Cold water closed over her head, rushing in her ears and dragging at her nightgown. She flailed, branches scratching her arm as she tried to grasp something, anything, as the current sucked her legs out from under her. Anna kicked hard and managed to push up with one foot on the muddy creek bed, just enough to get a lungful of air before she slipped down again.
Her fingernails scraped over wet wood above her. The log bridge. The water was carrying her under it, and she'd be swept away completely if she couldn't hold on somehow--Anna wanted to sob, but she had to hold her breath, or she'd end up drowned somewhere far away from the little cabin, and Elsa wouldn't even have a body to bury, and Kristoff would...Kristoff…
Something caught her flailing hand, yanking hard on her arm, so hard that it hurt, and then Anna was out of the water, coughing and gasping, the sob she'd been holding in her chest forcing its way out. The rain was still pelting down, making it impossible to blink the water out of her eyes.
"Kris--" she started, but it came out as a whisper, trailing into nothing as lightning cracked open the sky, a whip of white light, and she got a glimpse of his face.
He glared down at her, and even when the dark hid his expression again Anna could feel the fury, as if it were heat from a kettle that was boiling itself dry. She started to tremble, shuddering all over. It's the cold , she thought, I'm shivering , except her chest was burning with something that hurt, and her eyes were hot and stinging.
Her husband picked her up, but he didn't cradle her into the warmth of his body. Instead his arms were hard, every muscle tense, and they crushed her against his chest until she felt bruised. And he didn't murmur anything reassuring--he didn't say anything at all. He carried her through the dark, until suddenly they were standing in the open door of the cabin, Elsa looking ghostly pale, and Anna began to sob as Kristoff dumped her onto the floor and turned his back on her, the door slamming behind him--
Anna struggled upright, her heart pounding against her ribs. The blankets twisted around her legs were damp with sweat and her lungs hurt, as if she'd been holding her breath for too long. She smoothed tangled wisps of her hair back from her face with shaking hands.
A dream. Another dream.
It hadn't happened quite like that. Really it had been over too quickly for her to register many details. The shock of the icy water, one horrible moment of panic as her head went under, and then her nightdress had been snagged on a branch that held just long enough to save her from being swept away. And then Kristoff had been there. He had grabbed her arm so hard that it hurt--although she could hardly mind that, when he'd been rescuing her--but then they'd both had to feel the way back, tripping on the log's withered roots in the dark and falling in a heap on the muddy bank.
That was when Kristoff had pulled her tight against him. She'd felt him breathing, hard, ragged gasps that blew warm against her hair despite the cold rain. She'd heard his heartbeat against her ear, like a fast drumbeat. He gripped her as if he thought she might still be dragged away by the water, and Anna realized she was holding onto him just as tightly, both her hands clutched in his wet shirt, their bodies so close that she could feel his heat, could feel the outline of his chest and stomach as if the fabric between them was nothing more than tissue instead of sturdy cotton. She'd pressed her face into his neck--
And he'd hauled her up as he stood, hefting her in his arms like a sack of grain, and he'd definitely been angry but he hadn't been silently furious. Oh no. He'd sworn at her in Norwegian (and Anna knew it was swearing even if she couldn't understand the words), and then in English, telling her exactly how stupid she was, how reckless, how she would get herself killed , because--
-- because she didn't belong here.
You should go home , he'd said. Where it's safe for girls like you .
Anna sniffed, wiping her nose on the edge of her bedsheet. The worst part, perversely, was that he'd called her a girl . Not a woman, not to him.
And then he'd dumped her on the rug and told Elsa to look after her, because of course she couldn't look after herself, and then he'd stormed off. And the silence began.
"Anna? Oh good, you've admitted to being awake." Elsa came in, a tray rattling with teacups in her hands. There was also a bowl of porridge, which she handed to Anna. "Breakfast."
"Thanks." Anna stirred her spoon around, watching steam curl up (and why did Elsa's porridge come out so much better than hers? They followed the exact same steps, after all. Mostly) but didn't lift it to her mouth.
"Eat it," her sister said. "It'll warm you up."
"I'm warm . Look." She pushed the covers off. "I'm fine, see? I just got a little wet, I'm not going to perish. And I spent all day yesterday keeping quiet and wrapped up and I'm fine ."
