"Elsa, darling, wake up."
"Hm?" Elsa stirred in her slumber. "Mother…?"
"Today is your coronation, dearest. It mustn't do to be late!"
Then, Elsa's eyes flew open. She looked up at her mother, and gasped. "Oh! Of course! I nearly forgot!"
The princess stepped out of bed and dressed herself with a few flicks of her wrist. She turned to her smiling mother. "How do I look?"
"You look gorgeous, Elsa." Elsa’s mother kissed her lightly on the forehead. " I'm so proud of you. How much you have grown, and developed your abilities. Now, let's go out and show them what their new Queen can do."
Elsa smiled. "Yes, let's."
The bells rang out, clear and strong in the cold air. It was Coronation Day in Arendelle, just as always.
The newly crowned Queen was conferring with her advisors, when she heard the door open with a click. And the moment she heard the trod of a heavy boot on the ground, she knew who it was.
The Burning Man.
Elsa turned her back to him, and continued discussing taxation rates with her advisors.
Elsa sighed, and shooed her advisors away. The Burning Man always had to ruin everything, didn’t he?
“People are dying, Elsa. Please. They’re starving. Arendelleis dying, and no one can escape. The ice is too thick for ships, and the storms are making overland travel too dangerous.”
“I’ve heard you say that before,” said Elsa irritably. “It’s not true. Arendelle is thriving, and has been for years. It’s never been better.”
The Burning Man spoke again, desperation in his voice. “Just listen. I don’t mean… I mean people like me! It’s getting worse and worse, and it’s spreading out from Arendelle. Neighboring kingdoms are freezing too! You’re still getting more powerful, and you can’t...”
“If you’re just going to stand there and speak nonsense, you can do it by yourself,” said the Queen. She turned to leave.
“No, wait! Just wait! I’m actually here to see someone.”
“Anna?” asked Elsa. That’s usually whom he asked to see, and she gave the usual answer. “She’s with Kristoff.”
“No, actually.” There was an odd tone to the Burning Man’s voice now. A little… hesitant, yet self-satisfied. “I’d like to see Hans.”
Elsa’s mouth fell open, and she turned around to face the Burning Man. As usual, he radiated heat, so much so that she had a hard time looking directly at him. “You can’t see Hans!”
“Yes, I can.” The Burning Man crossed his arms stubbornly. “You told me yesterday yourself that 12 noon was visiting hours. Well, it’s 12 noon now.”
Elsa frowned, and the temperature in the room dropped another degree. “Fine. He’s in the dungeon. But don’t stay down there too long.”
The Burning Man sighed. “Thank you, Elsa.”
“It’s Queen Elsa, by the way.”
“Right. Thank you, Queen Elsa.” The Burning Man bowed stiffly, and left. The Queen watched his back.
The Burning Man had wandered down a good few empty hallways before he realized that he had no clue where the dungeons were. He rubbed his hands on his upper arms, teeth chattering. God in heaven, it was cold. But at least inside the palace, you were out of the wind.
“Kristoff? Is that you?”
The Burning Man turned at the familiar voice, and a tiny smile cracked the frost on his face.
The Burning Man gritted his teeth against the cold and opened his arms to welcome the tiny snowman’s happy charge. Olaf had been Elsa’s first snowman, and he was still dumpy and lumpy compared with her more recent ones. But neither she nor the Burning Man would have him any other way.
“I love your warm hugs!” exclaimed Olaf.
The Burning Man didn’t feel particularly warm right then. “Yeah it’s… it’s been a while, little guy.”
Olaf let go, and jiggled up and down a little in excitement. “I thought I heard your boots! I was visiting Anna when-” He gasped, as if having a revelation. “Ohh ooh! You should go see her!”
“Anna?” The Burning Man paused, and looked away. “No, I can’t see her. I mean, I need… she’s with…”
“Aw, come on, Kristoff!” Olaf’s voice took a singsong quality. “I know she wants to see you!” His tone shifted to the conspiratorial. “It’ll be a surprise!”
“I…” but how could the Burning Man resist? He hadn’t seen Anna for a long while now. It was just too tempting, even though his heart clutched at the thought.
When would he have another chance?
Shivering, the Burning Man followed Olaf up the stairs and through several halls, until he reached Anna’s room. Olaf giggled in glee, and knocked on the door. “Hide, hide!” he commanded the Burning Man, and made ‘shoo’ motions with his hands. The Burning Man obligingly stepped behind the doorframe.
