When she woke up in the morning, she knew.
The fire in the woodstove had burnt down, but Anna wasn’t cold - even with the blanket between them, Kristoff’s body heat was enough to keep her warm. His arm was lying loose across her side, but when she stirred he moved it in his sleep and now she could get up without disturbing him if she wanted to.
But she didn’t want to. Because she realised, as she watched him sleeping, that she didn’t want to leave his side, not ever. She loved him, and this tiny single bare room on the mountainside felt more like home than anywhere ever had.
No one had sent her a bird or a note in a long time. Maybe they’d forgotten about her? Maybe she could just - stay. If that was what he wanted.
A few more days passed. A week. Anna managed to get everything done that needed doing while Kristoff recovered; he was tired from the blood loss and a bit vague about how exactly he had hurt himself but he was improving and she could tell he would be completely well soon. Neither of them spoke about the pass, or Blackstad. They didn’t speak about how Kristoff had stopped sleeping in the stable, either.
The winter, which had gone on so long that Anna had almost forgotten it was just one season, was finally drawing to an end. The snow between the cabin and stable was worn away and turned to slush, then mud. Icicles dripped from the eaves. The pass must be open, but she didn’t dare say that out loud, and neither did he.
And then - a bird, an ice bird.
It tapped on the door, and when Anna let it in, it just chirped at her and tipped its head, before flying a short distance away. She tried to call it inside, but it just sat and watched her for a moment, then flew away and over the ridge.
An hour later it returned, but it wasn’t alone.
This time it wasn’t a tap on the door. It was a full knock, from a human fist; an alarming sound. Anna was alone in the cabin, sewing in the last ends on Kristoff’s sweater, and she nearly dropped it on the floor. Who could be here? Kristoff certainly wouldn’t knock.
She put down her work and opened the door, carefully. The knocker was a young man in a smart red jacket, looking tired and cold. He was holding the reins of his horse.
“Madam,” he said. “We are looking for Princess Anna of Arendelle. We have reason to believe she has been here - could you tell me where she is?”
Anna noticed the little bird, now, sitting on his shoulder. It cheeped at her.
“I’m Princess Anna,” she said. The guard looked her up and down. Anna squared her shoulders and gave him her most regal look, in the hope it would overcome the darn on her skirt, her messy plaits, the smudge of soot that was probably on her cheek.
The guard shrugged, and stepped back. “She’s here, your Highness,” he said, and it was then that Anna looked past him and saw that there were more men in the clearing. Two were with a sled piled with boxes, and one was riding a large white horse. His hat had plumes on it.
Kristoff had come out of the stable and was standing, watching, his breath clouding in the air.
The man on the horse leapt down and went straight into a deep bow. “Your Highness,” he said. “I am Prince James of Karlstad. I trust you will forgive our arriving unannounced, but this weary winter has for so long kept us apart. Now that the snows begin to recede, we thought to arrive and claim you, and bear you away from -” he looked around him, his lip curling slightly - “This place. I’m sure it has been a terrible trial for you.”
Anna curtsied. “It’s been - fine,” she said. “Um. Thank you.”
“My men will help you gather your things,” the prince said, “And then we can be on our way and make our camp before dark.”
“The pass is open? I thought…”
“Oh, the men had to clear a few rocks, but we opened it well enough! Enough to get the sled through for your luggage. Where is it?”
“Um. Mostly in the stable.” She waved a hand in the right direction. He wanted to go now? He wanted her to pack up and leave, right now?
“I’ll show you which is hers,” Kristoff said. He hadn’t spoken until now, and he looked only at Anna as he did. She nodded, quickly, not sure what else to do, and he turned on his heel and went into the stable. Two of the prince’s men followed him.
“Is that the peasant you’ve been here with?” Prince James said, his expression horrified. “I hope he has not - inconvenienced you at all, my lady?”
“Incon - no! No, he’s been very kind.”
“Are you sure? If you want I can have him thrashed, it’s no trouble at all -”
“No! Really. He’s been very kind and - everything has been fine, really. Um. Are you sure you don’t want to stay here, tonight? And get a fresh start in the morning?”
The prince looked round, his disdain clear on his face. “I think we’d better get away from here immediately,” he said. “Is there anything of yours inside?”
Her satchel was having on a nail on the wall. Anna shouldered it, then walked round the room, mechanically picking up her things and putting them in. He’d come for her, after all. As well he might; they were betrothed. The snowdrifts were, indeed, starting to melt. What else had she expected to happen?
Outside, the prince waited for Kristoff to come out of the stable, then grabbed his arm and held him in place.
