Chapter 25: Homecoming
If not for the panic rooting into her mind, Elsa might have perceived that something was not quite right when she reentered her ship. She could only focus on the thought of Anna. All else was pushed aside, and so she thought nothing of it when she saw Oliver sitting there with his back towards her. Elsa forwent grace and ran forward, placing a hand on his shoulder and saying, "We need to go–"
Instinct failed her when Oliver whirled around and slashed at her throat with a concealed knife. Elsa had neither the time nor the ability to move away, balance thrown when Oliver flung off her hand. If Elsa was any other person she would have fallen that instant, dead before she hit the floor, but even dazed with fear and horribly distracted, she was still Queen Elsa.
Elsa stumbled away from Oliver just as ice rose between them to block his blade, the pristine surface of her barrier barely even scratched by the blow. But even though she was physically unharmed, Elsa felt her mouth dry from both the near-death experience and that it was Oliver who had attacked. During the past few days, she had come to trust the helpful, considerate strategist. For him to make an attempt on her life now, at this timing, and to watch as he struggled to pull his knife free…
Except his eyes were different.
"You are not Oliver," Elsa said, but there was no response, save for an unintelligible growl.
For all his sloppy appearance, Oliver had an easily recognizable spark of intelligence in his eyes. Now that light had dimmed. It was his face but something was missing, leaving vacant eyes that revealed none of his precocious mind. Snarling and pupils dilated, Oliver resembled nothing so much as a rabid animal. It took only a second for Elsa to make the connection; Oliver had been put under spell by the Sorcerer. Certainly before they left, likely for the sole purpose of stalling her at this precise moment when Anna was in danger. Oliver had always been meant as a spring-loaded trap.
So this was what must have happened to Alvard. Seeing it up close was enlightening.
When Oliver wrenched his knife out of her ice and swung again, Elsa bent backwards and ducked under the sloppy blow. Without the element of surprise, Oliver could never match Elsa. Her hand shot forward and clamped down on Oliver's wrist, hard enough that his hand opened and the knife fell to the floor. With a powerful jerk, Elsa righted herself and pulled Oliver down, rime hardening around his wrist like a manacle and spearing down to the floor of the ship to keep him locked down.
And then Elsa sidestepped her ice and spun on her heel, whipping her arm around to land a solid blow to Oliver's temple while he was still trapped. It was impossible for him to dodge. Oliver slumped to the floor unconscious. Just to be safe, Elsa crushed the knife to powder within a globe of snow and then restrained Oliver with several bands of hardened ice around his wrists and ankles. She had no time for elegance. With a thought, her ship set sail at speeds that could not be matched by any other, abandoning the rest under her command.
They could find their way back on their own.
Elsa needed to return before it was too late.
Anna screamed his name at the top of her lungs, but there was no answer from the wreckage of the destroyed warehouse. She could see nothing through the plume of dust that had erupted. She lay in a heap on the ground with Alek, but the prince appeared too horrified to speak. He only stared at the rubble, lips slightly parted but uttering no sound. Anna tried to get on her feet but fell before she could rise more than a foot, only now feeling the dozens of bruises ribboning across her body. Pain screamed through the abused tendons of her sprained ankle, but Anna fought past it to limp her way to the rubble.
"Hans!" Anna yelled again, and this time she was joined by Alek hobbling over to yell for his estranged brother. "Hans! Where are you! Hans!"
It was painful to scream. With the dust clogging in her nose and throat, Anna felt her lungs burn every time she made the slightest noise, even when she breathed, but she never let up calling for Hans. Neither did Alek, perhaps screaming even more desperately than her and now running around the perimeter of the wreckage, trying to squint past watering eyes to see any sign at all of Hans. But after nearly five minutes of their fruitless search, when Alek rounded the warehouse once more and rejoined Anna, Anna's voice fell mute and Alek collapsed to his knees.
"It's all my fault," Alek whispered. "If I had trusted him more, none of this would have happened. I could have prepared him. I could have–"
"We need to keep looking," Anna said, but hopelessness had latched on to her heart and worse, guilt. Whatever Alek said, Anna knew it was her fault. If she had been stronger, faster, Hans wouldn't have needed to stop to help her. If not for her, Hans would have made it out.
