author's note: Sorry, wow. Three weeks. Not cool, I know. To make it up to all you fantastic reviewers (and you are, truly, fantastic), I give you my favorite Jelsa fanart I've found:
http (colon-slash-slash) pinterest (insert-dot) com /pin/147563325264615454/
As you can probably imagine, I've not been able to find any StabbingtonxElsa fanart. Shocking. Do I have an artist readers? Somebody draw me some fanart.
Even I admit summer isn't so bad in the early morning hours, especially right before the sun crests the mountaintops. In Arendelle, dawn and dusk last for a long time due to the high mountain ranges; extended periods of magical in-between points. Dusk may expel the heat, but only at dawn does the air cling to the coolness of the night. The singular moment every day that summer gives a nod to winter.
I stand on my balcony without a cloak, but of course I'm not cold. In a few minutes, I'll need to leave to meet Stabbington by the stables. I still can't believe I'm doing this—whatever this even is. "Finding Jack Frost" isn't a hugely conclusive plan, considering the legendary spirit has no home. For all I know, he has no body either. He might not even exist.
But he does. I know it. I can feel the reality of his life deep in my gut—in the cold, fiercely alive part of my soul from where my powers spring. If my books are to be believed, then Jack is the instigator of winter. He's the first breath of frost that covers the fields and crops and rooftops—no year the same time. This, unfortunately, means he might be in a completely different hemisphere than we are, but somehow, I imagine long distance travel isn't really a problem for him.
We need to go where it's cold, and that means the high mountains. Then we—or rather, I—need to create a winter frost when it isn't meant to happen—infringe on his territory, if you will. Who knows, maybe he was around last time I set off the not-so-eternal winter. But if he was, then why didn't he stop it? Stop me?
There it is: another twinge of doubt.
I shake it off. All that's left to do is wait and believe. And . . . maybe a send a message.
I raise my hands and create a giant snowflake between my palms, infusing magic into every, tiny detail. It's nearly the size of my head. I need this snowflake to be alive. Not in the sense that Olaf is alive, but alive enough to find Jack Frost, and when it brushes against him, he will feel me inside it and know that I'm looking for him.
I release it and blow it away from me. Good luck, I think, watching it swirl into the ever lightening sky.
. . . . . . . .
Stabbington is already waiting by the time I make it down to the stables. My horse—a regal white stallion—looks almost pony-like next to the enormous Clydesdale the stablehands gave Stabbington to use. I suppose I understand the logic. Anything smaller runs the risk of collapsing underneath him.
He looks up from where he's tying a pack off on the back of my saddle. He looks pointedly at the risen sun. "So, when you say dawn, what you really mean is whenever you feel like leaving?"
"I'm barely a few minutes late," I say dismissively. At this point, I expect a certain level of snarkiness from him, so if he wants a more wounded reaction, he'll have to raise his efforts up a notch. "What are you putting on my saddle?"
"Supplies." He looks over me. "I figured you wouldn't think to bring things that would actually help you survive in the wilderness." I don't have anything on me except a light cloak and a satchel of undergarments and hygienic necessities I didn't think I could go a few days without.
Will it be a few days?
I don't know. We can't know. How long am I willing to look before I give up? And what happens if we actually find Jack Frost? Do I simply . . . invite him back to the castle?
"Relax," Stabbington says, misreading my expression. "Lucky for you, I came prepared for your unpreparedness."
I approach the side of my horse. I feel tired already and we haven't even started.
"Need a boost?" Stabbington comes around the backside of the horse.
"Maybe just your hand," I admit, reaching out.
Without warning—without permission—he grabs me around the waist and hoists me into the saddle as easily as setting a loaf of bread on the counter. I sit there, sideways, tense as my own frozen victims—stunned, embarrassingly rattled. Anna is the only one who touches me. Ever. Period. (Not counting snow creatures.) I can still feel the exact places on my torso where his fingertips pressed; they tingle, as if burned. Heat rushes into my neck and face and my teeth clench in anger. I glower down at him, ready to blast him with the most royal, scathing reprimand he's ever heard in his life, but before I can . . . he laughs. Laughs.
