Anna had gone to sleep alone. Eventually. After pacing the halls and eating a whole block of cheese in the kitchen with complete disregard for the judging eyes of the staff. Stealing a bottle of wine. Crying to Gerda. Getting well and truly chastised by Gerda for her big, insensitive mouth. Having the rest of her wine confiscated and being sent to bed. But by some stroke of undeserved forgiveness, she woke up snug and warm next to a wide awake Elsa, sitting lazily against the pillows, reading a collection of Byron’s poetry by the light of a single unassuming candle.
Tiny cracks of morning light peaked through the edges of the heavy curtains, heralding the arrival of a new day. A chance to be better. Braver. More honest.
‘Her name was Astrid.’ That wasn’t exactly how she planned to start. Perhaps she should have waited until breakfast to be better. Too late now.
‘What? Whose name?’ Elsa gingerly stroked strands of ginger hair from sleepy eyes, not looking away from her book, ‘Are you still dreaming, my darling?’
My darling . The words just turned Anna all warm and gooey inside. Combined with the gentle stroke of fingers on her face, it was one of those moments where she found herself thinking, I don’t want to ever lose you .
‘You asked me questions yesterday, and I didn’t answer. So I’m answering them now.’ Anna sat up, yawned, and felt her head clearing quickly. She was glad Gerda took the wine from her last night, ‘I didn’t love her. Her name was Astrid, she was a parlour maid, and I really enjoyed her company. Too much, obviously. But I didn’t love her.’
‘Anna, you don’t have to tell me-’
She held one finger over Elsa’s lips, shushing her, ‘No, you asked. And I want you to know you can ask me anything and I’ll always be honest with you.’ Elsa’s eyebrows rose, but the finger didn’t move, ‘And you don’t have to tell me anything about your stuff until…unless you want to and you feel ready.’
‘Oh. Um, thank you.’ Elsa closed the book gently. ‘Anna, I don’t mean to keep secrets from you. But I don't want you to worry about me or be sad. Life only moves forward. The past is in the past.’
‘Yeah, well, the past can hang around. Besides, when you care about someone, you worry about them anyway. You know, can tell me anything-’
The sound of the metal rattling against metal interrupted them. Gerda hadn’t questioned that the door was nowadays locked almost permanently. Just wordlessly had another key made. But she made sure to always announce her presence verbally and jiggle the key noisily for an excessively long time before entering the room. The assumption behind it was amusing, and not entirely untrue. But Anna didn’t have the heart to tell her the real reason. She didn’t want anyone to worry or be sad for her, either.
‘How are my girls doing this morning, hm?’ A truly formidable stack of golden, fluffy pancakes rested on the breakfast tray, surrounded by saucers of whipped cream, butter and several silver dishes of sliced strawberries. ‘Last strawberries of the season! The staff can’t manage another bite so you best do your parts and make sure these don’t go to waste. What a pity that would be.’
Anna gave a serious nod ‘I will do my part, for my country.’
Elsa held her hand against her forehead in salute, ‘for Arendelle.’
Even Gerda played along with a truly believable salute, ‘Godspeed, girls.’
The pancakes were absolutely divine. Opulent and delicious and just what they needed to set this new day onto the right track. The strawberries were juicy, the cream was light and fluffy. And then Elsa ruined everything with the six words Anna wanted to hear least in the world.
‘I guess I did love Fex. A little bit.’
‘Oh.’ Even though Anna had suspected as much, even suggested it yesterday, she felt a stab to her chest. But it was her turn to keep a tidy smile and listen non judgmentally. She’d said, after all, you can tell me anything . And this was what Elsa apparently chose to tell her. Her mouthful of strawberries and pancake was suddenly tart and oppressively sticky in her mouth. ‘Did you?’
‘We went through a lot together. A human with magic. A Fae without it. It seemed poetic, I guess. I thought we belonged together. Like any naive teenager, I suppose. I was wrong, of course.’