The door opened, and Anna stepped out.
She was beautiful, stunning really. If anything, she was more ethereal and lovely now than she’d ever been. She looked down at Olaf and smiled.
“What is it, Olaf?”
“You have a visitor!” chirped the snowman, and he beckoned the Burning Man out.
Anna smiled politely at him. Her eyes were dark and glistened against her pale face. She was so pale. “Hello.”
“Anna?” the Burning Man said gently, though he felt like being sick. “Do you remember me?”
Anna bit her lip with perfect white teeth, embarrassed. “I think… you’ve spoken to my sister a few times? Are you an ambassador from another kingdom?”
“No.” The Burning Man’s stomach felt like a stone falling down a well, but he kept going. “You… my name’s Kristoff.”
“Kristoff?” Anna looked confused for a moment, then smiled. “What a coincidence! My fiancée’s name is Kristoff!” She looked off to the side, into her room. “Kristoff? Our visitor has your name!”
“Oh yeah?” came a voice from within the room. “Well it’s a pretty common name. If it was ‘Sven,’ now that would have been-”
And so the Burning Man came face to face with himself. But this Kristoff was handsome, inhumanly so. All of the Burning Man’s imperfections and blemishes had been smoothed over with ice and snow and dark coal eyes.
Anna beamed at the two of them, and Kristoff didn’t seem to notice anything unusual. “Uh. So, can I help you?”
The Burning Man opened his mouth, then shut it. Anna looked so happy. How could he intrude on that?
“No. I just wanted to know where the dungeons were.”
“Oh, sure,” replied Kristoff. “Down the stairs, go left, then down again. And keep going down.”
“Yeah, sure. Any time, name-twin.”
The Burning Man turned to go, gritting his teeth. He could hear the door click behind him, and the sound of Anna and Kristoff’s laughter.
The Burning Man expected the dungeons to be even colder than the palace itself, and was quite surprised to find that they weren’t. Instead, they were almost a humane temperature. There wasn’t even ice encrusted on the walls, and the Burning Man stopped hugging himself as tightly with his arms.
The reason for this comparative warmth became apparent as the Burning Man turned a corner and came to the end of the empty, echoing dungeon. At the end of the corridor there was a fireplace, and it was lit.
The Burning Man let out a groan of relief, and dropped to his knees in front of the blessed heat. He took off his gloves, and warmed his hands in front of the fire.
Firewood was running critically low in the village, and this was the only fire the Burning Man had ever seen in the palace. Then again, Elsa had low needs.
“I don’t suppose,” came a voice. “That you’d mind putting out the fire?”
The Burning Man turned around with a start. The voice was coming out from behind the door to one of the cells. He peered in, and saw a vaguely man-shaped puddle of slush. It had a face, sort of, and the face was talking.
“She’ll light it again anyway when she comes to reform me, so there’s nothing lost by it. And I would appreciate it greatly.”
The Burning Man blinked. “…Hans?”
“That is indeed my name,” said the puddle of slush, and attempted to push itself into a sitting position with two sloppy, arm-like appendages.
“Does that hurt?” asked the Burning Man, more curious than anything.
“It’s more annoying than painful. But I’m sure when Her Majesty figures out how to make me feel pain, I will.”
The Burning Man just stared. Even compared with everything else in this kingdom, this was deeply strange. “But you… you’re not really Hans. Not that Hans.”
A bit of snow on the slush’s face that might have once been an eyebrow twitched upward questioningly. “I am Hans, so far as Her Majesty is concerned. And don’t look so surprised. I know exactly who and what I am. It’s coldest near the Queen, and warmest here, where Her Majesty’s influence is weakest.”
The Burning Man let out a deep breath. This was what he had been hoping for, what his friends had prepared him for. But seeing Hans in this state was unnerving, to say the least.
“So.” Hans’ voice filled up the silence. “Why did you come to visit, if not to relieve me?”
“It’s about Elsa. I need to get her to end this winter.”
“You and everyone else by now, I’m sure.”
“That’s not the point. I’ve tried convincing her. Telling her what’s happening out there. Getting her to stop. She doesn’t listen, or doesn’t believe me, or won’t believe me…”
“Have you tried killing her?”
It was said so flippantly, like Hans was simply mentioning a new technique for cutting ice.
