It's a great day. Winter is ending, giving way for the start of spring and the Northuldra are taking advantage of the cool but pleasant weather outside. The elders have made themselves comfortable by the riverbank, talking among themselves as they help prepare for that day's meals. Purple sparks can be seen igniting some of the fire pits as Bruni runs around helping in exchange for snacks. The children are running around, occasionally bumping into someone fishing and sometimes accompanied by playful gusts of wind.
Ryder takes a moment to watch them all. Not for the first time, he's grateful that he could finally experience what it felt like to really live with nature and have a clear blue sky cast above them.
"Ryder! It's coming your way!"
"What?" He comes back to the moment too late, looking down at a fish as it passes between his legs. He looks up and sees Maren glaring at him, looking even more intimidating with the spear in her hand. Sheepishly, he says, "Sorry."
Maren blows a stray lock of hair that escaped her braid. "Tell that to Yelena," she says, though she no longer looks mad. "You know she gets upset when there isn't enough food for everyone."
Ryder waves his hand dismissively. "There'll be plenty. Things are different now. I even saw the Rock Giants play with the children once."
Maren's eyes soften. She briefly cranes her neck up to look at the sky. "Still. Get your head out of the clouds and into the water. At least for, like, an hour."
Ryder takes on the proper stance, mirroring his sister. It isn't long before they spot a fish heading their way and Maren claims it with a confident, "I got this!" She raises her spear, and as Ryder's eyes follow the movement he notices a newcomer playing with Gale and the children.
"Aha!" Maren shouts triumphantly as she holds up the rather large fish.
"Hey, look. The fifth spirit's come to join us."
The expression on Maren's face changes and she's quick to turn her attention to where Ryder is pointing. Elsa notices them and offers a small smile and a wave, like she always does whenever she passes the twins herding the reindeer. Ryder eagerly returns it, but Maren barely gets to do the same when the fish suddenly flails. Maren makes a surprised squeak when the tail slaps her in the face, making her trip and fall into the riverbed. They were thankfully in the more shallow part of the water, but it still left his sister drenched from head to toe.
Ryder couldn't stop barking out a laugh, but he does retrieve the fish still impaled by the spear for his sister.
"Shut up," Maren says in an embarrassed hiss. She uses her foot to splash him with water, but it only makes his laughter recede into giggles.
"Honeymaren! Are you okay?"
Elsa has left the children to jump into the water, her pants and the tails of her elaborate top now drenched. She doesn't seem to mind as she holds out a hand for Maren. When his sister could only blink and stare, Ryder lightly hits Maren's back with the tip of his boot.
"I'm okay," she says as she finally lets herself be pulled up by the hand. "I'm a better fisher, I swear."
Elsa's head tilts in this amused way. Ryder doesn't miss the squeeze she gives Maren's hand before finally letting go. "I won't doubt that, then."
"Oh great spirit of the forest! Help us!" the children cry out through bouts of giggles. Gale has now swept the children off their feet, stray leaves tickling them now and again.
"I'll be right there." When Elsa turns back to the twins, she gestures with her hands and suddenly beads of water from Maren's soaked hair and clothes are floating midair. She collects them into two spheres, and with a flash of light turns them into two ice sculptures: a reindeer and a fully bloomed rose. She gives the former to Ryder and the latter to Maren. "There. I wouldn't want you catching a cold."
The look of awe in Maren's face is an exact mirror to Ryder's. "Thank you."
Elsa curtsies, though the quirk in her lips suggests that it's meant to be playful. "Now if you'll excuse me... I'm being summoned."
"Wow." Ryder holds up the reindeer sculpture. It's pleasantly cool to the touch and the sunlight shines against it in ways that make him appreciate every detailed groove. "Pretty amazing lady, isn't she?"
"Yeah," Maren agrees, a bit breathlessly.
When she does nothing but stare at Elsa again, Ryder sticks his ice sculpture to her cheek.
"Ryder!" she yelps.
"Head out of the clouds and into the water." He throws her a cheeky grin. "Though maybe not literally this time, hm?"
That gets him another splash to the face.
**** **** **** ****
Ryder has made a discovery. An interesting, very amusing discovery.
Maren has always been the more level-headed twin. She's the warrior trained to keep her cool even in the most tense situations. But in the days that followed since the tail end of winter when Elsa moved, Maren has been anything but cool in the Ice Spirit's presence.
