Warning: Graphic Violence
Lunchtime had barely begun in the courtyard of Arendelle Girls’ School when the usual clique of noblewomen’s daughters began gathering around Viola, trapping her in a circle of contemptuous sneers. Shaking in her small shoes, the nine-year-old adjusted her frilled necktie nervously as the sniggering girls around her whipped out their tomatoes from their backpacks – rich, ripe, and ready to throw at her. To mush against her face and dark blue school uniform. To remind the trembling outcast of her crimson irises, an appearance she never chose.
“Vampire, bloodsucker, freak,” the girls variously called her, pushing the countess-to-be around as she hung her head and tucked her arms in, clutching her books tightly to her chest. She stumbled and fell to the ground as she felt the tomatoes hit and splatter against her, and she shut her eyes, waiting for it to be over. She was used to this.
The malicious laughter around her rose in pitch and meanness, but was cut short by screams and the cracking of bone as the girls began to scatter. Viola opened her eyes and saw, to her astonishment, the blonde Hilde, most handsome student in the class, standing before her in her own school blazer and skirt. Hilde’s knuckles were making quick work of Viola’s tormentors’ faces: already two students had been downed, clutching their bleeding noses and shrieking in pain, while several others had run away. Hilde grabbed the remaining, shaking bully and raised her fist, striking her in the jaw and sending her crashing to the grass.
“Enough!” came the governess’s voice, a prim and proper matron who strode towards Viola. “Were you the cause of this? Again?”
“Yes, Madam Solveig,” Viola said at once, not wanting Hilde to be blamed.
“She did nothing, I beat them to a pulp,” shouted Hilde, raising her bloody fists. “Look!”
The governess glared at Viola. “Why is the heiress to the Mundilfari always making trouble for me?” she cried, ignoring Hilde. She raised her cane and brought it down on the whimpering Viola, but Hilde dived forward, throwing herself in front of Viola and taking the blow for her. The governess barely noticed, continuing to beat Hilde hard as Viola screamed from below and begged her to spare Hilde. Hilde didn’t flinch, but continued to shield the tearful Viola, holding her tight as Madam Solveig lashed her again and again.
“This school is for the kingdom’s highest-ranking aristocrats!” she hollered. “I won’t have anyone in this academy embarrassing us!”
Viola gazed up at Hilde’s pained face. “I’m so sorry,” she sobbed, holding Hilde tight. “I’ve hurt you again. I always hurt you, and I hate it.”
Through the blood and bruises, Hilde smiled down at Viola, running her hand tenderly along the brunette girl’s face as she endured the beating.
“Don’t hate it. It’s my honour.”
“Hilde. Commander Hilde!”
The military prodigy’s eyes fluttered open, and she grunted softly, looking up at a tall, burly red-haired man in a black uniform. “You were asleep, Commander,” her subordinate said quietly.
He held out a cotton napkin. Still squinting groggily, Hilde glanced at it for a moment, then scowled, took it, and wiped the trail of drool off her chin.
“I had a dream about Viola, First Lieutenant Friedrich,” she said, looking around to gain her bearings. They were in a huge but nimble clipper ship, headed for the Southern Isles. The waves seemed mild, and she stood up from the deck, cracking her neck. She could sleep anywhere. “We were at school again.”
“You always dream of her,” chuckled Friedrich. “It goes to show how much of your career has never been about the honour or prestige, or even the bloodlust and adventure. Despite all those.” He glanced at the glittering collection of badges and honours on Hilde’s black breast pocket. “How many regions of the world have you conquered for the colonial empires?”
Hilde smirked, gazing outward at the sea. They were fast approaching the Southern Isles, with its tall spires and glittering cityscape. “I’ve lost count, and it doesn’t really matter. In every enclave that I carved out, the major powers struck a deal with me: that in return for my service, I’d be allowed to set up Mundilfari eyes and ears, stashing arms, recruiting sleeper agents and soldiers of fortune, and gathering intelligence for Viola’s use.” She glanced at Friedrich. “That’s how you and I met, as I recall.”