“I’m not going to kill her.”
“Why not? Others have tried. A few of them made it down here, perhaps in an attempt to rescue me. Her Majesty doesn’t bother fighting them. Her Majesty hates fighting.”
“But… they’ve never come back? I was actually expecting them to be down here, with you.”
“I said Her Majesty didn’t fight them. I didn’t say they didn’t die.” Hans cocked his half-melted head and recited: “At thirty-two degrees, water freezes. At negative forty, skin freezes upon exposure to air. I’ve seen Her Majesty hit negative one-hundred-twenty. It doesn’t take long, and that’s not even considering the snow guards.”
The Burning Man swallowed, feeling cold despite the fire. That was terrible. This was far more serious than he’d thought. He was starting to reconsider his plan.
“And how would you expect me to face that, anyway?”
“The Queen let you in, didn’t she? I’d say that means Her Majesty is positively warm towards you. You could get close enough to strike, I’m sure of it.”
The Burning Man paused, then shook his head. “I don’t want to kill her.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I… I want her to fall in love with me.”
Hans laughed long and loud, his slush quivering. When he had calmed down, he managed to choke out, “Okay. I’m the expert, then?”
“You’re the only man I know who managed to get a girl to agree to marry him without loving her back.” The Burning Man’s voice was flat and hard. “So yes, you’re the expert.”
“What a distinction!” Hans’ near-featureless face forced itself into a simulacrum of a smile. “Might I ask why?”
“My friends thought that if she felt love, that it might thaw the winter.”
“Look, can you just give me some advice?”
“Of course. One: Give her what she wants, whatever that is. Two: Make her feel like she’s special. Three: Be extremely rich.”
The Burning Man groaned. “I was thinking more specifically, like what do women want?”
“There is no ‘specifically.’ What, you think all women are the same?”
“What? No, I- argh! You aren’t helpful at all!”
Hans chuckled. “Just kill her. It wouldn’t be nearly as hard as courting her. And once you get close enough, she’s frail. Brittle. What is stopping you?”
“Look, I think you don’t get something here, Hans.” The Burning Man was feeling angry now. “I am not killing Elsa.”
“But why? I’ve told you that she’s killed others. She’s slowly killing her whole kingdom now, maybe more than that if the winter has spread. The Queen is a monster. You’d be a hero.”
The Burning Man growled. “It’s because Anna loved Elsa, okay? I’m… I can’t hurt someone Anna loved. I just can’t.”
“How well do you think Anna even knew her sister? Do you think she’d recognize her now?”
“How dare you even speak of Anna!” snapped the Burning Man. Then he realized he was yelling at a pile of melting snow. Just snow. Not Hans. Not Hans.
“Oh!” said Hans. “Oh, I understand now! You don’t want to kill Elsa because that would destroy all of us too, wouldn’t it? Including Anna.”
The Burning Man opened his mouth to object, but Hans was still talking, enunciating each word like he was smacking his lips on a sugarplum.
“Anna. You love her. Of course. And any little bit of her left, even if it’s just pieced together from memories and icewater.”
Memories and icewater. “She’s alive,” said the Burning Man.
“Something like that,” replied Hans. He tried to lift an arm, and it sloshed off with a plop.
The Burning Man turned to leave Hans in his cell, pausing only long enough to stomp the fire out with his boots.
The Burning Man walked back through the ice-covered halls of the palace, his cloak tight around his shoulders. He heard laughter echoing down the hall, and froze in place when he saw Anna and Kristoff walk into the chamber, Anna chatting excitedly.
“- the ball! And live music! Isn’t that wonderful? Ooh, Kristoff, do you think they’ll do a reverse waltz?”
“You know I can’t dance, Anna,” said Kristoff, sounding nervous.
“Well,” replied Anna, “I guess I’ll have to teach you, then.” Neither of them paid any mind to the Burning Man, who watched them silently as they passed through.
A ball? Elsa would be there. The Burning Man took a deep breath, and followed them.
The Burning Man stayed a few dozen paces behind, tracing with his eyes the branching fractal patterns that covered the lush velvet and once-gleaming wood paneling. Barbed facsimiles of chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, though they held no candles and cast no light. Still, they were beautiful, and caught the sunbeams slanting from the high windows, casting prisms upon the glacier-blue ceiling. But of course they were beautiful. Everything here was beautiful.