They both stood silent and unmoving for what felt like an eternity, until the silence was broken by the sound of shifting metal.
Anna looked over instantly, the shrill noise unbearably loud when there was no other sound. Reluctant hope bloomed in her chest when a rock slid down the slope of the rubble. If this was only a false alarm, she might break entirely. It was agony to decide whether or not to take the chance, to risk disappointment. Another slight movement; Anna raced over without another thought at the same time as Alek, and without a word they began excavating the rubble.
By now, the commotion had drawn a crowd. Mostly peasants who had come to see what the loud explosion was, but guards as well, and when they recognized Alek despite his dirtied and undignified appearance they endeavored to help. It was just as well; Anna felt her arms shake from the gargantuan weights. Moving some of the crumbled stone and cement was doable but the giant iron beams were beyond any of them alone, perhaps even together.
Eventually, Anna heard a cough.
Anna shared a glance with Alek and they began to dig with abandon, desperation magnified by this slight bit of hope. Alek went as far as to push away one of the slower guards and do the work at twice the speed, ignoring his bleeding hands and forging on even as the skin cracked and tore. Finally, Anna gripped one end of a wooden plank and Alek grasped the other, and then they flung it away.
Below was Hans.
Anna was too thankful to see the slow rise and fall of his chest to do anything else, suddenly numb with relief. Hans was alive. His eyes were closed, the right one swollen shut, and a terrible gash reached from his forehead to his temple – blood marring his paling face – but he was alive. Alek continued to dig until the top half of his body was freed, but the instant he tried to move the rest of the wreckage away, Hans released a piercing scream and his one eye flew open, bloodshot and veined with red.
Alek backed away, breathing deeply, but without the pressure Hans subsided. Once again, Alek tried to lift the wreckage, but once again, Hans screamed and Alek was forced to stop. Alek shoved the guards away when they tried to free Hans just as he did, instead barking out orders for them to call the medics. Hans broke into hacking coughs and Anna knelt at his side, grasping his hand without a word, feeling him clutch back as powerfully as he could and yet feebly at the same time. Something wet dragged through the grime on his face, and Anna belatedly realized they were tears.
She could hardly believe her eyes. Seeing Hans like this would have been unimaginable just the past hour, but here he was now, reduced to tears of pain, and all she could do was watch.
"H-Help me," Hans gasped. "Please, Anna, Alek."
"I-I don't know how," Anna replied, bowing her head when she could no longer speak through the strangled knot locked in her throat.
"I can't move this," Alek said, kneeling down on the other side of Hans. "It's too heavy even if everyone here tried together, and even if we could, not – not without hurting Hans."
"I can't, I can't feel – I can't feel my legs," Hans bit out, groaning past clenched teeth and struggling to sit up, only succeeding when Alek braced him. He let go of Anna and clutched at Alek with both hands, shaking him with sudden desperate strength. "Alek, please, please, just do something–"
"You'll be fine!" Alek said firmly. "Listen to me. I'll get you out of this."
Hans took a deep, rattling breath, and then his eyes rolled back and he fell silent. Anna nearly fell into hysteria until Alek shook his head and she saw that Hans was still breathing. Only unconscious. It was for the best. Now he wouldn't feel the pain. She and Alek stayed there until the guards returned, but to her fury, they had brought Saul. Anna wasn't the only one furious to see him.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Alek snarled, springing to his feet and coming in between Saul and Hans. Even his hand twitched towards his sword.
"I could ask you all the same," Saul said slowly, taking in the scene without any concern, his nonchalant demeanor igniting visceral hatred in Anna she hardly knew she was capable of. "You should know better than anyone, Alek. Leaving the castle without permission is forbidden. I don't mean to place blame, but see what you've wrought."
"If you hadn't stripped me of command, then we would have had backup!" Alek said. "None of this would have happened if you hadn't interfered–"
"None of this would have happened if you had obeyed me, stayed inside the castle, and distanced yourself from matters that do not concern you," Saul said.
When Saul tried to get to Hans, Alek held him back with one hand and growled, "Get. Away."
"Forgive my arrogance, but I believe I am the most accomplished medic in the Southern Isles," Saul said, and he nodded his head toward Hans. "If you want him to die, then by all means, I'll leave him to your experienced care. I offer my services only if you require them."