“If you’ve ruined her I'll see you hanged,” he said conversationally. “The thought of a princess alone with a peasant for weeks makes my blood boil as it is. If I find out you've touched her -”
“I have treated her,” Kristoff cut in, “with nothing but the kindness and respect with which I would treat any woman, any person. She is quite pure enough for you, you needn't concern yourself about that.” He pulled his arm away. “Have you even asked her if she wants to go with you?”
“What a princess wants is no concern of yours.”
Anna walked out of the cabin. Both men looked at her.
“Do you have everything you need?” Kristoff asked. “Are you warm enough?”
“Yes - thank you.” She hesitated. “Kristoff, I -”
“My lady!” Prince James said. “We must be on our way, or we shall not make the camp by nightfall.”
“Yes - yes, of course.”
“You will ride with me.” He held out his hand.
“Oh - of course -” It was all happening so fast. What could she do, what could she do -
The Prince mounted his horse. One of his men took Anna’s satchel from her and boosted her up to sit in front. Nothing. She could do nothing.
As the horse started to move, Kristoff lurched forward, two or three almost running steps; and then he stopped. The prince reined in his horse. “Of course, I almost forgot,” he said, and took some coins out of the purse at his belt. “For your trouble,” he said, threw them at Kristoff without looking, and rode away.
The cabin was suddenly very empty and very quiet.
All Anna’s things - her shawl, her hairbrush, her journal - had been bundled up and taken away, and his own belongings suddenly looked too small for the space. His new sweater was lying on the bed. The second chair was looking at him and he wanted to throw it into the fire.
Then Kristoff noticed a little sound, one that he’d got used to over the winter but that now seemed out of place. The little tinkly tweeting from the birdcage in the corner. Anna’s birds, she’d forgotten her birds.
Without thinking he grabbed the cage and ran outside. The horses were gone, the trampled up mud and slush the only sign they had ever been there, so he ran a little way up the mountainside and fumbled at the cage door clasp. It pinged open and the first bird poked out its pointed beak and looked at him quizzically.
“Go to Anna,” he said. “I know you can find her, she needs you. Go to Anna, off you go. All of you.”
The birds shuffled out, one by one, and took flight. He watched as they circled for a moment, a shimmering murmuration against the setting sun, then formed an arrow and flew straight and true over the side of the mountain.
He left the cage where it fell and walked home.
The horses walked slowly. The ground was soft, and also Anna could tell they’d been pushed hard to get here and were tired. She sat between Princes James’s arms, and pulled her cloak around herself against the wind.
“Do not worry, your Highness,” he said. “Your ordeal is over. Soon you will be safe in your new home.”
“I was safe,” she said aloud. And I was home , she said in her head.
The prince didn’t reply. Anna turned a little and peeped behind them - nothing but white snow and brown slush, the little cabin long gone but she was sure she could find it. Her whole body felt itchy with the need to jump down and run back.
She turned to face forward again. The cold wind blew in her face and made her eyes water. Or at least that’s what she told herself.
It was getting dark. It wasn’t that late, surely? She wiped her eyes on the edge of her cloak and looked up to see what was blocking the sunlight.
Her birds. He’d sent her her birds.
She watched as the tiny flock swooped down, chirping and twittering to themselves. The guards behind them shouted and all the men reined in their horses. Anna laughed, leaning forward across the horse’s neck, and the birds flew to her, resting on her arms and shoulders and even her head. Their claws dug into her clothes and hair and she realised they were tugging at her.
The prince had let go of the reins to swat at the birds and Anna took the opportunity to slide down off the horse. She brushed away the birds that were in her hair but let the others pull her along. “I have to - I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to go back, I remembered something -”
“My lady,” the prince said, surprised and puzzled. “Where are you going -”
Once the birds realised she was going the way they wanted her to go - running, jumping over puddles but landing in a few anyway, trying not to trip over her skirts - they let go of Anna’s clothes and just flew alongside her. She realised that even though she was out of breath she was laughing with exhilaration - and she didn’t care about the from , the men and the questions and the plans other people had made for her future. All that mattered was the to.
The cabin looked the same as it always had. The birds lined themselves up along the eaves and put their heads under their wings, evidently feeling they had done what they needed to do and could now rest. Anna knocked on the door.
For a long moment there was silence. Then she heard the bolt shoot back, inside, and the door was wrenched open. Kristoff didn’t look surprised to see her, but he only opened the door part way and leant on the doorframe.
“What did you forget?”
“Nothing.” He stood, still looking at her, still not letting her in.
“I didn’t forget anything,” she repeated. “I remembered. I remembered what I want.”
He still didn’t seem to know exactly what she meant. So she stepped forward and pushed the door fully open; then she put her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him full on the lips.