Ooh, who’s the damsel in distress now?” She laughed happily. She handed Anna back her shield, and then picked up the helmet, and started rotating it in her hands. “Of course, I will ask for something else if you win.”

“Like what?”

She whistled. “There’s a prize. In addition to the special wish that the queen will grant you. Ten thousand gold flakes to the winner.”

Shock hit Anna like a bucket of cold water. “Ten thousand gold flakes? I didn’t know that.”

“Really? I guess that’s not surprising. They wouldn’t go out of their way to mention it. It’s sort of a consolation, really. Like a moderate windfall for the lords and knights who win these things most of the time. Still, a girl could do a lot with that kind of money. ‘Specially a girl like me. All I ask is you turn over the reward to me when you win. The request – you can make of that whatever you want. I just want the money.”

Ten thousand gold flakes was indeed a small fortune. Money like that, and she could practically buy out Burrowstown. Maple was asking for a lot. Anna’s eyes cast down to her shield, and the painted flower thereon. On the other hand, she didn’t even know there was a prize until just now. The prestige – and the request – would still be hers.

“Deal,” said Anna, looking back up at Maple. She grinned, and Maple’s green eyes glittered. “If I lose, though, what do I owe you?”

“Nothin’,” said Maple casually. “I ‘spect if you lose they’ll lop off your hand.” She lifted a hand and rotated her wrist in a lazy chopping motion. “Since this is kind of illegal and all that. You’d better make good use of your request, on that note, since otherwise you’ll lose your hand anyway and I’ll lose my prize. Well, your prize, technically.”

Anna nodded. “You just get me into the tournament, and I’ll worry about winning.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” said Maple. She stuck out a hand. “Shake on it?”

Without hesitating, Anna took Maple’s hand and shook. A strange, dizzying feeling ran through her just then, like someone had just spun her around and around in circles for hours. It passed in a heartbeat, and Anna shook her head rapidly.

“Feelin’ okay?” asked Maple.

“Yeah, just a… weird feeling, that’s all.”

Maple giggled. “Probably because you just shook hands with a witch.” Her eyes glittered in amusement.

Anna stared at Maple, and her jaw slackened. Fear started roiling in her stomach. “So, um,” she said, at length, “am I going to turn into a toad now, or something?”

Maple laughed again. “Aw, you turned so pale! Don’t worry, honey, I won’t turn you into a toad. Just a friendly warning that a witch’s word is binding, so if you try to cheat me, I’ll know.

Anna blinked. “I wouldn’t cheat you. I gave you my word.”

Maple’s expression fell. “Oh. You really wouldn’t.” Her fingers twisted through the end of the plume as she stared at Anna contemplatively. After a while, she smiled faintly. “Huh, cute and honest. This world’s gonna eat you alive.”

“It’s welcome to try,” said Anna. She patted Autumn’s hilt and attempted to suppress the flickering smirk she felt. Maple giggled, and, with a flourish, held out the helmet with both hands.

“Try this on,” she said. “And hurry up. It’s almost night and I have, like, a zillion glamors to work out before the tournament tomorrow.”


 

Anna was admiring Maple’s handiwork and sitting on a large feather bed. Maple charged nothing for the armor – at least, she hadn’t charged them any silver pieces – so they were free to use their remaining funds to buy some good lodging at an inn that didn’t have any fleas.

The door to the room opened, and Anna looked up. Kristoff entered, his expression still sour.

“Kristoff-” began Anna, but he cut her off.

“You’re all signed up. Mystery competitor. Tourney name: The Flower Knight.” He stomped over to the corner of the room and started rummaging through his big satchel. “Martin’s registered as your squire. He’s downstairs eating some dinner. So, yeah, you’re all ready to go get yourself killed tomorrow.”

Anna’s temper flared. “What’s your problem?Why are you acting like this?”

He looked up suddenly. “What’s my problem? Anna, you nearly got killed on the road here. Hell, we all did. And now that we’re safe in the city, you’re just going to throw your life away – and for what? For glory or – or money? I just don’t get it.”

She jumped off the bed, striding up to him to jab him in the chest with her finger. “What do you care? This is my choice. I want to do this. Who are you to tell me it’s the wrong choice?”

“Because I don’t want you to die, Anna!” he yelled.

She set her jaw. “I am not going to die, Kristoff.” He scoffed and stomped towards the window. She raised her voice. “Look, if anything goes wrong, I’ll yield and that’ll be that. I’ll be out of the tournament completely unharmed.”

He stopped, and turned to look at her. “You mean that?”

“Yes, I do,” she said earnestly. “Kristoff, I appreciate that you care enough about me that you’re worried about me, but this is my choice. I want to do this. If I don’t, I mean… I think it would be worse to go through life knowing that I gave up this opportunity, you know? Maybe not worse than dying, but the risk is worth it to know I tried.”

Kristoff folded his arms. “Worse for you, maybe. I’m fine if you feel a little guilty, so long as you’re alive to feel it.” His arms dropped to his side. “Look, I’m sorry for snapping at you, it’s just… it’s been a crazy week. I keep thinking any of us could die at any moment.”

Anna frowned. She cast her eyes to the floor. That was her fault, she knew, and it was a legitimate fear. She dragged Kristoff and Martin along on her insane adventure, and brought both of them within a close shave of death. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry, too.” She looked back up at him, and tempered her resolve. “Look, I promise you, this tournament won’t be the thing that kills me.”

Kristoff shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Somehow that’s not all that reassuring.”

“It’s the best you’re going to get,” she replied flatly. She attempted a smile. “Besides, how could I let myself die when I know you’ll be there to scold me the moment you join me in the afterlife?”

Kristoff snorted, and smiled the tiniest bit. “Fair enough,” he said, and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Just promise me if you win, you won’t forget all about us little people.”

She smiled back. “I promise.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The morning of coronation day rose cool and foggy over Crystalwater. Inside the Arenborg, lords and ladies from all over Europa were bearing witness to the crowning of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elsa of House Arendelle and the Kingdom of Arendelle, the First of Her Name, the Ice-Blood.

But for the mystery competitor, the Flower Knight, all of this was hidden by the vast bulk of the Arenborg. The castle courtyard, a wide, cobbled area with an enormous fountain in the middle, was opened to the commons, and there was merriment and diversion enough for anybody – but that was a meager substitute for seeing the crowning with one’s own eyes.

The princess had emerged that morning and waved to the crowd, who shouted out their adoration for their beloved princess. The Flower Knight stood, her squire by her side, and watched from beneath her darkened, sea-green greathelm. That entire morning she had stood thus, her brown gloved hands clasped together, among the ranks of the honored knights who would be competing that day. Many of them spared long, suspicious glances for the mystery knight and her strange armor, glances she returned in kind. The witch girl had insisted the shadow of her helm would have an ominous effect, and indeed, the Flower Knight could practically feel the goosebumps on some of the squires that looked her way. Others were not so impressed; she imagined that her lack of stature contributed to that somewhat. All the same, nobody bothered her.

Yet for all this stoicism, the Flower Knight was completely unprepared for when the princess came out that morning.

She didn’t look quite like she had all those years ago, when a younger Flower Knight had seen a younger princess ride through the streets of Burrowstown. Or maybe she wasn’t remembering properly. That princess hadn’t seemed to fill her stomach with burning coals. Despite the cool morning, the Flower Knight felt her armor was getting a little warm for comfort.

The princess was outfitted in a long flowing dress of teal flecked with navy, dark colors contrasted against the light of her skin and the golden blonde of her hair, in which rested a diamond-studded silver clasp. As she stepped out before the crowd, pale yet radiant, eyes large, bright, and shining, the Flower Knight’s heart fluttered. My princess, she thought. My queen.

And then, the Flower Knight thought she saw something, a shadow flickering across the princess’s eyes. She saw pain there, the lurking phantom, the heavy weight, the specter of her parents’ death. And yet, there she stood, a marble statue wreathed in shadows, pristine and perfect and beautiful. Duty; the word entered her head unbidden.

“I must express my gratitude to all of you for coming,” said the princess, her voice lyrical yet strong. “We of the kingdom have suffered a grievous loss this past fortnight, and it may be that our mourning shall never end. My own sorrow is great, but I shall not balk from my duty. Today I will be crowned as your new queen.” There was a tremendous roar of applause.

“I shall attempt to rule as my father did: with a firm hand, fair, and just. It has been said that his right hand was the late Lord Protector – may his soul rest in peace – and we must not forget the loss of him as well. I ask you, please, to join me in a moment of silent remembrance for those that have perished in this past fortnight.” The Flower Knight dipped her head, and thought of Madam White and Ser Magnus.

“I plan to name a new Lord Protector today, after the day’s ceremonies are complete. Hopefully, he will prove as wise, just, and able a man as his predecessor.” She raised her hands. “I hope that the day’s festivities entertain and delight all of you, and that we may put the winters of our past to rest and look forward to the springs of our tomorrows!” There was more applause, and the princess smiled, spun on her heels, and went back into the castle – this time trailed by a significant entourage of well-dressed men and women disembarking from palanquins, litters, horses, and carriages, to proceed up the steps with all the grace afforded by their noble birth.

“That was a good speech,” said Martin. “I thought so, anyway. Why worry about the past when we can make the future even better?”

“No mention of the gods, though,” rumbled a man with braided, greasy black hair standing within earshot. “That bodes ill, I tell you.”

“The Arendelles are always queer when it comes to the gods,” said another man. Both men were dressed in armor and wore weapons of some kind – potential competitors of the Flower Knight in the tournament later that day. The Flower Knight studied them coolly from beneath the shadow of her helm.

“I say it’s because they think they’re gods, and just nobody has had the courage to point out otherwise,” piped in a third man.

The Flower Knight tuned out the ensuing conversation about humility, instead thinking about the princess and the coronation that was probably going on at that very moment. She wished she could see, but the actual crowning was only to be seen by the privileged. She contented herself with watching the antics of a variety of clowns and performers that had gathered in the square to perform capers and songs for the throng. At noon, the sun revealed itself, and the cool air of the morning swiftly yielded before its hot beams. Food was brought out from the castle, and people were free to eat their fill of a large variety: bushels of apples, honeyed hams, warm bread with marmalade and fresh butter, filleted fish, huge wheels of stark white cheese, and slices of a gigantic roasted boar. It was an absurdly generous spread, with enormous quantities of food being place on tables for, as far as Anna could see, no purpose but public consumption. Casks of ale and wine came out and did not stop flowing.

Though she was loath to send Martin on errands, the need to maintain her disguise had the Flower Knight sending Martin to fetch her some food. She had broken her fast on sausage and boiled eggs in the inn that morning, and wasn’t feeling very hungry, although whether that was because she didn’t need to eat, or because she was suppressing a powerful anxiety about the upcoming tournament… well, she couldn’t say.

This anxiety was little helped when, a short while later, Maple appeared out of nowhere. The Flower Knight was grateful for the distraction and, truth be told, she rather liked the young witch, even if she was a trifle odd; but this notwithstanding, she couldn’t truly get her mind off the tournament.

“Hej hej, Flowers,” cooed Maple, and she rested a comradely hand on the false knight’s armored shoulder. “You look bored.”

“I am bored,” admitted the Flower Knight miserably. “And hot.”

“Huh, I almost didn’t recognize your voice from within that helmet of yours.” Maple scanned the Flower Knight with her bright green eyes. “In fact, that whole get-up looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. Convincing. You’d never know there was such a cutie under there.”

“Or a person almost dying of heat exhaustion.”

Maple’s face screwed up. “Huh, I thought I did something about that. Hold still.” She wiggled some fingers in front of the Flower Knight’s face, and then reached into the T-shaped visor, grabbed the tip of the knight’s nose with two fingers, and yanked lightly. “Honk.”

“Cut that out,” growled the Flower Knight, and she batted Maple’s hand away with a gloved swipe.

Maple giggled. “Hey, if you’re hot, why not get something to drink? I ‘spect that’s what most of the knights are doing. You know, drinking. Not saying you have to get blind drunk, but, well, normally a nice cold drink is how normal people get over feeling too hot.”

“Oh, yeah,” said the Flower Knight. “I hadn’t thought of that.” She really hadn’t, not because she had been trying in earnest and failing, but because she was too preoccupied with other things. Compared to remembering everything Astrid told her about footwork, remembering how to cool down seemed almost mundane. “Martin, would you please find me a skin of water?”

“Right away,” said Martin, and he dashed off.

Maple watched him go. “You know, I don’t see squires to actual knights demonstrate half so much enthusiasm as that boy. Where’d you find him? Wait, let me guess. You saved him from a monster or something.”

“Well, not exactly,” said the Flower Knight hesitantly. “I helped him deal with a bully problem a few times. Honestly, I think he’s just happy to be away from his father.”

“How gallant,” bubbled Maple. “A real knight in shining armor. Minus the shining part, anyway.”

The Flower Knight chuckled. “Gallant, you think? The bully was a lordling. I maimed his hand and was banished from town.”

“Gallant all the more! You will find that lords have a very low tolerance for gallantry in this country.”

The Flower Knight frowned. She intuited the truth in what Maple was saying, but she wanted to believe it wasn’t so. “Surely not all lords.”

“No, not all,” agreed Maple, and then a bell chimed loudly. Another followed shortly after, and then another, until the entire courtyard was ringing with the sound of bells. The mahogany doors of the keep opened, the queen appeared, now wearing a silver crown on her brow. At the center of the crown, a large oval sapphire glittered in the sunlight, and , six points of twisted silver shot up around the circumference of the band. Queen Elsa’s dress was flowing all around her, and she now wore a teal cape that fluttered behind her in the rising wind.

She raised her hands and smiled slightly, and the assembled crowd – the commoners, the foreigners, the highborn, the lords and hedge-knights alike, all cheered. “Long live Queen Elsa!” they cried.

Maple whistled through her missing tooth. “What a sight. I hope she likes dueling tourneys.”

The Flower Knight patted Autumn’s hilt for luck.

The lists had been set up outside the castle in a large field at the edge of the city. Dozens of small tents had been raised for the knights’ pleasure, and stands had been erected around a large, round dirt patch. Larger tents and pavilions were scattered here and there, and flags and pennants whipped their owners’ multicolored heraldry in the summer breezes. At the end of the lists was the royal booth, tall and shaded beneath a pinstriped pavilion, from which the queen and her closest advisors would be observing the action. Further away, more dirt patches had been set apart, though there were only some low benches surrounding those.

She walked the distance in the company of the other competitors, flanked by Martin and Maple. The knights talked and japed idly with one another while she kept silent. Passing lowborn spared her odd, suspicious gazes, and she caught the gossip from groups of passersby: “The tournament will go to the Prince, sure as rain. None are quicker.” “No, it will be the Giant, see if it isn’t. That man could tear the Prince in half.”

The Flower Knight’s tent was in the corner of the field, the furthest away from the lists. A tall man with a grizzly brown beard and thick eyebrows pointed them to it. “Mystery knight, eh?” he grunted. “‘Flower Knight’, is it? Can I guess?”

“Sure,” chirped Maple, before the Flower Knight could open her mouth so speak.

“Ser Wendel Bigsby? He’s a short fella’. Hope you don’t mind my sayin’ so, good ser knight.”

Maple sniggered, and the Flower Knight shook her head.

“Hm… Ser Danton Linnaeus? No, wait, that can’t be.” The man grunted, and rubbed his beard. “Confound it. I’ll take no more of your time.”

The Flower Knight nodded in thanks, and went to her tent, Maple snickering all the way. “’Good ser knight!’ Did you hear that?”

“All it took was a suit of armor to get people to call her a knight,” marveled Martin, a rucksack slung over his shoulder.

Once inside the tent, the Flower Knight took a quick inventory. It was barely furnished: there was a rough patched rug spread out over the grassy ground, a chair, a trunk, a table, a simple cot, and a basin of water, all provided freely by their hosts.

The Flower Knight removed her helmet and sat down in the chair heavily. “Oof,” she said. “Feels good to get that off.” She ran her fingers through her hair, now matted with sweat.

“Oh, Anna, it’s you!” joked Maple. “Where have you been all morning? I met this really sulky knight today. He was kind of a shorty.”

“Ha-ha,” said Anna, unlaughing, and she set her helmet down. “Do you mean to shadow me all day, or are you only going to bother me for the nonce?”

Maple smiled. “Well, I must needs make sure my competitor is in fighting shape. As your sponsor, I am entitled to a little come-and-go privilege, no?

“And here I thought you cared about me,” said Anna dryly.

Maple giggled. “Your first tilt is in twenty minutes,” she said. “Not the main stage. One of the other arenas. Sadly, you’ll only fight for the crowd after you make your way into the fourth round.”

“Tilt?” blinked Anna. “This is a dueling tournament.”

“Just a figure of speech, my good ser knight,” said Maple.

Anna snorted. “Any idea who my first opponent is?”

“Your first several opponents are nobodies. Like you. I should think they’d be slim pickings.”

Anna waved a hand dismissively. “It won’t do to underestimate my competitors.” Kristoff’s words came to mind: Most of the competitors have been fighting their entire lives. And those lives have been much longer than yours.

Maple’s nostrils flared. Her smile fell and she looked pointedly at Anna. “Fair enough. Have you ever fought a duel before? A tourney duel?”

Anna nearly said yes, but then shook her head. “Not like this.”

“The rules are simple. You fight in the arena, the circle of dirt. If either competitor steps outside the arena during the duel, they forfeit the match. Same if either competitor falls unconscious, yields, or dies. Most matches are fought to a yielding, though sometimes fools with more pride than sense throw themselves on a much better opponent’s sword. Hope that’s not you, hon’.”

“If it gets too much for me to handle, I’ll yield.”

“Well, I’d sooner you just win. I have a good feeling about you, freckles.”

“I promised a friend I’d yield before I died.”

Maple shrugged her shoulders. “Yielding is usually better than dying,” she admitted.“Anyway, your first opponent is Ser Frawn, a knight from the wings. His mother is Lady Ysmir Corel, who sits on the king’s council as the Royal Spymaster.”

Anna frowned. “How exactly is he a ‘nobody’?”

Maple smiled wickedly. “Her Ladyship has many sons and daughters. Ser Frawn owns a small barony, but that’s it. And it doesn’t sound like he’s very good at fighting, either. Thing is, he is tall, so be cautious of that.”

Anna nodded. “Thanks for your counsel. How did you learn of all this?”

Maple chuckled and flashed Anna a knowing grin. “Oh, I have my ways. Is your equipment cleaned and ready for battle? Polished your armor, sharpened your sword, and all that?”

Anna realized with a pang that she hadn’t honed Autumn’s edge at all in the past week. She brought her sword into her lap and pulled Autumn from its scabbard, steel scraping against leather with a soft ‘scchhhk’ noise. She placed a finger lightly against the edge, and felt the dullness. Frowning, she turned to Martin. “Do we have a whetstone?” she asked him. Martin began rummaging in the rucksack.

“That’s a pretty sword,” observed Maple. She inclined her head at Anna. “May I…?”

Reluctantly, Anna turned Autumn over to Maple’s hands. Maple clasped the hilt gingerly and raised the blade, pressing its edge against the fingers on her other hand. “Ow!” she said suddenly, and jerked the blade away, the flat of her index finger now glistening with a red line. She stuck the finger in her mouth and sucked. “Don’t worry about that whetstone,” she mumbled around her finger. “Your sword is plenty sharp.”

Anna frowned. “How can that be? I just felt the edge myself. It was dull.”

“To you, it would seem,” said Maple. “This a Berkish blade. See the folded metal patterns? A sword like this knows its owner.” She handed Autumn back to Anna, and smiled wide. “I thought I sniffed magic on you. I guess it was in your sword.”

Anna’s jaw dropped as she gazed at her sword, accepting it from Maple’s hands delicately, as if it was a swaddled child. “This sword is magic?”

“Kinda. The people of Berk had to make do with low-quality iron and blistering dragonfire. The first problem they solved by folding the steel of their blades. The second problem they solved by binding their swords with blood. So, yeah, it is magic, after a fashion.” She sniffed. “Blood magic. How droll.”

“You don’t approve?” asked Anna, and she carefully slipped Autumn back into its sheath.

“Oh, it’s not that I don’t approve, I just find it so uncreative. Like they thought to themselves, ‘gee, what should this spell use? Oh, I know, blood,’ like it hadn’t been done a zillion times before.” She bubbled a high-pitched laugh.

“My father always said blood magic was dangerous,” said Martin. “And that those who practiced it were dark and… and evil.”

All magic is dangerous,” said Maple. “And all magicians have a touch of evil in them.” Maple crossed her arms and let that sit for a few seconds, while Martin gaped in shock. “Not me, you silly. I’m different. A good guy, through and through!” She swung her arm in a comradely gesture.

Anna couldn’t help smiling. “Somehow I don’t think you’re being completely honest with us.”

“Maybe not,” agreed Maple. “But you’re stuck with me for now, freckles.” The sound of drums picked up just then, a boom-boom-boom coming from the lists. “And as for right now, you’d better focus on winning this tournament!”

“And winning you all that money,” added Anna, still smiling.

“If you insist,” replied Maple sweetly.

She buckled Autumn to her hip, and then picked up her helmet and put it on her head. Normally, a helmet like this would have felt terribly uncomfortable over her long hair, but some peculiar ensorcelment of the helmet made it no object at all. She wondered what got Maple to think of it, since, after all, the witch’s own hair was so short. She stood up and went over to the water basin.

The Flower Knight looked into the waters of the basin. Staring back was a moss-green-and-gray helmet, adorned with two very short reindeer antlers on top – inspiration born when Maple learned of Sven. Her face was completely obscured by the shadow of the helmet so that it looked as if the void itself was staring back at her through the cool, clear mist of the basin’s waters.

The rest of her armor was of a look, full-plated: mottled green and dark gray, thick, tightly banded and worked steel, comfortable yet cunningly unrevealing of her true form. On her hands were tough, padded leather gloves that hugged her skin; on her legs, steel kneepads and thighguards, and her own brown leather boots, heavily worn. In all, she looked a knight, albeit one over which someone had draped a lot of moss and vines, or allowed to soak in a swamp. Not a “flower” knight at all. Except for the shield, there were no flowers of any kind. Maple thought the irony was great. In fact, the exact word she used was “delicious.”

“Wait, finishing touch.” Maple bounded up to her and produced a long, pine-green cape from a hidden fold in her dress. It was huge, and on the back, an exact duplicate of the flower on her shield was threaded in red relief. The cape was lined with dark burgundy fur. She reached her arms around Anna’s neck and clasped it to her gorget with two metal pins shaped like flowers.

“No capes,” warned Anna, and she moved to unpin the flowers.

“What? Why not?” exclaimed Maple, crestfallen.

“They get in the way,” said Anna. “My teacher always told me too much ornamentation was dangerous.”

Maple pouted. “Oh, but capes are such fun. And this is a tournament. It’s supposed to be fun. Not for you, but for the people watching. Come on!” She crossed her arms and thrust out her chin. “As your sponsor, I am formally ordering you to wear this cape.”

Anna sighed. “Will it please you if I wear this cape?”

Maple nodded, once, firmly, her eyes hard as flint.

Anna looked over at Martin. “What do you think, Martin?”

“Um,” he said. “It looks pretty cool, I guess.”

“That settles it!” cried Maple. “Now, off to the lists with you!”

Anna relented and let the pins stay, strapping her shield to her left forearm and making sure that Autumn was at the ready. She patted the hilt for luck, and strode out the tent and towards the lists, Martin in tow, the cool breeze whipping her cape behind her. She had to admit, the effect would be impressive.

She arrived at the arena and hailed the arena’s herald, a tanned, bald man with big lips. Martin spoke for her: “The Flower Knight is ready to compete, Your – ser.”

The man raised his eyebrow at Martin. “All right, then, Flower Knight. I trust you know the rules?”

Anna nodded.

“Very good. You may take your place at this end of the arena.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, and Anna went to her spot, and stood in it.

Martin stood at the edge of the arena. “Good luck, Anna,” he said softly.

She could have smiled. “Thanks, Martin. You’ve been a good squire.”

“And you a good knight,” he said in complete earnest. “I hope you win, and ask the queen to knight you. That would show them.”

Then Anna did smile. “We’ll see.”

After a minute of waiting, her opponent appeared. He was gray-haired, with thick, gray sideburns, clad completely in sky-blue armor that seemed studded everywhere with crystals, and tall – really tall, in honesty. He must have been pushing seven feet. For all that height, he was relatively lanky, though, his arms resembling two long willow reeds. Anna thought she must have more muscle than him. His squire was a portly young boy with long blond hair that covered his eyes. Ser Frawn stepped to the edge of the arena,. The light played off the crystals on his steel plate, and he doffed his light gray halfhelm to the watchers – all two dozen of them: the benches around the arena mostly deserted. Many of the onlookers at the lists that day were no doubt at the main stage, which was reserved only for the choicest fights and, later, the final rounds.

The squire brought forth a light blue metal shield with a white cloud painted on the front, which Ser Frawn strapped to his forearm, and a white steel longsword with a light blue stone embedded in the crossguard. Ser Frawn took the longsword and lifted it up high, the silvery grays of the hilt and the white of the blade looking resplendent in the sunlight.

Anna drew out Autumn, the faintly dark folded steel flashing as the light moved from fold to fold. She didn’t lift her sword, unlike Ser Frawn, and instead lowered its tip to her side. She must have been quite a sight: that short knight, with those ridiculous antlers, that rough, odd shield, that strange sword of no one color. The wind rose and played with her cape.

Ser Frawn stepped into the arena, his long, sideburned face flat and serious. He bowed to the Flower Knight, and the Flower Knight bowed back.

“Knights, bare steel and fight!” cried the herald. Their steel was already brought out, making his injunction unnecessary – but Anna guessed it was probably tradition to shout that out before a round began.

Ser Frawn called out to her as he walked deeper into the arena. “‘The Flower Knight,’ eh? I’ve never heard of you before.”

Anna did not answer, instead lifting her shield and brandishing her sword, proceeding into the arena with a careful, ready step.

Ser Frawn grunted. “Not one for idle chit-chat, it would seem. You’re here for a fight. I’ll abide you on that, at least!” He lunged suddenly, bringing his white sword around with surprising speed.

Anna caught the blow with Moss, and stabbed at his gut with Autumn. He managed to jump back and block her jab with his own shield, an awful screeching noise accompanying the steel-on-steel strike. She retreated, and saw that she had punctured his shield right through.

Back-and-forth they went, him launching his attacks, her dodging and blocking constantly, and launching ripostes when she thought she could. The helmet imposed a handicap Anna was not used to: she had no peripheral vision, and so constantly had to adjust her head so that she could keep sight of her opponent. Long minutes passed as the tall man grunted and swung his longsword, and his movements began to slow. He grows tired, she thought.

At last, her chance came. He brought his sword down on her, a blow she received on her shield. She twisted her shield arm to the side, knocking the blade away. Ser Frawn barely managed to maintain his grip on his sword while he brought his shield up to protect his core, but he was off-balance, and Anna was aiming for his sword hand. She struck Ser Frawn in the wrist, a glisten of red appearing through his lobstered gauntlet, and he dropped his sword with a gasp of pain. She kicked it away, and it rolled across the dust with a clatter.

She lifted her sword point to his neck. He stared down at her with panicked eyes. “Yield,” he gasped. “I yield.”

“Victory goes to the Flower Knight!” declared the herald, and jeers and cheers came from the benches. Anna lowered her sword and turned away.

“Wait, Flower Knight,” came Ser Frawn’s voice. She looked back. “I must know… who are you?”

She walked back to her tent, Martin taking up a pace behind her. “Wow, did you see that?” He was breathless. “I thought you might have been done for a few times, but you moved so fast… it was unreal!”

She felt herself reddening. “It was nothing. He did not marshal his blows well enough. They were overpowered and ill-aimed.”

Martin seemed to ponder at that. “If you say so. I hope all of your fights are that easy.”

Me too, Anna could have said, but she held her tongue.

As it happened, the next two fights were little more in the way of challenging. In the first, a burly man with stained leather armor and a long, braided beard was her opponent. He used a sharp, steel axe, but he was slow, and Anna danced around him, delivering cuts and bruises for the better part of ten minutes before he grew frustrated and lobbed his axe at her. She dodged it, and he laughed and went to his knees, yielding.

Her third opponent was a man who wore no armor at all; instead he simply wore long white breeches and a fine velvet doublet. He wielded a long, thin sword and spoke with a strange accent. “Tirrenian,” Maple had told her. Tirrenian swordmasters were lauded for their swift and elegant swordplay. Well, Anna was swifter, if not more elegant, and repelled every blow he launched. Once he managed to connect with her side, and though his sword did not pierce her armor, the force of the blow was so great that it left a slight bruise. Maple rubbed a salve on the bruise afterwards, against Anna’s objections that it was nothing. “We need you in top fighting shape,” she said with a firm nod. Anna grudgingly admitted that it felt better, though in honesty she could not tell whether it was the salve or Maple’s hands that made it so.

The man yielded that fight after Anna bloodied him with a slash across his stomach, evidently surprised to see blood. She heard some of the onlookers laughing at his expense. “Bloody southerners, now that’s why you wear armor, my lads.” The small crowd on the benches cheered the Flower Knight for giving him a nice northern welcome to the land of glaciers. She saluted the onlookers with her sword, and they cheered all the more.

The fourth fight was to take place in the main arena, looked upon by most of the city and, of course, the queen. As she walked to the arena, she began to feel butterflies in her stomach. Martin was quiet, which she was thankful for. She wasn’t sure if she could handle Maple or even Kristoff’s loquaciousness for the moment.

Kristoff… of course, he didn’t approve. Anna thought that might not prevent him from coming to watch the tourney, but so far she hadn’t seen him at all. Fine, he can be that way, she thought bitterly, though she knew in truth that he wasn’t just being stubborn. He just didn’t want to see her die.

Everybody dies, she thought, the white wolf’s words clear in her mind. She stepped up to the edge of the dirt arena, the wooden stands of the benches rising around her. On her left stood the elevated, shaded pavilion that housed the queen and her most trusted lords and advisors. And there she was: Queen Elsa, a careful, seemingly optimistic smile cautiously dabbed on her pale face.

“Presenting,” boomed the master of games, a short man with chestnut hair and a close-cropped beard of the same color, standing on a raised podium at the middle of the arena, “His Serenity, the Heir of Aztlan, the Serpent Spear, Prince Jotal Nhtuan!” On the other side of the arena, a man with dark tanned skin stepped out. He was dressed in a breezy skirt of leather straps, decorated with many-colored feathers, and on his torso he wore a bronze breastplate inlaid with a design of a great, winged serpent. He had long, black hair, pulled back in a tail, and his face was handsome. He was completely cleanshaven, with a strong jaw, pronounced cheekbones, and wide, clear eyes the color of violet. On his head was a burnished copper circlet with the design of a skull in the center. On his right arm, he wore a circular, copper shield; in his left hand, he wielded a long wooden spear, its tip gilded steel and wickedly barbed.

Little and less was known of Aztlan, except that it lay across the Great Sea, and it was the site of a mighty empire. Centuries ago, the people of Aztlan had crossed the Great Sea and landed in the kingdom of Caston with gigantic ships. They slaughtered the people of the kingdom wholesale, and the gods they worshipped were strange and terrifying. The neighboring kingdoms of Euzaro and Umallad set aside their differences and resolved to push the Aztecs into the sea, and, after a century of warfare, finally succeeded. Nothing remained of Caston, once proud and mighty, but since then the Aztecs had not waged war against Europa.

Instead Aztlan became a trading partner of many kingdoms across Europa, trading their prized luxuries for Europan amenities and commodities. Aztlan was where chocolate comes from, that much Anna knew. Arendelle, as one of the wealthiest kingdoms in Europa, had much business with Aztlan, despite the myriad differences in the two countries. Aztecs were often heard to complain of the cold in Arendelle, and to lament their lost kingdom of New Aztlan – what they had called the kingdom of Caston.

“And to fight him,” the master of games went on, “presenting the mystery competitor known only as The Flower Knight!”

Cheers went up by the crowd for both competitors, and the prince blew kisses to the crowd as he stepped into the circle. Anna followed suit, hand on Autumn’s hilt, surreptitiously patting it. For good luck.

“Knights,” yelled the master of games, “bare steel and fight!”

She drew Autumn and brandished it, assuming her usual ready posture as she paced forward. The prince smirked and leveled his spear, crouching as he closed the distance.

“A mystery knight,” he said, his voice buttery and smooth, betraying no hint of an accent. “In my country, we call them cowards.”

Anna said nothing, and stopped at a safe distance from the prince. That spear gave him a significant edge in reach, but if she could close the distance, it wouldn’t help him at all. She just needed to be quick.

“Those antlers look absurd, by the way,” he said, and jabbed the point of his spear at her. She blocked with her shield. He gave another swift jab, and another, and she parried and blocked again.

He continued circling her, delivering quick stabs, the advantage afforded by his reach permitting him to launch attack after attack. Anna blocked and dodged well-enough, but a black feeling laid its roots in her heart. I can’t win like this, she realized. Astrid always said I needed to be more aggressive. Usually she only launched counterattacks. Taking the initiative was less her style. She felt the impulse, sure enough, but her discipline guided her to letting opponents take the initiative, and then tire themselves out with it.

But the prince was quick, and as he jabbed, his strikes grew stronger and more precise. He was probing me, trying to find my weak points. A sudden jab came, aimed at her gut, and she jumped backwards. The prince laughed.

“Oh come on, what are you afraid of?” He closed again and jabbed again. She knocked the spear away with her sword and tried to jump in, but the prince showed his shield side to her and thrust. She met with her own shield, and swung Autumn at him. He shifted his weight, turned, and knocked her attack away with his copper shield. He spun backwards, spear twirling, and stabbed at her again. The spear point connected, hitting her shoulder plate and pushing her back. She stumbled and barely avoided falling.

“That’s more like it,” said the prince. “I was going to tell you that you fight like a girl, but I’ll amend that to ‘child.’”

She ground her teeth. I’ll show you what a girl fights like. “How do you know what girls fight like?” she boomed from her helmet. “Do you fight girls often, then?”

The prince laughed, and jabbed at her again. She knocked the spear away and leaped forward, shield first. She met his shield again, and they were close. She made to stab him with her sword, but he pushed away from her and swung the butt of his spear at her head. It clanged against her helmet, and a ringing sound filled her ears. She squinted her eyes and saw his spear point coming for her again. She danced to her left, away from his spear, spinning, and slashed down. A splintering crack filled the air, a dull sound in the muddied water of her head, and she danced away, opening and closing her eyes as her ears continued to ring.

There the prince stood, a look of shock on his handsome face. His spear had been clear severed in two, the barbed steel point lying in the dust. “How in the sun’s name…?”

She lifted her sword at him. “Yield,” she ordered, her voice iron and strange in her own ears.

The prince chuckled, and he threw the splintered remains of his spear down. “I yield,” he said, and walked away.

Anna looked up at the stands. “Victory goes to the Flower Knight!” shouted the master of games, and there were cheers, jeers, and curses abound. The crowd chanted, “Flower Knight! Flower Knight!” Anna’s eyes went to the queen’s box, and saw Her Majesty staring right back down at her, calm and impassive.

Anna raised her sword in salute to the queen. The queen nodded her head an almost imperceptible amount. That sat well with Anna. It was outrageous to assume that the tiny nod meant actual approval, but the fantasy made her feel good. She imagined herself laying her sword at the queen’s feet, red with the blood of her enemies, and the queen beaming down at her, those eyes like crystal stars, smiling and pleased as she praised her Flower Knight’s courage and valor.

She was surprised to learn from Maple that that victory was not only an upset, but meant she would proceed to the semifinal round. “Truly?” asked Anna, who had paid no attention to the brackets.

“That’s right,” said Maple, her voice soaring with excitement. Anna removed her helmet and sat back in her chair, eyes closed. It was hot in her tent, but she couldn’t remove her helmet outside. The still, stale, muggy air would be as good as it got.

“Everyone was so sure that the prince would make it to the finals. He was a crowd favorite. And you just chopped his spear right in half!” Her eyes glittered.

“It was a near thing,” protested Anna wearily.

Whatever it was, only two fights remain for you.” Maple was bouncing up and down in giddiness.

Anna opened her eyes and lowered her gaze. That had an effect on the landscape. Two fights left meant they’d also be the two best knights in the tournament, or near enough as to make no difference. A queasy sense of vertigo overtook her as the enormity of the task was suddenly plain. “I don’t think I can do it.”

Maple stopped bouncing. “What do you mean?” she asked, head cocked slightly to one side.

“These… my next opponents are going to be the best in the tournament. Gods, what was I thinking? Ten thousand gold flakes, it’s not like some peasant girl from the sticks is really going to be able to win that, not against the best in the… in the kingdom.”

“Hey, hey!” snapped Maple. “Where is this talk coming from? You just defeated the prince, and he was a favorite-”

A favorite,” said Anna sharply.

“A favorite,” agreed Maple, begrudging the admission. “But that’s no small thing!”

“It’s no great thing either.”

“You’re wrong,” said Martin suddenly, and Anna swiveled her head to stare at her squire. His face had turned red, and his hands were clenched. “He never even scratched you. They said the prince was faster than anyone, and you outsped even him! You can win! I know you can!”

Maple grinned toothily. “Your squire’s right. Listen, freckles, I’m not a betting woman, so when I put my chips on a horse, you better believe it’s for a good reason.”

Anna clasped and unclasped her sword hand, and looked away. “Sorry, I’m just… nervous, that’s all.”

She heard Maple laugh lightly, a soft, sweet sound. “I don’t blame you. Really. But what’s the sense in getting all down on us? You didn’t care before you knew it was the semifinal round. Maybe I should have kept that to myself?”

“No,” said Anna at once. “It was good that you told me. I forgot that I only joined to compete, not to win, and I have done as much.”

Maple pursed her lips in a wry half-smile. “Well, I mean, since you’re competing, you might as well win.”

“You’ve done more than just compete,” urged Martin, speaking again, his small voice reinforced by a strange tenor, a note of confidence. “There were near a hundred knights that joined this tournament, and all that remains now are four.”

It felt like someone dropped her stomach from a high mountaintop. “Four?” she repeated. “Of a hundred? I only fought four matches.”

“You didn’t have to beat all one-hundred of them,” laughed Maple. “Just the ones that beat the others. It was down to the best eight when you faced the prince.”

Anna exhaled heavily. “The three remaining knights. Are they…”

Maple’s expression darkened somewhat at that. “They are very skilled. But I still have faith you will win.”

“As do I,” said Martin.

Anna wrung her hands together, and nodded. “Who is my next opponent?”

“They call him the Giant,” said Maple. “Because he is so huge. A creative name, I know. He can wield a greatsword one-handed. And his shield is a wall. His armor is so thick that nothing can pierce it. They say that when the bloodlust gets in him, he can mow down armies of men.”

Anna was chagrined. “How can I possibly beat such a person?”

Maple smiled, her eyes flitted to the sword at Anna’s side. “Magic,” she said.

“Every armor has its weak points,” said Martin with a determined look. “You will find them.”

At last they stood before the dirt arena, the crowd cheering round and round, shouting hoarsely for combat. It’s almost as if they want to see blood, mused Anna darkly. Across the arena stood Ser Richard Morning, the Giant – and a giant he was. The sun was at his back, and cast a gargantuan shadow across the arena. He wore armor of dark gray, and a thick greathelm with a tiny slit for vision, crested by a silver sunburst. His cloak was like an enormous rug of black pitch, clasped to his shoulders by two more sunbursts, and it moved unceasing in the wind. Both of his gauntleted hands rested on the hilt of an enormous greatsword that stood point-first in the dust, and on his left arm was a titanic black tower shield.

The Flower Knight stood at the threshold. He is half-again my height, and four times my breadth, she thought. She turned to Maple, who smiled her toothless smile.

“Maple,” she asked suddenly, “how did you lose that tooth?”

Her smile faltered the slightest bit. “It’s kind of a funny story,” she said. “It was a few years ago. I was young, and my teeth were ugly and crooked. I really wanted pretty teeth. And I told my grandmama, and she said I should make a spell if I wanted it so badly. Well, I brewed a potion, and drank it, and my teeth turned white.” She opened her mouth and pointed to the missing tooth. “Except this one. It fell out.” She closed her mouth again, and gave another smile, this one half-hearted. “Magic always has its costs. What the goddess gives with one hand, she takes with the other.”

Anna fingered Autumn’s hilt uneasily. Maple did not fail to notice the motion. “Your sword’s price has already been paid, in steel and blood.”

“That’s not what I’m thinking about,” Anna lied. “I’m thinking about your price.”

“Paid when you win,” chirped Maple.

“And if I should lose?”

“Maybe I’ll settle for a kiss,” the witch replied, and winked.

“I think not,” said Anna, blushing.

Maple leaned in close. “Best not lose, then,” she whispered, and she did kiss the Flower Knight on the cheek of her helmet.

“How bold,” said Anna.

“You think that’s bold, do you?” said Maple, moving back. “I only have to watch.

“Watching can be hard,” said Anna, and she stepped into the arena.

Ser Richard Morning, the Giant, also called Blacksnow, had held the passes in the Up-And-Downs against fifty times his number in scouts of Weselton. They had come up the hill, narrow and craggy, and the Giant alone stood in the way. It had been dusting in the high passes of the Up-And-Downs, and the ground was so drenched in blood the snow looked black. That was, to hear folk tell of it.

The Giant greeted the Flower Knight by way of a grunt. “Hunh.” Anna drew her sword. She looked up at the queen’s box, and raised her sword in salute. Less than half the crowd was cheering for the Flower Knight; the rest were chanting “Giant! Giant!” The master of games introduced them. “Knights, bare steel and fight!”

“You are small,” observed the Giant, his voice sonorous and loud, muffled and somehow amplified by his helmet. It seemed to shake the ground, though Anna could not tell if that was his words or his footsteps. “I knew one like you. Ser Danton. He was small, too. Maybe you are his ghost, come back to revenge me?”

Anna said nothing, only lifting her sword and shield and standing at length. The Giant’s sword was of an impressive length, though even at five feet it seemed small in his hands.

“I liked Ser Danton,” he rumbled. “He had the vinegar in him. We fought long, and when I killed him I said a prayer to the gods for him. If I kill you, I may say a prayer for you as well.”

Anna continued standing there, waiting for the Giant to move. “Are you not one to talk?” questioned the Giant. “That is a shame. I like it when small people taunt me.” He lifted his sword, went on the balls of his booted feet, and launched himself forward with inhuman speed. Anna ducked and repelled the oncoming slash with the edge of her shield, but the sheer force of the blow knocked her stumbling, a scratching flight of splinters following the path of his blade. Another slash came soon after, empowered by a deep grunt. This one she met with her sword, and again was forced back by the strength of the attack.

He is like an ox, she thought. Or a bear. She regained her footing and stood her ground again, wondering how long she could keep this up. At this rate, she would tire before him. His attacks are too quick to dodge.

“Do you like my sword?” asked the Giant as he approached again. “It is huge to you, though it is like a knife to me. A giant’s knife is a whelp’s greatsword.” He slashed down, and Anna jumped to the right, the whistle of the passing steel cleaving the air. She stepped in and attempted her counterattack, but was blocked by his black shield. She went again on the backswing, attempting his other side, but he pushed his huge shield forward and bashed her bodily. She reeled and fell backwards. She stumbled to her feet just as another blow was coming down on her. She lifted her shield to meet it, and an awful crack filled the air. A white hot fire filled her left arm, and she bit back a gasp of pain.

She scrambled to her feet. The edge of the arena was behind her, now. She stepped to her right nimbly. She saw splinters of painted black wood littering the ground. He’s destroying my shield, she realized with a pang. He’s destroying Moss.

She had no time to dwell on it, though, as the Giant’s sword came again, and it was like time froze. Before she knew what she was doing, she lunged forward, under the blow, past the Giant’s sword, past his arm, past his right leg, yelling as she brought Autumn around, slashing the back of the huge man’s knee. The smell of blood punched the air.

He howled in fury and pain. He spun on her and made to hit her again, but she saw it coming. She rolled sideways, under the blow, around his back, and leaped into the air, spinning as she slashed at the Giant’s spine. His armor screeched against Autumn’s steel.

The Giant spun again, and brought his sword low, aiming for her legs. She jumped to the right to dodge it, but the Giant had seen it coming. His shield went out again, and bashed her again. Her sword went up, and the Giant’s knife met it with a clang.

Suddenly Autumn was no longer in her hands. The glint of folded steel flew across her vision and landed in the dust thirty yards away. Panic seized her like a vise.

The Giant’s blow came down, and she did the only thing she could, and raised her shield. A crack, a pop, and a roar – her shield exploded into splinters, and she fell on her rear, left arm throbbing in pain.

The words almost caught in her throat. The dust and the stench and the sun blistered her eyes and she felt teary. She focused, and thought she saw Kristoff in those stands, arms crossed, lips pursed in disappointment, gaze hard, head shaking sadly from side to side. She struggled to her feet, barely managing to crouch. “I yield,” she croaked.

The Giant must not have heard her. He raised his sword. Terror bit Anna to the bone, and all other feelings gave way to a desolate chill. “I YIELD!” she shouted.

The Giant swung again. Instinct took hold. She raised her left hand against the falling steel. It cut glove and flesh alike, and then stopped. But there was no pain. The steel was cold, oddly inviting. It rubbed its razor edge against her flesh and bone, and she felt it as one might feel a feather. She stared up at the Giant, blinking back the tears, and closed her hand around the width of the blade.

He grunted. She could feel the sword wobble, as if a fly had landed on a bit of parchment and upset its careful balance. She pulled, and pulled, and wrenched the greatsword from the Giant’s grasp.

He had barely time to take one step. She threw both hands at the hilt. Screaming, she spun, putting all of the strength and power she had left into one final swing. A soft schwip, and she knew it was all over.

A nursery rhyme came to her head. The vorpal blade went snicker-snack, she thought, as she stared at the Giant’s prone figure. She put the tip of his knife in the dust. It was almost as tall as she was.

“To Aren, I consign thee,” she said, and the chill fled her. The pain rushed in like a hungry tide. Faces crowded around her, mousy and green and purple and scared. Darkness pulled her down, down, away from the faces.

The next Anna knew, she was lying in a cot, the flickering of a candle her only company. Her tent. She lifted her head, and attempted to sit up, supported by her hands. A stab went up her left arm, and she gasped aloud in pain.

The entryflap to the tent swung open, and Maple poked her head in. “By the goddess, you’re awake!” she exclaimed.

Anna looked groggily at the witch, and then turned her eyes to her left hand. She was dizzy, but what she saw made her queasy. The palm of her left hand was wrapped in a thick linen bandage, and stained dark with blood.

“What… happened?” she managed at last.

Maple rushed into the tent, kneeling at Anna’s side and sifting through Martin’s rucksack. Her voice was now sharp, rough. “I thought I told that boy to pack – ah, here it is.” She produced a leather sack. Inside was a fat glass bottle with a cork stopper, filled with a thick and strangely iridescent red liquid that seemed to bubble and roil like boiling water.

“What happened?” asked Anna again.

“Be quiet and drink,” ordered Maple, and she unstoppered the glass bottle and put it to Anna’s lips. The scent of the liquid was reek and foul and the taste was sour. She nearly gagged, but she forced it down at Maple’s urging. When the bottle was empty, Maple set it aside and placed a hand on Anna’s shoulder.

“You’ll feel better shortly,” said Maple, her voice low, almost timid. Anna met her eyes, and only then seemed to feel the witch’s hand on her shoulder. She looked down and noticed that her armor was gone, and she was dressed in a simple unlaced brown tunic – not her own.

She gave a start. “The tournament! Is it-”

“Shh,” said Maple. “It’s fine. Martin and your other friend helped carry you back to the tent. We treated you privately. Nobody knows, and you’re going to the final round.” Maple inclined her head respectfully. “That is, if you still want to compete. And I really don’t blame you if not.”

Anna blinked, and tried to sit up again, wincing with pain. Maple tried to push her down, but Anna insisted. “My shield…” she said. “My armor.”

Maple turned away. “Your armor is over there. It’s fine. Your shield, though…” Maple looked sheepish. “It’s in a lot of tiny pieces.”

Anna could have sworn her heart stopped. She closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “No shield,” she said. Not a question, a statement: bland, helpless.

“Your sword is fine, though,” said Maple. “And you have a second one, now.”

Anna opened her eyes again, puzzled. “A second sword?”

Maple chanced a small smile. “The sword you snatched out of that big brute’s hand. Call it a trophy – and that was incredible, by the way. The whole fight it looked like he was trying to swat a fly, and then you just… took his sword away and cut his head off with it!”

Anna cast Maple a baleful look. “Excuse me if I don’t share your apparent enthusiasm.”

Maple had the decency to appear bashful at that. “I’m sorry, it was just – nobody knew what to do. The whole crowd fell silent. And then you were lying there, bloody, and we just… well, we were so happy you were still alive. All of us.”

All of you. “Where is Martin?” asked Anna after a short pause.

“He’s explaining your absence to the master of games,” said Maple. “But – don’t worry. He’ll do fine. He’s with that other friend of yours.”

“Other friend?” repeated Anna.

“You know, that tall boy with the dopey smile and big nose,” said Maple. “What was his name? ‘Christian,’ or something?”

“Kristoff,” said Anna. So he was there, after all. She felt like apologizing to him.

A long silence ensued, and Maple sat at her cotside the whole while saying nothing. At last, Anna broke the silence: “When is my final match?”

Maple’s eyes widened. “Do you still mean to compete?”

Anna smiled humorlessly. “I owe you some money, don’t I?”

“Not necessarily,” said Maple. “I’d still accept a kiss instead.”

Anna did laugh. “You know, my old teacher used to warn me about flirts like you. She said they can ruin lives.” She held up her wounded hand. “I kind of see her point.”

Maple’s eyes darted to the bandages and back. “Your hand will be fine,” she said. “That potion I gave you will see to that.”

“Now how is a potion going to do that?” said Anna, annoyed.

“Magic!” said Maple brightly, her eyes lighting up.

“Oh, magic,” said Anna, rolling her eyes. It was so absurd Anna had to laugh. “Witches, giants.” Anna shook her head. “What has my life become?”

A few minutes later, and the pain had indeed completely disappeared from Anna’s arm. Maple removed the bandage gingerly. “See? No wound.” Anna looked, and indeed, there was no wound at all – only a faint scar that ran across the width of her palm. She flexed her hand, and all seemed to be in working order.

“No wound,” repeated Anna.

Maple nodded. “The cut was nasty before. You did catch a sword in your hand, after all; he cut right to the bone. The pain must have been unbearable as well. To be honest, freckles, I’m not sure how you did it.”

She might have meant it to be complimentary, but a chill ran down Anna’s spine just the same. “Me either,” she shrugged, shivering. She attempted to smile. “Thanks for healing me up.”

“Hey, this isn’t exactly gratis, remember,” said Maple, wagging a finger. “One way or another, you’re gonna owe me. I’m a businesswoman after all, not some sentimental softie.”

Whatever Maple was, she was helpful, there was no use denying that. She helped Anna out of her cot and asked, not once, but twice if Anna was really sure that she wanted to go through with the remainder of the tournament. Anna waved off her concern and insisted she would see it through, even though the encounter with the Giant had indeed been a very close shave. In particular, she knew she had yielded, or tried to – and yet he kept coming. She only hoped that wouldn’t happen again.

Still, the caution born of fear had her asking about it. “Did you hear me shout ‘yield,’ Maple?”