"Just let him," Anna said, but she kept her eyes fixed on Saul and it took every ounce of effort to control her shaking voice, to not cross the distance between them and throttle Saul where he stood with her bare hands. "If Hans doesn't make it–"
"Pardon me, but you will do what exactly?" Saul looked down at Alek's hand, and with a guttural snarl Alek drew back and moved aside. Saul strode past him and knelt, retrieving a case from one of the guards and snapping it open to retrieve materials. Anna could only follow the earliest procedures, the use of disinfectant and then the stitching of the gash, but past that she had no understanding of his efforts. As he worked, Saul said, "If you two are convinced I will not kill him, I would like some privacy."
Alek might have refused, but Anna led him away. As much as she hated to admit it, right now they could only rely on Saul. She might have despised him at the present moment, but Anna remembered that during their first, much more amiable encounter, Saul had helped her; Alek himself had brought her to him. She and Alek stood aside for several minutes, silent, and Anna wondered about Saul. She retraced the Sorcerer's words and wondered if Alek had been right before, that Saul had done everything to deliberately stall their investigation, that Saul was conspiring with the Sorcerer, but she had no definite answer. All she knew was that Saul had changed dramatically.
Any other thought vanished when Anna heard Hans scream. She whirled around and saw Saul stepping away, and Alek immediately seized the older prince by his collar, dragging him close and demanding an answer. Saul never broke from his unruffled calm, instead eyeing Alek with a curled lip.
"Do you realize how much pressure is currently crushing his lower body?" Saul asked. "I've numbed the pain as best I can. But even if by some miracle he survives, saving his legs will be impossible. I'm afraid that Hans will never walk again."
"So you didn't do anything worth a damn," Alek said.
"I bought him time for that miracle to occur. In the meantime, I advise you try your best to keep him awake. Now then, if you will excuse me," Saul said, gripping Alek's wrist and throwing his hand away, "I must return to my duties. I'll make sure to commission a funeral dirge from Rafael. Perhaps a portrait from Stefan as well. Have a good day, Alek."
When Saul turned his back, Anna demanded, "Is that all you're going to say?"
Saul paused. Without turning back, sounding for the first time the slightest bit less than composed, he answered, "Hans advised me once to never let go of the throne for a woman, but here he is now, giving up his life for the same. I wonder why he has changed, Anna. I bid you a good day as well."
Anna looked away as Saul strode back to the castle. Hans was awake again, but she hardly knew if that was a good thing. It seemed as though the worst of the pain had passed; Saul had managed that at least. But Hans was left trapped and drifting on the edge of consciousness. Anna and Alek approached again.
"I'm so sorry," Anna said, barely managing that simple phrase when her tongue felt dry and swollen, her throat parched and thick with words.
"M-My choice. It's like you said. It just had to be," Hans said, actually laughing a little. Whatever irony he found so funny, Anna found a horrid thing. Hans stopped smiling when he took Anna's hand and added, "You've taught me – taught me so much – so much. I should thank you. Mother would be proud of me again, I think. I'll see her again. Soon. That's all I ever wanted."
Alek rose to his feet and drew his sword. Anna looked at him with alarm and he said, "Hans, I'm sorry for this, but – I'm going to do it. You can live even without your legs–"
"No!" Hans yelled, straining to sit up and breaking into hacking coughs once again. Even though Anna tried her best to calm him and rubbed his back, Hans never relented, begging again and again through his wheezing breaths, "No! Don't do it, Alek. Please. I-I'd rather you just kill me, I'd rather die, I don't want to live like that–"
"But you would live," Alek murmured. Hans seemed to be beyond words and never answered. Though his eyes were open and he silently stared out into the distance, what he saw was something neither Anna nor Alek could comprehend.
Anna shook her head. "You heard what Saul said. I don't think – I don't think Hans could take it. We just need to wait. We'll wait. You'll be okay, Hans."
"Wait for what?" Alek asked.
"Elsa," Anna said, and when Alek scoffed she added, "I know she's coming back. I can feel it, so please, we just have to wait. When she's back–"
"How can you be sure?" Alek pointed at Hans and said, "Look at him! We can't wait. This is his one chance, and I'm not going to rely on Elsa based on some magical feeling you have! I'm doing this."
