She was having the dream again, pulled along by invisible hands through a strange and frightening world that made little sense. Anna traversed the well-worn, predetermined trail laid before her without really noticing, the landscapes changing every now and then into something vaguely familiar as the dream picked up speed. Here she'd see a blue shophouse with a wide glass front; there she'd see a string of wagons traveling down a dusty trail towards a seemingly endless horizon, but always, always the dream planted her at the threshold of an imposing forest. These strange visions started when she was six and had plagued the redhead throughout her childhood, teen years and into adulthood like a relentless bloodhound, always crouching at the back of her mind like a toad even during her waking hours. She could recall little in the beginning, but as the dream sped along she could pick up more and more detail until everything came into shockingly clear focus the moment she stepped foot into an imposing forest made entirely out of brambles.
Every tree and bough, bush and underbrush was a choking snarl of thorns that tore at her as she wove her way through them, mindful of her steps but unable to completely avoid getting her blue dress stuck in places. It was an endless, painful maze. Usually Anna would wander through the bramble forest for an undetermined period of time, the dusky sunset always shining at her back, casting long shadows across the thorny ground. Sometimes the shadows would move and become creatures, thorny vines twisting together to form monsters that reached out to grab her, hooked claws barely missing her as she tumbled along. Other times they were just shadows, and Anna preferred when the shadows were just shadows. Thankfully tonight they were just mundane pools of darkness littering the forest floor.
Eventually the forest would thin and she'd step into a spectacular, wrought-iron encircled courtyard dominated by perhaps the biggest tree she'd ever laid eyes on. At least fifteen grown men standing fingertip to fingertip could fit around the circumference of its base. Equally massive roots had torn through the manicured lawn and tile walkways, ripping furrows in the black earth as they plunged to an impossible depth, anchoring the tree firmly in place. Anna was always wary of the tree, unsure why something so naturally beautiful and unimaginably large could cause her such unease, but there was an alien quality to the plant that caused her to keep her distance, regardless. Well, as much of a distance her dream self could maintain. There were a few dreams where the redhead blinked after exiting the forest and found herself standing at the base of the roots, her eyes pulled to something imbedded in the trunk some thirty feet above. Her hands would move on their own accord and stretch to touch the rough brown bark even though something deep within her screamed at her to stop, but she was powerless against a secondary force beyond her willpower dragging her fingers ever closer to the trunk.
Tonight, however, Anna simply stood at a safe distance, head canted to one side in curious inquiry. Even at a distance she could see the object protruding from the tree trunk and wondered at it. If she moved the right way the redhead could catch the glint of a wet rust-color dribbling down from the protrusion as if the tree was bleeding. A soft breeze swept into the courtyard, carrying with it the distinctive smell of acrid smoke and burning tar, two scents completely out of place in the tranquil setting. Anna wrinkled her nose at the smell, idly wondering what was burning close enough that the wind could carry the smoke into the courtyard and sting her eyes. And within an instant the mood of the dream changed, taking on an ominous tone. Anna felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle as something moved behind her, a second presence accompanying her at the base of the tree. At the same time the soft pastel sunset took on the pallor of bruised flesh, gentle yellow, oranges and blues darkening into blooms of red, purple, and black like ink mixed with oil. The foreboding presence was like a weight on her shoulders, unseen eyes boring into the back of her skull like a hot poker slowly being pushed under her skin. Swallowing hard, the redhead forced herself to remain staring straight ahead, knowing that if she turned she'd come face-to-face with whatever monster continuously stalked her dreams.
"Airmid," a voice like rolling thunder whispered, brushing the hair off Anna's shoulders and sending an involuntary shiver down her spine. The name was like an invocation, a monosyllabic summons that transcended her dream and pierced her to the very core. Anna could sense the power in the speaker's voice, the very air rippling around her like heat haze. Suddenly the creature behind her was before her, blocking the redhead's view of the tree with its bulk and blotting out the bruised sky above as the sunset was blanketed by a thick haze of smoke. Anna fought for as long as she could to keep from looking up at the figure, knowing what she'd find when she did. But in this dream she had no free will, and her fixed gaze was torn free and guided up to the antlered man, his face lost to shadow but his horns and eyes clearly visible in the darkness.
"Airmid," he whispered again and the smell of fire was suddenly accompanied by the roar of hungry flames and crumbling mortar as the flames neared, "tiocfaidh ár lá."
A few distant screams drifted into the courtyard on the wind, unintelligent cries of agony and lives being suddenly snuffed out ringing like a broken bell. Anna felt herself trembling, fear and panic rising inside her. The creature always whispered that phrase like a fervid prayer, hot breath—smelling of rich earth and wet leaves— washing across Anna's sweaty face. She knew her dream was coming to a close, the events unfolding like they had for years, and braced for the final moment. Something sharp tapped her abdomen just under her ribcage a half second before it was pushed through her skin and out the other side, blood gushing from her mouth as she sank to her knees, a wordless, anguished cry on her bloody lips. Distantly she could hear someone calling her name, and there was a vague familiarity to the voice. She focused on it in an attempt to drag herself away from the fiery torture of her broken dream body.
"Tiocfaidh ár lá," the Forest Lord whispered one more time as the dream began to shake loose, colors bleeding together as Anna's consciousness bled the vision dry and buoyed her back into reality.
"Anna! Anna get up, you're going to be late again!"
The redhead sat up with a startled jerk, struggling with the blankets tangled around her shoulders and torso. For a terrifying moment she thought she was back in the dream, the strong arms of the antlered creature holding her firmly in place. It wasn't until she slipped off the edge of her bed and landed with a jarring thud on the floor that Anna became fully awake and wrenched open her eyes. Face smashed against the cold hardwood, she groaned loudly as shafts of light streamed in through the break in her half-drawn curtains, illuminating the neat confines of her small room.
Thank God my bed isn't higher off the floor or I'd have broken my nose so many times falling off it, she though with an exhausted sigh. It was already clearly apparent that today just wasn't going to be a good day if her startled thrust out of sleep was any indication of how things would progress from this point on. She really did hate mornings. They had never and would never be her thing. Let her sister chase the sunrise. Pushing herself up on her elbow, Anna rubbed her face with her free hand, all the while wondering why Elsa had been screaming for her to get up. It couldn't be past seven in the…
"Shit!" she cursed and scrambled to her feet after glancing groggily at her wall clock. She should have been up an hour ago getting ready, and now she was late, again.
I'm dead. So dead. I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm dead!