“During the last fight?” she questioned. “We all did. I think it would have disqualified you, but someone has to proceed from every round, and the Giant is too short by a head to move on.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” said Anna, feeling a little sick at the memory.

“I’m sure you didn’t, freckles, but he’d have done you no better. Frankly, I’m glad you had the stomach to defend yourself. So, since he didn’t accept your yield, and then died anyway, the master of games agreed that you move on to the final round.”

“Okay.” Anna nodded, and took a deep breath to steady herself. She went over to the basin to cup a handful of water and splash her face. She looked again into the reflective waters of the bowl. It had been a long time since she had a good, long look at herself. Briefly, she was reminded of the stream of her youth, where she collected berries and met Kristoff and Sven by the crossing. When she was young, her face was round and slightly freckled. Everyone always said she smiled with her whole face – her mouth, cheeks, nose, and eyes.

Now, she had the queerest sense that a stranger was staring back at her. Her face was leaner now, her mouth a thin line, her hard eyes the palest turquoise. Her upper cheeks and nose were dusted heavily with freckles. There was no smile anywhere. Her hair, once always wild and free, was now tied down but for a few loose strands. A chill pricked her skin, and she closed her eyes. Visions of endless snowy fields filled her mind, dotted with lumps and lumps of snow, growing taller and taller…

“Pardon?” came Maple’s voice.

Anna opened her eyes with a start, and turned away from the basin. Her forehead throbbed. “I’m sorry?”

Maple lifted an eyebrow at her. “Did you just say something?”

Anna returned the look. “Didn’t you?”

Maple blinked several times, and then shrugged. “Must be my imagination. Anyway, your last challenge is coming up. Are you really, really sure you’re ready?”

Anna bit her lip for half a moment, and then nodded. “Yes. Absolutely. Who is my final opponent?”

“Your final opponent may yet prove a bit tricky. He’s a man of some renown in the kingdom, a battle-hardened captain. He goes by the name Ser Tore Seastone.”

“Ser Tore?” repeated Anna with a jolt. “The marshal of Arendelle? Hero of the Weselton War?”

“The very same,” said Maple. Just then, the entry flap to the tent burst open, and Kristoff and Martin stumbled in.

“You’re alive!” exclaimed Martin, out of breath.

“Yes,” said Anna, and she scratched the back of her neck, abashed. “Sorry if I gave you a scare.”

Martin shook his head. “I knew you’d win, I just knew it.”

“Easy, tiger, she hasn’t won yet,” said Kristoff flatly. He addressed Anna: “They’re ready for you when you are. The final match.”

Anna looked at him for a long moment, and then nodded. “Very good. I just need to put on my armor.” She shed her tunic and went to fetch her under-armor. Kristoff cleared his throat and quickly excused himself from the tent.

Maple laughed lightly, and Anna looked at her. “What’s so funny?”

“You just stripped topless in front of that boy,” giggled Maple. “What, were you raised in a barn?”

“A forest, actually,” said Anna, annoyed, and she pulled an undertunic on over her head. “What difference does it make?”

“Aren’t you worried you’ll give him some ideas?” asked Maple, her voice sweetened with amusement.

Anna blinked. “It’s not my responsibility what ideas he chooses to get into his head,” she said starkly. “Besides, I’ve known Kristoff since… well, since forever.”

Maple shrugged. “Don’t underestimate the propensity of teenage boys to be teenage boys.” She cast her eyes on Martin. “Might want to be careful of this one, too.”

Martin reddened. “I don’t- I’m not- I’m her squire!” he sputtered.

Maple cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at the boy. “On second thought, he might be okay.”

Anna looked between the two of them, utterly bemused. “Well, then,” she said. “I still need to get ready, so…”

Maple helped her into her armor. Anna noticed that her left glove had a huge gash across the palm, but there was nothing to be done for it. She placed the antlered helmet on her head and took up Autumn and strapped it to her side. “Your shield is gone,” Martin reminded her dourly. Her gift from the trolls.

“I don’t suppose you can magick me up a second shield?” Anna asked Maple.

The witch shook her head. “Not on such short notice. And not for nothing, neither.”

Anna frowned, and fingered Autumn’s hilt idly. “I suppose I’ll have to go shieldless, then.” That put her at a significant disadvantage, since Autumn’s short length meant it would be difficult to control the tide of battle without a shield to aid in blocking.

“You could use the Giant’s sword,” offered Martin, as if he had read her thoughts.

“I could,” said Anna slowly. “But it’s five feet long and probably heavy to match.”

“That didn’t stop you from cutting off his head!”

Anna went over to where the Giant’s sword was laying, on the rushes in a greasy wood-and-leather scabbard. She picked it up, and to her surprise, it was not as heavy as she was lead to imagine. It was just as long, though, its length almost as great as her height.

“If it were a foot shorter, it would be good,” said Anna, and she handed the sword to Martin. “Put this away, would y-”

No sooner did she hand over the sword than it dropped to the ground, Martin’s arms folding like a house of cards as the thing clattered to the rushes in a great hurry. Martin blushed furiously. “Sorry!” he gasped. “It was just heavier than I expected.”

Maple raised an eyebrow and went to pick up the sword. She hefted it in both hands. “That is much heavier than a normal sword,” she admitted. She handed it to Martin, who this time accepted it more graciously.

Anna stared. “Wait,” she said, and took the sword from Martin. She rotated it in her hands, grabbed the handle to try its feel. It didn’t seem all that unwieldy, though it was heavier than Autumn by far. The length would be a little odd, but she was using three-foot sticks since she was only a foot taller than that. Might as well give it a try. She unbuckled Autumn and turned it over to Martin. “Since I won’t have a shield anyway, I might as well use a dedicated two-handed weapon.”

It was with that sword in hand that she stood on the edge of the arena for what she knew was the last time either way. The crowd was cheering for the Flower Knight, with occasional yells for “Tore the Bloody” piercing the din. She knew not what they would call her at the end of the day, when she removed her helmet. For the first time that day, she thought about the consequence of losing. Her wrist tingled at the imagined sensation of the handchopper’s axe coming down. She smiled faintly when she thought of Maple’s losing condition. Plus one kiss, minus one hand. She didn’t think the math worked out there.

If she won, though…

She stepped into the arena, and raised the Giant’s Knife in salute to the queen. Her expression seemed changed somewhat compared to earlier, though how exactly Anna couldn’t tell. Was that admiration – or fear?

Across the arena, Ser Tore stepped in as well. He was a graying man now, his beard and hair more salt than the pepper she remembered from her youth. He wore a beaten iron halfhelm, a drab sea green leather vest, and chainmail, but no cloak. You wouldn’t know him to be the second most powerful man in the kingdom to look at him. Both of his hands were wrapped around the handle of a long, blue sword.

Anna’s eyes lingered on that sword. It wasn’t a bright blue, not really, but it was unmistakable. It seemed to glow a pallid lightning color. Anna thought she could hear a faint, dull hum being emitted by the blade. The hilt was finely carved onyx with a grip of polished black leather, and the pommel was a stone that seemed to alternate between flashing lime and teal.

Ser Tore also saluted the queen with his sword, and assumed a ready, low posture. Anna raised the Giant’s Knife in a high guard. The master of games yelled: “Knights, bare steel and fight!”

They approached across the arena, apace, each eyeing the other intently. When they stood no more than three yards apart, Ser Tore bowed his head slightly and began the attack.

A low guard, thought Anna – no problem. She blocked his attack from on high, but was surprised to see him spin it into another sudden strike. It was all she could do to block. The length of the Knife ought to mean she had a decisive edge in reach, but she was on the defensive and Ser Tore was as fast an opponent as any she had ever fought.

His steel kept coming, and Anna kept blocking, turning her knife against his blows in every moment. She had no opportunities to launch counterattacks, and once – no, twice – Ser Tore landed ringing blows on her armor. The second hit her helmet, and the bang echoed in her ears.

A third hit, on her left side. Suddenly she felt a little queasy, and a little jittery. She was beginning to feel numb. She blinked and tried to focus and push away the feeling. The hum was louder now.

She looked at his sword and its blue glow. “That sword,” she said, aloud. “How does it glow?”

He swiped again, and she blocked it. “You mean to tell me you don’t know?” he asked, his voice gruff and quiet. “’Tis electrinum.”

Electrinum. That rang a bell. Anders – no, Astrid – one of them had mentioned it once. A rare metal, difficult to mine and more difficult to work, but you could run it in the steel of a sword to make a blade that channeled electricity.

Of course. That blade would run through any suit of armor through the duration of a duel. Every hit he scores on the armor will weaken the joints and reflexes of the person wearing it. It was a clever notion, but more importantly, it meant she had little time to dally – the stamina advantage was Ser Tore’s.

Another swipe. Block. They kept going back and forth. The Giant’s Knife was getting heavy. Any more hits by that blue sword, and she wondered if she’d still be able to lift it. Another swipe. Block. Where is my opening? Astrid always said I needed to be more aggressive. Swipe. Block – swipe. Clang. Right on the shoulder.

She backed up several paces, and attempted to loosen up her joints and shoulder. She cracked her neck, and brandished the Giant’s Knife again. She adopted a low guard this time – a high guard was for smaller swords. With the length of the Knife, she could block from low without losing an advantage.

Swipe. Swipe. He was striking from up high, now. Block, block, left and right, swipe – that one is too high. He connected again, her right side. Her chest convulsed, and she drew a staggering breath. Can electrinum kill? she thought in a moment’s panic. Must she simply yield?

The thought was too much to bear. With a yell, she charged, and slashed back. This time the reach advantage forced him to retreat. He kept her blows at bay, grunting, and attacked the moment she let up. She went back on the defensive, discipline forcing her to reply to his blows. Block, block, clang – he connected again. The Giant’s Knife was growing quite heavy.

What am I doing wrong? she wondered. Is he simply too fast, too strong for me? Astrid always warned her that there was always a better fighter in the world, somewhere, no matter how good you thought you were.

“So there is no ‘the best,’ then?” she remembered asking with a coy smile.

“Never for very long,” Astrid replied. “It’s fighters all the way down.”

She wondered how Astrid would fight Ser Tore. Her style was different from Anna’s – she always taught Anna to be defensive and to focus on good fundamentals, but she herself was something of a wild card when it came to fighting. Any weapon, any style, and she would simply have at it. The old Berkish style – an axe in both hands. Just wave them around and you’re bound to hit something.

“Complete buffonery,” Astrid had said. “But there’s something to it. A good offense is the best defense, after all.”

I know I need to go on the offense, but where is my opening? He came again. Where is his opening? Is he just faster? She blocked. He’s making his own openings, but he can because of his speed…

The Knife seemed a little less heavy all of a sudden. His speed. Maybe he is faster, but she brought the Giant’s Knife. As long as she could hold it and swing it, she had reach. And reach is most important. She attacked, again and again. Every swing, the drab knight seemed to back up a little, and the Knife seemed to get a little lighter. I’ll make my own openings, too.

He seemed to have the same idea, and attempted counterattack after counterattack, but Anna was relentless. Sweat dripped from her brow and stung her eyes, but that only impelled her forward. Up high, down low; now, the other way. He was on the defense. She gave a heave, he parried and slipped through, his blade coming right at her – and she ducked, rolled, and now she was close. Up – her blade found his crossguard and dislodged the blue sword from his hand. One sword between them now – and she held it, panting heavily all the while.

He looked dumbstruck. The drab knight gritted his teeth, and nodded his head ever so slightly. “I yield,” he announced.

The roar was deafening. All around the lists, the cry went up. She held the Knife up, and they cheered the louder. Peasants, nobles, knights, merchants and foreigners alike all took up the cheer. “Flower Knight! Flower Knight!” From the stands, the onlookers threw things onto the arena – some fruit, but mostly streamers and even flowers.

Anna listened to the roaring cheers, her heart pounding. They cheer now, she thought. Now. I have given them a show. But the real show… She turned her head, and saw Martin and Maple standing at the arena’s edge. Martin was holding Autumn in his hands, clutching it like a lifeline. She beckoned to him, and exchanged the Knife. I need Autumn in my hands for this moment, she thought, and she turned again to face the queen’s box. Her sword, still in its sheath, seemed to thrum in her grip.

The queen still looked down, her smile betraying nothing but that same cautious optimism. The master of games raised his arms to the sky and cried: “The mystery knight has won! To him, ten thousand gold flakes, and the queen’s audience!” Those in the box parted, and Anna walked up until she stood mere feet away from the Queen of Arendelle, Her Eminence, Her Radiance, Her Majesty, and, if grace was good this day, her liege lord.

The Flower Knight knelt before the queen, Autumn resting point first against the ground, as the audience went on cheering. The queen raised a hand, and the cheering died down quickly. Queen Elsa smiled. “You have fought valiantly today, mystery knight. ‘The Flower Knight,’ they call you?”

Anna played this moment, and others, over in her head a thousand times before. Living it out seemed unreal. She hoped she could keep her voice steady. “A humble name, if it please your majesty,” she boomed from her greathelm. “None fear the flower.”

“On the contrary, none must have allergies, then,” said the queen with a light laugh. Anna’s heart fluttered like a tiny fat bird with littler wings. “Where are you from, brave ser knight?”

“Burrowstown, Your Majesty,” said Anna.

“Burrowstown? That is surprising to hear. I visited that town once myself. Are you a knight in service to His Lordship, Edward Burrows, then?”

Never, thought Anna; but she said, “No, Your Majesty. I am a hedge-knight.”

“Ah, very good,” said the queen. “Well, mayhaps we can change that, today.”

I was hoping you would say that, thought Anna, her heart pounding faster than ever. “Your Majesty is gracious.”

The queen shook her head. “You have earned it, brave ser knight. Would you be so kind as to lift your helmet that we may gaze upon our champion and know his name?”

Anna hesitated. “If it please Your Majesty, may I have your word that my request shall be granted no matter my visage or form?”

The queen’s face stilled, and she gave Anna a quizzical look. “Of course. I keep my word.” She cracked a smile. “Even the ugliest of knights may be granted titles, you know.”

Anna could have laughed, but the jape felt hollow. Oh, if only she were merely ugly. But no, she was a woman, and was like as not to be behanded or beheaded for this. Still, she had the queen’s word, and that was as good as it got.

“Stand, brave ser knight, and let us see your face!” cried Queen Elsa.

The Flower Knight stood straight up, Autumn in her right hand. She noticed those arrayed there, now: on either side of the queen, her Royal Guardsmen – sworn to protect and serve Her Majesty. And there was Ser Tore, now in the box. I wonder what his request would have been?

With her left hand, she grasped the bottom lip of her antlered helmet, and lifted. It came away in one fluid motion, and her left hand settled down at her side once more. She felt the breeze on her face still damp with sweat; the tendrils of wind played with the loose strands of her hair, dancing on the drifts. “I am Anna,” she declared, “from Burr– from the Wolfswood.”

A deafening silence gained the crowd. The queen’s box was all shocked faces – the guardsmen, Ser Tore, the attendant lords and ladies – and Queen Elsa, whose jaw had dropped, whose face had acquired a deathly pallor. She gripped the arms of her chair, her knuckles whitening visibly against her pale, pale skin.

Suddenly, Ser Tore boomed with laughter. He doubled over, his eyes scrunched shut, as wheeze after wheeze of loud, harsh cackle poured out of his mouth. “Beaten by a girl!” he roared. “And a whelp! Ahahaha!”

“She killed the Giant!” came another voice in the crowd, awestruck.

“And beat the prince!”

“And Tore the Bloody!”

Murmurs were scattering like cockroaches through the rushes. Faces plastered with awe gaped at her from all the stands.

A yelp burst forth from the queen’s box, and a small, thin man in a black-and-red doublet stood up on his chair. He wore gold-rimmed glass lenses over his eyes, and had a thick, bushy gray mustache. His head was bald except for a slight crown of gray around the fringes. His jaw was wide, his cheeks sallow, his eyes angry.

“This is an outrage!” he half-squeaked, half-croaked, like a mouse that had lived for centuries. “Is this the way things are done in Arendelle? Don’t you even check if your mystery knights are male?”

“That would rather defeat the point of the mystery, wouldn’t it?” came a cool voice from behind him. The speaker was a tall, middle-aged woman with long, blue eyelashes and waves of tumbled, jet-black hair, clad in an elaborate dress of black and blue velvet.

“I didn’t come all this way to be insulted!” he cried.

“You’ve come further for less,” snapped Ser Tore. “Your champion was felled by the Giant, which, I suppose, would mark the second time that man foiled your plans. By the gods, you ought to thank the girl for slaying him.”

“You would bring that up with me? I paid the indemnities, you jumped-up cur!” screamed the little man, his eyes bulging at the old marshal.

“He’s right!” came another voice, thick and low, spoken by a fat woman in red, white, and black. “You cannot allow this travesty to go unpunished. OFF WITH HER HEAD!”

“The law is the law – the winner of the tournament…”

“Laws? She broke the law!”

“She’s from Burrowstown. You know Burrowstown, the Burrows family is always hiring female sellswords…”

“The right to mystery knight is a sacred right…”

“For men, not wo…”

“SILENCE!” Queen Elsa’s voice burst around the lists like shattering ice. She slammed her fist against the arm of her chair. “I will not permit this senseless squabbling on the day of my coronation. I gave this competitor my word, and my word is ice. I shall not break it.” The queen studied Anna with a cool, hard gaze, the shadow of pain that Anna saw before once more visible. “What is your request, mystery knight? I promise, no harm will come of you.”

Anna let out a small, quiet sigh of relief. She dipped her head, and spoke quickly: “Your Majesty, I have only one thing to ask of you. It is a great thing, but I hope you will see by the strength of my arm and the lengths I have gone to participate today” – an audible scoff – “that my resolve is great.”

Queen Elsa nodded. “What do you desire? Lands? Money?”

Anna lifted her eyes to meet the queen’s. “High office, Your Majesty.”

The queen gripped the sides of her chair again, eyes widening. There was something in those eyes, those pools of crystal water, that icy gaze – a pleading note, reluctant, afraid.

“Your Majesty,” Anna went on, “I would swear my sword and my service to you. I would be your woman.” Anna dropped her helmet and placed a clenched fist against her heart. “I would be your Lord Protector, and shield you from harm, and serve you as your most leal knight and subject.”

Silence again. A man to the queen’s right spoke up, a thick-necked man with a big shelf of a nose. His voice was gentle: “Your Grace, you cannot grant this request…”

The queen waved him to silence. “I gave my word, Kai,” she said in a shuddering voice, almost weary. “I gave my word; I have no choice.”

The short man with the gold lenses piped up. “Impudent wench! She presumes–”

Queen Elsa’s voice cut him off like a shearing icicle, suddenly sharp and biting. “She presumes nothing.” She glared at the man with cold, hard eyes. “She has proved her skill at arms and won the tourney. I will not suffer to hear any more slights against her, nor any more of your interruptions this day.” The short man turned red as a beet, and the queen looked at Anna and set her jaw. “You are sure of this, mystery knight? You know what you ask?”

Anna nodded dumbly. “To serve Your Majesty is all I ever wanted.”

The queen gave her an odd look, and then closed her eyes and issued a heavy sigh. She looked tired, and old; older than her age. As Anna stared at the young queen, she noticed a small sprinkling of freckles on her upper cheeks, barely visible despite the light color of her skin. That was appropriate: even her freckles had the good grace to hide themselves, like so many blushing beauties behind pale masks. And she saw pain, there, too; pain in the lines of her mouth, cheek, and eyes, the result of a young face stretched by fatigue and stress. “I gave my word,” the queen said quietly, almost to herself. “Very well. It shall be done. Hand me your sword.”

Slowly, Anna handed Autumn to the queen, hilt first, and the queen accepted it with a trembling grasp. There was no noise, only the scrape of steel on leather as the folded steel blade drew free of its scabbard; and the blowing of the wind, now cold; very, very cold.

“Kneel, please.” Anna took a knee. The queen spoke with a voice of burnished steel, practice and discipline cracking the unsteady floes of the moments prior. “Do you promise to serve me faithfully, to do all that I ask, to not conspire against me, to never raise a hand against me, to keep my trust and to exercise my will?”

“I do.”

“Do you swear that you will fight tirelessly against mine and the kingdom’s enemies, to defend the weak and innocent, to be a good and honest knight, and to protect and serve me and to be thou for the people?”

Anna’s heart was in her ears. She couldn’t believe this was really happening. “I do,” she choked, her throat dry.

“Do you pledge to keep this oath as long as you live?”

“I do.”

“Then swear it.”

“I swear it.”

She felt Autumn’s tip on her shoulder. “Then I dub thee… Ser Anna, Knight of Crystalwater, Lord Protector of the Kingdom of Arendelle.” The other shoulder. “Now, rise a knight, Ser Anna.”

Anna stood, slowly, and was met with Autumn’s hilt. “Take your sword,” said the queen, her voice almost a whisper, carried on the wind now colder than winter. “And fulfill your oath.”

Anna accepted the sword. “Yes, my queen.” Autumn flashed orange and red in the late afternoon sun, and Anna blinked away the sweat and tears.

 

 

Chapter Text

The morning was cold and dark, as most December mornings are. Ser Anna pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders as she braved the walkway cut white and dark with razor wind. Below, distant, were the sounds of shouts and greetings. She pushed open a heavy oaken door and sidled through the entryway.

Her squire, Martin, was dozing outside of her chambers, the only light in the stone hallway that of two low-burning torches in dull metal sconces. “Martin.” She woke him by tapping his shin with the tip of her boot. He started, and rubbed his eyes. “I must needs don my armor. Meet me in my solar.” The boy nodded stiffly and went to it.

She entered her chambers, passing through the solar into the living room where she draped her cloak over a wooden peg, stopping at the vanity to remove a brass taper from a fat tallow candle. She lit the candle, then kicked off her boots and wriggled out of her tunic and changed into a quilted doublet and padded fur breeches. She pulled the hairtie out of her hair and then, at the vanity, threw her hands into the water basin and ran wet fingers through her copper locks. She irritatedly yanked out a white hair that fell over her right eye.

Martin arrived with her armor and swordbelt. She armored up in green-enameled tempered plates of Svithron steel that fit her form like a glove, her cuirass a tough emerald green plate wrought with patterns of golden vines. Her squire handed her a large, steel shield, embossed and enameled with her heraldry: a golden crocus on a field of green.

“How went m’lady’s meeting?” asked Martin.

“Poorly. Has the queen awoken yet?”

“Yes, m’lady.” Anna finished putting on her steel gauntlets, two green lobsters chased with gold. She slung the shield on her back. The squire went on, “She has taken to the baths, and afterwards she will go to the throne room to hold court.”

Anna sighed under her breath and sat. Martin slid her greaves on – also green, well-jointed and comfortable, snowproofed and lined with fur. “I thought she would not wake for another hour hence. Who has the watch?”

“Flynt and Tazzie – erm, Ser Tazmus, m’lady.” Martin wrapped a cloak over her shoulders, green with gold embroidery, emblazoned with her gold crocus sigil. He pinned it at the gorget with two golden crocus pins.

She nodded. “Good. I will go see them.” She stood again, her armor clinking softly, her cloak rustling, and she exited for her room once more. She took up Autumn from its resting place on her bed, and turned to leave, stopping only to look at the vanity.She stared, and the red-haired, green-clad Lady Protector stared back at her. The courtiers sometimes called her, variously, elegant and fiercely beautiful, like the warrior princesses of old Svithron. Anna knew little of what to make of these compliments. What use were elegance and beauty for a knight in Her Majesty’s service?

Now, looking at her second self in the mirror, even those words seemed hollow. Her face seemed drawn and thin, her eyes listless and weary, her mouth arranged in a constant frown. The courtiers said other things, too, when they were not sure of her hearing: rumors and whispers. Small wonder the queen kept her away.

Away, yes. And that second self in the mirror knew it, too. Away. When late nights plagued her with troubled dreams and woke her, panting and sweating, in the gloom, she’d lay awake and think back to the moment it all went wrong, when she messed up, when the gulf appeared, and when she felt the barbs and stings that no armor could repel. She cast her mind back, like a line, the hook baited with all her uncertainty and jealous desire for recognition, seeking the answer to the question of why, why, why?

 


 

The newly knighted Ser Anna woke in a feather bed with soft white sheets and soft down pillows and a mattress stuffed with the feathers of forty-‘leven geese that took a whole bolt of cloth for the lick. The revelry of the evening prior weighed down on her heavily, and she groaned in remembrance of last night’s feast, generous fare glistening sweetly with grease and honey. Roast goldgoose, suckling piglings, spiced snaketail… And the wine. Anna had never before taken to indulging much in the grape, but Ser Anna was a different story. How could she say “no” when the lords and ladies insisted so kindly, and so often?

Anna slid out of the bed and into a pair of light feather slippers, her head rat-tat-tatting like a drummer boy. The rooms she had been given were that of the Lord Protector’s quarters – well, that was Lady Protector now. It was odd to think that two weeks and some change prior, these rooms were where the legendary Lord Erik Ulfton had lived, about whom she had heard much though never chanced to meet. If I can live up to half his legacy, it will be enough.

Her bedroom was spacious and comfortable. The feather bed was huge and draped all around with blue and purple canopies, and sat opposite a large triangular window that overlooked the fjord. Anna swayed over to the window and leaned on the sill, chin squarely in the palms of her hands, and sighed contentedly. She could feel the smile on her face, the warm in her cheeks from the dappled sunlight of the morning glow. The ships on the harbor were going and coming in their patient way, pennants and colors flapping in the breeze, bells ringing faintly. The city looked peaceful, serene, quiet. Below, in the castle courtyards, the striped pavilions of the Arenborg’s many guests billowed with the waking of the day.

She pushed herself away from the sill and stretched her back and arms, then slipped out of her night clothes to fish a tunic and breeches from her dresser. She pulled them on and went to the vanity to finish the morning’s grooming, at last pulling her hair into a single wavy ponytail.

Emerging from her bedroom at last, she found Martin waiting in her solar, dozing in a cushioned chair by the unlit hearth. Her solar was a spacious room with a wide window along one wall and a hearth in another, and featured several comfy chairs that serviced a sturdy oak table. Along the walls in the gaps and crannies were cupboards, dressers, and arms racks that, Anna figured, one time held the trophies and belongings of the late Lord Protector. They were empty now, but for Maple’s armor and the Giant’s Knife. Autumn, of course, she kept in her room to sleep besides.

“Martin!” she called, half-singing, half-laughing. “By the gods, Martin, what are you doing in here? Don’t you have a more comfortable bed to doze in?”

Martin rubbed his eyes and blinked awake. “Anna! I’m sorry, I just – I didn’t know when you’d rise, and I wanted to be ready to serve you whenever that was.”

She waved him off. “Don’t be silly. I can serve myself well enough.”

Martin frowned a little. “Anna, you’re officially a knight now. Oh – I suppose that means I must call you Ser Anna. B-But, now that you’re an official knight, I’m an official squire, and squires have duties…”

She laughed. “Yes, that much is true. But today the queen is holding court. I am to attend at her side, and your time is your own.”

Martin scratched the back of his neck. “What should I do?”

Anna shrugged. “I’m sure there are some practice ranges, if you want to loose some shafts. Maybe you could meet some of the other squires.”

The mention of archery perked Martin up. “You think so?” he asked.

Anna smiled, and nodded. “I certainly do.”

She returned to her bedroom where she found Autumn lying on the bed. She took it up, swordbelt and all, and cradled it in her hands. It felt at peace – happy, almost, in her hands.

The Queen’s Tower was a tall structure, second tallest in the Arenborg next to the Tower of Arendelle. In it were the royal quarters, consisting of several rooms, though Queen Elsa only used her personal bedroom and the queen’s solar.Directly below was the Lord Protector’s quarters, complete with auxiliary quartering for a squire or squires; below that was the tower atrium that led to the entry walkway. The Queen’s Tower was almost perfectly isolated from the rest of the Arenborg, but for the walkway that led from its base to the castle proper.

Last evening, before the feast, Ser Tore Seastone bid her take a knee and recite the Lord Protector’s pledge before the queen. It was different, and longer, than the words that the queen made her swear, and before long she had lost track of all the different things she had sworn. The highlights were clear, though: do as the queen bids, protect her with your life, and show no mercy to her enemies.

“The line of Arendelle continues,” said Ser Tore solemnly, as he finished the pledge.

“The line of Arendelle continues,” repeated Ser Anna, and she stood before the queen. “My sword is yours, Your Grace.”

The queen had no looked at her, her eyes cast down at her own hands, which she flexed with a queer disinterest. They flickered upwards and she only then seemed to notice Anna for the first time. “I thank you, brave ser knight. I will wield it well.”

Ann knocked on the door to the queen’s solar. “Come in,” came a voice, and she walked in. A wave of doubt crashed over her as she entered the round, high-ceilinged room with its plush and fine furniture, blue rushes and blue walls and the blue-dressed queen sat starkly in a blue cushioned chair, head turned slightly to one side to regard the blue shades and blue windows that streamed in the pale blue light of the morning. “Sit,” said Queen Elsa, and she indicated a chair opposite her, before the unlit hearth.

Anna sat gingerly, hand playing with the hilt of her sword. Almost immediately she realized her mistake, and jumped out of her seat to kneel awkwardly before the queen. “My liege,” she said, and her head shot up and back down as she didn’t know how or when to pull out of her bow.

Queen Elsa looked puzzled, the corner of her eyes crinkled in – was that amusement? “You may sit, you know. I said as much.”

Anna flushed, and clumsily stood up to sit back down in the chair. “I – yes, my queen, of course, forgive my – erm, please, if you would, that is, forgive my, erm, lack of discretion.”

To her surprise, the queen laughed. “Relax, ser. I promise you will not find me wroth today.” She paused for a moment, looking Anna in the eyes before she turned her gaze back to the window. “I gave you my word that you would be my Lord Protector. Yet, I find I know precious little about you. And I…” She flexed her hands, and then wrung them together, her voice faltering slightly. “I find I am quite curious. About your life, and about who you are.”

“Oh,” said Anna, quietly. When the queen said nothing more, still only looking at the window, she dared to speak. “I am afraid Your Grace would not find my life very interesting. I am little more than a peasant girl from the sticks.” She smiled weakly.

The queen gave her a cool look, her eyes grown flinty for a second. “Who told you that?” she whispered.

“Someone I met on the road,” said Anna, and then she remembered. “Ah – Your Grace, there is something you should know…”

Anna regaled the queen with the story of her encounter with Ser Magnus, and the beast on the Springway. Her countenance fell, and by the time Anna got to Ser Magnus’s death, the queen looked troubled, almost hurt. “Ser Magnus was a good knight, loyal and true,” she said. “I am sorry to hear of his demise.”

“He died in service to a good cause, Your Grace,” said Anna. “I can attest to his valor in battle.”

The queen frowned, her face casting a dubious shadow. “For all that valor, he is dead. What kind of good cause kills good men?”

Anna frowned too. “The cause of Your Grace’s safety.” She explained the purpose of the sellswords on the road, and produced the Weselton badge that she had retrieved from the sellsword’s jerkin, which caused the queen to stand up abruptly.

“This matter must be brought before the council at once,” she said, and Anna stood up too. “I will convene a meeting immediately.” The queen gave Anna a hesitant look. “Please, attend me, ser. You are my Lady Protector, after all. It is tradition that the Protector shadows the monarch at all times.”

Anna let herself smile at that, the worry of the sellswords now seeming like a trifle. With me at her side, no enemy will so much as scratch the queen! She patted Autumn’s hilt for luck, and said, “As Your Grace commands.”

They departed for the council room, with couriers dispatched to summon the small council. The council room was a cozy round room with a heavy table of burnished wood and a big stone hearth flanked by shuttered glass windows. A small fire was burning in the hearth, casting long black shadows across the room, and one by one the councilmembers showed up and took their seats around the table. By tradition, the Lord Protector sat at the ruler’s right hand. Ser Tore sat at her other hand.

The queen had wine brought in, a dry Lutetian red. Anna cast a glance around the room. There was the Master of Letters, Kai, a stout man with a big nose, jowly cheeks, and a band of ginger hair; there was the middle-aged Lady Ysmir in her black and blue dress and faint scowls, the Royal Spymaster; there was the Marshal Ser Tore, of course; the Lord High Admiral,the enormously fat Lord Hugoss, who was charged with the maintenance and deployment of the nation’s navies, and was presently hard at work on his second cup of wine; Lord Joakim Myles, the Lord High Steward, with his burgundy robes, sloped shoulders, and easy smile; Ser Wendel Bigsby, a short man with close, black hair, the lowborn Captain of the Watch and a master of disgruntled expressions; Master Sydney Penrose, the young Court Wizard with a twitching eye and unruly shock of white-gold hair; and the Court Sacern, Sissil Morey, a godswife of the southern religion, with broad shoulders and hard features and an unkillable thirst for wine, as Anna had learned the night previous.

Queen Elsa bid the council listen to Ser Anna, who stood and told, for the second time, of her encounter on the Springway. Her story quieted the small council, and they shared uneasy glances with one another when she threw the Weselton badge down on the table. Only Lady Ysmir seemed outright dubious.

“You mean to tell us that Weselton mercenaries charged with killing the king and queen were traipsing about north of Vardale, and they just happened to come upon Ser Magnus with the Bastard of Beast’s Keep at their beck and call?” Lady Ysmir asked, with no shortage of incredulous looks.

“It is as my lady says,” replied Anna. “The bastard felled Ser Magnus. He fought valiantly, but in the end succumbed to the beast’s bite. That badge I found sewn to one of sellswords’s jerkin.”

“The bastard felled Ser Magnus, did he? I thought you said the mercenaries were all killed?”

“I did say that, my lady,” said Anna, her voice flat. “I killed them.”

“All of them?” Lord Hugoss asked into the following disquiet.

“All of them.”

Lady Ysmir snorted. “A likely story, but I wonder, is it more likely than you slaying the castellan yourself, and then inventing some cockamamie nonsense about beastmen?”

Lord Myles chuckled. “You were there, my lady. You saw the new Lady Protector savage one competitor after another. Three mercenaries and a beastman are as fodder to the Prince and the Giant.”

“The gods watch over her,” said Sissil Morey solemnly.

Lord Hugoss exhaled loudly. “Good thing she’s on our side, right?” he guffawed, and downed his fourth cup of wine.

Ser Wendel leaned over and whispered something into the Court Wizard’s ear, and he snickered.

Anna frowned. “It is as I tell it, my lords. If you doubt the truth of my words, you can see for yourself. I laid a grave for Ser Magnus and the inn where I slew the sellswords is not far north of there.”

Lady Ysmir wrinkled her nose. “Very well, then. I shall arrange a party to go investigate. And I should like it if you led them.”

The queen shot Lady Ysmir a dark look. “My lady, since when are Lord Protectors meant to leave their charges absent?”

“Since they are suspects for murder,” countered Lady Ysmir. “A Lord Protector is a great thing to have, as long as they aren’t themselves a threat to the queen’s health and safety.”

The queen frowned, and for a second looked like she meant to reply, when Anna cut in. “I will go,” she said with a curt nod.

Lady Ysmir nodded back. “Master Penrose should attend you, as well. He can exhume the body and identify the remains.”

The Court Wizard grinned and waggled his finger. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, together.”

Breakfast was brought in, and they ate tender sausages, boiled eggs, and golden bread with jam and berries with cream. They talked amongst themselves of the festivities of the night prior, and each took every available opportunity to praise the queen’s grace and beauty – compliments she accepted with pleasant smiles and gentle inclinations of the head.

At one point, Lord Hugoss sat next to Anna and bid her ear. “My Lady Protector, I would have words, if it please you?”

“Oh, my lord?” Lord Hugoss was amiable enough, and often dressed in navy blues that bore the gold five-pointed star of House Hugoss on the front. However, he smelled of sweat, and had a habit of constantly dabbing at his forehead with a white silk handkerchief. Furthermore, he took every available opportunity the night previous to brag of his three sons, and how likely they were, and how he meaned to marry them well – which, Anna assumed, meant that he considered them likely suitors for her.

Anna knew she ought to be flattered, given her lowborn status, but being the Knight of Crystalwater and Lady Protector besides bespoke a certain amount of prestige in its own right. She was also not quite at ease with the concept of marrying in general. I am a sworn sword pledged to the service of the queen. What room is there in that for a wife or husband? Still, she bore the fat lord’s attentions with good humor.

“Aye, I only wanted to say, again, that you acquitted yourself nobly in the fights yesterday. I told you of my son, my second son – he is a knight, and I think a very skilled warrior, but it’s more than a sure thing you’d give him a run for his money.” Anna smiled politely. That was no faint praise, she knew – Lord Hugoss seemed reluctant to admit his sons weren’t the absolute best at at least one thing each. It was also praise she had heard before, as Lord Hugoss drunkenly said as much every fifteen minutes during last night’s feast.

This called for humility. “Thank you, my lord, though I only fought as I was taught.”

“You had a good teacher, then. Anyway, I couldn’t help noticing you don’t seem to be wearing your antler, erm, deer, erm, forest armor today. Pray, is there a reason for that?”

She frowned. “No, my lord. I only don’t expect to fight today.”

“Ah,” said Lord Hugoss, and he stroked his close-cropped blond beard with a hand. “Far be it from me to tell the Lady Protector her business, but as Captain of the Guard, it is considered a good thing to always be ready to fight. You never know when knives will emerge from the dark. That is something your predecessor said often, and why I always keep men about me.”

Anna was taken aback by this, embarrassed. Of course, how foolish of me. “I – you’re right, my lord. I didn’t consider that. I will armor anon-”

“No, no,” he interrupted her. “I didn’t ask merely to grill you, but to make you an offer. Consider it a gift, for winning the tournament, but obviously I’d need your cooperation. I know an armorer from north Svithron, they say he’s descended of dwarfs – I could have him make a suit of armor for you that was light as gold and strong as steel. That is, if you have need of such.”

Anna felt her jaw drop. “My lord, I – what would the expense of such be? I only have the tournament ransom as wealth to my name…”

“And ten thousand gold flakes! Or did you forget? But, no – I said this would be a gift, and I mean it. I will have the armorer come to the castle sometime next week to have you fitted. I won’t hear any ‘no’s, that is the end of it! Next week.” He seemed settled when a thought caused him to widen his eyes. “Oh, I nearly forgot. Pray, have you your heraldry, my lady?”

“My… heraldry, my lord?”

“Ah, I can see not. Please forgive me, I keep forgetting myself!” He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. “Now that you have been risen to lordship, you must needs select your heraldry. A symbol, a sigil, if you will, that represents you and your name. It is necessary for all knights and lords.”

“Oh,” said Anna. “My lord, I have not selected a heraldry yet. I will do so posthaste, rest assured.”

The fat lord continued to talk for a little while, until the queen stood up, and the rest of the council room followed suit. They adjourned, and exited for the throne room, where the queen would hold court for the first time.

The throne room was a long hall lined with heavy pillars and tall windows, and sat near the top of the White Keep, which itself was nestled in the center of the Arenborg, flanked by the castle’s many tall towers. From the White Keep spired the magnificent Tower of Arendelle, hugely tall with blue-white bricks and octagonal walls, and crested by stained-glass windows that seemed to paint the city over with colored light. Only members of the royal family were allowed to enter the tower, Anna had learned when she asked about it. A pity. I’m sure you can see for miles from up there.

But the throne room was not the tower, and all were allowed access. A long, red carpet led from the double doors at the end of the room to a high dais, upon which sat the stone throne: huge, gray, and highbacked, inlaid with elaborate designs of florid shapes and twisty curves. At the crest of it was the sharp relief of a six-pointed snowflake, imposing and dominant in the long hall.

The queen assumed her seat upon the throne, and Anna assumed her station at the seat’s right hand. All along the length of the hall, courtiers were gathered in cloaks, robes, and tunics, and Anna recognized among their number the short man from yesterday, and a few of the other uniquely-dressed dignitaries, including the prince of Aztlan. Lining the walls of the hall were armored men-at-arms, ready for danger, and at the front doors, two Royal Guardsmen stood in their white-enameled steel plate armor.

All had knelt for the entering of Queen Elsa, and all rose when she sat. The other councilmen assumed positions in sturdy oaken chairs at the base of the dais, arranged arcwise around the end of the carpet such that all petitioners could see the whole council, and the queen, whenever they came petitioning.

The first petitioner was a shabby knight who complained a knight from a neighboring barony kept stealing the livestock from one of his villages. After hearing his complaint, Anna was personally much inclined to grant all the man requested – but no sooner did the knight finish speaking than did Lord Myles launch into a vicious deconstruction of the story. How often did the thefts occur? Was it only livestock, or other things? Can all the villagers describe the bandits? What time of day did the thefts usually occur? Could nothing else be done to stop the thefts? Why did you not take this matter to your liege lord? Lord Myles caught the man in a lie when he claimed that pigs were all that was being stolen, and then went on to refer to the loss of chickens as well. Lady Ysmir implied the man might be done up in irons for wasting the court’s time, but Queen Elsa was merciful, and dismissed the man from her court with the order not to return again.

Many of the petitioners were not so interesting as that, with the stories and complaints and requests all of a rather mundane nature. Anna found her mind wandering, and daydreamed while the petitioners came and went.

A commotion snapped her back into focus. A fieldhand was beseeching the queen’s council for assistance in a small matter, and was raising his voice in frustration. He had a scraggly beard and sunken eyes, and was dressed in homespun rags, wrapped several times around his spindly frame. He was one of Ser Bjorn’s peasants, in the Up-And-Downs, and journied to Crystalwater to complain of his lord’s cruelty. The lord regularly sallied forth to beat and bother the townsfolk, as well as other acts, more unspeakable.

“Why did you not take this matter to his liege lord, Lord Reginald?” asked Lord Hugoss, sitting in a double-width oaken chair at the base of the dais.

“M’lord is cousin to Ser Bjorn, and would take sides agin’ me.”

“You underestimate Lord Reginald’s character,” said Lord Myles flatly. “The Lord of Dawnspring is a very even-tempered man.”

“I don’t doubt m’lord is even-tempered,” said the peasant. “But – but m’lord favors Ser Bjorn…”

“That is not our concern,” snapped Lord Myles. “The crown has no business resolving the differences between a peasant and a petty lord like Ser Bjorn.”

Crestfallen, the peasant looked up at Queen Elsa, eyes beseeching. “Please, Your Majesty, they say your father was always kind and just…”

Queen Elsa’s mouth formed a tight, thin frown. She looked between the council members, and many of them were giving her quick, surreptitious shakes of the head.Glumly, she shook her own head. “I am sorry, my good man, but there is nothing to be done. If you want, I will write Lord Reginald personally, and-”

But the peasant was no longer listening. Eyes streaming with angry tears, he rushed the dais with surprising speed for such a frail man. A startled cry went through the court as the man produced a rusty old shiv from the folds in his clothing. Anna saw the queen reflected in the man’s furious eyes – visibly frightened, hands clutching the sides of the throne, unmoving. A jolt of electricity went through her, and her fingers twitched. She loosened Autumn in its scabbard.

Before the man could clear two steps up the dais,Anna bolted forward and bashed the man in the face with the pommel of her sword. He went reeling, his nose broken and bleeding profusely, as two guardsmen rushed forward to seize him under the arms. Another gasp flitted among the courtiers, shocked silence followed.

“Be grateful that the Lady Protector stopped you before you could lay a hand on Her Grace,” said Ser Tore sharply to the dazed, bleeding man. “If you had touched her, it could have meant your life. For now, a few weeks in the dungeon ought to put your head on straight.” The two guardsmen dragged the sobbing and bleeding man away from them. Queen Elsa shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“Think nothing of it, Your Grace,” said Lord Myles, turning to face the queen. “Even your father was met with some hopeless, angry peasants in his time. There is nothing to be done for it.”

“Mayhaps not,” said Queen Elsa slowly. “But the man was clearly distraught.” She paused. “I want the affairs of Ser Bjorn looked into. Write Lord Reginald and see that he keep a watchful eye on his vassals.”

“Aye, your grace,” said Lord Myles.

Anna resumed her station, but not before casting a cautious glance back to the queen. She sat stock still and rigid, her brow etched with concern. Her ice blue eyes met Anna’s with an careful shimmer, the familiar tint of unease visible once more.

The Lady Protector did not have a complete conversation with her queen again until a month later. She saw the queen daily, being as she was the queen’s personal escort and guard, but they conversed very little. The growing issue with the Duchy of Weselton amidst accusations of assassination attempts left little time for aught but council meetings, and Queen Elsa was often exhausted as a result. Though she nightly invited Anna to her solar for some wine in the evenings, she was too tired to do anything but listen, and only bid Anna tell her about her life growing up among the trolls. And as Anna would talk, the queen would close her eyes and doze off, half-empty cup of wine cradled in an immaculate white hand. When that happened, Anna would stand up, kneel slightly, and say “Good night, Your Grace;” then return to her chambers.

A few days after Lady Ysmir proposed it, a party was saddled and dispatched to Vardale to see to the truth of Ser Magnus’s death. Ser Anna and Master Penrose led the party, a simple gaggle of men-at-arms and attendants. Anna guided them to the makeshift grave, and Ser Magnus was dug up, and the bones inspected by Master Penrose with his wild purple hair. “’Ayup,” he said with a grimace. “Definitely Ser Magnus, and definitely dead by a beast-man’s hands. Or jaw, as the case may be.”

They then went to the inn, or what remained of it, anyway – it had been burnt down, except for the stone tower, and they found the remains of eleven individuals in the wreckage, all charred bones picked clean by ravens, the bodies looted by looters. Still, luck was with them, for on three of the bodies they found coins marked with the badge of Weselton – a mark from the duke himself, guaranteeing the bearer an audience. “Usually given to envoys and diplomats,” said Master Penrose quietly. “But also, occasionally, the sort of thing you might give assassins in your employ.”

Though he was called a Court Wizard, Master Penrose seemed to know little of magic beyond a few parlor tricks and alchemy. Anna, ever curious of magic and its turpitudes, asked about the title. “Though we are called wizards, true magicians are few in our ranks,” the beardless Court Wizard told Anna on the road. He couldn’t have been older than twenty years. “Nowadays, the title is bestowed on those who are learned in the arts and sciences.”

“Can you perform glamors?” Anna asked. “Mix potions?”

Master Penrose nodded. “With some difficulty. But such magic is little more than illusionry. Evocations and incantations and the like, well – they say magic is in the blood, and since the First King banned all study of such, all of that is now in the realm of legend and fantasy.” He shrugged, and smiled wanly at Anna. “It’s a shame. I’ve always thought it would be fun to fling lightning bolts from my fingertips. But I make do with studying medicine and the motion of the stars. It is magic of a different sort.”

Magic of a different sort. That stuck with Anna. She wondered what Maple would make of it – she imagined the witch would find it very amusing. Anna still remembered the look on Maple’s face when she turned up with the gold, the tournament winnings. “A promise is a promise,” said Anna as she heaved chest after half-filled chest of snowflake-studded coins into the small storefront.

Maple was thunderstruck. “It’s more than I thought,” she said, a little bewildered. “You can take some, if you want…”

Anna shook her head. “I don’t need it. I have the ransoms.”

“The ransoms?” Maple blinked, still flustered. Comprehension dawned: “Oh, oh, right. From your defeated opponents, for their arms and equipment…”

“Five ransoms on such arms and armor as my opponents wielded has left me still with more gold and silver than I know what to do with.” Anna sighed, and spread her hands. “Anyway, that’s that. Thanks for all your help, Maple. If there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to come and ask.”

Maple blinked again. “You’re going? Wait, wait; you can do for me? You just gave me all this gold…”

“As we agreed,” said Anna. “I would never have won it without your help, anyway. It’s yours by rights.”

Maple was silent for a few moments, then pursed her lips in a frown. “As it happens, there is something you can do for me. I need someone to have tea with. Kinda now.”

Anna was reasonably sure Maple was a true magician, though she hadn’t seen the witch to do more than potions and her own illusions. Those were impressive enough, but she also wondered if Maple was the sort to conjure fireballs. The image sent a chill down Anna’s spine. If she was, she’d have to make sure not to damage the witch girl’s calm. Anna didn’t know how to fight conjurers of fireballs. She imagined she might yield straightaway.

Despite not being a “real” wizard, Anna found that she didn’t mind Master Penrose, who insisted Anna call him by his first name – Sydney. He was a scatterbrained fellow, and a bit aloof, and constantly dyed his hair different colors – but he was also very learned, and evidently impressed that Anna could read. He asked her if she had read this or that book, and of course, Anna hadn’t – but rather than being scornful, the Court Wizard was delighted. “Oh, well, it is a must-read, let me tell you. I have a spare copy I can lend you.” He reminded Anna a little of Anders, for that if nothing else. By the time their expedition was done, she was certain she had acquired a new friend.

Master Penrose was also a hopeless gossip. “So,” he had said, casually, “is there anyone special in your life?”

“I’m sorry?” said Anna, raising an eyebrow and turning in the seat of her horse to face him.

“You know, like a significant other,” he said, leaning over in his seat. “A boyfriend, girlfriend, that sort of thing?”

“Oh,” said Anna, momentarily fuddled. “No. Why do you ask? Are you propositioning me?”

Master Penrose laughed loudly. “Oh, no, no, no, gods, no. I was only curious. Oh, please excuse me – it’s naught to do with you. My heart’s pledged to another, that’s all.”

“I didn’t know you were married,” said Anna.

“Ah, well, I’m not, no – not as such,” he said somewhat bashfully.

“Why not?”

For a moment, he looked uneasy, but he laughed it off with a half-hearted chuckle. “Timing, you know.”

Back in Crystalwater, Ser Anna and Master Penrose broke the news of their discoveries to the council. When it was shown that the assassins were beyond a doubt responsible for the bribery of Wat the Bastard and the killing of Ser Magnus, and bore official state coins from Weselton, the uproar was immediate. At the council’s behest, the queen had the Duke of Weselton banished from Arendelle, and an embargo was declared: henceforth, no more business would be done with Weselton.

The duke’s response was a furious series of angry letters, insulting the queen and her parents and the kingdom and demanding that the embargo be lifted. But the council would not yield, and tensions began to rise.

One afternoon Anna spent almost entirely in her solar, as the armorer Lord Hugoss sent for had arrived to measure Anna for a new set of full plate. Lord Hugoss was present for the fitting, and spoke at great length about the armorer’s credentials and abilities. “His mother was Edna the Excellent, best armorer and seamstress in all the Svithron states,” said Lord Hugoss pompously, as the short little man with the hook nose and beady eyes darted around Anna’s perimeter with strings and lengths of rope and flax. When he asked what color Anna wanted, she responded “Green” immediately.

The little man eventually left, promising to have the armor completed within three week’s time. Suddenly Lord Hugoss spoke: “Oh, yes! And the heraldry! For your shield.”

“Ah,” said Anna, rubbing her neck nervously. “I still haven’t made a choice yet.”

Lord Hugoss rubbed his beard. “Well, I suppose you could have a blank shield, but there’s not much fun in that, is there?” And so he left Anna to think about what symbol she thought represented her best.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Everything she thought of sounded only half as good as the next thing she thought of, which itself wasn’t as good as the thing she thought of two things before that. Dozens of animals and sigils popped up in her mind: Dragons, owls, bears, reindeer, trees, swords. Somehow, none of them seemed appropriate.

One morning, a few weeks later, Anna was sitting in her solar, breaking her fast on some hard bread and eggs that Martin had brought for her. A knock at the door surprised her, and Martin let himself in, trailed by Kai, the Master of Letters.