The palace’s ballroom was even more stunning, if possible, and was full of people dancing elegantly across the ice. The Burning Man spotted Elsa easily in the crowd, she of course being the only other flesh and blood person in the room. He stepped into the crowd, trying not to shove or get in the way of any of the dancers. As he made his way towards the Queen, he spotted the refreshments table, covered lavishly with perfect ice replicas of ginger cookies and fried mushrooms and meatballs. There was even a large ice leg of ham, with a pick and hammer replacing the carving knife. The Burning Man’s gaze lingered on the implements longer than he’d meant it to.
“You again?” said Elsa, when she saw him. “Haven’t you left yet? You got what you wanted, didn’t you?”
“No, I- that is I mean.” The Burning Man stammered, trying to remember what Hans had advised. “I think you look… special.”
Elsa blinked. “What?”
“You’re special. And pretty. And I want to give you what you want.”
Elsa stared for a moment, then frowned and pointed at the door. “Get out!”
The Burning Man groaned. He couldn’t do it. He’d never been good at lying, anyway.
“Elsa,” he said quietly, looking at the floor. “I can’t. You need to stop the winter. Please unfreeze Arendelle. We’ll all die if you don’t.”
“We?” Elsa’s voice was exasperated beyond exasperation. “Who is ‘we’?”
“All of Arendelle! Your kingdom!”
Elsa spread her arms, indicating the ballroom and the dancers, some of whom had stopped to watch the confrontation. “This is Arendelle! This is my kingdom!”
“But it isn’t, Elsa! And you know what?” The Burning Man took a step forward, and put his hands on his hips, defiant. “I think you know that it isn’t your kingdom.”
Elsa took a step back, away from the heat. “What are you talking about?”
The Burning Man’s voice lowered. “Hans.”
“What about him?” Elsa looked angry now.
“Why is he in the dungeon? What did he do?”
Elsa’s mouth dropped. “He… he hurt Anna!”
The Burning Man looked at Anna, who was standing with Kristoff, arm-in-arm. Together. “He did,” said the Burning Man quietly, though it was hard to tell if it was a statement or a question.
He turned back to the Queen, his expression angry, demanding. “How? How did he hurt her?”
“How dare you!” cried the Queen. “How dare you bring this up on a day like today!”
“It’s a day like every day. You are coronated every day! Doesn’t that strike you as unusual?”
“Get out now, or I will summon the guards.” Elsa’s voice was ice.
“And Hans told me you’ve killed people! Is… is that true, Elsa?”
Elsa looked furious, then gestured sweepingly into a space in the crowd. Snow leapt out of nowhere and formed a tremendous knight, armored in ice. “Take him out of here,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “I don’t care where you put him. But get him out.”
The Burning Man lifted his hands. “Wait-!”
The ice knight, who must have been 10 feet tall, grabbed the kicking and wiggling Burning Man, hefted him over his shoulder, and walked out of the ballroom.
The Burning Man, in trying to get free, missed the tears that ran from Elsa’s eyes, freezing before they hit the floor.
The knight threw the Burning Man out the palace’s back door, into a thick snowdrift. He sat up, coughing.
“It’s not nice to throw people!” The Burning Man yelled, his voice hitching on the last word. But the knight simply turned around and closed the door behind him.
The Burning Man sat there for a long time, his head buried in his hands. The wind outside the palace was vicious, and whipped ice crystals into his exposed skin.
After a while, he realized that he had to find shelter, or he would freeze. With a deep groan, he reached back to push himself out of the snow.
His arm sank into the soft snow bank, until it touched something solid. Something solid and… strange. It felt like cloth. The Burning Man groped around for a moment, until he realized that he could feel a button.
A thought occurred to him, and he leapt up, shuddering. He turned and stared at the snow bank. Then, making his mind up, he began to dig, tearing it apart.
It didn’t take long for the Burning Man to uncover the first body in the snow. It was a young man with a wisp of a beard, curled up and solid as frozen soil. The Burning Man had been touching his shirt.
The Burning Man dug more. And there were more bodies, hidden in the fresh snowfall. They were young and middle aged men, frozen stiff, their fingers sticking out like twigs from snowbanks. Many were armed, with swords and axes on their belts, and crossbows over their shoulders. By the time he found a dozen, the Burning Man was swaying, dizzy, sick.
It was horrible. Who could do this? Only a monster.
“Kristoff! Hey Kristoff! What are you doing out here? The party isn’t over yet!”
