Elsa gasped in horror as she held Anna’s red, puffy cheeks in her trembling hands. They were in the Great Hall of Viola’s castle, where a long table decked with food and drink awaited them. The queen sat on an elegant seat, fully dressed after a warm soak in the bath. Her left eye was blackened and closed, and her right eye seemed to melt into her very freckles. Only an hour ago, Anna had seemed fine, if a bit tired, walking unsteadily back from the drawing room’s terrace after a one-sided match with Viola’s right hand. There was nothing much to see, apart from her having endured an epic workout. Then, when they separated to take their baths, Anna felt her cheeks going numb, blood rushing to repair the incredible trauma inflicted by just two strikes against the queen’s facial tissue. In a matter of minutes, she couldn’t even speak, as if her bruises had helium in them. She had quickly cleaned herself up and rushed to Elsa in panic.
“I don’t get it,” whispered Alan in shock, standing behind Elsa as they beheld the swollen cheeks that seemed to devour the rest of Anna’s head. “Michael told me that Commander Hilde had only hit Anna twice in the head, with just her left. I mean, it would have hurt, but… Hilde was really holding back. This is what Her Majesty ended up with?”
Anna groaned out an incoherent, exhausted explanation. “Grrr rrrnggh rrrrr hmmmphrrr – ” Even her lips were swollen so painfully that they bulged out with the rest of her visage.
“Stop it, stop it!” chastised Elsa, conjuring a blanket of cooling, comforting ice that wrapped itself around Anna’s face. Her fingers lovingly sifted through Anna’s red hair, biting her lip. “Vi and I are in agreement for once on this. You were reckless, hasty, and just plain silly to challenge Hilde to even a friendly match. Now you’re going to need my ice packs on you all night, for several nights, well into the week when we get back to Arendelle! How are you going to face Kristoff? Your ministers?” She put an fuming finger on Anna’s sausage-shaped lips. “Please don’t talk, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to skip chewing food tonight.”
Elsa turned to Alan, and his chest clenched at seeing her expression looking so worried and fretting on behalf of Anna. “Sir Alan, have you seen Uncle Michael?”
“I think he went to look for Viola and Hilde. Hilde also had a bath after she and Anna came in, but then she went up to Viola’s room,” replied Alan.
“I see,” said Elsa somewhat absently, her attention already back to Anna, whose swollen face still couldn’t hide her grin at the Snow Queen fussing over her. Elsa’s eyes glinted. “I have words for Hilde, and we must also discuss Northuldra’s future amidst these complicated times for my sister.”
Michael had knocked on the Countess’s room, but there was no reply. She never ended up joining the group in the drawing room. Perhaps she’d wanted to regain her strength fully for dinner. Whistling to himself and enjoying the majestic spaciousness and grandeur of Mundilfari Keep, Michael headed to the Great Hall, as nightfall was approaching and the sun dipping below the Jotunheimen Mountains. He walked down a long hallway lined with precious pieces of art and memorabilia, but stopped as he glimpsed Viola standing on her tiptoes before Hilde near a tall oil painting. Her elegant hands were cupping Hilde’s face as the taller blonde woman hung her head.
“It was a joke, alright?” Michael overheard Viola snarling. “You take everything I say far too seriously.” Her beautiful expression was fiery, fierce, and imperious as usual, but she looked noticeably discomfited as Hilde nodded meekly, wiping away a tear on her damp cheek.
“Countess,” said a surprised Michael, stepping forward. “Or should I say, Prime Minister – is something wrong?” He looked at Hilde, whose vulnerable expression and shining eyes were unlike anything he’d ever seen. This was the general who occupied kingdoms like Agrabah and made a wasteland of the Southern Isles? The warrior feared and admired by nations across the world? The woman who had just confidently and thoroughly thrashed the queen?
Viola looked away. “Trade Minister.” Her voice was a mutter. “I told the commander that I’d rather be poisoned by assassins before subjecting myself to her cooking again.” Her red eyes stared up at the sniffling Hilde. “Not that I don’t appreciate her attentiveness, but I’ve been having the same glop throughout my bedridden convalescence. I was just glad that I could walk again and join you all for a proper dinner in the Great Hall tonight.”
She stroked Hilde’s face, looking at her unusually tenderly. “Nevertheless, I’m sorry, girl. You didn’t need to flee my bedroom.” She smirked. “You’re so embarrassing and silly. I like it when you’re all stoic and conquering.”
Hilde smiled meekly. “My Lady.”
Michael beamed at the two young women. “I feel like I’ve just seen something very precious. Just like my two nieces.” He gestured at the far end of the hallway. “Why don’t you make it up to Hilde by including her at this magnificent feast you’ve promised us?”
“That was certainly my intention.” The Countess took Hilde’s hand. “Come, Trade Minister. Let us toast to our newfound entente.”
The appetizer prepared by Viola’s cooks was chopped calf liver with quail eggs harvested from the trees of the Mundilfari clan’s private forest. Pea and watercress soup served in 17th-century silverware was followed by first grade Arendellian fjord lobster as the entree. The queen and her guests were served diced chicken and tarragon salad, before the Arendellian lingonberry crumble – baked to perfection – was brought out to the table underneath the Great Hall’s chandelier.