“A letter for you, my Lady Protector. Shall I read it to you?” he asked.

“No, thank you, Kai. I am quite good at reading by myself.”

He looked surprised to hear that. “Really? Well, very good, my lady.” He bowed and left, leaving behind a letter sealed with silver wax stamped by a sunburst.

Anna opened the letter carefully and read. It was from Lord Reginald Morning; Lord Reginald Morning was lord paramount of the Up-And-Downs, and ruled from his castle Dawnspring, nestled among the verdant hills between Crystalwater and Vardale. He was also the brother of the late Ser Richard Morning, also called the Giant, whom Anna put into the grave. The letter was addressed to Anna personally: Lord Reginald offered to pay the ransom for his brother’s sword and armor, and congratulated her on winning the tournament. The tone was bland, but humble, and in every sense respectful. The letter was signed with a thick scrawl.

She was still pondering the letter when Martin knocked and entered again. “Ser,” he said, “the queen wants your audience.”

Anna found Queen Elsa in her solar, studying a parchment and looking ill-at-ease. When the queen noticed her, she brusquely bid Anna to sit down. A fire was burning in the hearth.

Anna bowed and sat. “How may I serve you, Your Grace?”

Queen Elsa gestured to the letter. “I have here a letter from Ser Harris Morning. If you didn’t know, he’s the younger brother of Ser Richard Morning, the man you – you killed in the tourney.” Her voice caught and she averted her eyes as she mentioned the beheading of the Giant.

Anna nodded slowly. “I didn’t know Ser Richard had a little brother. I received a letter from his older brother today.”

Queen Elsa’s head shot up at that. “Really?” she asked sharply. “What did it say?”

Anna shifted in her seat. “Lord Reginald offered his congratulations, and asked to pay the ransom for Ser Richard’s suit and sword.”

Queen Elsa relaxed at that, and sat back in her chair. “That is good to hear. Ser Harris is not so pleased. He writes,” Queen Elsa sat up, and adopted a low-pitched voice full of somber melodrama. “’I am deeply disturbed by the travesty that has unfolded in Crystalwater this past August. I have received word that my brother was slain by an uncouth, uncivil, uncultured, and uncultivated barbarian from the northern woodlands, and that this same barbarian has been granted a position on the queen’s small council, despite her low birth, young age, sex, and murderous tendencies. I would advise the queen to heed my warning and banish the blackguard before any further harm is done. Yours faithfully, Ser Harris Morning.’ It is good to hear that his brother does not share his views.” With that, the queen ripped the letter into halves, then quarters, then eighths, and threw the pieces into the fire.

For a long moment, Anna was speechless. Queen Elsa sat there with a pensive, unsatisfied look on her face, legs crossed as she stared at the curling black pieces of parchment in the fire.

Then Anna laughed. A snicker, at first, but quickly it grew into a hearty chuckle, and then a full-on guffaw, complete with snorts. She finally managed to rein it in, and wiped the tears of joy from her eyes to see Queen Elsa staring at her, completely scandalized.

“Oh,” choked Anna. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, I only – I – I was very amused by your – your caricature of the letter. I meant no offense, truly. Ser Richard was an honorable opponent, I take no joy in his slaying.”

Queen Elsa smiled slightly. “Not at all, my lady. I admit that was very improper of me to make light of Ser Harris’s grief. But if you knew the man as I did, you’d find that he seizes every opportunity he can to take offense at nothing. Part of me even doubts he is truly sorry for his brother’s sake.” She grimaced. “No, I shouldn’t say that. Ser Harris may be a complainer, but he is nothing if not dutiful. He loves his brothers dearly.” Queen Elsa picked up another letter from the table adjacent, already opened and tabbed at the ends with gray wax. “I also received this letter from the Lord of Burrowstown.”

Anna frowned, but said nothing. The queen fingered a corner of the letter for awhile, and then spoke up again. “The letter is much like Ser Harris’s, except it names you an exile who maimed the Lord Mayor’s son. Is that true?”

A pause. “Yes, Your Grace,” said Anna hesitantly. “It is true. I was exiled from Burrowstown for wounding the Lord Mayor’s son.”

Queen Elsa huffed. “The letter makes no mention of context, so I can only assume the punishment fits the crime. As it is, however, you are banished from Burrowstown and not Crystalwater, so I see no reason you can’t sit the council here. Besides, I need someone to laugh at my ill-advised japes.”

Anna bowed her head. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

“You should curse me, my dear ser knight,” the queen said dryly. “I plan to inflict you with a good deal more of my poor sense of humor.”

Anna laughed lightly, and smiled. “I accept your terms, Your Grace. As you say, the punishment fits the crime.”

At that, Queen Elsa burst into a spate of laughter of her own, though unlike Anna’s it was round and pretty, almost musical. It tickled Anna’s heart to hear it, and furthermore, to know that it was something she said that originated it. A deep sense of satisfaction fell over her, and she smirked slightly.

“Well, ser, clearly I am a bad influence on you. I plan not to attend council until noon, so you may go for now.”

Ser Anna stood up and bowed. “As it please Your Grace.” She turned to leave when a sudden thought came to her mind. “My queen,” she said, “I was wondering what, perhaps, you knew of heraldry?”

“Hm?” said Queen Elsa, looking up from another parchment. “A great deal, if I may indulge my ego for a moment. Why do you ask?”

“Well, Your Grace, as I am a risen lord – or, erm, lady – I must needs select a sigil of my own.”

“What?” The queen looked confused, and then she wrinkled her nose, her faint frickles wiggling slightly on her upper cheeks. “Oh, yes, yes, that is true. Have you given any consideration as to what you want your… your heraldry to be?”

“Much and more, but I’m afraid one choice asyet eludes me. I was hoping you might know of a sigil that might be appropriate for one such as me.”

“Ah,” said Queen Elsa. She looked back at Anna. “One such as you?” she repeated, then cupped her chin in her hand and seemed lost in thought. “You are the Knight of Crystalwater,” she said at last. “There is a flower that is very dear to this city. It only flowers for a short time in the spring, when the snow melts. It is called the golden crocus.”

Anna frowned. “I’ve never heard of it before.”

“You wouldn’t. It is a rare sight. For only a few weeks each year, the fields around the city come alive with their flowering. It is truly an amazing sight, and one that all who live in Crystalwater come to cherish.”

“I would like to see that,” said Anna after a pause.

The queen smiled at her. “You will, come spring. I think this flower would serve you well as a sigil.”

Anna smiled back, and nodded firmly. “Very well, then. It is done. The golden crocus will be my sigil.”

When Anna’s shield and armor arrived, she was speechless. Lord Hugoss insisted on attending the unveiling, and he sat in her solar, dabbing at his forehead with his handkerchief, while Anna walked around the armor stand without words. The little armorer was presenting, and attended by a large, mute man in a brown leather jerkin.

“Oh, Lord Hugoss, this is a regal gift.” She ran her fingers along the green enamel, tracing the golden vines gingerly. “It is very pretty, but…”

The armorer snorted loudly. “You doubt that is strong as well? My steel is as strong as any. James!”

The mute man unslung an axe from his back, and in a swift motion brought it crashing down on the armor’s shoulder with a deafening CLANG. Anna winced, but when she looked, she could find no scratch or dent or any indication that the armor had just suffered a direct hit.

“Very strong steel,” said the armorer, sticking out his chin. “The strongest.” When he and his attendant left, Anna turned to Lord Hugoss.

“My lord, this is truly a magnificent gift. I must ask if you really insist.”

The fat lord laughed jovially. “Good ser knight, the Hugosses have served the Royal Family for generations. We make it a practice to give small donations to keep the Lord Protector well-outfitted, all the better to Lord-Protect with. On that note, would you mind it if I took a look at your sword? I know I don’t look it, but I used to be a warrior in my youth.”

Anna went and fetched Autumn, and brought it out to show Lord Hugoss. When he saw the blade, his expression turned serious. “Aye, Berkish steel.” He hefted it. “Light and strong. Now this is a princely gift if ever there was one. To whom do you owe it?”

“My teacher,” said Anna. “She was from Berk.”

“Aye? Must have been someone important. I doubt most Berkish see steel like this in a lifetime. Most of it’s done and gone.” He squinted at the folded steel patterns. “This is an old style. I reckon this blade was forged about three-hundred years ago, around the time of the Ice Queen.” He handed the sword back. “Guard this sword well. It is extraordinarily valuable. By the by, what of the Giant’s Knife?”

“I returned the Giant’s Knife to the Giant’s brother, Lord Reginald. He offered to pay the ransom and I couldn’t refuse him, not in good conscience.”

Lord Hugoss nodded. “Aye, it would be an ill thing to do so. It was wise of you to accept his ransom.”

From that point on, Anna wore her green steel armor to court every day, and it was none too timely an impression to make as words started to bandy about of a potential war with Weselton. The queen was ragged and overworked, and often went to bed without her evening glass of wine with Anna. She wished she could help, but when she posed the offer to Ser Tore, he only grunted.

“Make sure your sword’s sharp and your men are ready.” Thus did Anna take to seeing to her men, though she had very little idea of what a Captain of the Guard was supposed to do. When their tables and watches were set up, the guard seemed to run themselves, mostly. After trying and failing to get a grasp of the full scope of the captain’s duties, she resolved to pick a lieutenant to delegate to.

The choice came down to one of two: Ser Tazmus, a stocky, clean-shaven man with a red face and a goodly demeanor; and Flynt the Bastard, a dark youth of sour looks, so affectionately named as he was Ser Tore’s legitimized bastard son, and now a Royal Guardsman. Ultimately, Anna settled on Ser Tazmus, as she believed his vows of knighthood gave him the edge in honor, and honor was just the thing a man needed in the Royal Guard. To Flynt, she gave the honor of 2nd Lieutenant.

In late October, as Anna was escorting the queen to her chambers after another late council meeting (this one primarily concerned with deep-sea fishing rights, and how the embargo on Weselton affected the mutual fishing zones), Anna bid the queen good night and made to depart her solar just as the queen said “Wait, Anna. Have a drink with me.”

“As Your Grace commands,” said Anna, and she entered the queen’s solar. A fire was already crackling merrily in the hearth. Despite the October chill, the queen wore a light blue cotton dress, and even seemed flushed.

She poured two cups of wine and handed one to Anna. “Sit, please. Goodness, I don’t know how you can stand in that armor all day. It must be hellish.”

Anna sat. “It’s not so bad. I’ve weathered harder training. My teacher often taught me endurance was vital for a training knight.”

“It is just as vital for sitting queens, I assure you,” said the queen with a grimace, and she shifted in her seat. “Though it is a different kind of endurance, I think. Reminds me of father, the way he would complain of sitting all day.” She deepened her voice. “‘Cushions. I need cushions.’ And yet, he kept at it, day after day.”

Anna had to smile. “He sounds like quite a man. People speak highly of him.”

Queen Elsa fixed Anna with a sad stare, and shortly after her eyes began to wander. She downed her first cup quickly. “Sometimes I wish I could talk to him,” she said suddenly, staring at the rushes. “There are a lot of questions I… I never bothered to ask, when I could.” She sat back and rubbed her temples sullenly, eyes shut tight. “Anna, would you kindly tell me a story about when you were younger? Something with the trolls. Anything to get my mind off of being queen.”

Anna sipped her drink, and started on a story about how, one time, she went fishing down by the river with the trolls. She talked about learning how to cast a line and bait a hook (and how she always felt sorry for the small grubs that she had to spear through), and then she talked about how the first several fish she hooked jumped off the hook, or else escaped when she tried to move them to the net. “I remember insisting that I could just grab them off the hook. But fish are slippery, you know.”

So many years listening to Oaken and Anders tell stories had taken an evident toll on Anna, and she didn’t mind talking about her childhood when the queen asked her to. It made her feel good to know that the queen seemed to relax to hear of it, like she was really helping deal with the Weselton issue in whatever way she could. She grew so used to the queen falling asleep during the telling that it surprised her a little bit when the queen opened her eyes suddenly.

“Fishing?” she asked. Anna nodded. “We spent the entire evening talking about deep-sea fishing rights in court,” said the queen dryly. “Now, I’m afraid that’s all I can think about.”

Anna reddened. “Oh, gosh, I – I’m sorry,” she stammered apologetically. “I wasn’t thinking, Your Grace. I guess I have fish on the mind, too. I didn’t mean to…”

To her relief, the queen laughed. “Please, relax. I was only teasing. Besides, your kind of fishing sounds more interesting than hundred-year-old treaties.”

Anna blinked. “Haven’t you ever been fishing before, Your Grace?”

“Why would I do that?”

“To eat. Oh… I don’t suppose you’d need to worry about that. Not that you don’t need to eat, but, erm, well, the kitchens and all…” Her voice trailed off, and Anna wrung her hands nervously. “I’m afraid I’m making a real mess of my words tonight, Your Grace.”

Queen Elsa chuckled. “You know, that reminds me of something Lord Reginald often said. As far as lords go, he’s a rather odd one. As like as not to spend time in the hills and forests as in his castle, and he loves to hunt.” She looked down at her hands and flexed them slightly. “One thing he would always tell father was that he needed to spend more time ‘off fishing,’ which he took to mean vacationing. But father never heeded the advice.” She looked up again, her blue eyes meeting Anna’s. She smiled slightly. “I say this weekend we go fishing.”

“Are… Are you sure, Your Grace?”

“Oh yes, I’m quite sure. I’ve had quite enough of long meetings for the nonce. A day of fishing sounds like it’d hit the spot.”

“November is a colder month for fishing than most.”

“That’s fine,” said the queen, and she stood up to walk over to the window. She threw back the wooden shutters and a chill wind filled the room. She leaned forward, hands resting on the sill, gripping it tight as the draft guttered the hearth and flapped the hem of her dress. She smiled wide, and turned back to Anna, her hands splayed out, immaculate and bare. “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

The next Saturday, Queen Elsa eagerly let it be known that she was “gone fishing” that day with her Lady Protector, and that all official business was postponed until the morrow.

“And what if any important issues should arise?” asked Lady Ysmir impatiently.

“Ser Tore will handle them.” And she nodded to Ser Tore, who bowed his head. “As Your Grace commands.”

Anna and the queen found their horses saddled and ready to go. The morning was brisk and gray and cloudy, and a strong wind was coming off the fjord. Martin had packed Anna’s saddlebags with all that they’d need for fishing: rods, nets, hooks, bobs, weights, baits, string, a quilted blanket, bread, and a skin of wine.

Through the walls of the Arenborg they passed on horseback, and into the stretch of open country that lay athwart the hills, rivers, and fjords of the Vestlandet. A winding path took them along the rocky beach of the fjord and into the woods. As they were venturing alone, Anna had dressed in armor and cloak. Alongside the queen, in her azure blue riding habit, she imagined they looked quite the pair: The knight and the maiden fair. The notion gave her a strange sense of pride. She imagined hooligans emerging from the woods.

“Stop!” they would snarl from unkempt beards. “We’re the bandits of these hills, and we’ll take all your money and kidnap the queen!”

“I think not!” Ser Anna would declare, and draw Autumn, screaming with want of blood.

“Take her down, boys!” And the bandits would descend from all corners. Anna would lay at them from atop her faithful mare, slashing left and right ‘til all around them lie the enemies of the queen.

“My hero!” Queen Elsa would say, and kiss Ser Anna on the cheek.

Anna blushed involunarily at the thought. Where did that come from?

She gave a slight start when Queen Elsa spoke. “You must be quite uncomfortable in all that armor.”

“Uh-Um,” articulated Anna, and then she cleared her throat. “It’s not so bad, Your Grace. I must be ready in case of danger.”

The queen gave a conciliatory nod of the head at that. “Still. This day is meant to be relaxing.”

“For you, Your Grace. Not me.”

“So you won’t be enjoying our fishing trip?”

“Not at all, Your Grace!” said Anna quickly. “I mean, erm, yes – that is, I will enjoy it. So, no. To your question, that is. Your Grace.” Gods, when did I turn into Martin?

The queen laughed lightly. “Please, Ser Anna. Call me Elsa. And I am glad to hear you are as excited as I am. Armor notwithstanding.”

“It is a light suit, Your Gr- erm, Elsa.” The name sounded odd on her tongue, leaden. She heard herself say it as though she was underwater. Queen Elsa shifted in her saddle.

They passed the great stone cairns of the Royal Cemetery without comment, and after winding through some hills and up a stream, came to a lagoon. “This is where we were told the fishing is best,” said the queen. “I remember coming here as a girl, to ride in boats with father.”

Anna looked across the lagoon, green and thick with heavy colors in the dull morning light. “It’s large. What lay at the other end of it?”

“The Toadsmarsh. Not very many people go there, however.” Elsa hopped off her horse and Anna followed suit, hobbling both horses to a nearby sturdy oak. Anna lay out the quilted blanket, which Elsa promptly fell upon, spread-eagle, eyes closed. Anna watched the queen’s prone figure laying on the quilt, lips slightly parted to admit slow, full breaths, her chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. She looked tired there, the façade of her prim demeanor cast aside and lain bare before the torment of stress and anguish. Anna had no idea what it was like to run a kingdom or lose her parents. All she did was hold a sword and look menacing. But right now, the queen needed her, if only just to unwind.

Anna took off her gauntlets and gloves and got to work stringing the fishing rods, rotating the long sticks around the ends of the string with the hook, bobber, and weights all applied. “Your Grace,” said Anna, as she held a ready fishing rod. “Erm, Elsa.” Still no reply. Anna looked, and had to fight a small grin – the queen was fast asleep already.

She baited the hook with a wriggling grub and cast the line into the lagoon. She knew not what kind of fish would bite on a morning or day like this, but better to try and fail than to assume the worst.

It was some time later when Elsa stirred with a yawn. She sat up and looked at Anna, who was sitting hunchbacked with the line cast, eyes fixed on the bob. “Goodness,” said Elsa. “How long did I sleep?”

“About an hour, perhaps more,” said Anna.

“You let me sleep? You must have been terribly bored.”

“A lot of fishing is waiting,” admitted Anna. “If you want, I can bait you a hook as well.”

“Have you caught anything?”

“Not yet. No fish are biting today, it seems.”

Elsa stood and walked over to the edge of the lagoon, eyes scanning the surface of the water. “How do you even know there are any fish in there?”

“You can see them with a trained eye. Many are colored so they’re difficult to spot in the water. Look – there’s one right there. He must not be hungry.”

Elsa squinted her eyes. “I don’t see anything.” She sat back down on the blanket. She smiled. “You think it might be easier to just go grab the fish out of the water, like a heron?”

Anna didn’t know what a heron was, but she said “I can do that.”

Elsa raised both eyebrows. “Really?” She lowered them again. “Oh, very funny. People can’t do that, not without some kind of trick.”

“No, I’m being serious. There’s no trick to it. You just have to be fast.”

Elsa narrowed her eyes. “Well, prove it then.”

Anna blinked, reeled in the line on the rod and then slipped off her greaves and wool socks and waded into the water until it was up to her knees. She put her hands on her hips and stood stock still.

“Hey, isn’t that cold?” called Elsa.

“I bet it’s cold. You don’t have to prove it, you know. I was only making a jape.”

“We can fish the normal way. How do you bait a hook, exactly?”

“How long is this going to take, anyway?”

Anna shot her hand into the water like an arrow. It emerged with a pale wriggling thing, head and neck firmly caught in Anna’s thumb and forefinger. Anna waded back to shore. “See? No trick. Just have to be fast and patient.”

Elsa gaped. “I… I stand corrected.”

Anna grinned and gestured to a net lying on the ground. “If you brought me that net, we could mark this our first catch of the day.”

Elsa nodded and went to the net. “’Our?’” She repeated. “I did nothing. That was all you.”

“Not if you help put it in the net,” Anna said, still grinning.

Elsa picked up the net and stopped, looking Anna up and down. She felt a little embarrassed. I’m standing barefoot with a fish in my hands before the most beautiful queen of the most powerful kingdom in Europa, she thought soberly, and her smile faltered.

But when Elsa spoke, her voice was soft, her eyes shimmering. “You are quite the woman, my lady Anna.”

At a loss for words, Anna swallowed. “My Grace is kind to say so,” she said distantly.

Elsa,” insisted the queen. She held out the net, and opened her mouth to say something, pausing for a moment. “You know… there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you… I – oh!”

Anna had loosed her grip on the fish, and in an instant it slipped out of her hand, flopping into the air to slap her in the face with its tail. She took a step backwards and slipped on something wet and slimy. With a crash, she slammed against the lagoon shore, head spinning.

“Oh my gods! Are you all right?” she heard Elsa’s voice between the ringing.

“I’m fine,” winced Anna. “Maybe bruised. I told you fish were slippery.” Dizzy, she pushed herself into a sitting position, and was met with the queen’s outstretched hand. She noticed the fingernails were done up in blue paint, and perfectly kept.

“Here, let me help you up.”

“Thanks,” said Anna, and took the queen’s hand in her own. It felt like cold, tingling and ephemeral, and then nothing. With a heave, she was on her feet again, hand still clasped with Elsa’s, and face to face with the queen – or as near as that could be allowed, with Elsa about five inches taller than she was.

The queen smiled, showing her teeth. “You can let go of my hand now,” she chuckled.

“Oh, right,” said Anna with a nervous laugh, and she pulled her hand away slowly. Her fingers were stiff and aching. She looked down and saw her right hand was blue.

Suddenly her breath vanished as a piercing pain shot through her chest. She choked and tried to suck in a breath, gagging, her lungs aflame. The queen gasped and a cold whirlwind whipped across the lagoon. The horses began to buck and neigh as they struggled against their restraints. The quilted blanket blew away, and Anna’s ears filled with the howling of the gust. She fell to her knees, the wind slicing through her like a knife, shrieking at her with every stab. And her breath would not come. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came forth. The last thing Anna saw was the queen, her face distant and filled with terror, and the endless white all around.

 


 

The memories were water, her mind a sieve. She rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands. For a solid month, she had not spoken to the queen. She stood at her side in court, but that was it. The queen didn’t even look at her, she only sat and played with her teal gloves and pretended that Anna didn’t exist. Most hurtfully, she demanded different guards for all other times of the day.

“Who are your most trusted guards?” Lady Ysmir had asked Ser Anna while she lay abed in the infirmary. The Court Wizard was in the corner worrying over bottles of labeled and unlabeled remedies and ingredients and reagents.

“My two lieutenants,” replied Anna. “Ser Tazmus and Flynt. Why?”

“Flynt the Bastard?” Lady Ysmir wrinkled her nose. “The queen has requested a new personal guard.”

“What?” shouted Anna, shooting up.

“Hey, lie down! You need to rest!” yelled Master Penrose from the corner. Anna reluctantly lay back down, shoulders tense.

Lady Ysmir sniffed. “For some reason the queen is unsatisfied with your service as her personal protector. I can’t say this realization came a second too soon for her. But she did bid me ask who your most trusted guardsmen were. I mean to turn the watch over to their command, for the nonce.”

Anna shot up again. “You can’t do that!”

“HEY!” yelled Master Penrose. Anna didn’t lay down this time.

“Oh, yes I can,” snapped Lady Ysmir. “It’s a royal decree. And even Lord Myles agrees. As it happens, he also believes Ser Tazmus is a good choice for interim captain. Can you blame us? You’re bedridden for gods know how long, and the Weselton threat still looms.”

“I’ll be up again soon enough,” said Anna darkly. “And when I am, I expect the watch to be turned back to my command.”

“We’ll see,” said Lady Ysmir curtly. “I’m not entirely convinced this wound is by coincidence, or wasn’t meant for the queen. Do you know any of the details of what attacked you?”

“I told you,” said Anna through clenched teeth, “I don’t remember what happened.”

Before Lady Ysmir could reply, Master Penrose appeared over her shoulder, arms full with flasks and bottles, hair wild and green. For a second, Anna thought of Maple. “My lady, if you would be so kind as to go away. You’re making my patient uncomfortable and interfering with my work.”

With a sneer, Lady Ysmir left them, and Master Penrose set his bottles down on the bedside table. “Sorry about that,” he said to Anna. “I wouldn’t have let her in, but she was about Her Majesty’s business. Drink this.” He held a bottle of clear, odorless liquid to Anna’s mouth. She drank. It burned her tongue and throat.

“Do you know what’s wrong with me?” she asked.

He looked at her and sighed heavily. “I already told you, I’ve never seen anything like this before. I thought it was just hypothermia – when we found you at the lagoon side, you were cold. But even after we warmed you up, you kept cooling down again. I had to put you by the fire.” He rubbed his chin. “It’s better, now, though. You aren’t cooling back down as quickly. Very unusual, though, all said.”

It stung to think about it. Everything was going so well, and then… why? It just wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all. She racked her brain. What happened? Did a monster attack? Some kind of cold-demon, and Anna was wounded and the queen mortally threatened. She hadn’t heard the queen suffered an injury, but perhaps seeing her Lord Protector so easily struck down panicked her, and that’s why she sent for different guards. That was no more than Anna deserved, if true. She had failed.

She shut her eyes against the bitterness of the memory. She didn’t know what else she could do, where else she could go. All the world was regret. Rumors had spread of the “true” reason the queen dismissed her, and every one of them hurt more than the last. The biting words and whispers of the servants and courtiers, all false rumors with hints of truth, and one thing in common: Her failure.

The stablemaster’s apprentice. I shouldn’t have… but he asked for it.

“The Lady Protector!” he laughed. Ignore him. He only likes getting a rise out of people. He’s cruel to all the stableboys, and you are a Lady of the queen’s court.

“Hey, where are you going? Running away?” She threw the saddle on her horse. One of her only friends now.

“Probably off to bugger a different queen,” he announced to the watching stableboys. Anna clenched her fist.

“Didn’t you hear? That’s why the queen dismissed her. Because she made an advance on her.”

Anna whirled on him, eyes aflame. “What was that?” She walked up to him. He was a foot taller than she was. “Say that again.”

He snorted. “I said-” She didn’t let him finish. By the end, her fists were throbbing. She didn’t know what hurt more: her knuckles, or the shocked expressions on the onlookers’ faces.

Lord Myles demanded to know the reason for the outburst. “The stablemaster tells me he can no longer understand his apprentice. Something about no teeth in the lad’s mouth,” he said in that calm, easy way of his. “I mean, I like wanton violence as much as the next lord, but this is the Arenborg, not the Beast’s Keep. We have standards.

“She should be tried for treason,” declared Lady Ysmir.

“Bullshit,” barked Ser Tore. “If that filthy scoundrel spoke that way to any of you lordly lords, you’d have removed his tongue and then gelded him. Be grateful that your Lady goddamn Protector only bashed his ugly mutt face in.” The queen merely looked on, impassive.

That was yesterday. This morning, Anna woke early to find Ser Tore before he did his rounds. He was in his solar, alone, mulling some wine above a coal flame. “I have no duties left. I captain no guard, I protect no lords. Why doesn’t the queen just strip my title?” she asked him. There was no more steel in her voice, only sadness.

He sighed. “Lord Protectors serve for life,” he said gruffly. “You have your vows. Remember them. Remember your vows. If you break them, it’s a traitor’s death for you.”

“But how can I keep my vows? I swore to protect the queen, and she’s dismissed me. What am I to do?”

“You are to do as the queen commands. You can do naught else. You don’t like the way things are, do a better job.” He ground his teeth. “The old Lord Erik, the Lord Protector before you… he was a great man, and a great Lord Protector. But that was no thanks to the strength of his arm. He was great because he never forgot his vows.” He sighed heavily and cleared his throat. “The wizard tells me you are possessed of a strange illness. Here.” He poured her some mulled wine to kill the chill, and she left his company somewhat warmed but no less vexed with her employment.

She did her training, spoke her vows. She had wealth, titles, arms, armor, a place in the council. Now, she had the fear of the castlefolk. She was Lord Erik Ulfton’s successor. But who was she? She ran her fingers through her hair, and her second self in the vanity did the same.

You don’t like the way things are, do a better job. “Who am I?” she said aloud to the vanity. You are Ser Anna. You are your vows. You don’t like the way things are, do a better job.

“Promise me,” the vision was vivid in her memory. Ser Magnus with his gray beard, his fingers fumbling for Anna’s. “Promise me you’ll protect her.”

Astrid always said that the best part about being a sworn warrior was no more tough decisions. Anna could have laughed at that, but maybe it was true. Astrid remembered her vows, and kept them close. The vision of her teacher filled her mind, clad in brown tunic with sword at hand, braided hair fluttering in the spring breeze.

Anna worried at a strand of hair with a hand. Remember your vows. She moved her hands together, and tossed her hair back. Slowly, she tied one long braid. Then she moved her hands to the other side of her head, and tied a second. They fell over her green-armored shoulders like ember snakes in the grass.

My vows, she mouthed silently as she clutched one braid. The other. My queen. It was all she could do. She fell to her knees, the tears burning her eyes. I’m sorry, Queen Elsa. She pounded the floor with a fist, her tears flowing onto the rushes. I’ll make you trust me again. I’m sorry.

 

Chapter Text

 

The bridgegate stood before them, Sven’s head craned back to take in its height. “So, I guess you’re going to be living in there, huh?” said Kristoff.

Anna nodded, heart pounding. “It looks like it.”

Kristoff smiled. “Man, can you imagine just a few weeks ago, you were literally sleeping on forest dirt? No offense.”

“None taken,” she said, punching him lightly in the arm.

He recoiled. “Ow, you broke my shoulder!”

“I did not,” she said.

He put on a serious look. “Anna, you’re a knight now. You can’t just go around punching people. You’ve got to, like, defend their honor and stuff.”

She blinked at him. “Okay. Then, since I have dishonored you, I give you permission to punch me. Tit for tat.”

“Uh. No.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

He scrunched up his face. “Okay, okay, fine. But just remember, you asked for it.” He curled his forefinger into his thumb, and flicked her shoulder. “Ouch,” he said. “That stung more than I was expecting.”

She shot him a baleful look, and then laughed. They hugged. “You sure you’re gonna be okay, feistypants?”

“I’m sure. Promise you’ll come visit?”

“I’ll certainly try.” He grinned wide. “I bet Oaken and Anders are going to love to hear about this.”

 


 

The morning gloom sat untouched in Ser Anna’s bedroom, the knight kneeling before the vanity, hands clenched into tight fists. She wiped away her tears. “Okay,” she said aloud. “Pull yourself together, Anna. You can do this. You will make the queen trust you again. You will demonstrate your honor.” Slowly she stood. Her hand went to her side, and she patted Autumn’s hilt for luck. The ruby glimmered fiercely in the candlelight.

“Will you be wanting breakfast, m’lady?” asked Martin, when she emerged from her room into the solar.

“No, thank you, Martin,” said Anna. “The queen will be holding court all day, so your time is your own. How has your training been going?”

“Very well, m’lady. The master of arms calls me Hawk-eye. He says there’s no target I can’t arrow.”

Anna smiled at that. “That’s high praise. What of the other squires?”

Martin shrugged. “Few of them can use a bow. Some of them think crossbows are better. Little John said that crossbows make longbows pointless, but Ser Puck clouted him for that, and said that longbows nearly won the Albionese their war ‘gainst Lutetia.”

“Ser Puck knows his history.”

“Aye, m’lady, and his bowmanship. He spends many a day loosing shafts with me at the range.”

Anna smiled again. She was pleased to hear Martin was making so many friends. He got on great with the squires, and Ser Puck – a spindly young court knight with white hair, violet eyes, and a ridiculous jaunty cap – had taken very strongly to the boy.

“Then I sha’nt keep you anymore,” said Anna. “You are dismissed.”

Martin nodded stiffly. “Yes, m’lady. Thank you.” He hurried off.

Anna exited her solar and climbed the stone stairway to the top floor of the Queen’s Tower, where she found two white-enameled steel-plated Royal Guardsmen standing at attention outside the queen’s solar, their faces covered by visored helms topped with billowy blue silk plumes. When they noticed Anna, they saluted with their free hands; their right hands clutching the shafts of seven-foot halberds.

“Good morrow to you, my Lady Protector,” said one guardsman, whose voice Anna recognized as Ser Tazmus’s, or Tazzie as he was known around the yard. Many guardsmen were not knights, though some were – and though knighthood was not supposed to confer additional privileges on the knights who chose the path of Royal Guardsman, Anna often found herself favoring those with the title. Ser Tazmus, in particular, was blessed with the extraordinary good sense never to try Anna’s patience. Presently, he sat in her stead as interim Captain of the Guard. Anna might have minded more, but she considered Ser Tazmus a good man, and so long as her own honor was in question, his would serve.

She nodded in response. “Ser Tazmus,” she greeted him. “How fares the queen?”

“She is within, and safe. Currently taking a bath.”

“Who attends her?”

“Gerda.”

That was good. Gerda had been serving the family, for a long time, and wasas trustworthy as any were like to get. She was the castle Headmistress, a lesser title that meant she commanded the cooks and servants of the castle, a duty she performed admirably.

Anna nodded at this, and inclined her head to the other guard, who was called Flynt the Bastard, a saturnine young man who didn’t speak much, and whom Anna little trusted. Still, no one could deny his skill at arms, and so she had given him the honor of 2nd Lieutenant.

She continued on to the base of the Queen’s Tower.She found herself thinking about Lord Erik, and wondering if he ever had any doubts when he served as Lord Protector. She wished she could ask him, but he was dead, now, lying somewhere at the bottom of the Great Sea. They had called him the king’s right hand, so he must have surely done something right.

It was a short walk across the battlements from the Queen’s Tower to the White Keep, where the throne room was. There she was to await the queen’s pleasure, but the throne room was empty except for a pair of guards, one leaning against his halberd and snoozing. Anna woke him with a shout, and scolded him for sleeping on the job. “Yes, m’lady, sorry, m’lady,” the man replied snoozily. She then scolded the other guard on duty for not waking the first.

The stuffiness of the Arenborg became too much for her. The queen was known for taking long baths – it would be some time before Anna needed to be in the throne room. She left the keep out a back exit and trudged out into the snowy courtyard.

The air was crisp with cold, the sky all dark grays. The courtyards of the Arenborg were large and spacious, with room plenty to hold pavilions and, she knew, lavish outdoors feasts.Near the fjord’s edge, on the west side of the Arenborg, a short, crenellated inner wall, some 30 feet high, rose up to separate the courtyard from the outer portions of the castle, where the thrice-times tall outer walls shot out of the fjord like a sheer cliff. Beyond was open country, nestled between the wooded hills and snowcapped peaks of the Vestlandet.

Anna stared at the walls, then turned and went to the stables. “Saddle my horse,” she ordered a loafing stableboy, who took off in a run. He came back minutes later, pulling Anna’s horse by the reins.

She swung herself up on the saddle. “I will return in fifteen minutes. Be prepared to take my horse when I do.” The stableboy nodded, eyes wide. Fear. He saw what I did to the stablemaster’s apprentice.

With a pang of sobering dismay, she brought her horse around, the same golden-brown mare that she’d driven down the Springway. The same horse she stole from the sellswords. Can one steal from the dead? She spent good time practicing at riding in the past few months, though she knew she had a long way to go before she could match the seat of lords and even squires who had been riding since they were much younger. Still, her horse was cooperative and good-tempered, and never threw fits. The mare reminded Anna somewhat of Sven, and so she took to feeding her carrots in her spare moments.

“I need to name you sometime,” she murmured to the horse once as she stroked its face. The horse simply looked at her with long eyes, and munched a carrot.

She rode out through the castle walls and into the Vale-By-The-Fjord, as much a sanctuary as any section of open country can truly be called. Outside the city, outside the castle. A peaceful place that few bothered to tread. Small wonder, that: the dead make poor company.

She stood atop her horse and stared at the standing stones that dotted the Royal Cemetery. The smell of salt water mingled in the crisp cool air, and the tides of the fjord made gentle waves upon the ice-covered rocky beach. The hill rose high and wide, the stones sparse upon its breadth. She rode between them until she came to the most recent additions: Two towering stones, their faces flat and smooth. Carved in each of them was the six-pointed snowflake. She read one:

This stone honors Her Majesty IDEEN ARENDELLE, formerly IDEEN WESTERGUARD, Queen Consort to His Majesty the King. She was a kind, true, just, and noble soul, and the world is ever the poorer for her passing. She died at sea, and her body was never recovered.

His Majesty the King. The Young King, they called him, even now. He assumed the throne sixteen-some years ago, and then a boy of eighteen years. And now he was under the waves. Anna’s eyes glazed over the next rock. She trotted on a while until she came to a lonely stone, tall, thin, and narrow. This was what she came for. It read:

This stone honors the Lord Protector ERIK ULFTON, from the town of Ulfton.

It bore no other adornments. The Lord Protectors were buried in the Royal Cemetery, too. Her horse whickered in the cold as she brought the mare around to face the stone.

“They say you were the best,” Anna said to the wind. “They say that nobody will ever match you, that the king and queen were always safe in your hands. And yet, the gods took you away and put me in your place. And my queen won’t even look at me.” Her mare pawed at the snowy ground. “It is my fault, I know. I’m not even sure why I came out here.” She paused. “What would you do in my place, I wonder?”

After a time, Anna turned her horse and rode back to the castle. She found the stableboy and dismounted wordlessly, leaving the horse to his care. Back across the snow she went, her greaves crunching the snow with every step, and into the warm halls of the Arenborg once more.

She found the throne room still empty, albeit with two waking guardsmen instead of just the one. Anna climbed the dais and assumed a waiting posture by the carved-stone throne.

Soon enough, the guests and courtiers poured in, interspersed with court knights and guests, and guardsmen and men-at-arms who kept the whole moving through the doors. Men-at-arms lined the walls, halberds and pikes held erect. They trickled in for the better part of a long half-hour until, at last, the herald banged the end of his halberd against the ground. “All kneel for Her Majesty Queen Elsa of Arendelle, First of Her Name, the Ice-Blood.”

The courtiers knelt, and so did Anna, and Queen Elsa entered the room clad in a flowing teal-and-purple dress, her silvery-blonde hair pulled into tight bun, the snowflake crown perched delicately on her forehead. Ser Tazmus and Flynt escorted her in and took up positions by the door. She walked up the length of the room with a calm, quiet expression, fringed by members of her small council, and stepped up the dais to assume her seat on the throne. The small council took up their seats at the dais’s base. Anna felt a strange sense of pride standing atop the dais besides the queen, though the feeling guttered like a candle in the wind against the ever-present knowledge of the true distance between them.

Anna rose out of her genuflection when the queen sat, and patted Autumn’s hilt. She fixed her face into the stony expression of a stern Lord Protector, and prepared for a long day of saying and doing nothing at all, watching the hours tick by.

The doors to the hall burst open again when Lord Hugoss flubbed in, broad and fat and flanked by his men, all in navy blue surcoats, etched in gold on the front of each of which was the yellow five-pointed star of House Hugoss.

“My queen!” he boomed across the hall, as he strode up to kneel heavily before the dais. “I thank you for your audience.”

“Rise, my Lord. What news from the Southern Isles?”

His men helped him back to his feet with a slight struggle. He took a deep breath. “The king is much struck by the news. As Your Grace knows, he was also in Corona to attend Princess Rapunzel’s wedding when the storm struck. He only returned to his seat in København at the last moon’s turn.”

The queen nodded. “We knew this much. But he mentioned in his letter he had something important to say in person?”

The fat lord spread his fleshy hands. “Only that he is crushed by the loss of his sister, your mother. As you know, the two were not related of blood, but she was raised under the Westerguard roof and given the Westerguard name by her adoptive father.”

Queen Elsa raised a platinum eyebrow dubiously. “He required the personal company of my Lord High Admiral… to express his grief?”

The fat lord wiped his mouth, and shook his head with a slight frown. “There was… one other thing. The man was so in his cups that it made little sense to me, but-”

“Are you sure it was him who was too much in his cups, or you?” came a reedy voice from the oak chairs. Lord Joakim Myles leaned forward and steepled his fingers, smirking slightly.

The fat lord wobbled his jowls at the interruption. “I can hold my wine as good as any man – I daresay every man,” he declared. “The king’s constitution is legendary as well. But he was in a grieving mood, and that kills a man’s resistance more surer than any poison. He said to me he lost not only a sister, but a son. The island of Blackstone was swallowed by the storm and, with it, all trace of his thirteenth son.”

A quiet formed. “This is the first I’ve heard of such,” said Queen Elsa. “Who else knows?”

The fat lord shook his head sadly. “Few and fewer, it would seem. The prince was neither well-known nor well-liked. The king beseeched me drunkenly to beg of you to lend such ships as you are able to aid in scouring the seas for the boy, a red-haired youth no older than you.”

The queen drummed her pale fingers on the arm of her throne, and rested her chin on her other hand’s palm. “This is quite a request.”

“He said you would consider it for your mother’s sake. The boy would be her nephew, at least by law.”

“Also my cousin, by the same token.” Queen Elsa sighed audibly. “And what is your opinion on this matter? You are the High Admiral.”

Lord Hugoss bowed his head humbly. “I was moved by the king’s grief, but… Your Grace, Blackstone was a small island, and the sea is huge. It has been months. Like as not, the boy is drowned or lost.”

The queen looked at Lord Hugoss a moment, and then nodded. “I thought so. Still, it would be an ill thing to turn him down when his grief is no less than mine.”

A voice spoke up from the oak chairs, staunch and cool. “The threat posed by Weselton requires us to keep our friends close,” said Lady Ysmir Corel, the Royal Spymaster, in her blacks-and-blues and long shadowed eyelashes. “I say we lend the South Islanders as many ships as they would have.”

“The king of the Southern Isles is a man of voracious appetites, much like our Lord Admiral,” said Lord Myles dryly. “He would take that offer at face value, make no mistake.”

“And what if we should have need of their help, should the duke come calling?” asked Lady Ysmir. “It is a small thing to lend a few ships.”

“Oh, come now,” said Lord Hugoss. “Her Grace is the Island King’s niece. Surely if it came to war, he would do everything in his power to help, whether we gave him his ships or not.”

“The Island King is a man of voracious appetites, true,” admitted Lady Ysmir, her tone sharp, “but he is also prickly and vain. We would do best not to insult him by denying him wholesale.”

“I agree,” said the queen. “We should help. Lord Hugoss, see that you assemble a fleet of a dozen ships to patrol the waters and search for my nuncle’s son. Keep it up for a month, and then return to port. That should be more than plenty.”

Lord Hugoss bowed. “As my queen commands.”

Ser Tore shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “How many combat-ready ships does that leave to patrol our own waters?”

“It should be plenty,” said the queen. “The duke will not catch us unawares by the sea.”

The fat lord nodded. “Between here and Eastport, there are six-score battle-ready galleys and a quarter of that number in carracks. That is to say nothing of the clippers currently serving as trade vessels that make dock every other fortnight. Many have bonds with the port authority, and would accept impressment on a moment’s notice if it meant debt forgiveness. If the need is great, so will be the navy.”

That answer seemed to placate Ser Tore, and he gave a conciliatory gesture. “Very well, then.”

Just as Lord Hugoss assumed his seat at the base of the dais, a courier entered the room, his boots tracking snow behind him. “M’lords,” he said, and took a knee before the dais. “Your Grace. A warship has come into port, and the captain reports that a stowaway was found on board.”

“How does this concern us?” Lord Hugoss grunted. “Why did the captain not pitch the stowaway into the sea?”

“My lord, the captain says the stowaway was in a sorry state, half-drownded and starving, and he took pity on the poor creature. But also – the man claimed diplomatic immunity.”

“Did he have any heraldry to mark him by?” asked Lord Myles sharply. “Any letters or seals proving his person?”

“No – I don’t know, m’lord,” said the courier. “The captain has brought him. He awaits without, for your pleasure.”

Before Lord Myles could say anything, the queen waved a hand. “See him in. I would look upon this stowaway with mine own eyes before I condemned him to death.”

The courier left hurriedly, and shortly afterwards a tall man with brown hair and stubble appeared, leading two sailors who held between them a filthy-looking man in rags. His hair was dirty and unkempt and the color of ancient rust, his beard a massive tangle.

The captain took a knee. “My lords, Your Grace. This stowaway claims to be a man of great import.”

Lord Myles took the cue again. “Stowaway. You, there. Look at me.” The stowaway lifted his head and met Lord Myles’ gaze with sunken eyes. He smiled a cracked smile through his tangled beard. The steward spoke to him: “You claim diplomatic immunity, do you?”

The stowaway chuckled raspily. “Aye, that I do, if it please my lord.”

“And can you prove it?”

The stowaway’s smile faltered. “Not as such, no, my lords. In truth I come to bandy words with your queen.” His eyes swiveled up to Queen Elsa. Anna tensed, and her hand went to her sword hilt protectively. The stowaway did not fail to notice the motion; nor, it seemed, did Lord Myles.

“You’d best watch your tongue, stowaway,” said Lord Myles dryly. “Our Lady Protector has a habit of disembowling folk who would besmirch Her Grace’s honor.”

The stowaway chuckled again. “I can’t prove anything to you, my lord, but your queen is a different story. Just a few moments of her time, that’s all I ask.”

“You want my attention, you have it,” said Queen Elsa. “Now, speak.”

“I was thinking we could discuss more privily, Your Grace.”

Queen Elsa frowned. “That is not currently possible, I’m afraid.” Queen Elsa spoke to the captain next: “You did well bringing this man here. You may go.” And then to Ser Tazmus and Flynt: “Please take this stowaway and confine him in the dungeons. I must needs speak with him later, and I would prefer he didn’t run off.”

The stowaway cackled, and coughed heavily. “Run off? Do I look in any state to run off?” He paused. “Your Grace?” he added as an afterthought.

“You also don’t look like a diplomat, yet apparently appearances can be deceiving,” said the queen coolly. Ser Tazmus and Flynt took the stowaway under the arms and hauled him off to the dungeons, the man cackling a raspy cackle the entire way. Anna let herself relax after that.

The rest of the day’s proceedings were less eventful than that, and eventually Queen Elsa declared the petitioners be dismissed until the next day. Her and the small council then exited for the councilroom to discuss the affairs of state.

The main order of business that day stemmed from arranging the ships to search for the Island King’s lost son, and the potential ramifications it had come outbreak of war with Weselton. “The duke wants blood, mark my words,” warned Lady Ysmir. “My sources all agree he means to strike soon, and none too-subtly.”

Lord Myles snorted. “Do they, now? Pray, what would you have us do?”

“Reconciliation,” said Lady Ysmir earnestly. “We must end the embargo against them and open up trade again. And, more importantly, we must shore up our defenses.”

Lord Hugoss grunted over his cup. “I already mentioned that we have hundreds of ships available to defend us at sea. The duke would need to hire sellships to match our numbers, and that’s in the east alone. The gods help him if we muster our allies in Corona and the Southern Islands, to say nothing of the longships from our holdings in Vestlandet.”

“That is, unless the duke is gathering ships in silence,” said Lord Myles. He narrowed his eyes at Lady Ysmir. “Would our Royal Spymaster know anything about that?”

“None of my sources have hinted as much,” she replied. “Though I’ll be sure to look into it. And ships are little use in the event of an attack over land.”

Ser Tore glowered at her. “Lord Reginald has given me assurance that his banners are always ready to march. If the duke comes, he will present us with the full strength of the dale in little more than a moment’s notice.”

“And what if the Linnaeuses of Eastgreen revolt again?”

“Karl Linnaeus is Lord of Eastgreen for the nonce. It was his son, Ser Jarl, acting as his Lord Father’s tanist, who rose up the last time. Karl Linnaeus is old, has no heirs, and owns half the land he had twenty years ago. He will do nothing.”

Lady Ysmir wrinkled her nose. “If you say so. What if he should die in the meanwhile? Will his niece rise against us?”

The queen stirred. “Lady Lyla was my mother and father’s ward. She and I are fast friends.”

“Are you certain, Your Grace? Lady Lyla is a Weselton countess, and not of House Linnaeus. She has no reason to love Arendelle.”

The queen looked at Lady Ysmir strangely. “I am completely certain. Lady Lyla will not rise against me.I am, however, perhaps not as certain as you are in the belief that the duke means to attack.”

Lady Ysmir scowled. “I have already explained that the duke is outraged. He has chafed under the embargo and is chagrined that we have pinned the assassination attempt on him…”

“And he still refuses to admit his guilt,” pointed out Lord Myles, whose narrowed eyes had been darting between Lady Ysmir and the queen while they spoke. “Why should we care if he is starving his own people to assuage his stunted ego?”

“Because a lion backed into a corner will attack,” insisted Lady Ysmir.

“And what about a weasel?” growled Ser Tore, which elicited a few laughs around the table. “If he attacks us, land or sea, it will be folly. We are as strong as we’ve ever been, and even if the Island King doesn’t come to our aid, we would be hard-pressed to lose a war against the Duchy of Weselton.” Murmurs of agreement.

“You haven’t mentioned your own banners,” brought up Lord Myles, pointing an accusing finger at the Royal Spymaster. “Would the Wings answer a call to arms should it be war?”

Lady Ysmir scowled at him. “You would question my loyalty? You snake. If it is war, my daughter will raise the banners before all of the rest.”

“Yes, but for what side?” mused Lord Myles, and he made a show of drumming his chin with thoughtful fingers.

Lady Ysmir shot up out of her seat. “Jest and jape all we want, but I tell you, if there is no reconciliation, the duke will move against us, be it folly or not. He is old and done and his pride is dust. He will go out with a bang before a whimper. If we are not prepared we will lose more lives than is necessary.”

“Oh, I quite agree.” Lord Myles suddenly looked quite serious. “But I think you’re on the wrong track. I believe that the duke will attempt to stage a second assassination attempt on the queen.”

That seemed to take Lady Ysmir aback. Lord Hugoss coughed on his wine. “An assassination…?” Lord Hugoss blinked. “But that would do nothing for him. The queen is well-guarded, and after the last one, we would know for sure that it was him…”

“Indeed,” said Lord Myles. “However, as the good Lady says, the duke is old and done, but he has heirs. The queen has no heirs. She is the last of her line, and if she should perish before siring an heir of her own…” He spread his hands. “Even if all of Arendelle came down on him for it, the history books would name him the winner in the Arendelle-Weselton feud, and our kingdom’s years would be numbered by however long it took for the lords of the land to forget what the snowflake looks like.”

Queen Elsa frowned. “That is a good point, but… would the duke dare?”

“I think so,” shrugged Lord Myles.

Lady Ysmir sat down again, looking thoughtful. “It seems unlikely, but… now would be as good a time as any. For the nonce, the Lord Protector is a rookie upstart, and-”

Before Anna could open her mouth to retort, Lord Myles laughed loudly. “The Royal Spymaster never even once considered that the queen’s enemies might want to assassinate her, and is now calling the champion of the Queen’s Tourney a ‘rookie upstart.’ The irony is as palpable as summer in Tirrenia.”

Lady Ysmir purpled with rage. “You don’t seriously expect me to believe that this Lady Protector has any experience at all with protecting someone from assassins?”

“No, no, I quite understand your point, but, well, there’s an old Eastern saying: something like, ‘don’t throw stones if you live in a glass keep.’” He smirked. “For what it matters, I think the Lady Protector’s wroth itself will scare off any would-be assassins. Those not smart enough to be cowed will get the Giant’s haircut.

“That having been said, it would obviously serve if our Royal Spymaster was on top of an assassination attempt, preferably before it happens, unlike last ti-”

“Enough, Lord Myles,” interrupted Queen Elsa. She turned to Lady Ysmir. “Do what you think you must, my lady. But I believe Lord Myles has a good notion here.”

