Historical Notes: All the towns in this fic are major towns in Baltic maritime trade, and most belong to the Hanseatic League, which was a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in the region. In actual history, they have declined by Frozen's time. In case you're new to my fics, I take Frozen to be set in the 1830s, with Arendelle being in Norway where the real city of Arendal is, and the Southern Isles being in Denmark. Thus the patrol routes are approximated for that geographic region. The Nordlige Fjell and Frosne Hjerte are Norwegian for North Mountain and Danish for Frozen Heart (of course) respectively.
Visby was a notorious pirate town and homebase of the Victual Brothers, a gang of privateers who are also the model for Hans' partners-in-crime. Hans himself was inspired by one of the leaders of the group, Klaus Stortebeker. I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that they lived in the 14th century for the purposes of this fic.
Karl I was a real monarch of Wurttemberg (a German kingdom that eventually became part of modern Germany). No more spoilers until you finish reading.
I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time,
walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
it's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea,
but let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.
"Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" by Leonard Cohen
The Southern Isles, Denmark
The normally-bustling port of the Southern Isles was silent at night, apart from the occasional rat that skittered over cargo and rotting boats. There were no patrolling watchmen; each ship was responsible for her own security.
Men, their faces hidden by the darkness, worked quickly; the rowboat made little sound as it was lowered into the water. What little moonlight there was glittered on the water, stirred by the oars.
Just off the mouth of the natural inlet, a two-masted brig was anchored. It bore no colours, its square sails tattered and worn.
The rowboat drew up alongside and was hauled aboard by the men on the ship.
"Have you the supplies?"
"Yes," grunted the largest man on the rowboat. "Hardtack, akvavit, stockfish, cheese, beer." He gestured to each crate and barrel in turn as he spoke.
"All in one load?"
"Of course not," came the reply. "At least three trips, but we've got a recruit here."
They pushed a young man forward into the light of the lanterns; slender, on the cusp of manhood, with auburn hair and wide eyes. His clothes were worn, but of good quality fabric. His eyes darted left and right, unsure of who to address – until a bulky man stepped forward to peer at him.
"You know we don't take men on so easily, don't you?"
The skinny chest puffed up a little when he was addressed as a man. "Please, sir."
The grizzled captain eyed him for a moment. "Fine. We need a new cabin boy anyway, there're never enough. You can stay on, and if you don't take to the life, we throw you overboard. Clear?"
He bolted upright, wearing a panic-stricken expression, and the others hid their smiles behind rough hands. "Y-yes, sir!"
"Pr – Hans, sir."
"Hans. Good. Easy to remember. Now get out of my sight and make yourself useful." The captain turned away, and began issuing a string of orders to the crewmembers.
When the reloading of supplies was complete, Hans leapt to assist in hauling the rowboat back up; they laughed as he strained on his rope, but some of the men grunted their approval, and slapped him on the back.
The ship hauled anchor and set sail, and Hans never looked back.
Somewhere in the North Sea off the coast of Gothenburg
It was supposed to be routine. Arendelle's trade with the Hanseatic cities had been threatened by privateers, pirates-for-hire; funded by minor dukes and lords, or rival merchants, Arendelle-bound merchant ships had been raided, a severe blow to the tiny kingdom's economy.
King Agdar of Arendelle had sent out patrols before with limited success. This convoy was different, however; it was led by his daughters, Crown Princess Elsa and Princess Anna of Arendelle.
As the princesses of a tiny Nordic kingdom, they were raised in a manner unorthodox for Scandinavian royalty of the time; both girls had grown up on the sea. Their education consisted not only of literature and music, but fighting and governance. Crown Princess Elsa, as the oldest, was the heir to her father's throne as queen in her own right, the modern precedent set by Great Britain's Queen Victoria just a few years earlier.
Their instructions for the patrol had been simple: skirt the coast northwards up until Oslo, and then south via Gothenburg, cross the North Sea to Aalborg, and then round the peninsula past Skagen before heading back to Arendelle. Destroy any pirates encountered. Take no prisoners – no point in questioning them for their masters' names; pirate captains never met their employers.
Needless to say, Captain's Sieg's main orders – on top of these – were to protect the princesses with his life.
The princesses had been going on patrols as soon as they could walk, despite their parents' protests – Anna, the younger of the two, had gained her sea legs long before she could manage the dignified gait of royalty.
Despite the current pressing threat, most of the time the patrols were routine; they were rarely more than unexciting voyages around the Baltic seas. The princesses still enjoyed them as their one outlet from the stifling dignity of the castle.
Anna was out on the main deck, feet tangled in the rigging, enjoying the sea breeze.
"Are you alright, Princess?"
"Huh?" She swung upside down, grateful she was wearing breeches, to look at the speaker. A burly young sailor, his arms full of weapons, was staring at her.
"You're hanging upside down."
She paused to examine her situation. "I believe I am," she said, "and what of it?"
"Nothing. I just wondering whether it was intentional, or you'd gotten stuck."
"Completely intentional," said Anna breezily, "don't mind me. Just enjoying that bracing sea air."
She twitched her foot. "… Intentional apart from the fact I may or may not have gotten my boot stuck in the ropes."
The sailor blinked. "… Would you like some help with that, then?"
He set down his burden and clambered gingerly up as Anna righted herself, holding up her foot for inspection. It was badly tangled in the ropes, and the young man sighed. "That's the third time you've gotten yourself into trouble so far, Your Highness."
"Call me Anna," said the redhead, wrinkling her nose, "Your Highness is such a mouthful. Just me, though; don't call Elsa by her name. I mean, yeesh. She gets this really frosty look, and then your ears start burning from the lecture on decorum and royal conduct." She spoke with the weary air of one who had been on the receiving end of such a lecture many times.
His lip quirked. "I'm not in the habit of addressing royalty by their first names, don't worry." He pulled, and Anna's boot slid free of the ropes. "There we go."
"Ooh, yay!" She leapt off, landing gracefully on the deck. "Thanks, uh…"
"Kristoff Bjorgman." She scowled when he took off his cap and bowed.
"There's no need to bother with the royal treatment, Kristoffer."
"Sorry. Habit." He jammed his cap back on. "And it's Kristoff."
Anna stuck out her tongue at him. "I can call you whatever I want. Royal prerogative. Also, have you been keeping count of the number of times I, uh, needed a little assistance?"
"I order you to forget it. Royal prerogative. Again."
Kristoff raised an eyebrow.
"... Any commentary will be taken as high treason." He rolled his eyes at her, she stuck out her tongue at him. They both grinned.
Anna knew where Elsa would be at this hour; in her study, working. The door was closed, and she knew her sister would have given express orders not to be interrupted. She was the only one who regularly flouted those orders and got away with it.
The princess knocked in her familiar pattern and opened the door without waiting for an answer.
Elsa was indeed hard at work, poring over what seemed like half the castle library. She looked up, and the mild flash of annoyance on her face vanished when she saw who the intruder was.
"Anna," she said.
"Hey, Elsa." Anna flopped on a corner of the desk, sending a few pages fluttering. Elsa slapped her hand down on them without looking up.
"You know," said the younger girl, "people on ships tend to spend time outside. It's kinda pointless to do the same thing onboard as you do at home."
"Hello to you too." Elsa flipped through a thick leather-bound tome with one hand, her fingers pointing out the passage she was looking for. She looked paler than usual, brow furrowed in concentration. The elder princess was cold and reserved by nature, but she was always tolerant – fond, even – of her younger sister.
Anna craned her neck at the pages of neat script Elsa was currently perusing, and frowned. "This looks new – relatively speaking." She giggled at her own joke.
Elsa barely cracked a smile. "Papa lent it to me from his private collection."
"Speaking of Papa, he didn't hug us goodbye this time."
"He was still a bit upset when we left," said Elsa. "He doesn't like the idea of both his heirs together on one ship."
"He worries too much. Anyway, he won't have to worry about you anymore, won't he?"
Elsa's lips pressed together into a thin line. She had been betrothed to the son of an allied kingdom as a baby; now that she was of age, her intended was due to come to Arendelle for the official engagement ceremony. This was to be her last patrol before she was officially an adult. "No, I suppose not."
The younger princess' eyes softened, and she reached over to take her sister's hand. "Cheer up. Maybe the guy you're marrying likes sailing as much as you do."
"I seriously doubt any sensible man would let his wife sail the seas chasing pirates, let alone a queen." The elder princess spoke without inflection, but Anna had spent enough time hanging around her sister to tell when she was unhappy.
Anna pulled a face. "I wish we actually chased pirates. Most of the time we just sail around and look impressive."
The corner of Elsa's mouth twitched, the slightest of movements; her face quickly resumed its stoic expression and she turned her attention back to her books. "We should be thankful that nothing happens. Be careful what you wish for."
Anna hopped off the desk and threw open a window, sending more loose papers fluttering, much to Elsa's annoyance. "Nothing goes wrong because nothing ever happens. It's so boring. Seriously."
"What can go wrong, will go wrong," intoned the elder girl solemnly. She stood up and pointedly shut the windows. Anna just grinned at her.
"Was that from your big thick book of ancient knowledge?"
"No, that was from me."
Anna made a dismissive sound. "You're always so serious."
"And you aren't serious enough." Unlike the younger, Elsa was dressed as though she expected to be invited to a royal function; sober, conservatively-cut dress, and ice-blue gloves. She wrinkled her nose at Anna's faded linen shirt, breeches, and scuffed boots. "You changed into that as soon as we left the harbor?"
"You know how Papa and Mama are about the proper comportment of a princess," remarked Anna in her best courtly voice. Elsa didn't smile, but the younger girl thought she caught a flicker of amusement in her sister's eyes.
"That's because you don't seem to care much about that."
"Not a bit," said Anna happily.
Elsa made a sound of disapproval; before she could open her mouth, the younger princess shot to her feet and with a "Bye, sis!", disappeared.
They were almost to Gothenburg when the lookout spotted sails.
"Captain! Sails to starboard!"
Sieg, the overall commander and captain of the flagship Nordlige Fjell, pulled out his spyglass.
"How many sails, captain?"
"Six. Looks like three ships. Damn – this will be tough." Merchant ships traveled in convoys for protection, and even privateers knew there was safety in numbers; there were too few ships to be a trading convoy. "They're fast." The captain cursed again. The Nordlige Fjell was a sturdy galleon, a relic of older times, but she was not built for speed, nor was she as maneuverable as the newer ships.
"Signal the other ships," he barked at a sailor. "Prepare for a battle. They have the advantage of speed over us, but we'll make this quick as possible."
Anna popped up beside Captain Sieg's elbow, her normally cheerful face grim. "A fight, Captain?"
He raised an eyebrow at her. "I'm afraid so, Your Highness. You and your sister should get below deck."
She scoffed. "Since when have you known us to sit out a battle?"
"Never," he grudgingly admitted. "But with luck, this should be over soon. You won't need to fight, Princess."
"Nevertheless, we should be prepared. I'll go alert the soldiers." Anna disappeared below deck.
"How many?" Hans stood in the rigging, his spyglass trained in the direction the lookout was pointing in.
"Three, four… three ships, sir."
"Three? The odds aren't good." He stowed the spyglass away. "All we have is speed, and if they're a patrol, we'll sail into cannonfire before we can board them – if we boarded them. Nothing worth plundering on patrol ships."
Hans leapt back onto the deck and began issuing commands rapidly. "Full sail. Signal Captains Hohenheim and Sturtz. We can outrun them and hide in Lemvig."
Elsa sat in her cabin, poring over her book. The material was drier than the hardtack that was the standard fare on a voyage, but she forced herself to concentrate. It was a treatise on naval strategy; her father had entrusted it to her, expecting she would need it as the heir to Arendelle's throne.
"Don't you ever knock, Anna?" said the older sister dryly without looking up.
"Not when there's an emergency, and anyway you don't lock your door. We just spotted pirates!"
"Oh." Elsa closed the book in relief, and stood up. Calmly, she moved around the room, gathering her clothes and weapons; in contrast, Anna was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet in excitement.
"Finally! After weeks and weeks at sea, we get some action!"
"It's been two weeks, Anna."