He walks off, shaking his head. "Man, your face. Worth it."
The way the man needles me, it is a sheer miracle I haven't frozen his heart yet. Or at least his mouth.
I must still be glaring, because when Stabbington swings onto his gigantic horse and glances at me, he laughs again. Actually, I think that's the reason I didn't ice him. Over two weeks, and I'm fairly sure this is the first time I've heard him laugh. The sound—gruff, and strangely appealing—surprised me almost more than his hands on me.
He pulls in the reins to steady his stamping horse. It's black; how appropriate. I don't think anyone rides the Clydesdales much. We mainly use them to cart heavy loads and to haul in ships when there's no wind. This one especially doesn't look tame, the mane tangled, the thick leg muscles quivering with energy, but again—fitting for the rider.
"All right, look," Stabbington says. "I'm sorry. What's up with you? You're quiet."
"I'm always quiet."
"No, I mean . . . you keep going off to Elsa-land. You're distracted. Distant."
"Elsa-land?" I echo.
"Yeah." He loops a finger by his temple in the universal sign for crazy. "Just chill, okay? Everything's going to work out. The worst that can happen is we don't find him and you have to find a real boyfriend."
"Just chill," I repeat evenly, ignoring the fact that he pinpointed the source of my anxiety so easily. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
"Dunno. Do you think it's funny?"
He shrugs. "Mr. Frost probably doesn't have a sense of humor anyway."
I send a blast of ice and wind into his side that knocks him off his horse. To my surprise, I'm not worried at all I might push too hard and freeze something I'm not supposed to. Not because I want to hurt him, but because I've simply come to accept he can take whatever I dish out. And he can. He gets to his feet with a groan, shaking ice off him. He climbs back on and clicks, nudging the horse forward. As he passes me, he grins. "That's my girl."
"No—no my girl." I kick my own horse after him. "When have I ever given off the impression that these cutesy, familiar nicknames are okay with me?"
"You haven't. I just like bugging you."
"That has been painfully clear from day one."
We pass through the now always-open gates, turning in the direction of the mountains. Stabbington doesn't say anything else and as we make our way through the sleepy village in continued silence, I'm suddenly suspicious. Did he do all that on purpose? If so, I have to admit . . . it sort of worked. I'm much more relaxed.
In fact, even beyond this morning . . . I'm more comfortable with Stabbington (after only a few weeks!) than I am with anyone except Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven—and since two of those aren't even human, it's safe to say my relationship pool is wanting. It's not that I'm particularly fond of Stabbington, but with him I've never made any effort to be perfect, poised, or refined. The opposite, actually. I purposely don't bother with patience in order to drive him away. He's fended off not only my insults, but the sting of my powers. It seems like I'm always losing my temper with him, and yet, he's fine. Whether I like it or not, seeing him handle me at my worst makes me trust him.
We cross into the woods. The shade brings a chill and the dewy foliage shivers as the forest wakes up. The path becomes narrow enough we're forced to travel in a line, Stabbington leading.
"I have a proposition," I call up to him.
"Don't you want to hear it?"
No answer, for a moment. Finally, he says (reluctantly, if I'm any judge), "Do I have a choice?"
"Just while we're outside of the castle borders—and only then—you can call me Elsa."
Nothing—again. Now who's being distant and quiet?
"Am I allowed to call you Kay?" I ask, a little annoyed.
His massive shoulders shrug in a movement that goes through his whole body. "Call me whatever you like. But just because we use our first names doesn't mean we're suddenly buddy-buddy."
That stings, to my surprise. Not that I know why I'm surprised. Obviously we're not friends. At least not in the affectionate, fond sense of the word. But still . . . it hurt more than I thought it would to hear him put it so bluntly.
. . . . . . . . .