Lady Ysmir pursed her lips and bowed her head stiffly. “Yes, Your Grace. But I… I am still not convinced. In my opinion, one failed assassination would most likely cow an old man like the duke. But I will look into it.”

“See that you do,” said the queen, and she rose from her chair. “I will go speak to the prisoner now. You are all dismissed for the day.” She nodded at Lord Myles. “Except for you, my Lord High Steward. I would speak with you. Walk with me.” The queen exited the room with Kai and Lord Myles at her heels, and Anna moved to follow when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

She turned and saw Lady Ysmir, glaring at her. “My lady,” said Anna stiffly. “What do you need?”

“A word,” said the lady. She gave a false smile. “We talk precious little, you and I. What do you make of Lord Myles?”

Anna frowned. “He seems like a decent enough sort,” she said warily. “Why do you ask?”

Lady Ysmir’s smile vanished. “Something about him troubles me. He has always been an unctuous worm, but this business with Weselton…” She looked distracted. “I have seeded the duke’s court up and down with informers, and all of them agree that an assassination is out of the question. Yet, the way Lord Myles puts it, it makes a great deal of sense. What am I to believe?”

“Perhaps your informers are not as trustworthy as you think,” said Anna coolly.

Lady Ysmir’s expression turned sour. “My informants are trustworthy. I have been at this business for many years, don’t you presume to tell me how to do my work. But this entire situation reeks to me.” She paused, and looked Anna up and down, her gaze withering. “Does the queen still keep you away?” she asked.

Anna stiffened. “She does.”

The corners of the lady’s mouth twitched. “A pity. You are only good for that freakish strength of yours.” She huffed. “I think the time is well and come to affect a reconciliation with Weselton. The council insists we are guarded on all sides, but I would not chance it. I aim to see that the duke and his retinue are extended a peace-offering. Until the matter is resolved, I have decided that the Royal Guard is to stay in Ser Tazmus’s hands.” She turned to leave.

Anna heard herself speak before she knew it. “My lady,” she called, her voice dripping with venom. “Might I ask you a question?”

She stopped, and turned her head the slightest amount. “If you must.”

“I must ask what I have done to make you hate me so. Is it because I shamed your son, Ser Frawn, in the tourney?”

To her surprise, Lady Ysmir smiled at that, ever so slightly. “You are an upjumped peasant girl with cotton between her ears, whose only lordly trait is knowing how to swing a bit of metal around. My lady, why do I hate you? Well, what is there to like?” And she left without another word.

Seething, and finding she was alone in the council room, Anna clenched a fist and punched the wall, her gauntleted knuckle thudding against a hanging tapestry. The worst part was the small, niggling feeling that told her maybe Lady Ysmir was right. Maybe she wasn’t anything special. Maybe she was in over her head.

She forced herself to calm down. No. You said your words. Nothing she or anyone else does can change that. You have no choice. Anna unclenched her fist and let it drop, hanging limply at her side. She drew herself up and stomped out of the councilroom.

She was making her way down a side hall when she turned a corner and nearly crashed into something big and blue. “Oh – I beg your pardon,” she said, flustered, anger giving way to embarrassment.

The familiar voice of Lord Hugoss greeted her. “Ah, Ser Anna!” he boomed. “I meant to talk to you after the council meeting, but I needed to see the captain of that ship. The one the stowaway was on. I’d have a word, if you don’t mind?” His blond-bearded face was somehow more sallow than usual.

Anna blinked. “What is it, my lord?”

He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. Even in the cold of winter, the man still sweat bullets. “It is only that I’ve heard rumors, ser. Bad rumors.” He frowned. “Rumors that you were injured last month, some say quite badly. What happened?”

Anna turned her eyes to the floor. “I… don’t know, my lord. The memory is fuzzy. Some say it was a ghast attacked Her Grace and I while we were at the lagoon. Master Penrose says I developed a frightful chill, and even now it has not fully recovered.” She looked up. “But the queen was uninjured.”

“I… see…” He put his handkerchief away. “At least Her Grace was unharmed. I’d say it was a job well-done, in that case.”

Anna was surprised to hear that. “Others might disagree, my lord,” she said cautiously. “Her Grace has dismissed me from her personal guard.”

“She what?” exclaimed the big man, eyes bulging. “But… but why? Her Grace was terrible fond of you.”

“It may be, my lord, that she simply came to her sense.” Anna made a fist and pounded her chestplate. “But I am resolved to prove my worth to her again.”

Lord Hugoss nodded, and he hooked his thumbs through his massive belt, his brow furrowed. “Damnation. Now I know what that Lady Ysmir was babbling about. I thought as long as you attended the queen, we’d have no cause to worry. But Lord Myles mentioning assassinations today…” He shook his head. “I have hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors at my beck and call. Twenty-thousand levies alone sit between here and Eastgreen. Yet all of that is worthless if one Lothar sneaks into the castle.”

“Lady Ysmir believes that an assassination is unlikely.”

The fat lord grunted. “She wants to believe an assassination is unlikely. But she has the right of it in one case: If we make our peace with Weselton, we can put this behind us.”

“But… my lord…” Anna hesitated. “This was the duke’s doing in the first place. He sent assassins after the king and queen.”

“Aye, he did,” admitted Lord Hugoss. “But not all crimes can be punished. If we can save the queen by forgiving him on this one matter, then by the gods, it will have been worth it.”

Anna bit her lip instead of reply. You will have bought a temporary peace at best, she wanted to reply; though she knew little and less of politics, she couldn’t imagine the duke would let things go at this point. But there was another thing that was true: the duke was old, his remaining years were few. It might be that simply waiting him out was the best option.

She suddenly wanted very badly to attend to the queen, or at the very least to see her, make sure she was okay, confirm with her own eyes. She bowed to the fat lord. “Please excuse me, my lord. I have important business to attend to.”

Lord Hugoss bowed in return. “Aye, ser. May your sword-arm be strong, and may the gods watch over us all. And the queen.”

Anna proceeded down the hallway into a tall stairwell that led down to the bottom of the keep, where the dungeons were accessible through a low, narrow hallway of brick and mortar. At the end stood a dimly-lit antechamber where the dungeon master kept his offices, at the far end of which was the oak-and-iron door that led to the cells.

The dungeon master was not present, but there was a turnkey, sitting and rubbing his eyes, and the door was flanked by Ser Tazmus and Flynt. Ser Tazmus greeted her with a “My lady.”

“Where is the queen?” Anna asked the two guardsmen.

“She is within, interrogating the prisoner,” said Ser Tazmus.

“Is anyone with her?”

“Not at present, no. She demanded privacy for the questioning.”

Anna furrowed her brow. “So she’s alone with the prisoner?” Ser Tazmus nodded. “I must needs see her at once. May I go through?”

Ser Tazmus and Flynt looked at each other, and then back to Anna. Flynt spoke: “M’lady, the queen demanded privacy. She asked for no interruptions… especially from you.”

That floored her. She gave the guardsmen an incredulous look. “What do you mean, ‘especially from me’?”

“He means that Her Grace told us specifically that you were not to disturb her for her interrogation,” said Ser Tazmus, sounding abashed and hesitant.

Are you really surprised, you upstart little peasant girl? She turned suddenly and closed her eyes. I am not wanted here, she thought.

“Thank you, ser. I will leave you to your watch.” Anna left the dungeons and the keep and the castle, her cloak wrapped all around her armor, hood drawn up, head low, shame hot in her face and eyes. She couldn’t stay in that castle any longer. She wanted out. She wanted wine.

It was late afternoon, the skies above Crystalwater a streak of oranges and yellows. Anna cut through a side alley that led windingly down to the commons, the quarter of the city stacked with plain houses and lowly soupshops and winesinks. There was crime in these parts, as she knew, but Ser Anna, Knight of Crystalwater, nominal Lady Protector had no fear of lowborn brigands with cracked iron daggers. She would cut any such down and add to her legacy.

She stepped around a corner and found a dreary winesink marked by a sign in the front that bore a winged goblet. She stepped through the threshold and into the dim, timber interior of the shop. “A cup of your most palatable red,” she said to the shopkeep. She thrust some coppers into his palm and took her wine to a seat at the dark end of the bar.

Anna scanned the room from end to end. The winesink was packed with comers and goers, many of them quiet and sipping their drinks, keeping low conversation amongst themselves. The most lively group was at a round table where five men sat dicing. Four of them wore chainmail, three with black-and-gray checkered surcoats and the last with a surcoat of faded yellow and the design of a coiled, green snake on the front. The last man was dressed in tattered finery, and had a rough brown beard. The armored men she took for members of the city watch, though she did not recognize the heraldry of the snake. The fifth man – just a gambler.

She brooded over her cup until a sudden uproar from the gambling table startled her. The man in yellow was on his feet, his hand gone to his side where, she saw, he wore a longsword. Anna felt her fingers itch.

“You cheat! You lousy cheat!” he shouted at the gambler.

“That’s not cheatin’, ser, that’s just good luck!”

“That’s cheating, damn me if it isn’t. I could have all of your fingers for that, you swine.”

“No cheatin’, ser, honest!”

The other men stood up, and at the man in yellow’s behest, grabbed the gambler by the arms. “Now, no more of your lies,” snarled the man in yellow, as one of the black-and-grey checkers punched the gambler in the gut. He crinkled over and wheezed. A black-bearded man at the other end of the bar stood up. The rest of the onlookers looked on with silent, somber expressions, attempting to avoid the yellow man’s eyes.

“Oi,” Anna heard herself say above the din. “Let that man alone.”

The watchmen turned to look at her, expressions of bewilderment on their faces. The yellow surcoat looked her up and down. “Do you know who you’re talking to, girl?”

“A dead man, if he doesn’t let that cheating gambler go.”

The man in yellow scowled, and drew his sword. A murmur ran through the winesink, the eyes of the onlookers widening and narrowing variously. “You’ve got a lot of guts, kid, I’ll grant you that,” said the man in yellow, pointing his sword at Anna.“But you should know that Ser Jonathan of House Myles does not suffer insolence well.”

“Neither does Ser Anna of Crystalwater,” replied Anna. She pulled back the hem of her cloak and tapped a gauntleted finger on Autumn’s hilt. The ruby flashed.

The color drained from Ser Jonathan’s face. He lowered his sword. “The… Lady Protector, is it?”

“The Green Devil,” said one of the other watchmen. “She tore the Giant’s head off with her bare hands.”

“Haven’t heard that second name,” said Anna dryly. “But yes, that’s me. You shouldn’t bare steel unless you mean to use it, Ser Jon.”

“O-Of course,” said Ser Jonathan, and he sheathed his sword clumsily. For a second he looked expectant, and then he tried to put on a winsome smile. “My father sits the council, my lady. Perhaps you know him, Lord Joakim Myles?”

“Might be I have,” said Anna curtly. “Does he know his son spends his days skulking shady winesinks and emptying the pockets of gamblers?”

“I, um…” Ser Jonathan seemed at a loss for words. “Please, my lady, I meant no offense. This man is a cheater! On my sword, I swear it!”

“Might be that’s so. For your father’s sake, you may take the silver that’s yours and go. But I won’t suffer you to harm that man any more.”

Ser Jonathan clenched his jaw, his eyes growing hard for a moment, until he huffed out a breath and leaned forward in a quick bow. “Yes, my lady. You are most kind.” He and his men gathered up their coin and left the winesink in a hurry.

No sooner did they leave than people from all over the shop came to crowd around Anna. She clutched her cup close and looked between them suspiciously. The man with a huge black beard came forward and set a hand down on her shoulder. “Aye, let me buy you a drink.”

For the rest of the evening, Anna did not pay for any wine, as it seemed every patron in the store wanted to offer her the pleasure. The man accused of cheating was exceptionally ingratiating. “Begging your pardons, m’lady, but those men would surely ‘ave ‘ad my fingers off were it not for your chivalry.”

“My chivalry?” repeated Anna, nonplussed.

“Aye,” said a woman, butting in. “Old Mo may be a cheat, but he knows a true knight when he sees one: honest, handsome, honorable – all things he ain’t!”

“That bloody knight and his cronies in the watch is always struttin’ about with that garish green snake of his,” spat another man. “Glad as hell to see ‘m run off with his tail between his legs. Say, can I buy you a cup, Ser Anna? Yer nursin’ dregs…”

As she drank, and drank, and drank (because she didn’t have the heart to refuse), the patrons all regaled her with stories they’d heard of her own bravery, asking her for her input, and whether this or that was really true. For the large part, it amused her, and the patrons were such a bright and spiritly lot on account of the humbling of Ser Jonathan that she found herself really enjoying their company. But on the whole, she was deeply moved. She stared into her cups as she thought about everything she believed she knew about her reputation. You’d think me Ser Anna the Good, to hear them tell it.

As new patrons entered the store and saw the commotion, they hobbled over to see what was the matter. And all at once, a dozen voices would rise and explain how Ser Anna, the city’s very own knight, vanquished Ser Jonathan and twenty other watchmen single-handedly, and saved the whole winesink, and also the city, and also the dale.

At some point, the slaying of the Giant was mentioned, and that sobered the conversation somewhat. “The Giant was a good knight, it’s true,” said a man deep in his cups. “He fought valiantly against the weasels, and he always respected his opponents.”

“They said when his blood was up, he slew friend and foe alike,” warned a woman. “Valiant man, aye, maybe so, but vicious as all-get-out.”

“I was at the tourney,” said a man. “Ser Anna grabbed the Giant’s sword and twisted it from his hands.”

“What was it like, fighting the giant?”

They were waiting on her, now. “It was unreal,” she said, slowly, face flushed with wine. “He was unstoppable. I meant to yield, but he must not have heard me. I didn’t mean to kill him.” She paused. “I said a prayer for him after he died. In the name of the gods.”

The patrons nodded solemnly at that. “That’s how he’d have wanted it, I’m sure,” said the man with the huge black beard, and he clapped Anna on the shoulder. The mood picked up again after that, when someone began miming the look on Ser Jonathan’s face when he recognized the Lady Protector. Laughter rattled the cups, shouts of acclaim rang in the rafters, several toasts to the Knight of Crystalwater were proposed (and drained), and Anna lost herself to the grape.

Anna left the winesink stumbling on her feet. The sky was deep with dusk, and a pallid blue had settled over all. It was snowing. With a light laugh, she threw her head back and opened her mouth, sticking out her tongue in the hopes of catching some stray snowflakes. “Snow, snow,” she sang; “I love you, snow.”

She almost fell down when a strong hand grabbed her under her left arm and helped her up. She looked: the man with the huge black beard. Not sitting, she could tell he was gigantic, easily seven feet tall, and broad in the shoulders and chest.

“Careful there, my lady,” said the man. “You seem to have had too much to drink.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Anna, laughing unintentionally. She cleared her throat. “I must needs return to the castle so I can sleep it off.”

The man laughed, a deep, booming noise. “I’ll escort you there, if you don’t mind. ‘Tis a dangerous time of night for young girls to be wandering alone.”

“You needn’t worry for me, valiant ser, I am a knight.”

“And I am a lord,” said the man, laughing again.

They walked for a while. When the gates of the Arenborg came into view, he spoke, his voice deeper and more solemn than it had been earlier. “I was very touched to hear you speak that way of Ser Richard.”

“The Giant?” said Anna, after a moment’s confusion.

“Aye, him. I always knew Ser Richard to say a prayer for every man he killed. Their ghosts went with him everywhere. He always said he wished to die in battle against a worthy opponent. I am glad that his wish came true.”

Anna blinked up at the man. “Who are you?” They now stood before the Arenborg.

He looked at her, his eyes unreadable pools of black. “I am called Lord Morning, the Lord of Dawnspring.”

“You… You are Lord Reginald. Lord Reginald Morning.” Her eyes widened. “M-My lord. I did not recognize you.”

He smiled. “I would not expect you to, my lady. We have never met before. I make it a habit to travel with a minimal guard and minimal decorations, and to frequent the cheapest and least suspicious of taverns, inns, and winesinks. I suppose the gods intended me to meet you today, the person who killed my brother.”

Anna lowered her head. “I… my lord, forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive.” He clapped her on the shoulders. “Cheer up. Everybody dies sooner or later. Whatever rises must soon fall. This is the lesson we Mornings take from the sun. But we do not despair, because we know another morning will always rise. ‘Morning will come.’ Those are our words.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Let it not be said that Ser Richard died pointlessly, without a blade in his hands, but in combat against one who could best him. He met his sunset with courage and dignity.”

Anna felt her soul lighten a little. She met his eyes, black and fierce. “Yes, my lord. As you say.”

He pulled back and looked up, his eyes scanning the bridgegate and seeming to take in the snowy twilight. “During the Weselton war, my brother killed his best friend. The knight’s name was Ser Danton, and he was sworn to his father, the old Lord Linnaeus of Eastgreen. But his brother ran the lordship, and rebelled when the duke’s armies marched through. Ser Danton knew it was treason, but he had no choice but to do as his liege lord commanded. He met Ser Richard on the battlefield, and his end. I know my brother never forgave himself for that. He’s been called brutish, and uncaring, and monstrous. I’m sure you thought so yourself when he didn’t accept your yielding. Aye, he had his demons.” He grunted. “Please excuse me, my lady. I forget myself.”

“That’s all right,” said Anna quietly.

They stood in silence for several moments, the snow falling black and white around them. Suddenly Lord Morning reached into a pocket in his cloak and brought out a small, blue ring.

“My brother will kill me for this, but it was Ser Richard’s dying request, so he can go bugger himself.” He looked Anna in the eyes, and knelt so his face was level with hers. His voice was low and steady. “This ring belonged to Ser Danton. When he lay dying in the passes, my brother held him in his arms and watched as Ser Danton’s final act was to remove this ring and place it in his hands. Ser Richard kept it in his private chambers. He told me: ‘If I ever die in battle, give the ring to the one who kills me.’ Hold out your hand, ser.”

Anna held out her right hand, the green gauntlet looking gray in the low-light of evening. Carefully, with both hands, Lord Morning placed the ring in her palm. Anna looked at it: it was blue, completely blue all around, and seemed to glow and even move as her eyes chased the whorls across its surface like beads on blown glass.

Lord Morning curled Anna’s hand closed around the ring. “This ring,” he said hoarsely, “is special. Ser Danton claimed it protected him. People scoffed at him, as they are wont to scoff at things they don’t understand… but in the Up-And-Downs, you learn that scorn is best afforded on the things you understand best.” He stood up. “And now, Ser Anna, I’m afraid I’ve taken quite enough of your time. I must be back to my inn; my men are no doubt worried about me.”

Anna nodded, her throat dry. “Yes, my lord. And…” She didn’t know what to say. She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

He smiled sadly at her, and turned and walked away, his black cloak with the silver sunburst on it trailing behind him in the snow-speckled wind.

Anna opened her hand and looked at the ring again, as if to confirm it was still there. The blues danced in the twilight. She closed her fist around it, tight, and sprinted across the castle bridge, courtyard, through the keep until she stood before her solar door. She was feeling queasy – the wine, no doubt.

She entered her solar, stopping by the armor stand to remove every piece. She set the ring down on a table as she worked. Where is Martin? she thought as she wrestled her greaves off. When she was done, she took the ring and went into her room, changing into a nightgown and throwing herself face-first on the bed.

Too much wine, she thought, and turned over. She held the ring up above her head. The moonlight from the window caused it to glimmer at her. She tucked herself under the covers as she continued to admire the ring. Eventually, she slipped it onto a finger on her left hand, rolled over, and embraced a drunken sleep.

A large man stood at the crest of the pass, where the rock teeth of the hill met to form a thoroughfare that no more than three men could cross abreast. Or one man when that man was Ser Richard.

Ser Danton drew his sword. Elderfyre’s steel reflected the sunlight, the emerald in its pommel twinkling like the eyes of the woman he loved. On his mailed finger sparkled her ring. He stepped forward across the white, fresh-fallen snow.

“Ser Danton,” rumbled the Giant. “There are traitors at your back.”

“I know. I brought them here.”

“So it’s true, then. You seek to depose the king.”

“I seek to serve my liege lord.”

Ser Richard drew his sword, five feet of sharp, shining steel. “I don’t want to kill you, Ser Danton.”

“Aye,” said Ser Danton sadly. “But you will.”

“Aye,” agreed the Giant. “I will.”

When the steel song was sung, Ser Danton lay in the black snow, and the huge man towered over him. The fallen knight extended his hand. “Take it.”

“Your ring?” said the Giant.

“Aye, good ser. It’s magic, just like her. It really is. Take good care of it, I beg you.”

“I will. By the love I bear you, I will. I am so sorry,” said the Giant, eyes glistening. Ser Danton put the ring in his hand.

“Me too,” said Ser Danton, and died.

 

Chapter Text

 

Morning came too painfully and too quickly. It was still dark when Ser Anna awoke, and cold. After laying, for awhile, with her eyes buried in the crook of her elbow, she jumped up with a start and plodded over to her dresser, resolved to dress and get some water before engaging the day. It was as she was pulling an undertunic out of a drawer that she recognized the blue ring still on her finger, and then remembered the dream she had the night before. She tore off her nightgown and changed into dayclothes.

She went into her solar and peeked out the door into the gray stone landing beside the spiral steps of the tower. Slowly she stepped out, and turned a corner to find the door to the squire’s quarters. She knocked heavily. No answer.

With a frown, she went back into her solar. Where is that boy? she wondered. She looked mournfully at her armor. I can’t put that on without help. She went back to her room and fetched a padded green woolen doublet with a gold stripe down the center and slipped into it. Then she jumped into a pair of tight cowhide breeches and slipped on some tall brown leather boots. Her mind went back to the ring as she picked up Autumn and fastened it to the swordbelt at her waist. She shivered. Over the ring she slipped on a beaten hand-hugging leather glove, and on her other hand as well. She threw her gold crocus-embroidered cloak around her shoulders.

She had a mind to visit Maple that day. Not only had it been awhile since she had seen the young witch, but she wanted to hear what she had to say about the ring. Lord Morning had said it was special, but in her dream, the knight said it was magical. She briefly considered seeing Master Penrose, but, no – Sydney was not a real wizard. Like as not he’d just shrug at her.

It was still snowing, but her cloak held back the chill well enough. To the armorers’ quarter she went, and through there to the alley where Maple’s potion shop sat in residence. A black cat skulked in the snow outside the small building. Anna knocked on the front door.

Maple answered a few seconds later, wrapped in a heavy purple shawl and thick woolen robes. Her green hair curled around the sides of her head, and her purple hat sat tall and gnarled on her head. She blinked green eyes at Anna, and then smiled her tooth-missing smile.

“Anna!” she exclaimed, and jumped out into the snow to hug the hapless knight. “It’s been ages! I thought you forgot all about me.”

“How could I dare?” said Anna. Maple pulled away and went back inside the shop. “Come in!” she said. “You’re letting out the warm.” Anna did as she was bid, hitting her boots against the doorframe to knock the snow loose.

The inside of the shop was small and cozy, as it was the last time Anna had been inside, which was to deliver chests of gold coins. Now, the chests were nowhere to be found, but the shop looked otherwise the same as it had before. On the round table in the center of the room sat a pot of tea and a single white teacup, and the table was circled by a couple of chubby maroon armchairs. There were some fat tallow candles around the room, all different colors but glowing the same orange flames. The room was close and warm despite there being no fire, let alone a fireplace to have it in. Anna loosened the clasp on her cloak.

Maple went to a cupboard that seemed to lean in every direction at once. From a drawer, she produced a second small white teacup and brought it back to the table. She sat down on a plush chair and motioned for Anna to do the same.

“Thank you,” said Anna as Maple poured her a cup of tea.

“Don’t mention it.” She handed the cup over. It felt warm and smelled faintly of strawberries. “It’s good to see you. Grandmama has been away lately, and I’ve been dreadful bored here by myself.”

Anna looked around the room. “I don’t see those chests of gold anywhere.”

“Is that the only reason you came?”

“No.” Anna sipped her tea.

Maple sipped her tea too, and sat back with eyes closed.

“What did you do with all the gold, anyway?” asked Anna, curious in spite of herself.

A smile crawled across Maple’s face, and she cracked an eye. “Oh, I invested it.”

“Really? In what? I’m sorry – I shouldn’t pry.”

“You’re fine! I owe it to you, remember, Anna? Ah, I guess I should say ser now.”

“You can call me Anna.” She smiled at the witch.

Maple hehed. She leaned forward. “Word around town is that the Knight of Crystalwater gave the Knight of Snakes a proper thrashing last night.”

“Is that so?” Anna frowned. “I didn’t expect word to spread so quickly,” she said into her teacup.

“Is it true, then? Did you thrash him? If you tell me, I’ll tell you what I invested your tournament winnings in.” She winked.

Anna put her teacup down. “It’s not really true,” she said. “I only threatened a city watchman. Ser Jonathan was his name. He was bullying some poor soul over a game of dice. I showed him my sword and sent him running.”

“Ah, that’s not what I heard. I heard you cut him down in the street after he beat a man and his wife down.”

Anna frowned. “That’s a very creative alteration to the truth.”

“I’ll say. I’m not sure which I like better, though.”

“So, the gold?”

“Ah, yes,” said Maple, looking quite pleased with herself. “Well, to tell the truth, I had some outstanding fees with the thieves’ guild that needed paying.”

“How is that an investment?”

“It’s an investment in not getting shanked in an alley. And I live in an alley, remember.” She slurped her tea.

Anna wasn’t pleased to hear that. “If you’re having trouble with some brigands, you should have come to me.” She felt her hand go to Autumn’s hilt.

Maple laughed loudly, and covered her mouth with her free hand. “Oh! Very gallant of you to offer, but you know it was all my own fault.”

“How so? They’re thieves, Maple.”

“And I’m a witch. I just took out a loan I couldn’t pay back.”

“How did you end up ten thousand gold flakes in debt, though?”

“Oh, it wasn’t near so much as that. But it was quite a lot.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Maple considered for a moment. “Well, I know what you’re going to say… but listen anyway. I hired them.”

Anna gave Maple a dubious look. “What for?”

“To steal something. Several somethings, actually. I’m looking for something, you see.” She started to look a little uncomfortable. She crossed and uncrossed her legs.

“Maple, stealing is wrong.”

“I know that,” snapped Maple, an impatient, even irritated look flitting across her face. “But the thing I’m looking for is mine, by rights. Grandmama told me. Only she said I won’t ever find it unless I open my eyes. I asked to use hers, but she told me her eyes were over there.” Maple pointed to the corner of the room, where a glass orb sat on a small metal pedestal.

“I don’t understand.”

“Me neither,” said Maple, and she crossed her arms with a huff. “That crystal ball won’t work for me. I know I’m saying all the right incantations, but I-” She looked at Anna nervously. “This is all legal, you know.”

Anna smiled blandly. “Oh, yes, I can see that. All of the thieves and stuff.”

She had meant it as a jest, but Maple did not seem amused. “You know a lot of magic is banned by royal decree,” she said darkly. “Especially the study of such. Are you going to arrest me, ser?

That took Anna aback. “Maple, I was joking. A harmless jape, that’s all it was. I wouldn’t arrest you.”

“Really?” asked Maple coolly. “Even if you knew I was breaking the king’s laws by studying some really really dangerous magic?”

Anna worked her mouth, feeling uneasy. “I… I don’t know. I suppose I’d have to think about it.”

To her surprise, Maple relaxed at that, and sat back in her chair. She sipped her tea. “That’s good enough for me. Goodness, you just offered to kill for me and you didn’t even hear the whole story.”

Anna felt abashed at that. “Well, I – I – If someone is threatening you, Maple, I would – well, I would have to take your side.” She felt herself redden a bit. “We are friends, after all.”

“Yeah,” said Maple. She gave a coy smile, her eyes brightening up. “We are.”

After the conversation settled, Maple launched into an enthusiastic, tuneless humming, her fingers drumming the side of her teacup. Anna thought she looked quite the sight in her thick purple robes and looming hat, humming and bobbing her head left and right. It lightened her heart to see it. Something about Maple was ineffably cheerful compared to the dreary confines of the Arenborg and all its attendant dramas. The only time she felt truly at home in the Arenborg was when she spent time talking to the queen. She had a bright nature to her, a little like Maple’s but a little less steeped in coyness. Anna figured part of the problem might have been her living arrangements. She knew enough that she had no taste for politics, but moreover, something about the castle just felt off to her. Like sleeping under stone roofs instead of the stars. She felt separated, too distant, almost, from what always gave her comfort. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.

Eventually Maple brought up Ser Jon again, and went on talking about the other renditions of the humbling of Ser Jonathan of which she had heard, and Anna’s mind began to wander. She was perfectly happy to let Maple talk. Maple’s voice was chirpy, but had a smooth consistency to it, and a sweetness, like butter and honey. Anna found herself thinking of the queen again, and the way she liked it when Anna told stories. She felt her lids droop when she remembered the day at the lagoon. She slipped off her boots and tucked her legs up on the plush chair and cast a dreary look at the walls, her eyes lingering on the swaying dance of a candle flame.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” asked Maple. Out of the corner of her eyes, Anna saw the witch cock her head with frowning lips.

“Nothing,” said Anna absently; and realizing that she did not sound convincing, forced herself to return Maple’s eye contact. “Just got a lot on my mind.”

“Well, what is it? You can tell me.”

She started to feel a little guilty for letting her despair be so obvious. It wasn’t something she wanted to foist on Maple, and anyway it was all so contrived. “No, it’s really stupid. I’m just in a bad way at the castle. It’s all my fault, really.”

“Anna, come on. You helped me pay off my debt, the least I can do in return is listen to what’s going on with you.”

Anna shook her head. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not,” Maple insisted.

She hesitated. “Okay,” she allowed. “But I warned you.” She looked away again. “Sometime last month, the queen and I… got in a bad way. Something happened, I’m not sure what, and now she doesn’t trust me anymore. And I’ve been listening to all these rumors, and the courtiers and the lords and ladies of the court… and it just got me thinking if they’re right, you know? If I’m in over my head. If I’m not cut out to be a knight. But I know I said my vows so I have no choice. And I’m trying, really I am, but I sometimes worry if I’m trying hard enough. And I know that no matter how I frame it to myself, at the end of the day my – my queen still won’t look me in the eyes.” Suddenly she realized she was crying. “Oh, damn it to hell,” she moped, and she wiped the tears away with her sleeve. “I swear I didn’t mean to cry on you. I told you it was stupid, I-”

But she was silenced when Maple was on the chair with her, pulling her into a fierce embrace, arms wrapped tightly around her middle. To her surprise, Anna found herself hugging back.

“I’m sorry for bringing this up to you,” said Anna miserably. “I am, I really am. And for crying – what kind of knight cries?”

“Don’t say that,” said Maple, her voice thick. “Crying just means you’re human. And don’t apologize. I want to help.” She paused. “It’s what friends are for, right?” She nestled her face in the crook of Anna’s neck. Somehow she lost her hat. “No one’s ever called me their friend before,” she said quietly.

It felt like someone dropped her heart from the top of the Queen’s Tower. Suddenly Maple didn’t seem a year older than her. She imagined what it would be like to not have any friends. She gave Maple a little squeeze. “I meant it.”

They sat like that for a short while before Maple pulled away with a sniffle, turning around to lay on Anna, her green head resting on the knight’s shoulder. “The thing I’m looking for belonged to my mom,” she said. “I never knew my parents. Did you know your parents, Anna?”

“No,” said Anna. “But I had a family.”

“Me, too,” said Maple. “I had Grandmama. She would tell me a lot of stories about my mom, about how brave and beautiful and smart she was. Grandmama said she died giving birth to me. Isn’t that strange? My mom was an amazingly talented witch and she died so that I could live. Me.

“You’re a witch, too,” said Anna softly.

“Yeah, but my mom was a sorceress.”

Anna rubbed Maple’s arm gently. “What about your father?”

“Grandmama didn’t talk about him really. She said he was a goon, and had clay for brains, but that he loved my mom with all his heart. I don’t know what happened to him.” Maple tilted her head back to look up at Anna’s face. “Did you ever hear stories about your parents?”

“No,” said Anna. “I don’t even know what they did. Like as not they were peasant farmers, since I ended up raised in the forest by trolls.”

Maple was silent for a few moments. “I guess you’ve come a long way, huh?” She got up, and turned to face Anna, her green eyes shimmering. “Raised in the forest by trolls, and now look at where you are.”

Anna blushed. “I had help.”

“We all do,” said Maple quietly.

When Anna left Maple’s cottage, the sun was well and up but hidden by clouds. It was still snowing. She went back to the Arenborg. On the way, she passed by a godswife who was beseeching a crowd of people to take up swords and pledge to fight Weselton. Some in the crowd wore necklaces with strange symbols at the end, which they held up earnestly as they muttered silently to themselves.

In the castle courtyard, Anna decided first to return to her solar to see if Martin was about. Failing that, she would just need to attend court without armor. She was passing by the stables in the yard when she was surprised to hear someone call her name.

It was Lord Myles, negotiating the snowdrifts in tall black boots and a thick wrap of burgundy cloak. His head was mostly obscured by a thick fur-lined cowl, but there was no mistaking the color of his clothes – no, nor the golden snake pin that clasped his cloak, small and unostentatious as it was.

“Ser Anna,” he said by way of greeting, when he had neared. “It is good that I found you out here. Where were you this morning?”

“In town, on business,” lied Anna, and blushed against the truth of the matter. “What do you need?”

“I need you to be in our council meetings,” he said with a bite. He clenched a gloved fist and then looked away and sighed. “Forgive me, I’m a little on edge right now. The queen has given leave to effect the reconciliation with Weselton.”

“Truly?” said Anna, horrorstruck. “What… what will happen?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, but the invite has been sent by way of messager falcon. The duke will be in town when the moon is three-quarters waxed to partake of a peace-keeping feast. I’d spit, but it’s too damn cold to spit. If you were in the council today, you might have helped persuade the queen…”

“The queen has dismissed me from her personal guard,” said Anna. “I’m sure I couldn’t do anything.”

Lord Myles frowned. “The queen is a stubborn woman. All Arendelles are stubborn. Still, your voice would have made us two, against Ysmir’s one and that wheedling Hugoss’s one-half.”

“What of Ser Tore?”

“Ser Tore cares not one way or another. You have seen him – he is little impressed with meetings in general. I’ve never heard him express an opinion that wasn’t some species of ‘Do as thou wilt, but I shall fight if you need it.’ That’s knights for you, I suppose. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Ser Anna.” She had narrowed her eyes at him. “You know what I mean. A country needs two kinds of men: Those like Ser Tore, and those like me. Instead we have women like Lady Ysmir and – well.”

She kept her eyes narrow. “I am a woman too, my lord.”

He snorted. “You certainly look like a woman, I’ll grant you that. Forgive my nastiness. I only advise you to be on your guard, especially when it comes to Lady Ysmir and all the rest of those in the Corel family. Never trust a Wingsman, or a Wingswoman as the case may be, that’s the Myles motto. Well, one of the Myles mottos, anyway. It’s too cold, I’ll return to the keep now. Just be on your guard.” With that, he stomped off through the snow.

“Wait, Lord Myles,” she called to him. He turned back. “Yes?”

“Have you seen my squire? Martin, he’s called.”

“Is he not playing with the other squires? They’ve been at some game since you brutalized that stableboy. By the by, that was ill done, if I may speak frankly.”

“You said as much yesterday and the day before, my lord.”

“I’ll say as much again tomorrow, if you want me to. The squires would be at the armory.” He turned again and left. She watched him go, sloshing through the snow and disappearing through a thick wooden door into the blue-white stones of the keep.

She went to the armory, where she asked the master-at-arms if he had seen her squire. “Aye, he and the squires are in the shed out back, at some kind of mischief.” She thanked him and continued to the shed behind the armory. It was a wide, low shed, an old building with a roof of wooden crossbars and walls of gray stone – not really a shed, but that’s what people called it. Inside, it was warm, and crowded – it seemed every castle squire was sitting on the straw-covered floor of the shed, old and young alike, eyes all trained on Martin, whose eyes were wild as he bashed one fist into his other hand’s palm.

“Jumped right at him!” said Martin. “She took him down, him a lordling, and her but a little forest girl. And that’s when I knew I was beholding the stuff of legends.”

Little John stood up, lute in his hands, and began to sing:

The little lost lordling was lording about,

(His ear was in dire good need of a clout),

Then Ser Anna the Younger took up a paddle,

And the young lordling’s cries made a terrible rattle!

The squires howled and hooted and clapped and stomped their feet, and Martin looked pleased. Bemused, Anna cleared her throat.

“Ah-hem.” The laughing stopped at once, and they all turned to look at her. It was a herd of bashful sheep, though some were smiling broadly. Martin was looking quite abashed, his face terribly pale. Anna had to suppress a smile. “Martin, I have need of your service. Would you…?”

“Yes, m’lady!” he nearly shouted, and jumped forward, sidling through the sitting squires. Anna left the shed and its dumbfounded looks and went back into the snow. Martin trailed behind.

When she and her squire were some distance from the shed, she laughed loudly. He still looked pale. “Martin,” she said with a barely-hid smile, “what was all that about?”

“Well, I…” He struggled for words. “After you pounded that stupid Pat’s nose, there were some rumors about you that I… I just didn’t care for. So I had to tell them about all the other valorous things you did.”

“Valorous? You mean stupid.”

“No, m’lady. Important.” He looked her in the eyes. “A knight’s not a knight ‘cos she has a title or a fancy sword. A knight’s a knight ‘cos of what she believes in, what’s in her heart.”

Anna’s smile faltered. He wasn’t much younger than her, after all. She believed the same thing. Hearing it from Martin, though, and knowing about what she had just done, now it sounded a little naïve. “I attacked that stableboy in anger. It was an… ill thing,” she said hesitantly.

“No, m’lady,” he insisted. “Pat’s the worst. He deserved it.”

“Maybe he did,” admitted Anna. “But my reasons for hitting him were bad.”

He didn’t respond, instead studying his feet. She patted him on the shoulder. “Martin. How long were you at this? I didn’t see you last night.”

“Oh. M’lady. I’m sorry. Last night I met with the other squires to… to tell them they were wrong about you. And then this morning I stirred early, to… M’lady, I’m sorry. I forgot my duties.” He bowed his head in shame.

You wouldn’t be the first one who did. “Think nothing of it. But for right now, I do need to don my armor. I would like your help.” She tried to smile comradely.

He looked up and nodded firmly, eyes wide. “Yes! Of course!”

They went to Anna’s solar, where Martin helped her put on her armor. The whole while, Anna was thinking about Martin’s “mischief,” as the master-at-arms described it. She had expected – well, she didn’t know what she had expected, but she knew she hadn’t expected that. And the townsfolk last night… Stories, legends always make people out to be better than they really are. There was no sense letting it all go to her head.

Court that day was a dull affair, except for the discussion of the reconciliation with Weselton. Preparations were under way for the “feast to keep the peace,” and Ysmir looked a deal happy at this, smiling like a cat with a big fish. She spent some time that day talking at the council about the good that the feast would do. The whole time, Lord Myles shot Anna fervent, knowing looks.

That evening, Anna supped in the dining hall, alone at first until Ser Puck joined her. The willowy knight with his billowy white coif of hair doffed his jaunty cap and bowed low before he sat. He never wore much armor, nor carried steel longer than six inches, but he always had a trusty golden bow at hand, and a slim quiver filled with arrows.

“Ah, m’lady!” he said as he sat. “My squire, Little John, has been telling me much about you.” Little John was anything but little, and in fact older than Ser Puck – but had not much in the way of skill at arms, and, it must be said, probably no chivalry, although he was a decent man. “Specifically, stories of valorous deeds done before you earned your spurs.”

“My squire’s been spreading tales,” said Anna with a weary smile.

Ser Puck returned it with one of his own. “So he has, so he has. Have you chanced to meet the prisoner, by the way? The so-called castaway.”

“No, I have not. Why?”

“Me either.” His eyes darted left and right, and he leaned closer. “The queen and Lord Myles are the only ones who have seen him. The turnkeys won’t let myself nor anyone else into the cells.”

Anna frowned. “Is that strange?”

The corners of Ser Puck’s mouth tugged upwards. “More than passing strange, I’d say. When I asked them why, they told me it was ‘Lady Ysmir’s orders.’ But the queen and Lord Myles saw him that one time, and she sees him all the time. I asked Lady Ysmir if I might get a pass too, but she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Passing strange, indeed.”

After supper, Anna went down to the dungeons to see the turnkey. He was a portly man with a stubbly gray of a beard, and was leaning against the door to the dungeons when Anna arrived. The reek of mildew and unwashed men was strong down here. The dungeon master was sitting at his desk, muttering over some charts on parchments.

“M’lady,” said the turnkey.

“Might I see the prisoner?”

“No, m’lady, beggin’ yer pardon.” He inclined his head.

“May I ask why not?”

“Lady Ysmir’s orders.”

“I am the Lady Protector.”

“Sorry, m’lady. We in the dungeons take our cue from the Spymaster. Beggin’ yer pardon.”

Anna left it at that. According to Ser Puck, it was quite strange that people should be barred from seeing prisoners, and stranger still that that number should include members of the council. Anna considered asking Lady Ysmir, but she had denied it when Ser Puck asked, after all; and of course, Anna had no desire whatsoever to speak with the woman.

A few days later, she mentioned it to Lord Myles, as well as what Ser Puck observed.

“He said he saw me meet the prisoner?” asked Lord Myles.

“That’s what he said. What do you make of him?”

“Ser Puck?”

“The prisoner.”

“Ah,” said Lord Myles. “He said… a lot of things that I’m not sure what to make of. I’d like to talk with him more, but, as you know, the Royal Spymaster keeps him under thumb. It’s all a bit suspicious to me. Why do you suppose she doesn’t want people talking to him?” He raised an eyebrow at her.

Anna frowned. “You don’t suppose they’re plotting? Word around the castle is she visits him often.”

Lord Myles shrugged. “All I know is that I don’t trust her Ladyship any further than I can throw her.” Me neither, thought Anna.

As the next few weeks passed, the hustle and bustle of preparations was the talk of the castle. Lady Ysmir was constantly busy making arrangements, and all in the castle could swear they saw her wherever they went, organizing the watch, the food, the servants, the events, and so on. It was to be quite a welcoming affair, and one that Lady Ysmir, apparently, worked tirelessly on. The more Anna saw her at it, the more she thought of Lord Myles’s words, and the more she grew to mistrust the Royal Spymaster. Finally the black stoat could be seen above the waves, flapping in the breeze, and the ships came into harbor. The Weseltonian envoy was here.

The duke had an entourage of some two-score people, some of them his courtiers but a good deal of them his knights and personal sellswords. The duke was a curious individual for a number of reasons, so far as Anna could see: He was a short man with a plain face, a broad ugly nose and wide jaws and very round Aztec-style spectacles. The duke had a thick gray mustache and a rim of gray hair, and seemed to constantly scowl – well, that last part she had heard. For the nonce he looked positively radiant, beaming at all, shaking hands energetically.

The other reason she thought him odd was the company he chose to keep. Weselton was known as a merchant’s dukedom, a place where merchantry was held in high regard. The Hugosses came from Weselton originally, some hundreds of years back, until a run-in with the duke forced them to pull up roots. They settled in Crystalwater and exchanged their wealth for Hugoss Hill and the Grand Merchant’s Manor. It was little enough time before they were richer than ever, and thanked Weselton for the fuss.

As a result of the attainding of the Hugosses, however, and the nature of Weselton, the duke possessed a lot of direct property in his dukedom, and made quite a trade off of middle-manning between Arendelle and the Svithron states. As the biggest dukedom of the former Svithron Empire, Weselton’s links with the east were significant as well. Wealth flowed through Weselton, it was said, but never came from it. Situated between Arendelle and the Permic hordes, they should have been quite content with what they had – or so said Arendellit patriots, with no fewer bitter overtones now than sixteen years ago, when the duke invaded Arendelle to steal the Ice-Blood’s throne.

But those days were done and passed. At least, that was the line that was being thrown about. Trade would flow once more. The indemnities were done, the shame of the defeat of Weselton but a phantom, and now the two countries could come together to partake in the joint joy of trading. No lasting harm, no lasting foul. And as a token of his goodwill, the duke even promised to apologize for the assassination attempt. It was truly the best outcome, Lady Ysmir insisted.

The entourage, though. Ser Anna stood at attention as they passed. It was a curious thing. She saw a few knights with painted shields, but only a handful. The rest were sellswords, armored however they liked it but all wearing the red-and-black of Weselton. They were sellswords, all right, but not pledged to the duke out of fealty, but because he could pay them for it. The duke had few personal vassals, it seemed, but enough personal wealth that it didn’t matter. Why have a sworn sword when you can have a bag of gold?

Anna turned up her nose at them. You may sell your sword for gold, but I am in Her Majesty’s service. I am a loyal and leal subject. I am hers, and I would never, ever turn against her, and neither would her vassals.

They did, before. The Linnaeuses of Eastgreen. Traitors in the last war. They had no representatives here, but the thought sent a crawling up her spine. She fingered Autumn’s hilt uneasily.

The feast was to be held in the great hall, which sat beneath the throne room on the ground floor. It was long and tall and carved of immaculate blue-white stone. The walls were lined with long-burning iron hearths and magnificent tapestries depicting ice and snow and the scenic vistas of Arendelle’s vast countrysides. Anna’s favorite was one that showed the town of Eastport, which sat astride a bay. It looked peaceful and small, little cottages spaced apart by fields of grass, the bay unbusy except for a single carrack that Anna could swear she could see swaying in the breeze. Sometimes Anna imagined what it would be like to live in a small town like that, in a little cottage by the sea by the grass, with the forest always close by.

Anna missed the forest.

As the duke’s men filed into the hall, Lady Ysmir caught Anna’s arm. She looked radiant, and actually rather lovely in an elegant dressing gown folded across with alternating blue and black.

“Oh, Ser Anna, isn’t this grand?” she said.

“It’s quite an event. The duke’s men are… numerous.”

“He insisted on them. A small price to pay for peace. I can’t tell you what a weight is lifted off my heart to see this day come.”

Anna gave her a look. “Do you really think this will mean peace?”

“To be sure. It’s been said that you can get all that you want if you bare your teeth and speak sweetly. Well, I’ll be sure to speak sweetly, and Ser Tore is sure to remind the duke we are not to be trifled with. If he does not see the wisdom in peace, then he is a fool and nothing to worry about.”

I don’t know about that. Foolish people can be dangerous, too, thought Anna.

The great hall ended up crowded end to end with people, the entrances and exits attended by the silver-armored blue-topped men-at-arms. Long trestle tables with benches were set up for most of the knights and courtiers, of whom the duke’s men counted a strong number, and at the far end of the hall was a great raised dais beneath a large blue banner that bore the six-pointed snowflake, stark and dominant in the hall. On the dais, the finest table was placed. At the head sat Queen Elsa, of course, and at her right and left hands were Lady Ysmir and Ser Tore. All around went the other councillors, even Sissil Morey the godswife, already drunk; but not Ser Wendel Bigsby, whom Anna suspected was off captaining the watch at the Spymaster’s instruction. At Lady Ysmir’s right was the duke, and at his right was his most trusted man – a dour-looking fellow with a black mustache and too much eyebrows. Anna sat at the other side, far from the queen but next to Lord Myles and Master Penrose.

The duke was pleased, the Lady Ysmir obsequious, and the queen still as a statue. She said little, only smiling at the duke and offering her humble welcomes and gracious thanks. She laughed at his jokes, which were numerous and bad, and offered him the best wines from the cellars. The feast itself consisted of fare that Lord Hugoss approved of, though that didn’t say much, and he sweated through his meal somehow managing not to look too nervous. Ser Tore looked bored and sour. He was dressed in armor and had his sword across his back. He only had one cup of wine, at the duke’s insistence. A servant poured him a “special” cup.

Master Penrose didn’t look anything but ecstatic. The same serving girl came to him again and again, refilling his wine as he downed it, a petite girl with a body like an eastern vase and a billowy fluff of blonde hair. She had a tiny nose.

Lord Myles fidgeted a little and drank a lot. At one point during the feast, some clowns came out and began capering before the dais, to the raucous enjoyment of many. During the japery, he turned to Anna and spoke over his goblet:

“You should be seated next to the queen,” he said.

Anna frowned in response. “My lord?”

“Lady Ysmir is having a grand time.” She was: She was laughing loudly and describing the clowns to the duke. He agreed that they were quite a jestful lot.

“I don’t understand.”

He drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Don’t you find it queer that the good lady is enjoying herself so much in the company of those she claims to hate and mistrust?”

“She’s putting on a good show,” said Anna tentatively. “She must needs ingratiate herself before the duke to make us seem contrite.”

“Ingratiate. Hunh.” He finished his drink and his eyes scanned the room. Anna found herself following his gaze. There were blues and whites of Arendelle, and reds and blacks of Weselton here and there around. It seemed all the courtiers of the Arenborg were in attendance, and spaced around were the helmeted guardsmen. Weselton’s knights and sellswords were in a mass and jeering at the clowns. Anna saw one put his hand over his cup when a servant came by, and he shook his head solemnly.

“They all seem to be enjoying themselves.”

“That’s why he turned down that wine, is it?” Just then, a loud rapping occurred, and Lady Ysmir and the duke both stood up, and slowly the hall fell silent.

The duke was a good deal shorter than Lady Ysmir, so he had to stand on his chair to obtain the illusion of height. Lady Ysmir spoke first: “His Eminence, the duke, would like to make a short statement.” The red-and-blacks clapped.

In a voice like snapping twigs, the duke announced how very pleased he was to be in Arendelle and to be facilitating a reconciliation at long last. He said he looked forward to many years of cooperation with Arendelle, and was eager to put the past to rest. He ended it there, and there was some scattered clapping and cheering. The red-and-blacks, of course, stomped their feet in approval. Anna knew why the rest weren’t so pleased: The duke was supposed to apologize for the assassination attempt, at least acknowledge it, and humbly beg forgiveness. But maybe that would come later. Lord Myles scowled.

“Sydney, who is that?” asked Anna the fifth time the blonde servant came to Master Penrose. He looked put-off at the question, but a mischievous gleam in his eyes betrayed him before he answered.

“A serving girl,” he answered with a too-large grin.

“Well, what’s her name?”

“Olivia.”

Anna tried to smile conspiratorially, as if she were party to some juicy secret. “Is she the one your heart is ‘sworn to?’”

Master Penrose laughed and blushed and downed another cup of wine. Olivia refilled it and ran her fingers along his shoulder. “Yeah,” Master Penrose admitted, his face as red as his hair. He looked so uncharacteristically radiant that Anna wondered if he had glamored up a happy look just for the occasion.

Anna felt a pang as she realized that, well, she was just a serving girl after all. She felt a little sorry for her, and him, for that matter. She wondered how much Master Penrose cared about that. “What do you like about her?”

“What’s not to like? Oh, Anna, you should see her when she paints. It’s… there are no words.” He sighed. “Being in love. It’s nothing like how the poets describe it.”

She’d have to take his word for that. She wondered if part of his good mood was due to all that wine he was drinking. She decided she might enjoy the event more if she had a bit of wine, so she held out her cup to a passing servant. She went to drink it when Lord Myles’s hand found her arm.

“Stop. Don’t.”

She looked at him quizzically, a twinge of annoyance in her chest. “What, my lord?”

His response was a hard stare. “Trust me. I want you to keep your wits about you, tonight. I mislike this feast.” He looked panicked and slightly worried. He leaned in and spoke in a quick whisper. “Do you remember when you asked me about the prisoner?”