Elsa ignored her with a faint smile. "What did Captain Sieg say?"
"They're fast, but we should be able to catch them. Oh, I almost forgot, I'm supposed to alert the soldiers!"
"You do that then," said Elsa, "and I'll get ready."
Her task done, Anna quickly armed herself and went back on the deck. The ships were that much closer now; she could see men moving around on the ships. She climbed on the rigging for a better look.
"Fire!" came the cry from behind her; the cannons roared.
Hans cursed, watching their pursuers. "They're faster than they look; at this rate, they'll intercept us." He turned to the lieutenants. "Prepare for a fight. We might have no choice. Those galleons looks like they can hold easily 200 men. Fight to defend, and take the first chance to escape – look out!"
Something boomed in the distance, and cannon balls splashed just short of his ship. Hohenheim had been unlucky and taken a clipping to his side.
"They're within range! Prepare to return fire!"
There was an answering roar, and the return volley came. Their opponents had judged the distance better; Anna gulped as a cannonball shot overhead and clipped the mainmast.
"Get away from there, Princess!" roared Sieg.
"Don't have to tell me twice," muttered the redhead, clambering off the rigging and back onto the main deck. Kristoff was already there; he was part of a cannon crew. "Why am I not surprised?" he said. Anna scowled. "Less talk, more loading."
"They're closing, captain!"
"I can see that," he snapped, shoving the spyglass into his pocket. "We can't outrun them now; we wasted too much time preparing the cannons, and Hohenheim took a clipping. We stand and fight."
He turned to the signalman. "Signal the other two. We'll take point while we have the element of surprise, and break them. If they run, we'll hunt them down." The man nodded, brow furrowed in concentration as he worked the shutters of his device, flashing the coded message to the other ships.
There was a pause, and then a series of blinking lights in reply. "Noted, captain," said the signalman, "ready when you are."
"Good. Helmsman, hard to starboard."
"Hard to starboard!" He jerked the ship's wheel hard, grunting as the rudder locked. The Frosne Hjerte shuddered, beams creaking, as she swung right around –
– and headed straight for her pursuers.
Sieg swore colourfully. "They're headed straight for us! They must be mad!" Raising his voice, he added: "Here they come! If it's a fight they want, it's a fight they get! Prepare for boarding! Battle stations!"
The Nordlige Fjell creaked as she sailed on to meet the oncoming ships. The pops of gunfire drowned out the grating sound as the hulls scraped together; hooks were slung over sides, boarding planks crunching into decks, and the screaming started.
"Have I missed anything?" Elsa appeared at Anna's side, now dressed similarly to her sister, her long hair in a tight bun. She was still wearing gloves, and the younger princess wrinkled her nose.
"Just the cannonfire. We shot them, and they fired back – they missed though." Anna made a whooshing noise, demonstrating with her hand how the cannonballs went over the ship.
The elder princess nodded at the cluster of men on the main deck. "It looks like the real fighting has just started."
"That's our cue." Both charged onto the main deck, meeting the first wave of pirates head-on.
Despite being sisters, the pair were as different as night and day. Anna looked like she was having the time of her life; whooping, and cutting her way through the pirates' ranks in a frenzied hurricane. Elsa, in sharp contrast to her sister, also held her own, albeit with controlled, smooth motions. Not one move wasted energy; she was a ruthless, cold killing machine.
"Whoa, I did not know that much blood could come out of a person," remarked Anna, eyeing the fountaining gush from a freshly-decapitated man.
"It wasn't a clean cut." Elsa slit another pirate's throat, chopping off his straggly beard, and kicked him backwards onto his comrades. "Tore the vessels open."
The auburn-haired girl shrugged. "We can't all be as neat and tidy as you. I swear, you and that obsession with dirt..."
"I do not have an obsession with dirt!" hissed Elsa, directing her aggression in a lunge, stabbing her dagger down a man's neck. She left it there, snatching a replacement from the dying man's belt, and letting him fall over the side into the water.
"Yes, you do. I don't see how you can grip a sword properly if you're going to keep those gloves on all the time."
The blonde said nothing, but the next man to come at her was quickly and brutally cut down. "Focus, Anna. If you let them bleed out all over the deck, it gets too slippery to fight."
Anna reversed her sword and smashed the heavy hilt into the temple of a pirate who had slipped on another man's intestines. He dropped without a sound. "I see what you mean," she said, grimacing at the sticky pools on the planks and the men who were having a hard time finding their footing. "But you can't tell me you don't like the feel of a good day's work."
"I prefer not having to scrub for an hour afterwards," said Elsa dryly, pausing to throw a disapproving glare at her sister's blood-soaked clothing. Anna cackled in response.
The older sibling stabbed a man through the base of his throat and sidestepped, neatly avoiding the fountaining spray. "Not that it doesn't work to our advantage in this case." She lifted her sword, yelled orders to her men; they closed ranks, forcing the pirates back onto the bloodstained area, causing further chaos.
Leaving her new dagger protruding from the spine of another pirate, Elsa snatched up a double-headed axe from a dead man's hand and swung it in a deadly arc. Men wailed as their wrists were hacked off; unluckier others gurgled as their throats were ripped open. The pirates behind stopped abruptly at the bloodshed – and slipped on the bloody floor as their momentum carried them forward.
Anna grinned, dispatching wide-eyed pirates left and right with quick flicks of her wrist. "You're amazing, you know that?"
"You tell me every so often." But Elsa gave her sister a fleeting smile.
If the odds of three on three weren't preferable, at the very least it was easy to divide up. Hans' signalman shouted that Sturtz had captured his ship, and then Hohenheim.
Hans snarled. He knew the flagship would be a tougher opponent, but he wasn't expecting to do this badly; his men were barely holding their own on the enemy's deck, and were gradually being driven back. The pirate captain collared a sweaty-faced man. "Tell me, who are those two single-handedly decimating my men?"
"Don't know, Captain."
The answer caused his anger to spike. "Then find out, fool! No, wait; I'll do it myself, damn it all."
He pushed his way through onto the enemy ship and flung himself at the defenders, savagely dispatching them, cutting his way to where Elsa and Anna fought. With the arrival of their captain, the surviving men let out a ragged cheer, their efforts redoubling.
The screaming pirate in front of Anna stopped suddenly, his voice trailing away into a wet gurgle. Anna supposed it was because of the sword that had abruptly cleaved his ribcage in two. A familiar blonde-haired bulk shouldered the corpse out of the way.
"The other ships are lost, and the captain's dead," he panted, falling in step beside the sisters, his sword making quick work of the enterprising men that slipped in too close for comfort; despite their prodigious skills, Elsa and Anna were tiring. "We have to abandon ship."
"What?" gasped Elsa, tears welling up in her eyes. "No!" Anna bit her lip, venting her feelings by stabbing a man, his guts spilling out on her arm.
He looked grim. "Some of the men have prepared a longboat. We need to go, now, and swim for it."
"I'm not leaving this ship!" The older woman's eyes were wild.
"You have to, Your Highness!"
But before they could move, a tall, auburn-haired man with sideburns burst through the pirates and went straight for Elsa. She parried the blow, but only just; the force he had put into it made her stagger back.
"Jump!" yelled Kristoff, shouldering the man to one side, helping a dazed Elsa to her feet. Anna stuck close to him, fending off peripheral attacks. They crept closer to the side of the ship.
"Don't let them escape!" roared the tall man. His jaw was beginning to swell where Kristoff had hit him.
The pirates let out a ragged shout in answer and pressed closer; in the confined space, they were finding it harder to defend themselves.
Kristoff turned to Anna. "The longboat's around the stern. Can you swim?"
She bristled. "Of course! Elsa, too."
"Good," he said with a tight smile. "I won't have to tow you, then. Grab your sister, and then on three..."
As the sailor made to wrap an arm around her waist, she said, "Wait!" Anna reached over his shoulder and drove her sword down a howling man's throat, leaving it there. "Okay, ready!"
Elsa opened her mouth to say something – and then the breath left her lungs as the tall man with sideburns punched her stomach. She slid bonelessly to the deck, her eyes rolling upward into her head.
"No!" Anna spun in Kristoff's grip, landing a glancing kick on the man's temple. He slumped to the deck.
Kristoff swore again, and tried to reach for the unconscious princess; Anna shrieked. "Look out!"
The auburn-haired girl was able to kick the pirate's wrist away before he could slash Kristoff, but the force of her sudden movement, combined with the sailor's unstable footing, was enough to throw them off. He slipped and fell off the side of the ship, his momentum taking Anna with him.
She spluttered as she hit the water, struggling to stay afloat.
Kristoff surfaced beside her. "No time," he grunted, spitting out water and seizing her around the waist, swimming around the ship to where the longboat bobbed. "I'm sorry."
She sagged and cried silently into his neck. "Elsa..."
Elsa lay unconscious, surrounded by snarling, blood-spattered pirates; none of them, however, made a move to touch her.
"He's just a kid. Fights like a damned demon too."
"Did you see him kill Jan? Ripped through his throat like a bloody animal."
"He won't be killing no more." A ragged man dropped to one knee, pulling out a dagger and holding it against her throat –
Hans got up, wincing, touching his throbbing head. He was going to have a lovely bruise the next morning; a fine addition to his aching jaw. "Don't kill him."
"But Captain, he – "
"I know what he did!" he snapped, grimacing as his head pounded. "We'll need replacements after what he and his friend did," he continued at a more reasonable volume. "This one could be useful. Take him back to the Frosne Hjerte's hold and lock him there."
"What about this ship, Captain?"
"It's too large for us to sail, and slow as molasses. Loot it for anything of value; valuable goods, scraps for repair, whatever. Then burn it."
As he continued to bark orders, Hans glanced at the unconscious young man being taken away.
Hans admired the captain's cabin with some degree of fascination. Expensive-looking objects and works of art adorned the walls. He walked over to the desk. Even the sextant that rested there looked expensive. At any rate, it was better than the cheap one he used.
"This is certainly a step up," he chuckled. Men walked in, and he ordered them to strip it down and take everything back to his cabin – and woe betide the man who tried to pocket anything on the sly.
The raid had been surprisingly profitable; apart from the two sailors that had taken out a good portion of his men. There were plenty of supplies, and valuable weapons; all bore the crest of Arendelle, and Hans tipped his hat silently to the generous monarch who was inadvertently supporting his crew.
The heavy losses were minor, though, all things considered. Men were cheap and easy to find if you knew where to look. What's more, he had the blond youth.
His fighting prowess was not to be taken lightly. Perhaps with a little… persuasion, his allegiances could be swayed. Hans smirked.
"We have to go back for her!"
"We can't, Anna, I'm sorry," said Kristoff patiently, his grip tight on her shoulder; partly to comfort her, mostly to prevent her impulsively diving off the boat.
Anna gave a little moan. "They'll kill her!"
"They won't. Listen to me." He leaned forward. "She's clearly a high-value prisoner; they'll hold her for ransom. When you get back home, your father will make it known he's willing to pay for her safe return."
"But, what if – "
"Shh. Listen first. Your sister's really good at diplomacy, isn't she? And really smart?"
Anna hiccoughed and nodded.
"She'll give the pirates a tongue-lashing, won't she?"
A watery smile and another nod.
"And even if they tried something funny, she's a better fighter than you, isn't she?"
"I'd rather die than say it to her, but yeah."
"See? Elsa's more than capable of taking care of herself. They can't kill her even if they tried." He patted her cheek. "She'll be just fine, but we have to do our bit and tell your father what happened. I need you to be strong because we have to make it back home before we can save Elsa. She needs you. Okay, Anna?"
Her lip quivered. "Okay," she whispered, face pale but determined.
When the youth didn't respond, Hans strode over and seized his chin.
Defiant blue eyes stared back at him; the boy's features were fine, almost womanly. His clothing, although rough, was in better condition than his shipmates', even when splattered with blood.
"Any of it yours?" asked Hans, jerking his head at the reddened clothes. The youth shook his head violently, freeing himself from Hans' grasp.
"A good fighter, then. You'll be an asset to my crew."
"I never said I'd join your pirates," snapped the youth suddenly. His voice was husky, a young man on the cusp of adolescence.