His amusement aside, Ryder isn't oblivious to the implications. His usually composed sister reduced to a bumbling buffoon in front of a pretty lady? It can only mean one thing, and Ryder is giddy with excitement.
"So... the new girl, huh?"
Maren's face barely reacts, but the twitch of her hands as she brushes the reindeer's coat and the color of her ears is a dead giveaway. Maren and Elsa are both good at controlling what they show to other people, but Ryder has the advantage of knowing his sister. To him, she's just an open book with terrible handwriting: possible to read if you squint a little.
"You mean Elsa?" Maren says. "What about her?"
"You have a crush on her."
"I have no idea what you're talkkng about." Maren's voice is steady, but the long pause before her reply and lack of eye contact is enough to confirm his suspicions.
"Oh hey, Elsa!"
Maren's head turns quickly, but only a reindeer blinks back at her and Ryder laughs. A punch to the arm gets him to stop, but only barely.
**** **** **** ****
His sister sure is a stubborn woman. Despite his relentless teasing, she has yet to admit her crush. Though he's careful not to go too far. He may have a wider build now, but Maren will always be the better warrior.
Another trainee falls flat on their back and Ryder winces in sympathy. Maren stands over him with a triumphant smirk, but makes sure to help the teenager up with a "Don't look so down. You're actually getting better."
Ryder feels something on his back, like the air got just a tiny bit chillier. He turns around and sees Elsa half-hidden by a birch tree, watching the people sparring in the clearing. He waves. "Hey!"
Elsa's shoulders bounce in surprise. She looks around to check that Ryder's talking to her, then does a small wave when she's made sure.
Ryder grins and pats the log he's sitting on. "Wanna come sit?"
Elsa smiles shyly before she takes the offer and sits beside him.
The two of them turn their attention back to Maren and see her rubbing her jaw.
"Sorry," the boy apologizes again. "I thought you were gonna dodge it, but you just zoned out --"
Maren holds up a hand and gives him a reassuring smile, though Ryder can tell she's embarrassed. "Let's keep going. That was a good punch."
Elsa shifts in her seat, worried. "Maybe they should take a break. That could bruise."
"She'll be fiiiine," Ryder says through a snigger. "Maren's handled much worse. Which is why she's one of the tribe's best warriors."
Elsa proudly smiles as she watches Maren dodge every single one of the boy's punches. "Really now?"
"Think I'm lying?"
She shakes her head. "No. I can believe that."
The boy ends up on his back again and Elsa claps before she could stop herself. Maren's eyes briefly land on Elsa and his sister's cheeks darken as she gives her a small smile. She doesn't forget her student though, and she gives him an encouraging pat on the back after checking on him.
"That's enough for today," she says and lets him trudge back to camp. She jogs to where Ryder and Elsa are, hair disheveled and breathing still a bit ragged. Elsa stands to greet her, but Ryder chooses to stay seated.
"Interested in combat training, your majesty?" Maren playfully asks.
"Please, Honeymaren. Just 'Elsa' is fine."
"Only if you call me 'Maren'."
Elsa's grin widens. "Okay then. And no, I'm not meant for combat, if I were to be honest." Her eyes linger on Maren's exposed arms before she forces them back to her eyes. "I'm afraid I'm not built like you."
Maren shrugs. "Skill is more essential than physical strength. And you should be more wary." She leans a bit closer. She must feel daring with the adrenaline still in her veins. "Magic alone can't completely protect you."
"Really now? Because I just happened to see you get punched in the face by a fourteen-year-old."
To prove her point, Elsa uses the close proximity to press a finger against the already forming bruise on Maren's jaw. She lets out an embarrassing squeak as she flinches away. Ryder had been biting his lip during the whole exchange to keep from grinning too wide, but that gets him to laugh out loud. Maren glares at him, red in the face for something other than training.
"It was a lucky punch," she tells Elsa.
Elsa's head tilts to the side. "You told him it was a good punch."
"Just a bit of positive reinforcement."
"If you say so." Elsa steps closer this time and Maren watches her raise a hand to touch the bruise again, this time gently. "That looks pretty bad, though."
"N-Not really..." Elsa's hand briefly glows blue with magic and Maren's eyes close as she leans into her touch. "Oh, wow. That's actually pretty nice."