“Yes, my lord, but what – ”

“I believe I understand why Lady Ysmir wanted nobody to see him. It’s so obvious now, but – listen very carefully. You must get to the dungeons and release him. Can you do this?”

She nodded dumbly. “Yes… but… but what is – ”

“No time. The singer is coming in next. There’ll be a dance, and then Lady Ysmir will bring out the Wingwine. I know the duke will mean to dance with you. I’ll create a distraction, this will be your only chance. Get to the dungeons, find the castaway, and bring him here on the double. Don’t let anyone stop – ” He snapped away, and swiveled his head in the direction of the rest of the table. Anna looked away as well, and for a brief moment she thought she saw Lady Ysmir staring at her.

The singer came in, a broad-shouldered man with a fine shock of hair who called himself “Gaston the Great.” He strummed a lute and began to sing, in a fine, deep baritone, about the maiden called Snow White.

The cue was clear. Some courtiers got up to dance, though the knights and sell-swords remained sitting. The duke stood up and looked around eagerly.

Anna felt a nudge in the side of her greave, and then Lord Myles was on his feet, goblet raised high. He blurted, “Snow White was no maiden, ser, I know that for a fact! Her bedsheets were white when I bedded her, as white as her skin, front and back!”

The challenge was an old one, though it usually went from one singer to another. Without an instrument, Lord Myles would not succeed the challenge. Gaston should have seen it to waste his time, but – there was a glint in his eyes. He strummed his lute and rejoined, “Well, my lord, you must not know, but of maidens there are kinds three: Maidens to love, maidens to lust, and maidens who’re bedded by thee!”

The red-and-blacks were now roaring with laughter, evidently not expecting such a risque exchange at such a formal affair. Anna saw the queen was smiling now, and even the duke seemed somewhat amused – but Lady Ysmir looked absolutely livid, and was staring sharply at Lord Myles.

At Lord Myles, yes. Anna had to get away. She didn’t know why she was doing it, but something about the way Lord Myles spoke just now gave her a chill. Leaning low, she pushed her chair away as Lord Myles walked around the table to stand opposite the singer, and they continued their ribald singing. The lord was truly an atrocious singer, but he was nigh a clown himself, jumping and waving his arms as he said the words. Anna got up and slinked out the back entrance, weaving between a pair of servants entering with flagons of wine.

Down the halls she went to the dungeon entrance. It was quiet. Most everyone was in the great hall for the feast, or… well, the squires would not be in attendance, nor much of the servants and men-at-arms, all the castle-folk not afforded the privilege of feasting. They’d be eating in one of the hearth halls. That was where Martin was, Anna knew. Even so, the guardsmen were on-duty.

Sure enough, a turnkey sat squat in front of the dungeon door. “Let me through,” she ordered him.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Sorry, m’lady. No one is to see the prisoner. Lady Ysmir’s orders.”

“I misspoke. I meant to say, ‘Let me through, now.’” She punctuated her point by drawing her sword. The steel scraped against leather with a satisfying sound.

The turnkey’s knees turned to gelatin. Quickly, he turned and unlocked the door, and pulled it open with a loud, groaning screech. She took the keys from him and went through.

The cells were dark, only a few torches along the walls for light. Each cell was separated by stone, and entered by heavy wooden doors with barred windows. Most of the cells were empty, except for one at the end of the hall where, to her surprise, was a Royal Guardsman, standing at attention outside a cell door. “M’lady,” the guardsman greeted her.

She stared at him. “What are you doing here?”

“Ser Tazmus’s orders, m’lady. Lady Ysmir wanted a man on the prisoner at all times, for the duration of the feast.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “Just followin’ orders.” He seemed to notice her sword for the first time. He moved his other hand to grip his halberd. “M’lady. What do you want?”

“I’m here to retrieve the prisoner. Lord Myles’s orders.”

Anna couldn’t tell what reaction that elicited through the man’s helm. “M’lady… I can’t let you take him.”

She leveled her sword. “You can’t stop me. This is an urgent matter. Now stand aside.”

He leveled his halberd and hissed through his helmet. “Traitor. Lady Ysmir spoke t’ me – me personally – and warned about this. Well, I won’t – ”

She didn’t let him finish. Her sword tip stood at the base of his neck, between gorget, helm, and chestplate. He backed up to the wall, halberd held out to the side pointlessly.

“You let me inside of your halberd. Now you’re dead.” She grabbed his halberd with her off hand and threw it to the ground, and then withdrew her sword. “Go. I am your captain, and don’t you forget it.”

He stepped away, cautious, hands held up. “Y-Yes, m’lady,” and turned and ran.

Anna sheathed Autumn and went to the cell door and unlocked it with the keys. It opened with a screeching rusty sound, and the dim light of the hall filled up the cell. There he was – the castaway, his rags even filthier now than before, his beard an awful tangle the color of dried blood. He looked up as she entered, and smiled wide with teeth brown, beaten, holed and chipped. “Ah. My hero.”

“Come with me,” she told him. “Lord Myles has ordered me to secure your escape.”

“And you did it? Just like that?” The castaway blinked. He stood up on shaky legs, and lurched out into the light. He squinted. “What if Lord Myles is betraying your queen, huh? And he just wanted you out of the great hall to do her off without her Lord Protector nearby? Eh? Eh?”

Anna’s eyes went wide. She swallowed hard. “I… I… He… He told me to trust him.”

“Yeah, he did. Just as well, you made the right choice. If you were more skeptical, your queen would be dead by now. I know. Oh, yes, I know. Just goes to show you can’t trust anything, not even skepticism.” He squinted at her now. “Yeah, you’re well-armored. Sword looks sharp. Arm looks strong. Face looks young. You’re what – fifteen? I’m eighteen myself. Small world, eh?”

“Eighteen?” He didn’t look a day under fifty.

“Yeah. The years have been hard on me.” He laughed wheezily, and then coughed. “Agh. Yes. Yes. You’re probably wondering what Lord Myles wants with me. Well, I’ll tell you. I know the Lady’s plans here tonight, oh, yes, I know. This whole Weselton affair is nothing but a crock to kill your queen.”

Anna’s heart might have stopped. “What?” she said in a small voice, terror overwhelming her.

“Yes. You’ll see. We need to get moving. But – the good old Lady Ysmir has been moving the pieces into place these past few months. Lord Myles pointed out that ever since your incident with the queen, she’s been growing bolder. Denying even the possibility of an assassination, asking for command of the guard. Bolder. Not subtler. Lord Myles has suspected. When I turned up, he knew for sure.” He grabbed her forearm. “Enough chat. We must go.”

They left the dungeon quickly and pattered up the steps to the great hall. The castaway’s steps were surprisingly nimble and strong, though he looked a weakling, malnourished and sick.

They entered the great hall and found that the dancing was nearing its end. The singer bowed, and left, and people milled back to their seats. Lord Hugoss saw her come in and walked over, dabbing his forehead.

“There you are! The duke wanted a dance with you. Where were you…” He trailed off as he noticed the castaway. “Who is this?”

“A castaway, my lord,” said the castaway. “More recently, a prisoner.”

Lord Hugoss’s eyes widened as they went between Anna and the castaway. “Wait… Anna… you…” He swiveled his head left and right. “Hold on a moment. Where are the guards?”

Anna looked around the great hall. All was as it was, except the royal guardsmen were gone. The duke proposed a toast, a drink to Ser Tore’s health, an acknowledgement that bygones be bygones. He poured for Ser Tore and the Marshal poured for him. They both drank. “Peace in our time!” Lady Ysmir declared.

Then there was a clatter, and Ser Tore’s cup rolled on the floor. “Y… Your Grace…” he uttered, and then collapsed to the ground. The duke smiled wide, and Lady Ysmir gasped, her face pallid and horrified.

The front doors to the hall burst open. Ten men in the white-enameled platemail of the Royal Guard, equipped all with swords and axes, marched in, and all the men in the reds-and-blacks stood up suddenly, drawing knives from hidden pockets on their persons. A commotion, a cry – screaming. The courtiers were up and backing away to the walls. Queen Elsa stood, her eyes hard. “What is the meaning of this?”

The duke hobbled over to the reds-and-blacks. He stood up on a trestle table, a wine goblet held high in his hands. “A toast, to such wonderful hosts!” he shouted. The corners of his eyes crinkled up. “I believe I owe you all an apology. I promised to apologize, so I will. For the assassination attempt. I’m sorry that my men were late, outchased by a storm that robbed me of the vengeance which should have been mine. I’m sorry that they were caught, so it had to come to this. But I’ve been called old and done, and done and old I am. If this is my last act on this earth, let it be writ as such: An old man dies, and the Kingdom of Arendelle crumbles into nothing.” He pointed a shaking index finger at Queen Elsa. “Kill her!”

The men in platemail moved forward, and so did the reds-and-blacks. “They’re in disguise,” marveled Lord Hugoss. “But where are the… the real guardsmen?”

“My lord,” said the castaway, his voice low and dangerous, lacking suddenly all trace of age or weakness, strong and authoritative. He spoke fast. “It must be you. Run. Find Ser Tazmus. He’s been tricked. He’ll be on the battlements, confused by the changing of the guard – this is Lady Ysmir’s doing.”

Lord Hugoss looked at him warily, and then at Anna. “Do it,” said Anna. “Please, hurry. I’ll hold them off while I can.”

He hesitated for a moment, before he broke into a sprint, moving as quickly as he could through the back door. The castaway grabbed her hand. “Strength to your arm, Ser Anna,” he said, and squeezed.

She moved forward so she stood between the dais and the duke’s men, thirty in all. The Giant held the passes of the Up-And-Downs against fifty times his number. She was no giant. She was small. But if she had to die, she would die defending her queen. This is my chance. I will prove myself to my queen, even if I must die to do it.

She threw her cloak over her shoulders to free her arms for combat. She put her shield on her left arm and drew Autumn with her right. And so she stood, before the dais and the queen and the banner of Arendelle.

“You go no further,” she warned them.

The duke noticed her with a frown. “You… Weren’t… You weren’t thirsty tonight?” He stomped his foot on the trestle table so that the cups and plates rattled. “No matter. No matter. You are a child, that is all. No more than a little girl. Ser Tore, yes – he was a threat, that blue sword of his – he had to be poisoned. He could… but not you. Just a little girl. No more.”

Stall him. “I defeated Ser Tore in single combat,” she said.

“I saw. I was there. It was a trick, a fluke. No cause to worry…”

“Your Grace,” said one of his men, the man with the dark looks and black mustache. “Look at the size of her. I will crush her like a bug.”

The duke said nothing. The man jumped forward. He was a big one – but not as big as the giant. His knife hand met the edge of her shield. He dropped the knife, and she dropped her sword on his shoulder. He fell to his knees, and she put her sword through his neck. He fell to the rest of him. Autumn shimmered hungrily.

After that, they all came at her like a wave, angry and crying for battle. She raised shield and sword, and lost herself to the fight.

“Numbers win military battles, yes, Ander is technically right,” said Astrid. “Most of the time, it’s numbers all the way down. But it’s an easy mistake for scholars to make to say that translates to combat.”

“Erm… what?” said Anna.

“Well, say I asked you to fight twenty children. How would you do it?”

“Children?” repeated Anna. “I couldn’t do that.”

Astrid huffed impatiently. “Okay, fine, say… twenty… evil… monsters, who are as short and as strong as children. Young children, we’ll say. Not as strong as you is the point, by a wide, wide margin. How would you do it?”

Anna screwed up her face in concentration. “Um. Couldn’t I just spin in a big circle and slash them all?”

Astrid laughed. “No, gods. Be serious, Anna. This is important.”

“I’d try to fight them one-on-one, if I could.”

“But say you couldn’t. They have you surrounded.”

She thought about it. Then, “I’d use their numbers against them. They can’t fight me all at the same time. Twenty of them couldn’t fit around me unless they started slashing each other.”

“Exactly. Unless they get the flank on you, it’s difficult to fight an experienced fighter with more than four-on-one, especially if you’re not as skilled or as well-equipped. And even then, it’s hard to manage unless you know what you’re doing. Knights are trained for melees, but most men often care only about glory, and twenty-on-one is too little glory spread too thinly. If all those twenty little, erm, monsters are lusting for the fight, jumping over each other to get involved, instead of waiting, seeking openings, and striking at your back?” She grinned. “Makes your job easier.”

She fought. That was all she could do. Behind her was her queen, alone and vulnerable. Ahead of her were the queen’s enemies, who were Anna’s enemies, whom Anna swore to always fight. And so she did.

If I die, I’m taking all of you with me. Not one of you will touch my queen.

“COME ON!” she roared at them. “You think you can take me? I’m just a little girl and I’m stronger than all of you! Come get a piece of me!”

She spun and slashed and spun and moved. She did not tire, though the fight went on, and on. Was it just her, or was it taking hours? No, don’t be silly.

A huge bang. Guardsmen in the door, swarming through. More enemies, she thought. Autumn agreed hungrily. I want to taste their blood, Anna. Please. I see them, I see them, my goodness, oh, me, they look so tasty. Please, Anna. Just move me at them. Just…

The uproar was deafening. “STOP!” came a voice. She stabbed someone in the chest and cut off someone’s arm. Fire was in her. The ring throbbed and pulsed. An axe head bounced off her shoulder. “What the f-” She cut his face. She blocked a sword. It screeched against her shield. Everything was burning, the fire and the fury and the energy overwhelming her. She was feeling, really, truly feeling – jealousy, hate, anger, sorrow, envy, pride, love. They’re there, and so many colors. Pain. The sharp pain in her stomach. She saw the longsword sticking out of her, and the man who held it, the whites of his eyes smothering pupils. Fear. She slashed him open. He fell first, and then she fell too. All the fire went away. “ANNA!” someone screamed, and then blackness.

 


 

She awoke to see the cold light of a winter’s day peering in through shuttered windows. The room was cold and clammy though a low fire was burning and the coldness was little helped by the thin white sheets of the bed she was in. She moaned.

A figure to her right became a person. “Anna?” squeaked Maple. “Are you awake?”

“Yes,” she heard her own voice. She grimaced. “In pain.” A flash jolted her. “The queen! The assassins! Is the queen all ri – ”

A glass bottle was suddenly on her mouth, and the thick, unguent red liquid was pouring down her throat. She held her breath and coughed when it all went down.

“The queen is safe,” said Maple. And then suddenly the witch was on her, crying and holding her tightly. Her voice was muffled as she spoke into her shirt – a thin, unlaced white tunic. “Oh, Anna. When Martin came to get me… he said… they all said you were going to… Oh, Anna. I’m so glad you’re alive.”

Anna felt her own hands go to Maple’s back. She rubbed. “What happened?” she asked, and Maple shuddered with a sob. Anna realized, with sudden discomfort, that Maple’s face was nestled between her breasts. And now her face was burning. But she couldn’t push Maple away… that would… that would be cruel.

Thankfully, Maple pulled away on her own, still sniffling. “You had a… someone stabbed you through the stomach.” She crouched over the sheets and pulled them back, and lifted up Anna’s shirt for her to see. She craned her head, and – there was a faint, red scar on her stomach, an apparent cross-section of an oncoming longsword.

Anna blinked. “What? It’s healed. How… how long have I been out?”

Maple sniffled and wiped her eyes. The tears made them glisten like emeralds in sunlight. Her green hair was a disheveled mess, and she wore no hat. “About four weeks.”

Four weeks?” repeated Anna incredulously. Maple stroked Anna’s scar gently. Anna looked at it again. “How… I should be…”

“Dead,” whispered Maple. “That’s what they said, too. But Grandmama has some recipes… Martin came and got me and I brought everything I could.” She pulled Anna’s tunic back down over the scar carefully, and brought the sheets back up, tucking them around Anna with a gentle touch.

“Magic,” said Anna distantly.

“Magic.”

Anna looked at Maple. “You are amazing.”

Maple squeaked and turned away, eyes watering again. “Oh, please. I’m just a street witch. These potions are Grandmama’s doing.”

Anna reached out a hand and touched Maple’s forearm. She turned back and looked. “I’m serious,” said Anna. “You saved my life.”

“I didn’t want you to die.”

Anna smiled up at her. “I’m lucky to have a friend like you.”

Maple tried to smile, too. “And I… I’m lucky to have a friend…” she trailed off.

“It’s no more than you deserve.”

And Maple hugged her again.

After she had calmed down, and was sufficiently reassured that Anna wasn’t liable to drop dead again, Maple left, and word put around the castle that the Hero, Ser Anna was awake, and alive, and not dead in any real sense. She was in the infirmary, which were adjacent Master Penrose’s quarters, and though the young wizard had allowed Maple to come and go, he was growing rather sore of the thence countless comers and goers that started when it was known that Anna was awake.

She saved your life. I’m still not sure how. I’ve never seen anything like those potions she used. The rest of these knights and courtiers and… pfah!”

Ser Puck knelt at the bedside. “Ser Anna. I am honored.” He put his hand on his chest. “If you should ever need aid of my bow, I am your man.”

Ser Tazmus and Flynt came at the same time. “Ser Anna,” said Ser Tazmus, and he dropped to one knee. “It was my fault. All of it. Lady Ysmir issued an order to change the guard, but I… I should have been more vigilant. She swapped my men out with hers.”

Maybe Anna should have scolded him, but she found she lacked the energy for it. “We should all have been more vigilant.”

Flynt lingered after Ser Tazmus left. He gave Anna a sour look which, combined with his default morose expression, made him look like the perfect visage of sorrow. “Tazzie’s a mook. You should have knocked him upside the head for that one.”

“What good would that serve?” she asked, annoyed.

“The greatest good.” And he left.

Martin came with a great number of squires. “The hero!” they shouted in unison. “All praise Ser Anna!”

“OUT!” yelled Master Penrose. “Gods! How’s a man supposed to get any work done? I tell you!”

“You did well, Martin,” Anna told him. “Maple told me what you did.”

“I only did my duty, m’lady,” he said.

“Martin,” she said. “Call me Anna.”

He actually smiled. “No, m’lady. I don’t think I will.” And he bowed low and left.

Lord Hugoss came, flanked by his men. “You’re alive,” he observed, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Something about the way he said it made the small hairs on Anna’s neck stand up. He blinked at her, offered his condolences, and left.

At last, Lord Myles came, and two others Anna did not expect. The first was a rather young man with bright red hair and close-cropped red sideburns, his face a handsome chisel, his smile easy and sincere and filled with white teeth like rectangles. She did not recognize him. The second…

Anna’s heart stilled. My… It was Queen Elsa. And she was looking at Anna. In the eyes. My queen.

Lord Myles went to the bedside. He took a seat and breathed out with a great sigh. “Ser Anna. By the gods. It’s good to see you breathing.”

“You gave us quite a scare,” said the man with red sideburns. “We were all pulling for you.”

“What happened?” asked Anna, this time looking to get an answer. She peered at the man with the sideburns. “And who are you, my lord? I don’t recognize you.”

He laughed. “I was a castaway, then a prisoner, and now I’m a diplomat.”

Anna stared. He looked nothing at all like the tattered man she fished out of the dungeons.

Queen Elsa spoke. “His Grace helped us in our time of need.” She was quiet.

“It’s so,” said Lord Myles. “Without him, as like as not we’d all be dead.”

“What’s done is done,” said the sideburned man with a wave. “All that matters is that the Lady Protector was able to pick up our slack and keep thirty men at bay, long enough to save the queen.” He smiled.

Anna blinked. “I’m sorry… I still don’t understand what happened.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Lord Myles with a scowl. “Lady Ysmir covered her tracks oh-so-well. And her act was oh-so-convincing.”

“I do love a good act,” commented the sideburned man.

Lord Myles continued, “Lady Ysmir was part of a Weselton plot to overthrow the crown. The entire reconciliation feast was a farce, something she staged to frame the assassination.”

“But how can that be?” asked Anna, stupefied.

“Come now, Anna, it’s really quite obvious. She took the captainship of the guard from you, then manipulated Ser Tazmus to serve her own ends. She masterminded the flow of events and the changing of the guard to ensure that nobody could protect the queen except you and Ser Tore. And it was planned that Ser Tore would be poisoned. I had my suspicions that she’d poison you as well, though like as not she didn’t consider you a threat – nor, I suppose, did she expect you to attempt to defend the queen, given the difficulties of the position these past months.”

“Their first big mistake,” said the sideburned man.

Lord Myles sighed heavily. “I had my suspicions, I admit, but the lady’s resources were too much to openly oppose. However, the prisoner was the wrench in the plan. I needed to wait, bide my time. And then that is why I sent you to fetch His Grace from the dungeons, because I knew that you would be able to dispatch whatever defenses Lady Ysmir put around him. He revealed his true identity to the duke while you were being attacked. That forced the duke to call it off and surrender, but not before one of his brutes ran you through.”

Anna frowned. “His true identity, my lord?”

“Yes,” said the sideburned man. He drew himself up. “I am Prince Hans Westerguard, of the Southern Isles.”

“And now Chancellor of the Kingdom of Arendelle,” added Lord Myles.

“Chancellor?”

“A new title, created by Her Grace to honor the Prince for his role in the affair. He will serve as the queen’s right hand and aid in the ruling of the kingdom.”

Anna looked to the queen, and saw her nod her confirmation. “Prince Hans has done us a great service. It is the least I can do, and he has graciously accepted the post. His skills and knowledge are valuable and will help the kingdom immensely.” She spoke flatly, without any trace of emotion or feeling.

Anna nodded her own assent, but still she looked warily at the “prince.” “Very well. A pleasure, Prince Hans. I’d get up and shake your hand but Master Penrose has told me not to stand.”

He chuckled. “Please, don’t strain yourself. You’ve done more than you can possibly imagine; you deserve a rest.”

She rubbed her face wearily. “I’m sorry, my lords. I am still groggy.” She turned to address Prince Hans. “How could you have known what Lady Ysmir was planning, my l- Your Grace?” Using that to address someone other than the queen left a foul taste in her mouth.

“You may call me lord,” said Prince Hans. “That’s all I am while I am in Her Majesty’s service. As to your question…” His eyes darted to the queen. “I have my ways. The duke considered me his friend. He considered wrongly.” He chuckled.

Anna gave a puzzled frown. Something about that didn’t make sense, but her head was throbbing. “Well, then… may I ask why the duke cancelled his attack after he knew who you were?”

“He didn’t want to risk the wrath of the Southern Isles,” explained Lord Myles. “He was happy to antagonize House Arendelle by killing the last remaining one. Who would be left to wreak revenge on his own house? Some nostalgic patriots, but he considered it worth the risk. House Westerguard, though – Westerguards are all across Europa, from Corona to DunLoch. The Island King would certainly raise his sails and summon every ally in the hemisphere.” He dipped his chin. “The duke does not want his family to suffer that.”

“But Her Grace is the Island King’s daughter-in-law.”

“Er, well… yes, but, you know, only by law. Blood is thicker than ink.”

“I see.” That explained why Lady Ysmir didn’t want anyone to see the prisoner while he was locked up. Had she known his true identity? Did anyone else? She shifted. “And Lady Ysmir? The duke? Where are they now?”

“Currently rotting in the dungeons, with all the other co-conspirators,” spat Lord Myles. “The duke is a valuable hostage while alive, but Lady Ysmir…”

“We think it would be best if she were beheaded for treason,” finished Hans solemnly.

That was unexpected. Anna looked down. “As you say.”

“As the queen’s own protector, you are expected to perform the beheading. When will you be well enough to walk?” asked Lord Myles.

Over the shock, Anna managed to say “I don’t know. Master Penrose can tell you.”

“Very well,” said Lord Myles. “It will be postponed for the nonce.” He stood up and gave Anna a friendly smile. “You have done well, my lady. Quite well. You are truly a fearsome warrior.”

“Truly,” confirmed the prince.

Queen Elsa spoke, “And now, my lords, if you would leave us. I would have words with my Lady Protector. Alone.”

Prince Hans and Lord Myles bowed. “By your leave.” They exited, and then it was only Ser Anna and Queen Elsa. The room was cold, the air still, and Anna thought her heart might explode.

Queen Elsa looked at Anna for a long moment, unspeaking. When she opened her mouth, she spoke soft and quiet. “When I saw the duke’s men bearing down on me, I was afraid. Not for my life, but…” She paused. “For a lot of things. For your life, for instance. You didn’t hesitate to stand in their way. What is… Why did you do such a stupid, reckless thing?”

Anna blinked. “I… Your Grace?”

“What were you thinking, fighting all those men alone? Alone?” She was talking faster now, her voice rising. “Why didn’t you just run? You could have easily run.”

“I couldn’t just run. I swore an oath – ”

“An oath? What does that matter next to your life?”

“Everything.”

“That’s stupid. You almost died.”

“If I died and you lived, it would have been worth it!” Anna realized she was yelling. “I swore an oath!” She pounded the bed with her fist. “I swore an oath to protect you and let every god damn me if I break it! I am my vows! That’s all I am!”

The queen’s returning stare was a moment of shock that fell into a gloomy cold. The enormity of Anna’s mistake hit her like a bludgeon. “Your Grace. I… forgive me for yelling, please.” Anna could hear her voice cracking. “I only meant… I spoke too frankly.”

“That’s just another word for honestly,” said the queen. There was an unmistakable tone of weariness and sadness. “You are a true knight,” she stated. It didn’t sound like a compliment. It sounded resigned, regretful, remorseful. Anna didn’t know why it hurt.

“That’s all I am,” repeated Anna. She paused for a moment, not knowing what else to say. What did she want? “I’m just your knight. Please. Let me show you that you can trust me.”

The queen blinked several times, and then turned abruptly away, wringing her hands together. “Prince Hans and Lord Myles have advised me to keep you close from now on. For my… my safety.” She cleared her throat. “As it happens, there is a… a matter that must be attended. And I have a mind that only you can attend it.”

Anna swallowed. “What is it, Your Grace? Anything. I’ll do it. Please.” The air was cool and strong. In that moment, it felt colder, and all of Anna braced itself against it, and still it came on. She felt paper-thin, and shivered.

Queen Elsa sighed loudly, turned her head, and closed her eyes. “A quest,” she said miserably, and left the infirmary.

 


 

The January air was frigid and stung the nostrils. The onlookers were wrapped in layers and layers of wool. Ser Anna envied them. She was feeling the brisk through her mail and jerkin. Her armor was currently in no fit shape to wear – it had a longsword-shaped hole in it. The wind caught her cloak and flapped it around by the trail, the golden crocus whipping around behind her. She drew Autumn, two-and-a-half feet of colorless steel, colder than the air. Revenge, thrummed the sword.

Lady Ysmir stooped in rags that no doubt meant nothing to the chill. Ser Anna did not envy her. Lady Ysmir stared at the knight with lilac eyes that raged defiance. “Who holds that sword, young ser knight?” Someone pushed her down to the chopping block. “Swing surely. Swing that sword. It’s all you know how to do.”

The head rolled in the snow, blood followed it. Anna wiped Autumn on the snow, leaving red streaks. “To Aren, I consign thee.” A nearby herald called, “So endeth the life of Lady Ysmir, traitor, formal Royal Spymaster, Lady of the Wings.”

Ser Wendel grunted. “Kill one traitor, another springs up in her place. Her daughter won’t like this.”

“She won’t,” agreed Lord Myles.

“So it’s war.”

“The young Lady Corel won’t arise. And if she does, she will be put down,” said Lord Hans confidently. “Her Grace has entrusted the defense of the realm to me.”

In lieu of appointing a new Marshal, you might have said, thought Anna. She sheathed her sword and went to pay her respects at the grave of Ser Tore Seastone, dead at thirty-one.

 

Chapter Text

Anna saw even less of Queen Elsa now.

She hardly ever left her room, and she didn’t even admit servants to keep the fires lit or sweep the rushes. In her stead, Lord Hans, the Chancellor, held court. He didn’t sit the throne – that would be sacrilege – but he sat in a chair just below it. Anna stood at his side instead of the queen’s.

A snow-covered courier stood at the base of the dais, before the shrunken small council. No Marshal nor Royal Spymaster any more. Their duties were now the Chancellor’s, at least until the rebellion was put down.

“My lord.” The courier bent his knee.

“Rise. What news do you bring?”

“The castle Westfal has been taken by the Valkyrie. She stormed them in the night, and clapped Ser Hunter in irons. The Vestlandet is in complete disarray. Some of them, those who served the Corels for generations, are even flocking to the Valkyrie’s cause.”

“And of our demands?”

“Dismissed outright, my lord. The Valkyrie says there can be no peace unless her mother’s head is paid for with three heads: That of Lord Myles, of Lady Anna, and of… of you, my lord.”

Lord Myles barked a laugh. “Oh, if that’s all she wants.”

“Is that all?” asked Lord Hans.

“Aye, my lord.”

“Then you may go. You have come a long way. Help yourself to some warm soup in the kitchens, this weather is frightful.”

“Aye, my lord; thank you, my lord. You are most gracious.” He left.

“This rebellion is bad for business,” groaned Lord Hugoss, and he dabbed his forehead with a silk cloth. “The Wings were bad enough, but now the whole Vestlandet? If she crosses the Toadsmarsh she’ll be at our back door.”

“Has Lord Morning summoned his banners yet?” asked Lord Hans.

“Not yet,” said Lord Hugoss. “He claims that the weather has been inhibiting him.”

“Nonsense,” said Lord Myles. “The weather in the dale is fine. It’s only here in Crystalwater that the blizzard rages.”

Lord Hugoss dipped his chins. “It may be as you say, but that is what his Lordship says. And you know how difficult it can be to contact him on a moment’s notice.”

“Or several weeks’ notice, apparently,” growled Lord Myles.

Lord Hans stroked his sideburns. “The Valkyrie had no trouble raising her banners, yes?”

“Not apparently, no. As you say,” said Lord Hugoss.

“Something to keep in mind. When will your ships be ready to sail, Lord Admiral?”

Lord Hugoss waggled his chins. “Whenever you need.”

“I think the time has come to take the fight to the Wings. Gather a fleet and prepare to strike from the sea. We must make sure the Valkyrie does not have time to get comfortable,” said Lord Hans, and Lord Myles nodded his agreement.

“My lords, of course I agree that we must harry the Valkyrie’s smallfolk, but…” Lord Hugoss cleared his throat. “But the Vestland coasts are rocky, and the Wings rockier still. It is naught but cliffs. The only city on the coast is Falkberg.”

“And it is Falkberg I mean you to take,” said Lord Hans. “That city is singular for the Wingsmen. Without it, their trade will dry up as a grape in the sun. That is, unless you are reluctant to move against the Wings?”

Lord Hugoss puffed out his cheeks. “And what is the queen’s opinion on this?”

“The queen,” said Lord Hans, “is indisposed.”

Lord Hugoss looked between Hans, Myles, and Anna. Anna found herself fingering Autumn’s hilt as he stared with hard, unreadable eyes. His gaze lingered on Anna a moment longer than the rest. There was something there, a sort of concentration, a peering frustration. At last he spoke, his voice croaking hoarsely: “No, my lords. It will be as you command.”

“Good,” chirped Lord Myles. “Then that only leaves the matter of the Lords Morning and Linnaeus.”

“In due time,” said Hans, and he stood. “Court is adjourned.” He nodded at Anna. “With me, ser. We must needs speak.” She followed him out the throne room and felt Lord Hugoss’s eyes boring into her back.

Hans had taken as his own the Crooked Tower, shorter than the Queen’s Tower and the Tower of Arendelle but squat and comfortable and centrally located. It was so-named because of its apparent tendency to lean. It was the warmest tower in the castle, and he kept his quarters on the top floor. The hearth was burning warm when Anna was let into his solar. It was a large, round room with a dark burgundy carpet inlaid with fanciful florid designs done in green and yellow. At the end of the room a portrait of the Young King and his queen sat above the hearth. Hans was wearing a white-and-gold striped doublet and white breeches to match, and a thick white cloak lined with ermine hung over his shoulders. He poured himself a cup of wine and offered Anna the same. She accepted it.

“To Arendelle,” he raised his cup at the Young King. The portrait stared back unseeing, short bristle mustache betraying no hint of any thoughts.

Anna drank to that. The wine was white and sweet, and cloying. Anna puckered her lips. “Tirrenian summerwine,” explained Hans. “Sorry if the taste caught you unawares. Wines can be mighty tricky at the best of times.” He smiled. “I find it to be a steady companion when it comes to running a country, however. Anyway, on to business.” He sat down in a red velvet chair and motioned for Anna to do the same.

Anna nodded and said nothing, taking her seat gingerly. Hans was a loquacious sort, affable and personable, and took his own cues. She wasn’t sure if she liked him – he certainly acted like he liked her, but everything lately had been odd. Everything.

“As you heard today, this ‘Valkyrie’s’ rebellion continues to vex us.” He wrinkled his nose. “More to the point, I have offered the Valkyrie much. I have offered her some amnesty if she lays down her arms and comes to Crystalwater to swear a renewed oath of fealty. But no, she persists in her folly. You heard so much yourself: The only thing that will satisfy her is heads. Mine, yours, and the snake’s. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fond of my head.” He smiled and chuckled slightly. “I certainly don’t want to give it over to a traitor and the daughter of a traitor.” He set his cup down. “You do know why she wants your head, right?”

“Of course. Because I cut off the head of her dear mother.”

“Got it in one. So now you know executing traitors makes enemies. Do you feel any regret about it?”

I’m not sure. “No.”

“That makes one of us, anyway.” He sighed. “It’s clear the Valkyrie needs to be put down, and House Corel attainted, but – Lord Morning won’t call his banners, Lord Linnaeus is old and slow, and Lord Hugoss constantly looks for excuses to do nothing. I tell you, what is a chancellor to do? Some days I wonder if the queen was truly rewarding me with this post.” He chuckled mirthlessly, and waved a hand. “Ah, well. It’s good to know I can rely on you, anyway. You’re the queen’s woman, through and through.”

She felt her chest swell with pride. “Yes, my lord, I am.”

“It is for that reason that I’ve decided to delegate some. Before you thank me, know this is not a favor.” He laughed. “It’s been some time since the Arenborg has had a castellan. I mean to give you the post.

Anna’s eyebrows rose. “Truly, my lord? But I – I don’t know how to be a castellan.”

“Neither do I. How hard can it be? Defend the castle, yes? Surely you could sit the battlements yourself. And on that note, I’m restoring the captainship of the Royal Guard to you.” He stroked his chin. “Do you have any experience leading armies?”

“I – No, my lord.”

“Pity, or I’d make you Marshal too. I’ll have to find someone else for that, then.”

Anna didn’t know what to say. “This is unexpected.”

“It needed to be done. This is war, and I trust you to defend the queen’s life – and, thus, the castle, should it come to it. This is all, of course, if you accept the post.”

Anna thought about it for a moment. She had gotten quite used to no responsibilities except for the queen’s safety, and this was out of the blue. She supposed it all added up to the same thing: At the end of the day, the castle’s safety and the queen’s safety were one. “Yes, my lord. I do accept.”

He made a nod in her direction, and then seemed to remember something. He sighed heavily, and put his chin on his hand. “Oh, damnation. I meant to see Ser Tazmus after court. Please excuse me, my lady. I will send for you later; the queen wants to have a word.”

“The queen?”

“Indeed. It’s about… the task.”

Anna returned to her own solar, thoughts of her promotion well and buried by the reminder of the queen’s words the last time they spoke. She kicked off her greaves and sat in front of the fire, fixing the flickering flames with a searching gaze. Outside the rattling windows snowflakes continued to fall rapidly. The blizzard had gone on since late January, and had continued long into February. Between the snowflakes and the fire, Anna had only one thought: The task.

The queen had made mention of a task she meant for Anna. A quest was the exact wording. It was, by far, the most baffling thing her queen had ever said. Quests were for storybooks, tales, and legends. Real knights didn’t go on quests. Lady Protectors weren’t meant to go running around on quests.

But then, she thought, I’ve hardly been a run-of-the-mill Lady Protector.

After Lady Ysmir Corel’s death was announced, her daughter, who was also named Ysmir, rose her banners in rebellion. She was the liege lord of the Wings, the rocky cliff-riddled river lands of the Vestlandet. So it was war. The self-styled Lady Ysmir II wanted no peace, only vengeance.

Her followers called her the Valkyrie, and soon the name had spread. She was said to be a monster of a woman, and that was either a good or a bad thing, depending on whom you asked. One thing that was sure was that she and her knights moved like quicksilver, never lost a battle, and could not be caught.

Queen Elsa charged Hans with dealing with the problem, and all the while she kept to herself in her private quarters. Some began to question whether she was okay. In what sense? Anna wondered.

And as for Hans, and all the lords of the Arenborg… Once, Lord Hugoss called the Arenborg a den of vipers. She was growing tired of the relentless pettiness and politics. If the Valkyrie was the cause of all this, then surely she should just go and kill the woman. That was how you solved problems, right? You killed them?

Swing that sword. That’s all you know how to do. Lady Ysmir’s words bit her deep. Let Lord Hans deal with Hugoss and his recalcitrance. If the queen commands it, I’ll take off his head, too. That’s all you know how to do.

The attitude among the castlefolk and the commons was markedly less skeptical. Her reputation spread rapidly after the Weselton affair. It was a debacle for Weselton, a crushing victory for Arendelle. The word went out that Prince Hans came at the last minute to warn the queen of the danger, and then Lady Anna, Ser Anna, Knight of Crystalwater, took up her sword and slew thirty men alone, a whirlwind of steel and blade, a force of nature. “She was raised in the forest by trolls. She fights like a demon.” “The Green Devil, sent by the gods to defend the queen.” “Gods save the queen.”

Well, she didn’t kill thirty men. She wounded eight and killed eleven, and she was reasonably sure she did not say eleven prayers. She had to make time for it later. The rest had lain down their arms when the duke shouted them to stop. Anna would have died, too, but for Maple. The thought made her smile and tear up a bit. Why does it feel like Maple’s the only thing in this world that’s good? Well, her and the queen. The inscrutable queen.

But thinking about the queen didn’t make Anna smile. Not unless she closed her eyes tight and thought about the look on her face when Anna snagged that fish out of the water. Those eyes so deep and blue you could dive into them, a laugh like a spring breeze, freckles like a gentle sprinkling, barely visible in the cool light of morning, the imperfection that begat perfection. The queen’s smile was joy itself. But all I seem to do is make her frown. I’m the stupid knight, and she’s the brilliant, perfect queen.

When she opened her eyes, it was dark outside. There was a hammering on the door. “Enter,” she yelled, rubbing her eyes.

It was Martin. He had grown at least four inches since last summer, such that now he was of a height with Anna. “M’lady,” he said, “the queen and Lord Hans have summoned you.”

She blinked her eyes at him. “Where to?”

“The queen’s solar, m’lady”

Anna nodded and slipped her legs into her greaves. She buckled them hastily and went out the solar. “Thank you, Martin,” she said on the way out. She paused a moment. “By the way, how was your day?”

“Unspecial, m’lady. The weather is too poor for arrow practice.” He looked down.

That gave her a thought. “Martin, how many of the squires are trained in using a bow and arrow?”

“Some,” he said, “but none very well. It’s not a very knightly weapon and all.”

Perhaps not, but it was a very effective weapon in the right hands, and a very useful one for defending battlements with. “You should encourage the other squires to take up the art. If the castle comes under attack, a bow on the castle walls is worth a hundred men-at-arms below.”

“Unless one of those men-at-arms is you,” he protested.

“I can die just as easily as anyone.”

He frowned at that, but said nothing. She left him to his frowning.

The queen’s solar entrance was guarded by Flynt the Bastard. He barely nodded to Anna as she passed. Inside, the queen was standing by the fireplace, now lit, and she was gazing out a window into the snowflake-studded black of night. Lord Hans was seated in one of her plush chairs, enjoying a cup of wine. The room smelled strongly of lavender. “Ser Anna,” Lord Hans greeted as she entered. Queen Elsa moved as he spoke, her head shifting slightly.

Anna took a knee. “Your Grace. My lord.”

“Rise, Ser Anna,” said Lord Hans. Annoyed, Anna stood tentatively, eyes fixed on the queen’s. The queen is supposed to tell me to rise. Or I stay on my knee. But she said nothing, and only stared back. Anna felt a tingle in her spine.

When Anna rose, nobody said anything. The only sound was the howling of the wind outside, tapping the windowpanes with a firm impatience; and the fire, burning away, hissing and gnawing at the bark and wood of the logs trapped in its grasp.

“You mentioned that this was about the task,” said Anna.

Queen Elsa turned more fully now, the light from her eyes falling on Anna like a spotlight. Anna swore she could feel the heat of her gaze. “Hans,” said the queen.

Lord Hans cleared his throat and put down his cup of wine. He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on knees and fingers clenched together. The side-whiskers on his face made him look like some red lion, stern and stolid. His brow furrowed and his eyes darkened as he spoke, “The queen and I have been discussing a matter of great import.”

“The Valkyrie’s rebellion?” asked Anna.

“No,” said Lord Hans. “More so. Something terrible and unknowable. Something that threatens the security of not only the kingdom entire, but all of Europa.”

“Ser Anna,” said Queen Elsa, “what do you know of magic?”

The small hairs on Anna’s neck rose. “I know very little, my queen. Only that it is very… strange.”

She nodded. “Just so.”

Anna hesitated before continuing, “And I have friends who know of magic. They say it is wonderful.”

“Wonderful,” repeated Queen Elsa hollowly. She blinked her eyes and turned her head away slowly, hands wringing each other through her teal gloves.

Lord Hans made a gesture with his hands. “What concerns us is magic. Strange, yes, but probably not wonderful. We are not sure exactly what it is, but there are the signs. Take this blizzard.” He waved a hand. “For a month it has raged, first a flurry, and now a storm. It seems to grow stronger by the day, and it is focused only around Crystalwater. Do you not consider that curious?”

Anna hadn’t thought about it. She worked her jaw, and replied, “Now that you mention it, it is rather odd.”

Lord Hans nodded. “I might have left it off at that. ‘It’ll go away on its own,’ you know – but…” He scratched his chin. “Anna, have you heard the story of the Endless Winter?”

It had been ages since she heard that story. “I am familiar with it.”

“How familiar with it?”

“I only know it is the story of the Ice Queen,” said Anna. “Supposedly.”

“Tell us what you know, if you would be so kind.”

Anna was a little nonplussed at being asked to repeat what was really just a children’s story, but she spoke anyway. “Centuries ago, she was a terrible tyrant who conquered Arendelle and brought an endless winter to the land. Then, a legendary hero appeared and defeated her minions and, well, ended the endless winter.”

“More-or-less,” said Hans. “Do you recall what the origins of the Ice Queen’s powers are said to be?”

“It was a curse, my lord. Was it not?”

“That’s what they say. But they also made mention of something else. A magical artifact that she stole from the gods. An artifact that made her power beyond extraordinary.” He stood up and clasped his hands behind his back, pacing across the room. “There is much written about the time of the Ice Queen, not all of it complementary – but of the beginning of her reign, they all write the same. ‘The dale’s steep and lowland edge whence the Queen of Frost were crowned came into a storm of snow and saw the sun no more, and from whence she rode, darkness followed, ‘till all the land of the Aren-dale were covered tip to tip in the snows, and joy smothered forevermore.’” Hans looked at Anna. “In other words, there was a blizzard centered on Crystalwater, that spread and spread, until… the eternal winter was upon the land. If this blizzard we are experiencing now is the same blizzard of legend, then the eternal winter threatens us once more, and this is only a taste of the coming darkness.”

Anna felt her heart pound in anticipation. “Are you… serious, my lord? This isn’t some kind of jape, is it?”

“Quite serious, I’m afraid. It was not my notion, you must understand – but the queen’s.”

A chill ran down Anna’s spine. Her eyes darted to the queen’s, though they were unfocused, glossy, avoiding Anna’s gaze. “This… This is all much to believe, but if it was true… What could we do?”

Queen Elsa spoke, “That is what I have been looking for. A way out of this endless winter.” She cast her eyes at the tapestries that lined the walls. “The same source that Lord Hans mentions speaks also of the Ice Queen’s artifact. It names it the ‘Golden Power,’ and claims it could grant any wish. It was with this artifact that she was able to extend her reach, to… precipitate the endless winter.”

Anna said, “I’ve never heard of a ‘Golden Power’ before.”

“You wouldn’t,” confirmed Elsa, still looking away. “Most talk of our nation’s providence centers around the legendary hero and his blade Wintersbane, which our source claims shattered the Golden Power into six pieces.”

“You wish me to find this magic blade, and put paid to this blizzard and whomever is causing it?” asked Anna, speaking slowly.

Hans smiled wryly. “Gods, no. The blade – nobody knows where it is, or what happened to it, or anything. The trail is utterly dry. After the legendary hero disappeared, so did his sword.”

“But… the Golden Power?”

“If there is any hope,” said Queen Elsa, “it lies with the Golden Power.”

Hans nodded firmly. “Indeed. We need you to find the six pieces before someone else does – whoever is behind this blizzard. Or else we face the possibility of retreading the frozen ground our ancestors walked.”

Anna felt dizzy. She closed her eyes, then put a hand on her head and shook it. “Find the six pieces… My lord – I don’t even know where they are.”

Hans chuckled lightly. “You needn’t worry about that. We believe we have a method of locating the pieces – but we can discuss that in greater detail on the morrow. Your only duty will be retrieving them and returning them to us.”

“What about the queen?” said Anna suddenly, eyes snapping open. “Won’t I be abandoning my post? My sword is sworn in her defense – ”

“No, you wouldn’t be abandoning anything,” said Lord Hans with a wave. “That’s why I put the defense of the castle and the Royal Guard in your hands. You can make sure it’s working to your satisfaction before you go. Defending the queen is important, make no mistake, but so is this task.”

“You are the only one we trust with this task, Ser Anna,” said the queen in a low voice, turning her head to look at Anna. “Please understand.”

Anna felt those eyes on her, and a strange swelling in her chest. She bowed her head. “Yes, Your Grace. I will do this thing for you. For Arendelle.”

Lord Hans nodded, and turned to the queen and bowed. “And now, Your Grace, I’ll take my leave, if it please you. I have some urgent work I must needs attend.”

“You may go, my lord,” said the queen. “We’ll talk more later.”

He bowed again and left, closing the solar door behind him. The fire in the hearth seemed to grow smaller in his absence, the room colder and more bewildering. Anna didn’t leave. She locked her eyes with the queen’s, and the queen stared right back.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been in here,” said Anna with a forced smile. She looked around. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”

Queen Elsa flickered a smile. “What have I done with the place?”

“Invited me in.” It was meant to be in jest but the queen’s face fell so far she knew she had said too much. She attempted to deflect it with a laugh. “That was in jest, my queen.”

“Of course,” said Queen Elsa.

Anna fidgeted and shifted her weight from foot to foot. She had imagined a lot of things she might say to the queen if she got the chance again, but none of them came to mind, or they all seemed pointless and, honestly, quite absurd. But she knew the last thing she wanted was to walk away. The queen wasn’t dismissing her. She could talk to her, if she wanted. But about what?

“Soo,” said Anna, drawing out the sound, “what do you make of the Valkyrie’s rebellion? I only ask because… well, Lord Hugoss, for instance, he’s – he’s curious. About what Your Grace thinks.”

The queen raised an eyebrow. “Curious, you said?”

“Yes, my queen. To tell it true, I think he is suspicious.”

“Do you mean that he is acting suspiciously, or he is suspicious of something?”

“Er, the former. No, wait, the latter. He is suspicious of me. Of us. Of you.”

The queen sighed. “Hans has told me what some folk are saying. They call Arendelle a triumvirate, since I have been…” She stopped.

Anna wanted to ask, Since you have been what? But there wasn’t like to be much use in that. So instead she asked, “What is a triumvirate? Your Grace.”

“A rulership of three people,” said the queen. “In this case, or so much they say, it is Lord Hans, Lord Myles… and you.”

“Me?” blurted Anna, taken aback. “But I – I’m not ruling anything.”

“That isn’t the talk,” said the queen, eyes glinting. “Lord Hans finds it quite amusing. He says it must seem that way: Lord Myles is the brains, he’s the pretty face, and you’re the brawn.”

“He called himself a pretty face?” Anna heard herself asking. It wasn’t an unpretty face, she supposed, but, well, it came off as a bit presumptuous, and was an absurd thing to say amidst all goings-ons.

“Indeed,” said the queen with a twisting of the lip, and Anna laughed.

When Anna’s laughter subsided, she realized the implication behind the words. “But, wait – what about you?”

“What about me?”

“A rulership of three people – but you’re the queen.”

“I,” she said, “have been busy.”

Anna frowned. “With the blizzard?”

Queen Elsa’s lips moved into a smile and she turned away. “In a manner of speaking.” The wind outside rattled the windows with a sudden gust.

“Do you trust Lord Hans?” asked Anna.

The queen waited awhile before responding. “As much as I dare.”

Anna lowered her head. Somehow that wasn’t the response she was looking for. Still, it was something. Something was better than nothing. If the queen said Lord Hans could be trusted, then he could be trusted. Her judgment is no doubt vastly superior to mine, thought Anna. Swing that sword. It’s all you know how to do.

“Well, my queen, if you trust him, then so do I.” She pounded her fist against her chest.

The queen turned back. “That’s good to hear. I need you to trust him because this… quest is of utmost importance. Everything else can wait.” She looked away again. “Everything.”

“I’m your woman, my queen.” Anna smiled broadly. “I’m happy to be of service to you.”

She left the queen’s solar with a cocktail of emotion blazing in her gut. It was far better than she had expected, and also far stranger. Yes, she’d be away from the queen for a little while, but the queen trusted her and only her with this very important quest. The Golden Power. It was a bit odd, yes, but why would the queen waste her time? And the blizzard – was it the work of some sinister wizard? Perhaps a ghost of the ancient Ice Queen, come back to wreak her vengeance on her descendants? The more she thought about it, the more her mind jumped to the cascading possibilities. She knew she ought to be afraid, she even felt ridiculous contemplating it, she knew what she, a knight, had to do, what she was all about, what she had been doing as a knight – but for a moment, she felt very young again, the future a storybook, and her a storybook knight, off to save the beautiful storybook princess with a sword in her hand and a purpose in her heart. Or, well, she supposed the princess was a queen, now.

She pushed the thought away. Don’t be crazy, girl. She was only doing was she was bid. Doing what the queen commanded, because the queen commanded it, as befit her station, and no more. But she went to sleep thinking about platinum hair, and smell of lavender, faint and strong.

The next day, Lord Hans summoned Anna to the council room. He was leaning over the wide, round table, and looking intently at an enormous skin map of the kingdom. “ARENDELLE” was plastered across its header. The queen was seated, her gloved hands folded in her lap, and she stared at the map through half-lidded eyes.

Anna recognized some of the landmarks from her own map, but this map was more richly detailed, splattered with drawings and small letters. At the center was a big star labeled “Crystalwater.”

Lord Hans looked up when she entered. He flashed a grin. “Ah, good morrow to you, Ser Anna.”

“And to you as well, my lord. You seem to be in good humors.”

“Good work always puts me in good humors. But don’t take that to assume this questing business doesn’t leave me anxious. It’ll be delicate work.” He beckoned her to come closer. She did, and he pointed at the map.

“This is a map of the kingdom.” He pointed at Crystalwater. “This is where we are,” he said. “The city Crystalwater.”

“I can read that,” said Anna.

“You can read?” His gaze grew dark for a moment. “I beg your pardon. The talk is you were raised by trolls.”

“Indeed, my lord, I was; but I can still read.”

“It’s true?” He looked taken aback. “I thought that was just a rumor, or a figure of speech. You were truly raised by trolls?”