Moving in a frantic rush, the redhead grabbed the first article of clothing she could get her hands on and hastily threw it over her head. Judging by the wrinkles and the faint smell of dust she'd picked up one of her previously worn, unwashed frocks but couldn't find the time to care as she grabbed at random a cloth bodice from her wardrobe along with a line of leather twine from a hook beside her door. She bolted down the stairs at a reckless speed, bare feet pounding the wood as she jumped to the first landing and swung around the tight corner. On the second stair she nearly tripped over a wicker basket full of gears and sprockets, hands flailing as she managed to grab ahold of the wooden banister and haul herself back upright while still continuing to descend the last few steps.
"Elsa! Why is your stuff on the stairs?!"
Not waiting on a reply, Anna dashed through the tiny living room, barely avoiding the low table, and headed for the kitchen, picking her way carefully around piles of debris and shop supplies littering the floor while hastily braiding her customary double braids. She was just about to open her mouth to berate her sister for leaving her things everywhere when she suddenly pulled up short as a blast of stingingly hot air washed over her body. Blinking in obvious surprise, the redhead stepped past the threshold separating the living room from the kitchen and felt her mouth fall open, all thought of her tardiness evaporating.
"You're going to be late again," her sister commented without looking away from her work. "What happened to that clock I made you? You know the one that chimes when you're supposed to be getting up for work?"
Elsa stood in front of their hearth in a loose white top tucked into a pair of black ridding breeches, sleeves rolled up to her elbows and secured in place with a thong of leather buttoned to her shoulders. Her long, platinum hair was braided and secured in a loose bun at the base of her skull, the back of her ivory neck shining with sweat and streaks of soot. In one hand she clutched a wooden handle attached to a chain that she pulled on in steady intervals, the small bellows to her left whooshing and groaning as air was compressed out of the bladder, further heating the outrageously hot, glowing orange fire. In the other hand she held onto a long iron poker imbedded in the coals, twisting and turning it every now and then in order to gauge its temperature and readiness.
"What are you doing?!" Anna gaped in utter disbelief, sweat starting to prickle her brow as she attempted to move towards the hearth.
"Making a few new bolts and washers," Elsa answered, sharp cerulean blue eyes staring into the flames.
"I can see that! Why is our hearth suddenly your personal forge? You have one out back!"
The blond shrugged nonchalantly, flipping the piece of metal over in order to heat the poker evenly. "It's cold outside and having to walk between here and the barn gets tedious after your fifteenth trip. I can't seem to get the size right for the new bolts—"
"So you figured it would just be easier to work in here!?"
"Papa did make the hearth forge-heat resistant. I really don't see what the issue is."
"Really? Really?! Let's start by addressing the fact that you could bloody well burn our house down at any second! It's hot in here, Elsa. Even Olaf is hiding," the redhead argued, throwing a sympathetic glance at the shaggy white dog wedged under the table in the corner, big black eyes watching her as he panted heavily.
At this Elsa looked up, slender eyebrow quirked. "Of course it's hot…it's a forge. And Olaf is fine. You can tether him outside if you're that worried."
Unable to find the right words to describe the sheer disbelief rolling around inside her alongside utter frustration, Anna threw up her hands and went to the cupboard. "That's not the poin—" she paused to squint at her hand and was dismayed to find it covered in ash black soot. "Elsa, you're getting soot all over the house!"
"Anna, please. You've being overdramatic," Elsa sighed and rolled her eyes. "This house has seen its fair share of dirt and soot. It'll wash like it always does."
"Never like this! This is our house, Elsa, not your workshop."
"House, workshop, what's the difference?" The blond paused to wipe a coating of sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and glanced at the ornate clock on the wall above the kitchen sink. "You really are going to be exceptionally late."
Not for the first time in her life Anna had the almost uncontrollable urge to throttle her sister. This was just like Elsa: turning whatever space she could get her hands on into her personal workshop. At times the redhead wondered if her sister actually remembered she had a sibling who had to live in the same house as her, stumbling all over her neat piles of semi-finished inventions and repaired clocks, fighting to carve just a small sliver of space for herself out of the chaos that was…everything. For someone who said she had a compulsion about keeping things tidy, Anna was hard pressed to believe that Elsa knew where anything actually was.
"Where are we going to cook our food if you're forging all the time?" she groused unhappily as she grabbed her apron from the hook next to the door and shook it out.
"I wasn't aware that having this here meant we can no longer use it for cooking. My, whatever shall we do?" Then she added after removing the poker after one more bellows pull, "So what happened to your clock?"
"It…I…it just…" Frustrated beyond the point of civil words, Anna stalked over to the table where her sister had laid out a few day-old muffins and some now extremely soft butter for a meager breakfast. Despite her obvious irritation, the redhead knew what would happen if she told her sister she'd unhooked the chime in her wall clock the night before last so she could sleep in on Sunday and had forgotten to reattach it. Elsa would give her the older sister, eyebrow cocked, side-long glance that always reminded Anna of how a queen would look if witnessing something truly irritating. One-handed, the redhead hastily tied her bodice in place while stuffing a butter-slathered muffing in her mouth. It took her a few tries to get the laces threaded through the eyelets, but she managed and tied off a hasty knot. Bodice now secured, she tied her apron around her waist and grabbed her heavy cloak before pulling open the front door and nearly weeping at the burst of crisp, cold air. She stood for a moment just reveling in the chilly air and watery sun before the clock next to the door and the one next to Elsa both chimed the hour at the same time, dropping another stone into her stomach.
"Damn it, she's gonna kill me!" Anna hissed as she threw her cloak over her shoulders and stepped out onto the wide porch.
"You're nineteen, Anna. Madam Beokhandel wouldn't have a reason to if you'd just show up on time!" Elsa shouted after her as she placed the now glowing piece of iron on her anvil and began molding it into shape.
Anna fought down an acrid response and shut the door, muffling the high pinging sound of metal striking metal as she set off at a run towards town along the rutted dirt road. December mornings were usually a little overcast in this part of the country: heavy, snow laden clouds marching across a cobalt blue sky as they swept in from the mountains some ways off. The redhead's breath steamed in front of her as she ran, cold wind chapping her face and burning her lungs as she raced past the last few barren rows of harvested crops and into the town proper. Anna made decent time into the small, quaint-looking town of Sors, the ground under her eventually shifting from raw dirt into wide cobblestone streets that broke off in six different directions around an ornate fountain like the spokes of a wheel. Tall shops and multistory shophouses lined the streets in every direction, glass storefronts glinting in the morning sunlight as she sprinted along. Rounding a tight corner, she caught a glimpse of Kai, the owner of the local hunting lodge, unloading fresh barrels of ale and mead from a wagon across the circular courtyard and waved. The big man raised a hand in greeting and offered a smile before slinging a fairly massive keg over his broad shoulder and sauntering into the lodge.