The rest of the day passes much the same way. We ride and ride and ride—rest a little, fill up our water canteens by a creek—and then we ride some more. Stabbington is about as talkative as a rock and I'm not much better. There's no way I'll complain about it to him, but I'm sore everywhere from my lower back to my ankles. The sun is hot. All day I've been carefully summoning storm clouds to follow us and block the blazing rays, while holding off the actual blizzard.
I'm wondering how I can suggest another break but make it look like his idea, when I see a thin curl of smoke rising over the treetops.
"Look!" I say, pointing.
He does. "Yeah, so?"
I deflate a little. "Is it another traveler, up this high?"
"First of all, we're not up that high yet. You'll notice it's still pretty warm. And it isn't a person. There's a mountain inn over that way."
An inn? I practically swoon. With chairs? With cooked food, instead of the dry, cold stuff we ate for lunch? Maybe even . . . a bath? That sounds wonderful.
"Let's stop," I say, sounding pretty convincingly casual, if I do say so myself.
Just like that. He doesn't even consider it.
"Why not?" I demand hotly.
With a loud sigh (just in case I might misinterpret how annoyed he is), he reins in his horse and turns around so he faces me. "Look, Your Highness—it's not going to be some cozy village inn. Places up in these parts are for trappers, hunters, ice harvesters, and the occasional thug not wanting to venture too close into town. That kind of rough crowd would eat you alive, and if you play the Queen card, they'll be all the more hostile about it. They won't kick you out, but they might spit in your food."
Hm. Rough, rude, burly men? "But you'd fit right in," I point out.
"How do you think I know what it is?"
"So, I'll just keep quiet. We won't tell them I'm the queen. I'll let you do the talking."
He rubs the back of his neck, eyes closing in a grimace.
"Come on," I nudge. "Are you really going to turn down the opportunity to boss me around?"
His eyes slit open into a flat glare. "It's not that. It's—" He grunts. "The only women in these places are usually bar wenches. I just—okay. We'll grunge you down a little and tell everyone you're my kid sister, and if they touch you, they'll taste their nose in the back of their throat. That'll probably work."
If someone like Stabbington told me I'd taste my nose in the back of my throat for touching something of his, I'd listen.
The inn isn't cozy, as Stabbington warned. It has a crooked foundation, built on a slope, and the roof is thatched and juts at odd angles. Soot and pine residue have stained it mostly black. The Axe Tavern a wooden sign reads.
Stabbington ties our horses, then proceeds to "grunge me down." "Tie this over your hair," he instructs, handing me a burlap kerchief (previously wrapped around the blade of a curved dagger he pulled from who-knows-where). He tucks the dagger into a more visible spot on his belt and I twist my hair into a bun, dutifully securing the coarse fabric over my head.
"Okay. Cloak, off."
I do as I'm told.
He examines me up and down through narrowed eyes. "The dress is still too fancy looking . . ."
I glance down at it. Fancy? This is one of the most plain dresses I own. Navy blue, simply cut. No embroidery or jewels. Light fabric, for summer.
Stabbington pulls a leather vest from one of his own packs and puts it over my shoulders. It drowns me, the bottom hem almost hitting my knees.
"There we go," Stabbington mutters. "Final touch . . ." He ties the leather vest snug around my waist by looping a piece of rudimentary twine several times around my torso and pulling it snug. I stand, arms outstretched, waiting for approval—but he's not done yet.
He bends down, picks up a handful of moist, black earth—and rubs it in my face!
"Hey!" I shriek and reel back, out of his reach.
He grabs my arm and tugs me forward again. "Stop squirming."
"Ugh—gross," I whine, but I try and hold still as he smears dirt into my cheeks, my neck, the quarter-length sleeves of my dress, and my hands. Remember how I don't like touching? Well, a full-body dirt massage definitely falls into the category of uncomfortable.
"All right," I huff when he's finished. I step back and straighten my shoulders, hands on my hips. "I think I'm grunged down. I look like a homeless person."
