For many death comes in the form of myth: a tall, hooded skeletal figure wielding a scythe. It's a safe enough belief, the sort of intangible monster that mothers scare their children with during moments of misbehaviour.
Anna's death is anything but mythical, safe or intangible. Not when she's staring at them straight in the face: this tall, pale woman with her familiar charging straight at Anna. They say your life flashes back in near death, shows you the highlight of your memories from the beginning to the end. She wishes it's the case – because even remembering is an action better than the utter helplessness of her situation.
Her life doesn't flash before her eyes, but time does slow into a crawl, a mere fraction of its speed. She stares at charging bear, fifty paces away. Forty. Notices the sheen of its fur against the sunlight, the absurdity of its size. Its gaping, open maw with its teeth bared, each as long as Anna's fingers.
She's not going to survive this.
The pounding in her head intensifies. The pain blurs her vision but still, she tries to move her leg. Tries and fails again, because it's caught, pinned underneath the massive bulk of a fallen enemy soldier. If only she has her sword, she thinks. Moot, because her sword's buried hilt deep in that corpse of a man who's proven to be her undoing, even in his death. She wants to scream. Even after all this, even after everything she's gone through she's just a woman in the end, too weak to even move this body, too weak to even pull her sword off flesh. At least with it in hand she can face this beast, die like a warrior instead of a helpless woman. Moot.
So close she imagines she can feel its icy breath, feel its teeth tear the skin on her neck. It must be a moment of sheer desperation, but she stops staring at it, looks at the woman instead.
Their eyes meet.
"Help me," she says, even as she knows the woman can't hear her, not with this distance and this clamour of metal against metal and the roars of beasts made of ice. Not that this woman will, when she's one of the soldiers whose sole purpose is to eradicate this woman's existence.
And even then, when death is but an arm's length away, she can't stop staring at the woman. She hates herself then, for finding this weapon (hands stained with the blood of so many of her countrymen) so goddamned beautiful.
She can feel the ground reverberating against her skin, the thud thud thud of the bear's massive paws like battle drums in her ears.
Still, Anna doesn't tear her gaze away.
Her body stiffens, preparing itself for the coming end. She prepares herself and yet—
And yet death never comes.
The woman opens her mouth and closes it again, and the bear stops mid-charge, forelegs raised, rearing up in the air. So close Anna simply has to reach forward to touch the edges of its long claws. There's no skidding halt, no loss of momentum in its cessation of motion; it simply stops, one moment moving, the next not. As if it has never moved at all, as if it's just a lovingly made ice sculpture a madman has sculpted in the middle of the battlefield.
The woman says something, eyes boring into Anna's. It's too loud and too far to hear, but Anna doesn't need to. It's a word she's heard since the day of her birth, all throughout her life. It's a word she's memorised the forming of lips, the movement of the mouth to.
"Anna," the woman says.
And before Anna can say anything – can even wonder how the woman knows her name, the bear springs back into life, sending shards of ice showering around her as gravity brings its legs crashing back onto the ground. Just as sudden, it then banks sharply to the right, careening straight against one of her men, tearing his sword-wielding arm off on the elbow with the ease of a warrior handling a toy sword.
"Robert!" She calls out the man's name. Futilely. It's just one of the many names she's called out today. Most of them no longer belonging to anything alive.
The bear tosses the arm to the side – as if it's just a minor annoyance – before propelling itself on its muscular hind legs again, searching for the next target.
It's not the only beast in the field. There are a dozen more: wolves, bears, tigers, golems. All slaughtering her people with an unnatural grace, even when the humans are skidding and stumbling on frozen water and sand, an unnatural habitat for their warm climate.
This can't go on any longer. They simply can't take the losses, and believe it when Anna says that every single loss digs deep into her heart.
Another man loses a limb and panic sets in. She needs to move. Move. Move and somehow end this. There's nothing a lone woman like her can do to change the tide of battle, not when she's up against something so out of this world with a power so incomprehensible to the human mind. But still, she needs to try.
So she tries. Tries with all her might to drag her leg beneath the man's body. Using a broken spear shaft as fulcrum against her thigh, she surveys her surroundings, in case men or beast decides to take advantage of her immobility. None are: each side too preoccupied with eliminating the able bodied to pay her any attention. The woman is nowhere to be seen. Thank god she's still wearing her helmet, obscuring any recognisable facial features.
She pushes the end of the shaft again. Harder. Harder. And finally, the body bulges, lifting just enough that she's able to slowly slide her leg out. Her boot snags against the man's breastplate strap and she swallows a scream, pain once again flaring deep inside her ankle. Broken. Her mind is screaming at her to stop, but she can't. Time isn't in her hands. So she pulls and pulls, and eventually her leg comes out free.
