PART 1: The Mountain
She wakes on an uncomfortable surface, at a strange angle. The blue sky is disorienting; her last memory is of the chandelier crashing toward her in the ice palace and it takes a moment for her mind to catch up to her physical location. She closes her eyes against a wave of vertigo and sits with her head bent toward her knees as sounds begin slowly trickling in—snorting horses, the crunch of snow underfoot, men’s voices calling to each other.
The unconscious queen had been settled on a hastily constructed sled. Thick pine boughs with smaller branches hacked off have been lashed together and strapped behind a pair of horses who stand quietly, riderless. A coat is spread beneath her but it is too thin to convert her mode of transport into one of comfort. She stares at her hands, both encased in iron cylinders, transforming the ends of her arms into heavy stumps.
Raised voices draw her eyes to a scene some distance away, where most of the men are digging in the snow. A recent avalanche has left a mountain pass in a state of upheaval, she gathers, and they are attempting to carve a path through the snow boulders. They call to each other—words of caution and clearance, instruction and encouragement.
A young gendarme trots over to her with a mug of hot coffee. He wedges it between her iron hands and adjusts the scarf she did not notice wrapped around her neck. He has plainly been appointed temporary nursemaid.
“Are you in pain, Your Majesty? They told me to ask you how many fingers I’m holding up.”
Physically she is perfectly fine, though she has come down hard from the high she experienced when building her ice palace. She gets rid of the gendarme and sips the drink while she observes the laborers. Her blood feels sluggish in her body, her lungs reluctant to inhale. Everything she sees seems to have taken on a gray pallor. After a few minutes she tosses away the coffee, now ice-cold and tasteless. With some effort she manages to tug the scarf off. It coils on the snow like a rope.
A blur of red enters her vision—Prince Hans of the Southern Isles in all his ginger glory. She watches him narrowly, looking for what caused her little sister to decide to bind the remainder of her life to this man when she had known him for little more than half a day. Anna’s open, lonely heart would admit anyone, and Elsa is not about to let her fling herself headlong into folly. There is no way of knowing if Hans was equally as charmed as Anna (suddenly, consumingly) was, and Elsa is—slightly—willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But anyone with a functioning brain can smell a rat.
For Anna’s sake she is determined to be fair. She is willing to be wrong if it means her sister will be happy. He works hard, she notes. There is nothing lazy about him, nor does he avoid the more difficult obstacles or assign any to another man. He is busy, deliberating with the surveyors ahead, rotating the diggers alongside him according to strength and fatigue. He is smart, she must hand it to him; the path he picks through the chaos is stable and the work necessitated is time- and labor-efficient. He is the only man digging in his shirtsleeves.
Readiness to labor is a sign of strong character, but anyone can work hard, whether in love or not. Intelligent leadership means he knows how to read others, knows what they want, knows how to give them a version of their fulfilled desire (something she has never done well, she reflects). Is he genuine or simply a good actor?
After a while the weight of her gaze on him becomes too heavy to ignore and he leaves his task and goes to her.
“How are you feeling?”
“Fine. Thank you.” She returns his coat. He turns it over in his hands. If he insists she keep it, she will drop it in the snow behind the sled as soon as they are on the move again.
“Any chance you can help us with this?” he says, gesturing to the work. He is thinking of the stairway leading up to her palace, she knows.
She thinks: Absolutely not. She did not scale a mountain so that they could drag her back down. They can dig their way down the mountain for the next five years for all she is concerned.
“No,” she says. “I can only manipulate what I create.” It is a lie, and he knows it. She braces herself to be called out for her attempt at deception, her selfishness in the face of their difficulty—attributes unworthy of a queen, however new; and she knows the slightest intimidation will work: she was never given the words to refuse, and here she cannot hide behind a door or run away. She hates him for this sudden return to fear, for this familiar caged sensation. Her fetters frost over.
Thus, his next words are not what she expects.
“There is another matter, Queen Elsa,” he says slowly. “Princess Anna’s horse returned to Arendelle without her. Concern for her safety was the primary reason for this expedition. We have yet to locate her.”
She will give him this.
“I spoke with Anna not long before you arrived,” she tells him. “She had no horse with her. She did have two companions—mountain guides, I believe.”
The relief on his face is unpracticed. She finds herself thinking of the summer sun, golden and warm, flooding the sky with light without thought for who might be looking.
Then he frowns. “You saw her? But… you were still there, on the mountain. Didn’t she tell you, don’t you know what you—what’s happening in Arendelle?”
She keeps her mouth closed tight. What right has he to interrogate her, or question her choices?
He says, “You don’t trust me, do you?”
“Anna is heir to the throne, and you are the last of thirteen sons,” she says coolly.
He does not speak, just breathes in and out steadily and meets her eyes. She remembers: his gaze locked with hers, calling her out of the battle rage that had sent her to push a man into a precipice and drive an ice spear toward another’s throat; eyes widening with alarm before the crossbow fired.
“If you saved my life so that I would bless your marriage to my sister,” she says, “it’s a start.”
The tightness leaves his face. He grins.