“Baumgard, when you’re done, get your gear and meet me at the wall.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” Hilde answered.
A few of those sitting at the table quickly tried to hide their smirks in the mugs and napkins. Hilde only arched an eyebrow and stood to take her plate to the kitchen.
It felt good to be carrying the weight of her ODM on her hips again. The clatter of blades in the scabbards. It felt like everything was normal again.
Karl was waiting for her in the shadow of the wall, his back against the stone. “Ready?” he asked.
Hilde nodded. “I’ve been waiting for a long while.”
“Then up the wall,” he said, pointing with his thumb.
Hilde burst into a trot along the bottom of the wall before she fired her controls. Cables arced high into the air, biting into the stone. Then the mechanisms began to turn, recoiling the cable and pulling her into the air.
The wall was a pale blur as she rocketed upward along it, her heart pounding with excitement as she strained against the G-forces.
And then she was above it, falling. She fired her cables one last time, setting her into a spin that changed her momentum. And then she touched down, landing in a crouch.
Karl arrived at the top of the wall a moment after. “Nicely done,” he said.
Hilde stood, panting, as she looked out at the outside world. Sentries were posted at intervals along the top of the wall, watching for titans on the outside, and intruders from the inside.
“Do you know how Asset Recovery came to be?” Karl asked after a brief silence.
“No, not really,” Hilde admitted.
“You’re aware of how the world used to be made up of different breeds of people?” At Hilde’s nod in the affirmative, he continued. “Well, there used to be different religions, as well. However, for the sake of unity against the titans, the practice was banned.”
Karl sat down on the wall, legs stretched out before him.
“There was one group, among several actually, who retreated to the outermost reaches of Maria to practice in peace.”
Hilde sat at the edge, allowing her feet to dangle outside the wall.
“And then, the Survey Corps began to go outside the walls. The current numbers are not nearly so bad they were in those days, but still a bloodbath all the same.
“So many brave people died and were left behind that it upset the Heathens. You see, in addition to their gods, they venerated heroes who died in battle. So much so, they believed in spirits, called Valkyries, who collected the souls of dead heroes and took them to Heaven.”
He plucked on the sweeping wing sigil on the arm of his uniform. “This was their symbol. The Heathens dressed themselves in it and braved the world beyond the wall to bring the Heroes home.”
“But the costs to do such acts of charity were not cheap, so they ransomed the gear back,” Hilde interjected.
Karl nodded. “If they were going to be treated as mercenaries and grave robbers, then that was what they would become.”
Hilde shook her head. “To believe in something so much, despite all of humanity turning its back on them… It’s awe inspiring.”
Karl snorted and a smirk twisted his lips. “You mean like the Survey Corps?”
Hilde flushed and lowered her head.
“Humans were not meant to spend their entire lives penned up,” Karl said simply.
“Tell me about it,” Hilde muttered.
“You grew up in Sheena, right?”
“Yeah, Stohess district.” Hilde pulled her legs up and hugged her knees to her chest.
“Do you miss it?” he asked.
Hilde shrugged. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “We didn’t part ways on the best of terms.”
Karl nodded, but Hilde doubted that he properly understood. He had been born here, while she had not.
“They just could not understand why I didn’t want to settle down, start a family in that pen they call a city…”
“My mother always had to be the Good Wife, supporting her husband in all of his decisions. Even if they went against her own wishes. And my father… All he really concerned himself with was condensing power, to get as close to Mitras as he possibly could.”
Karl began to snort and snicker with laughter. “You ran away and joined the military before they could marry you off!”
Hilde scowled. “Were in you my place, and they presented you to some large and doughy man who was more than twice your age, you would do the same.”
That only seemed to make him laugh all the more. “So you would rather fight glutinous, man-eating titans, than to marry a fat man and birth his fat babies?”
“I am so pleased to be a source of amusement for you, sir,” Hilde said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Don’t be so defensive,” Karl said. “I’m only trying to get a full and proper read of you.”
Hilde shook her head in exasperation.
“Just so that you are aware,” Karl drawled, laying down on his back with his hands folded under his head. “Ellis himself asked for me to train you.”
Hilde blinked in surprise, her mind having difficulty processing what she had just been told. “How do you mean?” she asked, trying hard to sound nonchalant.