"Oh? I don't think you have much of a choice."
"I'd rather die than live like you do."
The captain folded his arms across his chest, mirroring the youth's posture, his expression deliberately neutral. "A duel," he said suddenly with a wolfish grin. "You win, I drop you at the nearest port, unharmed. You lose, you join my crew."
The boy's eyes flickered between Hans and the handful of prisoners. "If I win, you'll let all of us go," he said.
"Done." He extended a hand; after a brief moment of hesitation, the youth shook it. His hand was slender but strong.
Gustaf, one of Hans' lieutenants, leaned over. "Captain, is this wise?"
"Probably not," said Hans lightly, "but it's fun."
He drew his rapier, pacing across the deck to warm himself up, swishing the blade. The youth stood in a faultless ready position and waited.
"First to draw blood wins."
Hans struck first; an exploratory stab that was aimed just off the youth's ear. He wasn't expecting the attack to be parried by a quicksilver flash. He hummed, pleased.
The youth's sword darted out in a series of quick sweeps and strikes. Hans chose to dodge them all, his body swaying easily. He found an opening in the last cut, and his rapier slashed close – only to whistle harmlessly through the air where the youth's leg had been. He blocked another cut, but the damage had been done and he was forced on the defensive.
Again and again the sword sliced through the air; Hans was blocking rather than dodging now, his brow furrowed in concentration. The opening earlier was a clever feint, he thought. He had been careless. His opponent was much better than he appeared, with his slight frame and delicate, feminine features.
The youth's face didn't seem to change, as he concentrated on his attack. He began another series of attacks, which Hans continued to block. He made a couple of bad lunges in return, attempting to distract the youth and give himself some breathing room.
This style of swordplay is controlled, predictable.
Hans changed tactics. He went on the aggressive, his cuts becoming wilder and bigger. The youth was forced to parry them, unable to match the dangerous pace he was setting. He got closer and closer, getting inside his guard –
Under the fearsome barrage of attacks was the opening Hans needed; a barely noticeable gap in his otherwise impeccable defence. He stabbed at the youth's right side, and when he drew his body back reflexively to guard it, hooked the youth's ankle with his leg and pulled.
The young man fell heavily on the deck with a grunt.
Almost contemptuously, Hans nicked the fallen man's arm with his sword. "You lose."
"You cheated!" raged the youth. "You tripped me!"
"I'm a pirate. Did you honestly think I'd fight fair?"
"Scoundrel!" He surged upwards, his sword in a white-knuckled grip, but paused when the tip of Hans' rapier touched his chin.
"You would do better as a sailor on my ship," said Hans softly. "I could tell you why you lost."
"I lost because you're a damned cheating bastard!"
But the captain was already turning away, calling orders to his men. "Take them to the hold," he said, "perhaps they'll change their tune tomorrow morning."
The youth's blazing eyes never left Hans' back, even as he was dragged below deck.
The men waited until they were alone to look to their princess for leadership. They had jerked forward when Hans knocked her down, but knew better than to expose her not just as a woman, but their princess.
"What now, Your Highness?" asked a man as he bound her arm with a strip torn from his shirt.
Elsa sighed. "I don't know," she confessed, "but I will figure something out. Don't worry."
"We trust you."
"Good to hear." She gave them a sickly smile.
"Princess… they do not know you are a woman," piped up another sailor.
"I think it's best if we keep that a secret for now, along with my identity. Am I clear?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Gunnar," said Elsa, after some thought. "Call me Gunnar in front of the others. I am the cabin boy."
She looked at the first man to have spoken. "Your name is Aksel, am I right?"
He looked pleased that she had asked. "Yes," he said, careful not to use any titles, but he bowed as he spoke.
"I leave you in charge of the others. Remember," she addressed them all, "we have to survive until help arrives."
"Help, Your Highness…?" The dull eyes of the men brightened noticeably.
"My sister Princess Anna made it off the ship alive," said Elsa, "so all we need to do is wait. They'll come for us, I know it."
The duel was the talk of the pirates, although it was for different reasons than Hans was occupied with.
The youth was clearly a girl. He knew the sea was a hard place for women, and most chose to dress like a man to avoid the worst of it. But she was a girl who knew how to fight, and it intrigued him.
Her style was good, but it was clearly memorized, a swordmaster's style rigorously learned by rote. She lacked the passion and spontaneity that made a good swordsman great, probably because she had never been in real danger, never needed to fight for her life.
Most intriguing was the fact that if she had received swordfighting lessons, she must be of high birth. Yet here she was, dressed as a cabin boy.
Hans was looking forward to breaking in this proud young woman.
Hans clapped the helmsman on the shoulder. "How goes it?"
"Good, sir. We are on course, and if the wind holds steady, we can be in Lemvig in three days' time."
"Three days' time? That's precise. Excellent." He strode towards the centre of the deck. "What about Hohenheim and Sturtz?"
"They are sailing with us, but they will not be docking at Lemvig. Better not to arouse the suspicion of the townsfolk."
"Yes. Good. We will be meeting them in Visby anyway." To a passing sailor, he said, "Bring out the prisoners."
The hold opened, and men dragged them out roughly. Elsa didn't utter a single sound, letting herself be hauled on deck.
Hans eyed the bedraggled group of prisoners carefully. "Who was your captain?"
"He's dead," said Elsa, "murdered by you dogs."
Unpleasant murmuring greeted her words, and the captain studied her carefully. "I assume you are in charge now?"
"Of course not, I'm just a cabin boy," spat Elsa scornfully. "Aksel is the most senior here." The sailor stepped forward.
Hans barely spared the brawnier man a glance. "Then you can be the spokesman for your little group. You're more interesting than Aksel, if a little young."
Elsa felt a prickle of fear – did he suspect her? She forced her voice steady: "Not all of us need to slit a few throats to be in charge."
In spite of himself, Hans chuckled. The young man was only a beardless stripling, yet spoke with all the arrogance of a prince. "What's your name?"
A proud tilt of the head. "Gunnar," answered Elsa.
"Gunnar." Hans regarded her carefully. She stood, feet together, hands clasped nervously before her in a decidedly feminine pose. "I am Hans, captain of this ship."
She nodded curtly.
In the long pause that followed, Hans simply stared. Elsa stared back, ice-blue eyes imperious, back ramrod-straight and unafraid.
"Take the others back to the hold," said the pirate at last. "Gunnar, come with me."
Elsa glanced at her men, nodding to reassure them, before following Hans to the stern of the ship.
After a cursory glance to see if they were alone, the captain asked: "Now, what is your real name?"
Elsa blinked. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Please don't think all pirates are unintelligent oafs. You are clearly a woman dressed as a man," said Hans in a bored tone, enjoying the panic that flashed over the youth's face. "As the captain of this ship, I'd advise you to be honest with me, if you want to get off at the next port alive." He carefully enunciated the last word, enjoying the flicker of fear that passed over her face.
"How can I trust you?" she demanded, dropping the affected huskiness from earlier. "You've already tricked me once."
"I gave you a chance to win your freedom and you lost, plain and simple."
"Only because you cheated."
Hans growled. "I'm getting tired of hearing this. Normally I don't stand for any talking back from my crew."
"I'm not a member of your damned crew."
"Until I decide otherwise, you are. And as a member of my crew, you'll follow my orders."
Elsa drew herself up to her fullest height, staring imperiously at the pirate. "I'm not your crew member, but your hostage."
"... Excuse me?"
"I don't need to do anything on this accursed ship of yours. Take me to the nearest port, and my father will pay a hefty sum for my ransom."
"I doubt your father can afford my price," said Hans softly, enjoying the anger that flared momentarily in her eyes. "And in any case, after I'd received my payment, the ships would be hunting me down."
"I cannot give you my word they will not. You are a pirate, after all."
"But if I were to have you as a member of my crew, I gain a good fighter and a handful of sailors."
She glared at him. "I will never fight for you, and I will never stop fighting you."
Hans just smiled at her.
"As you wish, my lady. But I would like you to know that if I were to know your name and home, your father would be able to ransom you. As it is, he probably thinks you are dead."
Elsa bit her lip; the last time she had seen Anna, she was with the crewman who had saved her. She didn't even know if her sister was alive, or had managed to get home safely. The princess had told her men that help was on the way to reassure them and herself.
It would be a terrible blow to her father to hear that he had lost both his daughters in one blow.
"I don't care," she said, staring Hans straight in the eye.
He didn't regret anything, truth to be told. The woman – Gunnar – was a hard worker, and with him compliant, the new crew members were content to keep their heads down.
"Gunnar," he said, and the youth looked up from his rope. "Come here for a moment."
Resentment flashed in Elsa's eyes and Hans found himself quietly amused. "Yes, Captain."
Hans drew a dagger from his belt and rolled the hilt in his hand, letting sunlight flash off the blade. "Tell me," he asked, "which way will the dagger roll?"
Elsa studied the dagger briefly. "Down."
The young woman's hand shot out and cuffed Hans' wrist. The dagger jerked and fell; the point bit into the deck, the blade quivering slightly.
Hans threw his head back and laughed. "Good!" Elsa said nothing, but there was a faint smile playing on her lips.
"So what was the point of that little exercise?"
He bent to scoop the dagger up, tucking it back into his belt. "Shall we have another wager?"
The smile left Elsa's face. "I'm not wagering anything with you."
"Oh, come on. This will be fun, trust me."
"I'd trust you as far as I can throw you, with both my hands tied behind my back."
The captain was grinning widely. "Which you mean to say, either not very much at all, or you have prodigious strength in your legs." He folded his arms across his chest. "I'll skew the terms then, make it better? Beat me in a duel, and I'll let you and your men go at the nearest port. I'll even teach you, help you improve your fighting skills."
"Those are attractive terms," she said grudgingly, "but what do you get out of this?"
"We have a little bout, right here. If I win..." Here Hans leaned in close, his sideburns brushing her face. "You tell me your real name, Your Ladyship," he whispered.
Elsa jerked. "How did you –!"
"It's not hard, really. Despite your sex, you've received fencing lessons. Only a noble can indulge a pampered daughter's whims. That, combined with your pale complexion and refined ways; you don't speak as roughly as the other men do."
"Glad to see you pirates don't only think with your dicks," she answered testily.
Hans smirked. "You shouldn't taint that aristocratic mouth with our gutter language."
"I'll do as I please. And I accept your wager, cur. My lessons begin now."
"Good. I was hoping you'd say that." He adopted a schoolmaster's pose, legs planted firmly on the deck. "The first lesson," said Hans, using the tip of his drawn sword to tap Elsa's own, "is to anticipate nothing."
"The trouble with fencing these days is rigidity. Scholars should not play with swords," he scoffed. "For a set of attacks, there is a prescribed defence, and so on. I'm not saying your fighting is like that," clarified Hans hastily, seeing the annoyance on Elsa's face, "but you have some troublesome elements that you would do better without. I take it you've had battle experience outside of classes."
"Some," she admitted. "My si – I mean – I would dress like a man and sail on my father's ship. We were attacked by filthy pirates like yourself a few times."
Hans let the jibe pass. "Good. So you know that real battle is nothing like your tutors say."
"Of course I know that! If my comrade and I were able to hold off your men, surely we know how to handle ourselves in real battle."
"That wasn't real battle," he said. "Sea battles are just clumsy skirmishes. A real battle – no, a duel –would be between two people, their attention focused on each other, and the dance of swords." Hans tapped Elsa's sword again and smiled as her wrist twitched in response. "I know you can fight. But can you dance?"
"Try me," came the cocky reply.
He smiled. A quick stab was sidestepped, his next cut dodged. Hans fought almost lazily, his movements flowing. Elsa scowled, pressing as close as she dared; he wasn't attacking, but neither was there an opening for her to push home her own attack.
"Stop playing with me!" she roared.
"I'm not." Again, he stepped past her guard and disarmed her with a flick of his wrist. Elsa swallowed as his sword hovered over her throat. Hans whipped it away and walked over to where her rapier lay. He tossed it at her, and she snatched it from the air.
"How – how did you beat me?" demanded Elsa. Hans had moved without any apparent effort. She'd followed his movements like a hawk, desperately trying to find an opening as she attacked him.