‘Wow, um,’ Anna struggled to think of a supportive response, disappointed in herself for feeling so petty and jealous. It was poetic. Much more romantic than feeling up a maid in the wine cellar. Or bumbling around in the dungeons raving on about chicken sandwiches and claiming not to be a pervert. She managed a very un-poetic, ‘Worst boyfriend ever, huh?’
‘Oh, no, not that kind of love. More like a sibling. Or a best friend. Besides, Fex wasn’t even a boy...or a girl. They don’t really have those same categories, like we do. Male and female’
‘So he...or she...didn’t deflower you?’
Elsa grimaced, ‘Look, when I used that word before, I was being tongue in cheek-’
‘Yeah, I hate it too. My first act as queen will be to outlaw it.’
‘Excellent decision, my liege. I’ll notify the courts at once.’
The line was delivered with such a straight face, as though they’d agreed to annex a local city-state, that Anna couldn’t help but chuckle. She was so relieved (and cursed herself again for being relieved. It was so petty. Because it wasn’t like it had hurt Elsa any less) that Elsa hadn’t had some sexy, grown-up romance that would make her seem like a silly, lustful child in comparison, that she hadn’t even clarified the strangest part of that sentence.
‘Wait, hang on a minute, if they aren’t boys or girls then...it’s true? They don’t have the same parts as us?’ Anna couldn’t remember where she’d heard that. But she’d definitely heard it around.
Elsa gazed wistfully into the distance with a furrowed brow. ‘I think there are some things humans just aren’t meant to know. Some knowledge that’s just too much.’ She slid one slice of ripe, red strawberry past her perfect lips and slowly chewed, before adding, ‘It would drive us to madness.’
‘Maybe they have a vortex down there that sucks out your life force!’
‘Or a little tiny labyrinth.’
‘Or one giant eye that just stares into your soul and judges you.’
‘Or pincers, like a crab!’ Anna made pincers with her hands, teasing for a moment with snap-snap motions before striking Elsa’s ribs with light, tickling pinches, eliciting unprecedented shrieks of laughter. Apparently, someone was ticklish. This new knowledge left Anna feeling suddenly rather devious and she readied herself to pounce, taking a moment to appreciate the sight before her. Elsa was curled over, half-heartedly hiding but peeking out coyly, biting her lip. She cycled between firmly suggestive and playfully submissive at just the right moments and it left Anna so flustered. So flustered, in fact, that her pounce clumsily knocked over the entire breakfast tray! Leftover pancakes flopped onto the white silky sheets, strawberry slices scattered everywhere leaving splatters of pink sugary syrup. Sticky, golden treacle leaked into white silky sheets and Elsa jumped up quickly, gathering the mess onto the tray and pulling the sheets into piles. Anna tried to help but found herself shooed away as she only seemed to spread the mess wider the harder she tried to contain it!
Oh well. Elsa could have fun explaining that one to Gerda down in the laundry.
On Wednesday morning the soft morning sun shone into the bathroom, casting everything in a clean, bright light. It had become routine by now. The salve, ethyl alcohol, boiled water and soap sat next to fresh gauze and bandages on a silver tray.
The burn on the back of Elsa’s arm was in an awkward spot. Anna had to sit behind her to access it properly, which was probably for the best. Elsa was surprisingly squeamish. This morning Anna was pleased to find there were no more waxy white chunks of dead skin falling off as she washed the area. It had been two weeks and the decimated flesh had luckily remained free from infection and was finally starting to show some sign of healing. She dipped a piece of gauze into the ethyl alcohol, breathing shallowly to avoid the noxious fumes, and began gently pushing it between the metal and the raw, red flesh. She swore the cuff was looser, the last few days. Easier to move and twirl like a ring on a finger. Sometimes it felt so close to just slipping over that pesky elbow bone. But she didn’t say anything. It was probably just wishful thinking.
