Featured image art by PURY (@puryartist)
It was the dead of night and eerily quiet. Northuldra’s champions were on the hunt.
Founded in the early 1600s by the greatest Romanov tsar, Peter the Great, the port of Kronstadt was a centre of commerce that grew in strategic importance as the maritime defence outpost of the imperial capital. The main base of Russia’s Baltic Fleet was located in Kronstadt, guarding the approaches to Saint Petersburg. Maren and Amira stood in stunned silence as they stared up at the incomplete skeletons of warships among the huge dockyard. The two Northuldra women, who’d never been outside of Arendelle or Northuldra, were gobsmacked by the sheer vastness of the military base.
As the two Northuldra dashed from warehouse to warehouse, unpicking doors and peering inside, Maren and Amira found more evidence of Russia’s military buildup. Their acutely sensitive eyes saw everything with little issue, and they didn’t need torches or light. There were rifles, pistols, and bayonets stored on rows of shelves in one warehouse, hundreds of officers’ uniforms in another, and an entire factory reserved for mortars, howitzers, railway guns, and other armaments and artillery. Amira couldn’t hide her surprise at witnessing so many modern weapons of war as Maren looked on grimly.
She took Amira’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “Quite the sight for us unwelcome tourists, isn’t it? Now do you believe me about the danger that Northuldra faces?”
Amira shook her head. “I never knew it would be this bad. I could never have thought that a distant empire like Russia was serious about attacking Arendelle and Northuldra.” She turned to look at Maren, her expression soft. “You were right to convince me to come along with you. Both our lands face grave danger.” She glanced away. “I’m almost embarrassed that I’ve been causing you and Anna so much trouble.”
“Hey, I wasn’t implying that,” said Maren gently, keeping her hand around Amira’s. “Sure, the threat of Katina Romanov should unite us before anything else. But don’t forget that Anna and I are determined to make Northuldra and Arendelle’s reunification work, and until our people are co-steering the fate of Arendelle as much as Anna is guiding our tribe, we aren’t equal.” Maren put her free hand on Amira’s shoulder. “You were right about a lot of things, you know. I’m just glad that we don’t have to hurt each other to work towards solving all these problems. In fact, it’d be my honour if you stick with me. Work with me. Fight with me.”
Amira gave a small smile at Maren’s words, nodding. Their heart-to-heart was short-lived as they heard the footsteps of disciplined but hasty jackboots running in unison. They looked at each other, hearts sinking as they heard the shouts of well-trained soldiers and sergeants.
Men from the Fifth Infantry Division, many of them holding flaming torches.
“They should be here! Find them!”
“Princess Katina wants the Northuldra infiltrators flushed out, so get to it!”
“The Arendellians will pay for trying to sneak them past us!”
“Our position has been exposed,” whispered Amira, and the two young women danced into the shadows, blending in with the environment. “Sentries,” she hissed to Maren. “No one was supposed to be here. Katina’s already busted us?”
“Maybe we’ve fallen into a trap.” Maren put a finger on her lips as they pressed themselves to the walls of one of the warehouses. As two grenadiers passed by them, Amira raised her dart blower to her lips and shot two impeccably aimed needles into their necks. The men moaned as the numbing poison overcame their dulled senses, and they fell to the ground, snoring.
Amira nodded at Maren as they sprinted silently to the walls of another warehouse. There were at least several blocks until the gates out of Kronstadt, and they had to get past all these men to have a hope of escaping undetected. But then, as Amira and Maren burst from the shadows to the next line of factories, they felt the warm light from several torches on them as a platoon rounded the corner of a warehouse. For a moment, the men stood still in shock until one of them shouted and aimed his rifle at them. Amira managed to leap into the air, spinning and firing a row of arrows that sank into the soldiers’ chests. “Arrrggh!” They all folded, collapsing to the ground. Amira the huntress was deadlier than ever. But one soldier staggered back, just close enough for his torch to fall to the ground – and roll right past the door that Amira and Maren had opened. They glanced at each other in dread. Amira mouthed an expletive silently.
That was one of the sheds that contained the munitions and gunpowder.
“Oh shi – !”
A deafening, fiery boom sent Maren and Amira flying across the street. A fireball erupted into the quiet night sky, an infernal flare that exposed their position for all to see. Maren and Amira were bathed in the bright glow as they rolled away from the explosion, their clothes singed. “We’ve got to get out of here!” wheezed Maren, her voice hoarse and her world spinning.