When raised his sword, jaw clenched and eyes hardened with steely resolve, Anna exclaimed, "It's not even what Hans wants!"
Alek whirled around to face her. "Do you want him to die? Do you know what happened down there while you were gone, Anna? Let me tell you. The Sorcerer was in our heads and we would have killed each other, except…" Alek barked out a laugh but it was a choked sound, bitter and much too short. "Hans knew to stop. I had just about lost it but Hans knew to stop. You know why?"
"Wh-Why?" Anna asked.
"Because of you," Alek said. "Because he was worried about you, and the thought of keeping you safe woke him from whatever was happening to us. He told me that right then, nothing was more important than you. So I'm going to ask you again, Anna. Are you going to let him die because you have a goddamn feeling Elsa is going to show up?"
But it was more than a feeling. Anna knew from the reliquary, could feel Elsa coming closer, but did Alek have a point? Elsa could be too far away. Maybe Elsa wouldn't be able to help even if she came in time. And maybe, just maybe, Elsa would refuse to help; Anna knew how she felt about Hans, and maybe it was the panic speaking but the horrible thought that Elsa might leave Hans to die suddenly seemed all too possible. Could she really make the decision to give up what might be Hans' last chance to live? His life was in her hands. It was either take a chance now, or take a chance on Elsa.
"Just do it," Anna whispered.
When Alek raised his sword, Anna had to look away. But she kept her eyes open. It was bad enough to look away from the damage she had wrought, but to close her eyes too, as if pretending none of this was happening, would be cowardice plain and simple. Anna waited for the inevitable.
A scream sounded from behind.
But not from Hans; Anna whirled around to see Alek fling his sword to the ground and collapse, clutching his head with both his hands. "I can't do it," Alek breathed, "I can't actually maim him like this."
Anna kept silent. Whatever condolences she could offer now were useless. Instead, she silently knelt down next to Alek and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, keeping her eyes trained on Hans and counting each of his shallow breaths, the rise and fall of his chest, like the countdown to his last. She could never recall how long they sat there, waiting, nor could she say what exactly they were waiting for, but time passed like the swing of a pendulum, slow and punctuated.
Footsteps broke the silence. Anna looked towards the crunch of snow and saw Gustaf striding towards them, Edmund trailing behind in his footsteps with his head down. By now Alek had composed himself and stood to meet them. Gustaf stopped more than a meter away, throwing his arm out so suddenly that Edmund nearly crashed, jerking backwards with a muffled gasp.
"Hans is still alive?" Gustaf asked.
"Barely," Alek said.
Edmund stepped out around Gustaf but stopped again uncertainly, glancing at Alek and then away, but after a moment of seeming indecision he peered over his shoulder. Briefly, he met Anna's eyes, but just like with Alek he looked away, throat bobbing as he swallowed. Then his gaze wandered to Hans and Edmund asked, "But he's going to be all right?"
"Why are you two here?" Alek asked.
"We heard what happened. Regretful," Gustaf said, bland tone conveying none of his regret, but his voice sharpened when he continued, "Though one wonders, of course, what brought you three here."
"I wonder if you don't already know," Alek said, narrowing his eyes at Edmund, and the shorter boy stepped back behind Gustaf, clearing his throat.
"Let's just go," Edmund said, and Gustaf nodded and turned away. Before he left, Edmund looked over Alek once more, ignoring Gustaf's pointed stare to say, "I-I'll talk to you later, Anna?"
"Okay," Anna murmured.
She didn't watch as Gustaf and Edmund left. Alek rejoined her in their silent vigil, watching and waiting as the seconds counted down for Hans, and Anna wondered if there could still be miracles.
Elsa could see it long before her ship banked at the docks.
Smoke rose in heavy plumes above the warehouse district, thick clouds of grey scattered by the wind and contorted into grotesque figures, marring the perfect white sky of her wintry domain. It rose even above the treetops; Elsa dashed across the snow the instant she arrived, following the trail and smelling the acridity of gunpowder grow stronger with each step. And there was blood, lots of blood, the copper tang practically tangible in the air and forcibly reminding Elsa of her own carnage. But that had been in a battlefield. Whatever happened here should not have happened here.