She allows herself only a few moments to catch her breath, before reaching forward again, this time to free her sword. Her hand has barely reached the hilt when she feels something thin and cold press against the skin above her jugular vein.
Looks down and sideways. Sees a blade so sharp, so thin it's almost invisible. Ice. She looks up, and for the second time that day, meets the woman's eyes.
Someone calls her name. One of her knights is charging at them – sword raised, no doubt to save her from this woman. The first beginnings of his name escapes her lips, but before the warning to just get away, don't throw your life for me can be vocalised, the woman sweeps her hand, almost lazily, and an circular array of spikes burst from the ground, encasing him in an icy cage. One of the spikes is so close to his throat Anna can see a trickle of blood forming.
He looks at her, helpless.
"Don't worry. I won't kill him," the woman says. Her accent is thick and foreign, her voice stilted, rusty, as if she isn't used to speech. "Look to your left. Near the ships. The man with the yellow plume." Not having any choice, Anna does, slowly turning her head as not to nick herself on the blade, eyes roaming in the distance until she spots the man she assumes is the one the woman wants her to see. He doesn't seem to notice them, distracted by a conversation with another knight. The commander, she assumes. "He controls me. Kill him and you'll win this battle."
Her master. Anna knows what that means.
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Because you have no other choice," the woman says. Calm.
Anna doesn't know why, but she finds herself believing her. It's easy for her to kill Anna, after all. Have had more than enough chances to in fact. The fact that Anna is still alive speaks volumes. And it's true: there's no other choice.
Anna holds the woman's gaze for a few more heartbeats, then says, "all right. You'll have to let Jan there go though. He's my commanding officer."
The woman obliges, the spikes holding Jan in place dissolving into a flurry of snow. At once he breaks into a run, continuing his trajectory, straight at them.
"I will need to stop him," the woman says.
"As long as you don't do him any hurt."
She nods. Jan is a scant few paces away when the blade leaves Anna's neck. Lightning fast, the woman twirls it in her hand and sweeps low, striking him right at the shin with the pommel, sending him tumbling down next to Anna.
Anna interrupts him before he can launch into one of his famous litany of curses, fearing that he will once again rise and try to strike the woman, fearing that the woman's temper might be as fierce as her powers. "Jan," she says, putting enough force behind that single word that he immediately clamps his mouth shut. "Listen to me. She means me no harm, do you understand that?"
"But Princess—" He tries to rise, but the woman drives a foot against his back, forcing him and his words back down.
"Don't interrupt me. There's a knight with a yellow plume standing by the ships. Do you see him?" He follows her gaze, but not before shooting the woman a death glare first. "Do you?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Now can you explain why I shouldn't kill this monster here? Or why you're conversing together like two old women having bloody lunch over high tea? No offense to you, strange killer lady — I'm sure your cold blooded murder of my comrades is just a harmless mistake and all."
The woman doesn't give any indication of acknowledging his words. Such as smart ass as always. It's like he doesn't have a filter, or any understanding that the woman's the one who's dictating everything here. Not Anna, and certainly not him. She supposes that's why he's one of her favourites.
"First: you're in no position to kill anyone right now, let alone her. Second: he's her master, all right? Kill him and—and—" And what? She furrows her brows, unable to find any discernible motive behind the woman's actions. She turns her attention back towards the woman. "And then what? Why are you telling us this?"
"Because I despise what I am doing as much as you despise losing your men. You must tell him what to do now. Time is running out; I will be forced to kill you both if my absence is noticed. Please."
Please. The metal collar on the woman's neck glints, and Anna understands. Against all logical reason, she understand.
"Jan," she says, this time much more urgently. "Relay this to the men: focus their attacks on that man. Ignore everything else. Kill him."
After what seems like an eternity, the insubordination flees from his eyes and he nods.
The woman lifts her foot and he scampers off at once, skidding and slipping over ice. Still in motion, he takes the warhorn strapped to his belt and blew. The sound pierces the air: shrill and loud, and she sees all of her men who are still able-bodied and otherwise not engaged in melee combat congregate around him, following his stride as they rush towards the ships.
She can see the surprise from the knight's frantic gestures, motioning at his men, at the archers on the ships to reload. Several of the woman's golems are following Jan's entourage too, but she notices they're only making half-hearted grabs and swats, and the bulk of their bodies serving more to protect her men from incoming arrows than to harm them.
"If you will excuse me, I have a part to play," the woman says, and then she's off, gliding through the ice as if she's born on it, straight at Jan's men.
