Hans is not yet eight when he first meets Her. There is a hunt on, he thinks, for he can hear the distant hoof-beats and dogs howling in the distance. Later, he cannot recall when her saw her first—on the path? In the wood? He does not know. But he remembers that she was there, and that her smile made him feel special in a way that even mother, who often smiled and sometimes even talked to him if he escaped the nursery when she is walking past, fails to do. He remembers that her eyes were warm, and her face very white, and her feet both bare and red.
He learns his first lesson that day.
His adult self will say that it was the day he learned not to trust strangers. But for now, he only knows that it is the first time it dawns on him that perhaps there are larger problems in the world than Rudolph stealing his dessert again and Finn pretending he does not exist.
"Child," the Lady says, stretching out one frail hand, and then stops.
He does not know why she stops. He does know that she is pretty, more pretty even than Mother, and unhappy; and pretty ladies who are unhappy in all the tales his nurse has told are princesses in need of princes to rescue them. He stands first on one foot, then the other, and wonders if he should get Borlov. Borlov is eldest, after all, and sometimes he remembers to bring Hans a gift when he goes to the markets of the far-flung kingdoms of the North.
The howling of the dogs sounds nearer. He wonders if whatever they are hunting—a fox, perhaps—will flee this way. His stomach twists. He likes foxes, even if the books say this is unmanly.
"Child, what is your name?" the woman asks.
He tells her it is Hans, and then Prince Hans, because he is and this is what he has seen Father do. Then he asks her what hers is, just because.
"I cannot tell you that," she laughs. "There is power in a name; Whether we love or loathe it, our names define us."
His adult self will shiver, sometimes, remembering those words. But he is not yet the man that he will be, and so he nods, not understanding and not particularly caring. It is enough that she smiles at him still.
She moves once more, and gives a shallow cry.
Almost instinctively, he darts forward.
“Do you need to be rescued?” he says hopefully.
She laughs, and then hesitates, raking him from head to toe with piercing eyes.
He puffs his chest out, and tries to look taller. She has come to him. The books and the bards say that this marks the start of some epic venture; he must not fail now by being lacking. Nevertheless, he feels a bit worried as the silence stretches on.
At last, after perhaps a minute, she smiles once more.
"Perhaps I do. Will you help me run, child?"
He frowns. He wants to fight, not run.
"Please," she says, approaching him. "I am being hunted. By the K—by enemies."
He blinks, because she is a princess, not a beast. Surely he must have misheard. Unless... Thieves are hunted, he knows. Their bodies are strung up on the gallows to rot. And murderers. He has not seen this, but he has been told, so many times, by his brothers when they wished to scare him into sleeplessness at night. Is she not a princess after all?
"Why are you being hunted?" he asks at last.
Her eyes change then, and suddenly she looks more like Father. He isn't sure he likes it. But a moment later, she shakes her head and they soften again.
"I wanted a kingdom," she says, eventually, wistfully.
Oh. That isn't bad, he wants to say. He wants one too. And princesses, like princes, are meant to have them, or marry into them.
"They will put hot coals on my feet when they find me," she says, kneeling before him, voice all but breaking with entreaty. False, his future self would have whispered, and his future self might have known best. But he is but seven, and he feels his own lip quivering in answer to the grief in her eyes.
"Please, Hans. Will you help me?"
A request. And she has used his name. It is decided.
He bobs his head up, then down, in a firm nod.
"Say it," she says.
"But I just did," he complains.
"You nodded," she counters, "You must say it, Hans. You must say that you will help me, allow me sanctuary, for as long as I wish for this to be. Else it cannot be so, and I will suffer. Do you want me to suffer, Hans? They will tear the skin from my back and leave me in the forests for the beasts to tear apart. Do you want that?"
He does not.
Stumbling, for some of the words he has not quite learned, he says the words after her, then eyes her anxiously. Fool, his older self might have whispered, and run. He does neither; just darts forward and inserts his hand confidingly into hers. She must come with him, of course. Of course she must if the dogs are after her, and she is to run. They will hide beneath his blankets and be safe. Only something is... wrong. Her face is changing. The smile is going, and in its place is something hard and cruel and cold. He does not understand. And then the light is coming from her hands, into his and he tries to pull away because it burns but her failing grip is suddenly cold and hard as ice.
"Don't you like this, child?" she says, something wild in her eyes, "But it is too late for that. You gave me permission, you see. You should not have given me that."
He thinks he screams when his hand rises and falls without permission. He knows he does when her body begins to disintegrate, shrivelling first into a cavernous skull and then to grey dust. He's still screaming when his head feels as though it has been cleaved in two, and he wonders, as his world collapses into black, if this is what it feels like to die.