‘He told me it would help keep us safe. The soldiers kept finding us and...he said the cuff would stop the hounds from sniffing out my magic.’
Anna froze. Aside from the fact that they usually completed this ritual in silence - both needed to focus - it was so unusual for Elsa to just volunteer this kind of information, without any prompting, about the amulet or "Fex" (and honestly, what kind of a stupid name was that, really?) or anything from those mystery years between leaving her hometown and arriving in Arendelle. She thought carefully for a moment and decided on a non-pushy reply. ‘I didn’t know hounds could smell magic.’
The alcohol had dried. It was time to apply the salve, to keep the burn from drying out like a crater. Layers of different coloured flesh, pink, white, red, grainy muscle and yellow fat were finally covered with the most fragile layer of thin new skin. Tight and almost translucent and certainly extremely painful. But Elsa never complained.
‘The soldiers kept finding us because… He told them where we would be.’
Anna had already figured out that part and moved on to a far more troubling question. A question she suspected Elsa may not be able to answer. But it had to be asked because not asking seemed almost like ignoring how cruel and senselessly unfair the whole story was, ‘Why, though?’
She pushed the edge of the bandage between flesh and metal, pulling a nice long strip through so the whole area could be snugly wrapped. The grazing of the rough fabric over the tender open wound must surely have been the most excruciating part of the process. But Elsa remained statuesque, each time, not flinching even once.
Anna found that the easiest way to get through outings with Hans - and she had far fewer in the last few weeks - was to stay silent in the carriage. If he spoke, just nod and smile and agree. He was always on his best behaviour in public, of course. But the ride home was bound to be much smoother if she had taken the time to give him specific opportunities to speak, and directed some attention toward him during the event. It wasn’t the fault of the people, really. They were so used to just speaking to her. Waiting for her. Cheering for her. Their one and only princess. They would take some time to adjust and make space for two. To accept him as one of their own.
‘You look nice, today.’ He looked the same as every other day, truthfully, but she sensed a good moment to attempt some damage control. Things had gone well at the orphanage. Of course, Anna would always be the favourite, but the children had been surprisingly warm to him. The boys especially were impressed with his gleaming sword, talk of weapons, and his completely made up stories of valour on the battlefield.
‘That’s nice of you to say.’
‘I- wait, what?’
That wasn’t the right response. He was supposed to puff out his chest with pride like a bird in mating season or something equally ridiculous.
‘I’m so very flattered that you think I look nice . What more could a husband possibly hope for?’
And there it was. The extra facetious coldness he’d bestowed on her since that almost-fateful night when she’d wiggled free of her conjugal duties like a fish from a net. Of course she didn’t crave his closeness or affection or anything of that sort. But she hoped - no, the adult part of her knew she needed - to get to a place of at least mutual tolerance. Professional cooperation and a basic level of honesty. She needed to get him back to being his self-absorbed self, focusing on war talk and drinks with the boys. Predictable. Having him be so, frankly, snarky toward her was unnerving. She was beginning to get a very bad feeling.
‘That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. Um. That night. Our wedding night. You’ve been really gracious and super patient with me-’
‘Yes, I’m not a monster. What exactly is your point, here?’
‘Well, my point is,’ What exactly was her point? She needed to know what she was dealing with here. A ticking time bomb of sexual frustration? Or hoards of illegitimate children fifteen years down the track? Perhaps a jealous mistress? How had she gotten away with this? And how much longer would she get away with it? She simply needed to know where she stood. ‘Some people have suggested to me that a virile young man such as yourself must have needs, and that you might be growing...um, frustrated.’
‘How very insightful of them.’ Hans watched the town roll by in the window, sounding utterly bored.
‘But you’ve been, uh, like I said, really patient and I can’t help but wonder-’
‘Just what are you accusing me of, here?’ And just like that, the switch was flicked. The quiet threats hid between his words.