The Burning Man turned to see Olaf, holding open the back door.
“There’s nothing out there! Come on in! We have daaaaaaancing~!”
“I…. Thanks, Olaf,” the Burning Man managed to choke out. “I’ll be there in a moment. Hold the door for me.”
“Okay!” shrilled the tiny snowman. He left the door open.
The Burning Man swallowed. Then, he swallowed again. Then, he reached down to one of the bodies, and removed an ice ax from its belt.
The Burning Man was not a religious person. Being mostly raised by mythological creatures can do that. Still, when he stepped back into the palace, he prayed.
The palace was the same as it had been before. Icy and blue, with hoarfrost covering every surface. But with the new intent in the Burning Man’s heart, the place seemed sharper, darker, more dangerous. It felt more like a citadel than the sumptuous palace it had once been.
This impression was helped by the fact that the palace was oddly empty. Likely, everyone was still at the coronation party. The Burning Man inched his way along the wall, ice ax in one hand, heading for the ballroom. He did not want to be seen, this time. Especially not by Olaf. Or Anna. He didn’t think he’d be able to bear it.
“So, what exactly is your plan?”
The Burning Man gasped and whirled. A man-shaped lump of snow was facing him. It was cruder even than Olaf, and didn’t really have recognizable features. In fact, it looked like it had mostly melted, then refrozen.
“…Hans?” the Burning Man whispered.
“The very same,” said the snowman. “Now, what exactly were you planning to do with that ax?”
“I was…” The Burning Man couldn’t even say it. “I don’t… how did you escape?”
“Once I was solid enough, I simply reformed my body until I could fit through the bars,” replied Hans. “I could have done it at any time. But I didn’t have any hope to kill her on my own. I needed an ally.”
“Ally? Why me?” The Burning Man looked down the hall, towards the back of the palace and the field of corpses. “Why not them?”
“They never put out the fire.” Hans’ voice was soft and serious. “Now. Your plan. I take it that you were going to charge in there and hit her with the axe?”
“That might have worked before,” continued Hans. “But Her Majesty is on her guard now, with you. You won’t be able to get close enough. And even if you manage face the Queen in a fight, you will lose.”
“Well, what, then, I can’t-”
“You need to be sneaky, underhanded, and swift,” said Hans. “That is where I come in. I will lure the Queen around a blind corner, where you will be waiting.”
“I-” Then, something occurred to the Burning Man. His eyes narrowed. “What’s in it for you?”
“For me?” Hans paused, then shook his head. “My existence is a cosmic joke. I’m nothing but a copy of a murderer, as imagined by a madwoman, continually destroyed and re-created in an attempt to wreak vengeance against a man who died long ago. I have no purpose beyond that. But I suppose she made me too well. I want revenge too. And if this is the only way to achieve that, then so be it.”
The Burning Man frowned. “But, if she… dies, and the curse lifts… won’t you melt too?”
“I don’t particularly care. She didn’t make me with a will to live, only a tendency to be contrary and despicable.” The Burning Man didn’t really have an answer to that, so Hans continued. “And now, we will practice.”
“Practice?” That was not what the Burning Man had expected him to say.
“Killing is not easy. I watched some of the erstwhile heroes attempt it. Only a few of those who came within range of the Queen even managed to bring their weapons to bear. I want you to practice, so that when you do it, you won’t falter.”
The Burning Man looked around helplessly. He felt ill just thinking about this. “I…”
“I will come around the corner here,” Hans indicated the doorframe. “Have your ax at the ready. Then hit me with it.”
“Hit you?” asked the Burning Man, startled.
“An ax cannot hurt me,” replied Hans, and he went behind the door. The Burning Man hefted the ax, chewing on his lip nervously.
Then, Hans came around, and the Burning Man swung the ax, stopping when it hit Hans’ chest.
Hans shook his head. “Follow through,” he said. “Don’t stop just when it grazes me. And hit harder. Do it like you’re cutting wood.”
Or ice, thought the Burning Man, but he said nothing.
This time, when Hans came around the corner, the Burning Man swung harder, and the blade of the ax buried itself in snow.
“Better,” said Hans, unperturbed by the ax in his chest. “This time try aiming for my head.”
A few more tries later, Hans came around the corner, and the Burning Man swung, and lopped the snowman’s head clean off.