She picks on a few stragglers but doesn't use her powers, choosing to simply engage them in melee. Her animal familiars too, are nowhere to be seen. It's clear what she's doing: going through all the motions of protecting her master with no heart behind them.
Soon enough, it's over.
As soon as the knight's head touches the ground, the woman stops playing her part. Once again her beasts spring forward from ice, many more than before. This time their ferocity is targeted at the enemy. Limbs and heads and chunks of flesh are torn, but not from her men.
A wolf comes straight at her, then leaps overhead — briefly obscuring the sun — before landing and running again, going after a fleeing soldier. She hears a crunch and a scream stopped short but doesn't look, focused only on the woman. They all are, silently watching the carnage, the woman with the disbelief and relief that comes from not being at the receiving end of such monstrous powers. None of them makes any attempt to harm the woman even as she walks by them, close enough draw a sword upon, and bends down, picking something off the knight's body.
"Bloody hell," Jan says, squatting besides Anna having rushed back immediately after. "I thought she was terrifying before, but this is another level entirely. They should name nightmares after her. Silence crying babies and all."
"Yeah well, I don't think she even tried then. Mind helping me up?"
Grabbing her outstretched arm, he hefts her up as they rise together. Using the spear shaft and his shoulder as support, she finally stabilises her gait and starts limping forward, inexplicably dragging him alongside her.
"By the way, just in case you haven't noticed, Princess, we're walking straight towards the jaws of the beast herself. Are you sure this is a good idea? Did you hit your head on something, perhaps?"
"Only against my helmet. I think I'll tell Janus to add some padding inside. That crap hurts," she says without breaking her limping.
"We should kill her. Give me the word and I'll have my men strike her down."
She looks at him. "Gee, kill the woman who had single-handedly annihilated the enemy force? Brilliant idea, Jan."
"Just a suggestion. A very brilliant suggestion, if I may add. We can't simply let her walk away. What if she decides to slaughter our troops next now that she's finished with them? What then?"
There's truth in his words. They can't. Not after all that's happened.
She shrugs. "Then we try our best to retaliate and hope she slips on ice and cracks her head open. For now, we'll see what she wants. It's not a good idea to goad her into action by being rash. We might win, or we might just sign an early death warrant. You with me? Because I'd rather limp alone than have you tag along only to have you try stabbing her to death."
"Your wish is my command, Princess," he says dryly.
She spots the woman walking towards them and they meet halfway in between, in the middle of the frozen sea and the aftermaths of a bloody war. The woman stops a safe distance away and Anna breaks off from Jan, putting both of her hands on top of the shaft as her only support.
She addresses him. "Bring the dead and wounded back. I don't want you to differentiate between them and us – their wounded will be treated the same as ours, no exceptions, yes?"
"As you wish, Your Highness," he says. He throws the woman a look, but doesn't bother saying anything else. They both know nothing can out do Anna's stubbornness, and set in her ways she is. He turns away to join the men in post-battle triage, most of them already ignoring the few remaining enemy soldiers left. They've won, and there's no sense in letting any more lives taken.
Right. On to the next step.
"Do you mind dissolving uh, your creatures? I think we've done enough to assure victory, so there's really no need anymore. Not the sea though, since we're still standing on it and I'd hate to drown with armour on," she asks the woman cautiously, still unsure of exactly how to approach this woman standing in front of her. A snap of the woman's fingers and it's done, the various creatures rendered back into snow flurries and then none, as if they never existed. "Thanks. That's a very… convenient power to have. What's your name?"
There's hesitation in the woman's expression, her mouth parting wordlessly. But then it passes and she says, "Elsa."
Elsa. Elsa. Anna repeats it her head, feeling her way through each syllables. "Elsa," she says, pleased at how the word rolls off her tongue. "It's a very pretty name. My name's Anna, by the way. The Princess of the kingdom that you just… well, tried to invade. Nice to meet you." She wants to ask Elsa if she had really said Anna's name then, but it's not the proper place for chit-chat. Jan's right: conversing like they're having tea together is rock-bottom in her list of priorities. Right now she needs to decide what to do with Elsa. "So, pleasantries aside, I think I have an idea why you've – well, betrayed your… master." Master. It seems like such a dirty word. But she supposes that's the only way to describe it. She's heard stories about Elsa, accounts on her effectiveness as a weapon of war. Heard enough to know why Elsa did what she did. "You wished to stop serving under him, yes?"
"Correct," Elsa says.
"Okay. So what are you going to do now? You're free from him, and we all know better than to try to stop you from fleeing." Her eyes travel down from Elsa's face to her neck, eyeing the collar. She hates the thing already; it seems like such a perverse way to gain control of someone. If she can, she would've yanked that thing off Elsa in a moment's notice. But well, the stories have told her enough for her to know that she can't.