“Oh yes, my lord. I am an orphan probably born of peasant farmers or some like.”

Hans stuck out his bottom lip thoughtfully and nodded his head. Queen Elsa stiffened and cleared her throat. “Can we get back on topic?” she said coolly.

“Yes, right,” said Lord Hans. He pointed back at Crystalwater, then moved his finger up along the Springway until he got to the Rockwoods – where the trolls lived, Anna knew. And then he kept moving his finger up until it pointed at the Gobwoods, a vast area where, according to the trolls, the no-good, ufgoody goblins lived. “These are the Gobwoods, the northern half of what was once called the Wolfswood.” He pulled his finger back and stood up straight. “According to Ser Hiccough’s accounts – he is the source of which we spoke yesterday – according to his accounts of the First King’s reign, the Gobwoods were one of six places the Ice Queen was said to have had her minions.”

“Minions, my lord?” She paused, and added, “Ser Hiccough, my lord?”

“Yes, he was Berkish, and a bit of an oddball at that. In those days, Berkish men always had queer names. Anyway, yes, minions. Ser Hiccough’s accounts contradict that of the contemporary accounts in a few ways, but he wrote about the Golden Power, and one area that he wrote on near-exclusively was that of the Ice Queen’s political doings. It is from him that we know of the initial conquests. But specifically, he wrote about the Ice Queen’s minions, so-called, her ‘Ice Lieutenants,’ and named the places they lived.”

“Her minions.” She thought back to the story. The six challenges that the legendary hero needed to face. “Such as the kraken, the ghast…”

“Yes, that’s precisely right.” His brow furrowed. “The difficulty is that some of the places don’t exist anymore, or at least not in quite the same way. This might only be a matter of academic interest, but Ser Uther Linnaeus wrote in his own accounts that…” He stopped to stoop over a pile of papers to the side. He shuffled through them, drew one out, and read in a clear, loud voice: “The ‘Minions of the Queen were multifarious and inextricably linked to Her. What She said, they said; what She did, they did; and She gave them All.’” He let drop the paper. “Nothing is written of what happened to the Golden Power after it was shattered, except that it broke into six pieces. And the Ice Queen had just that many minions.”

“Ah,” said Anna. “So you believe her minions ended up with the six shards?”

“Yes,” said Hans, “and no. The problem with that theory is that her minions were slain beforehand.” He held up a wagging finger. “However, that does not mean all is lost. It may be some connection persists between the named locations, the minions, and the missing shards.”

“How so?”

“Well. Take the wolf beast, who is described as” – another paper – “‘living in the shadows of evergreens, all at once green and white with forest floors dense with pine needles ever-untouched by sunlight.’ It goes on like that, but – it seems that it’s most likely a description of the Wolfswood, which would explain the origin of the name. But the southern half of those woods, which were once wild and weedy, are now all but colonized. A road runs clear through it, and Burrowstown is situated not far from its center. However, the north half of those woods – now called the Gobwoods – that’s where men still fear to tread. It’s a special place. Magical, I daresay. The kind of place a shard of power might be.” He grinned like a child with candy.

Anna frowned. She had been raised in the Rockwoods, and never heard the Gobwoods spoken of in fearful tones, just dismissive ones. “There are many reasons why men don’t go to the Gobwoods, my lord,” she said slowly. “I haven’t known it to be a feared place. It could be that the goblins living there don’t like people.”

“Aha. Goblins.” He chuckled. “That’s amusing.”

“That’s what the trolls said.”

Queen Elsa stood. “I’m afraid Hans is not communicating the point well-enough. It’s not about fear or rumors, it’s about a latent power that… that you can feel in places of magic. The Rockwoods are a forest – the Gobwoods are a forest.

“It still sounds like a shot in the dark, to me,” said Anna tentatively.

Queen Elsa stared frostily at her. Anna shivered involuntarily, and tried to steady herself. “I have a feeling about these Gobwoods.”

“The queen’s blood is that of the Ice Queen’s,” commented Hans with a faint smile and a lopsided shrug. “Blood is thick when it comes to magic.”

“I… oh,” said Anna. “That makes sense.” It didn’t, really – but she couldn’t bring herself to contradict the queen. And what’s more, she really was out of her element. What did she know of magic, after all? She had a magic sword and a magic ring and a magic friend, but, well, that didn’t mean she knew anything about all that. Swing that sword. It’s all you know how to do. Anna hung her head. “I apologize, I only wanted to understand.”

“No harm in that,” said Hans. “Anyway. The Gobwoods. That’s the place to go.”

Anna nodded. “And I’ll find… one shard there?”

“That is so. Or so much we hope.”

“And how will I find it? The Gobwoods are a big place.”

“The wiles of magic are tricky. I know not how, but – this is all that we know. The rest you can only learn by going to the Gobwoods yourself. However it happens, if you do manage to locate the shard, we’ll know we’re on the right track.”

“Right,” said Anna. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear, but she wasn’t for making decisions. She was a sword-swinger. “Very good, then. I’ll leave on the morrow, if it please you.”

“Excellent. The sooner begun, the sooner done, I always say.” Hans chuckled and rolled up the map. “Won’t you join me for lunch, Ser Anna? We will be having capons and honeycombs.”

Queen Elsa returned to her quarters and Ser Anna had lunch with Hans and Lord Myles, who looked to be in quite a good mood. They ate in a small dining room at the base of the Crooked Tower, Hans sitting at the head of a short mahogany table dressed with violets in vases and an elegant gold-and-silver candelabra. Little pink candles burnt orange flames that reflected Lord Myles’s pale eyes as he told jape after jape about the various characters of the realm, mostly at the Valkyrie’s expense, though some at Lord Hugoss’s. Hans laughed at Lord Myles’s quips with a twinkle in his eyes.

Talking about the rebel got Anna thinking about the night previous. Lord Myles just got finished explaining what a bitch the Valkyrie is (which explained why her “dogs” were in such heat as to fight so hard for such a lost cause) when Anna spoke up. “My lord,” she said, addressing Hans. He looked up. “Last night, the queen mentioned that people are calling the kingdom a triumvirate.”

Lord Myles laughed very loudly, and Hans half-grimaced and half-smiled, adjusting himself in his seat. “Yes, it’s something I mentioned to the queen while I was grousing about Lord Morning. She had Kai send a letter to his Lordship while I complained that everyone seems to see the kingdom as a triumvirate.”

“Well, my lord…” Anna paused. “Is it?”

He shook his head grimly. “No, and I’m glad it’s not. The queen’s tasks, as you know, demand all of her attention. We are only emergency rulers, dealing with the rebellion and the monotony of the day-to-day while the queen struggles with the true issues.”

“We?” repeated Anna.

“Yes, us three here.”

“Call it what you want,” said Lord Myles, mouth full of stuffed capon, “but all we do, we do in the queen’s name. And that’s the honest truth. Anyone who calls it a triumvirate is likely just jealous.” He wiped his mouth. “Emergency rulers, yes. That makes a great deal more sense.”

Anna stirred her cup of wine. “Where does the term come from? Triumvirate, I mean. I’d never heard it before.”

“It’s a term from the old Helvetian Republic, before it fell and became an Empire,” said Hans. “Three men ruled the republic side-by-side, and were thus called a triumvirate.”

“What happened?”

Hans shrugged. “One of them killed the other two, and the triumvirate became a monarchy.”

Lord Myles sniggered. “Ah, but we needn’t worry about that. This isn’t a triumvirate, and we aren’t triumvirs. We’re emergency rulers, at best.” He rubbed his left wrist tenderly and then lifted his cup. “To us, then.”

Lord Hans smiled and raised his cup. “To us.”

Ser Anna looked between the two of them. She raised her cup. “To the queen.”

“To the queen.”

“To the queen.”

She went down to the yard that day to see what the squires got up to when the snow was too heavy for any real training. Very little, it turned out – many of them were in the barracks, and Ser Puck was explaining how to string a bow. He shot Anna a glare as she came in.

“Ser Anna,” he said with a curled upper lip. “Your squire seems to have convinced damn near everyone in the castle to take up bowry.”

“Is that a problem, Ser Puck?”

“For me, it is,” he said with crossed arms. “Now I have to teach damn near everyone in the castle bowry.”

“You have to?” asked Anna, annoyed. “What of the master-at-arms?”

“He’d teach them wrong. I tell you, that man doesn’t know a bowstring from an arrow feather.”

She laughed. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”

After doing her rounds, seeing to the changing of the guard and the readiness of the men-at-arms (who now took their orders, nominally anyway, from her), she made to return to her solar. Since she would be away, she knew that she had to make the arrangements for her absence. She resolved Ser Tazmus made a fine interim Captain, but who would be castellan in her stead? Whom did she trust enough for that? She supposed Ser Tazmus might take up both duties, but something told her that was unwise: He had seemed far too pleased to be appointed interim Captain, though it was her opinion he ought to be a great deal more abashed ever since the Weselton affair. The thoughts of Flynt the Bastard came to her mind at that.

It made a lot of sense why Flynt would be angry that it was handled poorly. He was always dolorous, but since the Weselton affair, he was gloom itself. Rain clouds followed him everywhere. Small wonder: His natural father was Ser Tore, and he was young, the youngest in the Guard except for her.

She was brooding about Flynt as she entered the Queen’s Tower. To her surprise, Lord Hugoss was waiting for her in the atrium. He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief, and had a feverish look on his eyes.

“Ser Anna,” he said. “Good to see you.”

“And you,” she lied in response. “How are you this day?”

“Not well,” he spoke in a low voice and approached quickly. Anna’s hand went to her sword. His eyes darted to it. “I don’t mean to fight you. How could I even? I just need to know.”

“Need to know what, my lord?” asked Anna warily, hand still on Autumn’s hilt. We’ll cut the gristle out of him, my sweet Anna.

“Your loyalties,” he hissed the word. “I thought you were the queen’s woman. Are you? Speak truthfully, damn you, remember your vows.”

“Damn yourself,” snarled Anna. “I am the queen’s woman, through and through. What are you after?”

Hans,” he said. He looked around the atrium furtively. They were still alone. His hands fell on her shoulders. “Who is he? He’s been sitting under that throne for two months now and all my why’s still mean nothing.”

“He is the queen’s man. She trusts him,” said Anna.

“But why?” he hissed, his voice growing lower, barely a whisper. “Do you know he was a castaway? Of course you do, but listen. I wrote the Island King about him, and he reports that Prince Hans Westerguard is his 13th son. The same one who was lost at sea when Blackstone was swallowed up by the storm.”

“What? But… what?”

“How is it possible that he survived at sea for months only to end up stowed away on board a ship in the Royal Navy? And then he claims knowledge of a plot by Lady Ysmir and the Duke, both of whom he couldn’t have possibly talked to for months beforehand!”

Anna made a confused noise. “But… Lady Ysmir did talk to him. Every day while he was in prison, some said.”

“And that doesn’t strike you as extraordinarily strange? I don’t trust Hans. I don’t trust anyone. But why does the queen trust him? She’s brilliant, always was, reads like a fiend, the soul of wisdom; and Hans’s story is full of holes. You’re the queen’s woman. If you mean that truly, then you’ll…”

He trailed off at the sound of the atrium door opening. The howling of the wind and the creak of hinges filled the room, and then went away with a slam. Lord Hans stood in the threshold, his face calm and hard, his mantle caked with snow. “Ah, Lord Hugoss! I was hoping I might have a word with you.” Lord Hugoss moved away from Anna in a hurry. Lord Hans regarded the both of them with a cool look. “Is there a problem?”

“No, my lord,” said Lord Hugoss. “What is this word about?”

“The ships, my good man. Falkberg won’t wait forever, and the queen” – he produced a parchment that bore the royal seal – “has commanded the assault begin immediately.” He smiled humorlessly. “Shall we convene in the council room to discuss the attack?”

Lord Hugoss paled. He dabbed his forehead with a silk handkerchief. “As you command, my lord.” Hans opened the door and left, and Lord Hugoss moved to follow, his eyes shooting Anna a panicked, furtive look before he had gone.

Fighting the shivers in her spine, Anna stood in silence for several moments before she climbed the steps of the Queen’s Tower. As she went up, she could almost feel the Arenborg falling away behind her. Pettiness and politics. Den of vipers.

I’ve never tasted viper’s blood, thrummed Autumn.

She found herself walking up to the third level, where the queen’s solar was. One more level would bring her to the royal quarters, where, once upon a time, the queen and her parents had lived. The queen when she was a princess, that was. But Anna never went up to the fourth level.

A guard stood by the door. Is the queen in? But she didn’t ask. She nodded at him and pushed open the door all the same.

Queen Elsa was sitting by an unlit fire, a ratty old brown tome in one gloved hand, a small brown sphere in the other. Her lips, normally a dulcet pink, had dark stains on them. She looked up at the sound of an unexpected intruder, and she pulled away ever so slightly. On the low table in front of her knees was a wooden box, lid ajar, with a good deal more small brown spheres inside. Carved along the edges of the box were designs of feathered serpents and human skulls with wings.

“What is…” The queen stopped as she started, and all at once put the chocolate ball back in the box and licked her lips, looking away from Anna all the while. “Ser Anna. I was not expecting you.”

Nor was Anna expecting chocolate. “Is that… chocolate, Your Grace?” She attempted to keep the quiver, the faint hint of longing, out of her voice – but she doubted she was successful.

The queen smiled ruefully, not quite making eye contact. “It is. Please, take it away from me. I fear I will overindulge.” She pushed the box away.

Anna caught herself laughing. She moved forward carefully, until she stood opposite the queen, the chocolate between them.

“I was quite serious. Help yourself.”

Anna knew she mustn’t dare, but she would not refuse her queen. Carefully she picked a ball out of the box and put it in her mouth.

It was better than she remembered it. She could not help sighing when she swallowed. It was such an audible noise that she was sure the queen had heard it. She lifted an eyebrow at Anna.

“I, ah, I have a weakness for sweets, Your Grace. Particularly chocolate. Growing up, people always told me I had a sweet tooth.” She scratched the back of her neck, fully aware that her cheeks must be red.

“Really?” asked the queen softly. She looked down at the box with a ghost of a smile. She closed her book and set it on her lap, and the fingers of her gloved hands played with each other for a long moment. “I’m also quite fond of chocolate. Probably over fond.”

“I can see that, Your Grace,” said Anna, and then she blinked several times, and added quickly, “Well, not that you look like you’re over fond of chocolate – I only meant – you look beautiful in fact – or, erm, well – that is, I only meant – since you were eating the chocolate and all – ” She quickly degenerated into a series of stammers, and she had to bite her own tongue to stop talking.

The queen’s eyes glowed in reply, and she looked up at Anna, her hands now working at each other relentlessly. She breathed a visible sigh, breath steaming the air.

Anna shifted tacks, desperate to save face. “That book you’re reading. What is it? If I may. Your Grace.”

Queen Elsa’s head snapped down to the book. “This?” She paused, and picked it up off her lap. “This is the record of Ser Hiccough’s accounts of the Ice Queen’s reign. It is the only copy that I know of in all the world.”

“Oh?” asked Anna. “That sounds interesting.”

“You think so?”

“Absolutely. I would – well, I think I’d like to read it some time.”

The queen’s eyes seemed to shrink. “You… would?”

Anna wrung her hands together. “Well, I… If it please Your Grace.”

The queen concentrated her eyes on the book, her fingers played with its spine. She set it down carefully on the table. “Nobody has ever expressed an interest in the books I read, before.”

“Well, it’s important, isn’t it?” asked Anna. “You know, because of this blizzard. And I do like to read. I read a lot growing up, even though I know I must seem like such a rube to you.” She smiled. “And then after I read it, we could talk about it, and compare notes and impressions. If you liked.”

“Yes… I… I would like…” She stood up and turned away suddenly. “I think you had better go,” she said quietly.

Anna was crestfallen. “What? Why?”

And then the queen’s voice was sharp, harsh. “Why? Because I said so.

Anna had gone too far. One should never speak that way to their queen. You’re a knight, you fool, no worthy companion for a queen. “I’m… sorry. I’m only… confused.”

Silence for a moment. Then, “Me too,” whispered the queen.

And then, like a tidal wave, the words came out, unbidden and fast. “I only want to know what happened to you. To us, I mean. I thought we were getting along. I mean, I knew I liked you, and I even thought you liked me too. I thought you and I were getting along well, and…” She paused, and laughed a little at her own, stupid little mind. “Isn’t that silly? I’m such an idiot.”

Queen Elsa walked over to the window, head decidedly turned away from Anna. “Don’t say… It’s not… so silly.”

“I only… I want to know why you don’t trust me. I won’t say I don’t blame you, but,” Anna swallowed a scratchy lump in her throat, “I would like to know why.”

Suddenly, the queen laughed pitilessly, a low and choking sound. She sucked in a breath and spoke, her voice high and tinted. “Oh, me too. I would like to know ‘why’ as well. Wherefore so much? The gods are the cruelest japers of all. I often ask why they brought you to me. You, of all people.”

Anna’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

Queen Elsa put her hands on the windowsill and hung her head. “You,” she said, her voice low and dangerous.

Anna approached carefully. “What did I do? Please, I only want to know. Whatever it was, I’ll fix it. I’ll do whatever it takes.” She spoke in a small voice. She had never seen her queen like this before. “What is it?”

Queen Elsa lifted her head and stared into the window pane. The glass reflected her face, and in it Anna could see those ice floe eyes, blue wounds carved asunder a face of broken marble, the bound bun of platinum sheen above, all a dapple of light amidst the inkiness of the void beyond; wind and sky. And over it, she saw herself, the green knight with the red hair in twin braids, cloak anon; steel and blade.

“Fear,” said Queen Elsa quietly.

“Fear?” repeated Anna. A thousand thoughts took root in her head, a thousand-and-one responses. Her heart beat her chestplate like a drum. She was close now. She reached out a hand. “What are you afraid of – ”

DON’T TOUCH ME!” The words split the air like shattering glass. Queen Elsa spun around, her back now against the window, her hands on the sill. Her chest rose and fell to panicked breaths. “Do NOT touch me!”

Anna froze, hand outstretched, mere inches from the queen. The air outside looked cold – very cold, frost had begun to form on the glass. Fear. “Me?” Anna’s voice cracked. “You’re… you’re afraid of me?”

Anna knew not what was in Queen Elsa’s expression. Everything. “No… Anna…”

She took several steps back, and looked at her hands. Gauntleted in green, but beneath was not pale, freckled skin – but red. She could see it through the gauntlets. She was red, red all over. Red hair, red freckles. Red blood everywhere. “Of course,” she whispered. “Of course you’re afraid of me.” Her throat grew tight. Ever since the queen first saw her, what had she done but killed, and killed, and maimed? So much blood was on her hands. She could scrub and wash her hands in the river but the blood was a stain forever. And the queen saw it all. She had no choice. Anna was bound to her. And Anna was a monster. A killer. Swing that sword. It’s all you know how to do. Of course Queen Elsa was afraid. She was afraid of her Lady Protector. The Green Devil. The demon. The whirlwind of steel and blade. What happened at the lagoon, really? Would she ever know? Was there blood there, too? Where wasn’t there blood?

“I’m a killer. I’m a monster,” said Anna, her voice a hollow, endless cavern.

Queen Elsa opened her mouth to speak but only a whine came out. Her shoulders trembled. “No – I – Anna – I can’t…” Fear.

Anna had seen enough. “F-Forgive me, Y-Your Grace,” she choked, and then she turned and ran.

It was all so obvious now. She tore off her armor and flung herself, shivering, on her bed, in naught but her underclothes. She curled up in a ball. How could anyone really like you? You’re a killer. Autumn lay on the bed too, ruby pale and black-looking in the gloom. She kicked it off and it hit the rushes clattering. Her feet and legs were bare, pale and unarmored, and terribly red.

“What do I do?” she asked the night. “I don’t want to be a monster.”

In her dream, she wielded a blade that looked like ice and water and snow. It shimmered in the light and glowed like a patient moon. Queen Elsa stood at the end of a throne room, on a crystalline dais. But this was not the throne room of the White Keep. It was pure, solid ice, and the light that streamed through its crystal-clear windows was white with light pure and high and thin. The air was hard to breath.

Queen Elsa saw her enter. Ice came at Anna from all directions, spikes and spears stabbing at her. But her sword reflected all of it. She walked forward, and the queen fell to her knees.

“I don’t know how,” Elsa said in a voice that was not her own. It was older, stronger, and more defeated. It was a crumbling glacier, an avalanche, a falling of a shelf of snow.

“I do,” said Anna in a voice that was not her own, low but cracked and filled with purpose. She stabbed Queen Elsa through the chest. A red stone fell out of her hands.

Anna woke feeling terrible and sick and tired. I slept too much, she thought, though it was still night outside. Blizzarding clouds blocked the moon, and it was dark.

She continued to lay in bed for a long, long time. At least on your quest, you won’t be around to scare her. Lord Hans will watch over her, better than you. She stood and realized that her armor – newly fixed as it was – was nothing to wear for a long journey. The sooner begun, the sooner done. She put on her green tunic and white leggings and wrapped up in her green cloak and a padded green woolen surcoat embroidered with her golden crocus. She brought her shield, sword, and blue ring. As she rummaged her belongings, she found her old green hat with the long tail. She put that on, too. She looked at herself in the vanity. Her hands were bare, except for the ring, so she put on some fur gloves. She drew the hood of her cloak over her head. It draped all about her face.

She found Martin in his quarters and bid him accompany her to the stables. The morning was cold and snowing heavily. The cold was bone-deep, but she saddled her mare all the same. Martin prepared some saddlebags filled with rations and traveling amenities. Some rugs were draped over the horse to hold back the chill, and snowshoes were tied to her hooves. The mare whinnied in the cold and gave Anna a baleful look. She patted the horse’s mane and fed her half a frozen carrot, then mounted and made to go out. The snowshoes padded gently over the snow.

“When will you return?” asked Martin.

Hopefully? Never. “In two weeks’ time at least. More likely in a moon’s turn hence. Be good, Martin. You’re the castellan ‘till I get back.”

“Me?” His eyes widened. “I’m just a squire. And I’m only 13. And – ”

“Yes, that’s all true. You’re also almost 14,” she reminded him, “and you’re the best man here. Make sure the castle is well-defended. Make sure the men train at archery. Tell anyone who gives you a hard time they’ll have the Green Devil to contend with on my return.” Anna saluted him without smiling, and she put her mare into a steady pace, out through the gates of the Arenborg, across the moat, between the houses quiet and white with snow, and northward bound beyond the city walls.

 

Chapter Text

Anna chewed the greasy nib of her quill, inked, and wrote.

Dear Kristoff, the letter read; I know I have written you four times since last we spoke, but things keep happening that I feel the need to relate. And you have not responded to a single letter, so it may be that you just need yet another to nudge you into writing a reply. Or perhaps you have forgotten how to read and write already? I tease, of course – there could be no better teacher than Anders.

How have you been? I hope the ice work has been good. I know this season can be hard on you icers, but you always do seem to find a way to pull through. I admit I’m somewhat jealous of your resilience.

The troubles with the queen that I related in my last letter have improved not at all. We’re now on speaking terms, but it is a singular thing – she never emerges from her quarters. I am sure I did something, somehow, but I know not what.

You may have heard of the ‘Valkyrie’ who has risen in the west. The lords sent her some peace terms, but she’s won every battle, and she has at least two thousand horse under her. I mean, we did kill her mother. Not that I know what that’s like, but… I guess if someone killed the queen, I’d dedicate my whole life to exacting revenge. Sissil Morey says revenge solves nothing. It has to solve something, right? Or people wouldn’t care about it?

Please write back when you can. Just anything to let me know you’re still kicking up there. And give Sven a carrot for me. I miss you all.

Love,

Anna

She set the quill aside, blew on the ink, and rolled up the parchment. She dribbled some wax over the ends and pounded the blob with a crocus-embossed seal – another gift from Lord Hugoss. She found Kai before court that day and packed him off with the letter. “To Burrowstown,” she told him; and he said he’d get one of the castle couriers on it post-haste. Anna went to court to hear the envoy’s report on the peace terms sent to the Valkyrie.

 


 

She was four days out from Crystalwater and three days ahead of the snowstorm when she encountered two freeriders going the opposite way on the Springway, dressed warmly each and wearing gray cloaks with silver sunburst pins.

“Well met,” Anna said to them as they came up. The ground was white, and they were as silhouettes against the blank fog. She inspected their pins and said, “By that sigil, I call you Lord Morning’s men.”

“Aye, that we are,” said one of them, a dapper youth, by looks in his mid-twenties, with flinty, hazel eyes and long, black hair. He looked very tall, and had a broad, square set of shoulders. “I am a knight, and this is my squire. Pray, what is a maiden doing riding the Springway alone? The way is often safe, truly, but these are dangerous times.”

She smiled at him. “I am but a humble traveler, ser, on my way for the north parts.”

The squire spoke. He had a thick brown beard and looked to be in his late-thirties. His eyes were gray and sunken, but fierce. “A humble traveler, indeed. Is that a sword at your belt?”

She wrapped her cloak around Autumn’s hilt. “’Tis.”

“I don’t blame you,” said the young knight. “In these troubled times, it serves all men or women to go armed. Are you bound for Vardale, mayhaps?”

“Yes, ser, I am.”

“My squire and I shall accompany you so far. ‘Tis only a half-day’s travel from here, and we are in no hurry.”

Anna wasn’t expecting that. She lowered her head. “You are kind to offer, ser, though I would not hope to detract from your business.”

“It is no trouble. The chancellor can wait. I would be remiss in my duties as a knight to let a citizen travel defenseless on the roads in a time of war.” He smiled, but the squire did not look humored.

“That is gallant of you, ser. May I have a name to call you by?”

“Of course. I am Ser Harris Morning, baron of Dullwater. My squire is called Oswald of Shon.”

Anna thought to the knight’s name. “Morning, was it? You are of House Morning? Ser.”

“Aye,” he said. His expression darkened. “I am the youngest brother of his Lordship and the late Ser Richard.”

Of course. “It is an honor, ser.” She dipped her head again.

He smiled blandly. “Is it? Have you heard of me before?”

“A… little, ser.”

“Then you should be a little honored. Titles are merely titles; honor comes from deeds, not words. That is something my brother said often.”

Anna didn’t know quite how to respond to that. She certainly wasn’t expecting anything like it by way of response. “As you say, ser.”

He nodded, and then turned his palfrey north. “We had better get moving. The day won’t last forever.” He sniffed the air. “Oswald, how do you find the weather?”

“Bad and worsening, ser. I mislike these southerlies and these northerlies alike. I would rather we did not go to the city after all.”

“Well,” said Ser Harris, “I agree. But there’s no aid for it. It must be done.”

As they rode, Anna felt bold enough to ask: “You mentioned you were seeing the chancellor?”

“Aye. Would you know him?”

“No,” Anna lied.

“A pity. Me either. I have only heard things, but what I have heard is not good.” He looked about him at the ghostly scene. The fields all around were white with the dust of snow, and trees that had long-since shed leaves carried small drifts that would sometimes fall in an errant breeze.

“Not good, ser?”

“Indeed, not. I hate gossip, but the talk is that the queen has been absent these past weeks. That the chancellor rules with the steward and the Lord Protector at his side.” He grimaced. “Lady Protector, I should say. The one they call the Green Devil.”

Anna frowned and looked away. The squire did not fail to catch the motion. He cleared his throat and gestured to her cloak. “That sigil on your cape. I have never seen its like before. You wouldn’t happen to be the daughter of a knight, or a young lady?”

“Oh.” Anna thought for a beat. “No. That is, yes. It is my… father’s arms.”

“I see,” said the squire.

“That explains the sword, then,” said Ser Harris with a nod. “I have known knights to teach their daughters to fight. It’s few enough, to be sure, but it’s not the oddest thing I’ve ever seen. What is your father’s name? Mayhaps I know him.”

“My father is dead,” said Anna quickly. “Ser. His name was… Ser Martin.”

“Not Ser Martin the Quick?”

“No, ser. You may not know him, he was a hedge knight.”

“Oh, well, then,” said Ser Harris.

“A hedge knight,” scorned the squire.

“Now, Oswald, what’s all this? There is no matter with hedge knights.”

“There is much the matter with hedge knights, ser. Most are thieves and brigands hiding behind a coat-of-arms. You know the truth of this better than I. Anyone can be knighted these days. You said so yourself.”

“That is true,” admitted Ser Harris with a note of melancholy. He turned back to Anna. “Your father wouldn’t have been a thief or brigand, would he?”

“No, ser.”

Ser Harris smiled. “There you go. See, Oswald? A true hedge knight.” Oswald grunted.

They rode for the rest of the day, talking occasionally of this and that. Ser Harris was an easy man, of light humor and good nature, Anna decided. But his face would flicker darkly when his mission to Crystalwater was mentioned, and he would sigh and wave it off. Anna began to suspect the true reason for the escort was not any particular sense of gallantry, but the simple desire to put off his meeting the chancellor as long as possible, and a good excuse settled better in an honest mind than no excuse at all.

Well, perhaps that was unfair. Ser Harris did seem genteel. But she knew this was the same Ser Harris who wrote the queen about the coronation tournament to express his desire that the giant’s killer be brought to justice. It drove a prickling sense of unease through her, and though she did not fear him, she was glad she didn’t reveal her identity.

The sun was going down by the time the palisade walls of Vardale came into view. Oswald shifted around in his saddle. “We aren’t staying the night, ser?”

“No, Oswald. We stayed here last night. We must needs make up for lost time.” Ser Harris sighed and looked at Anna. “We will ride with you to the city gates, and then part ways. Is that meet?”

“Yes, ser, it is; and thank you.”

At the walls, he bid farewell. “Happy trails to you, Ser Harris,” she told him.

“And to you. By the way, I think I may have heard of another Ser Martin after all, but I did not know this one to have any daughters. What is your name?”

She briefly considered lying to him, but decided that he had earned a half-truth after all. “Anna,” she said.

He shook his head. “Alas, nothing. He was not a hedge knight, anyway.” He dipped his head at her, and Oswald’s gray eyes flashed, and the two turned and trod off into the dusk, back down the way they had just come.

Vardale was not as large as Crystalwater, though still a good deal larger than Burrowstown. It sat at the confluence of the Mud River, which flowed down from the Rockwoods to the north and west, and the Standing River, which came from the Up-And-Downs to the east, and continued southwest to the sea. Vardale sprawled all around the fork and was thus a city in three sections, with bridges spanning the wide water ways that were constantly filled with riverboats. The walls were palisade, and made of dark, timber wood. So, too, were the majority of the houses inside the city; tall, blackened cottages with narrow, slanted roofs. In general, Vardale had a dismal, rainy air to it, and the riverfront smelled always of that damp hanging thickness that followed a summery rain.

Now, the black-gray cobbled streets and the dark timber houses were covered in snow, and the riverfront smelled like sleet, not rain. Some low boats cruised along the rivers and underneath elaborately arched wooden bridges lined with lanterns; their wakes pulled gentle ripples on the blue-blacks of the cold river waters.

Anna found an inn and stabling for her horse, and put up in a dry, warm room that sat above the kitchen. She supped on some brown stew with mystery meat and some soft brown bread with warm butter, put some silver into the innkeep’s hand, and then went to her room. There was a bed stuffed with straw that the innkeep promised had no fleas in it. She found she much preferred it to the downy beds back at the Arenborg, though even that was better than huddling up in a blizzard. She curled herself under the covers and closed her eyes tight, and soon enough the heat from the ovens below and the smell of baking bread put her to sleep.

The morning was still dark when she rose. She felt well-rested, and the innkeep was serving a warm porridge of oats and milk. She did her morning grooming and left the inn feeling quite ready to tackle the day.

It was two more days’ riding before she came up on the far north end of the Springway, and the boulder that marked it. It was colder up here, but the clouds were fewer, and the sun shined intermittently. Anna thought back to six months ago, when she came to this stone going the opposite way, bound for Crystalwater, and a tournament she didn’t know she could win, and a job she didn’t know she wanted. She reflected on how things had gone both much better and much worse than she could have imagined from the last time she saw this rock. “Here be the final resting place of the First King. May he find in death the peace he never knew in life,” read the letters at its base. That was still curious: there was a Royal Cemetery, after all. But then, little and less was known of the eccentric King Andrew the Cold.

She wondered if the Anna of six months ago would have believed anything she had to say now. Probably not. Anna wouldn’t have bragged about it anyway. She thought about the queen and the look of terror in those blue eyes with all the world’s waters, rains, snows, and hails in them. Maybe with this quest, things will be different. She imagined laying her sword at the queen’s feet. You don’t have to be afraid, Queen Elsa. Look, I’ve done it. And Elsa would smile and draw a hand out of her glove that her knight may kiss her fingers.

Anna laughed out loud and shook her head. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “Don’t be stupid.”

West she turned, into the setting sun, towards the green-white and dark line of the Rockwoods. It was a comforting sight, for Anna longed to be underneath the forest canopy, to let the sounds of the forest be with her. She thought of the sound of crickets at night and the chirping of birds by day, and the infinite buzz of the forest green, and found herself pushing her mare into a trot to get to the treeline faster.

When she passed into the shade of the trees, and the familiar speckled shadows of the canopy, a shiver forced her to squirm in her seat. It was only a slight twinge, one that made her twist, but she didn’t feel uncomfortable. She felt good to be here, here and not the Arenborg. Her heart thumped. The forest was mostly evergreens, tall and wide with many branches, some trees that had lost their leaves, and there was a layer of snow over all of it. This was the winter Anna knew and loved, the winter of the forest, where the snow was like a blanket that had draped over the land with soft, smooth intonation that, yes, now was the time to sleep, all of you animals go into your holes, all of you birds go on a tropic vacation – but this is a time for sleep, so sleep you shall, and just to enforce it, here is the snow, all white and soft, and if that doesn’t make you want to sleep, what will? And though it was cold, Anna loved nothing more dearly than that soft, sweet snow, with its numberless unique snowflakes, each one a labor of love by some nameless god of the winter, each one a special gift, a present, and though they all melted and were lost forever, they were, each of them, very, very special.

Into the white forest a ways and down the twisty path of snow-and-dirt she came upon some tracks and, soon after, happened upon the creator of the tracks, a slow-moving sled going the same way. For a moment her heart jumped, and she thought it might be Kristoff and Sven, but, no, it was an old hunchbacked man with a wispy gray beard mushing a pair of sturdy, old brown sled dogs. The sled was laden with cut timber planks.

As she passed him, she hailed him. The dogs woofed but they did not sound anxious or angry. They were very polite for dogs. The old man looked at her and nodded. “Aye, lass. Which way are ye goin’?”

“West, then north,” said Anna. Eventually this part of the trail would go by the Mud River, whence she could follow it until she came to a crossing.

“North? Not to the Gobwoods?”

“Yes, I am going to the Gobwoods.”

“Alack! I don’t know about that. The Gobwoods, you say? Och.”

“And you?”

“I’m bound for Burrowstown. Many a shipment into there lately, I tell you. Och. It’s too much work. Too much work. But the Lord Mayor pays well for all these supplies.”

Anna doubted that, but simply nodded at him. After a time keeping apace with the old fellow, and listening to him talk about nothing, Anna decided she had better get a move on, and said “I’d best be on, now, I’m in a hurry. Happy travels to you.” And she heeled her horse and went forward ahead of the rattling sled that sounded like Kristoff’s toboggan.

After some time riding, the bend of a river came into view on her right. When she rode up next to the bank, she took in the sight. It was, indeed, a very wide, slow-moving river, though it was not so brown as its name might have you believe. She could hardly see the bank on the other side. Impossible to ford here, but there were parts upstream where it was shallower and narrower and could be forded. Thus she turned her mare to the right and rode upstream.

The river, being a slow one, did not make a rushing sound so much as a splashing one. The water smacked itself against the riverside as Anna went, and otherwise the forest was quiet. Out in the waters of the river she saw, sometimes, a trout jump aloft and wiggle before descending back into the water.

Eventually the river narrowed out, and then it did become a rushing river, with some sharp rocks disrupting the gentle flows with their brazen insistences. A little further on, and the river was still narrow, but not so rushing, and Anna turned her mare at the water to test the depth. The horse protested at the coldness of the water, but Anna nudged her forward, and they went out into the calm water at the low point and found it did not pass the mare’s stomach when they were twenty yards out. The mare sulked as Anna forded the waters, careful to go slow in case of sharp rocks in the riverbed, and soon enough they were coming out of the water on the other side, the horse’s legs dripping. By now, the sun was on the west part of the sky, and they went into a clearing where a proud pine’s huge canopy had sheltered a needle-littered spot on the floor below from all trace of snow. Anna dismounted here, tying up the mare and going a ways away to find kindling and firewood. She returned shortly and cleared some pine needles away to set a place for a fire. She went to the riverside, got some river rocks and brought them back to create a circle. Then she put the wood into the circle and got some flint and steel from the saddlebags, and struck a blaze. The horse was half-enamored, half-afraid of the flames, and came close but not too close, and since they were warm, apparently decided that it was worth being near the erratic, wily dancing orange to be warm. Anna fed her a carrot, which she accepted with the reluctant cattiness that only a hungry horse can have.

“You are quite a brilliant horse,” Anna observed. “What will I name you?”

The horse didn’t have any suggestions, but looked at her with what almost seemed like intelligence, and after Anna had finished brushing the horse’s mane and adjusting the covers, she kicked off her boots and went into a leathery old sleeping roll, and was asleep.

The next morning, Anna cleared away the ashes of the fire and thought briefly if she should leave the circle there or if she should clear it away. Thinking about it, and realizing it would be no effort to just do it, and she was wasting plenty of time pondering, she resolved not to and then untied her horse and mounted. It suddenly occurred to Anna that, now that she was on the right side of the river, she didn’t have a good idea of what to do or where to go next. She rode back to the river, looked about, and went back downstream, except this time on the river’s north bank.

Anna had total confidence in her horse’s sure-footedness, but nevertheless did not want to try the woods without some form of trail. It was much too easy to get lost and, even if she could find south again, it would still be a waste of time. So she decided to follow the river until a better option presented itself, in one way or another; if it failed to do so, then she would just need to brave the darkness of the woods proper. These were the Gobwoods now. They didn’t feel particularly different to her compared to the Rockwoods, but, well, she wasn’t one for knowing subtlety.

She had ridden downstream for the better part of an hour when something caught her eye. A pink tulip was peering out from between the spindly snow-covered leaves of a weed. Despite being ensconced by the plant, the flower was quite perfectly visible, and looked healthy, it had all its petals and everything. Perplexed, Anna dismounted and kneeled at the plant, clearing the snow off the weeds and pushing the leaves aside to see the tulip. It was very pink, and very petaled, and looked quite cozy among the weeds.

“How curious,” remarked Anna aloud to herself. Gingerly, she crouched and put a hand at the flower’s base, as if to pluck it. She closed her fingers around the stem and made to pull but stopped the motion suddenly when she heard a faint giggling noise.

“Hey! That tickles!” came a high-pitched, squeaky voice.

“W-What?” exclaimed Anna, and she snapped her hand back, looking wildly around. “Who’s there?”

“Down here, silly!” came the voice again. Anna blinked and turned to look at the tulip. It was wiggling, moving under its own power, swaying back and forth. “It’s me!”

Anna blinked several times, her mind temporarily blank. “The flower?” she asked dumbly.

“Yes, silly! The flower!”

“You’re… You’re talking to me?”

“Of course, silly! Who else would be talking? Your horse?”

“I don’t know,” said Anna. “I’ve never met a talking flower before.”

“You have now!” said the flower. It danced. “Were you going to pluck me?”

“Well, erm, yes. Well, I was, but now I’m not sure I want to.”

The tulip giggled. “No, no! Pluck me! It’s all right!”

Anna stared at the tulip, and stood up, looking around, confused. She was still in the forest, and her horse was still there. Everything looked quite ordinary. Except, now that she looked, the surrounding trees had some odd thatching on them, as if someone had carved patterns into the bark. It was subtle, but Anna caught it.

She had taken a step in the direction of one of the trees when the tulip started squeaking at her. “Hey! Hey! Where are you going? Come pluck me.”

Anna turned to the tulip. “You… want me to pluck you?”

“Yes! Please pluck me! It’ll be fun!”

Anna knelt at the flower again. “It won’t… hurt you will it?”

“No, no! Flowers live to be plucked!” It giggled and danced.

Anna shrugged, casting an uneasy look at her horse, which was returned blankly. “Oh, well. Nothing ventured…” She reached out a hand, grasped the tulip by the stem, and yanked.

It wouldn’t come out. Blinking, Anna yanked again, harder. It stayed rooted.

“Aw, come on! Not like that!” It giggled maniacally.

Then, suddenly, there was pressure on all sides. It was like several tiny wires had come at her from all directions. There was a sudden wheeling, a spinning, and the next thing Anna knew, the world was upside down, the flower was on the ceiling and dancing. The ropes dug into her. The giggling from the nearby woods amplified, and soon she saw the entire world was laughing. Her horse whinnied, but two grubby little things came out of nowhere and patted its muzzle.

Anna struggled against her bindings, trying to reorient herself, trying to reach her sword – but it was no use. She was well and trapped. Then she was face to face with a hideous scowl, a visage like some kind of demon or monster, its face frozen in shock or horror or amusement – she couldn’t tell – its skin like dark bark, its features all gouges with red paint and leaf-rubbings.

It was a mask, and it sat on the face of a grubby little person-thing, slender but short, like a child, with skin like a mottle of teak and grass. It wore clothes of leaves tied all up together.

“Hello,” said the thing in the mask. Its voice was sweet and high-pitched, but boyish, with a curve of mischief in it. It sounded odd, like someone had taken an ordinary young boy’s voice and smashed it in the throat with a mallet.

It said nothing else. Anna stared at the mask. “Hello,” she said back uneasily. “Can you, um, help me down?”

“Haha,” the thing laughed. She felt a sharp pain in her neck, and then the world went black.

 


 

When Anna came to, she was lying down on a soft mound of fuzz. The sky was brown – no, that was just the roof of the tent. It was extremely warm. Anna’s brow was wet. She turned her head and noticed a mask staring down at her.

“Good afternoon,” said the mask.

Her memories rushed together. She tried to jump up and grab the thing, but found that her limbs wouldn’t respond. She tried again. Nothing. Anger swiftly yielded before fear, terrible and mortal panic. She tried again. No, the only part of her body she could move was her head. But she had feeling everywhere.

“Wh-What,” stuttered Anna, her heart bashing against the inside of her chest, her eyes locked on the red gouges in that mask, “wh-what a-are…” She didn’t even know what to ask. “Wh-who are y-you?”

“A friend,” said the mask. “Of the forest,” it added. “Not you.”

Anna blinked up at the mask. “Wh-what are… Why did…” She shook her head, clenched her teeth together, and shut her eyes tight. Focus. “What are you doing?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” said the mask. “So I will. What are you doing in our forest?”

Your forest?” repeated Anna. “You mean… the Gobwoods?”

“What,” said the mask, “is a Gobwoods?”

“It’s the name of this forest?” asked Anna, suddenly unsure.

“No,” said the mask, very sure. It nodded. “This forest has no name that you or I know. You call it the Gobwoods. We call it the White Forest. But it is not the Gobwoods. It is not the White Forest. It just is.”

“O-Okay. I see,” said Anna, not sure she did see.

“I think you do,” admitted the mask. “So. I’ll ask again. What are you doing in our forest?”

“I… I’m looking for something.” Anna tried to move again. No luck. A tack came to mind. “On the orders of Her Majesty Queen Elsa of Arendelle.”

“Haha,” tittered the mask. It shook a little. Anna noticed the mask was fringed all around with leaves, and on either side of it two long, pointy ears stuck out. “I’ve heard that one before.” The mask poked her cheek with a long brown finger. “You sure you’re not a poacher or a lumberjack?” The last word was said with such venom, Anna half-expected spittle to land on her face, but there was nothing but an odd chill as the little hairs on her neck stood on end.

“I’m not a poacher or a lumberjack,” said Anna. “Honest. I swear to you on my honor.”

“Your honor?” repeated the mask.

“My honor as a knight.”

“Haha. A knight.” The mask shook again with a soft rustling of leaves. “I wonder why humans think that’s so impressive. Being dubbed a non-liar by other liars.” The mask tittered. “It’s really very charming. Endearing, even. It would be, if you didn’t come and try to destroy our forests.”

She could feel the mask’s glare bearing down on her. “I… I’m not trying to destroy any forests! I swear!”

“I know.” The mottled hand went and pulled the mask back, and Anna didn’t know whether to recoil from the sight or not. Staring down at her was a face very much like a human’s, but so different in the details that it dropped her stomach into a prevailing sense of unease. It was all green, and perfectly smooth. The nose and mouth were very small, with hardly any lips, and the eyes – the eyes were enormous, wide but squinting and curved up at the ends, with no pupils but a spectrum of color, like juice or ink in a pool of milk. They seemed to glow with a dozen different hues that reminded Anna of the changing of the leaves, of river mud and scarlet birds, of rain and lightning. Its mouth curled into a grin filled with teeth that were all sharply pointed and small.

“What are you?” Anna couldn’t help asking.

“In your tongue,” it said, “I am goblin. In our tongue, I am makoki.”

“A goblin,” marveled Anna.

“You’ve heard of us,” stated the goblin – no, makoki. That seemed righter.

“A little,” said Anna. “From the trolls.”

The makoki’s smile faltered a little. “You know trolls?”

“I was raised by trolls,” said Anna slowly, watching for any sign of displeasure in the creature.

To her surprise, it laughed and grinned again. “Oh. Oh-hoho. Raised by trolls. Pity you weren’t raised by makoki. Trolls – they respect the forest, but they also respect humans. Pity. Trolls!” It laughed again. It jumped to its feet and kicked Anna sharply in the side. Anna winced. “Okay. Stand up. Sleep time is over.”

Slowly, Anna rose to a sitting position. She rubbed her side where the makoki kicked her. She looked at the makoki. “Am I free to go?” she asked.

“Free? Do you feel free?”

Anna didn’t quite understand the question. “Um… No?”

The makoki smiled. “That has nothing to do with me. Not really your fault, I suppose. I’ve yet to meet a free knight. Or a free human, for that matter.”

She stood up on her legs, and tested her balance. Everything seemed to be working. The top of her head brushed the roof of the tent. She realized she was missing her cloak, and sword, and shield. And her ring and gloves. She looked down and noticed she was easily a foot-and-a-half taller than the makoki. “Where are my things?” she asked it.

“In due time,” it replied. “Come, come.” It exited out the flap of the tent, motioning with its finger for Anna to follow.

Anna opened the tent flap and stepped outside. A sudden blast of cold hit her and she shivered. The tent was so warm that exiting it gave her a shock, though the feeling dissipated soon enough. She looked around. Little tents like the one she had just left were scattered around a dark forest clearing – no, not a clearing. Overhead, an enormous leafy canopy shaded over all. Looking, Anna saw that the canopy was cast by a single, huge tree that still had its leaves. It was easily five times as tall as all of the other trees, and great and wide at the base. It gnarled the ground with long roots that snaked around the area, in between the various tents all colored brown and green like the forest. There was no snow here – the canopy sheltered all.

The makoki must have noticed her staring. “That’s a chiki tree,” it said. “You’ve never seen anything like it.”

“No, I haven’t,” confirmed Anna.

“Come, let’s look at it.”

The makoki moved up to the base of the tree, and Anna found herself following. The bark of the tree was pale brown and vertically ridged. It was hard to the touch, but felt smooth. Brilliant white leaves hung low on the ends of branches, wide like fans and glossy in the low light of the clearing.

“In the old days, trees like this were everywhere,” said the makoki. Despite its words, its tone didn’t sound remotely wistful, but rather sharp. Its eyes glowed orange, then red, then brown. It turned on Anna. “You have a name.”

“I think I do,” said Anna.

“You have something people call you by. That’s good enough. What is it?”

“Anna.”

“So it is. You may call me Makar.”

Anna bowed her head. “A pleasure, Makar.”

“Is it?” he questioned. “We’ll see. Before you woke, we had words with the horse you were traveling with.”

Anna blinked. “You… my horse?”

“Your traveling companion, yes,” said Makar, a hint of annoyance in his voice. “She had good things to say about you. It has been longer than I care to remember since any animal had any such good things to say about a human. That is why you are still alive, you see, and not hanging from the chiki tree.” Makar paused for a moment before continuing, “Most humans aren’t fool enough to cross the river any more. To be honest, I was relishing the hanging. But it seems the Earthmother brought you to us for another reason.”

Anna frowned, unsure of how to respond to the little one’s threats of violence. She was reasonably sure that he couldn’t be that strong, and that she could overpower him easily – but she didn’t have her sword or shield, and knew not how many other makoki could be watching. Come to think of it, she cast her eyes around the clearing – indeed, no other makoki seemed to be about.

“What other reason is that?” asked Anna, cautiously looking the little makoki in the eyes once more. They flashed gold and then green.

“To help us.”

“To help you? How?”

He stared back at her blankly, and then swiveled on his heels and marched away. “Come,” he commanded.

Anna followed again, suppressing the growing feeling of annoyance in her gut. Out of the corner of her vision, she thought she saw something move, and then another on the other corner of her vision. “Are you alone in this… village?” she asked.

“Alone? We’re all alone. But no, I am not the only one here.”

“Where are the others?”

“Where, indeed? They’re all around you. They are not seen if they don’t want to be.”

At last they came to a wide stump at the edge of the grove. It was surrounded by green grass and had a small brown knot on the top of it. Here, the wind seemed to whistle through the leaves of the chiki tree, the rustling of the branches becoming rhythmic, whorling with a queer, distant sense of music.

“Saria,” said Makar to the air. The knot on the stump became a lump, and then another makoki, its back turned to the two of them. Anna gaped in puzzlement. Her first thought was of the trolls, who could seem as like rocks in an instant whenever they chose.

Suddenly the whistling in the leaves was no longer faint and odd, but became a song, a real song, really musical and everywhere. It floated around Anna and pressed on her gently, a haunting melody, a tune, a tale of loss and longing, of grand simplicity and simple grandness, all now but a phantom, a sad remembrance. On the grass around the stump, now Anna noticed several small animals – squirrels, rabbits, mice, a crow – sitting on the grass, staring at the makoki in rapt attention.

The music stopped all at once. The makoki turned its head and looked at them. Its skin was dark red, and its eyes were glowing green in that moment – no, blue now. In its hands was a oblong blue shape, hollow with holes cut into it, and a long pipe at one end which the makoki held in its mouth. Slowly, it lowered the instrument.

“Makar,” replied the makoki on the stump. Its voice was like a breath of wind that barely seemed to touch the air, drifting extemporaneously around the clearing.

“I brought the human,” said Makar.

“I can see that.”

“So,” said Makar, “let’s get this folly underway.”

The makoki turned more fully on the stump, so that it sat facing Anna now. Its legs were crossed, and it cradled the blue flute gently in its hands. “Hello, human. Your horse is very fond of you.”

Again, Anna didn’t know what to say. She decided to just be honest. “I didn’t know that.”

The red makoki’s mouth curled down. “Humans are very bad at listening,” it said, as if it was admitting to some terrible truth.

“Communicating in general,” added Makar.

“What’s your name, human?” asked the red makoki.

“Anna,” said Anna. “What’s, erm, what’s yours?”

“You can call me Saria,” she replied.

Anna bowed her head. “A pleasure.”

Saria only smiled in response. Anna shifted from one foot to the other. “Makar mentioned that you needed something from me.”