"Still think magic is unnecessary?"
"... I didn't say that," Maren mumbles and Elsa giggles.
"As much as I'd love to hold your face all day, I can't really stay. So here." Elsa pulls away and creates a fist-sized cube of ice. "Wrap it in cloth so your skin doesn't go completely numb, okay?"
"You have somewhere to be?" Ryder asks as he finally joins the two women.
"I'm visiting Arendelle today. It's game night."
The two of them bid her goodbye when they see the Nokk arrive to take Elsa. Ryder smirks when she's gone, and he raises the pitch of his voice in a terrible imitation of his sister's when he speaks.
"OnlY If yOU caLL Me 'MAreN'..."
Maren shoves him away and he cackles.
"Just go tend to the reindeer," she chides as she marches back to camp.
"You know she was staring at your arms the whole time, right?" he says to her back.
She pauses for a moment with her form suddenly straightening. But then he sees her ears turn red. She continues walking away, though with slightly less "grump" in her step.
**** **** **** ****
A week passes before Maren finally admits defeat. Ryder has just gotten back to his goahti when he sees his sister sprawled on his bed. She has a new ice sculpture in her hands. This time it looks a lot like a sunflower.
"Oh, did Elsa give you new one?" Ryder remarks, a teasing tone evident in his voice. "What is that, the fifth one?"
Maren is still studying the sculpture with a soft look on her face. "Sixth, actually."
"By the look of things, you'll have a boquet before spring even ends. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Rather than magical spirits giving gifts to humans?"
"She isn't just some spirit of the woods."
Ryder's grin doesn't waver. "Exactly."
Maren sighs through her nose. "You're right."
"You bet I am." He takes off his hat and and throws it to her face. When he sits on the edge of his bed, she throws it back to him. "About what though?"
"About my crush on Elsa, you doof."
Ryder lets out a squeal. Some of his friends would call it unmanly, but he'd prefer to call it excited. "Finally!"
Maren buries her face in his pillow and whines. "I'm hopeless, Ry."
"I wouldn't say that." He bounces in his bed and it makes Maren smile the tiniest bit. "Oh, this is amazing. Remember how obsessed you were with stories about the fifth spirit when we were kids?"
Maren frowns, indignant. "I wasn't obssessed."
"Don't think I never noticed you sneaking out every night when we were kids. You tried summoning the fifth spirit for like a month before you gave up." He laughs when Maren groans, conceding. "But now she's here. Kind of feels like destiny, doesn't it?"
Maren pouts. She turns to lie on her side and rests her cheek on a closed fist. "Isn't it a bit shallow to think that your destiny is to a person and not a cause or goal?"
Ryder rolls his eyes. "You have not a single romantic bone in your body. How do you expect to capture Elsa's heart with that kind of attitude?"
Her face scrunches up in uncertainty. "I don't?"
"What? Why? I know you're actually dorkier than you make yourself out to be, but you've always been confident enough with girls." At least more than him.
"Is that a compliment or an insult?"
He ignores that and points out, "Weren't you the first to approach her before the mist disappeared?"
"That was different. She was only a queen then." When Ryder snorts, she adds, "She was still just human. And now she's... more than that. The fifth spirit of the Enchanted Forest. She's a part of nature now. Nature that our people have sworn to respect and keep sacred. I can't just..." Maren gestures with her hands as she looks for the right word. "... court her."
"Because the things you want to do to her aren't respectful nor sacred?"
"I'll always respect her, of course!" Maren's face turns red. "But sacred, no, not completely..."
"You still had no trouble flirting with a queen. You're a lot more bold than I thought." He takes a moment to regard his lovesick sister. "Can I help?"
Maren's eyes narrow. "With what?"
"Your love life, duh!"
She raises her brows. "No. No way. Wouldn't it be... I don't know, blasphemous?"
"Oh, please. You have no idea how many of my friends alone have already tried to woo her, do you? If it really were blasphemous, our camp would be buried in snow by now."
"Which of your friends?"
Maren groans. "Can't you just not meddle in my life? Just this once?"
"We're twins, Maren. We were destined to meddle with each other's lives the moment we shared a birthday. How's that for a cause?"
