Her heels clicked against the floor as she approached his cell: the last one in a line of nine four-by-four stone rooms with a single, thin-slatted window, hay strew across the floor for minimal warmth, and cold, iron bars binding those within from the freedom their sins ripped from them.
The prince was asleep—or pretending he was anyway. He lay on the thin mattress of the cot, curled on his side in the fetal position with his arms twisted beneath his head as a makeshift pillow. A light snoring sound proved he wasn’t pretending, but she was still leery. He was a good liar and an even colder manipulator.
The bells outside rang to welcome the dawn, and he shifted against the cot, stirring from his dreams at the echo of the disruptive noise. He groaned and sat up, scratching at his head as he yawned.
Less than seven days had passed since he was hauled down here by the Arendelle guards. Today marked the eighth and final day of his imprisonment, and as she looked over his slowly-waking form, she smothered the twinge of guilt settling in her stomach. His pristine white outfit was smeared with the dirt of the walls and ripped from his tussle with the guards--fighting even as he fell. He was hardly the image of the perfect prince she had first met in the ballroom upstairs, and she had to remind herself it was he who put himself here--not her.
Whatever punishments awaited him were his to bear alone, and they were born of his own choices.
He stretched his arms high over his head, kicked his legs to the floor, and ruffled the sleep from his hair. Glancing up mid-yawn, he caught her eyes, the hesitation within them, and the way her hands twisted around each other.
A light smile tugged at his lips. “What do I owe the pleasure, Your Majesty?”
“Our trade ship from the Southern Isles has returned. The guards will be down in a moment to escort you to it.” She dropped her fidgeting hands to her sides and hid them among the folds of her gown. “Congratulations, Prince Hans, you’re going home.”
“Home?” More panic than joy filled his voice.
She nodded. “Consider this your last visit to Arendelle.”
Proud of herself, she spun on her heels and left his presence with her head held high. For the sake of her sister, herself, and her country, she was glad to know this would be the last time she’d ever have to see—
“Queen Elsa?” came the high-pitched, almost shrill screech of his voice.
She stopped and dared to turn back to his cell, despite the voice in her mind and the knocking in her heart begging her to leave. When she faced him again, she found him standing in the center of his cell, looming the same distance from her as from his cot—as if he didn’t know which would harm him, or help him, most.
“Is that my only choice?” His voice was a whisper now, nearly too soft for her ears.
She narrowed her eyes at him, studying this fracture of a man with only hesitation in her heart and alarm bells ringing in her head. He may act hurt or scared, but he was talented; she would not fall to any more of his manipulations. But still her curious nature won out, and she wanted to know the meaning behind his question and to reveal whatever trickery his words sheltered.
“What do you mean?” she asked, cautious and calm.
Two large steps forward carried his lean frame toward the cell bars. He lifted his gloved fists to the cool iron and wound his fingers through them to plead with her, eye-to-eye.
“Going home,” he said, that same gentle whisper that didn’t fit what she’d come to learn of him. “Is that my only choice?”
She became too aware of the fact they were alone: she made no order for one of her guards to linger in this dank and darkened space to watch over the cells that were rarely filled. There was no cause for it, but now, she wished there had been. But perhaps for this conversation, it was best that no other ears heard of it.
She cleared her throat and held her hands behind her back, careful to stand out of reach of his long arms—just in case he tried anything.
“After what you have done, Prince, being offered a chance to return home is one you should be happy to receive.” She looked him in the eye—something she could stand to do since letting go of the anger in her heart. “A prisoner could be offered no better choice.”
“What have I done, Your Majesty?” He spoke softly, curling his fists tighter around the bars and lifting the dirt from their nicks to stain his white gloves further. “Did I not care for your people in your absence? Did I not stop you from taking the lives of men who meant you harm under an order of fear and intolerance? Did I not save you from an arrow to the heart? Did I not carry you down from the mountain to safety here—”
Her arms fell to her sides, and her hands tightened into fists. “Where you locked me in the prison of my own family and chained me like an animal!”
“To protect you,” he pleaded. “And to protect others—in an effort to save—”
The sting of ice swelled beneath his hands, and despite the thick fabric of his gloves, he jerked his hands back from the iron to find smears of icicles now dripping from their outline.
“Enough!” she yelled, commanding and strong. “Perhaps you would have an easier time pleading your case to someone you did not raise your sword against.”
He sighed and let his shoulders sag. “Am I not entitled to a chance at forgiveness?”
She scoffed, bewildered by his words. “Forgiveness? You will leave Arendelle with the knowledge that if you ever dare to return, I will not hesitate to order your life to be taken. That, Prince, is your forgiveness, and it is far more than a prisoner of your kind deserves.”
The sound of heels clicking off the walls as she stomped away from his cell were like thunder beneath dark clouds. The ice on the iron bars melted and pooled on the floor, and the sting in her hands faded to red fingertips kissed by frost.
“Prisoners come in all forms, Elsa.”
She paused. His tone had shifted to something vulnerable, something regretful, something—human.
“You of all people should understand that.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose, arguing with herself as to why she shouldn’t be suckered into his words, why she should continue walking and leave this—and him—behind. But her curiosity won out, and she returned to him for the second time.
“Hans—” she spoke his name with equal parts caution and hate “—what is it you want?”
“Another choice,” he said simply. No games, and not enough words to hide a lie.
“Why wouldn’t you want to return home when all who are here despise you?”
He chuckled. “Didn’t you flee from your own home as well, Queen Elsa?”
