Hunger drove her path. Mind numbed by pain and need, she took each step in a daze. The snow, deep as it was, barely crunched underfoot. She barely noticed. She couldn't see it, couldn't think of its beauty or freedom right now. It was barely as though she could remember who she was.
Elsa. That was her name.
She stumbled upon a root or a branch, it was hard to tell. For a moment it snapped her out of her trance. She'd been through this before. She knew that although she couldn't feel the cramping of her stomach, it was her body's need for nutrients that pushed her to leave her sanctuary. The thicket she stood in had previously been good for berries and acorns. None were there now, but for the poisonous fruit she'd left well alone, as per her training as a child. A wry smile inched its way upon her face. Somehow, this wasn't the context in which she'd pictured using such information.
This was no good. This was the furthest downhill she'd been, had allowed herself to be in months. She couldn't risk being seen, certainly not in as weak a state as she felt. Her hands shook as she pulled her cloak round tighter. She'd left it too long. Had she been stronger, more alert, she might have been able to risk going near the few dwellings that scattered the slopes just south of there. Now it would only serve to get her caught. She shuddered. The thought wasn't worth considering.
She moved on.
Idly, she wondered where Olaf was now. The little guy had a way of rescuing her from tough spots like this. A few times he'd found himself a carrot for a nose, only to give it to her. At other times he had snuck in a bag of grain for her, before chuckling in his distinctive manner and leaving. He was giving by nature, loving and inquisitive, but also quite sad, as she could tell from his charcoal eyes whenever her irritation and depression ended up pushing him away. She couldn't help it. He was the reincarnation of a childhood memory gone sour. She could never tell if she'd imagined him or if he was real; if it weren't for Marshmallow (as Olaf so affectionately called her guardian), she would definitely have pegged him as the former.
But all that was moot now. She hadn't seen him for weeks, and Marshmallow's recent injuries in the course of duty had scared Elsa to the point that it was only now she had felt desperate enough to seek out sustenance. Speaking of which...
Elsa could sense something. Unsure if she'd seen, heard or smelt it, she paused. She felt a rushing in her head, her balance swaying, but it didn't take her long to figure out a direction. Her steps unsteady now, she ducked beneath the bough of a scarred tree. There, faintly, she'd seen smoke. Scree was between her and the alcove it rose from. Progress was slow down the slope of loose rock. Dry hands nicked against rough edges. Her heels gave way. She ended up sliding down the last few meters huddled in her cloak, quickly scrabbling out of the way once she reached the bottom and heard many more rocks following her down. Blankly she stared at the rubble, unmoving. Once she was ready to move, the last stone had stopped moving the time of twenty breaths. That had been sore.
Now it was an intriguing smell that guided her. The smoke she'd seen earlier had disappeared behind fir tree and boulder. Maybe she'd imagined it, but this smell... She sniffed the air, vainly trying to recognise what it was. It stirred memories, but she couldn't tell which ones. All she did know was that it spurred on the need in her gut, the urgency that had driven her so far down the mountain. It was only through sheer strength of willpower that she stopped herself from running towards it. There could be traps.
Her vision blurred as she neared the big boulder and fir tree that hid the alcove she'd seen from above. She relied more on her hearing than sight to check that the way was clear. No voices, no stepping sounds, there was only an odd crackling and sizzling that puzzled her. The smell was most certainly stronger now. She could make out its source as she rounded the corner, a small fire, with something held above it. Curiosity overtaking caution, she shuffled towards it... and then stopped, as she became overwhelmed and fell to her knees.
Heat. She had forgotten what warmth felt like.
Tears formed in her eyes. She had missed this. More than she could ever have known, for though the cold of an icy and snowy mountain never bothered her, it would never be the same as the warmth of an open fire, logs crackling as the wood turned to ember, as light became heat. The smell of wood coal, pine and oak, could never be replaced by the cold sharp smell of winter. It brought back memories of happier times, winters spent indoors by a large fireplace, warm dinners and laughter. The tears began to run, and soon she was quietly crying as she soaked in the sweet warmth of the small fire.
For what seemed like too short a time, it felt like she could finally remember what bliss felt like.
That is when the words came.
They had to be words, but they made no sense. The syllables, delivered in a rhotic dialect she couldn't recognise, did however send a chill down her spine. She'd been discovered. Someone else was there.
The words came again, their tone leaving little place for misunderstanding. She was the intruder; it was up to her to explain her presence here. The quiet hiss of a blade being drawn added to the urgency of the altercation... yet still, Elsa could not find it in her to turn away from the fire.