**** **** **** ****
Ryder cracks an eye open, but he's only greeted by an empty clearing. Maybe he isn't singing loud enough. He knows it's the right song. Yelena taught the fifth spirit's song to them as early as when they were children. He clears his throat and tries again.
"Are you calling for me?"
Ryder jumps at the sudden voice. He sees Elsa put a hand to her mouth, probably to hide an amused smile. He bounces in excitement.
"I can't believe that actually worked! Did you, like, magic your way here all the way from Antohallan?"
"No." She holds up a basket of berries he hadn't noticed before. "I was collecting these for Irma. I was just in the area."
"Oh. Did I at least sing it right?"
Elsa breaks eye contact and curls her lips inward. When she looks back at Ryder, her index finger is pressed close to her thumb. "You were a little pitchy."
Can't be dishonest, but can't bring hersellf to be impolite either, Ryder thinks.
"Did you need me for something?" Elsa readily asks.
The fifth spirit has had her hands full with the tribe. Most everyone wants to spend time with her, especially the children. It's why Ryder is here now, asking ahead of time before someone else snatches her up again.
"Yeah. We were about to skin the rabbits. Would you like to help? If no one has taught you yet, we could."
Ryder watches Elsa struggle to keep a composed face. "Skin... a rabbit..." She takes a deep breath before letting it go. "Yes, I suppose I should help. I am part of the tribe after all."
"Great! Don't worry. Maren's a great teacher."
"Oh?" Elsa suddenly looks more interested. "Then I look forward to it."
That's a good sign.
**** **** **** ****
"Maren! Great news. I got Elsa to join us."
Maren gives him a blank look, hands bloodied by the rabbit in her hand. She flatly says, "What."
"Elsa's on her way." He sits beside her and bumps her shoulder with his. "Isn't that great?"
"Wait, wait... you mean to tell me, that you asked Elsa, a former queen, to get her hands dirty with rabbit blood by skinning it?"
"Ryder! Couldn't you have asked her when we're doing literally anything else?!"
He laughs sheepishly. "I didn't think of that. I just thought you'd wanna spend time with her. This may not be my best idea."
Maren scoffs. "And you say I'm the one with no sense for romance. Shit." She looks down at herself. "I don't look attractive right now. At all."
"Relax." He undoes her braid and fixes it for her. "She looked like she really didn't want to come until I mentioned you'll be with us."
"Yup." From behind Maren, he can see Elsa making her way to them. "Elsa! Glad you could come."
"I'm-" her eyes briefly stray to the dead rabbits they've hung before she offers a tight-lipped smile- "happy you invited me." Then the smile she throws Maren's way is more sincere, radiant even. "It's been a while."
"It's good to finally get to talk to you," Maren replies. Ryder commends his sister for looking so composed despite her franticness moments ago. "Come. Sit, sit."
Elsa takes the spot between the twins. From behind her, he gives his sister two raised thumbs. Maren pointedly ignores him.
"Yes, sorry." Elsa shyly tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. "I've been quite busy lately. Oh, not that you had to spend time with me or anything. A-Anyway... so how do I do this?"
Ryder couldn't even hide his giddy smile as they interact. It's a good thing Elsa has her back to him. Maren is embarrassed, so she kept avoiding his gaze the whole time. He would have been hurt over being ignored if the situation were different.
"Are you okay?" Maren asks Elsa. She moves an arm to touch the other woman's back, but stops herself in time when she remembers the blood. "You look a little paler than usual."
Elsa blinks rapidly but focuses on what she's doing. "I'm fine."
She looks far from fine. Ryder's worried that she would faint. But he and his sister let Elsa continue since she's so determined. Elsa takes about an hour longer than they would have to skin a single rabbit, but it's a milestone nonetheless.
"Done!" she proudly says.
Maren takes the skin so she can hang it with the rest of the ones she and Ryder did. "Great job. I'm proud of you for getting though that."
"It isn't perfect..." Ryder says but immediately shuts up at the pointed glare Maren throws his way.
"But it'll do for a first time," Maren amends.
I was gonna say that, Ryder mouths incredulously at his sister who only narrows her eyes.
"Actually, that should probably be my last as well..." Elsa looks down at her hands. "I don't think I'm meant for these kinds of tasks. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize," Maren hurries to say. "We shouldn't have asked you to do something like this so early since your move. Ryder shouldn't have asked that of you."