Her place of work finally in sight, the breathless redhead leaned hard into her run and made a beeline from the first shop to the immediate left of the dormant fountain with a painted oval sign that read Boekhandel Books hanging just above the glass storefront window. Stopping short of the frosted front door, Anna took a second to make herself presentable, smoothing out her wrinkled frock and skewed apron— drawing in a few calming breaths— before gingerly pushing open the door, careful not to jingle the bell. For just a brief moment she allowed herself the blissful fantasy that Madam Boekhandel wasn't in the shop despite the fact that the front door having been unlocked and the small wooden sign flipped to open. Creeping forward on the balls of her feet, she padded across the hardwood floor sitting area just inside the shop, steering clear of the creaky spots near the plush chairs and mahogany coffee table. Stepping around the glass-front counter, Anna fished in her apron for the keys to the case and the back room, preparing to begin her morning rituals around the shop, when a board creaked off in the stacks to her left and she froze.
"Late again, I see," came a clipped voice that made Anna's heart drop through her stomach as she gasped and turned. Madam Boekhandel made little sound as she emerged from the far end of a row of shelves to Anna's left, staring at the redhead over the rim of a stylish pair of bronze reading glasses with her beautiful and utterly hateful hazel eyes. Whenever Anna found herself caught by them she immediately felt such a crushing level of inferiority she had to fight the urge to shrink into the smallest, most compact form she could imagine and stay there; and today it was no better. In fact, it was worse.
"G-Good morning, Madam Boekhandel," the young girl stammered, ducking into a shallow curtsey as was required whenever greeting her employer.
"Twenty minutes late," the slender woman continued as if not hearing Anna's greeting, walking towards her with an easy gate that skillfully hid her simmering irritation. "Remind me again why I still employ your services?"
"I…um…I'm deeply sorry, Madam Boek—"
"Anna, pet," the book keeper cut in with a gusty sigh, setting the books she had in her arms gently down on the counter, "I do not wish to hear any of your excuses, and regardless, it was a rhetorical question. You have been late three times this month, and that simply will not do. I cannot keep waiting around the shop for my employee to show whenever she pleases. That is not how a business is run, my dear, and I will not stand for it."
Anna felt her cheeks redden and hung her head, hands folded in front of her apron. A part of her wanted to rail against the infuriating woman. Yes, it was her fault for being late, but for God's sake it was only by twenty minutes, and on a Monday! There wouldn't be any customers in the shop for another two hours at best, so why was it such a big deal? It wasn't like Madam Boekhandel couldn't handle things on her own for less than half an hour.
And I'm not your damn "pet"! the redhead seethed.
For three years Anna had diligently worked for the book keeper, doing all she was asked and more— working late hours and many of her off days— and for three years the woman had insisted on calling her irritating pet names. It was more than just irritating and irksome, though, it was degrading. She was never just Anna or Miss. Erfinder; oh no, she was always dear or pet or love, as if Anna didn't deserve or had to earn the right to be called by her actual name. As if, in the book keeper's eyes, she really was stations below her and was simply humored rather than respected. And if Anna dared to have the audacity to rebuke being called by her pet name Madam Boekhandel would simply laugh and say she was being too sensitive or completely ignore the gripe. So Anna had suffered with it and her less than meager wages for three years, dreaming of a moment when she would no longer need this job and never again have to suffer her employer's indignities.
However, the more analytical, less emotional, part of Anna's mind reminded her that this was Madam Boekhandel's business, and she could run it and treat her employees as she saw fit. Even in a good season there were very few jobs available in Sors, and since winter had finally settled over the countryside there were even less, so it was a blessing that Anna had anything at all. If Madam Boekhandel decided that she'd tired of Anna's tardiness—or even if she simply wanted a change of staff— the redhead would be hard-pressed to find anything now. So with great reluctance, because she really did want to put this persnickety quim in her place, Anna quelled her temper and sharp-tongued response under a thick blanket of forced compliance and made herself look as meek and mild as possible.
Though if I keep this up for much longer I might just become meek and mild.
"I will be docking your pay for your time missed and require you to stay an extra hour, without pay, one day this week in order for you to get your necessary work done. Am I clear, pet?"
"Yes, ma'am," Anna mumbled, feeling another rock land in her stomach.
"Good. Now, be a dear and start uncrating the new shipment. You know where they are to be shelved. I've set a small crate of rare books behind the counter to be added to the glass case. Make sure you rotate out the oldest copies so I can send them back. After that you can dust the shelves and sweep the sitting area. And for God's sake be diligent. The last time you dusted you missed entire shelves," Madam Beokhandel instructed as she sashayed to the door, her full hips swinging from side to side like a pendulum as she walked.
Anna couldn't help but feel another wave of inadequacy arc through her. The book keeper was an unnaturally beautiful woman who didn't look a day over thirty despite being well into her late forties. Her long, auburn hair hung in seemingly perfect, gravity-defying ringlets to just below her shoulder blades, complementing her flawless, porcelain skin. She was a woman who could get away with wearing hardly any makeup, drifting on her unnatural beauty as if she were a goddess come to earth to grace humanity with her presence. And Anna hated her for it. Though she had never believe herself anywhere remotely beautiful— what with her gangly figure, ruddy freckle-dusted skin, red hair that oftentimes looked strawberry blonde in certain lights, and round face— Anna knew when a woman was blatantly flaunting her beauty for both attention and intimidation purposes, and it galled her.
"Am I forgetting anything?" Madam Boekhandel murmured to herself, tapping a slender, red-painted fingernail against her chin. "Ah, yes. Make certain you return the books you borrowed last week to their proper places and write them back into the inventory."
A fresh crackle of cold dread suddenly raced through Anna's veins, and she stiffened, stifling a very colorful curse under her breath. Madam Boekhandel caught the stricken look on her employees face and turned towards her, hazel eyes locking her in place.
"You've forgotten them again," she said, stating it as a fact rather than phrasing it as a question. Anna nodded stiffly, feeling her face flush with fresh embarrassment. Madam Boekhandel heaved a great sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose as if her employee's incompetence gave off a rank odor.
"How you remember to dress yourself in the morning is a wonder."