“Yes,” said Saria, her eyes flashing teal, her smile dipping. “It is good fortune that you came to us when you did. These woods have been…” She paused. “Troubled, lately.”

“Good fortune,” echoed Anna. “Is that what we’re calling kidnapping, now?”

Saria only smiled. “That depends on what we’re calling trespassing.”

Anna pursed her lips and looked away. “Troubled, you say. How so?”

The smile was gone. “Something dark has come to this forest. Something foul.”

They both looked at Anna expectantly. “Something like what?” she asked.

Saria sighed and looked up. The sunlight streaming between the leaves dappled her smooth, red face, and reflected the orange in her eyes. “A long time ago, this forest was protected by countless spirits. In our tongue, they were kokiri – in your tongue, forest children. These kokiri owed their allegiance to the guardian of the forest. But then, one day, the guardian disappeared.”

“The humans came,” said Makar.

Saria went on, “Just like that. The forest had no more guardian, and the kokiri… vanished.”

A wind lifted in the clearing, and the little animals around the stump all fled into the brush – except for the crow, who took wing and flew up to a branch on the white tree above. It cawed.

“But the forest went on,” said Saria. “It survived.”

“Survived?” mocked Makar. “The forest has only shrunk. It has shrunk and shrunk, and it is all thanks to the humans – ”

“Makar,” said Saria in a sharp tone, and she glared at the green-brown makoki.

Makar glared right back. “I speak only the truth.”

“This forest was doomed from when the guardian disappeared,” said Saria.

At that, Makar harrumphed bitterly, and he turned away and stomped off into the forest. Before seconds had passed, he was completely lost to Anna’s sight.

“Forgive Makar,” Saria said to Anna. “His soul is tormented by the past.”

Anna only nodded. She let a few moments of quiet pass before she realized Saria wasn’t going to say any more. “So. What does this have to do with… the now?”

“Yes,” said Saria, though she looked distracted. Saria’s fingers played with the flute in her little red hands. “Lately, this forest has felt… odd, to us. Odder than usual. Sick. Animals have started dying strangely, fleeing across the river. Trees have begun rotting to the root. It was like a disease was spreading. The center of it seemed to be in the deep part of the forest, once a holy place. So about two weeks ago, one of our number – called Fado – went into the deep part of the forest to investigate.” Saria paused. “She did not return. This brave crow – ” she nodded her head at the crow in the branches above “ – saw all that happened and flew here to tell us.”

The crow cawed.

“Fado has been captured,” said Saria, “by something foul, something the crow could not bear to be near for long. I don’t know what it could be, but something in my heart tells me it is… a demon. A demon that has finally come, now that our forest has no guardian.” She set her flute down on the stump beside her and clasped her hands together. “Oh please. I know you have no cause to love us. I know we poisoned and kidnapped you. But you must help us. You must go rescue Fado. We are so few left, and she is dear to us.”

Anna was momentarily at a loss for words. She had her own business to attend, after all. “I don’t know if I can,” she said finally.

Saria sighed audibly. “It is a lot to ask, especially of a human.” She appeared to hesitate for a moment. “But… your horse tells us that you are exceptionally skilled at fighting, and a good and true person. We cannot fight a demon. You… you are our only hope.”

“No,” was what Anna wanted to say. It was what she ought to say, surely. But the word did not come out of her mouth. How could she really say no? To someone in need? Justifications sprung up in her mind like a million dandelions in spring, waving in the breeze and throwing out their cottony seeds like “why’s” and “why not’s.”

You can make things better for them, said a small voice in her mind. Or at least, you can try.

“Do you really need my help?” was what she ended up asking.

Saria nodded.

Anna closed her eyes and took a knee before the stump. “Then you have my oath that I will bring Fado back to you, and quell whatever darkness has risen in this forest.”

When she lifted her head, she saw Saria staring back with eyes wide. “Really?”

“By my honor,” said Anna.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” came Makar’s voice over her shoulder. Anna looked back, and there he was, standing very close, though Anna swore she couldn’t have heard anyone approach. “Humans are so selfish.” He produced Anna’s sword and shield and laid them gently on the forest floor. “But the horse said you were different.” He produced Anna’s blue ring, swirling in its cloudy way. “These are yours.”

Anna took it up and accepted the ring last. “Humans are always putting magic into things,” said Makar as he turned over the ring. His voice was low and quiet, barely above a whisper, contemplative. “So obsessed with what they can touch and feel. Sometimes I pity them, sometimes I envy them. If you cannot see what you love, do you really love it? Was it ever even there?”

The crow squawked, and a wind rustled the leaves. A deafening silence pressed around them as Makar glanced up at Anna with a curious, searching look. “We will look after the horse, if you want. She will be safe here.” Makar gestured to the edge of the clearing, where the trees parted for a low dirt path that snaked out into the snow. “Follow the road and take the turns the forest tells you. Listen with your eyes and see with your ears. Please bring Fado back to us.”

Anna looked around the clearing. Saria was gone now, though her flute remained behind on the stump.

“Where is – ”

“Shh,” said Makar. “They are beyond words for the nonce. No human has ever offered us the kindness that you have.”

The crow quorked down at the makoki.

Anna slipped the ring onto her finger and the gloves on over it. She walked to the edge of the clearing, where the wind was stronger than ever. The crow alighted from its perch and swooped down to a branch on a tree beside the trail.

“Before you go,” said Makar from behind her, “you may ask me one favor. Payment for my mistrusting you.”

Anna looked at him. “May I ask a question?”

He inclined his head. “If you like.”

She had been thinking about a name for her mare. But she had no idea before, and less of an idea now that she knew she owed her life to the horse’s testimony. It changed the landscape for her.

“What is my horse’s name?”

He smiled widely. “Epona,” he said.

Anna turned back to face the trail. “That’s a pretty name,” she remarked, and stepped onto the trail. The wind died down. Anna turned back again – and nothing was there. No clearing, no tents, no Makar, just the trail, white and snaking off just as it was in front of her. The tall tree with the white leaves was gone.

“Thank goodness,” said the crow. “I was wondering if they would ever leave.”

Anna jumped about a foot. “You can talk!” she exclaimed at the crow.

“Of course,” said the crow, its voice sonorous and smooth. It said the words as if it was carefully pronouncing each one, though going very fast for it. “I’m not a monster, you know. All animals this side of the river can talk. But the makoki don’t like us talking to humans, you see, so they tend to get in the way. Well, personally I don’t see what’s so bad about humans. Oh, yes, they do tend to get a little bit crazy, nuts really, and I do mean that sincerely – quite nuts, always fussing about whom to kill and whom to bend their knees at, and who is allowed to get what, and when, and why, and for how long – but one must admit, they make pretty jewelry.”

Anna registered only the last bit of that completely. “Pretty jewelry?”

“Yes, collecting it is a bit of a hobby of mine, though I do tend to lose the jewelry once I find it, I enjoy the collecting but not so much the hoarding – so I am not very much of a collector, to be honest. Still, though, I know good shiny things when I see them, and good shiny things are made by humans.”

Anna was so put off by the novelty of the talking crow that she absurdly found herself taking it on the level. The day had become so surreal that it seemed almost to turn in on itself, and become normal again. “Isn’t collecting jewelry a magpie thing?” she asked.

“You wound me. Many magpies collect shiny things, yes, but I do, too. In fact I consider myself something of a connoisseur. That’s Lutetian, you know. The language, I mean. I picked it up from a robin once. Charming fellow, really, but what an accent! I could understand perhaps one word in ten. That was one of them. I decided I rather liked it. Oh, but I do go on. Haven’t you got a demon to slay? Perhaps I’ll go with you.”

The crow swooped down and perched on Anna’s shoulder. She did not swat it away, and it twitched its head at her. “That is, if you don’t mind,” it added.

“You talk a lot,” observed Anna.

“Well, I have a lot to say!” said the crow. “Imagine only talking to birds all day. Birds! Now, I don’t mind birds. Some of my best friends are birds. But, they make rather poor conversation day-in, day-out. And the makoki – well, you met them. Humans, though. I rarely get to talk to humans. I admit I really am fascinated by you lot. Still, I am sorry if I annoy you. Shall I introduce myself? I think I shall. I know you. You are Anna. A knight, is it? Charmed, I’m sure. Ser. My name is Kaepora.” It puffed out its chest. “Kaepora Gaebora. And don’t you forget it! Well, you can if you want. I won’t mind if you do forget it. I can remind you very easily what my name is if you do. I only need to say the words. Kaepora Gaebora, that is. See? Now that’s twice that I’ve said it, so you shouldn’t forget it any time soon. Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s away! Into the forest! Over the river and through the woods, to the demon’s lair we go! Do you like that? I heard it from an Albionese pigeon once. He would not stop singing it. He rather much liked to sing. Damn pity he got wrapped up in that business with the vultures. Damn pity.”

Anna nodded vacantly and started on down the trail, while the crow kept talking about this and that, from the color of the leaves to the color of snow to the dismal weather lately to the well-isn’t-it-nice-that-the-sun-is-shining. Anna tuned it out in some respect, and honestly the crow wasn’t bad company, though it did talk quite a lot, its voice did not grate, nor did it even make Anna weary to listen to it. Soon enough, it calmed down into quietude, and alighted from Anna’s shoulder to follow from branch to branch, occasionally vanishing up through the canopy before coming back under.

They went on until the crow came back under the canopy after another high-up sojourn and said, “I say! You don’t seem to be much of a talker, Ser Anna. What’s the matter? Has the cat got your tongue?”

“I just don’t have much to say,” said Anna with a shrug.

“Oh, now that’s silly. I’m sure you have much to say. Just looking at your eyes, I can tell you’re always thinking about something. Well, why not say it out loud?”

“Not everything needs to be said out loud,” said Anna.

“Well, perhaps,” the crow said thoughtfully, and paused. They passed into a small clearing with four large trees around the edge. “Careful!” warned the crow suddenly. “Stop!”

Anna halted on a dime and looked around. “What is it?” she asked.

“Look at these trees,” said the crow, and it went to a branch and gestured a wing at the trunk. “Look at these markings.”

Anna looked. It had narrow crosshatchings wrought in a dark brown color along the face of the lighter timber of the bark. It looked similar to the tree she saw back when she had been trapped by the net. “Yes, I see them. What of them?”

“You do see them? Good. It takes a trained eye to see them. Well, now, these markings indicate that there’s a trap here, you see. A makoki trap. They always make traps to catch the unwelcome. They are very good traps, elaborate and – well, you cannot see the mechanism so easily. That’s the forest’s business. Anyway, I suspect this clearing is a trap. Perhaps you should go around?”

Anna backed out of the clearing slowly and went around. “Thanks,” she told the crow.

“Don’t mention it, although I doubt the trap was anything to worry about.”

“What do you mean?”

“These are traps to catch the unwelcome, and you,” said the crow, “are not unwelcome. Anymore.”

They found the trail again and continued on until they came to a fork split by a tall birch tree.

“Which way?” Anna asked the crow.

“Why are you asking me? Ask the forest.”

Anna frowned and rotated her head around the forest, all white snow and green and very much deserted of animals or apparent answer-providing life. Tentatively, she raised her voice and said, “Which way?” to the forest at large.

There was no response.

“That didn’t work,” said Anna.

“Only because you are not listening,” scolded the crow.

Anna tried to open her ears and focus, but there were no sounds except the soft sigh of the wind and the occasional rustling of crow-feathers.

“Not like that,” said the crow. “Listen.”

“I can’t hear anything,” said Anna, annoyed, and she looked down. The snow was a thin film on the trail, and some little white mice were scurrying through the snow, across the trail and up to the right side of the path, where they vanished into some unseen hole.

“Only because you aren’t listening,” said the crow. “Remember what that grumpy makoki told you?”

Anna just went on watching the mice scurry into their hole. When they were all gone, she looked up and sighed.

“I thought it was obvious,” said the crow. “I suppose humans aren’t so used to obvious, though. The forest likes to show its answers, good ser. If you want to see an answer, you really have to listen hard with those eyes.”

Anna looked at the mouse hole. “The mice…? They were going to the right.” She looked down the path to the right. It was identical to the one on the left. “So is that where I’m supposed to go?”

“Only if you think the mice were going towards this forest’s dark heart,” said the crow.

Anna turned her head to the left. “I think I see now.” She started walking.

The crow sighed dramatically. “Oh, the mice are so much wiser than us. Three blind mice; three blind mice; see how they run!”

“There are only two of us,” said Anna.

“If you say so,” said the crow.

They walked until the sun was going beneath the horizon, and the forest was replacing its greens with blacks for the coming of the night. Along the way, Anna had noticed that some trees were blackened and withered, and the sounds of the forest had become nothing at all. There were no winterbirds at their calls, nor the chattering of errant beasts nor early-risers awaiting the coming spring. It was a silence even greater than the silence of forest winter. It was a deep silence, as of a sleep that one is unsure to wake from.

When they passed the blackened carcass of what had once been a proud pine, Anna turned to the crow and asked, “Kaepora, you saw the demon, right?”

“Yes,” said the crow stiffly.

“What was it like?” asked Anna. “Can you say?”

A long pause stretched before the crow said, “Well, I’m not so sure. Thinking back, I can’t quite remember what it looked like. Only that it put an awful fear into me. I swear I can remember it looking at me. Its eyes were blue. Very blue. And then it sniffed the blood and – ” The crow stopped.

“And?” urged Anna, when the crow still didn’t speak several moments later.

“The blood changed it somehow. I remember a feeling, like a ripple burst out from it, like it went into me, like I could feel…” The crow shivered and flew off.

“Kaepora?” called Anna, stopping. “Kaepora?”

Only silence returned her calls. “What the devil has gotten into him, I wonder?” said Anna to herself.

The trees were thinning out by the time the trail grew unsnowy. She passed around another group of trees with the cross-hatched trunks, and gingerly stepped around and down a short slope that tumbled into a wide clearing. The rising of the moon filled the clearing with a white light, at the center of which was a small gray edifice. It was a structure made of stone, rectangular and imposing, with a heavy door slightly ajar.

Anna approached it carefully, ready to draw her sword if need be. The sky was clear – there were no clouds, only the blowing of the wind and the moon’s restless glow.

She stood a few feet from the cracked-open door when she heard it: a long, tinny, echoing noise, as of a wail or a cry, that seemed to emanate from the structure itself. She suppressed a shiver and grasped the door by its open end. She pulled.

With a groan, the door opened and a foul wind blew from within the structure, causing Anna to wince against the stench of hundreds of years of dust and decay. The wailing was more audible now.

“Hello,” came a voice from above her.

Anna’s head snapped up, and there, on top of the structure, huge and white with eyes blue and cold, was the white wolf called Aren.

“You,” said Anna breathlessly. Part of her relaxed; part of her did not. The longer she looked, the tighter her chest became. Aren was smiling with her eyes.

“Me,” said Aren. “It’s been a while, Anna, Sword of Autumn. But you do not call yourself that any more – do you? No – you are a knight now. Knight of Crystalwater.” The wolf cocked its head interestedly. “Lady Protector,” it whispered.

“I am looking for a demon,” said Anna, making her voice loud so to stay the odd shivers she got from looking at the wolf. “Perhaps you know. And a missing makoki.”

“A demon and a makoki?” said Aren, amused. “Isn’t that like saying a tree and a plant?”

“What do you mean?”

“Only that makoki are not what they were, and no less a demon than me,” said Aren wryly. “Since we’re name-calling and all.”

Anna had no time for more games. The wailing had grown fainter. “Maybe so. I am still looking for a makoki by the name of Fado. And her kidnapper. Would you know anything about that?”

Aren seemed to consider that. “Yes,” she said. “I know Fado. She is inside this crypt. You should go and get her.”

Anna raised a wary eyebrow. “I will, then,” she replied, slowly. “Thank you for your help.”

“Oh, no. Thank you,” said Aren. “You have said quite a few prayers in my name, my Sword of Autumn. I have not had a shrine maiden as devoted as you since…” The wolf paused. “Well, ever, really. I’m very grateful.”

Anna simply dipped her chin in acknowledgement and stepped into the threshold of the gray structure, out of sight of the wolf.

“One more thing,” came Aren’s voice. “Draw your sword and shield.”

Anna did.

Inside the structure, the smell of rot was more palpable than it was outside. A sheer set of stone stairs, dark with walls of dirt and rock, shot down into pitch. Struggling not to gag, Anna descended the steps one at a time. The air was warmer the further down she went, and the steps seemed to go on forever. Though she could barely see, she had no trouble knowing exactly where the next step was, every time; and the wailing was definitely coming from down in the black pits – though it grew fainter as she descended, there was no mistaking its origin.

Her feet found solid ground suddenly, and her stomach jumped when she made to descend another step but found only flat ground. A single torch suddenly guttered into light at the end of a long hall. Anna went to it; it was sconced above a heavy oaken door banded with iron with a single gray iron pull. The wailing was gone by now. Anna pulled on the ring with her shield hand. The door groaned and opened with some protest, knocking dust and dirt loose.

She entered and found herself in a large, round room with walls of dirt and carved stone. The carvings were nonsensical symbols and illustrations of fantastic beasts, but that was not what caught Anna’s attention. In the center of the room, an old, gray tree with waxy white leaves and twisty roots was planted. The floor of the room was scattered with withered leaves that had evidently fallen off of the tree – and recently. It looked like an old chiki tree, but older than the one in the makoki grove – frailer, somehow.

Small wonder. How could it get any sunlight down here?

A faint voice drifted down from the leaves. “Hey. Who are you?” It sounded weak. Despite the subterranean environment, Anna found she had no trouble seeing. It was as though light was coming from the tree. From the leaves. Pale, milky light, like moonlight.

Anna craned her neck to peer into the leaves. Hanging amongst the thick branches was a small wooden cage with a little makoki inside, its skin the color of summer grass, its eyes black puddles of ink. It was trembling and clutching the bars of its cage, leaning against them while it stared down at Anna.

“Who are you?” croaked the makoki again.

“I’m Anna,” said Anna, rushing up so that she stood beneath the cage. It was swaying a good fifteen feet above her head. “Are you Fado? I’ve come here to save you.”

“I am Fado,” came the voice, and the makoki blinked wearily. “Save me?” it repeated.

“Yes. Saria and Makar sent me to find you.”

A high-pitched whine came from the cage. Anna realized that the makoki was sobbing. “Oh, I knew the gods didn’t abandon us. I knew our deliverance would come. What ancient spirit do you serve, noble angel? Are you perhaps an envoy of Hokoto, from the star-kissed trees of silvyrwyd? A water-walker? A sky spirit? Nevermind; oh, frabjous day, a spirit has come to save me.”

Anna stared up at the crying makoki, a feeling of bewilderment overpowering her. “Uh… I’m sorry, but… I’m not a spirit.”

Fado sniffed. “Y-You’re not?”

“I’m a human,” said Anna.

Fado leaned against the bars of the cage, as if it was trying to get a better look at Anna. “A human?” it echoed. “Why would a human save me?”

“You’re in trouble,” Anna said simply. “Aren’t you?”

Fado said nothing to that, and merely swung in her cage. After a long silence, she said, “Yes. Please help me. I’m so weak.”

Anna nodded and looked around. Now, how did she get Fado down from up there? Anna went up to the tree’s trunk, seeing if there was any purchase she could use to climb. But it was no luck – no branches hung that low. The lowest were still a few feet above her head. Jumping, she had no hope of catching it. She paced around the tree, looking for anywhere else she could dig in and climb. But no – the tree was hard ridges and no chips all around. If she had a rope, she might be able to do something, but she didn’t.

After her fifth circuit around the base of the tree, she called up to Fado, “This may take some time. I don’t know how to get you down.”

Fado groaned and turned around so her back was resting against the bars. She didn’t say anything.

“Sorry,” called Anna. “I should have come prepared.”

There was a loud snorting grunt.

“Well there’s no call for that,” Anna said in a low voice, mostly to herself. “I’m doing the best I can.”

Her reflection was interrupted when she felt a sharp, hard THWACK hit her in the back of the head and she tumbled forward, barely maintaining her footing, though the throbbing in her head shot streaks of red through her vision. She whirled sharply and saw it – them, actually.

A curved bar of orange-and-blue wood rippled through the air to be caught by a short little creature, a gremlin of sorts, a little taller than a makoki, with a sharp, angular gray-green face and a head like a snout. He flipped the boomerang in his hands and grinned crooked, sharp teeth. He wore a tattered leather jerkin. Standing at his side was a similar-looking though much-taller beast with piggish, almost bullish features and a scowl, its thick arms grasping the pole of a long spear with a jagged end. It was easily eight feet tall and it wore a heavy suit of black leather armor. It snorted its big nose and bared sharp fangs.

“Who are you?” Anna asked them, and she readied her sword and shield.

Fado was swinging wildly in her cage. “Moblins!” she cried.

The tall piggish one made no reply. It snorted, leveled its spear, and charged.

It was all Anna could do to dodge the charge. The pig bulled past her and wheeled sharply on its heels, thrusting the shaft of the spear sideways at Anna. She met the shove with her shield and thrust with her sword. The pig snorted and jumped back, away from the thrust.

The whistling of the boomerang came again. Before Anna could react, another sharp THWACK bashed her in the back of the skull, and she reeled again. She forced her eyes open, though they were streaming with tears. She saw the point of the spear coming at her. She maneuvered her shield and the spear scraped off to the side.

She jumped back several steps, scrambling so that she had line-of-sight of both the monsters. The pig thing leveled its spear to charge again – but this time, Anna kept her eyes on the smaller one.

The charge came, and Anna jumped to the side, avoiding the tip as the pig crashed into the wall behind her. She jerked her head up at the little one and saw the boomerang leave its fingers. She met it with her shield. With a clang, it clattered harmlessly to the ground. Anna dove for the short monster, sword arm outstretched – and with eyes as wide as saucers, it impaled on the end of her sword, thick black ooze pouring from its wound. It vaporized in a puff of black smoke.

Anna spun just as the pig charged again. She jumped aside, rolling through the dirt, and resumed her feet again, just as the pig came again. This time, he got her – her shield took the spear, but the force of the blow sent her flying. She dropped her sword and fell, painfully, on her back.

She stood up again, and the pig thing laughed. It was a terrible, croaking noise, like two dry pieces of timber rubbing against each other and cracking apart. Her sword was at the pig’s feet. He kicked it away. But at her feet – there was the boomerang! Without thinking, she picked it up and, screaming, threw it at the pig with all her might.

Its triumphant grin changed to one of horror in an instant, and froze like that when the boomerang thwacked its face. And then it was completely still, like a statue, unmoving except for its tiny little eyes that were now darting this way and that.

The boomerang loyally came back, and Anna caught it without thinking. She stuffed it into her sword belt and walked over to where the pig had kicked Autumn, keeping her eyes trained on him the entire time. He did not move, though his eyes followed her.

She picked up her sword, and went up to the pig. He still didn’t move.

“Magical boomerang, huh?” she asked him. Of course, he did not reply.

She stabbed him through the gut, twisted, and drew her blade out in a slashing motion. Black blood oozed out, and instants later, the whole thing – armor, spear, and all – dissolved into black and purple mist that dissipated quickly into the air.

Fado’s cage was still swinging. Her jaw hung open. “That was… you… those were moblins,” she said incredulously.

Anna sheathed Autumn and put up her shield. She pulled out the boomerang. “What’s a moblin?” she asked.

“A creature of the forest,” said Fado. “A dark creature. Not like us makoki.”

Anna nodded. “Hang on,” she told Fado, and threw her boomerang at the thin rope that tied the cage to the branch above it. The rope snapped as the boomerang sliced through it, and the whole thing came crashing down, the cage snapping open as it did. Fado crawled from the wreck.

“Are you okay?” asked Anna. “I hope the fall didn’t hurt too much.”

“Not the fall,” said Fado, groaning. “It was just a fall. I just need air.”

Anna sheathed the boomerang and knelt down. “Can you walk?”

Fado gave it a noble try, but failed. “No,” she said meekly.

Anna reached down and cradled Fado in her arms. She was light, surprisingly light, and it was not much effort to carry her. She hefted the makoki gently, and made for the exit from the room. She swore the white tree rustled its leaves as she left.

After a long climb in the dark, Anna emerged with Fado in her arms into the moonlight of the clearing. She took a few steps away from the gray structure’s exit before she heard a growl from behind.

Aren was still sitting on top of the little gray structure. “So, you found her,” the wolf observed placidly, her bushy white tail flopping up and down.

“Yes,” said Anna uneasily. “She was in a cage, and being guarded by two,” she paused for a moment, “demons.”

“There’s that word again,” said Aren. She bared her teeth. “It seems everyone is at liberty to call everyone else in this forest demons.”

And then Fado lifted a trembling finger, pointed at Aren. “Her,” she said. “That’s the demon.”

Anna felt her pace quicken. “Fado? What do you mean?”

“She’s the one who…” Fado trembled in Anna’s arms. She buried her face in Anna’s tunic and clutched at her with both hands. “Don’t let her do it again. Please. She’s the one, the demon – ”

Aren laughed loudly, a piercing, mocking cry. “This is a forest of demons, my dear Fado. You, me, the moblins. The very trees themselves. Tell me, Fado, though I know you know this already – what is the difference between a spirit and a demon? Why, a demon is merely a spirit without a home. Where is your home, Fado?”

“The forest,” Fado whispered into Anna’s shirt. “The forest.”

Aren seemed to have no trouble hearing that, because she laughed again. “Oh, Fado. This forest has no spirits, and it is not your home. It is nobody’s home. It is dead. It has been dead as long as I’ve been dead. The last of the kokiri, running around a dying forest, pretending to be spirits when really they’re nothing more than bottom-feeding demons.” She looked at Anna. “The makoki, you know. Didn’t tell you that, did they? What is a forest without its guardian? Dead. A dead forest has no spirits – only ghosts and demons.”

“Shut up,” said Fado quietly.

“Oh, Fado. Perhaps when the last leaf falls from the last tree, maybe then you’ll understand. Until that day comes, we are only the dead who refuse to die.”

Anna’s heart was pounding. “Aren, are you the darkness that plagues this forest?”

Aren considered that. “I suppose I am.”

“You used to be the guardian of this forest,” stated Anna.

“Used to be,” emphasized Aren.

“What happened?”

“I met a human.” Aren’s eyes bored into Anna’s.

“Not… me?” asked Anna.

“Not you,” said Aren. “This was a long time ago. A very long time ago.” Her tail swished.

“One of the makoki said that the darkness only started spreading recently,” said Anna steadily, keeping her gaze fixed on the wolf. “So what changed?”

Aren swished her tail. “My orders.”

Silence fell on the clearing. Anna and Aren stared at each other unblinkingly.

“I swore an oath to the makoki that I would kill you,” said Anna at length.

“That’s too bad,” said Aren. “I have no intention of fighting you. You are my shrine maiden, after all – though I do not have a shrine, and I know not if you are a maiden.”

Anna laid Fado, still whimpering, gently on the ground, then stood up and drew her sword. “You won’t fight me?”

“No,” said Aren simply, and she swished her tail. “You made a promise to the makoki. They are demons. And oathbreakers. How much can your promise really matter to them? Who cares?”

“I do,” said Anna hotly, and she jabbed the end of her sword in Aren’s direction. “I don’t care if the makoki are oathbreakers or demons. That’s their own lookout. But I made an oath, and I will keep it.”

The wolf shrugged, if such a gesture were possible for wolves. “Well, you can try. But I will not fight you.”

“I’ll stop killing for you,” Anna warned.

“No you won’t,” said Aren, now sounding mightily amused.

Anna gritted her teeth and looked down. Fado was curled into a ball, and shivering. For the first time, Anna noticed the wounds on her arms – cuts and gashes, now mostly healed, but the scars were still clearly visible. Anna clenched and unclenched her left hand. She looked at it as an idea struck her.

“Why did you attack Fado?” asked Anna.

The wolf shifted the arrangement of its paws. Uncertainty flickered across the pale blue eyes, though the wolf said nothing.

“You don’t even know why,” marveled Anna. “You just attacked her for no reason.”

“That’s not so,” said Aren. “She… she was bleeding…”

Wild at the sight of blood. Anna tore the glove off her left hand and lifted it. She put Autumn’s edge firmly against her palm, and slashed. Bright and dark red splashed across the blade and down her arm and onto the forest floor. She thrust her palm at Aren.

“You went crazy. She was bleeding and you went crazy. You attacked her even though she was harmless to you. Well. You can attack me too, now. Fight me.

Aren made a low growling noise that turned into a snarl. Her hair bristled on end, her ears sprung up, and she stood on the tips of her paws. “N-No,” roared the wolf. She howled at the moon. “I DON’T WANT TO.”

Without another word, she leapt off the crypt, and for a second her silhouette was painted black across the face of the moon. Anna turned and ran, into the forest, as fast as she could move; hot on her heels was the pursuit of the huge, white wolf.

She knew not what impelled her forward, nor how she kept ahead of the wolf, all she knew was that she had to keep running. Trees flew by, her feet sprung into and out of ruts and mounds and in between roots and plants with unerring accuracy. Up a slope she went, in leaps and bounds, and then she saw it – the trees with the crosshatching. She dashed between them, the moon shining down, and she jumped into the brush on the other end. Aren’s unwelcome, the trap will –

It did not spring. Aren stood in the middle of the trap trees now.

Anna’s mind burned. Why didn’t the trap spring? How does it spring?

Hard she looked at the trees, and then – she saw. The forest answered her. It was so clear, every invisible wire, every manipulation, every perturbation in the branches and leaves.

She threw down her sword and snatched up the boomerang and, with a snap of the wrist, let it fly. Up and up it flew, into the canopy, whipping through the leaves, snapping the invisible wires and –

Aren was trapped. The net came from everywhere, smooth and silver rope that bound Aren to the forest floor. She snarled, her head snapping every which way, her jaws working at the rope – but they did not fray or give.

Anna emerged from the brush, and stood over Aren’s defeated, prone form. She stared up with icy eyes.

“I am done,” said the wolf. “You will kill me, now.”

Anna looked at her sword. “Yes,” she agreed.

The wolf seemed to sigh. She stopped snarling, and shuddered no more. She was still. “I was lost. You have no idea what this burden has been to me. For so long, I kept it down, but now it… I… I tried so hard to keep it down. But it came up like bile – and the blood. You can’t believe I meant to hurt Fado, or any of them. It’s all my fault. And I failed. You… you made me feel like a god again.” The wolf shuddered. “It’s finally over,” she said quietly, and closed her eyes. “Release me.”

When Anna hesitated, the eyes snapped open. “Everybody dies, Anna, Sword of Autumn. I’m not afraid. My home waits for me.”

Autumn quivered as Anna wiped it clean in the snow. The wolf’s eyes were cold and unseeing. Look at us now, was the sword’s thrum, morbid and morose. Anna sheathed Autumn and put up her shield, and then noted the dried blood on her hand. The wound had closed already, and her blue ring warbled in the moonlight.

And just then, the wolf’s body seemed to melt and vanish into the snow-covered ground, melting away the drifts and seeping into the stiff, buried grass below. Before long, naught was left of the wolf but a vague sense of warmth, and in the clear spot, a pale, yellow glow shone out, bright and fierce. Anna shielded her eyes until the glow died, and then she saw, where the wolf had been, a small golden fragment, jagged and hard, rough like a shard of a golden obsidian plate. It glowed with a light all its own power, as if it had been carved out of the sun itself.

Anna understood immediately what it was.

She extended her arms carefully and cradled the shard in her hands. As she held it, a warm humming filled her ears, an ethereal, wistful noise; and then it was as if the entire forest was humming, and swaying, and singing at her. Though she saw with her eyes only the white death of a forest in winter, it sang as definitely as anything.

“The third blind mouse,” said the crow reproachfully.

Anna looked up at him. “Kaepora. Where did you get off to?”

“I couldn’t bear to see my queen beheaded,” said the crow sadly, and it flew down and settled on the snow. It fixed its tiny black eyes on the golden shard. “Well, now, isn’t that something?”

“I think this is what I came here for,” Anna told the crow. “I think I was meant to do this, to come here and kill Aren.”

“Meant? By whom?” asked the crow.

“I don’t know,” said Anna. “But it just feels right.

“Well,” said the crow carelessly, “it is certainly very pretty to look at.”

Anna carefully wrapped her fingers around the shard and, with Kaepora flying close behind, made her way down to the clearing. It was as it was before, except now, Fado was nowhere to be seen – and sitting on the top of the gray stone structure was Saria, playing a soft melody on her flute.

When she saw Anna approach, she put the flute down and smiled.

“I followed you,” said Saria, still smiling. “I had to see the demon for myself. I had a hunch, but I – I did not want to believe our guardian had betrayed us.”

“You were the kokiri,” blurted Anna. “The forest children. The humans told stories about you.”

Saria nodded. “We were, yes. Once this forest had a guardian and we were the caretakers. The day the guardian disappeared is the day we changed. A race of tricksters and glamorers. Forest spirits in name only.” Her smile was sad now.

Anna hesitated. “Now that Aren is dead… what will happen to the forest?”

Saria jumped down from the structure, and walked over to Anna calmly, her small red form seeming to shift effortlessly across the ground. She held out the flute.

“Take this,” she commanded.

“Your flute?”

“When the forest was dead, I needed this flute to speak for it,” said Saria, as the wind blew between the trees and rustled the leaves with its familiar galing. “But the forest is alive now. Can’t you see it?”

The crow squawked.

Anna tentatively picked the flute out of Saria’s hands, and held it gingerly with the tips of her fingers. She looked at it. “I can’t play the flute,” she said, and looked up – but Saria was gone once more.

“Well,” said Kaepora Gaebora, “it’s not so hard once you get the hang of it – but then, the getting the hang of it is pretty hard. Or so I’ve heard. I can’t play flutes, you see. No lips or fingers. I can whistle, though. Do you want to hear my favorite song?” Without waiting for an answer, Kaepora whistled a rapid, chirping melody, and then alighted and flew away into the black sky.

Out of the trees came Anna’s horse, laden with saddlebags. It looked quite pleased, for a horse.

Anna smiled and went up to the mare. “Epona, huh?” she said and patted the horse’s head. It neighed in response.

 

Chapter Text

 

A sense of measured jubilation greeted Anna in the queen’s solar; it became hushed awe when Anna withdrew the drawstring pouch that was hanging around her neck, parted the opening, and produced the little glowing shard that was all that remained of the guardian of the forest.

“This is it,” said Queen Elsa with a firm nod in Hans’s direction. She smiled – really, truly smiled. “This is a shard.”

And the approving look the queen gave Anna would have made her stomach turn, but for some reason it only annoyed her, and she stayed annoyed through the debrief and the briefing.

“A giant wolf,” marveled Hans as he stroked his jawline. “I trust that was interesting.”

“Yes,” said Anna curtly.

“The next piece ought to prove less difficult to obtain,” Hans said, steepling his fingers. “By the same means we used to locate the first, we have determined the second is relatively close by.”

“Indeed,” said Elsa, and now she was not even bothering to contain her beam. “At this rate we should have found all the pieces before summer’s end.”

“And that will be the end of this snowstorm, will it?” said Anna dryly.

Uncertainty flickered across Elsa’s face, but she said, “If the gods are good, yes.”

“And the gods are indeed good,” said Hans. “The Golden Power is theirs, after all.”

On the map he indicated a small stretch of swamp, curled into the canyon lowlands that separated the Vestlandet from the dale. “The Toadsmarsh is another place that men don’t go,” said Hans.

“I heard mention of it once or twice,” said Anna, “though I know little about it.”

“It’s an old marsh,” said Elsa, leaning over the map and speaking with hushed, reverent tones. Her voice was lifted by a definite note of optimism, of quiet enthusiasm and admiration, and as she spoke an unquenching eagerness betrayed her extensive knowledge. The shimmer in her eyes told Anna that Queen Elsa was a woman who read the book on her country from cover to cover. It was the excited shimmer of knowledge and longing.

“The marsh is said to be home to a race of frog-like people,” she went on, “called the oglins. They live in subterranean palaces and, many years ago, were friends of the Ice Queen. Unlike goblins and trolls and the rest, the existence of oglins is well-documented, and Ser Hiccough met them personally on several occasions. Before King Andrew put an end to the other crowns in Arendelle, the oglins had their own king, whom they dubbed the Frog King. But when King Andrew took the throne, the Frog King laid aside his title and pledged his fealty.

“We don’t collect taxes or raise levies from the oglins, nor do we oft-communicate with them; but according to the old laws, at least, they are bound to heed you if you come to them in the name of the queen. I believe, also, that given their close association with the Ice Queen, they will know where the second piece is to be found. It might even be that they have it, in which case it will be no trouble to ask it of them.”

Anna nodded slowly through all this explanation, then asked, “And how am I to penetrate this swamp, Your Grace? Do you know of a boater or a guide that could help me?”

“Smallfolk live around the marsh’s perimeter and in the lagoons close to the fjord,” said Hans slowly. “It may be that you could enlist aid from one such to guide you into the swamp. But given the Toadsmarsh’s reputation, you might find that difficult.”

“Reputation?” Anna frowned. “From what the queen has said, the swamp does not seem like such an ill place.”

Elsa hesitated. “Well… some folk believe that the swamp is dangerous. Not because of the oglins, mind – most people never see them. But because of other things.”

“As you say,” said Anna. “I will find some way to make it through.”

Queen Elsa smiled with her entire face. “You have done well, Ser Anna.”

It was exactly the kind of validation she was hoping for. Well, then why did it make her feel so foul?

Martin had performed, it had been said, admirably in his station as interim castellan, though some grumbled at his youngness. Martin himself was humble about it, and only said that he was trying to do all he could, and apologized for any shortcomings in his performance. Anna told him not to worry about it, nor mind the grumblings; he was 14-years old next month, and on the whole the men-at-arms and castle knights and squires spoke well of him. Ser Puck said so much, gushing as he sat across from Anna in the dining hall.

“Ser Anna, I must admit I’m growing quite fond of your squire. Never have I met such a devoted youth!”

“He has a good heart,” Anna said simply.

“And a good head. Never mind his skills with bow and arrow – you know that he has been diligently pursuing an education in letters? For a few months now. With Master Kai’s help. The past few weeks he’s been attempting to digest Helvetian tomes on the old wars. Like the Helvetian conquest of Gallica. Have you ever read that?”

“No,” said Anna. “I know not much of war.”

“Nor do I, but it’s a cracking good read,” said Ser Puck as he ripped apart a loaf of bread.

“You read much?” Anna asked him.

“Not so much as I used to, but, you know, I was a ward at Westfal, and Ser Hunter – the Reading Knight, some called him – believed very much in the power of letters. I see his point. Gallica was conquered by a single general with a small army, and we only have the old boy’s reflections to go by for how he managed it.” He washed down a bite of bread with some ale, and then continued. “Anyway, your squire. I think he has a good head for the position. There’s been grumbling, though.”

“There always is,” said Anna blankly.

“Hmm, well, I meant by Ser Tazmus and Lord Hugoss.”

“Really? What do they say?”

“Ser Tazmus just trotted out the old line that the boy is too young. Says it should have been him – now, mind you don’t go repeating I said that, of course he’ll just deny it, and then probably fillet me for good measure. And Lord Hugoss is suspicious of everything that has your hand in it.”

“I should like to talk to Lord Hugoss,” said Anna, annoyed again. “His problems with me ought be with me, not with Martin.”

“I see his point,” said Ser Puck with wary eyes. “Not that I mistrust you, but – Martin is your squire, so if he comes into power, he’d be your man. And that’s just another powerful person in a faction opposed to his.”

“I understand that, but I’m not opposed to Lord Hugoss,” said Anna testily. “Mayhaps I should talk to him after all. Where is he?”

Ser Puck gave a surprised look. “You don’t know? Lord Hugoss has aweighed anchor and sailed for Falkberg.”

And then it was Anna’s turn to be surprised. “Indeed? I didn’t know.”

“Aye, he’ll be away for two, three months at least,” said Ser Puck. “He’s been ordered to take the city by assault, but more likely he’ll attempt to siege them out. He has some five thousands men-at-arms, plus, of course, the navy.” He drained his ale mug. “All a considerable threat if he decides to join up with the Valkyrie, if you ask me. But Lord Hans doesn’t seem too worried about the possibility of that.

“Indeed, I think he has plots of his own. Makes me glad I’m a knight and not a lord, to be honest.”

That gave Anna a little bit to chew on, but in her room that night, as she donned her nightgown and slipped underneath the covers of her bed, she found an easy sleep eluded her on many other fronts as well.

And in particular, the queen.

She lay for a long time before she jumped out of bed and threw open the window. The night air was bitterly cold and full of blizzarding snow, but Anna didn’t care. She sat down on the sill and looked out at the black, the faint sense of dissatisfied unease quivering in her belly.

From a leather bag on the vanity she withdrew the blue flute that Saria had given her. Anna had tried to play it a little bit on the ride back south, but she struggled at making the sounds not terrible to listen to. The whooshing of the wind, and her own insomnia, convinced her now was as good a time for any to practice. She thought of the rapid whistling tune that Kaepora Gaebora had tweeted out before flying off, and set about the elaborate finger manipulations and twitches of embouchure to produce the sounds.

It was slow going, but she was untiring, and though she barely realized it, the longer she played the more natural the sounds seemed to come, until, at last, she reproduced Kaepora’s melody note for note, though at a much slower tempo.

Satisfied with her momentary conquest, Anna lowered the flute and cradled it in her lap, watching with one leg upraised on the sill the blowing of the frosty winds. It was really dreadfully cold, but her, in this place, at this time, Anna found that was all she wanted. She had had quite enough of warmth. It really seemed much too false. And then the queen, of course. Not two weeks ago she had expressed to Anna her profound dismay, and now – she was all radiation. And yet there was something odd about it that Anna couldn’t put her finger on. Was it merely falseness? A mask that the queen had adopted? No – it was something more than that, Anna decided. The queen was happy in her own right, for herself. And yet she smiled at Anna, with glittering eyes, full of knowing, and – mischief. I know something you don’t, those eyes said, but not in sing-song; in a wan and oddly patronizing way. The frustration was acid in her stomach.

Out of the falling snow, a small black shape appeared, writhing in the gray winds. Anna squinted at it. Short seconds later, it grew in size, and kept growing, until Anna recognized it as a black bird with flapping wings that, finally, toppled onto the sill and shook its wings wetly as it assumed a perch.

“I’ll say!” said Kaepora. “This storm really is something. And in late March!” He tsked.

Anna’s eyes were wide. “Kaepora!” she said.

“Oh, you do remember my name! Well, that’s good, if anything is.”

“Kaepora… how did you get here?” laughed Anna. “Why did you come? Flying through that blizzard…”

“Why did I come?” echoed the bird in stark confusion. “You played my song!”

Anna looked down at her flute. “I… did…” she admitted slowly. “So you flew all the way down from the Rockwoods because I played a song a few minutes ago?”

“Well, I took a shortcut. Don’t mistake ol’ Kaepora for a mook.”

Anna only blinked at him, and then laughed again, this time more shrilly. Kaepora twisted his head until she stopped.

“I didn’t expect this,” Anna said as her laughs died down, and she turned her head to regard the cold black night. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you to come. I wouldn’t have played that song if I knew.”

“Oh, not at all!” the crow said almost quickly. “The storm, though.” He tsked again.

“The storm,” Anna agreed with a slight frown. She was quiet for several moments before she said, “The queen believes it’s magical.”

“Almost certainly,” the crow intoned.

“You think so?” said Anna and she gave the crow an arch look. “I guess, since you’re a talking bird, you would know.”

“Well, imagine my surprise, a talking human!” said the crow. “I haven’t heard you say so many words all together like that. The cat must have given your tongue up. Give it a little slishy-slash with that sword of yours?”

Anna frowned more fully.

“Hey,” said the crow. “That was a jape.”

Anna shook her head. “I’m sorry. I find very little to laugh about in sword-work.”

“Ah,” said the crow. “Well, I don’t blame you. It weighs on a soul to do such things, eh? Such as the killing?”

“It’s not the killing so much,” said Anna, and she realized how perverse that sounded, so she quickly added, “I mean, I don’t enjoy killing, you understand – but I guess you could say I’ve grown… accustomed to it.” She shifted, and whispered, “Gods, no wonder the queen’s afraid of me.”

“Afraid? Of you?” The crow squawked. “You couldn’t hurt a fly.”

Anna raised an eyebrow. “I couldn’t hurt a fly,” she repeated sarcastically.

“Not on purpose, anyway. Suppose a fly said ‘Hello!’ to you one morning, or remarked on the weather or complained about a bunion – but it was buzzing around and being a nuisance as otherwise flies often do – would you kill it?”

“No,” said Anna after a short pause, failing to see Kaepora’s point. “I mean, I can’t eat it, and it’s harmless – so why would I?”

“Well, it’s annoying you, you see. Being a nuisance.”

“Now that’s hardly a reason to kill someone.”

“Even killers have standards,” proclaimed the crow. “Give me a principled killer any day of the week. Trust me, you don’t know how important principles are when most of your socialization is in the wild. Not so much as a howdy-do, just straight to business, talons, fangs, and all. What’s an unprincipled killer? I’ll tell you: owls, falcons, eagles, and hawks.”

“They do have to eat,” Anna told the crow.

“Well, they don’t have to eat me,” he said.

“You hunt too, I’m sure,” said Anna in an accusing tone, though she was smiling now.

“Only frogs and mice,” said the crow, “when I can get them. Otherwise I’m a model citizen of the wild, I tell you. Now, then, what’s got you so down?”

“Oh, just life,” said Anna.

“Oh, life,” said the crow, in a tone that indicated he understood perfectly. “But what part of life?”

Anna inspected her fingernails, coarse and trimmed. “It’s the queen,” she said at the end of a long silence. “I just feel so… so pulled apart. One minute she’s afraid of me, and the next she’s smiling happily at me. Everything about her is just so confusing. I just don’t understand what’s going on – what’s on her mind.”

“Why,” said the crow, “don’t you ask?”

Anna looked at the crow like he’d sprouted a second head. “Kaepora, I can’t just ask.

“Well, why not? It seems to me you could very well just ask. You would have to say, ‘Oi, queen! What’s on your mind?’ And just like that, you’ve asked. And if she answers – that’s good! And if she doesn’t – well, that’s hardly your fault.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Well, so is beating yourself up about something you don’t even know.”

That gave Anna pause. “That’s true,” she admitted.

“You braved a forest for her! A pretty dangerous one, too! Got poisoned and beaten up for your trouble! Sliced your palm for her! All without so much as a peep of protest!”

Anna nodded hesitantly.

“You should talk to her,” said the crow firmly. “Get her to tell what’s-what!”

“I can’t,” said Anna.

“You can, you just don’t want to.”

“I can’t,” repeated Anna, more hotly. “You don’t understand. I can’t just make demands of people like that. I don’t know what insane machinations are in play. If I trust the queen, follow my orders… it’s bound to turn out okay. It has to. I don’t know what’s on her mind, but I do know that I’m devoted to her.”

“Really?” said Kaepora Gaebora quietly. “And how do you know that?”

Anna blinked. “I…”

Her answer floated away and the crow was no more to be seen. Slowly, Anna removed herself from the sill, closed the window shutters, curled up in her bed, and fell asleep.

 


 

Saddled upon Epona, Anna trotted up to the lagoon’s edge and experienced a profound sense of déjà vu as she reflected on the place where it had all started, before the queen and her knight became the queen, and a knight. The beach was covered in snow, as was everything else, so that it looked like a ghost of what it had been the day of her ill-fated fishing trip.

Her stomach moiled and she gloomed at the beach. “Okay,” she said aloud to the fresh, crisp air of the frosted lagoon. “Focus. We’ve got a job to do. We need to find a fellow who will boat us across the swamps.”

Epona proved a poor or at least mute brainstormer, and said nothing in response, so Anna simply directed her up along the shoreline and beat out a northwards path, keeping in constant sight of the water. The surrounding woods turned droopy and twisted as they went, and even more oddly the snow stopped falling altogether at one point, until they crossed a point where the snowline itself stopped. Only the thinnest film of snow was here, and tube-rooted trees sat amongst the murky waters riddled with rotten logs and lily pads. Strangely, it had even grown warm, so much so that Anna loosened the clasp on her cloak.

Instinctively, she checked her belongings: glove, ring, sword, shield, boomerang. That was a new one. She didn’t know how, or really why, but she got it in to her head that the boomerang was magical, and she should probably take it along.

The faint ringing of a bell caught her attention. She raised her head and looked around – the ringing was coming from around a thick clump of trees, a bend in the lagoon that stood before a long twisty section of murky water. She rounded it and found a tiny pole boat with a silver bell and an unlit tin lantern hanging from one end. Hunched over at the other end was a figure wrapped in a thick brown cloak and hood. The boat was moored to a dead log on the lagoon side, and rocked back and forth gently in the waves.

Anna approached cautiously, careful not to alarm the man in the boat. When she stood no more than ten feet away, she thought she could hear muttering. Carefully, she drove Epona closer, and then looked down on the rocking boat from her perch. The man did not seem to notice her.

She cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said.

The man looked up sharply, and Anna nearly jumped in surprise. She gasped – it was not a man at all, but a pig thing, one that bore a peculiar similarity to the demons she fought in the Gobwoods. What was it that Fado called them – moblins? Yes – a moblin sat in the boat, its olive-green face and beady yellow eyes glaring up at Anna on her horse. It had two white tusks up thrust at the sides of its mouth, and a pig nose. Anna clumsily went for her sword.

But the moblin seemed disinterested. Grumbling audibly, it turned its head back down and resumed its previous business of doing nothing whatsoever.

Nonplussed, Anna dismounted and went up to the side of the boat. She had moved her hand away from her sword, albeit tentatively.

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

“Grumble grumble,” grumbled the moblin, and otherwise it said nothing.

Anna regarded the moblin coolly. “Can you give me a ride? Across the lagoon.”

Only more grumbling.

“Can you understand me?”

The moblin made eye-contact with her, beady yellow eyes flickering open and shut rapidly, and then turned away, grumbling some more.

Anna interrogated the moblin for a little while longer but, only receiving grumbles as answers, became tired of it early on and gave it up. A growl in her stomach told her it was lunchtime. Despite her agitation, she fed Epona a carrot, and for herself produced some jerked salt beef from the saddlebags.

She did not fail to catch the accompanying eye-motion of the moblin at this revelation.

Her own eyes went from the salt beef to the moblin. She held it out to him, but he snorted contemptuously and turned his head away.

“Too good for salt beef, eh?” she said as she pulled it back, and the moblin eyed her once more.

He grumbled.

“But you are hungry, then.”

He grumbled some more.

“Hungry for what?” she put away the salt beef and produced an apple. “This any better?”

The moblin refused to even look at the apple.

She produced next a raw chicken leg, wrapped in greasy leather, and the moblin’s eyes would not waver from it. But when she offered it to him, he wrinkled his nose and would not accept it.

“You don’t want me to cook this for you, do you?”

Assuming that was exactly what he wanted, Anna collected some tinder from the surrounding undergrowth and set about making a cook fire and a spit. She cooked up the chicken while the moblin watched on, and turned it over the licking flames. Finally, she handed the cooked chicken leg to the moblin, who accepted it with greedy hands and began devouring it messily.

“That was going to be my dinner tonight,” Anna complained.

When the moblin was finished, he snorted and motioned to the boat, with nary a grumble besides.

She turned to Epona, took up a rucksack, and filled it with a few goods from the saddlebag. “Well, Epona, this is where we part. Will you be okay on your own? Should I tie you up here? Can you go back to the castle?”