“I’m right with you,” said Amira tersely, ears still ringing.
“Hey! HEY! THERE THEY ARE!” shouted a sergeant, and suddenly the Russians began to converge on the two Northuldra, who staggered back up, dazed and singed by the now bright orange fireball that had engulfed the immediate block, and was spreading rapidly to other areas. “Tell everyone! They’re by the exploded warehouse,” came the cries, as Maren and Amira made a run for it, sprinting to where they’d entered at breakneck speed. The Russian soldiers ran at them, following closely behind, but Amira launched herself into the air, firing more arrows at them and forcing them to back off. They reached a pathway intersection, and two more battalions cut them off, raising their rifles and pointing them at the two women.
“In the name of the tsar and Princess Katina, you’re under arrest!” proclaimed one of the lieutenants.
Amira raised her bow and aimed a fresh arrow at the infantrymen and Amira raised her fighting staff, but they weren’t sure how long they could last against their numerically superior pursuers. “I’ll take the front, you take the back,” whispered Amira, and Maren nodded. But before the fight could begin, a loud rumble echoed through the night – one that the Russians seemed to recognize as they lowered their weapons.
“No, no, no,” came a deep, caniform voice. “Fight them and they’ll take most of you down with them. I’m not suffering needless losses like that. I need all of you primed and ready for our attack on the North Sea around Arendelle.”
A great, gargantuan silhouette loomed above the soldiers in front of Maren and Amira as they hastily stepped aside, its shadow falling over the two stunned women, whose mouths were agape in shock. “Withdraw, all of you. There’ll be no arrests this night, only two deaths. Their deaths.”
Maren and Amira realized that they were staring up into the black eyes of what seemed to be a polar bear, whose head was affixed to a bipedal, humanoid frame – except much broader, larger, and covered with polar bear fur. He was easily more than five feet taller than them. He was half-naked, his groin and thighs protected by specially tailored armour. The rest of his body was exposed, like the wild beast he otherwise was. He lumbered towards the Northuldra young women, his massive paw holding a two-handed axe that was longer than Maren’s whole body.
“You must be their leader,” said Maren uneasily.
“I’m Yaraslaf – one of Katina’s Grand Dukes,” snarled the bipedal man-bear, cracking his neck casually. “Recently promoted admiral of the princess’s new and improved Baltic Fleet. Arendelle’s North Sea will be my target, but not before I serve you death this fine midnight.”
“What the hell are you?” said Amira, her emerald eyes flashing. “Some kind of werebear or long-lost monstrosity?”
“Do you mean my appearance?” said Yaraslaf, as his men hastily cleared the warehouse grounds. They seemed all too happy to hand the fight over to Yaraslaf. Maren felt uneasy about that. “I’m the last surviving member of my werebear people, from a region even more north than yours. Northuldra, huh?” he snorted. He slung his axe over his immensely broad shoulders, growling.
“I’ve stated my name to you. Your turn, girls.”
“Honeymaren, Home Minister of Arendelle.”
“Amira of Northuldra.”
Yaraslaf bared his sharp teeth. “Interesting. My soldiers tell me that Northuldra tribespeople are formidable warriors, hardier than Arendellians. Her Highness told me not to underestimate you two, and I don’t intend to. Show me your martial spirit, ladies of the forest! Get my Arctic blood boiling!”
He didn’t move as Amira and Maren lunged at him and attacked together, Maren smashing her cudgel against his knee and Amira shooting a volley of arrows at his head, chest, and midsection. Yaraslaf simply let the arrows sink into his body as he burst with blinding speed at Maren, his paw grabbing her lithe form and lifting her stunned body into the air. His agility, for a towering werebear, was incredible. The Grand Duke threw her against the wall of a warehouse, and she smashed cleanly through the wood and stone, feeling her spine creaking as she sprawled along the ground painfully.
“No!” screamed Amira, as she drew her blade and slashed at Yaraslaf. He barely looked at her as he casually pulled Amira’s arrows out of his bloodstained fur, one by one, and let them clang to the ground.
“Deadly, poisoned arrowtips. A shame the dosage isn’t enough to make me faint,” observed the werebear to himself, as Amira’s blade glided across his leg, drawing blood. Amira spun and tried to plunge her weapon into Yaraslaf’s midsection, for that was about as high as she could aim, but he simply lowered his hand and blocked, letting her sink the blade into his forearm. He didn’t even blink. He bared his bear’s teeth at her, and Amira felt a chill run down her spine.