Hilde closed her eyes, savouring the cool sea breeze. “Everything I’ve done has been to make good on my promise to Viola – that one day, I’d come to her defence with legions at my beck and call. Her recalling me to Arendelle to destroy Northuldra is the culmination of that promise. But that promise must be delayed. For now, we take on the distraction that is the Conclave.”
She turned and walked towards the primary deck of the ship. Friedrich followed her to where an entire company of soldiers in black, Arendellian military gear awaited. They had hoods covering ominous headgear that resembled the beak masks of plague doctors in the era of the Black Death. Numbering a hundred and armed with state-of-the-art rifles, American revolvers, and deadly knives, they snapped to attention, their jackboots thundering as one as they saluted.
“Members of my Todesschwadron!” barked Hilde. “See that kingdom in the distance? That’s the Southern Isles, domain of one of the four members of the Conclave. Just a week ago, Prince Hans and his friends tried to murder the Countess in her sleep. We are here to paint his home’s streets with his citizens’ blood, and move on the palace itself.”
Hilde stared at her death squad. “You’re the most vicious among the vicious, the cruelest among the cruel. When I brought you to Arendelle with me, your objective was to rearm and retrain Viola’s Runic Knights so that together, we can initiate the long-awaited ground invasion of Northuldra. You’re the elite corps that will help me hunt down Elsa, the Fifth Spirit, and slay her. Anna and Mattias’ armies will be mere distractions.
“But those goals will have to wait. The Conclave has made a statement by going after the Countess. Now it’s our turn to give an answer.” Her voice rose as she clenched her fist. “Are you ready, strong and loyal warriors?”
The troops saluted, and Hilde matched them with her own. “Heil Mundilfari!” she cried.
“HEIL MUNDILFARI!” affirmed the sinister, beak masked commandos, roaring in impatient gusto.
The lightning disembarking of Hilde’s troops meant that by the time the Southern Isles’ security corps had amassed their defences, the Todesschwadron was already in the streets, massacring the civilians unfortunate enough to get caught in Hilde’s rampage. It didn’t help that when the Southern Isles’ troops did manage to set up a perimeter, Hilde had rolled out her troops’ secret weapons: five powerful Gatling guns, early prototypes designed by her American contacts that were nevertheless deadly and effective in mowing down entire contingents of Isles soldiers that tried to approach them.
Hilde divided the Todesschwadron into two groups, one of which lured the main Isles army to engage with the Gatling guns. The other, which she led, punched straight into the heart of the kingdom, massacring anyone that got in their way. Her favourite weapon was an old-school Zweihänder, which she swung with lightning speed and monstrous strength, often cleaving through several Isles soldiers at once. But by the time they reached the steps of the royal palace, she’d drawn her Colt, blowing away the remaining defenders hindering her with efficient, flawlessly aimed bullets. They stormed the gates and courtyard, not particularly caring who they butchered: they had only one target. And when he dared to finally show himself, Hilde was disappointed.
“Hans,” she said, yellow eyes glinting, as the Todesschwadron fanned out, their rifles taking out Hans’ remaining guards. His eyes were wild in rage and desperation, his coat and trousers torn and bloody from holding off the commandos. “If only you’d turned up when we disembarked on your shores. There’d be far less carnage at your expense.”
“You have any idea what you’ve done?” cried Hans, running at her with his own sword. His boots tapped rapidly on the marble floor. “Arendelle and I aren’t at war! Viola was just supposed to help us get rid of Anna!”
“Just?” Hilde looked profoundly unimpressed, raising her Zweihänder. In one clean stroke, she shattered Hans’ sword, which fell to the floor in several pieces. “Why am I not surprised that you’d be here, where it all began? Your descent into being a joke among the gentlefolk and royalty of Europe, that is.” Another swing of her greatsword was all it took to send Hans crashing to the ground painfully, a deep wound opening up along his thigh. Hilde brought her jackboot down, slamming into Hans’ ribcage, breaking several bones. Hans coughed up blood, his eyes widening in agony. The general’s snake-like eyes glinted.