"Simple. You expect too much." He held out a hand; after a moment's hesitation, she took it and let him help her up. Hans pulled hard, and she found herself uncomfortably close. "Now," he whispered, "your name, lady."
"Elsa," she told him, "my name is Elsa."
"It was a pleasure dancing with you, Lady Elsa," Hans said. "I look forward to the next time."
There was no way she could leave with her pride and dignity intact, so she gathered its remains and stalked away, straight-backed, to her duties.
The waves were serene that night, so Hans had given the order to continue sailing. The charts he found in the captain's cabin were new and comprehensive; they had improved sailing time tremendously.
He couldn't sleep. That was nothing new in itself; in the early days of his piracy career, he'd startled himself awake with nightmares of his former life and found it impossible to doze off again. Walking the deck helped, but not always.
At the very least, the sea air helped to remind him the past was in the past.
Lantern in hand, Hans took to pacing the boards from stern to bow, saluting the night lookout with a wave of the light. He climbed the stairs, exchanged a few words with the helmsman, walked the length of the midship.
At the stern, there was another person standing there. "Good evening," said Hans, knowing full well who it was.
"You," answered Elsa, her scowl barely visible in the dim light.
"I came here to be alone," she stressed, "and would appreciate it if you were to go."
He rested his elbows on the wooden railing. "Well, I didn't come out here to talk to you. I couldn't sleep, and came out for some fresh air."
She snorted. "Now that you're here, I think the air quality has significantly decreased."
"Such charming manners, and elegant turn-of-phrase. I should think your husband a happy man."
"Oh, I'm not married; and if all men are like you, I give thanks daily for my singlehood."
"A fiancé in waiting, then. A young lady of aristocratic stock is much sought after, though I believe many young gentlemen would be convinced otherwise after making your acquaintance."
Elsa's frown deepened. "I have been betrothed since I was a baby, so I haven't the experience of many young men."
"… I see." Hans let the matter drop. "You know, I used to be a prince. Before all this," he said, encompassing the ship with a grand wave.
"Oh yes. I can see how refined and aristocratic you are," she shot back, eyebrow raised.
"I was the youngest of thirteen sons. No chance of inheriting anything that way," he said amicably, completely ignoring her barb. "Very stifling too, when your big brothers are trying their best to outwit and outmaneuver each other."
"So you took to a life of theft and murder?"
"Yes, the life of a gentleman privateer." Hans pulled a flask of akvavit from his belt and took a quick swallow. He held it out to Elsa, and was met with a scowl. He shrugged. "Servant to no one. Free to roam the seas and lands."
"And plunder each of its valuables," said Elsa dryly.
Hans shrugged again. "I've got to make a living somehow."
"Tell me, have you never heard of making an honest living? Earning your bread by the sweat of your brow?"
"As a prince, that is unheard of," he answered quietly, "and I'm guessing it's the same for a nobleman's daughter."
"We were raised differently from most noblemen's daughters." She turned her gaze far out to sea, on a horizon only she could perceive. "We learnt to fight."
"Yes, I remember the feisty redhead at your side." Hans made a wild guess. "Your sister?"
A pause. Elsa bit her lip as though realizing she had said too much.
"You lose nothing by telling me," commented Hans dryly. "I only know your given name, and it would make things so much easier."
She nodded curtly. "Yes, she is my sister. Three years my younger."
"And apparently also accustomed to bloody work." His voice was dry and sardonic.
"I hardly think you are fit to judge."
"As it is, I'm hardly fit for anything if I don't get enough sleep." Hans yawned widely, ignoring the look of distaste she wore. "Good night, my lady Elsa. Don't stay up too late."
"Arendelle!" gasped Anna. "Oh, thank goodness!" In her delight, she flung her arms around Kristoff's neck, hugging him fiercely, oblivious to his furious blush.
The captain of the merchant ship approached them, wearing an amused smile. "I see you've noticed our destination already, Your Highness."
She scoffed. "Please, captain, I've told you to just call me Anna. You picked us up and I've been working my passage off; the very least you could do is not use that royal title and destroy everyone's image of what a princess should act like."
"Fair enough," chuckled the man, his eyes taking in the rough men's clothes Anna wore. "We'll be docking soon, Anna."
He left to see to the helm, leaving them alone.
Kristoff cleared his throat. "So, this is it," he said. "Goodbye, Princess."
Her head snapped up sharply. "Wait, what?"
"You're home. It was a great honour knowing you, Your Highness – oof!"
She had punched him – hard. "I'm not going anywhere, you big lug, and neither are you." Anna grabbed his hand. "Come on, we need to see my parents."
The guards at the docks were stunned to see their princess; Anna guessed the news of the fate of their patrol had reached her parents already.
King Agdar rushed out, his face ashen, closely followed by Queen Idunn. "Papa! Mama!"
"Anna! Thank goodness you're safe!" They embraced her fiercely. "Where's Elsa?" asked the queen.
"She was captured," said Anna. "They took her before she could jump."
The king blanched. "No – "
Kristoff stood awkwardly behind the royals as they talked, and expression of profound discomfort on his face. Anna noticed. "Papa, Mama, this is Kristoff," she said, taking him by the arm and drawing him forward, "he was the one who saved me."
"I am forever in your debt." Agdar bowed his head.
"N-no, I should be sorry I couldn't save Princess Elsa," blurted the sailor.
"Regardless, you saved one of my daughters and I am sure you will help save the other one." The expression on the king's face turned serious.
"I will, Your Majesty."
"I'm going with you," interjected Anna.
The king frowned. "Anna…"
"My sister is out there somewhere, and I'm going to bring her home." Her lower lip jutted out. "You can't stop me, Papa."
"I know, child, but you… we thought we'd lost you both, and now I'm letting you go again…"
She softened, moving forward to slip her hand in her father's. "Papa, Mama. I know you worry about me. But I need to do this." Anna turned her head, smiled at Kristoff. "Besides, I've got Kristoff with me. If he could single-handedly save me from a pirate ship, he'll bring Elsa and me safely home."
Agdar closed his eyes. When he finally opened them again, he was smiling sadly. "I believe you, my girl." He stepped away to face Kristoff, leaving his wife to exchange soft words with their daughter. "What is your full name, Master?"
"I am Kristoff Bjorgman," he answered.
"Kneel, Master Bjorgman." Agdar drew his sword, offering it hilt-first. "Normally there would be a ceremony, but in the circumstances I think it can be postponed," he told the young man with a hint of a smile, turning solemn a moment later. "In recognition of your services to the Crown, I knight thee Sir Kristoff Bjorgman of Arendelle."
Kristoff kissed the sword hilt and passed it back to the king, a shell-shocked expression on his face.
"Bring them both home safely, Sir Bjorgman."
"I swear it on my life, Your Majesty."
"The first lesson," said Hans, beginning to circle, his sword pointed down, "was on spontaneity." Elsa's eyes darted constantly between his feet, his sword, and his free hand; she paid no heed to his face. "Today, you'll learn balance."
He leaned to his left, and then flashed forward, stabbing thin air; Elsa was gone, pivoting on her heel, and Hans whipped up his sword to parry her counterattack. He beamed at her.
"Good. But you've left yourself open."
Hans ducked and cut. She grimaced as she was forced to dodge to the side. Pressing his offensive, he stepped closer, bringing his sword down in increasingly violent blows.
In desperation, Elsa stabbed wildly; he jerked his head to the side to avoid it, losing a few hairs from his sideburns.
"Stop." He backed away, sheathing his sword, a hand coming up to rub his chin. "Mmm, a close shave."
Elsa visibly fought back a laugh.
He smiled back, but his face grew serious. "Do you know what happened?"
After a pause, she replied, "I was off balance."
"Good! You really are a remarkable student."
"You're too kind," she said dryly, "considering you told me the objective of the lesson a few minutes before."
Hans waved it away. "Your footwork could be better. I was using my strength on you, so it stands to reason that I would have been slower to move. You should have taken advantage of your smaller size and speed."
She nodded reluctantly, processing the information.
"Care to try again?"
Elsa's sword was moving before she realised it, and she heard him grunt softly as he met her thrust with his sword. Steel clanged again and again as they tested each other. He changed his angle but she was already moving away, readjusting her attack to counter his.
There wasn't anywhere else to go, but around him. Away from his sword.
That's it! The young woman allowed herself a quick smile as it dawned on her.
Elsa mimicked Hans' movements, her sword meeting his at every opportunity, their feet in step as though it was a dance – with the ultimate goal being to outwit him, outpace him, and move close enough to strike.
Of course. That was what he was talking about. A dance of swords. She laughed aloud, feeling more at ease in her body than ever before.
One step forward. Two steps back. Sway to the left. Right. Right again. Elsa spun on her heel and delivered a lightning-quick riposte that had him stumble.
She stabbed again and again, and soon he was on his back, and her swordtip was pressed to his jugular.
Hans glared up at her, his knuckles white on the grip of his sword, but his expression quickly relaxed into grudging acceptance. "Well done. It seems you've learned to dance."
He tried to push himself on his elbows, but the press of the blade stilled his movements. "Our wager," said Elsa, "you will let me and my men go."
"I wagered with you, but this is not a formal bout. I am teaching you."
She scowled. "Slippery bastard," growled Elsa, but whipped her sword away and sheathed it. He rubbed his neck, gracing her with a cocky smirk. "I shudder to think what they are teaching nobility these days."
Elsa left before she could lose her temper completely.
Hans rushed out on deck. "What is it?"
The old sailor grinned. "Merchants, captain."
"Excellent." He turned to the assembled captains. "You know what to do." They nodded and left for their stations as the first few experimental cannon shots echoed around them.
It seemed that the merchants were ready for them. Cannons appeared over the gunwales and fired several broadsides at the pirates in response. They could see men in uniform moving over the deck; a regiment of soldiers. Hans frowned. The Frosne Hjerte, however, was fast at full sail. She crested the waves, avoiding serious hits.
"The men weren't expecting armed resistance, Captain."
"Neither was I." He took off his hat, running a hand through sweat-soaked auburn hair. "We've come too close, though, to get away cleanly. We can win this, if you follow my instructions to the letter."
"We stand with you."
He smiled briefly at the ragged-looking pirate. "Excellent. Cripple her and board," instructed Hans. "Circle close enough so the marksmen can fire at her, but keep cannon range."
"If we get through this alive and rich," added the captain before the man could return to his post, "we shall be taking a well-deserved shore leave, mark my words."
Elsa was horrified. She was on opposing sides now; the soldiers were now attacking her, thinking her to be one of the pirates.
"Gunnar," grunted a man beside her, "are you ready?"
"I refuse to fight good men," she snapped.
The man guffawed, so hard it broke off into coughing. "You don't have a choice, lad," he grunted. "Kill or be killed, and we need that sword of yours on our side."
Elsa was about to reply, but screams broke into her thoughts. They were coming.
"Kill the pirates! Kill them all!"
"We'll see you in hell first!"
Elsa pushed her way through the men, searching for the door to the lower deck. I have to get away, I can't raise my sword to undeserving men –
"Where're you runnin' to, lad?" snarled a barrel-chested man, shoving her back; she stumbled and dropped to one knee.
"I refuse to kill them!"
"You got no choice!" The men moved closer together, advancing as one; their bodies formed an impenetrable wall. Elsa swore. "Kill them or I'll kill you myself."
"Go ahead," she said, raising her shin defiantly.
Before they could react, out of the corner of her eye she saw Aksel stumble, and his attacker move in for the killing blow –
Instinct took pushed past the men in her drive to get to his side. The soldier swore as his downward cut was blocked with a horrible clang of steel. Before his sword could complete another slash at her, Elsa dodged neatly; her own blade was out and stabbing into her attacker's guts before she could think. Blood rapidly stained the soldier's uniform, and he gurgled, toppling heavily to the deck. Elsa cried out, watching the life leave his eyes with growing horror.
"High - Gunnar, watch out!" Aksel pushed himself up and parried the next attack. Elsa forced her attention away from the dead man, her sword up and ready. The pirates that had watched her carefully looked away, satisfied. At a signal, they sent up a bloodthirsty roar, and surged forward. The killing proper had begun. Musket fire filled the air, drowning out much of the shouted insults, battle cries, and screams. It was a cacophony Elsa was used to.
