Featured image “Team Mundilfari,” by Arute (@ast05water)
The Battle of Arenfjord is over, but I’ve felt sick to my stomach for days on end. I’d known of Commander Hilde’s critical condition ever since the werewolf warrior was brought back to Arendelle Castle on a stretcher, her body nearly cleaved in half by Yaraslaf’s polearm. She didn’t even have time to be undressed and bathed; she needed the wounds tended to and for the bleeding to stop. The Grand Duke is dead and gone, beaten by Elsa at the last minute, and we can turn our attentions to Northuldra’s defence now. But I’ve felt… paralyzed.
Usually, I’d be the first to visit the wounded and infirm to provide comfort and encouragement, but with Hilde, I’ve been finding it strangely difficult. Maybe it’s because Hilde was under my direct command. Perhaps it was because I know how important she is to Vi, and that the Countess has stayed with her for nearly every waking hour.
Why haven’t I dropped by her room yet? Maybe because this is my first war. This is the first war fought under my stewardship of the kingdom. Any loss, even potential loss, is debilitating and heartbreaking to me. Get better soon, Hilde, and teach me to be as amazing a pugilist as you again. I’ll even go easy on you.
Ha. In my dreams.
Among the castle residents who’d visited Hilde before the queen were Uncle Michael, Alan, and Danny. They all had a bad feeling about Hilde’s state, but little could have prepared them for the extent of Hilde’s injury. As they opened the door to Hilde’s temporary room-cum-infirmary, their jaws dropped open in horror at the sight of Hilde’s ruined body.
“Oh, Hilde,” cried Danny, hands raised to her mouth, while Alan and Michael winced. Lying on a comfortable bed, the Mundilfari champion, once so majestic and handsome, was exhaling raggedly, her intakes of breath irregular and jerky as the palace’s best healers fussed about around her, applying fresh Northuldra healing herbs and ointment round the clock. Honeymaren was also present, calmly passing herbs to the healers while also helping to put pressure on the great halberd wound.
“She’s lost so much blood, and her organs have been damaged too. A crushed lung and ruined innards – she’s lucky she’s lycanthropic,” observed the Home Minister, turning to look at them. She lowered her head, grimacing. “Mattias is beside himself too. He reckons he was responsible for Hilde’s injury.” Tess Gaunt, the new Englishwoman living with the Countess and Hilde, had gone downstairs to fetch more hot water. She’d loyally stayed by Hilde’s side when Vi was absent.
“I’m so sorry,” said Alan, as Michael hurried over and held her clammy hand. “She looks like she’s in so much pain.”
“It’s hard to believe such a formidable former foe nearly gave her life for Anna’s cause,” observed Michael, gazing at Hilde sorrowfully. Hilde’s eyes were closed, but they fluttered open lightly at the voices. She groaned Tess’s name, then Honeymaren’s, before descending into an incoherent, mumbling ramble about how worried she was about Vi not getting enough blood as a vampire. Alan and Michael couldn’t help allowing themselves a fond chuckle, while Maren and Danny smiled at each other. “Do you think we should give her some space?” asked Michael, letting Hilde’s hand go. “If anyone needs rest, it’s her.”
“It’s not Hilde that needs space, but Mattias and Anna,” said Maren observantly. She pursed her lips. “Hilde is suffering great physical pain, but she’s doesn’t have any regrets. It’s Anna and Mattias that feel like they failed. I’m sure of it. That’s the kind of people they are.”
Danny, Michael, and Alan looked uncomfortably at each other. Even though it sounded counterintuitive, almost silly, they could sense that Maren was right.
Anna’s shaking hand had been hesitating at the doorknob for several minutes now. She’d effectively hid in her study, trying to distract herself with work, until Maren sent word that the others had left Hilde. Only then did she muster up the courage to slowly open the door, her uncertainty turning to despair as her eyes fell upon the critically wounded general. Hilde was now draped in a blanket, her ebony black general’s uniform removed to allow her skin some exposure to the air. She was covered in linen bandages from the right shoulder down. Anna slowly stepped forward, heart sinking as she glimpsed Hilde’s eyes looking straight at her. Anna couldn’t help swearing reflexively, feeling more exposed than Hilde. She instantly felt a new surge of shame. Her freckled face flushed.