Epona just looked at her, but would not let Anna tie her up. “Don’t run away now, okay?” said Anna with a light, almost nervous laugh. “I’m going to need you. You see any monsters, well – in that case, do just run, okay?”

With that, Anna carefully stepped into the moblin’s boat. It rocked at her entry, and the bell tinkled lightly as the boat swayed.

As soon as she was seated, the moblin grasped a wooden pole sticking out of the water, whipped it through the air, and pushed away from the shore. The rope mooring came undone by itself, and in a few moments more, they were out on the lagoon, the moblin pushing them along with strong, slow stabs of the pole.

They went down a twisty pocket in the lagoon’s side that passed between two trees almost fully in the water. It let out into a wide stretch of murk that ended abruptly at a thick canopy of crying trees, when the waterway became as twisted and gnarled as the brush around it. Anna was surprised to see that the canopy was incredibly dense, and when they passed under it, the effect was immediate – all was dim except for a few stubborn rays of gray clouded sunshine that did their damndest to illustrate the swampy ground.

The lantern guttered on with a spurting flicker, and then a little flame glowed. It cast quick-moving shadows when the boat swayed or rocked, and its pale orb created a circle of orange on the surface of the black water.

Most of all, it was even warmer when they were beneath the dense canopy. Anna felt beads of sweat form on her back, and she undid her cloak fully. The air was still and muggy and it felt more like a hot summer day than the winter blizzard it ought to have been.

“Why’s it so warm here?” Anna wondered aloud, and half-asked the moblin with a cursory glance in his direction.

Just a snort in response, and he kept pushing along.

They drifted deeper and deeper into the swamps, and it got warmer and warmer, and the canopy denser and denser, until the sun was utterly blotted out, and the humid warmth was overpowering. Every now and again, bubbles would pop on the surface of the bog, and jets of steam would shoot out from roiling puddles of mud.

“Maybe this swamp is on a hot spring,” said Anna when she saw a bubble pop with a cloud of white steam.

The moblin said nothing the entire trip, despite some mixed attempts by Anna to make light conversation. Eventually she gave up, which seemed to suit the moblin just fine, for his pace never faltered or changed but he seemed to move more peacefully, gracefully when Anna wasn’t talking.

Well, as long as he gets me into the swamp, I don’t care.

Although, even that thought grew riddled with doubts as the trip wore on: where exactly was the moblin taking her? She realized with embarrassment that she hadn’t even asked or wondered about it. Perhaps she was being unreasonable; perhaps every boater took passengers to the same spot, and back again, and so there was no cause to ask or fuss about destinations and all that.

One way or another, Anna was definitely in the swamps, and thus, she reasoned, closer to her objective.

Every now and again, as the pole broke the water with soft dripping splashes, Anna got the strangest feeling that she was being watched; and when she looked, she saw only a flicker of dim glow or a rustle of leaves. The deeper they went, the stronger the feeling got.

At last they banked around a squat tree with a twisty trunk and fronds of leaves to arrive in a small kind of miniature bay with a smooth-sloping beach. The moblin drove the boat ashore. The lantern swayed; the noise of the bell was a wreath in the sloping clearing. A thick tangle of trees stood around the bay and curved around a clear section of swamp floor – apparently a path of some sort.

The moblin grunted when they stopped, and Anna looked around and nodded. She took up her belongings and stepped out of the boat onto the squelchy beach.

“Thank you,” she said to the moblin. He grumbled and hunched himself over, sticking his pole firmly into the mud.

“Are you going to wait for me?” she asked incredulously, but the moblin of course said nothing in reply.

Anna breathed impatiently out her nose and turned to regard the swamp path. She patted Autumn’s hilt for luck and went forth.

No sooner did she top the crest of the slope did the trees around her become alive with activity. Out from the branches and the shadows emerged a dozen-or-so short green men in boiled leather with spears and shields – except they weren’t men, of course, but had heads that very mightily resembled frog heads with whiskers. Twenty-four oddly shaped pupils in golden-yellow eyes glared at her from the forest. The owner of one set of them stepped forward and croaked.

“Greetings, human traveler,” it said in a squeaky, reedy voice. “My name is Ser Glenn.” Unlike the other frogs, he had a sword, sheathed, and instead of a boiled leather jerkin, he wore a chipped white-enameled cuirass and had a dark green cloak draped over his shoulders. “Prithee, tell us thy name and thy purpose in our marsh. It hath been a long time since a human such as thee hath paid us visit.”

Dumbfounded for a moment, Anna gathered herself, cleared her throat, and replied, “I am Ser Anna, Knight of Crystalwater, Lady Protector to Her Majesty Queen Elsa of Arendelle. I have come to treat with the people of this marsh. Might I assume you are they?”

“Thou comest to treat with us? That is surprising to hear,” said Ser Glenn. He worried one of his whiskers with a webbed, green hand.

“So, you are the oglins of the Toadsmarsh?” Anna asked.

“We are some of them,” replied Ser Glenn. “Thou say thou comest as envoy from the queen of Arendelle – that is pleasing. His Grace will be eager to receive thee.”

“His Grace?” repeated Anna. “To whom do you refer, good ser?”

“Why, His Majesty, the Frog King,” said Ser Glenn. “Dost thou not knowest of him?”

Anna blinked in confusion. “I beg your pardon, ser. I did not know the oglins had a king.” Anymore.

“’Tis a recent development, Ser Anna, so thy lack can be pardoned,” said Ser Glenn, frowning slightly. “If thou wanst, I can take thee to him immediately.”

Anna worked her jaw before she responded, carefully, “Yes, I think that would be best.”

Ser Glenn nodded and swiveled on his heels, gesturing with his hand for the rest of the oglins to follow suit. They raised their spears and assumed two ranks on Anna’s either side, and together they went into the swamp by means of the twisty, windy pathway.

It wasn’t very long before they came to a wide clearing nigh-flooded with swamp water, in the center of which was a heavy-looking mess of a wooden building that seemed a cross between a gate tower and the hollowed-out log of an old broken sycamore. A very definable wooden gate marked its front, and stood starkly in front of a black abscess that, Anna assumed, represented the depths of whatever the cavernous structure bore entrance to. It felt queerly familiar to the crypt in the White Forest, almost ironically so. Overhead still was the thick canopy of enormously tall trees, whose fans of leaves continued to blot the daylight. From a branch above the gate, a glowing lantern hung.

“What is this place?” Anna asked.

Without turning around, Ser Glenn answered, “This be the sunken castle, Blackwatch, where His Grace sitteth the Throne of Reeds.”

“The Throne of Reeds, ser?”

“’Tis the ancestral throne of the Frog Kings of old,” said Ser Glenn solemnly. “Thou wilt see, soon enough.”

At their approach, the gate yawned open with a drawn-out creaking whine, and inside it looked completely different. The wooden tangle that defined its exterior gave way to black stone, mortar, and clay, that all worked together to form a wide and impossibly deep set of stairs. From the ceiling, at points all up and down the stairs, hung more lanterns, which Anna now noticed did not have flames in them at all, but tiny moving pinpricks of light.

Fireflies, she realized.

At Ser Glenn’s lead, they all went down into the tunnel. The steps were narrow and close together, forcing Anna to watch her step as they descended into the darkness. The path was an odd one, at times leveling out and turning at angles and sometimes even going up for a few steps at a time. With growing frequency they passed a number of twists and turns that branched off into what looked like an endless spiral of caverns, though they seemed to stick to the “main” corridor.

Ser Glenn had noticed Anna peering down the stretching corridors, and remarked: “The caverns of Blackwatch go to all corners of the marsh. None moveth through these waters without our knowing.”

Once they had walked for some twenty minutes, after another rising section of stairs, the passage leveled out. Anna guessed they were now quite deep, and at this depth, the air was ridiculously warm. Even while the surface was warm as of a cool summer’s day, down here the air was hot and stale. The cavern opened up to present a very tall set of wooden double doors, utterly unadorned. In front of them, two oglin guards stood at attention in the wavering light.

“A human!” exclaimed one of the guards at their approach.

Ser Glenn nodded at him. “’Tis so, an envoy from the queen.”

“Of Arendelle?”

“Verily.”

The oglin guards nodded respectfully and moved as one to grasp the large iron pulls at the middle of the door. They opened the double doors with a deep-throated groaning sound, and a bright light forced Anna to shield her eyes.

It was an enormous hall, somewhat like the throne room in the Arenborg, but with a higher ceiling and a towering back wall. Thick stone pillars held up the ceiling around the perimeter, and at the length of the room, the back wall was half covered by a huge pane of stained glass. It depicted a triumphant oglin, clad in steel armor with sword held aloft, standing on the severed head of a red dragon with antlers. The other half of the wall, just above it, was an enormous grating of rusted cast iron that stood stark against the blackness of some enormous vent. Beneath the glass, a high, high dais held a giant throne made of woven reeds and black bark, at the top of which, embedded in the reeds, was – yes – a golden shard, whose glow played magnificently across the room.

But the throne was not empty. Sitting it was a frog of such prodigious fatness that Anna had to look twice to confirm it was an oglin and not a tremendous lump of green. It wore a white surcoat and a burgundy cape, and nestled on its head was a tall, yellow crown, lined all around with amethysts, onyx, pearls, and rubies.

Ser Glenn strode confidently down the hall, the walls of which were lined with oglins armed with spears and shields; Anna followed closely behind, and behind her were the oglins they came in with. Anna’s eyes were fixed on the golden shard, but as they approached, she shifted her gaze to the fat frog, who was staring at her with a peering, toadish suspicion.

Ser Glenn took his knee before the frog, as did the others in their party. Anna simply bowed.

A long moment of silence passed, which ended when Ser Glenn unsteadily rose to his feet and spoke. “Thy Grace, an envoy from the queen of Arendelle is come to see thou.”

The crowned frog’s eyes snapped to Ser Glenn and he grunted. “O? An envoy, thou say? Come to pay me tribute?”

He did not wait for a response. His eyes glittered and he slapped his flabby hands together. “An envoy. An envoy! Speak, envoy! Wherefore comest thou to mine kingdom?”

That about confirmed it. He was calling himself a king, and referring to a kingdom of his own. Does that mean they’re in rebellion? thought Anna. She dipped her head and tried to think of a response.

“Your Grace, the Queen of Arendelle has sent me to treat with you.”

The crowned oglin grinned hugely, the purple nub of his tongue visible through his open mouth. He belched out a throaty chuckle, and said, “It is good to see the queen finally recognize me. So, then, what ‘treat’ doth the queen sendeth?‘Tis war? ‘Tis a demand for me to bend mine knee?”

“I was sent to treat with you,” said Anna earnestly. “I seek something – a favor – on behalf of Her Majesty.”

“A favor that ought be repaid in kind, then,” said the crowned frog curtly. “One monarch to another. Wherefore must I suffer this grievous insult? Art thou dim-witted? When mine own neighbors will not recognize my right to rule? My right as king? I am King of the Frogs!” He slammed a flabby fist on one of the arms of the reed throne.

Anna felt that she had lost control of the situation. Clearly this frog king was out of his mind. Desperately she tried to patch together something to save face, anything. She dipped her head obsequiously. “N-No, Your Grace. Forgive me, I am, as you say, dim-witted, and – the queen only sent me because none better were available – you see, she is fighting a civil war against rebels – other rebels – erm, that is, against a rebel in the Wings. She… She… She seeks your aid. One monarch to another.”

The crowned frog twisted his mouth in concentration as he continued to peer down at Anna.

“Well,” he said slowly, “I see that is something.” He paused in thought for a moment, and then said, “Tell me, envoy, what position thou holdeth in the court of Queen Arendelle?”

Without thinking, Anna replied, “I am Her Majesty’s Lady Protector.”

A short-lived murmur flitted through the court, and the crowned frog squawked out a croaking laugh and motioned to Ser Glenn. He mounted the dais and leaned in for a confidential word. Whispers were exchanged, and eyes shifted in Anna's direction. Suddenly the crowned frog snapped his head up and squelched his eyes at Anna. "Well! One to another, then: mine own Lord Protector is Ser Glenn. A first-rate oglin, both in skill and intellect." He leaned forward. "What is thy name, Lady Protector?"

"I am Ser Anna."

"Ser Anna, then – listen! Thou art mine... guest, ye-es, that's right – mine guest, as of now. The first to pay us heed in a long time. Momentous." He chuckled. "Momentous."

Anna nodded, and did her best to conceal her frown.

“Thou wilt be given quarters so long as thou art mine guest. Is this clear?” He nodded as if he’d asked himself. “Ser Glenn, escort Ser Anna to the guest room.”

No sooner did Ser Glenn bow than Anna stepped forward hastily. She hesitated, bowed her head, and then spoke. “Your Grace. Please, I have but one request from the queen, and – and, in exchange, the queen will – will pay you homage.” She hoped it worked.

“Oh?” said the frog king into the ensuing silence.

“Yes. She… That golden shard in your throne.” Anna indicated it with a careful sweep of the hand. “I take it for a piece – an ancient artifact, one the queen desires.”

“Oh?” said the frog king again, barely turning his head to behold the golden shard. “This thing,” he said, “is a storied treasure of the oglin people. Why shouldst I give it to thee?”

Anna blinked. “The queen will pay any price,” she tried.

The frog king regarded her with a gaze that seemed momentarily hostile. It softened into a sly peering as his mouth wattled into a coy grin. “The queen wilt pay any price,” he said. “Of that, I have no doubt. No, thou shalt not have this treasure of mine. But thou wilt have mine hospitality. Ser Glenn.”

Gently, Ser Glenn took Anna by one elbow, and pulled her in the direction of a door off to the side. A few spearmen followed, and together they proceeded into the bowels of the castle, a sense of foreboding growing in Anna’s gut with each step.

Ser Glenn said nothing the whole while, only walking ahead in dead silence. Anna tried to ply him. “Ser Glenn,” she said, “I was only wondering… How long has it been that your king has sat his throne?”

The frog knight stirred. “About three turns of the moon,” he said. “I suppose thou wouldst be the first human to hear it directly. The king was only a lord when he heard the voice of providence that led him down this road.”

“What is that?”

“I know not personally. But that is why His Grace would not give thee the Golden Treasure. ‘Twas the thing that told him to carve the Oglin Kingdom anew. Thou knowest this story not? He rose up and declared his independence of thine Arendelle, and that was that.”

“I think,” said Anna slowly, “that many in Arendelle did not know that your king declared independence.”

“It’s hardly our fault. If Queen Arendelle cannot be bothered to take an interest in oglin doings, what did she expect?”

Anna looked down. They believe they have won their independence, she thought sadly. In a way, she guessed they had. And then a rage of frustration bittered her mind. Well, what did she expect? The queen said so herself nobody spoke to the oglins. It’s a wonder they didn’t call themselves independent for longer. Hells, they might have been independent for years and how would anyone know?

The futility of her mission hit her like a sack of bricks. Anna knew she needed to return to the queen, to report the trouble and… what then? Arendelle was already fighting and losing another rebellion. Who would raise their banners?

One thing at a time. Anna sighed. For now, she just had to focus on getting out, and then the queen and Hans could worry how to deal with this apparent political disaster.

Just then, a tremor shook the low corridor they were passing through, knocking some clumps of dirt and tiny fragments of stone loose from the ceiling. It lasted for but a few seconds, but happened at the same time that a low, distant, scorching roar vibrated the walls and throttled the air, as of the scream of a gigantic beast somewhere deep, deep below the earth. A shiver down Anna’s spine forced her to twist uncomfortably.

“What,” she said, “was that?”

“Ah,” said Ser Glenn brightly. “That was our finest possession of all.

“His name,” he went on, “is Nidhogg.”

Ser Glenn turned his head and smiled just a little bit. “Thou knowest not the story of this castle, I take it? The story of Blackwatch?”

Anna shook her head.

“When this swamp was first settled,” he said, still walking, “the First Oglins had needs make do with cold, harsh winters. They became practitioners of fire magic. Masters of it. They worked their magics to ensure that harsh winters never harmed us. It was a golden age for oglins.

“But then, he came,” rumbled Ser Glenn darkly. “Nidhogg.”

He was silent for several moments as he continued walking down the corridor, webbed hands now clenched into fists. “He was a demon of flame and fire, a terrible beast sent by the gods to punish us for… for some imagined crime. He burnt the swamp to ashes and forced us to hideth deep underground. We relied on the water and the cold to shieldeth us from his tyranny, for our magic was naught to him.

“One final effort of the last oglin mages created a blade to tame fire – the legendary oglin sword, Hinoken. No mage survived its forging, but the great Ser Cyrus took it up and defeated the dragon.

“All was well once more, and Ser Cyrus was a hero. But soon after, another threat came and once more threatened oglinkind.” He swiveled on Anna. “Canst thou guess what it was?”

Anna shook her head.

“’Twas the same that threatened all of the dale and beyond,” he said in a low voice. “The Ice Queen.”

He turned forward again and kept walking. “She brought with her Nidhogg, that same fell beast of old, and granted him our marsh as his domain. She stole Hinoken from us, and we were defenseless. ‘Twas only the legendary hero who saved us then. He returned Hinoken to us, and with it we vanquished Nidhogg. Once he put an end to the Ice Queen, our gratitude to humans was great.”

Anna was silent for a chilly moment. “You said it was great?”

“It was,” confirmed Ser Glenn. “But we have come around. The Ice Queen was human. Thou art human. Ser Cyrus defeated Nidhogg with nary a human about, and who should have revived our woes but humans?”

He made a rasping croak that might have been a scornful tsk, and then was silent again.

Anna cleared her throat and prodded him. “But ser, what has that got to do with the quake that occurred just now?”

“Ah,” said Ser Glenn. “That’s Nidhogg.”

For a moment, that didn’t take. “Come again?”

“In the deeps of this castle.”

Anna was mortified. “You mean he’s alive?”

“If thou canst call it that. ‘Tis thanks to the legendary hero. Thou art warm-blooded, so thou must have noticed this swamp is of a very pleasant temperature?”

Anna nodded dumbly.

“’Tis the doings of Nidhogg. He liveth in the castle deeps, and the great heat of his body is piped to all the swamp. Every cavern is an artery, and the heat of Nidhogg the blood that keeps the swamp alive. ‘Tis a fitting punishment, a fitting use for such a fell demon.”

Anna couldn’t say she agreed. It sounded like a terribly bad idea. “But why?” she asked.

“Because we can,” said Ser Glenn, pounding one fist into the other. “‘Twould be a waste to slay the beast when we can put its shoulder to the wheel on bettering the lives of others. Well, here is thy room.”

They had arrived at a thick door that opened into a reasonably well-furnished though thoroughly subterranean room. The décor was all a dark forest green and the squat plush bed looked fresh and ready. Some doors spaced throughout the room showed that there were multiple apartments.

“Human guests often used these rooms, back when they visited,” Ser Glenn sniffed. “I hope they are to thy liking. If thou needst anything, let one of thy guardsmen know.”

Anna nodded somewhat vacantly, her mind still elsewhere. “Thank you, ser, though I don’t expect I shall be staying for long.”

“Oh no?” said Ser Glenn with a hint of amusement in his voice. Something in the way he said it made Anna’s skin crawl. “Thou art the king’s guest. We implore thee to accept His Grace’s hospitality.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I really must get back to my queen.”

“She canst wait,” said Ser Glenn curtly. “Surely.”

Anna’s fingers tingled as the sensation of unease flooded her body. She opened her mouth to ask, Am I a prisoner? but a feeling told her that now was the time for a more tactful approach. Play dumb. Make them think you’re dumb. So Anna simply nodded and said, “Yes, she can. I thank you,” and bowed.

Ser Glenn smiled. “The king will want to see thee later, I am sure – but for the nonce, thy time is thine own; though prithee keep thee to thy chambers.”

Anna nodded, and pretended to look as though she just thought of something. “Oh, ser, before I forget – I am quite curious about your… about the… the beast you have in the depths. I was wondering if perhaps it was possible that I could see it?” She paused. “As a young girl I heard many fantastic stories, and, well, it would please me greatly to see for myself an elder monster such as yours.”

Ser Glenn seemed to consider it. “That may be possible,” he mused. “So long as I am there, thou hast nothing to fear… Very well. Wilt thou desireth time to wash up, or canst thou cometh now?”

“I can wash up later,” said Anna quickly. “It is not any mere time that one gets to see the prized possession of the oglins.”

Ser Glenn nodded, and motioned to the others, who assumed posts around the outside of Anna’s room. He then beckoned Anna, and the two of them continued down a side corridor that let out into a wide, spiraling descent, that itself led to the top of a deep, cylindrical shaft. A cliff stood adjacent to a complex-looking arrangement of levers, pullies, and wheels.

On the cliff, Ser Glenn hailed an oglin standing sentry there. “Prithee raise the elevator,” he told the oglin, who nodded and yanked a rope. Distantly down the shaft, a bell rang.

A few minutes later, a rattling and crackling platform came up the shaft. It looked like a large wicker basket with a door in the side, and was maintained by a mess of ropes and hooks that attached it to the larger apparatus.

“How far down?” asked the sentry.

“All the way,” replied Ser Glenn.

The sentry looked surprised at that, but did as he was told. He yanked a few ropes, threw a lever, and with a start, the basket lurched and started moving down, and down, and down.

The shaft was ill-lit except for the light of a few corridors they passed through on lower levels, though the further they went the further apart these corridors became, until most of the time they were in pitch blackness. Eventually, the basket hit solid ground with a definite thump, and the door opened to reveal a long low hallway that led to a cast iron door with a big oddly-shaped hole in it. Outside the door, a single sentry sat on a stool, looking very dejected.

“He roared today,” Ser Glenn told the sentry when they came up.

“I know,” said the sentry dolefully. “It was dreadful loud, it was. Ser, did you know yesterday they forgot to send me down any food? I’m proper famished, and I could use a drink or two besides.”

“Thou couldst do without the drink,” said Ser Glenn chastely.

“Not without food, though. I hate this job.”

“Thou shouldst have thought about that before thou stole from His Grace,” snapped Ser Glenn. “Be grateful he did not have off thy hand.”

“Grateful?” scorned the sentry, muttering. “What has gratitude ever done for me?”

“Enough of thy whinging. Now, open the door.”

The sentry frowned. “Ser?”

“I said now. Do not make me repeat myself, scoundrel.” Ser Glenn grabbed the handle of his sword as a warning.

The sentry blinked his froggy eyes at the sword, and then, grumbling, reached behind him and pulled an enormous iron key out of a wooden box on the floor. He waddled over to the door, inserted the key into the hole, and turned it clockwise about eight times, then counter-clockwise a dozen times. The whole time, the door shook and shuddered as if it was like to dissolve. Then, finally, it made a cracking sound, and the whole thing swung open.

Inside was a gigantic chamber with walls of red and blackened stone that sloped up to meet no ceiling at all, simply a huge black shaft that seemed to extend upwards infinitely. It was sweltering hot, and the ground Anna could swear was glowing red.

Its glow, however, was nothing compared to the red light and almost visible heat of Nidhogg.

Crouched in the center of the chamber, still some fifty feet away from Anna and Ser Glenn, was what looked at first to be a very large red lizard with wings, decorated heavily all over with chains and shackles of black metal, fastened to the wall at all points so that it could barely move. It had four limbs with claws, all manacled, and its wings, which might have had a total wingspan of over two hundred yards, were crumpled up and drenched in chains. On its head were two large, wickedly stagged antlers, and over its snout was a heavy muzzle of steel with a keyhole in the side, of about the same shape as that in the door they had just passed through.

When they entered, Anna heard a rumbling. At first she thought the earth was moving, but it was actually the dragon. It had started the noise in its belly, and it went to the throat, and it ended up in the muzzle, where it vibrated through the air palpably. It reared up and glared at them with two huge golden eyes with slits for pupils.

Ser Glenn drew his sword – long and slender, glimmering gold and red – and held it out in front of him. “Well, may thy curiosity be slaked. ‘Tis Nidhogg thou seest here. The oldest and most dangerous enemy of all oglinkind.”

Anna said nothing. She merely looked. But the dragon did not look back – its eyes were on Ser Glenn and his sword.

A minute of silence went by as they all stood there. Wordlessly, Ser Glenn turned and motioned to Anna to follow. They left the chamber and the sentry locked the door behind them. Ser Glenn sheathed his sword.

“That hole in the ceiling,” Anna said as they climbed into the basket, “where does it go?”

“All over the swamp. ‘Tis a network of tunnels,” said Ser Glenn. He yanked a rope and a distant bell sounded above. The basket lurched into motion. “The throne room itself is heated off of the main artery.”

Anna considered that for a moment. “And the surface?”

“Of course. How dost thou imagine we got the beast in there in the first place?”

Anna nodded as she thought back to the huge grating in the throne room. “What did that oglin do?”

“The sentry? Petty theft. He was a servant ‘till he was caught stealing the king’s doilies. He was always a drunkard, that one. Addicted.” Ser Glenn snorted contemptuously.

He deposited her at her room, and she asked, just to be sure, “When do you think it would be convenient for me to leave?”

Ser Glenn’s glance wavered and he said vaguely, “Eventually.”

He left behind a contingent of two guardsmen to watch outside her door. Thus was she left alone to think. She sat down heavily on the plush bed, sinking into it.

Well, she thought, I’m definitely a prisoner. There was no doubting that. It didn’t matter if the oglins believed their independence to be a foregone thing, as they couldn’t possibly hurt from having a hostage in the form of one of the queen’s council members. True, it might not matter in the end. The matter would be settled by other means. But Anna didn’t put head-shortening above what the oglins would do if their backs were against the wall. Something Lady Ysmir had once said about a cornered animal.

Anna massaged her temples in consternation. I need to escape and get the golden shard. But how?

She paced around the room and inspected the furniture and the apartments. There were a few nice dressers, evidently invulnerable to mildew, a large mirror and a sofa. It all looked off, however – as though someone had looked at a courtly bedroom but didn’t quite understand the function of everything therein, and then committed to reproducing it. The drawers on the dressers, for instance, would not open, and the mirror was too awkwardly sized to get a good look at oneself. The bed seemed to be the only thing that really worked.

One door let into a small steamy room that led to a sliding wooden panel. Anna pushed it back and found a room that was carved out of the stone, large and housing what appeared to be a pool of hot water, fed by a trickling stream that came out of a faucet in the wall, shaped in the fashion of a dragon’s head.

A bath sounded pretty good just then.

She paced for a while more before tearing off her clothes and slipping into the hot water. It was extremely hot, almost scalding, but after some time’s adjustment felt like the most natural thing in the world. The water smelled like earth and grass and seemed to rinse the edges out of her mind. She wondered if the queen’s baths were as nice as this.

Anna had acquired a very intimate understanding of the arrangement of her apartment by the time someone came knocking. It was an oglin guard, who told Anna the time had come for supper. Feeling refreshed, but not having made any more sense of her situation, Anna went along, hoping at least for something good to eat.

It was a forlorn hope, however, as the oglin fare was not remotely passable. Porridges made with flies instead of oats, roasted dragon-flies, and countless other insects and arthropods and little fish Anna did not recognize made up the entirety of the oglin diet. She inquired after some bread and only got a funny look.

There was something of a feast that night, and Anna assumed it was to celebrate the king’s acquisition of a new hostage, for she was seated at his right and everyone shot her looks. Under their scrutiny, she did her best to stomach as much oglin food as she could – but there was no use for it, so she only nibbled as occasionally as possible to give the barest impression that she was really eating.

The wine was another matter. It was black and tasted of licorice, but Anna found she didn’t mind it as much. Still, it was very strong, so she only had part of a cup. She wanted her wits about her.

The feast went on for some time with the king extemporanealizing at length about the glory of oglinkind, to raucous and long-lived applause. Songs were sung, amusements were brought out, and it wasn’t long before nearly everyone was in their cups to some degree. At last the king sat himself up on his throne and demanded further entertainments, and Ser Glenn went up and stood at his side.

A long speech ensued where a frog with terrific whiskers and a booming voice told the story of the fire demon, Nidhogg. It lasted for several verses and ended with a triumphant exaltation of the king, and of oglinkind, and so on. In any other situation, Anna would have forced down a stiff drink at this; but not today. Instead, she was forced to contemplate the dragon, and his slavery, and how very convinced the oglins were that they were right.

Anna’s stomach rumbled. She eyed the food mournfully and the performers disinterestedly. She watched someone else take a platter with them and disappear into a side corridor, and an idea hit her like a thunderbolt.

A bottle of wine in one hand, she told her escorts she was ready to retire to her quarters.

“You’re taking that with you?” one of them drawled.

“If that’s okay,” she said in a shy voice. “I really like it. You oglins make terrific wine!”

That satisfied both the guards. “Well, you might as well enjoy it while you can,” the other one slurred, and they escorted her back to her chambers.

“Do bugs ever roam these halls?” Anna asked idly on the way.

“If we’re lucky,” was the response.

Her idea was crazy. It meant certain death if she failed. But she had a duty to do.

Once she got back to her room, she paced around it for a bit. She kicked off her boots, went into the bathroom, and screamed. She came back out and opened her main door a crack.

“What was that about?” asked one of the guards.

“There’s a bug in the bath,” she said. “It scared me! I was going to take a bath, but – ”

Scared you?” repeated the guard, incredulous. “Why would it scare you?”

“We humans aren’t tough like you oglins. We fear the tiniest of things – even bugs!”

The guards seemed to find that copasetic with their worldview. They exchanged a look. One of them smiled haughtily and tromped into her room.

“Show me the bug,” he said.

She led him to the bathroom and opened the sliding door. She closed the other doors behind them.

“Where is it?”

“Right there,” she said, pointing vaguely.

“I can’t see it.”

“Right where you’re looking. Look closer.”

She flicked her wrist and the boomerang snapped back into her hand. She went back to the main door.

“He needs help,” she told the other guard.

“What?”

“He said he needs help,” Anna said as earnestly as she could.

“That idiot,” snarled the other guard, and shoved past Anna and stomped into the baths. He froze when he walked into the room, in shock; then he froze for another reason.

Anna tied them up with the sheets from the bed, and stowed them in the corner of the baths. The magical paralysis wore off and they started shouting muffled threats through the gags and struggling against their bindings. But Anna could tie a pretty good knot.

She grabbed her vital belongings and the bottle of wine and took off down the corridor, down the large stair, and down to the elevator shaft.

She held the wine out for the sentry’s inspection. “I was sent to bring this to the oglin below.”

“Aye? Well, don’t keep ‘m waiting,” said the sentry in a bored tone.

Anna boarded the basket and was off with a yank on the rope.

When she got to the bottom, she took the bottle up to the sentry.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” said the sentry with wide-eyes.

“Wine. I thought you looked parched,” said Anna in the sweetest tone she could muster.

The oglin took it greedily and unstopped the bottle. He took a great long pull before it sat back with a contended sigh. “Aye, that’s good stuff. Go-od stuff.”

“I’ll say. This is a pretty wretched job, huh?”

“Aye,” said the oglin and he laid his spear aside. He took another pull and smacked his lips. “They say it’s fittin’ for a criminal to look after other criminals. Well. I don’t know what the fuss is about. It’s not like the king needed all them doilies.”

At the oglin’s third pull, Anna bashed him with the boomerang like a club. The bottle clattered on the floor, and he was out like a light. She liberated the key from the box and opened the door, shutting it behind her.

The dragon’s chamber was as it had been before, except now it was only Anna in the room with the beast. Large iron key in hand, she walked up so that she stood directly below the dragon. Its muzzle hovered feet above her head.

It rumbled and peered at her.

She held up the key. The dragon looked accordingly baffled, but inclined its head slowly, tenderly, as if the moment would be lost if handled too callously.

Before she did anything, she asked, “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about you. Something tells me they’re not all true.”

The dragon, of course, said nothing.

“I’m going to free you,” she told the dragon. She reached the key into the keyhole on the muzzle, and turned it clockwise eight times, and counterclockwise twelve times.

With the banging of tumblers, the whole thing loosened. Anna jumped back with a yelp and it clanged against the ground with a tremendous thud, chipping the rock floor where she had stood just a moment prior. She landed on her bottom in her haste to get away, and was wincing as the dragon worked its jaw for the first time in ages.

It rumbled again. A smile played on its draconian face. Its eyes smoldered dangerously.

“Now, this is new,” it said, its voice quiet and loud at the same time. “What makes you think I’m not going to eat you right now?”

Anna looked up at the dragon. “I just freed you,” she said bluntly.

“Not yet,” corrected the dragon.

“Well,” said Anna, “I’m about to free you.”

“So, gratitude, then,” rumbled the dragon.

“Mutual interest,” she said. “I don’t know what you did to them to get locked up, but I want to hear your side of things. I’m their prisoner, just like you. So.”

“So,” repeated the dragon, amused. “Before we begin, you should know I’m somewhat soured on mortals right now. Have been for – let’s say – two thousand years?”

Anna blinked. “You haven’t been locked up for two thousand years,” she said.

“I did have a short break in there,” admitted the dragon. “The Ice Queen was a very extraordinary human.”

Anna’s brain worked as she pieced the dragon’s meaning together. “You were a prisoner before the Ice Queen showed up?”

“Oh, yes,” said the dragon. “She freed me – for a while – but that accursed blade put me down again.”

Anna got to her feet. “The oglins said you terrorized them. Burnt their swamps, attacked them – all that. And that this was your punishment.”

The dragon roared, a scornful, laughing roar that echoed throughout the chamber and, Anna had no doubt, all around the complex. “I made these insipid frogs!” said the dragon after he had finished his roar, gnashing his long, sharp white teeth. “I gave them everything – and this is how they repaid me. Their lies – their LIES. The enormity of it all!” The dragon roared again.

He leveled his head and snaked his neck down such that his face was even with Anna’s. She looked him in the eyes. His voice was low, and shook the earth like a drum. “Little human. Something you should know about oglins. They are greedy and vain and utterly lacking in gratitude. Tell me, what did they tell you of their so-called fire magic?”

“They told me it was a skill they learned to survive in the swamps.”

The dragon spoke in a low, smoky voice. “It was no such thing. It was a gift. From me.

“A gift?”

“Oh, yes. I took pity on them; always squatting in the mud every winter. I taught them how to weave fire and flames and, with that skill, survive.

Anna looked at the dragon warily. “How do I know you tell it true?”

“Heh heh,” said the dragon. “You don’t. But you can know it true that I am a spirit of fire. And what reason would I have to aggress against the oglins?”

“Well,” said Anna, “you might be evil.”

“That’s true,” admitted the dragon. “But I am not. Or at least, I do not think I am. I have been called a demon so many times that I often forget myself. But I have my principles. Once, they involved protecting and serving mortals.”

The dragon exhaled shakily in what might have been a sigh.

“So what happened?” asked Anna.

“I gave them too much,” after a lengthy pause. “No matter what I taught them, they asked for more. They wanted to know how to conjure flames, so I showed them. They wanted to know how to imbue fire in things, so I showed them. But they sometimes abused the power. Burnt down their own swamps, burnt themselves, burnt – each other,” the dragon’s eyes flashed. “So I gave them one final gift that would be mastery over fire itself. I gave them a shred of my soul.”

The dragon stopped talking, though its eyes continued to smolder.

“They took that shred,” said the dragon quietly, “and imbued it in a sword of their own devising. All of my gifts went into that blade, and thenceforth that blade existed for only one purpose – to enslave me.”

“Truly?” asked Anna.

The dragon just looked at her. It tweaked her. It felt wrong, wronger than wrong. Of course she didn’t know if it was true, but the mere idea of it set her emotions to a boil.

“I am Nidhogg, god of fire,” said the dragon darkly, “and I will have my revenge. And I will burn you to a crisp if you do not free me now.”

Anna blinked and stuck out her jaw at him. “If you burn me to a crisp, you won’t get free – and that will be the end of your revenge.”

Nidhogg chuckled breathily. His exhale seemed to singe Anna’s extremities.

“Let’s make a deal,” he said. “You want something. I can sense it in you – you are here for something. Your soul yearns for something. Well, what is it?”

“I came for an artifact,” Anna said, “on the orders of my queen.”

“Let’s get you that artifact, then. Release me and I will climb out of this cavern and waste the oglins’ precious home. You can take your artifact, I will take my revenge, and then we need never see each other again.”

It was quite a lot to ask. Anna worked the options over in her mind. On the one hand, the oglins were in rebellion, and had made her their prisoner; on the other, she didn’t know if she could trust the dragon. But time was running out. She clenched and unclenched her fists, and then said, “Deal.”

She took up the key and went around the perimeter of the room, de-shackling the dragon from the multiple shackles and manacles that held him down.

When she got to the last chain, all of them seemed to slide off like water. He spread his wings wide. Tip-to-tip, they touched the walls of the room.

Nidhogg looked at Anna. “Thank you, little human. I will climb free, now. Meet me in the throne room.”

He jumped up into the ceiling shaft. It was wide, but not wide enough for the dragon to spread his wings, and so he was forced to scrabble up its walls using his long hooked tail and remaining claws for purchase. With stabs and scrapes, he clawed his way up.

Meanwhile, Anna turned and went back to the door. She flung it open and went into the corridor. The sentry was still out cold, but he was moaning and stirring now. Anna put the key back in the box, shut the door, and ran for the shaft. She boarded the carriage and yanked the rope.

Nothing happened.

Perplexed, Anna craned her head to look up the shaft. Only pinpricks of light, faint and fainter, and nothing else to go by. With a frown, she inspected the surroundings and the mechanism.

The pulley was attached in two parts to a separate apparatus that managed the raising and lowering of a heavy set of weights, the counterbalance to the carriage. At some point, Anna reasoned, the weights had to be braked or added to ensure the carriage moved. But if the weights also moved, they probably weren’t added, so they had to be braked at certain pre-defined points.

And that’s when she saw it: an arrangement of about ten ropes side-by-side at the end of the apparatus, each one slotted into a different ring. On the furthest rope to the right, she saw a knot that squeezed against the dark metal ring. Those ropes probably regulated the weights, so if they were cut…

She threw her boomerang. It sliced through all ten ropes and flipped back into her hand just a moment before the basket shot up like a rocket. The momentum tried to push her against the floor of the carriage, and the speed went up and up until, finally, the ceiling of the shaft zoomed into view. With all her might, she leaped to safety just before the carriage smashed into splinters against the ceiling shaft.

The oglin sentry gaped as she somersaulted forward and gained her footing. Before he could do anything, Anna bull rushed him and lifted him bodily. His spear clattered against the ground and he squealed. Anna smashed her forehead against his froggy face. She threw the dazed and bloodied oglin down, and ran up the steps towards the throne room with all haste.

She encountered two oglin men-at-arms on the way. “Halt!” they cried, and leveled their spears. Anna drew out Autumn and weaved between them, cutting each of them down with savage swipes.

In the throne room, all was commotion. Anna made it to the foot of the dais before they surrounded her. The king noticed.

“What is the meaning of this?” he cried. “Thou – after I took thee in and treated thee as a guest, now thou runst about the Blackwatch causing all this fuss. Well? Speak up!”

Anna put on her shield as well, and pointed her sword at the frog king. “You are in rebellion,” she declared. “And you did not take me in as a guest. I was your prisoner, and there’s no sense in denying that.”

“Nonsense!” screamed the frog king and he slammed the arm of his throne with a clenched fist. “Thou’rt out of line! I’ll have thee hamstrung for this, I’ll – ”

He was interrupted by a terrible screeching noise, the sound of a giant metal grating being yanked from a vent. The stained glass acquired a shadow and, all at once, shattered as the metal grating in the wall above the dais came out. It disappeared into the black shaft beyond, and through it and the shattered glass came the dragon, huge and red. He landed with a crash on the dais, crushing the reed throne beneath him just heartbeats after Ser Glenn yanked the king away. The two of them tumbled down the dais to the side, just barely avoiding the falling dragon.

Nidhogg roared.

All around the room oglins scrambled to attention, stuck between leveling their spears at the dragon and Anna. Pure terror filled the room, screams of horror and exclamation. “The demon! The demon! Kill it!”

The dragon puffed his cheeks and blew. A gout of flame streamed across the air to paint the surroundings of the hall in fire. Every exit was blocked, and the dancing flames cast malevolent shadows in every direction. He whipped his tail in a frenzied slash, smashing apart two pillars. They collapsed in a ruddy heap of stone and mortar.

“You’ve unleashed the demon!” screamed the king. “Ser Glenn!”

Ser Glenn drew his sword.

Every fire in the room dimmed. Nidhogg cowered. The blade glowed gold and red and drank in every spare particle of light.

It was Hinoken, long and gold and red and curved in a way that reflected the light like burning embers.

“My great ancestor, Ser Cyrus, had the privilege of putting thee down, Nidhogg,” said Ser Glenn, eyes focused inexorably on the dragon. “After him came the Legendary Hero. I only hope I am worthy to inherit their legacy.”

“The blade,” said Nidhogg wearily, cowering.

“Thou canst do naught!” shouted Ser Glenn. “So long as we hold Hinoken, thou art ours to command. Now back – back, I say –

The work of another moment had Anna standing between the advancing oglin knight and the cowering red dragon.

“Ser Anna,” said Ser Glenn. “Thou meanst to stand in defense of this demon?”

“You betrayed him first,” said Anna, “a long time ago. Did you not?”

“Of course we didst not,” said Ser Glenn, face hard. “Every oglin knows the truth of the demon. We are told the tale from birth.”

“A lie passed down for generations,” said Anna.

“’Tis not a lie,” insisted Ser Glenn.

“How would you know if it was?” said Anna heatedly. “And even so, what gives you the right to make a slave of him? For hundreds or thousands of years? You don’t think that’s paid the debt back some?”

Ser Glenn scowled. “’Tis not my place to question. I have a duty.”

Anna raised her sword and shield. “As have I.”

Steel met steel. Ser Glenn moved like water, fast and agile and impossible to pin down. Where Anna struck, he was not; and he danced through the moves with impossible grace and sophistication. His blows came hard and rained on her shield, and he spun around her as much as she spun around him.

He was fast, Anna recognized; but she was stronger. Meet his blows or power through them.

Hinoken came whistling through the air, red and gold and flashing. She took it on her shield and bull-rushed. Ser Glenn staggered. She struck and he dodged. His next strike met Autumn. She parried the blow – up, and then cut in. A glancing blow across his chest.

By now the surrounding men were trying to get involved. The dragon’s tail whipped lashingly and kept them at bay, and it was just the distraction Anna needed. Ser Glenn looked at the dragon instead of her, and her sword struck true, piercing the cuirass and the gut behind it.

Only then did Ser Glenn look at her, with the look of one who had never seen a human before, and Anna realized, then, that he did not know who his true enemy was, even when it looked him in the face.

“I only did my duty,” Ser Glenn croaked, his voice barely above a whisper. “Is it true? Was I wrong?”

What could she say? She said nothing, and he died on her sword. Hinoken hit the ground with a clatter. She pulled Autumn out and pressed her boot on Hinoken. The flames in the hall roared with renewed life.

All the rest hit the ground, cowering. The frog king’s knees quivered, his eyes rolled.

“Give me the golden shard, and renounce your kingdom, and you can have your life,” Anna told him.

A moment passed. The frog king nodded. “I accept thy terms.”

Another moment passed. The dragon had the frog king in its mouth. He crunched.

“What did you do that for?” Anna yelled. “I promised him – ”

You promised,” snapped the dragon in a spray of oglin blood. The flames died away and all the oglins in the hall fled out every exit they could find. “I did no such thing. You do not speak for me, little human.”

“You didn’t have to kill him,” said Anna. She sheathed Autumn and picked up Hinoken.

The dragon eyed her suspiciously. “So now you will turn the blade against me?”

“Of course not,” said Anna derisively. She threw the sword down at the dragon’s feet. Without a second’s thought, the dragon put his paw on it and crushed it.

The dragon did not speak, only looked at its paw, beneath which were the crushed remains of its heaviest shackle. “It has been a long, long time since I felt like I could trust a one. I owe you a great debt.” The dragon snorted scornfully, jets of steam shooting from its nostrils. “Ha! And that is why I am in this mess. Tell me, what good are principles when they are the cause of all a one’s woes?”

The dragon lifted one claw and carefully scraped a symbol in the rock floor.

“Behold this symbol.” It was a triangle circumscribed by a circle, inside of which was four crescent arcs arranged in a circular fashion. “This is a sigil of the most basic of fire magic. The element of destruction. I will say to you now the words that awaken it.”

Anna did not remember hearing the words, but she did remember the dull, pulsing throbbing that persisted afterwards, and the terrible headache that forced her to her knees.

“Mortals. Show them just a little bit of the ether, and they lose all composure. I wonder how the Ice Queen managed anything when the entire vista was hers.”

The dragon was gone, snaked up the hole he entered by and up the shaft, by the time Anna staggered to her feet. She blinked, and then looked at the symbol.

The word “bombos” passed her lips.

The symbol exploded, and the force of the eruption threw her backwards, yelling. She slammed against the ground and groaned. Slowly, she got back to her feet again, though apparently no worse for the wear – except for a pain in her rear where she had fallen. The ground where the symbol was was now only a smoking crater.

Then a distant golden glow on the dais caught her eye. Among the wreckage of the reed throne was the golden shard, glowing innocently. Dark thoughts wandered across her mind as she picked it up, foggy and distant. She stowed it away.

Anna tried not to think about anything too much as she climbed the tunnels and emerged from the deep and now-deserted caverns. She was unsuccessful. The air was stale and cold. It was snowing, and snowflakes fell between the cracks in the canopy to rest lightly on the swift-cooling ground.

 

Chapter Text

“No, ser, lift your elbows a little bit – that’s right. Now keep it steady. Look down the shaft, keep the bowstring taut, there – and release!”

The arrow traced a dismal path through the air before coming to a quivering halt, embedded in the ground some fifteen yards from the repurposed quintain.

Anna swore, her face burning in embarrassment. “I told you, Martin, I’m no good at archery.”

Martin was stunned by this outburst. “Ser, what’s the matter?”

Anna blinked and collected herself. “I – beg pardon. Lost my head for a second – just a little frustrated, that’s all.”

Martin looked sympathetically at her. “It is only a skill, like any other. You need to work at it. There’s no sense in wounding your pride over it. Yesterday, you were doing great! Just bring it together.”

“You’re right,” said Anna in a low voice, and nocked another arrow. “Well, then, let’s give it another go – ”

Thus Anna was practicing archery in the makeshift indoor range when the door to the barracks burst open. It was not-so-Little John. He shook off the blizzard snows in the portal and came up to them just as Anna loosed another shaft. It missed not as badly as the last one.

Anna’s mood had been relatively dark of late. After the oglin encounter, Anna returned to the Arenborg and unceremoniously dumped the second shard on the queen’s solar table. It was all Anna could do to not explode at Lord Hans – and the queen – for their carelessness in governing the Toadsmarsh.

She had still been chilly, though. “The oglins were risen in rebellion,” she stated bluntly.

“Were they?” said Hans unnecessarily, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes. Apparently nobody had thought to check in on them in the past three months, so they declared their independence and we were never the wiser.”

To Anna’s satisfaction, the queen appeared suitably dismayed by this news. “But why?” she asked quietly. “Did you make it out all right?”

“I don’t know,” said Anna, answering both the queen’s questions simultaneously. “It may have been because nobody told them they couldn’t.”

Hans stroked his jaw. “What of it now? Do we need to add the Toadsmarsh to our list of concerns?”

“I think not,” said Anna coolly. “I said they were risen. I put them down.” With help from a dragon, but – she left that unsaid.

Quiet; then, “And what of the piece?” Lord Hans leaned forward.

Then Anna dumped it out. “There it is. Four left, yeah?”

Queen Elsa glowed with an understated aura of relief. “Four left.”

Days later, Anna was still brooding over it. The temptation to corner the queen and just talk reared up in her like an impatient animal. But she kept it down. Just do your duty. Even that meant less and less with each passing day.

There were other reasons for her mood as well. For the moment, she was thinking about writing a sixth letter to Kristoff, and was chewing the inside of her cheek trying to work out where the letters weren’t getting through. Master Kai insisted they ought all be reaching Burrowstown, and from there it was the Lord Mayor’s lookout. And so she had the growing suspicion that Lord Edward was, for some reason, intercepting Kristoff’s letters, or something like that.

“Ser Anna,” addressed Little John as he came up.

Anna lowered the tall yew bow and looked at Little John. “Yes?” she inquired.

“Someone at the gate is calling on you,” said Little John. “Ser Puck is attending now, but – the man asked specifically for you. He insisted. So Ser said, ‘Okay, if I bring her out here, and she doesn’t recognize you, can I cut out your tongue?’ and the man said ‘Yes.’”

“So you want me to help Ser Puck settle a wager?” asked Anna skeptically.

“If you would,” said Little John sheepishly.

Anna turned over the bow and arrows to Martin and followed Little John to the gate. Sounds of loud discussion preceded the scene of a loud confrontation. Ser Puck was arguing with a shabbily-dressed blond man who had a fur cap and a reindeer. Anna’s heart jumped.

“It’s clear you just don’t know anything about ice,” said the blond man.

“What’s there to know? It’s just ice,” said Ser Puck.

“Just ice!” repeated the blond man, waving his arms emphatically.

“Kristoff!” shouted Anna.

She sprinted the rest of the way to the gate, where a nonplussed and flustered Kristoff received her bear hug. “Oh, feisty- erm, Anna!” he said, all thoughts of his previous confrontation gone.

“Oh, it’s good to see you!” said Anna, pulling away. “Gods, it feels like it’s been ages!”

Ser Puck cleared his throat. “Ah, um, so – you do know him?”

“Oh yes, absolutely,” said Anna. “Kristoff is one of my closest friends.”

Ser Puck’s jaw dropped, and his poise slacked.

“So,” said Kristoff with a triumphant smirk in Ser Puck’s direction, “you’ll put in a good word for me as Royal Ice Master, then?”

“There is no such thing,” said Ser Puck.

“Well, maybe now there can be?”

Anna blinked between the two of them. “What’s going on? What did I stumble in on?”

“Oh, nothing. This knight here just bet me that if you did recognize me, he’d lobby for me to take up the post as Royal Ice Master & Deliverer.”

“Ah. But, Kristoff – there is no such post as that.”

Yet,” said Kristoff.

Anna smiled. “So what brings you to Crystalwater? Ah – never mind. First we ought get out of this snow.”

An absolute ray of sunshine had broken out on Anna’s day, despite the ongoing blizzard and the attendant cloudiness that entailed. She led Kristoff to her solar, practically skipping with delight as she indicated every tapestry, window, side-hallway, corridor, painting, and stairway they chanced to pass by.

When they were settled in Anna’s solar, fire crackling warmly in the hearth, fresh pot of tea brought in by the castle servants, Kristoff’s eyes wide and all-inspecting, Anna framed the question again.

“You’re a long way from Burrowstown!” she said teasingly over the lip of her tea cup. “What brings you down here?”

All trace of humor vanished from Kristoff’s face. “Don’t tell me you don’t know.”

Anna’s smile faltered. “Don’t know what?”

“The reason I left Burrowstown,” said Kristoff, sipping his tea. “I should think it was obvious.”

“Well it obviously isn’t obvious,” snapped Anna, “or I’d know, wouldn’t I?”

Kristoff looked taken aback. He blinked several times. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. You really don’t know – wait, obviously not, yeah.” He set down his cup and leaned forward. “Lord Edward kicked the bucket this past December.”

Anna’s eyes widened. “No.”

“Yeah, and that bratty Brendan succeeded him. He’s been running Burrowstown like a – well, like a tyrant. He’s upped taxes