"I know." Elsa took a dainty sip of her tea, sitting upright as neatly as if she was in their mother's parlor. "You didn't have to stay in bed on my account."
"But you said--"
"I said you should rest if you felt unwell, and you should keep your feet dry. I didn't say that you needed to hide in your bed."
Anna opened her mouth, closed it again, and then shoved a spoonful of porridge in, swallowing the words she wanted to say with it. It was still too hot, burning on her tongue.
"I'm not hiding ," she muttered to the bowl. Her sister's teacup clicked against the saucer as she set it down, and when Anna glanced up she found Elsa glaring at her.
"You are hiding ," Elsa snapped, "because you did something stupid, and selfish, and you don't want to go apologize to your husband ."
"I--" Hot blood rushed into Anna's cheeks. When Elsa got angrier she just got even more pale and still and icy. Anna got red. "What do you mean, selfish?"
"What do you think I mean? You nearly got yourself drowned! And what if you'd pulled him in with you? All for a silly goat that isn't even useful and that no one else wanted , except you had to have the evil little--"
"Ollie's not evil, he's just a goat ." Anna fought down the tears that wanted to squeeze out--why did she have to turn red and cry when she was angry, as if the anger filling her needed more room? "And I wasn't going to drown."
"You could have," Elsa said. "And then where would we be, Anna? Can you imagine what it would be like for me? For your husband, to have to go searching downstream for...for you? And then Kristoff would be a widower, stuck with a sickly sister-in-law to support and no helper for the farm, so he'd be even worse off than before. Think , Anna--"
"He's already worse off than he was before we came." Anna pulled her knees up, nearly dumping the forgotten porridge out over her lap. "He wishes that we hadn't."
Elsa sighed. "He does not."
"That's why he hasn't come into the house," Anna mumbled. "He's angry and he doesn't want to see me."
"He was very worried," Elsa said. "We both were. I'm sure he'll get over it. You were starting to get along so well--"
Anna sighed. "And I messed it up. I mess everything up. I'm sorry."
"Scoot." Her sister nudged her over, until they were both wedged onto the narrow mattress and Elsa could put an arm around Anna's shoulders. "I'm sorry for snapping. You don't mess everything up--you insisted we come here, and it's been better. I haven't had any bad spells in weeks, and you've been happier than I've seen you since Mother and Father's funeral."
"I don't think Kristoff feels that things have been better. Ow!" Anna yelped as her sister's bony elbow poked her ribs.
"He does . Now you're just being sulky. You told me he said that it's been a help to have you around, and I think he's glad you're here. He must have been lonely before."
Her sister sipped tea. Anna ate a few more sullen bites, but she just wasn't good at sulking--she couldn't ever keep her feelings at a low simmer for that long, and finally she dropped the spoon into the bowl with a clatter.
"He still doesn't come in for meals, and he has to eat."
"He does--he takes bread and jerky out with him, but I think the rain did a lot of damage, and he's been working from first light until it's full dark. It's not really that he's still angry, it's that there's just so much to do."
"Why didn't he say ?" Anna kicked away her quilt, climbing over Elsa's legs to fall out of the bed. "I could be helping!"
She scrambled into her clothes and was through the door before Elsa could point out that her dress was buttoned crookedly.
Watching Anna run toward the field, her bootlaces flying, Elsa wondered if she should have mentioned waking early that morning, and what she'd seen--Kristoff, dimly lit by the lamp that must have been left in the other room, bending over Anna's bed. His face had been lost in shadow, but she'd been able to see his hand, fingertips hovering over Anna's hair, tracing the curve of her cheek without touching.
Anna, always the restless sleeper, mumbled and turned over. Kristoff yanked his hand back as if he'd been burned. He'd stayed, frozen in place, until Anna sighed again and settled deeper under her quilt. Then he'd turned to go, only to freeze again when he met Elsa's eyes.
"I just--I wanted..." His whisper stumbled to a halt and he tried again. "Is she--"
Elsa pushed up on her elbow, although she kept her blanket primly at her chin. She spoke softly but didn't bother to whisper. Anna wasn't that easy to wake up. "She's fine. Just shaken, and a little bruised. Not hurt."
He'd nodded awkwardly, and hurried out.
Sipping her tea, Else considered the strange back-to-front courtship between her sister and her sister's husband, and wasn't sure whether telling what she'd seen would make anything better, or make everything worse.