"I'm sorry, Madam. I had meant to grab them while rushing out of the house this morning."
"Because of oversleeping no less," the book keeper sighed again, the roll of her eyes almost audible. "Dear, if you are incapable to dragging yourself out of bed in the morning, perhaps you should think about possibly applying your services at the gentlemen's club on the other side of town. You're pretty enough," she said with an offhanded wave, "and you'd never have to get off your back. Just lay there and let the men do the work."
Anna felt her temper rising and grabbed handfuls of apron in order to keep from chucking the first thing she could get her hands on at the miserable sow. To even suggest that…to even think it made the redhead want to become physically violent.
"Nevertheless, until my borrowed property is returned to me, your pay will be docked against each book checked out under your name."
"But Madam, that's what I make in two days!" Anna gasped, her face paling.
"Then perhaps this will be a lesson to you, pet," Madam Boekhandel said with a patronizingly sweet smile. "If you were prompt for work and remembered to bring back borrowed items you wouldn't be in this mess. As it is, I am late for an important meeting. Good day."
The devastated redhead watched the woman leave the shop and cross the street before disappearing down one of the side roads. For a long time Anna stood in frozen shock beside the counter, hands hanging limply at her side as she stared into nothing.
Two days of pay…gone. Two whole days…
She knew she should be feeling something, but for the moment there was only cold disbelief coiled dangerously around even colder dread nesting in her chest. Eventually the ice creeping around her heart thawed under the heat of sudden anger. With a roar, Anna spun and kicked the baseboard of the counter multiple times with as much force as her booted toes could manage, envisioning it was Madam Boekhandel's shin, or even more pleasant, her head. Two days' worth of work up in smoke all because she'd overslept; two days' worth of payment she wouldn't see again.
Elsa is going to kill me, she thought morosely, laying over the counter and covering her head with her arms. She felt the hot prick of tears in her eyes and sniffed them back, swallowing around the lump in her throat. Despite their combined efforts, the sisters made very little money that they could call their own, floating on what Anna could earn working at the bookshop while Elsa sold her inventions and clock repairs. They saved where they could, cutting corners and stretching out the contents of their pantry to its limits some months, but they got by. Since Elsa was the eldest she was the one in charge of handling their combined incomes and would no doubt want to know why her sister's payment for the week was significantly less than it should be.
Because I'm a horribly lazy person who's too scatterbrained for her own good, Anna grumbled, unable to shift the weight of growing despair off her shoulders. And to make matters worse, tomorrow was the anniversary. That remembered thought would have been enough to drive the redhead to her knees if she hadn't already braced herself against the counter, though a few tears did slip free and roll down her cheek.
Three years. Their parents' had been dead for three years now and the sting wasn't any better. And the worst part about it, the part that was viciously ironic, seemed to be that while everyone was getting into the holiday spirit, Elsa and Anna were stuck in mourning. It was one of the reasons the sisters didn't participate in many of the town's traditions and parties. And how could they? Days before the start of Yule their parents' wagon had been found by a group of woodsmen where it had been driven off the road not four miles from their home. They'd been coming home from an invention delivery in a neighboring city and had apparently attracted the attention of highwaymen. In the report given to the town constable, it appeared the husband and wife had put it a fair fight, but it hadn't been enough. Agdar had been found next to the cart, a crossbow bolt in his throat. Idunn had been discovered a few yards away in the woods, her body brutalized in a way that even made the woodsmen physically sick. A warrant had gone out for the arrest of the highwaymen responsible for the senseless and violent act, but there was little evidence of a trail and even less enthusiasm from the townsfolk to find the killers with it being the middle of winter and all. So the bodies were returned to their daughters and a small burial took place the following day on their property, most of the town turning up for the funeral, but otherwise forgot about the now parentless young girls living outside of town once the townsfolk returned to their warm homes and holiday cheer. Only a few offered to help the girls, Kai and his wife Gerda alongside a few of the woodsmen and Darrius, the town butcher. The rest went about their lives as if nothing had happened, a slight that Elsa was hard to forget and forgive while Anna tried to imagine that everything was alright. So it was left up to Elsa and Anna to pick up the pieces, alone, and forge a life for themselves in a world that seemed so much more cruel and colorless than it did while their parents' had been alive.
And here is was again, that cursed time of year. Anna would have liked to believe that she'd not noticed exactly what day it was when she'd scrambled awake this morning. She would have like to believe that her sudden, furious haste to leave the house was only brought on by the need to get to work on time. She would have liked to believe a lot of things, but frankly there were far too much honest truths in the world and she couldn't hide from them all. Not this week, and not with her sharp eyes. She knew exactly what day it was and hadn't failed to notice the red rims around Elsa's eyes or the sad set of her shoulders as she stared into the hearth fire. Obviously she'd been crying earlier that morning but had masked it enough not to alert her sister.
But I did see them and did nothing. What kind of sister am I if I can't even comfort my own flesh and blood when she's hurting just as deeply as I am? What would you do, Mama? How would you be a better person? Then more sadly, she thought, Why did you and Papa have to go so soon? We can't do this on our own.
Sighing heavily after quite a long time in silence, Anna decided that the best way to chase away the coiling sadness threatening to choke her into crippling tears was to start on her duties and work till she was finished. Elsa had her way of grieving and she had hers, so the redhead set to work uncrating the new books, pouring over the covers and thumbing through the contents of each volume with almost gleeful delight. She really did love books—the library which made up the majority of her room was evidence of that— and there wasn't a single thing on heaven or earth better than cracking open a freshly printed volume and inhaling the papery scent.
She worked through most of the morning uninterrupted: uncrating new books, straightening shelves, dusting, restocking, rotating the volumes in the glass case in front of the counter and generally keeping her hands busy. Every now and then a volume would catch her eye and Anna would find herself hungrily devouring as many pages as she could, her work forgotten for the moment as she stepped into another world. Elsa might have had the ability to create thing from the visions in her mind, but Anna could demolish a fairly sizable stack of books in a day and retain everything. She read almost anything, even going as far as skimming mathematic and scientific tomes, though those didn't capture her interest as much as they would her sister. Despite not being able to hold her interest as securely as works of fiction or the occasional botany book that came into the store, Anna still read them for their valuable information and the knowledge that she might need their information at some point in her life. Her favorite books, however—the ones she treasured the most—were the fairytales and poetry.