"Yeah, my bad."
"No, it's fine. I wanted to try it myself before deciding anything anyway."
"Maybe we should take a break for now," Ryder suggests. "There's still plenty of hours in the day."
In any other situation, Maren would have chided him for suggesting procrastination. But this time, she nods in agreement. Elsa gives him an appreciative smile.
"Arendelle's spring festival is in a few days," Elsa says as they wash their hands in the river. "I'm sure you heard from Yelana when Anna came over to invite her."
"Oh yeah," Ryder chuckles. "She won't stop complaining about it." Ryder realizes what he just said when Maren looks at him with wide eyes over Elsa's shoulder. "I mean... sorry, I just meant that--"
"No need to apologize," Elsa softly reassures him. "I completely understand. My grandfather... What he did was terrible. The history of our people has been tainted by his lies, which is why Anna and I want to build a better relationship between Arendelle and the Northuldra. For a future better than our past. But we won't force that on you either. Please tell Yelena that she and the other clan leaders don't have to go if they really don't want to."
"She really doesn't want to," Maren says. She exchanges a meaningful look with Ryder. "A lot of us don't. But we've all come to like you. So we're willing to at least give it a try."
Elsa beams. "Really?"
Maren flusters at the smile Elsa is directing at her, so she silently asks Ryder for a rescue.
"Even Yelena's become fond of you and Anna, you know," Ryder says to break the moment and let his sister breathe. "She's willing to endure a few hours for you and your sister. Though she'll never admit it."
Elsa chuckles and leans back. She stretches her legs to let her toes dip into the water. "We'll have to make sure she has a good time, then. Will the two of you be there, too?"
Ryder nods. "Definitely. Yelena made sure of it."
Maren clears her throat and narrows her eyes in a mocking imitation of Yelena's unimpressed look. She deepens her voice and puts a bit of growl to it when she speaks, "If I'm gonna have to see that lieutenant's face again, I'm going to need the two of you to hold me back."
Ryder does the same and imitates their chief's voice as best he could, "I doubt I'll last the whole day. When I give the signal, one of you pretend to be sick so we can make an early escape. "
Elsa heartily laughs with the twins. "Did she really say that?"
"Oh yeah," Ryder says. "And she was serious. She'd do that."
"But I don't think it'll come to that," Maren says. "Anna's been working hard with the preparations, right? I'm sure it'll be wonderful."
"I hope so. I wanted to show you around so you can meet Oaken and his family. They're lovely. And the food will be amazing." There's a sparkle in Elsa's eyes as she presses her hands together. "Have you ever tasted chocolate? You'll love it."
Ryder has never seen Elsa this excited before. By the fond and pleasantly surprised look on Maren's face he can guess that this is a first for her, too. Even if Marent were right that Elsa belongs in the Enchanted Forest, it seems there are still things about her other home that Elsa misses.
**** **** ***** ****
Elsa stays in Arendelle to help Anna during the last two days before the festival. In the meantime, Maren has spent every moment talking about the other woman. About how otherwordly her beauty and elegance is. Or how it's adorable that Elsa claims to not know how to handle children but still effortlessly makes them love her anyway. Or how sweet it is that Elsa is always offering to help in their daily tasks, even if she isn't always any good. Or how --
"Spirit's sake, woman!" Ryder snaps. "You gush harder than that friggin' dam they destroyed!"
Maren at least has the sense to look ashamed. "You're the one who asked for this. I'll have you know, I was perfectly fine keeping my affections secret."
"Yeah, I know..." he hunches his back and lets his staff support his weight. "I'm starting to miss those days."
Maren clicks her tongue. "And here I thought you loved love."
"Oh? Love?" Ryder straighgens, brows up to his hairline as he gestures wildly in his sister's general direction. "Is that what's happening here?"
Maren looks taken aback, face suddenly red. She looks away from Ryder. "Of course not! It's too soon."
"Whatever you say, sister."
Ryder watches Maren, silently relishing this side of her that he very rarely sees. He doesn't really think he's even seen her this smitten before.
He really should up his wingman game. The festival can be romantic, right?
Quiet overtakes the moment, the twins just wordlessly watching the reindeers graze the fields. Until Maren speaks.
"Do you think Elsa's back yet?"
"Mother nature, I swear--"