She had been close anyhow, and the snow was her ally, speeding her travel with a gentle push. Within minutes of disembarking, she had arrived.
Elsa took in the ruined warehouse with something similar to shock, a muted variant but genuine surprise nonetheless. Nothing much surprised her nowadays, but to see an entire warehouse blown to smithereens within her own kingdom was quite the anomaly. But she cared nothing for the warehouse itself. When she thought that Anna might have been inside when it collapsed, dismay settled at the base of her stomach like a ball of lead. Her eyes took in the scene more carefully–
"Anna," Elsa whispered.
Had it only been three days? It felt like an eternity since they had last seen each other. Anna was sitting there, unharmed, and at the sight such powerful relief struck her that Elsa felt lightheaded. It was a testament to the strength of her emotion that Anna immediately turned, no doubt having sensed her by the outburst echoing through their link.
"Elsa!" Anna cried.
Anna scrambled to her feet; Elsa opened her arms and Anna ran to her, falling into her embrace as though the act had used up the last of her strength. Elsa was all but holding her up, and she could feel Anna trembling against her. She pulled Anna closer and buried her head into her hair, one hand rubbing her back. Gods, she had missed Anna. Even mingled with the scent of gunpowder and blood, she was so distinctly Anna that Elsa felt at ease at last. She had missed this more than she realized.
"You're back," Anna murmured. "You're finally back."
"I'm back," Elsa agreed. "What's happened?"
Anna pulled away as though jolted, and she pulled Elsa along towards the warehouse. "Hans – I need you to – Hans! You can help him, I know you can–"
"Help Hans?" Elsa barely had time to utter even that before she noticed Alek there as well, and instantly she dug her heels into the snow. With a single pull, she jerked Anna back and behind her.
"What are you doing?" Anna said, trying to move forward again, but Elsa continued to hold her back. Alek approached and Elsa kept her eyes fixed on him, even as Anna cried, "We need to help Hans!"
"Stay right there," Elsa said, watching Alek carefully as he came to a halt. Oliver was still fresh in her mind. For all she knew, any of the princes could have been put under the Sorcerer's influence without their knowing. Any of them might be a danger. "What exactly happened here?"
"The Sorcerer," Alek croaked. "We were investigating, and then…here. We found him here."
"Never mind that," Anna said, "Hans! Hans is more important–"
"And you brought Anna?" Elsa asked. She could see Hans lying there, half-buried under the rubble, but cold rage filled her veins at the thought of Alek knowingly endangering Anna. It could have been anyone lying there and she wouldn't have cared, let alone Hans, always plotting to undermine her at every turn. Anna cried for her to help, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Elsa waited for Alek to answer.
"I-It was a mistake, I'm sorry," Alek said, but his uncharacteristic hesitance irritated rather than mollify. Elsa waited impatiently for him to spit out his words. "But Hans–"
"Enough," Elsa hissed. Maybe it was leftover instinct from the recent war she had returned from, but her voice left in the short, brusque tone she used with the soldiers and it took every bit of self-control not to strike Alek down that instant. Not only had he brought Anna to the Sorcerer, he had the nerve to put her together with Hans too? Gods knew what he was planning. "It was a mistake. Is that all you have to say? Why did you take Hans too?"
All this time, Anna had been calling for her to help. Elsa had ignored her. But at that moment, Anna wrenched her hand out of her grasp and screamed, "Elsa! What is wrong with you? Will you just help Hans first! He was trapped because he stopped to help me, when you weren't even here!"
Very slowly, Elsa turned towards Anna. She was breathing deeply, chest heaving and cheeks red but not from cold, and though even she looked surprised by her outburst, there was nothing to hint that she regretted even a single word. Elsa walked past Anna and Alek, towards Hans, and she took in the pallor of his face. She knelt on the snow and slammed her hands down on the white surface, willing it to move. Beneath the wreckage, snow drilled upwards in several tendrils and shifted the iron plates away in one smooth motion. It took only seconds for her to free Hans.
"We're heading back," Elsa said. "And we have much to discuss."
She swept away without looking back.