"Don't stand like that." He pushes on the tops of my shoulders. "Slouch."
I hunch and glare at him. "Better?"
He studies me for a long moment, then his features soften. He sighs. "You're still too pretty."
I blush, even though the way he said it, it could just as easily have been an insult.
"Oh well. That's as bad as it's getting. Let's go."
He makes me walk behind him as we go through the front door into the dim tavern. My nose automatically wrinkles. Yuck. What is that smell? Urine, sweat, some unidentifiable rot? One of Stabbington's hands comes to my upper back. I let him lead me. He was right. It's almost all men in here, and they all give us a passing stink eye as we enter. They each look as scary as Stabbington, though I note none are quite as big as he is.
Stabbington guides us to a corner and tells me to "Wait here" in a low voice. I make the mistake of glancing in the direction of one of the probing sets of eyes I feel. The man staring at me smirk, revealing a pointed set of teeth.
I meet his stare with a cool glare of my own, and freeze the ale inside the mug he holds. As I turn back, I feel a little smug (I'm getting pretty good if I can freeze the liquid without frosting the mug). Stabbington sits across from me, passes me a drink, and says, "I saw that."
"Saw what?" I ask innocently. I examine the frothy liquid in my mug. "What is this?"
"Hard cider. Lightest thing they had."
I take an experimental sip. Actually, it's not that bad. "You were right. I was going to try and bully you into getting us two rooms to stay the night, but now I'm not so sure outside wouldn't be cleaner."
"I tried to warn you."
"At least it's nice to get out of the saddle."
Stabbington looks particularly menacing in this lighting, his face craggy and dark. You would never guess, looking at him, that he had a nice laugh, or a wickedly grim sense of humor.
"Do my eyes deceive me?" A short, gray-haired man appears as if from nowhere by our table. He's hard-looking, and must, if my watering eyes are any indication, account for at least half the smell in the place.
Stabbington tenses and shifts immediately into don't-mess-with-me mode. He has different levels of terrifying, and this one ranks somewhere near the top.
"Sod off," he says darkly.
"Whoa now—don't you recognize me? Corona, remember? From the job with the ruby brooch?"
"I recognize you just fine," Stabbington says. He keeps his gaze down. "I just don't like you."
"Ouch. Where's the other half of the ruthless Stabbington brothers, anyway? Didn't think it was even possible to get one half of you without the other . . ."
Stabbington stands—slowly, without pointed threat. Still, the man cowers beneath his massive height. Stabbington's face is calm, his eyes lidded—but inside the pale blue orbs, something ugly is writing like a pit of snakes. I'm suddenly afraid I might have to unleash my powers and reveal myself just to stop Stabbington from killing this man.
"Get out," Stabbington whispers.
The man gets out—as fast as his drunken legs will carry him. Stabbington sits down again. The tavern is completely silent.
"You have a brother?" I ask quietly.
He shakes his head. "No."
A hand goes to my mouth. That moment—those horrible seconds when I cried over Anna's frozen frame, thinking I'd lost her forever—hits me again like a ton of bricks. Nothing hurts worse than the death of someone made of your flesh and blood. "I'm sorry, Kay . . ." I reach out and touch his hand. He pulls away.
I wince. "Sorry, I know I'm cold—"
He stands abruptly. "Come on. We've rested enough. We need to—" He breaks off as a torrent of rain lands on the tavern, filling the small space with a dull buzz. Sheets of water patter against the windows.
My blizzard, I realize. I let the clouds follow us, and just now, my emotions . . . I didn't mean to draw back my power, but I did. Without the core of my ice inside it, it must be melting—or raining, as it were. There's no way we can go out like this. And I know . . . it will keep on for another few hours.
Stabbington sags in defeat.
"I can ask about the rooms," I say. Then add, "I'm tougher than I look."
He doesn't crack a smile; barely acknowledges that I said anything. This is going to be a long night.