She heard none of it. Her mind echoed with the cries of the dying alone, each voice grating on her conscience.
When the resistance had been successfully broken, and the men had broken below deck to reach the cowering merchants, the ship was theirs.
Hans moved around, coordinating the plundering.
"What will we do with them, Captain?"
He glanced at the small group of prisoners. "Well, we are a little short of sailors... I'll make you a deal. Join me and live, refuse and die."
Heads swiveled round, searching for the source of the voice; Elsa pushed her way to the front of the crowd, blue eyes blazing. Her men exchanged worried looks, but none dared to stop her.
"You will not kill them!"
"I didn't say I would," answered Hans lazily. "I gave them a choice. If they choose to die, so be it."
"Release them back to their ship," she insisted, "and let them leave unharmed. You have your plunder."
There was a tense moment as they glared at each other. Hans was clearly unwilling to defer to this young upstart 'boy' in front of his men, but there was a steely note to Elsa's eyes that gave him pause.
"If it offends your delicate sensibilities," he sneered, lip curling, "I will not kill them." Hans' eyes were cold as her regarded Elsa, and then the prisoners. "That doesn't mean they should live to seek revenge." He turned to his men. "Maroon them."
"You – !"
Before she could complete her sentence, he had rounded on her with surprising speed, gripping her throat and pinning her to the mast. "You overstep your boundaries as a prisoner," hissed Hans, "and you dare defy my authority as captain. Don't interfere again."
He was close enough to see the fear in her eyes, but she clenched her trembling jaw tight. "I will never stop defying you." His grip tightened, and she coughed; an instant later, the pressure vanished. Elsa remained upright through sheer force of will, rubbing her throat.
"This is your final warning. Do not cross me again." To the pirates still standing there, he added: "Lock him in the brig until he learns his place."
Hans personally brought food to the furious prisoner in the brig. Elsa was sitting cross-legged, back towards the door, when he approached.
"Your meal," said the pirate brusquely. "For appearances' sake, I won't let you out until tomorrow."
"I hope you're happy."
Hans lifted his head. "Excuse me?"
She glared at him, the fire in her eyes undiminished. "I killed decent people out there today, all because of you and your filthy way of life."
"So that's what this is all about." Rolling his eyes, he turned his back on her – and was spun back roughly when her hand shot out through the lattice door and clamped on his shoulder.
"Are you playing dumb, or simply ignorant?" hissed Elsa. "I'm talking to you."
"I'm pretty sure I didn't force you to fight at swordpoint."
"No, but you did the next best thing. You brought me here. You're keeping me as your prisoner."
His emotionless green eyes studied her. "You're one to talk, Lady Elsa. You cut down pirates without a second thought, but killing soldiers is somehow different?"
"They were innocent. Pirates have already killed, and there's nothing wrong in dispatching murderers."
"And soldiers have never killed before? What gives you the right, my lady Elsa, to decide who is good or evil?"
"That is God's right alone. I do only my duty."
"So do they," said Hans quietly. "As do I. I am the only thing keeping you alive right now; if you had any sense, you would treat me very nicely."
"Shall I grovel at your feet, then?" Elsa sneered. "Praise your magnificent sense of mercy, or those ridiculous sideburns?"
Hans scowled. "Another night in the brig, without food, might teach you some manners." He shook off Elsa's hand roughly.
When Elsa was hauled roughly out of the brig two days later, there was a new addition to her band of loyal men. "The rats marooned all the others except the lad," explained Aksel, his hand on the shoulder of a spindly youth, "so we're looking after him."
Elsa was starving and faint from the lack of water, but she still managed to find a smile for the terrified boy. "Hello."
"I'm Olaf," he said. "You were the one who stood up for us, weren't you?"
"Thank you." The relief in his face was palpable.
"I didn't succeed."
"You tried. That's what's important." He dropped his gaze, and asked in a tiny voice: "Could I… could I have a hug?"
She laughed. "You don't need to ask," she replied, and wrapped her arms around him.
The Frosne Hjerte docked at the nearest town; the middle-sized town of Visby was perfect for their purposes. Under the cover of night, they were just another merchant ship docking, but if there was trouble, the men could easily melt into the alleyways and streets.
Elsa chose not to join the men in their carousing and drinking. She had other plans.
Her men were in the city streets, having earned the pirates' trust, lurking in the shadows, waiting for her signal. She herself would take the maps, and join them in finding their way back to Arendelle –
"If you were thinking of escaping, I'd strongly advise you to reconsider," said a very familiar voice.
Much to her credit, her face didn't change. "Escaping? I was planning no such thing." Her hand stole to her sword; he cocked the pistol hammer noisily. Elsa scowled and let her hand fall still.
"Really? Then you must have found my coin purse after I clumsily misplaced it the other day. My thanks."
Her scowl deepened, and she tossed it into his open hand.
Hans settled himself on a barrel, his musket pistol still aimed at her. "You'll have to do better than that, my dear."
"Don't call me that."
"Lady Elsa then." He jerked his head at the docks. "Could you ask your men to stop hanging around, and enjoy their night off? I understand they've earned it."
"Doing your bloody work," Elsa snarled.
"As you did." She flinched, and Hans almost felt sorry for saying it.
But before he could say anything else, Elsa interjected hotly: "You made good men into murderers."
"As though they – and you – were not before?"
"I don't want to get back into this argument."
"You brought it up first." Hans stepped in front of her path. "You bloody nobles always think your narrow way of life is the correct way. Has it occurred to you that pirates are human too?"
"I am nothing like you," hissed Elsa, pushing past him roughly and stalking below deck. Hans saw red, and lunged after her; the next thing he knew, he was kneeling over her, and the left side of his face was burning. Elsa's hand hung suspended between them, anger and fear mingled in her expression.
Hans was still gripping her throat. He let go, shocked.
She scrambled to her feet and fled.
He was contemplating the town, akvavit in hand, when the creaking of footsteps interrupted his thoughts.
"My lady," he said dully. He took a long swig. "Have you come to kill me?"
The click of the pistol's hammer being cocked sounded from behind his left ear. Hans closed his eyes. He heard her take a deep breath, and then release it shakily.
"… I can't." The cold pressure vanished, and he turned around slowly.
"I'm sorry," said Hans, finding his voice, "I nearly killed you."
Elsa's mouth twitched. "So did I. But you were right. Soldiers, pirates, it's all the same." He could only stare at her as she dropped the gun to the deck. "No one deserves to die, just as no one gets to choose who dies."
As she turned to leave, he said: "No one chooses to die as well. If you were to give a man a choice, he would choose life, my lady. You should think on that."
Hans woke late the next morning with a nagging headache and a crick in his neck where he'd fallen asleep over his desk. As he went to the helm to receive the status report from Gustaf, he was surprised to see a familiar blonde working diligently alongside his men.
"I suppose this work is better on your conscience," he remarked mildly.
"It's honest work at the very least." Elsa was wearing a dirty hat; she pulled it lower, seemingly to avoid the sun's rays, but Hans interpreted it otherwise.
Olaf ran as fast as he could, his breath coming in short hard gasps. If they caught him, there would be a beating for him, or worse.
The moonless night was ideal for hiding; he could hear the distant curses of his pursuers as they were left behind.
His foot caught a coil of rope.
He stumbled forward, his fall halted as he collided with something solid.
Olaf looked up – to meet the hard stare of the captain. His heart sank.
A hand shot out, gripped his shoulder painfully. "Here, come into the light." Olaf let himself be dragged to the nearest lantern, stomach tight with dread; Hans squinted at him in the gloom. "You're the boy from the merchant ship."
"What have you got there?"
"I – nothing." Olaf hid his food behind his back.
Hans cuffed him, and snatched the hardtack from his hands. "Food? You stole this?"
"You were running with this. Don't lie to me."
"I – " Olaf swallowed hard, gathering what little of his courage he had left. "This is mine, sir. The others would have stolen it from me."
Hans said nothing.
"I haven't eaten in two days, sir. If I could be a little bigger…"
"Don't complain," said Hans, walking away. Olaf's heart sank. He dropped his gaze to the deck, preparing himself for a long and hungry night; much to his embarrassment, tears welled up in his eyes.
Footsteps creaked. The cabin boy's head jerked up, body tensing as he prepared for the worst.
Hans was back. He held out a loaf of bread, as well as a lump of stockfish.
"You have to learn to outwit them somehow," said the older man. His face was hidden in the shadow cast by the lantern. "But you need your strength for now. Nobody will be around to help you every time, is that clear?"
"Yes, sir." As though in a dream, he took the food, watching as Hans left.
It was too close for comfort. Just his bad luck to encounter a patrol while on shore leave – worse still that one of the men recognized him, having had his ship robbed and sunk by the Frosne Hjerte.
Willing his heartbeat steady, Hans pressed himself to the side of the building as closely as he could manage, not daring to peek around the corner to see if the patrol was still there.
The ship is only a hundred yards away. If I could just make a run for it…
Shouts filled the air behind him, and he quickened his pace. No time or breath to curse.
Just as he reached the gangplank –
– musket fire sounded from somewhere to his right, and Hans instinctively jerked away, swerving down a narrow alleyway.
More musket fire behind him. His left arm burned red-hot.
Hans ducked into a warehouse, scrambling between the crates to catch his breath and check his wound. It felt bad; the flesh throbbed painfully, and the bullet was still inside. It had probably hit bone, topping off his bad luck for the evening. The pirate clamped down hard on his arm, hissing with pain, doing his best to staunch the bleeding.
Voices from outside, and the crazy dancing of lanterns held aloft. They hadn't seen him enter the warehouse, and that was the one stroke of luck. He lay low, mind racing, wondering how he was going to get out of this mess. Blood saturated his sleeve, dripping hot and thick into the dust.
"There he is! This way!"
Hans' heart clenched. He reached for the long dagger at his side; he would not let them take him alive, and he would bring some to hell with him.
The footsteps grew fainter. Hans blinked.
The warehouse doors slid shut with a dull thud. "It's me, Gunnar," came a slightly hoarse, familiar voice.
Relief washed over Hans. "Gunnar?" he called weakly.
In the dark, a hand found his and tugged. "The patrol's gone. We can get out of here before they find out they were tricked."
"That was you?"
"Of course," said Elsa, with just a touch of smugness. "Now, come on."
He hissed as she pulled, his wound jerking open. "They got in a lucky shot."
She inspected it. "It's not bleeding that badly, but the bullet's still inside."
Elsa tore a strip of cloth from her own sleeve and bound his arm to stop the bleeding. "Can you run?"
"Yeah." He pushed the giddiness to the back of his mind.
Together they slunk out of the warehouse, staying in the shadows. The patrol had retreated to the dock, muttering among themselves, clearly lying in wait for them. Hans swallowed.
Elsa leaned in close. "I know a back way we can use to get back to the Frosne Hjerte," she said in low, urgent tones, "but you have to move fast."
He stared at her. "Why are you helping me?"
"The soldiers are just over there. You could easily shout for them. I'm wounded and I can't run. Why are you risking yourself for me?"
She made no reply except to grip his injured arm tightly enough to make Hans clamp his mouth shut, stifling his grunt of pain. "This way."
He had never been so glad to see the inside of his cabin. Sighing deeply, he peeled off his shirt, padding gingerly around the cramped space, gathering his medical supplies.
"Come in," he replied to the knock, expecting to see the crewman he had sent for brandy from the hold.
Elsa locked the door behind her. "I thought you could use some help, since it's your arm," she explained.
"So considerate," he sneered. She ignored him, placing the alcohol and bandages on the table and seating herself.
"I'm more than capable of dressing my own wound."
"Not with one hand, you're not."
"It's not fine. The bullet's still inside, you'll need someone to take it out."
He refused to answer. The bullet grated painfully on bone as he moved, making him wince.
"Sit," said Elsa imperiously, with all the arrogance of the princess she still was. Still glaring, he sat and jammed the worn leather strip into his mouth.