She snarled her nose. “I left to protect my sister, to protect my kingdom, my people, and to be—”
Her eyes met his, and her heart stalled at the honest pain she saw reflected in his greens. But he blinked, and it was gone, hidden from her like another trick.
“A prisoner here in a cell, or back home, a prisoner in my room or in the stables tending to the horses, or perhaps something worse, something new my brothers or my father have thought up.” He sat on the edge of the cot and leaned forward, resting his arms across his thighs. “I have no chance there. I never really did.”
“And you believe you have one here?”
“I believe I have a chance at one, Your Majesty, if you will grant me.”
She folded her arms over her chest. “I can’t.”
He rose from the cot in a rush. “Let me start over, Elsa, let me—”
“You can never go back to being the man I met in the ballroom, Hans. You will always be the man who swindled my sister, who broke her heart, who intended to—” She cast her eyes to the ground. “There is no chance for you here either.”
He approached the bars and gripped them tight once more. “I’ll be a failure at home, mocked and tortured worse than I was before I came. But here I can be of use. Here I can be more than a castaway son.”
“Anna wouldn’t have it, and neither can I. You made your choices, Hans. They are yours alone.”
“I’ll do all that you ask,” he pleaded, reaching through the bars.
She shook her head and retreated down the hall, determined to leave him for the final time. “I’ll go and collect the guards. The ship should be docked by now.”
He yelled after her. “Your people believed you to be a monster. They were frightened of you. Yet they bow to you now as the queen you always should have been.”
She kept walking, trying to ignore his words.
"They welcomed you back. They gave you a second chance.”
She reached the bolted door of the prison and loosened the lock.
“Can’t I be granted the same?”
With the cold iron lock in her hand, she heaved open the heavy wooden door.
“Please, Elsa.” His voice echoed off the walls, deafening to her ears. “My sword was raised to you just as you pierced your sisters heart—”
She sucked in a deep breath and snapped her eyes shut.
“But she forgave you.”
She stepped back from the door and traced her steps, a familiar path, back to his cell.
“What is it that you offer, Hans?”
There was no smile on his lips, no devil’s mask hiding his true intentions. There was only a man stained by the filth of his imprisonment clinging to the iron bars as if their weight was the last thing keeping him from drowning—despite their nature to weigh down the ankles of liars and thieves.
“I’ll do all that you ask, Your Majesty.”
He sank to his knees and bowed his head—a proper bow to her power that recalled to her the first, and only, honest respect she ever gleaned from him in the ballroom above.
“I am militarily-trained. Proficient in duels, well-spoken—”
A faint smirk tugged at her lips. “Oh, yes, I am well aware of those attributes.”
He rolled his head back to look her in the eye. “Then tell what you want, and I’ll be it.”
“This isn’t a question of what I want, Hans. You must plead your own case and convince me—just as you were as willing to convince me of your love for my sister.”
“You’re right,” he admitted.
She was as surprised to hear those words drop from his lips as he must have been annoyed to speak them.
“What I truly owe you is a debt, a life-debt.” His eyes were wide and pleading. “Let me stay, live here in Arendelle, and I will work off the debt by whatever means you deem necessary.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You mentioned stables before?”
“I admire horses, and I would accept the duty of cleaning the stables.” He bowed his head once more. “It’s a chore I was once happy to be burdened with. It can grant that same joy again.”
“What else?” she asked, curious by all the man was willing to offer to remain here.
“I know masonry. I can repair stonework. I can cook. I can clean.” He sighed and rose to his feet. “I can do whatever you will of me, Queen Elsa, to work off the debt in exchange for a second chance and a clean slate.”
“You do realize if I accept this, I will have you guarded at all hours.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“And you certainly won’t be entitled to better living quarters.”
“This cot is more than I would have at home.”
Her heart weakened for him for a bare second before she straightened her spine and rushed away the pity. He was a talented liar and an intelligent player; he was likely lying. What prince would be denied his own room and bed?
“Most importantly of all, Hans, you will not be cleared to leave and roam Arendelle free until I will it.”
“And if you dare to break these rules, to slip out of sight, or to play any more of your tricks, I will order your life to be taken by beheading at the executioner’s hand.” She swallowed hard, speaking those words with strength and clarity. “Do you still wish to stay?”
His eyes searched hers, and she still saw no devil hidden within them.
“More than you can know, Your Majesty.”
She allowed herself to accept the truth of his words. She had been feared, possibly hated by some. She had almost murdered her dear sister out of a desperation to keep her safe. Yet, her people welcomed her home. They smile and wave and even embrace her in kind hugs. They address her as “Majesty” with such confidence and acceptance.They don’t gawk at her like a beast or dismiss her as a monster; they love her.
And Anna speaks no word of what happened, greeting her with smiles every morning.
If she could make a humble return, then perhaps the prince—if his sorrow and regret were as true as he claimed—could do the same.
“Alright, Hans, I’ll offer you this chance, but know that another ship will never again sail to the Southern Isles. The only way to reach freedom is with redemption.”
“I understand, Your Majesty, and I accept.”
She sucked in a deep breath. “Then I’ll retrieve the guard, and you’ll begin work immediately.”
With a nod, she turned her back to him for the third time but hesitated. Glancing back over her shoulder, she met his eyes with a solemn frown.
“Do not make me regret this choice, Prince.”
He gripped the iron bars again, covering her melting icicles with his gloved fingers, and watched her leave. The sheer blue fabric of her cape swayed behind her with the same elegance and glamor as she carried in herself with each step. She disappeared from his sight too soon, and he tightened his grip against the bars.
“I won’t,” he vowed in a low whisper before bowing his head against the bars.