He looked up, rubbing sweat out of his eyes with the back of his dirty wrist. His wife was climbing through the fence, her shoes already caked with mud, her uncovered hair whisping out of its braids and looking like licks of flame under the bright sun. She hopped on one leg as she brought the other through the split rails, but her smile faltered as she straightened up and met his eyes. Anna bit her lip.
"I came to help," she said.
Kristoff shook his head. His temples were throbbing. "You don't need to."
"I want to. Just tell me--"
"It's fine. You'll make yourself sick in this wet heat--you should stay inside."
Anna huffed. "Elsa worried I'd be too cold, you think I'll be too hot, I'm not a...a souffle ."
"I don't know what that is."
"It's a fancy pudding that collapses if you look at it too hard. I'm not going to collapse."
Mud squelched as Anna came closer, but Kristoff hunched over the row of limp plants, head down, the sweat-damp ends of his shaggy hair covering his eyes. With raw fingers he scraped a channel connecting to the trench he'd made to let water run off, and smoothed some soil up to cover the roots exposed where the rain had washed too much away.
One seedling was already dried out, the green stalk that had bravely pushed up toward the sun withered by the same warmth that coaxed it to life. Kristoff pushed down memories of Sven plodding ahead of him while his shoulders burned from the effort of keeping the plow steady. The smell of the black soil, rich and dark and promising. Anna, singing under her breath, her apron gathered up to hold the seeds as she trailed after him up and down the field. When a handful of seeds had spilled out onto the hard packed ground between the furrows she'd knelt to sweep them up with the edge of her hand, scooping them into the good, welcoming soil and patting them down gently. Had that been in this spot?
Kristoff pulled the dead brown thing out of the ground and tossed it away to be raked up later. He pushed up to his feet, rolling his shoulders. They ached from stooping.
"You should…" He trailed off, not looking at her. "You should check on your idiot goat."
"I checked on him already." Anna lifted a hand, her fingers hovering hesitantly before she laid them on his bare forearm. "I saw that you'd doctored his leg. Thank you."
"They were just scrapes, nothing serious. I think the limp was because he bruised a tendon, maybe, but it should heal itself. Was he happy to see you?"
She laughed. "So happy that he chewed the end off my bootlace."
"Well. He's a goat."
Kristoff tugged the bandanna from his neck and used it to wipe sweat and mud from his face. The movement dislodged Anna's hand, and he pretended not to see the way she flinched back, ever so slightly, tucking her hand behind her like a chastised child. "I should get back to this," he muttered, turning away from her. "There's no need for you to be knee deep in this muck. You could see to the cow, maybe, I've milked her every day but--"
Anna's outraged gasp was the only warning he had before a clump of mud splatted against the back of his neck. He swung around, glaring. " Anna-- "
"Oh good, so you do remember who I am!" Another handful of mud hit him in the chest.
"Of course I know who you are," he snapped. "You're the crazy woman getting her dress filthy for no reason."
"I have a reason." She looked around, spotted a particularly murky puddle, and sat in it in a splash. "Because I'm Anna Bjorgman , remember? Your wife? And this is my farm too, and my dirt, and my crops, so let me help ."
Kristoff hadn't been wrong--well, he had been wrong, insufferably wrong about whether she could help, but not wrong about how hard the work was, or how dirty she would get, even on top of the muddy water that had soaked her skirt and petticoat and drawers, to dry stiff and chafe at her legs until she felt like an onion with the skin rubbed off.
Her thighs hurt from crouching, and her arms hurt, and her shoulders hurt, and her hands hurt, and the back of her neck hurt, scorched red by the sun (because she'd forgotten her bonnet, and was not going to scamper off to fetch it and let her husband come up with more excuses to shut her out). But she'd kept up with Kristoff and they'd found a rhythm--he pulled out wilted plants and she patted the dirt back in place around the ones that were left. Then they raked all the debris, weeds and dead plants together and well away, so that they wouldn't spread rot or disease to the ones that were left.
By then the sky was getting purple with twilight. Looking back over the field, Anna could see candlelight glowing in the window of the house, and Elsa’s silhouette moving back and forth across the yellow rectangle of the open door as she cooked.
“We should get cleaned up,” she said, “or Elsa might not let us in for dinner.”