A generous slosh of brandy over the wound and into his mouth took the edge off the pain, but he still grunted when the knife touched the edges of the hole. Elsa worked quickly, careful to move as little as possible.
"There." The musket ball clattered to the table, sticky with gore. "Bone looks okay."
Hans spat out the leather. "That hurt, woman."
"Of course it hurt – you should know that. You act as though you haven't been shot before," she retorted, lightning-quick.
He scowled but opted for more brandy, taking the bottle after Elsa finished cleaning the wound and bandaging it neatly, finishing the last of the liquid. She stood without a word, gathering her things together.
She paused, halfway out the door.
Hans growled in frustration. "You know perfectly well what I'm asking you, woman. Why did you help me?"
"You helped Olaf," said Elsa after a pause, and then left.
He was at the helm, being briefed by the navigator on shipping routes and plans for that summer, but Hans didn't hear a word of it. His attention was completely focused on the young man working on the mainsail, trying and failing to lash it properly to the rigging. His first mate was standing off to the side, alternating cheerful encouragement and hearty curses, but otherwise seemed quite content to watch.
"She is quite a woman, don't you think, Captain?"
He frowned as the man's meaning sank in. "... What are you saying?"
"We're not completely drunk on rum all the time. That lad's a woman in disguise. Trust me, we all can tell." He leered; Hans bristled suddenly.
"If you know, then – you haven't – "
"We've done nothing," said the man hastily. "If we so much as touched her, you would kill us."
Colour suffused Hans' face. "You would be right." His fingers itched on the hilt of his sword as though battling the temptation. "All of you...?"
"Yes, sir. For a while now."
"And you said nothing to me?"
"Well, no, Captain."
Hans raised an eyebrow, his good hand resting on the hilt of his sword with a deliberate casualness. The sailor took the hint.
"We all assumed you already knew."
"I see." The captain let his hand drop to his side. "You are to treat her no differently until I say so. Captain's orders."
"... sir." Even as the pirate left, there was an impudent smirk on his face that Hans longed to wipe off with his fist. He knew the men were trustworthy, though, and reined his temper in.
Elsa finally managed the knots. The mate tugged hard and stepped back, satisfied they held. He thumped her on the back, laughing uproariously as she stumbled forward.
"How's your arm?"
Hans wasn't even surprised. He knew she would be out on deck at this hour of night; she preferred her solitude, as did he.
"Closing well, no sign of infection. I'm lucky." It felt sound enough for him to forgo the sling that morning, and only hurt when he moved too quickly and jarred the knitting flesh.
"You are," she agreed. Clad in a loose shirt and breeches, her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder, she looked more at ease than he had seen her before. He hid a smirk, but she was quick to catch it.
"I did tell you the crew already knew you're a woman. Isn't this a lot more comfortable?" remarked Hans, waving at her attire.
Even in the dim light, Elsa's face was clearly flushed with embarrassment. "Still, it's not something I wanted advertised."
"Why not? Did you have something to prove?" he asked, his tone teasing. "That a woman is good for more than sexual favours?"
She scowled. "Not really." The ship rocked up and down, buoyed by the waves, water smacking dully against the planks. "Out here, I don't have to be anyone. It's… liberating."
"A life at sea means a life of freedom," said Hans.
"Freedom was something denied me from birth," she replied with a touch of bitterness.
"That's why I left home."
"In a way, so did I." Elsa leaned her elbows on the side. "I learned to fight so I could join the patrols. Anything than spend hours either immersed in books or listening to tutors. I told my father I would need to prove myself since I was going to be a queen regnant."
"Good decision," he grunted in agreement. "To me, nobility was being subjected to layer after layer of elegant clothes."
"Having to remember the titles and styles of all the nobles you're introduced to, and greeting them accordingly."
Hans smiled. "I can't imagine having to live a life full of rules and order."
"By now, I can't either," confessed Elsa, "it seems like such a long time ago."
"It was for me." He shifted his weight onto his forearms, mimicking her position.
"Why Olaf?" she asked abruptly.
"Olaf? The other cabin boy, you mean?"
"You don't even know his name?"
Hans shook his head. "I don't bother, unless they're valuable."
She made an exasperated noise. "Then why did you help him?"
"First, tell me why he's so important to you."
"I asked you first."
He snorted. "Fine, wench. I helped him because life isn't easy when you're the smallest on board, and people tend to steal your food."
Elsa paled. "Steal his – Olaf never said a thing to us."
"Do you think he would?" Hans sighed. "I know what it's like to go hungry – even when I was still a prince."
"Too many brothers. Not because of any lack of food to go around, but plenty of boys who prefer torturing runts to small animals."
She was studying him carefully; he felt uncomfortable under her scrutiny. "Twelve older brothers."
"Yes. You remembered."
"You're one of the Westergaards of the Southern Isles."
The colour drained from his face. "I – "
"It's not that difficult to figure out," she said. "You must be the missing thirteenth prince."
"They think I'm dead." He looked away over the horizon, his hand gripping the wooden rail tightly. "The search was called off a few days after I left."
"I remember." To Hans' startled expression, she added: "My father wrote a letter of condolence to yours. I vaguely recall him saying they found a jacket floating in the harbour and presumed the worst."
He smiled crookedly. "Yes, well. No point in keeping finery on a ship, and better they think me dead. After all, I'm not exactly glorifying the family name."
Elsa hid a contemptuous snort behind her hand. "Well, that Coronan princess came back after 18 years of being lost."
"There's a difference. She was missed." The heavy scowl darkened his features and twisted them. "None of them wanted me. I was just competition for the throne – something I would never inherit, in any case – and for the hands of the princesses of neighbouring kingdoms. A burden." Hans glanced back at her, his expression now belligerent. "Three of my brothers are dead now. Murdered by their own."
Elsa stared back unwaveringly. "And you escaped all that. You ran away to find your own place," she said.
She looked wistful.
"You could, too," said Hans.
"Find your own place."
She shook her head. "I know what mine is, and what I was born to do: be the perfect princess they want, marry the man picked for me, rule the kingdom as the perfect queen."
"I suppose, but is that what you really want?"
Elsa had no immediate answer. Hans took that as her response.
"Piracy suits you," he commented, and Elsa hesitated. The tip of his blade sliced through the air, missing her collar by a hair; she had managed to jerk backwards before it could make contact.
"What do you mean by that?"
Hans' face stayed impassive. She pressed close, searching for an opening, and found none.
"You have a nice smile."
This time, she faltered. He hit the back of her hand, jolting the nerves and forcing her to drop the sword.
"I'd have thought you were better at handling distractions by now," said the pirate serenely, sheathing his sword. "Oh well. That's another victory for me, and another few weeks' service for you."
She scowled, though her eyes shone with excitement. "Another try?"
"Be my guest." They circled like vultures, and then Hans struck. She parried and lunged. He dashed to the side, narrowly escaping her flurry of attacks.
Elsa's expression betrayed nothing. She mingled slashes with stabs, all of which Hans blocked in increasingly creative ways, from the hilt of his sword to a nearby barrel lid. He was grinning like an idiot throughout.
"Are you toying with me?" she asked, smashing his barrel lid shield with her fist.
He arched an eyebrow. "What gave you that impression, my lady?"
For an answer, Elsa spun under his guard. He was about to bark at her for attempting that risky move when cold steel pricked his neck. "I believe the victory is mine," said the young woman smugly.
His mouth formed an 'O' of surprise; he hadn't even seen her penetrate his defence, and so quickly. "Congratulations, my lady," he said, and hooked his right foot around her left ankle.
She knew that trick. Elsa leaped back, but her advantage was lost and he had picked up the fight again. She didn't even respond to his triumphant grin, shaking her head, and aimed a glancing cut to his left shin. Hans intercepted her blade, flinging it upwards with considerable force; if he was hoping to throw her off balance, it failed. Elsa darted back easily.
The bold move did have the effect of putting distance in between them. The pirate closed it with an array of sweeping moves, forcing Elsa on the defensive.
She swallowed hard, feeling hard wood against her back; he took advantage of her momentary distraction to pin her sword hand to the mainmast, trapping her body. "I win again," he breathed.
"I would have won this time," she shot back, "if not for your tricks." There was no real heat in Elsa's voice, and Hans only laughed – until he realized the compromising position they were in.
His body was still pressed to hers, his hand trapping her wrist. She was too close, her impossibly blue eyes bright with the thrill of the fight, face still flushed with exertion. Hans' mouth snapped shut, his playful air disappearing. She noticed the change in his mood, and flushed deeper crimson herself.
"Get off me," she mumbled. Hans was quick to comply.
"Our wager is still on, if you recall. Draw first blood and you go free." Despite his underhanded trickery, she had gotten so much better at swordplay, good enough to beat him – he would never admit it to her, for reasons other than his pride.
Elsa made a noise of surprise. "Oh. So it is." She sounded thoroughly unenthusiastic.
He smiled thinly. "Tomorrow morning then? No tricks, no underhanded pirate stunts."
Elsa was already standing near the mast when he arrived, her naked blade out and gleaming where it caught the morning sun. Hans didn't need to say a word. He drew his own sword, and attacked.
She had moved out of reach by the time he got there, and he grunted in surprise as he was forced to pull back his sword to defend himself against her rapid-fire thrusts.
Elsa tested his defences thoroughly, but they were evenly matched; she was unable to penetrate them, but he could not break her attack.
Abruptly, she darted back, and lunged forward, keeping up her aggressive stance. He responded by attacking as well – a move she had anticipated, since she had learned the tactic from him. The tip of her blade sliced intricate forms through the air – but he dodged every single cut. She gritted her teeth. He was stronger, but she was faster; yet, Hans was avoiding her attacks easily.
She redoubled her efforts, putting everything she had left into a gamble. Elsa batted his sword away, ducking under and into his space –
– she had miscalculated, and Hans' sword was slipping through her defences –
His eyes flashed. He stepped right into her attack –
– the tip of her sword grazed his cheek, and it was over.
Hans paused, his chest heaving, gulping thick heavy breaths. He lifted a hand to his cheek and wiped at the smear of blood. "Congratulations," he said. "You've won."
She was breathing hard as well, but not only from exhaustion. "You – "
"Gustaf has informed me that the next port is Stavanger," said Hans as though she had not spoken, "and we should be reaching it in a few weeks. When we dock, you and your men will be permitted to disembark – provided, of course, that you do not alert the harbormaster's men that we are in town." He smiled; it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Congratulations."
Elsa opened her mouth to say something, but he had already turned on his heel and left.
It was easy to find him. The captain had been in a foul mood the entire day and the crew were more than happy to point his location to her.
"You let me win," said Elsa. "Why?"
Hans stared back into her angry blue eyes. "Let you win? You won fairly, my lady."
"No. I saw you step straight onto my sword. I made careless mistakes. You could easily have won, but you held back."
He dropped his eyes. "You're still a prisoner."
"For all we talked about prisons, you never wanted to be on this ship." He straightened up. "Now, you can be truly free to choose, Elsa."
She looked away, at a loss for words.
"I trust you will make the right one," said Hans.
"We'll reach Stavanger within a few days."
"You should be happy to go home. I know your men are; the crew have complained of the parties."
She didn't even laugh.
Hans' own forced jovial expression fell. "In any case," he said stubbornly, "I wish you well."
He chose to stay behind on guard, citing his wish for a quiet night spent in his cabin. He neglected to say that his companions would be several bottles of akvavit.
Hans would not see her go.
When the candle had burned down to a stub, and the charts were beginning to blur at the edges, Hans rubbed furiously at his eyes. The lines refused to coalesce coherently, and he reluctantly decided to call it a night.
Just as his head hit the pillow, there was a knock at his door. He scowled.
"What is it?" he asked, throwing the door open.
She stared up at him, chest heaving.
"Elsa? You – what are you doing here?"
"Clearly," she said, her expression alight with amusement, "I didn't leave."
"I had the freedom to choose."
"You chose piracy?"
She blushed. "I chose the sea."
Slowly, the grin was spreading across his face. "Just the sea?"
"You arrogant bastard."
Hans held out his hand, and she took it, her fingers twining with his easily.
