Nighttime was a bit scarier these days.
Evenings in Arendelle were usually very pleasant, but tensions had been high in recent weeks. Although the Grey Ghost, as Countess Vi and trade minister Michael called her, never showed up during the bustling daytime, by eventide far fewer people, especially public figures, stayed out on the streets or at the plaza. Some of Kingdom Hall’s evening concerts and ballets had been cancelled. And there were far fewer parties – no one wanted to end up a victim of the huntress from Northuldra.
Arendelle had been a peaceful kingdom for centuries. Even when there were armed conflicts, they always occurred beyond the borders, and the government only ever needed a small deterrence army and navy. As trade with other nations grew, the navy had expanded to protect traders and cargo, but that was all there was to it for a long time. It was therefore a surreal sight for many citizens to see Anna’s Order of the Wheat Stalk, her personal order of chivalric knights and elite royal guards, walking Honeymaren and Countess Viola around in public places.
From the plaza to the Nokk Club, from Kingdom Hall down to the docks, whispers were exchanged, lingering stares were given, and uncomfortable smiles made as senior ministers and the Order tried to avoid a repeat of the hunter’s mugging of education minister Stein. Honeymaren and Vi weren’t exempt from the queen’s new policy. The two women looked visibly discomfited as they were each flanked by two tall and intimidating Wheat Stalk Knights. They were walking together across the long bridge that led to the gates of Arendelle Castle. “It’s a weird feeling to be having a sleepover with you of all people,” piped up Maren, glancing at Vi, whose crimson eyes stared straight ahead. “If people weren’t so scared, the press would be making a joke out of this.”
Vi sniffed, resplendent in her purple and black, gold-lined cloak. “A Northuldran, a Mundilfari, and a queen walk into a bar,” she said curtly.
Maren was decked in her patterned Arendellian garb. She stared at the prime minister, her chestnut eyes widening. “Did you… did you just make a joke? A good-natured, humorous jest that didn’t involve putting anyone down?”
“You didn’t even ask for the punchline,” said Vi wryly.
Maren chuckled. “I was too shocked to care.”
“At my joke, or the fact that we’re effectively crashing at Anna’s until someone catches this damned Grey Ghost? Her rooms must be bursting with ministers.”
“Only the senior ones, like us and Michael. I get that Anna’s just worried about us. You’ve got your nice big house here in Arendelle, and I’ve got my loft above the Northuldra embassy. But if we’re alone at night, we’re easy pickings for Amira.”
“Ah, yes. You know this huntress,” said Vi, a hint of menace in her voice as they arrived at the courtyard. The moon was beaming down on the stone ground and silent fountain. “A revelation you neglected to tell Anna and I until your column was due for your editor.”
Maren hung her head, her expression troubled. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said softly. “I didn’t dare to think that it could have been one of our own. Amira was the best among those who were Yelena’s chosen students for the University of Arendelle. But somehow, she… well, look at what she’s done.” She looked at Vi. “I wouldn’t have wished political violence of this sort, even if you were still an enemy of Northuldra.”
Vi fell silent as she observed Maren. They didn’t need to wait long for Anna, as the door to the palace burst open, with Anna in her lime green pajamas hurrying towards them. “There are other guests tonight,” called the queen, beckoning them forward, “but they’ve all got their own rooms. The trade minister is here, too. Come on in and get yourself some hot chocolate.” She nodded at the man walking beside her, who was in his own uniform with a wheat stalk pattern. “Guess who arranged your guards today.”
Maren and Vi nodded at the young man. “Long time no see, Sir Alan,” said Maren, giving a small wave. “I really appreciated your letters in response to my column, and I look forward to your visit to Northuldra.”
“Don’t mention it,” replied Alan, who’d been initiated into the Order of the Wheat Stalk shortly after Anna became queen. He nodded at Vi in acknowledgement. “I’m here to help in any way I can with overseeing everyone’s safety.”
“Late night, Anna?” asked Vi, unfastening her aristocrat’s cloak.
“Yes, I’m going to be burning the midnight oil,” replied Anna. She sounded tired, but had gotten used to watching the sunrise after whole nights in her study. She turned to Maren, her eyes sympathetic. “Come here, you.” She and Maren hugged, and Anna didn’t let go completely when they pulled away. “The recent sabotages and attacks have been tough on you. Really tough,” she said. “Don’t worry. I won’t let her destroy our plan for our two realms. I promised Elsa I’d truly unite Arendelle and Northuldra.”
“I can bear it,” declared Maren, smiling. “I just hope Hilde and Mattias’ search party will get us some results soon. Maybe some clues to as where Amira will strike next.”