"And should I flee, Your Highness, where will I go?" Elsa's smile is small: faint and sad.
Anna shifts on her good foot, uneasy. "Anywhere? You understand that you'll have to stand trial if you stay right? And after all you've done… I don't think they'll rule favourably. I mean you can always freeze us and escape, I suppose. But that defeats the entire purpose of not going now, really."
"I think I have finally found a reason to stay. You may subjugate and send me to trial – that is entirely your prerogative."
Suspicion flares, and Anna narrows her eyes. "A reason? What reason? Because if it's just a ploy to free yourself, assassinate my father and take over internally, I swear…"
Elsa's smile transforms into some akin to amusement: her lips curling lopsidedly. "And what do you suppose is stopping me from simply storming your small, pathetic castle right now? It seems less of a waste of time than conversing with you here, trying to convince you to bring me in. Why be subtle when I can be anything but?"
"My castle is not pathetic. Or small."
"I've seen bigger."
Oh wow. Talk about double entendre. Why, indeed. It makes sense, no matter how much Anna prefers it not to. "You still haven't told me the reason why."
"Does it matter?"
"There is no ill will aimed at your family, that's all I can say. So this is what I propose: use me."
Anna's jaw hangs open. Did she just hear that right? This woman, this weapon whom many a kingdom will pay their weight in gold for – did she just offer her allegiance to Anna's kingdom? A kingdom so small, so unimportant it doesn't even warrant a mention in most maps?
"Oh, you must be joking," she says.
"I am not," Elsa says. She takes Anna's hand, palm upturned, and drops something into it. Anna looks down. A bracelet. The twin to Elsa's collar. "A token of goodwill, and I hope this is enough to gain your trust. Offer me to whomever you will. I trust you've heard enough the stories to know what this signifies."
Of course Anna has. Which is precisely why her next words come as thus: "are you crazy."
"That man – Jan, is it?" Elsa continues, as if she hasn't heard Anna. "He seems like a decent enough man. Although I must warn you that it's a bond that lasts a lifetime: until one or both of us perishes. Choose my owner wisely."
"Oh hell no. Heeeell no." Anna instinctively takes a step back and immediately regrets it, the pain she's forgotten existed flaring back with vengeance. She loses her footing and nearly falls, but thankfully Elsa's grabbed her arm, steadying her as she regains her balance.
She looks up, wanting to offer her gratitude when she catches the shadows of motion in her peripheral vision. Loyal to a fault, the men who have noticed the physical contact are standing stiffly, watching the minutest details of Elsa's every single move, in case she tries to harm Anna. Some of them have drawn their weapons. It's a dangerous situation, more so for them than Elsa. Trying her best to diffuse the situation, she puts on her brightest grin and waves, signifying that she's all right and under no duress. At all.
It seems to have worked, because they've sheathed their weapons and resume their triage. A few still stands around, casting her and Elsa a wary look, but that's better than nothing. Definitely loyal to a fault.
Elsa lets go of her arm, and she can't help but notice that Elsa's touch is warm: a polar opposite of her powers. An interesting contrast.
"Okay. Fine. But I won't gi—offer your… allegiance to anyone. Not if I can help it. Let me ask you this, then: if they were to decide it's in our best interest to execute you, what then?"
There's no discernible expression when Elsa answers: "then it will be a fitting end for someone like me, do you not agree?"
There's nothing Anna can say to that, so she doesn't. Instead she motions for one of the men milling about, gesturing for him to come. He breaks into a careful jog, trying not to slip on the ice. Once he reaches them she casts a glance at Elsa and says, "bring me a pair of cuffs, will you?"
His eyebrows rise, understanding the implication. But unlike the loud mouth called Jan, he keeps his silence, simply asks if it's the ball and chains she wants.
When his back is turned and he's a respectable distance away, Anna says to Elsa, "you understand that I have to restrain you, right? It's useless, but it'll provide some sort of security blanket for them. I hope you don't mind."
Elsa simply taps on her collar.
Again, Anna doesn't have a suitable reply to that. So they stand in silence, waiting for the cuffs to arrive. It finally does, and she tells him to put it on and lead Elsa back to the castle, to stand trial.
As her right wrist is being cuffed, Elsa catches Anna's gaze and asks the oddest question Anna's ever heard. "Do you have a sister?"
"Uh, no, no I don't. I'm the only child."
"If you did, she would have loved you very much, I think."
An odd, odd question. But before Anna can ask for clarification, Elsa's already walked away, following him docilely like they're the one who has power over her instead of her over them.
The bracelet feels heavy in Anna's hand, like dead weight.