‘Not accusing!’ Anna held her hands up in surrender and let her voice rise into squeaky, submissive tones, ‘Not accusing you of anything, and I would never, ever judge! I was just wondering if you’d perhaps found alternative avenues of-’
‘You know, you are the last person who should be interrogating anybody else about their private lives.’ He gripped her jaw and looked square into her eyes, cold and contained. His fingers dug in, harder, harder each second. Hopefully not hard enough to bruise - imagine! The degradation, the utter humiliation. She would cover it up if it did, of course, but the walls have eyes in the castle. She regretted this decision, regretted it so much. The fear was already overwhelming her, choking her up, clouding her mind, heart hammering in her chest.
‘Oh, don’t play coy. There are rumours as far as the borderlands about the lady-loving princess and her wanton ways.’
‘There are? But I haven’t...I’m not…’ She faltered in a fog of panic, because the truth was she had , and she was . ‘Hardly anything happened!’
‘Oh but it doesn’t matter what happened or didn’t happen or barely happened.’ He smiled wryly but didn’t let go. ‘It only matters what people are inclined to believe. Rumours can spread very quickly. And they could cause quite a bit of inconvenience for somebody in your position. So I would be very, very careful, if I were you.’
Anna nodded, breathing raggedly. She had gathered none of the answers she sought. Had made no progress toward mutual tolerance or professional cooperation. But it was now at least terrifyingly very clear where she stood.
Finally, the service was over. Anna couldn’t wait for her parents to return, so that she didn’t have to do the Bible readings each Sunday. Being head of the Church of Arendelle was really, really far down the bottom of the list of things she looked forward to when the time came for her to be Queen. If they had only spoken in more accessible language, without the thees and thys and haveths , perhaps the content would make a little more sense. The hymns could do with a tempo shift as well. And some little cushions for her knees during the kneeling wouldn’t be unwelcome, either.
She sat at her desk and pulled the hairpins, one by one, from her tight bun, looking forward to changing into more casual attire for the rest of the day. She could surely fit in a bit more frolicking through meadows before her parents returned, bringing with them the cold, dark days of winter, business, work and duty.
‘What passage was it, today?’ Elsa had already brought up lunch and was sipping on a steaming cup of tea already. She was so lucky she didn’t have to go to church. Or rather, wasn’t welcome in the church. The king had quietly consulted his bishops upon her arrival, and their advice had been...unfavourable.
‘Ah yes. Good old King David. Such a melodramatic fellow. Very theatrical.’
Anna laughed, ‘You talk like you knew him personally.’
‘I kind of feel like I did.’
‘Elsa, you are the one who is theatrical sometimes. I swear.’ Anna shoved the last of her sandwich into her mouth and moved over to the wardrobe to change. She didn’t put too much thought into the comment. Elsa claimed to understand a lot of famous poets and authors on a soul level. It was a way of coping with loneliness, probably. Sad but also kind of adorable. ‘You don’t strike me as the religious type, though.’
‘I used to read the Bible quite a bit, in those early days. After I was first... captured.’
She said the last part too quietly, like she was caught unaware by her own words. The change in atmosphere came upon them immediately. Cool and thin, like mountain air with only limited oxygen that must be breathed sparingly.
‘Was that, um…’ Anna thought carefully. She couldn’t afford to misstep. ‘Was it comforting?’
‘It was the only book they gave me. And I was just desperate to find some meaning in it all.’
‘Ah. Right, of course, yeah. And did you find some ah…’ Anna couldn’t lift her voice above a whisper. An inexplicable sense of impending doom settled in her stomach. She swallowed thickly. ‘Meaning?’
Elsa recited the verse without hesitation, just a sliver of wrath in her otherwise blank tone. ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be humbled with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.’
‘Yeah, I've heard that one. Proverbs, right?’
‘The thing you need to understand is that I was a little girl ...’ there was a darkness in the way she said those last two words that turned Anna’s stomach. A distance in her eyes like she was narrating a story to someone a million miles away ‘...who could take down a whole battalion. Just like that.’ she clicked her fingers. ‘I was faster than their horses. Quicker than their arrows. Uncatchable. Untouchable. I could make shelters, boats, stairs...golems. Summon blizzards. Block roads. Block the sun.’