“By the end of this day, your armies will be humiliated. The Southern Isles will be a husk of its former self and your subjects traumatized. All thanks to you. I want you to gaze out at your burning kingdom and remember who did this to you. Not Anna. Not me. But the young woman whose life you threatened by joining this stupid Conclave.”
She drew and aimed her revolver at Hans’ arms, shooting bullets into both biceps.
“You will never grip a sword well enough to duel again.”
She then fired two pellets into his kneecaps, and the prince’s already deafening screams grew louder.
“Four bullets in you, plus some broken ribs and a flesh wound. Consider that a mercy. I’d advise you keep your doctor by your wheelchair’s side – if you can afford one after I’m done with this palace.”
She turned to the men behind her. “Loot everything. All gold and silver is to be taken back to Keep Mundilfari. Keep the portraits of the Isles’ royal family. Viola likes to keep paintings as trophies of the defeated enemy.” She grinned. “Are the torches ready?”
“Yes, Commander!” cried one of the soldiers.
“Then what are you waiting for? Burn this gaudy palace to ash so we can head back to Arendelle for a beer.”
“Wait… wait!” groaned Hans. “Anna… Queen Anna… she won’t… she can’t…”
Hilde glanced down at the crippled prince. “You’re responsible for this great sacking of your kingdom. You tried to dethrone Anna through the Conclave. I’m simply acting as the punishing arm of Viola, Countess of Arendelle and loyal subject of Her Majesty.” She kicked Hans away. He clutched himself, swearing profanities while wheezing in anguish. She turned around, enjoying the pathetic sight before as she raised her hand in a salute.
“Blut und treue!” she crowed, as the patterned, high roof above them began to wobble.
Chunks of stone and marble were falling from the ceiling and the pillars, and Hans moaned in terror and agony as Hilde strode past him, beckoning her men to follow her. Flames engulfed much of the structure and danced in the general’s eyes as she and her men left Hans to his fate in the crumbling palace.
“Not that I don’t enjoy a bit of good ol’ pillage and plunder,” called Friedrich, jogging up to Hilde, as the royal abode collapsed in a great boom behind them. “But what if Queen Anna holds Lady Viola accountable for this? Arendelle signed a non-aggression pact with the Southern Isles some years ago. Anna might be furious.”
Hilde smiled. “Not our business. Viola’s a private citizen.”
Her subordinate scratched his red mop nervously. “General, you and I both know that’s not going to fly in a court of international law. Anna herself might try to prosecute Viola. You know her sense of justice.”
“Leave that to the war jurists. And besides, Hans was the aggressor to begin with. When you’re pulling weeds, make sure you get rid of the roots.” Hilde looked at Friedrich. “We’re not just destroying the roots of the Conclave, First Lieutenant. We’re burning the entire garden.”
His eyes widened. “Then… ”
“Yes,” snarled Hilde. “Constantinople, London, and Peking are next. For centuries, the Mundilfari’s leaders have remained in the shadows, content to puppeteer the Arendellian throne from the darkness. Now the Conclave and their loyalists have forced Viola into the open. If that’s what they wish, then Viola’s foes are also the enemies of the Crown.” She pursed her lips. “Rest up. You and the men have many fights ahead.”
“As you order, ma’am!”
She glanced up at the billowing flags that the Todesschwadron had raised above the burning kingdom. On the banners were stitched the Mundilfari coat of arms: an “M” overlaid on the Arendellian flower, symbolizing this aristocratic family’s ancient, unbreakable chokehold over the kingdom’s affairs. The letter rose from the stem of the flower, reminding everyone, including the royal family, that the fate of Arendelle and that of the Mundilfaris could never be separated.
“Oh, Anna,” whispered Hilde. “You have no idea of the storm you’ve stirred for yourself. If only you’d been a good little puppet queen, I’d never have returned to Arendelle. Muspelheim was but a glimpse of Viola’s leverage.” Her serpent eyes glinted. “I look forward to meeting your sister and your general.”
The blood-red sky reminded her of Viola’s eyes. Years ago, commander and countess had joked that it was the two of them against the world. At the time, it seemed like a small jest to get them through tough times.
Now, it was truer than ever.
UP NEXT: ON THE BRINK OF WAR…?