The little snow still in the alcove crunched noisily underfoot as the stranger made their way towards her. She cringed. This was it. The day she'd always known was coming had arrived. This was the day her curse would be brought to a brutal, messy end. She closed her eyes, fearful of what they might see.
She heard the strange accent once more, this time softer and more questioning. It didn't sound like a man. For some reason she found this reassuring. The last time she'd heard a sword drawn hadn't gone well...
"You... Are you well?" The words were stilted and sounded wrong, but Elsa could understand them. Startled she opened her eyes and looked towards the person who'd spoken them.
The sword was still out, gleaming darkly in the half-light. The blade looked rough and well used. The woman holding it seemed small, but the way she held it quickly told Elsa that she was no stranger to a fight. She couldn't see much of the woman's face, much of it obscured by the hood of her cloak that also hid most of the body. An intense scowl peered out from the mass of the black furred garment, the odd length of fire red curls hinting at more beneath.
Clearly frustrated by Elsa's lack of response, the woman took one hand off her weapon to pull back her hood. For all that she was still holding a sword in her direction, Elsa found the change welcome. The stranger still looked ferocious, but younger somehow, less frightening. Muttering again in that strange tongue, the woman used the free hand to reach for Elsa's hood. Startled, Elsa skittered back a few feet, as the stranger groaned before switching back to Elsa's language.
"It's... good. I... I will not hurt." With a pacifying gesture, the stranger dropped her sword and gestured for Elsa to pull down her hood. "Let me... see you."
She could have run. She could have grabbed for the sword. She could have kicked the fire to create a cloud of ash in which to hide and escape. Heavens, if she'd only been thinking, she could have used her ice magic to defend herself. Instead she did the one thing she hadn't thought she'd be able to do since that fateful night so many months ago now.
She chose to trust, and the hood came off.
For a moment, Merida stilled, unsure what to do. She recalled suddenly with great detail the fairy tales of her youth, her mother speaking of magical creatures and dangerous adversaries as she sewed her tapestry on a stormy winter's night. The intruder in her camp, the one dressed in a fine shimmery cloak of purple, too thin for the cold weather, too uncommon to be a pauper, was crying. Quiet tears rolled down damp cheeks, only to flutter off as short-lived snowflakes. The face, its skin taught, pale, the hair, white as the snow that covered the ground, and those eyes... It was like staring at one of the fae from the stories: Beautiful, cold, and most likely... dangerous.
But then the moment passed, and Merida recognised the taught dry skin, generally weak appearance of the white-haired woman to be signs of hunger. The ageless beauty of her, the richness of cloak, neither precluded her from being just another hapless victim of the winter curse. She sighed. She'd been looking forward to that game.
"Thanks," she said, in that awful tongue the locals spoke. The language of the Vikings and Norse invaders past may now be a common trading tongue for her people; it didn't make it any easier to speak. She followed it up with her more natural Gaelic. "Thank ye for trusting me." Not that the strange woman seemed to understand.
Gently, so as not to startle her, though from what Merida had seen her reflexes were sluggish at best, she reached for her knife and the bowl in the bag she carried. Pointing with the bowl, she indicated the hare that she'd left roasting above the fire. The icy blue of the woman's eyes popped as she focused on the meat, as though seeing it for the first time. The apparent surprise allowed Merida to use her knife without provoking any further reaction, cutting off slices of meat that were cooked just right. It was a shame the hare wasn't any fatter, the shavings slim and tough. There was no question however which of the two needed the meat most.
"Here." It took a moment for the woman's puzzled look to morph into one of stunned understanding, as Merida handed her the meat. A hoarse whisper came out in response, an echo of the thanks Merida had uttered mere moments earlier.
You're welcome, Merida thought, but that didn't help her figure out what to do next. If this woman, clearly lost, hungry and on foot had managed to find her camp, she was going to need to move, and quick.
But, she realized, as she watched the woman clumsily puzzle out how to pick up the hot food with her fingers, moving could wait.
"Merida," she announced, making the effort to speak her name slowly and follow it with the local tongue. "My name is Merida."
A hesitation, second thoughts clear to see on the other woman's face as she considered her response. She certainly was a puzzle. Merida was going to need to make sure her sword stayed near.
"Elsa," the woman said, her voice stronger as she reached her resolution, clearly at peace with the decision made. "I am Elsa."