"I can't give you anything," he said suddenly, "this ship is all I have in the world. I know you're used to luxury, I promise I'll – "
She cut him off with a hard kiss. When Elsa broke contact, her chest was heaving. "If I wanted luxury, I would have gone home," she said.
He kissed her back, his hands tangling in her braid, yanking the strands loose. She hissed.
Hans managed to kick the door shut somehow without breaking contact. They tumbled to his pallet in a tangle of limbs, fingers fumbling with clothing, mouths exploring –
He found her neck, and sucked hard. Elsa drew a sharp intake of breath. Hans grinned into the soft skin and continued his ministrations, pressing teeth and tongue over the swell of her collarbone, and lower still.
Her hands found his hips and tugged at his breeches. He jerked involuntarily, and his face turned a darker shade of crimson as she laughed softly. Elsa took advantage of the shift in momentum to push away his shirt, dragging her tongue over his chest, teasing the line of hair that led further down.
Hans rolled them over so he hovered over her. Blonde hair framed her flushed face, her clothing in disarray, as she stared up at him, blue eyes dark with desire.
He didn't hesitate. Her back arched and she cried out as his mouth closed around one exposed nipple and sucked. Elsa's fingers curled over his back, her nails lightly scoring his bare skin until he squeezed her other breast – she scratched hard, and he gasped in mingled pleasure and pain.
His palm pushed at her crotch, massaging through the soaked fabric she still wore, nudging her legs apart. Elsa swore into his ear. Chuckling breathlessly, he slipped his hand underneath her waistband. She sighed when his fingers brushed wet heat, the sound sharpening into a gasp when he found her clit – she swirled her tongue over the shell of his ear, nipping it, and he grunted.
She was shaking, clearly close to the edge. He continued to stroke her until her body stretched taut, and she shuddered against him.
"Elsa – "
"Shh." She wrapped her legs around his hips, and Hans groaned. Elsa reached between them and attempted to maneuver him to her, her hand still unsteady; he closed his hand around hers and guided them.
He pushed in slowly, giving her time to accommodate his length; her heels pressed down hard against the small of his back. Elsa's hands wrapped around his shoulders to brace herself.
The first thrust was slow, almost languid, but she gasped and clutched him hard. She was ready for the second, and third, and began to move with him; they began a rhythm, bodies slick with sweat, breath coming in increasingly thick gasps –
He groaned as he came to a finish, and she not long after. Hans slipped out and lay beside her, spent.
She was staring at him as though seeing him for the first time. "What is it?" he asked hoarsely.
Elsa shook her head. Her hair clung to her face, and he reached out to brush it away, letting his fingertips linger over skin. She, in turn, was busy exploring his shoulder. Her thumb found the small mark where a musket bullet had been.
Hans traced her features with the uncalloused side of his finger, eyes half-lidded. When she raised her hand, he caught it and brought it to his lips, all the while holding her gaze. The colour seeped back into her face.
The Frosne Hjerte left Stavanger with a full crew.
He woke suddenly, startled from dreams that were violent and bloody.
The woman beside him shifted and tried to sit up, blonde hair cascading down her back. "Hans?" she asked sleepily.
He shook his head and slipped an arm around her waist, drawing her back down and close to him. "It's nothing," he said, kissing her temple. "Go back to sleep."
But then the ship rocked from more than the swell, and the sounds of men and cannonfire roused them, and they scrambled awake.
Hans dressed clumsily, fumbling into his clothes as Elsa did the same, jostling for space in the cramped cabin. "Give me a moment!" he shouted.
They spilled out to be greeted by chaos. They were being boarded by an enthusiastic party of soldiers.
Hans' heart plummeted as he recognized the colour of the uniforms and the crocus emblem they bore.
"Stop!" he roared before Elsa could react. "Ceasefire!"
Beside him, Elsa shot him a stunned look. His men reluctantly obeyed, dropping weapons to the deck and raising their hands above their heads.
As a man dressed in the same livery but with a hat topping off his ensemble approached, Hans dropped to his knees, putting both hands behind his head.
"I surrender," he said. "I want to see your captain."
A smaller figure pushed past the tall soldier and put her hands on her hips, arms akimbo. "Here she is," said Anna with a scowl.
"Elsa!" Immediately, the redhead flung her arms around her sister's neck, hugging her close. "Oh God," she whispered, "thank God you're alive, I thought you were dead."
"Me too." Elsa's fingers tightened in the fabric of Anna's clothes. The sounds of a scuffle alarmed her, and she made to move away; Hans was being forced to his knees as soldiers bound his arms. "Let him be!"
Anna frowned when the men paused. "I'm the captain here, and I say lock him in our brig."
"Anna, what – "
"He's a pirate. He attacked us, killed Sieg, kept you prisoner," said the younger princess sharply, tugging on Elsa's wrist. "I'll make sure he's punished."
"But – "
"We'll talk later when you've rested." Anna was firm; Elsa knew that look in her sister's eyes. She glanced helplessly at Hans, who shook his head minutely. He managed to smile before the soldiers hauled him away.
Hans looked up sharply when the wooden latch sounded. It was too dark to see properly; he stared wildly around into the darkness, body tensing.
Soft hands caressed his face. He leaned into the touch with a sigh of relief. "Elsa?"
"Shhh." Elsa's fingers brushed the rope binding his hands.
"Leave them," he said softly when he felt her tugging at them.
"It's enough, having you here now." He leaned forward, his lips finding the crown of her head. Hans lifted his arms so she could step into his embrace, the pirate's bound wrists resting on the small of her back. Soft silk tickled his skin. "Are you wearing a dress?" he asked, smiling faintly.
"I had to." She tucked her head under his chin. "Royal dinner protocol."
"I'd like to see you in one."
"Idiot. They just aren't practical at sea." Her voice trailed off, and gradually, Hans became aware of his shirt becoming damp.
"Elsa?" he whispered. After a moment with no response, he nudged her with his chin.
"My shirt tells me otherwise." But his tone was gentle, and he kissed her forehead; Elsa's hands cupped his chin so she could guide him to her lips.
"I don't want to go back," she told him in between heated kisses. "I want to be with you."
Hans didn't know how to respond, for once in his life. Elsa took that as his response.
The ship docked in Arendelle harbor; for once, Anna hung back with Elsa as the white-faced older princess descended the gangplank. "Papa, Mama."
"Elsa." They rushed to embrace her and Anna, royal dignity completely forgotten. She clung back.
"You've gotten thinner," said her mother, cupping Elsa's cheek. "And so dark, my poor girl."
"Are you sure? They didn't torture you, or…?"
"Nothing happened. They knew I am a princess; they didn't dare do anything to compromise the ransom. I was lucky Anna found me in time." Elsa spoke without inflection – and yet, more hollow than the formal style she used. Anna's hand fumbled for her sister's, and the elder girl squeezed back briefly.
The king and queen nodded, clearly reassured. As they walked back to the castle, Anna shot Elsa a look behind their parents' backs: You and I will be having a talk later.
"I wrote to Prince Karl about what happened, when Anna brought us the news of your kidnapping."
Elsa looked up from her untouched meal, brow furrowed. "Prince Karl? My betrothed?" The word tasted bitter in her mouth.
"He was incredibly worried and wrote back to say he was coming here. He'll arrive within the month."
She said nothing, but her hands curled into fists on her lap; Anna reached for her sister's hand under the table.
"Anna," said the elder princess, hastily wiping her eyes. "What is it?"
Anna locked the door behind her. She walked straight up to Elsa, never breaking eye contact. "That pirate," she stated firmly, "wasn't your captor."
"You weren't a prisoner on that ship, Elsa; you were free, weren't you. You wanted to stay." Anna bit her lip, and added, "With him."
Elsa's stare became glassy.
"You love him," finished Anna in a whisper.
Elsa closed her eyes. "Yes."
"But you're going to marry that prince because you're the Crown Princess."
"Soon to be Queen," said Elsa bitterly.
Anna's face crumpled. "It's not fair."
The older princess let her cry, pressing her lips together tightly, refusing to answer. She made shushing sounds as she wrapped her arms around her sister's shoulders.
"I should be the one comforting you," said Anna in between sobs. Elsa shook her head, smiled her tight little court smile.
"It means everything to me that you're here now."
"Of course I am – what are sisters for?" The younger princess gave a watery chuckle, and then composed herself with a speed that impressed Elsa. "Now, tell me everything that happened."
The whole of Arendelle prepared for their princess' engagement party with a frenzy; not only was it their first queen regnant in centuries, all the Scandinavian countries were abuzz with the daring story of the kidnapped crown princess who had only recently been returned home, thanks to her bold sister and her rescuer, ennobled for his bravery in the entire affair.
Elsa merely smiled and nodded, not wishing to delve into the details of that tale.
"My betrothed is due to arrive any day now," she said flatly.
Hans tried to smile. "It's the first time you'll be seeing him, right?"
"Yes." Elsa ran a hand over her face.
They were speaking in deliberately neutral tones, always mindful of the bodyguards that tailed the princess on the king's orders. Hans did his best to catch Elsa's gaze non-verbally, to convey the comfort he knew she needed with his eyes alone.
Just then, Anna poked her head in. "I've gotten Kristoff and Olaf to distract Ugly 1 and 2, so you guys have ten minutes," she said in a stage whisper. "Don't do anything too gross. I don't want to know."
"Your Highness," said Hans once he had recovered his composure, "I can't express my gratitude enough – "
She pointed a finger at him. "I'm doing this for Elsa, not you. I haven't forgotten you trying to kill us both." However, the princess followed up her hard words with a small smile, which Hans returned.
"Ten minutes, remember." Anna was gone with a jaunty wave.
They stood, frozen to the spot, and then Elsa was in Hans' arms. "You're too thin," he murmured.
She made no response, reaching into her bodice to pull out a lockpick. Hans' eyes widened. "What are you doing?"
"Getting you out, what does it look like?" she retorted, kneeling to work on his cuff. "I should have done this earlier so at least you could have taken a boat and gone."
"Elsa, no." He gripped her hand. "They'll know you and your sister did it."
"Let them. I'll take full responsibility." Tears sparkled in her eyes. "I've been the good girl my entire life. I'm the Crown Princess, what can they do to me?"
His voice came out in a whisper. "I'm not worth it."
"Hans, you know what the penalty for piracy is. You know they think you kidnapped me. I can't let you die." Elsa's voice cracked on the last word.
"Don't think about that. Here. Just let me look at you." He cradled her head in both hands, kissing her hair. "I don't regret anything, Elsa." Hans kissed her tenderly, and then pushed her away. "The guards will be here soon, you need to go."
Elsa's face was blotchy with tears, but she pulled herself upright. By the time her bodyguards, sweaty and angry, had returned to a safe vantage point to watch their princess, she was outside Hans' cell, her back to him.
Pale and composed, she waited at the docks with her parents and sister as the flagship glided into the harbor. Anna had her hand in both of hers, squeezing it reassuringly.
Her first impression of Prince Karl was a very tall man with dark hair and startlingly blue eyes. Her family moved back to give them room.
"My queen," he said in flawless Norwegian, bowing gracefully and taking her hand in both of his, "I am Prince Karl of Wurttemberg. I am honoured to finally meet you in person." He stood; he had yet to relinquish her hand. "You are more lovely than your portrait showed."
"Thank you," she replied in German. "It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Prince Karl." She took the proffered arm with just the right amount of politeness, and let him lead her back on the short walk to her castle. The rest of their entourage, Arendellian and Wurttembergian alike, brought up the rear.
"Arendelle is lovely at this time of year," he remarked, still in Norwegian. His accent was atrocious; she tried her best to maintain her composure.
"German is fine, Your Highness," she responded in his language. "With regards to the weather, you're lucky to arrive in midsummer." A little boy peered up at her from behind his mother's skirts; she smiled and nodded at him. "Winter can be harsh."
He ducked his head in gratitude, and continued in German. "Be as that may, your ice is beautiful. Arendellian ice is a luxury in Wurttemberg."
"As is Wurttembergian beer. It is splendid."
He laughed politely. "When I was a child, I sneaked into my father's reserves, drank my weight in beer, and went on a drunken rampage through the castle."
"My sister did that as well. The servants still talk about that incident."