He does not die. She tells him he could, and tells him that this is not that. She says many things, inside his mind. This, she tells him, is his future, until she finds a body more suited to her purposes. This, she says, is possession.
He remembers her feet, and cannot make himself fear her. Not yet. He is merely pleased, in a small, secret part of himself, that she is alive.
He feels the dull pulse of surprise as though it is his own.
At first, he is pleased that no one notices. He finds he does not wish to tell, for to do so might endanger Her. But when the guards speak of his words at the body of the dead witch, guilty of slaying a whole family, speak of actions that he does not remember, he begins to be afraid. It is then that he tries to speak. Tries, and fails. And each time, he finds gaps in his memory, shadowed by horror, and strange looks from the servants that they will not explain. Once, when he plans to tell Finn, it is his dog, staring at him from sightless eyes, blood dripping on the carpets. It is a nightmare, he thinks, for Karn is there when he wakes, tongue lolling happily. But also a warning. It is the last time he thinks of speaking; he is no longer so naive as he once was.
He senses this makes the Her pleased.
His fear deepens.
It is then that he begins to wish someone cared for him enough to see.
He learns two things about himself as he grows. The first is that if he focuses on loving hard, very hard, it is possible to stop the onrush of black emptiness from claiming him.
The second is that he is not very good at loving. He tries. He does. He does his best to love mother and father, who barely have enough time for their eldest son and have no time at all for their youngest. He tries to love his brothers. It is not their fault they were born elder then he, and that since at three of them now have sons he will never be king. And when did he first begin to want that? He can't remember. He thinks he feels Her laughing at him. There is a fondness there he does not understand. But he must love something, and that something cannot just be himself, or his horse.
In the end, it is only the abstract notion of the People of the Southern Isles he can truly love well.
He does not tell the blushing woman—child, a voice whispers, but he ignores it. She is old enough, and he is barely of age himself—about Her. Why should he? He does not wish to frighten her off. Anna is everything She is not; sweet and young and innocent and happy. So happy. It is what makes him love her best. To be so loving, to trustingly optimistic, after a life of being passed over and forgotten, is a gift he does not think she truly comprehends. He feels a child again as they play together, and though it is but an evening he spends with her it feels like weeks. They dance, talk, sing…
Do you forget the lessons I taught you so swiftly? What do you know of the truth that lies behind her smiles?
But her smiles are the truth.
He thinks this back, and She grows cold inside him. He tastes jealousy, and as his eyes rest on the spray of freckles that dust Anna's face, he feels a fear stir inside he does not understand. Perhaps... but the memory of red blood gushing onto the cold carpets stills him, and he does not speak, to explain or to warn. It has been years since She possessed him. Since last she tried. With the love that is in him now, she will never do so again.
He does not think to ask himself why this does not loosen his tongue.
He does his best to rule in Anna’s absence.
She laughs at him, and tells him if Anna does not come back, he could be king.
Everything in him feels too hot and too cold inside.
When he runs past the glacial ice-monster up to where the Snow Queen stands, ice flowing from her hands, radiant and terrible in her terror and her rage, all he can think of is Her. Of the white face and the red feet and the dogs howling in the distance.
Don’t be the monster they fear you are, he’d pleaded, and he still doesn’t understand, even as he forces upwards the bolt that would have found her heart, why that was enough to make her stop.
True Love’s Kiss.
That is what will break this curse. That is all that will break this curse.
If he is lucky, it might even break his curse.
He feels fear stirring inside, that has not stirred in years.
It is not his own.
He does not understand, as he leans down to capture Anna’s lips in his own, why the world is tilting. Too late does he realise just what this terror portents. Desperately, he forces his mouth down, an inch more, just an inch and he will make it. Will—
He is still trying, even when the world is lost in a sea of broken light.
One Year Later
They make a fine pair, really. Him and Her, two monsters, locked inside a cell for as long as it takes for them to have the decency to rot. He has asked what he did, of course. Had asked as soon as he’d woken to find himself stuck in the bowls of his own ship like a common streetthug. They'd told him.
Why, he’d asked Her, Why? I loved her.
A pause. Hesitation, perhaps, or its mockery.
Because, Hans, at the last minute, you did not wish to save her. The only person you wanted to save was yourself. And it always will be. There will never be a happy ending for you.
Every word rings with total, horrific truth.
He rages, first, and then cries, when there are none but Her to see.
Eventually, he stops. He will never be free from here, will never love or be loved, so what use is there in trying? What use in speaking of Her, and trying to sue for mercy? He will seem a madman. If, indeed, he is not one already.
Oh yes, they make a fine pair.
But he is not a complete monster yet. Not quite. This he clings to.
He is not the hero of his own tale. He never will be. But this one task he can do. This one task he must. If he cannot protect his kingdom from anything else, he will at least spare them the ravages of one creature.
He will spare them all from Him.