Anna had grown up hearing tales told to her by her mother. She and her mother would sit together by the fire, blankets wrapped snugly around their shoulders, and read stories to one another while Elsa and her father tinkered in the next room. The redhead's mother used to love the darker fairytales but saved those for stormy nights when the family could gather together around a low fire while Idunn read from the large tome that had been handed down to her from her mother and her mother's mother before that. So it was safe to say that whenever any new fairytale books came in, no matter their size or contents, Anna would snatch it up and devour it before the day was through.
Today, however, there was nothing that really jumped off the pages at her, a fact that was a little disappointing, but it was only the beginning of the week. Perhaps in the next shipment on Wednesday Anna would get some fresh reading material she could really sink her teeth into. Until then she set about finishing her chores, glancing every now and then out the large glass window and watching the people hustle past as a few stray flakes of snow descended from the flat gray sky above.
I feel like a prisoner stuck in a glass cell, she thought with a deflated sigh.
It was a week before the weeklong Yule celebration kicked off in Sors meaning the townsfolk were in a frenzy to stock up on last minute supplies. Already the town was undergoing its annual festival transformation as strings of garland were strung above doorways, wreaths were hung anywhere there was a flat surface, and the colors of red and green seem to ooze out from between every slat of wood and crack of mortar. Eventually the statue at the center of the fountain, which had undoubtedly frozen over by now, would be removed and a large pine tree would take its place, available for decorating by the townsfolk at the start of the Yule celebration. Despite the grim memories attached to this time of year, Anna still remembered the fun she and Elsa had with their parents celebrating Yule, and she secretly longed to begin practicing a few of her favorite traditions again. Elsa wouldn't go for it—she usually worked through the holiday at an almost fevered pace—but maybe Anna could join Kai and Gerda this year…or perhaps even Hans would celebrate with her.
So long as his family isn't involved, Anna thought with a frown that lasted until her thoughts turned to Hans and a goofy smile pulled at the corner of her lips.
It was fairly well-known throughout Sors that Anna and Hans had been courting for quite some time but hadn't really become serious until two years ago. They'd become friends soon after the sisters moved into the house on the outskirts of town, all three of them playing and getting into mischief together on an almost daily basis. It had been Hans who'd shown them all the best places to hide or play or swim or climb in the surrounding countryside. He'd been a close friend to them both but always seemed to gravitate towards Anna and her towards him. As it usually was with young love, the redhead quickly discovered that her feelings towards Hans went beyond just normal friendship. The two had grown close, and that closeness only seemed to grow and blossom into a deep yearning when Hans went off to boarding school in the city for a few years. Every chance she got Anna would write him, and he would return her letters with clockwork punctuality until finally he'd come home.
But despite their closeness, after the death of her parents Anna withdrew from everything that she had once enjoyed, spending her days locked in her room or sitting senseless by the fire with her mother's storybook pressed to her chest. It was unclear whether or not Hans saw this withdraw as a slight against him personally, but he'd given her a wide berth and allowed her to grieve, though it had always bothered Anna that he'd not tried to help with the grieving process. Certainly Elsa saw this glaring distance and disapproved, but she wasn't in any emotional state to help her sister rekindle her relationship with their longtime friend. As it was, a year later, once the proper amount of grieving had been done and Anna could once again stand in a sunrise and actually smile, she'd sought to rekindle what she'd once had with Hans before her parents' death. It was slow going at first, a year apart revealing stark differences in the man she'd once imagined she could love, but Anna was willing to make things work.
At about eleven the first few customers of the day made their way into the shop, shaking snow from their coats and greeting Anna with warm smiles. The redhead knew most of the regulars by name and chatted with them as they browsed the new selections.
"The pickings are slim this week," old Mr. Clockcount said as he took a seat in one of the low leather chairs next to the potbelly stove, a small red book in hand. "Guess our lady, Mrs. Swivel-hips, hasn't taken the time to order anything worth reading."
Anna fought back a snort of laughter. Mr. Clockcount was one of those portly older gentlemen who could have a laugh at just about anything and often did. He was a jolly sort of fellow with a rotund stomach that stretched the buttons of his shirt to near bursting and a full mustache that he kept curled at the ends with wax. Oftentimes he could be seen absentmindedly playing with the ends as he pondered over a new tome or some piece of unintelligible political information, while puffing on his long-stem pipe. Though politics didn't interest Anna in the least, she did like to discuss with him some of the finer points of popular poetry or grumble quietly about her employer. Apparently, Madam Boekhandel wasn't as popular in certain circles as Anna had previously thought, and Mr. Clockcount seemed the least impressed by her. As often as he could he'd make japes about the woman and her insistent need to be called Madam.
"She never consults me about orders, so…" Anna shrugged helplessly, cracking another grin when Mr. Clockcount snorted and attempted to cross his legs, the buttons on his shirt close to springing free like musket balls while his belt cut uncomfortably into his stomach. If he noticed this it didn't seem to bother him.
"Never did have a lick of proper sense, that one. And I never understood why her husband let her open this shop in the first place. Granted, they had to make some money after Mr. Boekhandel lost his position in the city, but still…putting his wife in charge of the family business?" he shook his head disapprovingly. "No offence meant, Miss Erfinder, but I've found the idea of women running their own businesses rather troublesome."
At this, Anna simply ducked her head, not wanting to engage in a possible argument with a patron to the bookshop. Mr. Clockcount was a good man, but his ideas about women in society were a bit…archaic.
Thank God Elsa isn't here to hear him say that, the redhead though with a gusty sigh as she continued to stack new books in their proper places. Fairly certain Mr. Clockcount would walk out of here without the use of his kneecaps.
The conversation about why the Boekhandel family had moved to Sors from the city was a sore topic and one Anna didn't want to be a part of. She'd never gotten it out of Hans why his family had moved to the country a few years before Elsa and Anna arrived. She'd been curious for a time, as most people in a small town often were when learning new information about neighbors, but any time she attempted to broach the subject she was either shot down immediately or the topic was changed. So after a while Anna stopped wondering and just let it be.
A few other patrons wandered into the shop as the day progressed. They didn't stay long, browsing the new selection, making a few purchases, but otherwise just killing time by the stove.
Luckily, Madam Boekhandel had ordered a fresh supply of wood for the potbelly stove that heated the building during winter to be delivered that morning. It allowed Anna a chance to chat with the Brenden, a local woodsman and hunter who frequented Sors whenever supplies of wood or meat were needed on short notice.
