I deserve this, Hans thought as the the bitter cold wind slapped him in the face. It was shockingly cold for this time of year, yet every inch of his skin was drenched with sweat. His breath was ragged and uneven, and he wrung his hands together in wretched anticipation of what was to come. He knew that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people must have shown up to witness the execution, but he saw none of them. He was entirely alone and helpless as he awaited a shower of stones to rain down on him from the sky and send him straight to hell. Tears of sheer terror began to well up in his eyes, and his knees became too weak to support what would soon be his lifeless corpse. He fell to the ground and heard the low, malicious laughter of his eldest brother.
Hans lifted his head, and amidst the sea of nothingness that surrounded him, he saw Claes' face, with a wicked grin stretched wide and eyes gleaming with carefree amusement.
"Very well, brother," the king of the Southern Isles spat the last word out like venom. "You'll die prostrate in the dirt where you belong."
In that moment, Hans wanted nothing more than to stand and look Claes straight in the eye, a final act of defiance...but he had no strength left in him to pull himself up. His face in the dirt, he clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes tightly shut, resigning himself to the most degrading death imaginable, when he felt two hands firmly grab his arm. Using these hands for support, he rose slowly to his feet.
Standing beside him, with his hands still on the condemned man's arm, was Elias. The old man was hardly strong enough to carry himself up a set of stairs; he should not have been able to lift a grown man off the ground. Hans opened his mouth to speak, but he found that he had no idea what to say.
"You'd better step back or they'll hit you, too," he finally managed.
"I know," Elias said with a sad smile, not moving a muscle.
No...he couldn't let the man who'd helped him up die with him. This was Hans' fate, not Elias'. He wanted to shout at him, shove him away, anything to get him out of the line of fire...but he didn't. And Elias still clutched his arm with both hands as Claes let the first stone fly...
Hans heard himself screaming as he was jolted awake by Elias, who was clutching his arm in his room in Arendelle, not on a stoning ground in the Southern Isles. It had been a terrible dream...but it would be a terrible reality all too soon.
"When will it happen, Elias?"
The old man closed his eyes and took a long breath, seeming to lack enough energy to answer this question. They'd both been avoiding the subject for over a week now.
"Tomorrow...as soon as we land in the Southern Isles."
Hans felt every ounce of air in his body leave him in an instant. This would be the last night he had alive...but for some unknown reason, when his eyes wandered to Elias' hand on his arm, all he could think of was the innocent old man standing with him in his dream, ready to die with him for no good reason. The idea that it would actually happen was ludicrous; no one in their right mind would risk their own life to come to the aid of a man that would be dead in mere moments...and yet...
"I don't want you to be there when it happens," Hans stated, unable to name the emotion weighing on his voice.
"Your majesty, you're going to want someone there who cares for you...I'm not going to abandon you."
Someone who cares for him? Why in the world would Elias care for him? The prince had certainly never given him a reason to in his life; the old man was a servant, and Hans had treated him like one. He had been no kinder to him than any of his brothers, and for that, Elias should have hated him. He should have hated him as much as Hans hated Claes or any of the rest of them.
"I want no such thing," he snapped. "And I am your prince until I'm dead. You will not be there."
"As you wish, your majesty," the old man said, his voice shaking along with his hands.
"Get your hands off me and leave me alone. I'd like to live out my last hours in peace."
Without another word, Elias left the room, and Hans had never hated himself more than he did in that moment. He had crushed the one person who had ever really treated him like a human being. That is what he'd chosen to do with his last night on Earth. The world truly would be better off with him dead.
Hans spent the entire night pacing back and forth across the room, his mind reeling, his animal instincts urging him to make a last ditch effort for his life and run for it...but all too soon, dawn had come and gone, and one of Elsa's guards entered the room.
"King Claes has come to collect you."
With that, he was led out into the hall and down the staircase to be collected like garbage. Part of him wished he could die right then and there so that he wouldn't have to see his brother's face before he did. Hans loathed being locked up in Arendelle as he had loathed being locked up in the Southern Isles, but the one benefit of being a prisoner of Queen Elsa was that it granted him a guaranteed escape from his brothers.
"When's it going to do something?"
"I think it's broken."
Hans' earliest memory occurred when he was two years old, when his twin brothers, Gunnar and Greger, the only two boys in his twisted excuse for a family that remotely got along, were examining him as if he were some kind of circus attraction. From that moment on, he couldn't recall a single instance of either of them ever referring to him as something other than "it." At two, he had not begun walking or talking yet, and apparently, this was the first time that his brothers had noticed.
