Elsa looked behind her for what must have been the twentieth time. She guided her horse through back passageways, from the palace stables to the city walls. Outside, after one more look back, the princess finally breathed easily. She nudged her horse into a trot, and allowed herself a smile.
She hated to disobey and knew she was taking a great risk, but Elsa could not let pass a chance for her first breath of fresh air since before the winter snows. She agreed to confine herself to her room, to protect the kingdom from her magic. But no sixteen-year-old girl, even one as naturally solitary and cautious as Elsa, could be cooped up for very long.
She had taken every precaution, covering all but her face, which was less than comfortable on a midsummer night. Out of the town and in the countryside she could relax. Even at the midnight hour, she was unlikely to meet anything that would startle her into revealing her true nature.
Just inside a grove of trees, she dismounted and loosely tethered the horse. Elsa listened, but heard only crickets and the occasional owl. Leaving the horse to nibble at grasses and brush, Elsa strolled around, hungrily inhaling the crisp night air. She stretched her limbs and came out of the trees at the top of a slope overlooking Arendelle.
The palace loomed large and dark, with hardly any light at all in the windows. Elsa hoped that Anna was sleeping peacefully tonight.
“I wish you could be here, though,” she whispered.
Her throat closed with unshed tears as she thought of her little sister, her pleas for attention, and her mistaken belief that Elsawanted to keep her out of her life. Elsa could not count how many times she came close to revealing the truth, to telling Anna about the magic and the accident that prompted Elsa's seclusion. She couldn't; it would undo everything.
Elsa turned away from the view, her fingers itching in their gloves. Although she resented her powers, she was fiercely tempted now to remove one of those gloves—just one—and practice controlling them. But her bedroom in the palace was a cave of ice and snow already, after years of trying to suppress it all. There was no telling what might happen here if she uncovered so much as a finger.
The horse whinnied in alarm. Elsa hurried toward it, afraid of finding a pack of wolves. The horse was rearing up, eyes wild, pawing at the air with its front hooves. Elsa rushed forward to calm the animal down. She grabbed at the reins, one of her gloves slipping off in the process.
“Easy, boy!” she said, finally grasping the bridle with her covered hand. “Come now…there's nothing there.” The horse snorted and danced, still agitated. “…Is there?”
Elsa looked in the direction of the steed's frantic gaze and gasped. A young man, dark-haired and darkly dressed, was standing half-concealed among the foliage. He looked amused.
“I seem to have startled your horse,” he said, stepping out of the shadows.
At a better sight of him, however, the horse neighed loudly and reared up again, almost dislocating Elsa's arm.
“Don't you dare come closer!” Elsa shouted.
A sweeping motion with her uncovered hand sent a jet of bright blue ice shooting toward the stranger. Almost quicker than she could see, he deflected the attack, and the ice struck a tree instead. The tree instantly froze from its roots to its topmost branches.
Elsa's blue eyes widened in shock. She had never seen anyone—or anything—resist her magic. The very idea was terrifying. She grabbed the saddle to mount the horse and flee, but the animal bucked her off, sending her sprawling into a bush. With one last whinny of terror, the horse turned and galloped out of the trees, back toward the palace.
The man was coming toward her. Elsa scrambled to her feet, but she was not fast enough. She shot out several more blasts of ice, even forming a small wall, but he deflected or dissolved them almost instantly. Afraid of using her powers any more, Elsa turned to run after the horse, but the stranger caught her by the wrist of her uncovered hand.
“Calm down, girl! I'm not going to hurt you!”
His grip was strong—and cold. Gasping for breath, Elsa twisted around to face him. As frightened as she was, she felt her magical energy subsiding, as though this man's touch neutralized it somehow. Clearly his magic—for what else could it be?—was stronger than hers.
“Let me go,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Tell me who you are,” the stranger said.
“You dare ask who I am? After you try to steal my horse and then capture me?”
He chuckled. “Perhaps you have a point there. I had no intention of taking that fine steed of yours. Even if I had, I expected to see arrows and swords before…” He looked down at her hand, turning it over to see the palm. Elsa responded by clenching her fist, and he chuckled again.
“Release me,” Elsa said.
“You might try to escape again. And you have not yet told me who you are.”
“Why shouldn't I try to escape?” Elsa asked. "Who knows what you'll do!"
“If I wished harm upon you, don't you think I'd have done it by now?”
It made sense, but it did not make Elsa feel any better. “I didn't hurt you,” she said. “You blocked me every time.”
“It takes much more than cold water to harm me,” he said. “I have a little experience with magic myself, though I had not expected to find it in Midgard.”
“Midgard?” Elsa asked. “Where's that? This is Arendelle.”
“Which is in the realm of Midgard,” he said. “Excellent. I was not steered wrong after all. And now, lady of Midgard, I must once again ask for your name.”
She sighed, seeing no other option. “Elsa,” she answered, thinking it safer to conceal her title.
To her complete surprise, the man smiled. Elsa could not help but think it a rather attractive smile—one that lit up a face that was otherwise pale and daunting, with a thin mouth, sharp cheekbones, and a cunning pair of eyes.
To her further surprise, he let go of her hand, took a step back, and made a courtly bow.
“I am Loki, of Asgard—the realm of the gods—and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“The gods?” Elsa repeated. “You can't be serious. There's no such place."
He did not answer her in words. Instead, he stood up straight and pressed his hands together—one palm facing up, the other facing the ground. He drew them apart, slowly, and a kind of mist appeared between his hands. It shifted and formed a bubble that grew as he brought his hands further apart, until it was as big around as a serving platter. Elsa held her breath as she watched. This was magic, certainly, and a kind she had never seen.
Then she realized that it was not just a hollow bubble, but like an enormous crystal ball. Inside it, she saw images of mountains, rivers, buildings, and a golden palace of many towers.