As usual, Brenden arrived around noon carrying a large stack of wood on his shoulder as he entered the shop. He was a fairly good looking man just a few years older than Anna, with close-cropped black hair and brown eyes. He stood half a head taller than most men his age or older, his physique deliciously toned from years of hard living and mean eating. The only off putting thing about Brenden was his large nose—malformed from a bad set when it had been broken some years ago— and the gap between his two front teeth. Aside from that, and the thin dusting of hair on his lower chin and neck, Anna found him quite appealing. Apparently the feeling was a mutual thing because whenever Brenden stopped in for a delivery he'd make time to talk with Anna.
"Afternoon, Miss Anna," Brenden beamed as he set the bundle of wood next to the stove. The shop was surprisingly empty of customers at the moment, a small lull between the lunch hours. "Got your wood delivery for the day."
"Wonderful, set it next to the stove and I'll stack the wood," Anna said with a smile as she stepped out from behind the counter.
"No need to dirty your hands, ma'am. I'll stack it for you."
"Brenden," the redhead frowned lightly, hands on her hips, "we do this dance every time you make a delivery. Just get the rest of the wood. I'm perfectly capable of stacking piles, plus it gives me something to do with my hands."
The woodsman flushed and ducked his head. "Of course, Miss Anna. Just don't want you straining yourself."
"Oh yes, because stacking wood is so much more strenuous than heaving around heavy leather books," Anna quipped with a smile that only grew larger the more flustered Brenden became.
He made three more trips out to his wagon in the snow, setting the securely tied bundles down next to the stove while Anna worked at putting the wood in the brass holders against the wall. They spoke in between trips, discussing the shift in the season and what it would mean for the hunters and trappers in the area. Apparently, this season had been a lean one, most of the regularly hunted animals moving deeper into the forest and staying well hidden.
"I don't know how to explain it, but it's real weird. Usually when we set out traps and snares we can fill our quotas within a day or two, but recently not a single trap has been sprung. Hell, there aren't even any tracks in the snow, pardon my language."
"Could it be because of over-hunting?"
"Nah, we rotate our hunting grounds for that reason exactly like what the farmers do with their crops."
"Maybe it's just the area? Or maybe some new predators have moved into the countryside?"
Brenden physically shivered despite standing next to the stove with a warm mug of the tea Anna had offered him after his last trip. "God above, I hope that's not the case. It's hard enough to hunt in the winter knowing them tree cats and bears are roaming around, but you add in something like wolves returning to the valley? No ma'am, that's bad news for a lot of people, me especially."
"Because wolves are attracted to the smell of blood and wounded prey," Anna said quietly, reciting something she'd read in a book recently about apex predators.
"Exactly. Though wolves haven't come into the valley since my great grandpap's time. Still, something's spooking the animals, and I'm not inclined to go looking for it."
It was a troubling bit of news, but Anna couldn't help but feel a flush of excitement. In the near thirteen years she'd lived on the outskirts of Sors only a few times had something like this happened. Usually it was a bear wandering too close to civilization and driving the animals off, but there had been an instance not four years ago when this exact thing had happened and there hadn't been any predator found. The animals in the forest around Sors had disappeared for nearly a year, even in the spring and summer months.
I might have to read into this a little more.
"Well regardless of what's going on, please stay safe."
Brenden flushed and shifted, opening his mouth to say something when the sounds of heavy boots stamping in through the backdoor caused him to pause and look over Anna's shoulder. The redhead turned too, unsure why Madam Boekhandel was coming in through the back entrance. A moment later a tall young man in a long gray coat stepped into the bookshop, shaking snow from his short auburn hair and repositioning it with his fingers. He took one quick look around before his hazel eyes—so much like his mother's—settled on Brenden with a disapproving glare.
"Hans," Anna smiled.
"Good afternoon, love," he said with a thin smile of his own as he shrugged out of his coat and straightened his vest and the buttoned sleeves of his long-sleeved undershirt. "I thought I'd come by and keep you company while Mother was out of the shop." Then to Brenden he said, "Good afternoon, Master Woodsman. I trust the…logging is going well for you this season?"
"Fair enough," Brenden shrugged with an air of forced nonchalance. The two men regarded one another for the span of a few silent moments, a crackling tension brewing in the space between heartbeats like the onset of an electrical storm.
"Is there something else you needed, Master Woodsman?" Hans asked in a clipped tone, eyebrow arched.
"My payment, sir," Brenden replied tersely.
"Payment? Since when did we start paying the hired help?" Hans asked with a laugh as he put an arm around Anna's shoulders and kissed the side of her head. "Did you put him up to this?"
"Hans, please," Anna frowned, glancing between the two. She could see the line of pink under Brenden's eyes starting to turn red with anger.
"Oh come now, you must know I'm joking!" Hans said with a good natured laugh as he clapped the woodsman on the shoulder. "Get his payment would you, love, so that our friend here can be on his way."
Fighting back a sharp rebuke, Anna hustled back around the counter and grabbed a small leather pouch containing the woodsman's payment. She walked back around and gave it to him, flashing him an apologetic look that she was thankful Hans couldn't see.
"Thank you, Brenden," Anna nodded with a tight smile. "And be safe in the woods this season."
"I will, Miss Anna." The woodsman flicked a look over at Hans and added before leaving, "You do the same. Good day to you both."
"What is the matter with you?" Anna demanded the moment the woodsman was out of the building.
"Good to see you too, love," Hans smiled and pecked her on the cheek again. He leaned back with a frown and ran a finger over his lips, rubbing them together. "Why is there dirt in your hair?"
"Don't change the subject. That was incredibly rude what you just did to Brenden. Talking to him like he's no better than a common slave; Hans you're better than that."
"It was a joke."
"It was only funny for one of us."
Hans drew back and straightened, the amused look on his face disappearing. "My, it seems someone rose on the wrong side of the bed again."
"This isn't about me. You were rude to Brenden for no reason," Anna challenged, hands on her hips.
For half a heartbeat the book keeper's son stared down at the redhead, an unreadable look on his face. Anna felt the weight of his gaze settle over her shoulders but refused to lower her eyes. Eventually, though, she couldn't stand the pressure anymore and looked away, hating herself for giving in but just wanting the staring contest to end. After a moment Hans sighed and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close to him.
"I'm sorry, love. I've been exceptionally tired recently and seeing Brenden in here with you while you're alone just put a fire in my belly. I don't trust him."
"Because he's a woodsman?" Anna frowned, reluctantly wrapping her arms around his toned waist and setting her forehead on his chest, the musky smell of his cologne creeping into her nose.
"Because he's a man alone with a woman. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you." He squeezed her tight, setting his chin atop her head. "Now, back to the matter of what's in your hair."