At Karl’s chuckle she knew that she had failed miserably.
“Because you don’t bend to the will of others. Ellis doesn’t want people serving the interest of the Capital to be in command out there,” he said, waving a hand out toward the frontier beyond the wall.
They lapsed into silence, then, Hilde retreating into thought. “I still don’t understand…” she murmured. “Why me?”
Karl snorted, but didn’t say anything.
“Three expeditions beyond the wall, that’s it,” she continued. “I’m not fit to lead a squad, never-mind a regiment…”
“But it’s not about what you think,” Karl said, sitting up. “It’s what Ellis thinks.”
After deciding that she had been agitated enough, or so it seemed to Hilde, they returned to the ground.
“Mister Alistair, sir!” a young boy called, running up to them. Hilde recognized the boy as one of the castle Messengers.
“Jonas,” Karl greeted.
“Grandfather… Er, Command Crouse sent this to you,” the boy stammered, presenting a slip of paper before running off.
“Grandfather?” Hilde asked in surprise.
“Come now, you should know better,” Karl chided. “The families live in the nearby village and raise much of our food.”
The Office of the Commander of the Asset Recovery Corps was a simple room. A window overlooked the training yard while a plain, yet serviceable, desk sat before it.
“Thank you, Karl,” Ellis said. “You may be dismissed.”
Karl bowed his head in acknowledgment before leaving the room and closing the door behind him.
“From your grim expression, I gather that Karl has made you aware of my intentions.”
“But sir, I don’t want to lead anyone!” she protested.
Ellis chortled. “And I’m not asking you to. At least not right away.”
It did very little to ease her apprehensions.
“You need time to adapt to our ways, and the Valkyries need time to get to know you. They won’t follow you if they can’t trust you.”
“Besides, I don’t plan on dying for several more years yet!”
The dining hall was packed at the noon meal, more so than what Hilde had grown accustomed to. Voices chattered with excitement and only grew louder once Ellis and Karl made an appearance.
“Listen up, you bunch of Heathens!” Ellis bellowed. “We depart for a training exercise in one hour. Now hop to!”
“Yes, sir!” boomed the hall before soldiers jumped to their feet and began to disperse.
“You are going to love this!” Anais laughed, taking Hilde by the arm to lead her back to the barracks.
“Foster, I’ll take it from here,” Karl said, striding over to them. “Get prepped then report to your squad.”
“Yes, sir,” Anais saluted, then hurried away.
Karl turned to Hilde then. “Pack a bag and check your gear,” he said. “You’ll ride with my squad.”
Hilde felt her face flush as she led her horse to the head of the column. It felt as if all eyes were upon her, judging her.
Once she had reached the position of Karl’s squad, he mounted up and the others followed suit. Hilde scrambled into the saddle as well.
No sooner had she sat astride his back, the chestnut gelding began to paw at the ground in anticipation. Lean muscle bred for speed rippled beneath warm skin as Hilde patted his neck. “Be patient,” she murmured.
Faye chuckled, reaching over to clap him on the shoulder. “It looks as if the two of you are a good fit.”
“He’s a sweetheart,” Hilde said fondly, already smitten with the horse.
Ivan Russel smirked as his horse stamped restlessly. “Girls and their horses…” he muttered.
He then quickly looked away and feigned innocence at Faye’s raised eyebrow.
“You chose him for her,” she said pointedly.
Ivan grinned, then patted his own horse on the neck. “He used to have a lady-rider, so it just seemed logical.”
Hilde bowed her head. Used to meant that the gelding’s last owner was dead, or she was otherwise in no physical shape to ever ride again.
Ellis stepped into view then. He glanced down the length of the column, expression impassive before taking the reins of his horse and mounting up.
“Move out!” he bellowed, nudging his horse into motion.
They moved at a trot, then burst into a run once they had cleared the castle yard and gained the road.
The gelding needed no coercion to change his stride. He bounded in pace with Faye and Ivan’s horses, and just seemed all and out happy to be running.
Hilde grinned and leaned forward over his neck, her black cloak streaming out behind her. She missed the feel of a horse beneath her, the pounding of hooves and the wind in her hair.
It had been too long.
Trees loomed ahead of them, marking the boundaries of the castle from the village. “Watch yourselves!” Ellis yelled. “Here they come!”