“Nice. A Northuldra knife, forged from mystic ore and sharpened into a blade that can cut apart any foe. Well, most,” he noted, staring at Amira, who struggled in vain to pull out her knife. But she thought fast and somersaulted, kicking Yaraslaf in the face with the heel of her foot. Then she launched herself off his gargantuan arm, leaping up and pummelling his jaw and snout with a flurry of fists. Maren had also managed to run back out and made for Yaraslaf, desperately trying to force him to a knee with repeated swings as she bashed her cudgel against his leg again and again. But it was as if he didn’t even notice their attacks, and he let out a mighty roar, moving with unnerving speed once more as he casually batted away Maren with one paw. CRACK.
With that crushing blow, Maren felt her left ribs breaking as she rolled along the ground painfully. She sputtered in panic as her whole torso tightened, and she was barely able to breathe. She watched in helpless horror as Yaraslaf turned his attention to Amira. Her lightning fast movements were usually enough to send any opponent reeling, but Yaraslaf calmly allowed Amira to rain blow after blow on him before suddenly shooting his paw out and seizing her in mid-air, grabbing her body. “Gotcha!” he bellowed.
“Guuuuh!” Wincing, Amira tried to desperately break free, but she was nowhere near strong enough for him. He lifted her up, bringing her struggling body closer to him.
“AMIRA! Watch out!” shrieked Maren.
“Now! I! Have! You!” barked Yaraslaf, as the fearsome huntress’s eyes widened, for the first time, in fear.
The humanoid bear snarled as he drew back, then smashed his head against her much smaller face, breaking her nose cleanly and drawing a warm stream of human blood that splashed across his forehead’s white fur. Maren screamed in protest as he lifted her limp body and smashed her against the ground repeatedly, like an angry child playing with a hated doll. The ground shook and cracked at the force of his brutal power. Finally, after what seemed an agonizing eternity, he slowly released her and she rolled away silently. Her eyes were closed and blood trickled from her lips.
“Is this all that Northuldra’s best has to offer?” bellowed Yaraslaf. “I want a better challenge! Bring me their Elsa! Bring me their Hilde!”
“Amira,” choked Maren, unable to rise. We can’t beat him. He’s too strong! With monsters like him and his fellow commanders, is Russia too strong for Northuldra and Arendelle? she thought wildly to herself. She felt her body failing her and she hated herself for it. “Amira, I’m so sorry.” She turned her head to look up at Yaraslaf. “Don’t kill her. I dragged her into this,” she begged weakly.
“Don’t shame yourself by pleading for mercy. Lady Honeymaren, was it? You and your friend are fine warriors. Weak as you are, you still offered your lives in this fight. Out of respect for you, I’ll show you no mercy, as a fellow fighter should. Please dignify yourself and accept being slain by me.”
Yaraslaf loomed over Maren, who couldn’t stop tears of fear and fury from rolling down her cheeks. “Be glad that you won’t be around to see Grand Duke Nykras’ invasion of your forest homeland. I’ll also remember you for your bravery. Well done, child.”
He raised his axe to finish her off, its curved edges gleaming menacingly in the moonlight. “May you and Amira fight and dance with each other in the afterlife. FOR PRINCESS KATINA!”
Yaraslaf’s speech was interrupted by a blast of pure, angry ice that flung him back several yards. He raised his furry arms, irritated but unhurt, as his black bear eyes met the angry gaze of the Fifth Spirit. Behind Elsa were Colisa and Mari, who had drawn their swords, and a furious Alan and Michael.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, Grand Duke?” challenged Elsa, staring at Yaraslaf coldly.
“There you are, Snow Queen, with all your tagalongs.” The werebear warrior snickered. “By that standard, you’re all too puny for me,” he declared, as Maren crawled to the limp Amira, crying her name and holding her broken body tenderly. “Shouldn’t you be at Katina’s palace? Or have you come because you’re fearful that Mother Russia has what it takes to finally conquer Arendelle?”
Elsa shook her head as she raised her hand, the energy of all five elemental spirits gathering in her palm and illuminating her beautiful eyes. She began to levitate into the air, arcane symbols of the elements shimmering around her.
“Oh, you’ll find me just the right match for you.”
DON’T MISS OUT ON PART THREE!
ANNA PLAYS CHESS WITH KATINA IN A DUEL OF HEART AND WILL.
ELSA AND FRIENDS TAKE ON YARASLAF IN A DO-OR-DIE ATTEMPT TO SAVE MAREN AND AMIRA!