"It's soot," she answered, nervously patting her hair to be rid of the clingy dirt.
"Sticking your head in the oven again, I see," he laughed. "Why are you covered in soot?"
Anna took a breath and let it out in a rush, realizing for the first time that day she actually had someone to talk to—or at least rant to—about her crazy, hectic morning. "Would you believe me if I told you Elsa decided to turn our hearth into her personal forge?"
"There are a lot of things I wouldn't put past your sister."
"Yeah, well, that's what I woke up to this morning, and one of the reasons I was late."
"Oh Anna, not again. You know how Mother is with punctuality. Love, we've talked about this!"
"I know, I know," Anna whined, stepping out of his embrace and rubbing her hands against her apron before counting off the mishaps that had taken place since she awoke. "Look, everything just fell apart this morning. I forgot to reset the chime in my clock, so it didn't go off on time. Elsa woke me up by screaming at me from the top of the stairs. I got dressed in a hurry. Nearly broke my neck coming down the stairs because she left her stuff lying around, again. Then I walking into a kitchen about as hot as the sun, and she's there warming a poker in the coals! I mean, who brings a forge into their house?! It's not like she's got far to walk to her workshop, but oh no, she had to bring everything inside because 'it's cold'," she made air quotations with her fingers and continued her rant. "Of course it's cold; it's bloody winter! And there was soot all over the kitchen and living room, and it got everywhere! I'm fairly certain that muffin I ate was coated in the stuff. I would have changed, but I was already horribly late, so imagine your mother's delight when I show up covered in soot and twenty minutes late and…" she trailed off, letting her hands fall to her side, energy spent.
"That really does sound like a stressful morning," Hans admitted, nodding slowly.
"Tell me about it," Anna grumbled, leaning against the counter. She would have slumped into one of the chairs if she were allowed to sit while working; however that was strictly forbidden.
"Well, I can certainly tell you got dressed in a hurry this morning, love," he said with an exasperated sigh, looking her up and down like a jeweler scanning for imperfections. "It's a wonder your bodice has stayed on this long. You've missed at least six eyelets. Here, let me lace you up properly." The book keeper's son walked around behind Anna and deftly began unlacing her bodice with shocking speed before she could object, deft fingers flying through their work.
It's like he's done this before, Anna thought idly but chose not to say anything for fear of implicating something that might offend him. Regardless of having courted for a time, Anna had yet to reach the point where she could surrender to what Hans affectionately called "carnal pleasures", a decision that didn't set well with her suitor. He'd accepted her decision but had made it abundantly clear he wouldn't wait on her forever.
Working the laces through the missed eyelets, Hans checked their evenness before starting the cinching process. He began at the bottom of Anna's bodice and worked his way up, bringing the two pieces of fabric together until they were very nearly touching.
"That's...ah…a little tight, don't you think?" Anna wheezed as Hans jerked hard on the laces, squeezing the fabric around her middle like a vice, reminding her of those snakes she'd read about who constrict their prey before swallowing them whole. The redhead had never been fond of fashion, wearing what was comfortable, functional, and what she could easily make or mend from older fabrics, but her suitor was a man who knew what he wanted in a woman. Though she'd never asked him to, more than once Anna had come home to a small stack of boxes on the kitchen table containing dresses and fashionable bodices Hans had ordered especially for her. Elsa would roll her eyes as her sister unboxed her dresses, holding them up to herself in the mirror, all warm smiles and girly giggling.
"The tighter the better, dear. We must always look our best, correct? Plus, you need to stop slouching so much. It's not ladylike and is bad on your back. Luckily, a night bodice can help with that."
"I—I guess…so," she managed—hand pressed against her compressed stomach— as he tied off the laces and quickly spun her around to examine her front. The sudden motion made the already lightheaded girl sway a bit, forcing her to clutch at his arms for balance and support.
"There," he said with a satisfied smile, his bright hazel eyes tracking over her now plumped breasts and slender waist, "perfection."
"Wasn't I perfect before?"
"Well of course you were!" he chuckled, wiping away a smudge of soot from her brow. "But even a china doll can look sloppy when not dressed properly. You're far too beautiful to dress like a slob."
"I just always want you at our best, pet." Hans bopped her one the nose with his finger before drawing Anna into a kiss.
"Please don't call me that," the redhead grumbled after they'd pulled away, unable to tell if she was flushing from the kiss or from the tightness of her bodice. "I hate it when your mother calls me that, so don't start doing it, too."
"But I think it's a cute name," Hans pouted.
"Alright, fine. You win this round," he relented.
"And anyway, apparently I'm just beautiful enough to work at the gentlemen's club, according to your mother," the redhead groused, still unable to let that little slight go.
Hans frowned and blinked, crossing his arms over his chest. "She said that to you?"
"Because I was late."
"Well, tardiness is one of her pet peeves, but I'm sure she was only joking. Still, she shouldn't have suggested something like that. I honestly think sometimes she forgets herself. Old age, I imagine."
"Sure, yeah, we'll go with that." Anna turned stiffly around and walked back over to the counter, unsure how she was going to bend over or do even menial tasks with how tight she was cinched. As she came around the counter she saw a small bundle waiting for her and turned towards her suitor with a questioning frown.
"I had a feeling you'd forget your lunch again, so I thought we could eat together," the book keeper's son said motioning at the bundle.
"Thank you," Anna beamed, realizing she actually was fairly famished after hastily scarfing down a single muffin earlier that morning. Though eating in the front of the shop wasn't permitted, Hans brushed off his mother's persnickety rules and spread out the contents of the bundle on the counter, obviously pleased with himself. Anna ate her portion of cold chicken, soft cheese, round bread, and a few dried apple wedges with hearty gusto, while Hans told her about his day so far and some plans he had for the Yule season.
"I'm not sure if Mother and Father will be returning to the city this year or not, but you're always welcome to join us."
"You know I can't leave Elsa behind like that," Anna mumbled as she wiped her hands clean of chicken grease on her apron.
"You two are always cloistered away in that cabin of yours over the holiday season. It's just not right. You should be out celebrating."
"Hans, you know why we don't celebrate," the redhead whispered and made a face, once again looking out the large glass window. The snow was falling heavily now, blanketing the cobblestones and turning the once colorful shops a subdued monochrome. Putting her head in her hands, Anna heaved a great sigh, feeling the roll of emotions in her chest again. "I really do hate this time of year."
"Let's not think about such dark things," her suitor urged, coming to stand behind her, arms wrapping around her shoulders.