Candlelight illuminated the walls and window panes of the castle’s interior. Alan talked animatedly with Elsa, Michael was in quiet discussion with Hilde, and Viola was talking to the wordless Anna with an amused expression. Anna’s face was still severely swollen, and because of that there’d be a change in plans tonight. As coffee and mints were served, Elsa glanced at Viola, who gave a nod. The Snow Queen stood up, tapping a teaspoon on an empty champagne glass.
“In lieu of an unexpected inconvenience for my dear sister,” said Elsa, glancing at Anna, who shrugged her shoulders sheepishly, “I’ll be announcing the next steps that she and I wish to take on behalf of our kingdom and Northuldra. That the Countess would accept my presence here, and even listen to what I had to say about the north, is a great honor.”
Elsa paused. “We mustn’t lose sight of why we came here to begin with: to see how Viola was doing after Mephistopheles, who claims her as his property, hurt her just to make a point. The union between our two political families of the royals and the Mundilfaris represents a possible golden age for Arendelle, yet Mephistopheles would rather keep Viola’s clan bound to his will, generation after generation doomed to pursue Northuldra’s destruction. Just so that the demon dwelling in these castle walls can consume the power of the Five Elements, including me.”
Anna looked worriedly at her.
“While Hilde was punching up Anna,” said Elsa, staring straight at Hilde, “the new prime minister and I agreed that Arendelle’s foci must be directed outward, to engage Northuldra and the global family of nations. As Arendelle expands its economic reach while challenging colonial power, I’ll find a way to expunge Mephistopheles’ presence from Viola’s home and drive him away from our world.”
She looked at the Countess. “It’ll take time, and it’ll be far from easy. Yet it’s my promise to her. She was once sworn to destroy me, but now I vow to help her.”
“What does this mean, Elsa?” asked Alan in surprise.
“I can help,” spoke up Hilde, her face stern. “Her Ladyship and Her Majesty can govern the kingdom together. But you need an ally who you can coordinate with and whose resources you can deploy.”
Elsa’s eyes glimmered with fire, water, earth, and air – the four elements that made up the world. “I don’t wish to put anyone in danger. This task should be left to me alone. The Countess needs you in Arendelle more than she needs you by my side. Anna and General Mattias need you.”
“Elsa, I was only interested in destroying you because Her Ladyship wanted me to. Now that her priorities have changed, I also want to break Mephistopheles’ hold over her. I nearly failed her the last time she summoned him, and I won’t forgive myself until I take action,” declared Hilde, staring down at her open hand. “When Her Ladyship called me back to Arendelle, it was to prepare the Runic Knights and my Todesschwadron to move on Northuldra. Now, I can unleash all the resources that I have against Mephistopheles.”
“It’s too dangerous for so many, including your soldiers, to risk their lives,” insisted Elsa.
“No matter how powerful you’ve become, you’re just one spirit-woman. Anna told me about you – you’ve always loved going it alone.” Hilde’s eyes reflected her irritation. “I told you; I have an army larger than Arendelle’s state defense at my disposal. Are you assuming that I, Hilde Von Altheim, can’t keep up with you?”
“You think me rude?” countered Elsa smoothly. “What was it that you said to Anna – that if she forced you to use more than your left hand, that she’d be the victor? Quite an insult to the queen of Arendelle, your own sovereign, don’t you think?”
The silence between Elsa and Hilde was strained. Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room tightened. Anna and Viola looked at each other, their faces uncomfortable.
Elsa smiled pleasantly. Despite the tension, she was quietly confident, self-assured, whole. She was unperturbed by Hilde’s anger, but she wasn’t just going to overlook Hilde’s insult – no, her humiliation of Anna, as well. Anna stared at Elsa in horror, realizing why the latter was making no effort to halt Hilde’s aggression. The Fifth Spirit might have hidden it flawlessly earlier, but how could Anna have been so clueless as not to sense it?
Seeing Anna so badly hurt by Hilde, coupled with this early impasse between the royal and Mundilfari families, didn’t please the now free and uninhibited Elsa. Not one bit. “Are you hoping to test me, Commander?” she asked quietly, her eyes beginning to glow with an ethereal cerulean hue.
“As much as you seem to want to test me, Snow Queen,” responded Hilde, her voice a harsh whisper as her serpentine eyes also began to gather an ethereal yellow light. “You speak to a woman who has conquered empires.”
Viola grabbed Hilde’s wrist. “Girl, enough. I didn’t ask you to be so aggressive. Be satisfied Anna lost to you,” she warned tersely.
“Anna asked for it. Literally,” said Hilde loudly, as Elsa’s smile grew more strained. “By asking me to a spar.”
“No. No, no,” moaned Anna, finally able to speak past her puffed face. “Stop it, guys.” Michael and Alan looked at each other uneasily. This excruciating tension, this rivalry, this need for release on both sides – it was on her. I did this, realized Anna, crushed.
“A light frolic after dinner is no issue for me,” said Elsa, with the air of indulging a small child. A cool wind blew through the windows of the Great Hall, extinguishing several candles on the wall. Elsa’s irises had disappeared altogether, the whites of her eyes glimmering with the celestial Northern Lights.
“You might need to use more than one hand on me, little girl,” she declared, a haze of hoarfrost hissing from her lips.
Commander Hilde bared her teeth, her eyes filled with a yellow glow.
“At last. A decent workout. I hope you last longer than Her Majesty. Let me show you why they call me the Spirit Killer.”