“That is Asgard,” Loki said, “where my father Odin reigns as king.”
“You're a prince?” Elsa asked. “Do they know you have magic?”
“I am, and they do. Magic is a way of life in Asgard.” Elsa frowned and looked down at the ground thoughtfully. He cocked his head slightly and waved his hands, making the bubble disappear. “But here, I imagine, it is not so widely known.”
Elsa grimaced slightly as she looked back up at him. “My father is the king of Arendelle,” she confessed. Loki raised his eyebrows, but considering the quality of Elsa's clothing and her horse, her heritage was hardly surprising. “I have to hide my powers from the kingdom,” she went on. “I'm not even supposed to be out here—I should be in my room at the palace.”
Now it was Loki who frowned. “Why should a member of the royal family be compelled to hide her power?” He seemed personally affronted by the idea.
“My sister,” Elsa said. “I'm the only one in our family who has magic, and she doesn't know…” Elsa smiled, remembering. “When we were little, Anna and I would build snowmen and skate and go sledding and have snowball fights—all in the palace ballroom. She'd wake me up and wouldn't let me go back to sleep until I'd make it snow for her.
“But something went wrong. I lost control, and Anna got hurt. The trolls in the forest healed her, but they also erased her memories of magic. And now I have to protect her, and learn to control…this.” She held up her clenched fist. “I'm supposed to be queen someday, but everything I touch gets hurt.”
Loki looked over his shoulder at the frozen tree. “So I see,” he said wryly.
She dropped her arm. “I don't know why I'm telling you all this.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” he said. “I have no one in this realm to tell secrets to.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Elsa asked.
Loki shrugged. “I like to explore. My whereabouts are of less interest to my family.”
“Then you're lucky,” Elsa said.
“But I am not destined for a throne,” Loki added. “That privilege will go to my brother. No doubt there'd be a greater fuss if hewandered off.”
“Then you're really lucky,” Elsa said.
“If Thor were better prepared for rule, I might agree. Princes have more fun than kings, after all.” Loki flashed another smile.
“And more than princesses,” Elsa said. “At least in Arendelle. Poor Anna—she should be having more fun, with balls or banquets and things. But she has to be locked up too, just to be safe. All because of me.”
Loki turned away without a word. Elsa's shoulders slumped. The first new person she'd spoken to in years, and she managed to put him off with her self-pity and angst. But he only picked up her discarded glove and brought it back.
“Can't have any more accidents now, can we?” he asked, handing it to her.
“Thanks,” Elsa said. She pulled it back on. “Too bad I can't get the horse back just as easily." She closed her eyes and groaned. "If he reaches the palace stables, he's sure to give me away.”
Loki responded by wiggling the fingers of one hand, creating a small, shimmering cloud. With one smooth motion, he threw it forward. Elsa watched it speed away.
"What was that for?"
"You'll see," he said.
“What's it like?” she asked, almost breathless. “To not have to worry about what people think of your magic?”
“I never thought about it until now,” Loki said. “Controlling it took a great deal of time and practice. My mother taught me much of it. A shame you have no one to teach you to hone your powers, but Midgard is hardly famous for its magic forces.”
“I don't want to hone them,” Elsa said. “I want to be rid of them! I want to wake up and find it's all been a bad dream.”
“Do not speak so,” Loki said. “You have a great gift. It is the realm that is unworthy of it—not you.”
“I didn't ask for this,” Elsa said.
“Yes, I'm afraid that is how Fate works,” Loki replied. “If I were honest, I would say that I did not ask to be the second son, denied the throne of Asgard. But Fate deals everyone a few bad cards, and these appear to be ours.”
Elsa was trying to think of a response when she heard a soft whinny and heard hoofbeats.
“My horse!” she gasped. The animal trotted into view, led by the shining cloud. Loki held up a hand and absorbed the cloud back into his palm. Elsa grabbed the horse's reins, but it was calm and did not try to escape this time.
“Thank you! But…I should go back now,” she said, her voice tinged with regret. “I only meant to get some fresh air.”
“I imagine you got more than you bargained for,” Loki said, laughing.
Elsa mounted the horse and settled into the saddle.
“I'd invite you back to the palace as our guest,” she said, “since you know our great secret already. But my parents will be furious, and Anna would be sure to ask questions—”
“Do not worry about hospitality, little princess,” Loki said cryptically. “I fear that I am not the ideal houseguest, even from one royal to another.”
“Oh.” Elsa was not sure what else to say. She liked this stranger, and was unwilling to leave his company. But she had to get back before she was discovered. “Where are you staying?”
“I will return to Asgard tonight,” he said. “I think I have seen the best that Midgard has to offer.”
It took Elsa a moment to realize what he meant. She bit her lip nervously, again at a loss for words.
“I must look for another opportunity to visit Arendelle in particular,” he went on, moving to stand beside the horse. “Perhaps in your wintertime, when you will be more”—again he glanced back at the frozen tree, now thawing and dripping in the warm night air—“comfortable.”
“Do try,” Elsa said, trying to sound casual. “Thank you, Prince Loki, it's been…a delight to meet you.”
He took her hand in what she thought was to be a friendly shake, but he pinched the tips of two of her fingers and deftly removed the glove. Elsa instinctively made another fist. Loki took her small, pale hand again and coaxed her fingers to unclench. His eyes locked on hers as he leaned over to kiss her hand. Elsa almost wished there was less moonlight, that he could not see her blush.
“Farewell, Princess Elsa of Arendelle,” he said, giving her one last smile as he handed back her glove.
She smiled back and bowed her head before turning the horse around and trotting back toward the palace. A flash of multicolored light briefly illuminated the trees. When Elsa looked back over her shoulder, the prince was gone.