The Burning Man stopped and stared in horror as Hans simply reached down and retrieved his head. Of course, he’d seen Olaf perform similar feats. But this… it seemed more gruesome, even though both of them were made of solid snow.
“Good,” said Hans, and stuck his head back on. “I think you may be ready, now. Wait here. You should hear us coming.”
The Burning Man waited.
It had occurred to him that perhaps Hans wasn’t being honest. The original Hans had been an excellent liar. But this wasn’t the original Hans. This was a crude snowman, featureless, inhuman.
But in a way, Hans was no less human than Anna, or Olaf. Were they people? They talked like people, had feelings, had likes and dislikes. Anna was so much like the Anna he had known. The Burning Man was used to considering non-humans as people.
And besides, Elsa was definitely human.
The Burning Man pictured the inhabitants of Arendelle, huddling around the few remaining fires, scrounging for food, looking through the woods for the cold-killed animals, cutting holes into ever-thicker ice to catch the few fish that remained. Nothing would grow. Even the trees were dying.
The Burning Man had gone to his family, and they had told him that nothing could survive years of winter. Nothing but them, perhaps, who could spend centuries as stone if need be. “But you won’t, Kristoff,” Pabbie had said, gentle and sad, placing his gnarled hand on the Burning Man’s shoulder. “You can’t come with us into the earth, dear boy.”
Alone with his thoughts, the Burning Man breathed.
Then, he heard them. The high icy tinkling of Elsa’s magic, and Hans’ voice taunting; “You’ll never catch me, Elsa! I am after Anna! I will kill her again! Try and stop me!”
Hans had followed through.
The Burning Man’s palms were sweating, despite the frigid air. The ax felt slippery. He tried to concentrate on not shaking. He stood behind the doorframe, holding his breath, his jaw locked.
Hans rounded the corner. The Burning Man could see he’d been skewered several times by ice spears, but they hadn’t slowed him down.
The snowman ran behind the Burning Man, and whispered harshly, “Ready! She’s coming!”
Elsa came in, around the door, looking furious, ice shards crackling in her hands. The Burning Man hesitated. He couldn’t-
Elsa’s eyes widened in recognition, she gasped, and Hans yelled, desperate; “Do it!”
Elsa raised her hands, the Burning Man felt cold on his exposed skin so intense that it burned, the ice crackled – and the Burning Man screamed, closed his eyes, and swung the ax at Elsa’s head.
Something shockingly warm and wet hit his face, and when the Burning Man looked again, he saw Elsa crumple to the floor, taking the ax with her. He stared at her in shock, legs trembling, but she did nothing more.
The next thing the Burning Man was aware of was that he was no longer cold. The feeling of warmth not from a fire, of all-around warmth, felt alien, unnatural. Then, he heard the dripping water.
The Burning Man turned, and saw the walls, thawing, cracking, dripping. Thin sheets of ice were dropping from the ceiling, shattering when they hit the floor. He saw Hans, already melting.
“Go,” said Hans, but his voice sounded wet and slurred. “Thank you. Now go.”
The Burning Man could barely breathe. He staggered out the door, into the hall, overwhelmed. Everything was melting. He was sloshing through ankle-deep snowmelt.
Then, “Anna,” he said, and went in the direction of Anna’s room. He knew he had to hurry, but his legs didn’t seem to want to go very fast.
When he got there, the Burning Man saw that the door was open. He went in, and found them, still in each other’s arms, but now so melted they were barely recognizable.
The Burning Man touched the one he thought was her, laying his hand on her side. She moved slightly, enough to raise her head. Her face was half-melted, and she only had one eye.
“Who…” she whispered, her voice garbled. “Kristoff…”
“It’s me,” said the Burning Man. “It’s Kristoff.”
Then the coal piece that was her remaining eye sagged and dropped off, clattering to the floor.
The Burning Man stayed with her until she was water.
Kristoff (for now he was the only one) wandered the damp halls of Arendelle’s palace. He’d shed his bloodstained coat as he went, then his sweater. The wood was ruined, the paintings soaked through. Every once in a while, he passed a lump of ice that hadn’t quite melted yet.
He didn’t know where he was going, but eventually found himself at the palace’s open gates. He went through, blinking in the harsh sunlight.
The outside was nothing but grey mud, stretching to all sides and indescribably ugly. There was not a green thing, animal, or person in sight, and the buildings were damaged and slumping.
It was high summer.