The mental images left Anna wordless. Breathless. Awestruck. Wistful to witness such wonders, and frankly a little frightened. That Elsa had such a sweet and gentle temperament was a great stroke of luck. Or perhaps a mercy from the gods, undeserved by mankind. Hopefully never to be tested. ‘That’s um, pretty cool. Literally.’
‘I was a showoff.’ There was no reaction to Anna’s genius pun. Only breath turning to frost on the windowpane, blurring the image of the city below. ‘I got cocky.’
‘You...cocky?’ That was difficult to imagine. Elsa was the opposite of cocky. It was like trying to imagine Kristoff being posh. Or Hans being timid. Like the opposite-land on the other side of the mirror she’d believed in as a child.
‘Powerful men...don’t like cocky little girls.’ Each word came out excruciatingly slow, dragging implications through the silence between them, ‘Soldiers don’t like cocky little witches . Who don’t. Know. Their place.’
And there it was. The sense of impending doom. The sick feeling. The sudden urge to close her eyes and hold her hands over her ears and sing lalalalala , to turn back time and turn the conversation in some other direction. But she couldn’t. She was in too deep now.
You can tell me anything.
‘Elsa, I feel like you’re trying to tell me something...’
And she already knew, in her heart, what that something was. Still, she clung to the shred of hope that she was misinterpreting. Jumping to some awful, heinous conclusion. A terrible misunderstanding. Mind in the gutter. Classic Anna.
And even if she was wrong, the alternatives were all just as bad. Perhaps worse. How deep did the well of human cruelty reach?
‘They taught me a lesson.’ Each word cut through the hollow silence, sharp as a blade. ‘A lesson in humility.’
Still, Anna wanted to believe she was wrong. She whispered, choked out a question she truly didn’t want answered, because the glistening eyes boring into her own with a hardness like shattered glass answered the question, plain as day. ‘What happened to you?’
Elsa's voice finally broke, ‘I learnt my place. And I won’t forget it. Ever.’
The feeling of shattered glass grew, from Anna’s heart, outward, fracturing the world. As if the walls, the ceiling, the ground, everything had just splintered and cracked around them. The space between them felt jagged and insurmountable. Anna held out her arms, beckoning, ‘Come here.’
It wasn’t the right thing to say. They weren't the kind, sweet words of perfect comfort and validation that Elsa would have said. But Elsa came anyway. Obediently. And allowed Anna to pull her into the mess of sheets, into trembling arms. Humming a familiar tune that Anna couldn’t quite place.
All the hardness was gone from Elsa now, as quickly as it had appeared. The wrath and sharp edges melted away, replaced by that familiar yielding placidity. Soft and pliable in Anna’s arms, like usual, (almost too soft and pliable) and whispering reassurance. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. It was so long ago, it doesn't really matter-’
‘Shh. It matters a lot. You matter.’ Anna pulled the blankets up over their heads like she could shut out the world and all its horrors, its famines and encroaching wars, its terrible men, its kings and soldiers and husbands and servants and all the rest of them, all the eyes that watched and followed and judged. Like she could burrow them down into a deep dark place of safety. Back into the womb. Into the earth from whence they came. Where the only sound would be their two heartbeats and that eerie tune in Elsa’s throat.
It was an old hymn, buried deep into Anna’s old, foggy memories.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom.
Blessed is the lamb, whose blood was spilled.
Elsa hummed it differently though. In some kind of dark, foreboding minor key. Too many sharp notes twisting its meaning upside down, distorted, backwards like the opposite-land in the mirror where good was evil and right was wrong. The same line, over and over, like a sick mantra. A disturbed lamentation.
Anna held on tight. The Proverbs had never made much sense to her. 'Shh.'