She waited for Kristoff to pull back and make an excuse, but he just looked at his dirt encrusted hands and nodded. They were almost to the creek–Anna trailing a little behind as her sore body protested–when Kristoff stopped so abruptly that she stumbled into his back.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he muttered. “You don’t need to–I’ll pull up some water from the well for you.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous, I’ll be fine.” Anna went around him. “You can always pull me out again.”
He paused to take down the rough sack that held soap (and did double duty as a scrubbing cloth) and caught up with her on the other side of the screen of trees. They left their boots on a rock and picked their way down the bank. Kristoff stepped down into the water, clothes and all. He was obviously prepared for Anna to plunge in after him, but she waited until he had bent to duck his head under, rinsing dirt and sweat from his hair. When he straightened up again she held out her hands to be helped down. An easy step for him was more of a jump for her, and she was grateful for his solid presence as the water pushed against her, nearly lifting her off her feet as her skirt turned the creek brown and cloudy.
“It looks different, with the log gone,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Kristoff tightened his hands around her waist, “I’ve got you.”
“Did I sound worried? I’m not.” Anna grabbed the soap sack from the bank and worked up a lather, scrubbing her filthy hands and her sleeves all at once. “I’m fine.”
“It does look different, that’s all. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize it as the same spot, if you brought me here blindfolded. It doesn’t even look like the same shape, now that the log’s gone.”
“It isn’t the same. Here–” He took the cloth and held her chin with one hand, while she braced herself by gripping his shirtfront. Kristoff wiped a streak of dirt from her cheek. “The water cuts into the earth,” he said. “When the creek flooded and all that debris was pushing down, it wore away at the banks. That’s what water does.”
“I never thought of it as so dangerous before,” Anna admitted. “I thought of water as something good–to make things live, make things grow.” She shivered, and didn’t complain when Kristoff lifted her out of the creek.
“It does that, too,” he said. “I think–” He stopped and shook his head, ducking again to rinse soap suds from his arms and neck.
Anna, above him on the bank, couldn’t help noticing the shape of his broad shoulders as the wet cotton shirt clung to his skin. “What do you think?” she asked vaguely.
He ran a wet hand through his hair. “I think…things that make us live are always a bit dangerous. Water, fire. Animals. We need them, but water can flood, or freeze. Fire can burn down a forest. The most placid cow could kill a man, if it got spooked and bolted, and the man was an idiot.”
“Pauline would never,” Anna said in mock horror, and he chuckled, tossing the soap up on the bank.
“We’ll keep her away from idiots, just in case.”
“Which is most dangerous?” she asked, wringing out her stained skirt. “Fire, or water?”
“Depends. Is there a wildfire or a flood? But–” He paused as he climbed out of the creek, and Anna looked down, her face suddenly pink. “Nothing changes a landscape like water. It’s slow, sometimes, but it wears away bit by bit–or comes crashing through all at once–and nothing is the same after.”
He sat down next to her on the grass, and they stared out toward the distant hills, where the sunset was a conflagration of pinks and oranges, a final shout of color before the sun sank beneath the horizon. They were quiet for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” Anna said into the stillness. “I should have apologized before, I just–I’m sorry.”
“For throwing mud at me?”
“That too. But mostly for not listening to you, and then nearly drowning. All I was thinking about was catching Ollie, and I wasn’t scared because I’d fallen in before and was all right, and then suddenly I was under the water and all I could think was that you would never forgive me for drowning–”
“Anna–” he’d been smiling when he asked about the mud, but the smile was gone as he reached out toward her. She didn’t see his hand, though, because she’d pulled up her knees and put her face against her wet skirt. He let the hand drop onto the new grass between them.
“Elsa asked me to think how it would be for you, if you had to go looking downstream for your dead wife, and I–”
“I wouldn’t,” he said firmly, and the emphatic words startled Anna into looking up at him. His face was serious.
“You wouldn’t look for me?” Her voice shook. Anna told herself it was just because it was getting dark, and her clothes were wet. She was just chilly. Kristoff shook his head, and looked down at the creek, cutting its way bit by bit into the earth, carving it into a new shape.
“If I hadn’t been able to pull you out, I’d have gone in after you,” he said.
“Oh.” Anna got to her feet–she was shaking from head to toe now, and suddenly she ran for the house, leaving her muddy boots and her startled husband staring after her.