The moon seemed to shine a little brighter with Maren’s words, but it was Vi whose eyes narrowed at the now-dreaded hooded figure that seemed to always appear at the most inauspicious, inopportune time.
Somehow, someway, she’d known that Vi and Maren would be taking shelter in Arendelle Castle tonight.
“As to where she’ll strike next?” the Countess asked, an elegant eyebrow raised. “I think you have your answer, Lady Maren. We haven’t even made it into your home, Anna… and she’s already tracked us down.”
Anna and Maren gaped in shock at the woman slowly walking towards them, her fur shoes gliding silently on the ground. “The gate was shut,” hissed Alan. “I swear. Knights! Get into position.”
“I knew you’d bring them here. That you’d bring them all here,” snarled the hunter, throwing back the hood of her fur coat, revealing a quiver full of Northuldran arrows, a patterned sash at her waist, and an exquisitely carved bow. “Thanks for making my job easier.”
Maren, Anna, and Vi couldn’t help gasping as they finally laid eyes on the face of the Northuldra hunter terrorizing the realm’s authorities.
Sharp green irises and a penetrating steel gaze. Short, messy, ebony hair. Face paint made from crushed forest berries. And a grimace that hid many layers of sadness and anger.
Her hand suddenly shifted to her belt, and within a heartbeat two darts zoomed at two of the Wheat Stalk Knights, piercing into their necks. They folded, groaning, and crashed to the ground, unconscious from some kind of poison. Maren and Alan dashed towards her as Amira’s hand flashed again, and the remaining two elite guards didn’t look so elite anymore as they crumpled from two darts as well.
Anna, Maren and Vi stared in horror. “So much for your knightly order, Anna,” said Vi sardonically.
Amira weaved past a swing of Alan’s sword, lunging forward and throwing a lightning-fast punch at the protector. Alan quickly raised his blade to block her, but realized that Amira had drawn a large knife with an unusual, pronounced curve. She wielded it with deadly efficiency and elegance, with no movements wasted as she swung at Alan, nearly gashing open his neck and chest were it not for Maren lunging at Amira with her own dagger. Their weapons clashed briefly, before Alan forced Amira back. She somersaulted back with ease, nimble, effortless, and agile. Vi, who was unarmed, quickly grabbed Anna’s hand, and she dragged the queen with her to the palace main entrance.
“Come on, Anna,” growled the Countess, genuine fear in her voice for the first time. “We’re completely exposed like this.”
“Maren! Alan!” screamed Anna, as Vi forced her to relative safety within the palace. “Be careful!”
Maren ran for one of the unconscious Knights, whose pouch contained her possessions. She shot out her arms and drew from the bag a pair of rattan sticks, each as long as her forearms. Since her battle with Vi on board Muspelheim, she’d realized that she preferred two sticks in close quarters combat rather than a longstaff. She and Alan moved to face off against Amira, shuffling cautiously around her. “I haven’t seen you since the enchanted mists parted,” said Maren, her sticks raised in front of her. “You might be stalking us now, but we’re ready for you.” She bit her lip and her voice hardened.
“What happened to you, Amira?”
Amira didn’t reply, only running forward and slashing at Maren, who blocked two of her blows with her sticks, before spinning and swinging her sticks at Amira. Amira parried one stick, slipped past the other, and deflected Alan’s sword with her bow. She spun her weapon, smacking Alan in the midsection and sending him stumbling, off-balance, before meeting Maren’s flurry of rattan strikes with her knife. After a firestorm of attacks and counterattacks, Amira leaped back and threw two dark pellets on the ground, her form disappearing in a haze of foul-smelling, grey smoke. Maren recognized the stench as having been extracted from Northuldra herbs. The smoke was concocted to distract and repulse pursuers. “What haven’t you weaponized!” she exclaimed, her voice hardening. “Explain yourself!”
She glanced at the rooftops of the walls that surrounded the castle complex. Her brown eyes widened as she glimpsed Amira on the roof of the left wing. Amira shot her a glare, before running at lightning speed, perfectly balanced, towards the central and largest structure of the royal complex. She was making for the rooftop of the castle itself. She was going straight for Anna’s quarters.
Honeymaren gave chase, screaming at Alan, “She wants to break in. Reinforce the ground floor! Call in reinforcements!”
Alan rushed to secure the main entrance. “You got it!”
Maren gritted her teeth as she sprinted after Amira, heart pumping and legs burning as she prepared to leap up on the wall’s rooftop, too. “If it’s a fight atop this castle you want, then you’ll have it!” she cried.
TO BE CONTINUED!