By this time, they were in the castle library. Her parents and the Wurttembergian ambassadors excused themselves to discuss state matters, though all knew it was to give them the privacy to get to know each other. Elsa was glad of the break in stilted small talk.
"You can drop the formality," he said, once the library doors were closed, and they were finally alone. "We are to be married, so we had better get to know each other properly?"
"I suppose," she said, her body tense, afraid of just what he might mean by "properly".
Karl laughed. "There's no need to be afraid, mein liebling." His blue eyes were soft. "I will not hurt you. I promise I will do my duty by you." He held out a hand, divested of its glove.
Elsa hesitated, before forcing a smile to her face; she placed her small hand in his. "And I to you, Karl."
His eyes creased at the sides when he smiled. Even if they weren't stormy green, she supposed she could get used to those eyes. "I'm sorry for butchering your language, but I must insist we speak it," he said. "I wouldn't want your subjects to think of me as a foreign prince swooping in to steal their princess."
Elsa blinked, "It's fine," she began, pleasantly surprised by his concern. "Your Norwegian, I mean."
Karl's eyes crinkled into a smile again. "I am glad you think so. I have been studying the language in preparation for this day."
Elsa laughed, a genuine sound. "My German isn't much better."
"Nonsense. You speak it fluently." He patted her hand and continued in Norwegian. "I appreciate your consideration, but I will need to practice. We have the rest of our lives together, do we not?"
"… I suppose so."
Once the formalities were over, Elsa waited impatiently for an opportunity to sneak away. Anna was busy with Baron Kristoff – despite having only spoken to the man twice, she approved of him for her feisty sister – and she didn't want to disturb them.
"Ah, Elsa," said Karl, looking distinctly harassed.
"Karl? Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing." He waved a hand at the assembled crowd behind them. "Your guests; they are – what is the word? – very enthusiastic."
She smiled. "Enthusiastic is a word for it. It's a good thing you aren't a woman and was obliged to dance with the Duke of Weselton." Elsa nodded at the tiny man. "He's wearing heels if you look closely."
Karl winced. "My sympathies are with your kin." He paused. "Are you heading out to the balcony?"
"Ah – yes." The princess fervently hoped he would not offer to join her. "It's very noisy. I would like to take a rest from the festivities."
"I see. Of course." He tilted his head to the side. "Shall I fend off anyone looking for you?"
"Karl, you don't need to – "
"As your husband-to-be, I suppose I should be accustomed to protecting you," said the prince, and laughed. Elsa managed a wan smile.
"Go on. I'll be inside."
Husband-to-be. She was engaged to be married to a man she'd only just met that day. Elsa toyed with the ring on her finger, closing the French door behind her.
"It's too fine a night to be alone, Your Highness."
Her heart leapt. "Hans."
He appeared from the shadows, smiling that rakish smile at her. He looked surprisingly royal in a white suit and green cravat.
"How did you – ?"
"Olaf," he said simply.
The initial delight at seeing him dissipated as Elsa remembered where they were. "You need to go now, before they notice you're gone," she hissed, the still-pleasant smile rigid on her face so as not to alert anyone who could be looking in their direction.
"I know. I just had to see you again."
"Fool." Elsa shook her head – and squinted at his clothing. "Did you steal that from somewhere?"
"That would be telling," he said, pulling his gloves off his hands, "but let's put it this way: next morning, there will be a very confused man waking up in your roses, who just happens to be my size."
She had to stifle laughter. "I suppose I will have to pretend ignorance of this matter?"
"I'm afraid so, Your Highness."
She couldn't bring herself to meet his piercing green gaze. "For tonight only, at least, I'm just Elsa."
He cupped her cheek; she leaned into his touch. "Just Elsa," whispered Hans against her lips.
He backed them into a corridor – the first without guards they found – still kissing her; Elsa moaned softly, the sound muffled under his hand. "Shhh." Hans pressed her against a wall, his tongue still entwined with hers, his hands stroking her face, her hair.
Elsa's fingers were tangled in his auburn hair, holding his head to her. He found a particularly sensitive spot, and she shivered, inadvertently brushing her chest against his.
They broke apart to breathe. "You looked so beautiful, it was so hard forgetting you'll be marrying another man," Hans said, his thumb rubbing circles on her bodice.
Elsa's breath caught in her throat. "Hans, you know I – "
"Come with me."
"I can evade the guards. We'll be on my ship, and long gone before morning."
"You love the open sea, and the freedom I can give you. Elsa, please."
"Hans, no." Her cerulean-blue eyes were hazy with tears. "Don't you see? I can't."
He looked away. "... You're right. I'm sorry." Hans caressed her cheeks, his touch feather-light, and wiped away the tears that threatened to fall. "Come see me off tomorrow morning."
"I will," she promised him without thinking.
Hans adjusted her clothing, brushing out the wrinkles with the flats of his hands. "You should go now," he said in a neutral tone, "your husband-to-be will be looking for you."
She refused to answer him.
"I don't want you to be seen with me. It's not proper for a newly-engaged princess to be alone with another man." His smile was bitter, and she bit her lip. "Hans – "
"I'm sorry – I'm not making this any easier on us both, aren't I?" He stroked her cheek, dropping a kiss on her forehead. "Good night, Elsa. Sweet dreams."
Without a second glance backwards, Elsa turned the corner and disappeared. Hans watched her go before he melted into the shadows as well.
She had just only made it to her room when the door flew open. Elsa gasped, startled.
"You're not going with him, aren't you?"
"Anna," said the older princess with relief. "You could have knocked. You startled me."
"Answer the question."
"You expected me to run away?"
"I was expecting you to choose to be happy." Anna folded her arms across her chest.
Elsa's lips drew together into that grim line her sister was well-acquainted with. "Anna, we've talked about this. I'm engaged to Prince Karl. I was educated to be crowned queen one day. I can't just run away and leave all that behind."
Anna scowled. "Damn it, Elsa..."
"Language. We are not at sea."
She grasped her sister's arm. "I just - can't you can think of something?"
In the inky-grey pre-light, Hans and his men bustled around the ship, making ready for their departure. He was engrossed in the lists of supplies when Gustaf touched his arm.
"What?" he asked irritably. His anger melted away instantly when he saw a slender figure standing on the pier. Shoving the papers into the hands of his lieutenant, he descended the gangplank and went to her.
"You came," he said, clasping her hands in his. She offered him a wan smile.
"I said I would."
"The guards – "
She shrugged. "They're still sleeping. Before they had a chance to check the dungeons, they had a bit too much wine to drink."
Hans smirked. "Wine? On duty?"
"They couldn't refuse their crown princess, couldn't they?" The fiery spark was back in her eyes, and he laughed – narrowing his eyes suddenly at the dark circles under her eyes, standing out against her pale skin. "Didn't you sleep at all last night?"
"No." Elsa touched his face, tracing the line of his cheekbones. "Neither did you, it seems."
"We're both fools then." Hans tilted his head and pressed his lips to her palm. His eyes never left hers.
She silenced him with a finger to his lips.
"I love you," said Elsa. "Maybe someday I'll regret not leaving with you."
"Hopefully sooner than later," said Hans. "I love you."
He dipped his head forward to kiss her, tasting the salt of her tears. His arms wrapped around her, cradling her head, touching the silk of her white-blonde hair. Elsa's tongue caressed his, the pressure of her fingers on his chest soothing, reassuring his heart that the world wasn't coming to an end.
When the kiss came to an end, she, not quite ready to leave yet, rested her head against his chest.
She pulled away first. His fingers tangled with hers, reluctant to let go, until she stepped back with a sad smile on her face.
He strained to remember her as she was that morning; radiant, her white-blonde hair framing her proud face. Traces of tears still glittering on her cheeks, even as she was smiling. Her eyes, the colour of the ocean he loved and yet more beautiful and precious to him, fixed on his. The expression she wore was something he knew he would carry to his dying day.
And then she turned on her heel.
He understood, of course, that she did not want to see his ship leave, because she could not bear the finality of his departure. Better she left him standing there, as though she could one day come back and see him, waiting for her, exactly as she had last saw him.
He was waiting for her when she slipped into the castle. Elsa gasped in surprise. "Karl?"
"Elsa," he said softly.
She dropped her gaze to the ground. "Karl, I'm sorry. He means nothing to me now."
"You should have gone with him."
Her eyes filled with tears. "I can't." Before he could say anything else, Elsa pushed past him – but he reached out and caught her wrist. Elsa whirled around.
"Let me go."
"I spoke with your sister."
"She told me about you," said Karl in careful Norwegian, "and that you love the sea and your freedom." The prince paused. "Not necessarily in that order of importance."
Elsa didn't move. She stood there and let him come closer, his hands resting on her upper arms, gently turning her around to face him.
"She told me that you have - pflicht...?"
"Duty," she supplied in Norwegian.
"Have duty to your kingdom." He took her hand in both of his. "To me."
"Bu you are happy with him."
"You will not be as happy being with me."
"Karl, don't be ridiculous." Elsa let out a strangled laugh. "We have been engaged to be married since we were born. You came all this way from Wurttemberg to marry me. The whole kingdom celebrated our formal engagement last night."
"But do you honestly wish to marry me?"
"We're royalty," said Elsa bitterly. "Our feelings don't matter."
"Of course," he said equally as bitterly; the princess glanced at up him in surprise. "I know that very well."
"What, do you have a pirate lover on the side?" asked Elsa half-seriously, and Karl laughed.
"More scandalous than that, mein leibling. I prefer the company of men."
"I have scandalised you, Elsa," he said, amused. Elsa shook her head furiously, blushing scarlet. "Oh, not at all..."
"I was going to tell you when we were married so you would not be trapped within a loveless marriage." His eyes crinkled. "But now, I am presuming there will be no marriage?"
She shook her head, her arms wrapped around herself. "This is so wrong, so horribly wrong."
"The freedom to choose is never wrong, especially when love is involved." He smiled. "I am glad you are able to make that choice." Taking her hand, he gently slid the ring from her finger and placed it in her palm.
In that instant, Elsa knew what she needed to do.
Her dress billowed behind her as Elsa ran, feet thudding on the cobblestones. There was still time, and his ship couldn't have gotten far.
She could see the Frosne Hjerte, set at half-sail, just about to clear the narrow neck of Arendelle's harbor – too far away for a dinghy to reach. The shouts of men echoed in the distance, as did the clattering of boots on cobblestones and the splashing of longboats hastily lowered in pursuit of the escaping pirate ship.
Elsa stopped short on the pier, hands clenching in her skirts.
He was gone.
"I thought you'd left."
Elsa spun around, heart hammering in her chest. "I… I was going to say that."
Hans looked almost bashful. "Well, clearly I didn't."
"Why – "
"I found my own place," he said softly. She laughed through her tears.
"I really hope those are happy tears, otherwise I've made a terrible mistake."
"You idiot," sobbed Elsa, "what will you do here?"
"I'll get by. I suppose I'll have to start paying for my crimes first, but I'm hoping the princess will be lenient."
"She'll try," managed Elsa before she met him halfway.
"You came all this way for nothing," said the princess helplessly.
Karl smiled. "I would not call meeting you nothing, Elsa." He held out his hands; she placed her own in them. "I am glad I have met someone like you. I hope that even though we are not married, our kingdoms..."
"Of course," she assured him hurriedly. "Always, Karl."
"That is good to hear." His smile turned wistful. "And someday, maybe I can be as brave as you."
Slowly, she smiled back.
Off the coast of the Southern Isles, Denmark
Captain Hans Westergaard sighed. "This was supposed to be a routine patrol."
"What can go wrong, will go wrong." His fiancée, Crown Princess Elsa of Arendelle, was already dressed for battle in men's clothing, her sword already unsheathed.
"It's practical to always be prepared for the worst. I said that just before I met a bunch of dirty pirates who took me prisoner."
"Are you still going to give me grief over that?"
She leaned in to kiss his cheek. "Always," she whispered into his ear, and pulled back with a smirk to match his.
End Notes: The real Karl was known for his scandalous behaviour with several men in his lifetime *cough* in spite of being married to a Russian princess, though history doesn't say if he was briefly engaged to a princess of Arendelle.