"How can I not? It's been three years, but I still feel their death like it happened yesterday."
"I know, love; I know."
They stood there for a long time stuck in a lengthy silence that only one truly appreciated. Eventually the two disentangled, Hans letting Anna return to work while he gathered the remnants of their meal and threw it into the stove. Rather than taking his leave like he usually did, the book keeper's son stayed with Anna for the rest of the day, skimming the new titles or helping her shelve when her height disadvantage came into play. Despite being a little over five foot, some of the shelves required a ladder to reach. Anna had never had a problem with heights, but Hans argued that she shouldn't need to climb so long as he was here to help.
As afternoon gave way to early evening, the sun starting to set behind the heavy gray clouds, Anna checked the clock and was surprised to find that it was almost closing time. Madame Boekhandel usually closed the shop around four in the evening just before supper hour, and it was a minor blessing Anna had come to appreciate in the winter months. It meant she didn't have to go home in the dark. So the redhead quickly performed her closing duties and readied the shop for the next morning: sweeping and straightening and wiping down the counters to make certain she got all the grease off the wood.
"You could always join me at the lodge this evening. We'll eat, and then I'll take you home," Hans offered as Anna set her broom back in the corner next to the door and gave the shop one last look-over. Satisfied all was as it should be and in its proper place, she shooed him out the door and locked it behind her with a ring of keys produced from her apron.
"Thank you, but not tonight. I have a feeling I'll need to clean the house if my sister's been smithing in it all day."
"Always the homemaker," the book keeper's son said softly, helping her clasp her cloak around her shoulders. "You'll make a fine wife someday."
"The last thing I want is to be a homemaker the rest of my life," she frowned. "At some point I actually want to leave this godawful town and see the world."
"Trust me, that dream is just a pleasant fantasy. There's nothing in the world that you can't find here. And besides, I like the idea of you on your hands and knees scrubbing floors," Hans purred in her ear, pulling her close to him and planting his warm lips on her neck. Anna fought down a startled gasp and flushed, heart suddenly leaping into her throat.
"Y-You would," she stammered, feeling the flush starting to spread throughout the rest of her body as he continued to nuzzle her neck, hands wandering down the front of her bodice. Anna found herself relaxing back into him with a breathy sigh, closing her eyes and just allowing him to…
"I…I can't," she squeaked and suddenly jerked away, turning in profile as she did. "I'm sorry, it's just…not right now. I need to go home."
The look that flashed across Hans' face fell somewhere between indignant anger and chafing irritation. She saw a glint of something in his eyes that made her unconsciously weary like she was facing down an unpredictable animal. He exhaled through his nose, evidently perturbed, and was preparing to fire off a sharp rebuke when the stamp of horse's hooves drew both of their attention to the large gray and white Clydesdale coming around the corner and the cloaked woman sitting erect in the saddle. Anna didn't know why, but the sight of her sister soothed the sudden unease squirming around in her stomach.
"You close up shop alone again?" Elsa asked as she reined up in front of her sister, her sharp blue eyes catching the nervousness on Anna's face and the unamusement on Hans'. Her curious concern turned to a smoldering frown as she stared down at the two of them, making certain Hans knew she was glaring at him like a mother catching him in a naughty act.
"No, Hans kept me company," the redhead answered, unsure why she clambered into the saddle behind her sister so quickly or why her hands were shaking.
What's wrong with me? Why do I always get this way when he does things like that?
"Thank you for keeping her company," the blonde said, nodding tersely at Hans.
"You act as though it were a chore," the book keeper's son frowned, brow creasing.
"Well, I know you're awfully busy this time of year," Elsa explained, turning her horse as she spoke, the large beast shorting great clouds of steam into the fridge, snowy air. "And I know Anna wouldn't want to take you away from your pressing duties at…what was it again you do, I've forgotten."
Hans' face began to turn red, his hands closing to fists at his side. He knew these were purposeful jabs and it rankled him. "Helping my mother with deliveries," he ground out, forcing himself not to spit it between clenched teeth.
"Deliveries, that's right. Well, have a good rest of your evening, Master Boekhandel."
"You shouldn't have done that," Anna muttered as they trotted away, Gray Dawn snorting happily as the snow swirled around them.
"Done what?" Elsa asked innocently, guiding her mount through the frosty streets towards the edge of town.
"Don't play stupid! You were purposely egging him on. Elsa, why can't you just be civil around my suitor? We all used to be close friends."
"I don't like the man he's turned out to be, Anna," the blonde explained tightly, kicking her heels into Gray Dawn's flanks to make him move a little faster.
"He's just been through a lot, and that year we shared apart was hard on him."
"I saw what he was doing and how he was making you feel," Elsa snapped, glancing at her sister over her shoulder. Despite it snowing fairly heavily, the blonde wasn't wearing a hood, preferring Anna to wear the hooded cloak because she oftentimes had to walk to and from work and it was warmer.
"That's on me, not him. I'm the one with the problem," Anna argued stubbornly. "I just have to get used to his touch that's all."
"That's a load of shit, and you know it. Any man whose touch you shrink away from should be avoided because his intentions aren't pure. Mamma taught us that, or have you forgotten?"
"Just stop, Elsa. I don't want to talk about it anymore," the redhead huffed, looking away in order to break the tether of conversation.
Elsa turned back around with a scowl and snapped the reins once to kick Gray Dawn into a swift trot, snow stinging her face as it whipped past. She knew her sister was being blatantly stubborn and obstinate—she wouldn't be Anna if she wasn't— but Elsa couldn't help the overprotectiveness that came over her whenever she saw Anna and Hans together. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew he was trouble. Sure the three of them had practically grown up together, but the boy she'd once known—the happy, kind child who was always swift to laugh or lend a helping hand—and changed into a shallow, egotistical man she could barely stomach to be around. He was rude; he was conceited; he was mean, but most of all—and the fact that bothered her the most— he was manipulative. And every time Anna spent time with him she'd take on some of those qualities as if she were a sticky ball.
"You deserve someone better," the blonde had argued with her sister multiple times in the past. "He's not the man for you."
"You don't get to tell me who I can and cannot court! You're not Mother!"
As was most often, the fight would either end there or escalate into something worse until the sisters' stopped talking to one another entirely, shutting themselves away in their respective rooms until both of their tempers cooled enough they could once again talk civilly.
But you do deserve someone better, Elsa thought with a sad sigh. You deserve a prince, and Hans is no prince. He's just a pauper like the rest of us who plays like he's a royal.