“Your Majesty,” rasped Hilde, her head moving just slightly. “I’m sorry: I may not be in good enough shape to steer your armies for the rest of this conflict.”
“Stop it,” whispered Anna, feeling her eyes prickling. “Please, why are you apologizing to me?” Her voice, a quiet tremble, began to rise into a wail. “You’re bedridden because of me. Because I let my alliance fall apart at Yaraslaf’s hands. Because I underestimated the Grand Duke’s ferocity. Because you and Mattias are so strong, and I’m so weak compared to this world of crazy gods and monsters. If only I could have been of some use to you.”
Hilde turned over her hand weakly, fingers twitching. “Come closer.”
Anna quickly got to her bedside, went on one knee, and took her hand, tears running down her face. “You’re the supreme commander. You’re the queen. To die for you is part of the natural order. So pull yourself together – what matters isn’t my life, but our victory over Russia,” whispered Hilde.
“I can’t think like that. I’m not like you, Hilde,” cried Anna, pressing her hand against her face, her tears moistening Hilde’s knuckles. “Even though I can have my decisive moments, I’m not as ruthless and deadly as you. That’s not me.”
Hilde smiled weakly, yellow wolf eyes gazing at Anna. “No. It’s not. But I’m afraid you’ll have to tap into that ruthlessness sooner or later. You’re waging war against the princess of Russia, a member of the Exalted. You’re growing inextricably involved with them. It’s your destiny.”
She wheezed, coughing. “Lord Yixin wanted your sister to become the Exalted’s Arendellian member, but she resisted his demands. I was there, accompanying the Countess to Peking, when he tried to make my Lady his second choice. But he wasn’t able to make Vi join the Exalted, either.” Hilde’s eyes were strong but caring. “I have no doubt that he’s set his sights on you – to convince you to finally make Arendelle part of his gallery of world powers.”
“I can feel it, too. I sensed that there’s more to this war than meets the eye. Yixin has been conspicuously silent ever since Katina launched her invasion. Your words make me feel like he’s moving behind the scenes, too,” agreed the queen, still holding Hilde’s hand. She frowned. She’d always respected the august yet mysterious Yixin, whose favour had brought prosperity to Arendelle for a century. Agnarr, Iduna, Elsa, and now Anna – the Arendellian royal family had always respected the Celestial Empire, even in disputes like Anna and Yixin’s clash over Vi.
Was this war between her and Katina Romanov almost like some kind of blood sport between nations to him, a gladiator match involving thousands of souls for some grand prize?
She gazed sadly at Hilde, who was still breathing unsteadily. “Whatever Yixin wants, this isn’t worth it,” she declared dejectedly. “We’ve lost so many, and we almost lost you.”
“You’ll lose more,” observed Hilde with her characteristic brutal honesty, “until you throw yourself wholeheartedly into the vortex of the Exalted and really find out what Yixin wants with you. That’s your endgame. For now…” The champion of Team Mundilfari closed her eyes. “Focus on Nykras and the invasion of Northuldra, and finally, defeating Sora and Katina.”
She gave Anna’s hand a light squeeze. Even a short conversation seemed to exhaust her. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. Can I rest? I’m so tired.”
“Of course, Commander. I’m so sorry. I’ll leave you to Vi and Tess.”
Anna quickly let go of Hilde and fled the room, shutting the door hastily behind her and leaning her back against the wall. She gazed up at the high ceiling and its majestic beams, before her world went blurry with welling tears. She moaned Elsa’s name, the first she’d think of when needing comfort. “I’m a disgrace. What the hell am I doing?” She grabbed her forehead and let out a low moan, burying her face in her hands as the burden of the queen’s crown pressed down on her shoulders so hard that she thought she might collapse. She could never forgive herself if she’d lost anyone or the kingdom. But how could she fight a war with such fear in her heart?
“Katina… you think you’re glorifying Russia with this invasion. I believe I’m protecting Arendelle. But in the end, there’s only one winner,” she murmured to herself bitterly.
“Just what do you want with me, Lord Yixin?”