The three princes were sitting on the ground in the snow, Gunnar and Greger staring at their youngest brother as if waiting to be entertained, and young Hans staring blankly back, not knowing what it was they wanted him to do. Snow was a rarity in the Southern Isles, and the boys were hardly dressed for the occasion, so before long, the twins rose to head indoors. Greger paused and looked back toward their helpless brother.
"Should we do something about it?"
At this, Gunnar let out a hearty laugh. These boys were only ten years old, but they had already been molded into the wicked and unfeeling men they were today. Gunnar doubled back toward Hans and gave him a swift kick to the stomach, causing him to fall backward into the snow. The child burst into tears from the pain and shock of the blow, attracting the attention of Claes, who had just left the palace.
"What the hell...?"
As Claes approached, Hans had somehow gotten into his head that his eldest brother would come to his rescue. Tall, muscular and handsome, he certainly looked the part. Hans reached out his hands to be lifted to his feet, but Claes did not bend down to help him. Instead, he stood directly over the small boy, lowered his head, and spat in Hans' face.
"Just leave him," the new king called back to the twins. "Pathetic."
"Pat-et-tick," came the two-year-old's monotonous response...his first word.
Claes, the only one of the three older boys in earshot, erupted in laughter. "And it speaks! Consider that your first lesson, kid."
With that, Claes turned on his heels and strode back toward the palace, the other two following suit, leaving Hans lying helpless and shivering in the snow. It must have been an hour later when someone finally found him and brought him to warmth.
Funny, Hans couldn't remember his rescuer's face, but he knew now that it must have been Elias. Far worse would be said and done to the youngest prince over the years, but it was that first incident that would set the tone for the rest of his life. In many ways, it felt like he had never left that spot on the ground and like the only word that would ever come to him was "pathetic."
He was led into a room consisting of nothing but a long table surrounded by chairs. On one side of the table sat Claes, with that familiar grin plastered on his face when he saw Hans enter the room. On the other side sat Anna, staring uncomfortably at the surface of the table and seemingly hesitant to make eye contact with anyone, and Elsa, whose brow was furrowed and mouth set in a straight line as she poured over a stack of papers in front of her. Elias stood off to the side with his back against the wall, eyes bloodshot and half-closed; he obviously hadn't gotten any sleep that night either.
It was odd that Elsa was still reviewing Claes' proposed plan for the money she'd promised him. Meetings like this were a formality and never lasted very long. Hans had expected Claes to be waiting impatiently at the door, eager to get home for a long-anticipated execution. It appeared that Claes had expected the same.
"Well, if everything's in order, I'll take this rat and-"
"Hang on, Claes," Elsa interrupted, causing the a scowl to replace the king's grin. "I still don't understand...it says here that more than half of this money will go into funding for the royal navy? The Southern Isles aren't at war..."
"A strong kingdom must have a strong navy!" Claes responded irritably. "Those improvements are long overdue."
"With all due respect, I offered this aid because your kingdom is going through a famine. I don't see anything here that's going to help feed your people."
"You offered your money because you wanted to save my swine of a brother's skin!" Enraged, the king pounded the table with his fist, causing Anna to jump out of her reverie. "Now that the world thinks you're a lunatic and don't want him anymore, you're trying to go back on our deal. I gave you your prisoner; it is no fault of mine that you don't want him anymore."
"I know that. I'm not going back on anything; I just think you should reconsider-"
"I will do nothing of the sort! I've put up with this insanity for long enough. I will not be told how to run my kingdom!"
"And I will have no part in funding a tyrant!"
Hans began to feel the temperature of the room drop dramatically, and ice started to form on the table under Elsa's hands. Anna tapped her sister's shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Alarmed, the queen quickly removed her hands from the table and stood up.
"Revise your plan to help your people and you will get your aid. Until then, Arendelle will have nothing to do with the Southern Isles. Isaac, please take the prisoner back to his room. This meeting is over."
Claes' face had turned beet red, and he was visibly shaking with rage, but when he spoke through clenched teeth, his voice was eerily steady.
"I will await your apology and your money. Without it, mark my words, Elsa, the Southern Isles will most certainly be at war!"
A/N: Hi all!
So now the ball really gets rolling. Clearly, both Elsa and Hans have a lot to come to terms with after this chapter, and we may or may not have a war on our hands.
As always, thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and review my work. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!