Hilde glanced up at the trees, expecting something to come crashing through them.
“I see them,” Ivan cried, pointing off toward some brush on the west side of the road.
Just then, a child of roughly eight-years-old burst into full view. He shrieked in delight before charging at Faye’s horse. The woman leaned down and scooped him up into the saddle before continuing on.
Hilde looked back and saw that numerous others also had a young child with them. For some, there was an obvious family resemblance. She giggled over the sudden understanding of why they all had been so excited for this excursion.
“What is so funny?” Karl asked.
“I understand so much now,” she replied.
“Baumgard, you understand nothing.”
The village of Valhalla was not very big, yet it was home to the families of the Black Cloaks. The Valkyrie Corps.
It consisted of several homes made of stone with tile roofs, the residents of which toiled in the fields to feed themselves and the castle. At the edges of the village were wood and stone lookout towers, enabling a view in all directions.
It was fresh, and clean, nothing like the cityscape Hilde had grown up in. “I think that I could retire here,” she said with a laugh.
“You? An old lady?” Ivan scrunched up his face. “Nope, can’t picture it.”
“Jerk,” Hilde muttered.
“Don’t mind him,” Faye said. “He can be a lout, but he’s there when it counts.”
They had since slowed to a walk to give the parents time with their children before reaching the edge of the village. One by one, children slid down from the saddle, but not before numerous hugs and kisses. Then, the Black Cloaks continued on at a brisk pace.
“We’re not stopping?” Hilde asked, confused.
“I told you, Baumgard, you understand nothing,” Karl said.
They continued on to the northwest, speeding across the territory. As the miles went by, Hilde began to make out a green haze on the horizon.
“We’re going to the titan forest?” Hilde asked.
“Where else would we go for a training exercise!” Faye replied.
The forest loomed before them when they reined up at its southern edge. The trees were very old and almost as tall as the wall themselves. Not even three people holding hands could circle the base any of the trunks.
A shiver went down Hilde’s spine at the sight of it, and there was a twinge of pain in her ribs.
“Are you alright?” Ivan asked, picketing his horse.
“Yeah,” Hilde answered. “It just brings back memories, is all.”
Ivan nodded. “Glad you didn’t let almost being titan chow scare you off.”
Hilde hoped that his assessment was correct. She had yet to actually face a titan since her near death experience. She feared that she may choke when the time came, and cause someone to be hurt. Or worse.
Faye tugged a t her jacket. “Don’t fret too much,” she said.
“Agreed,” Karl said, coming up behind them. “This exercise is to help me ensure that you are up to snuff.”
The concept of the exercise was simple enough. They would divide themselves into squads, and then immerse themselves in the trees, where each person would then don handkerchiefs for use as a flag. Then, at the sound of the pistol shot, each squad was to go after the others. The squad with the most flags would be declared the winner.
Hilde was crouched on a limb of a tree that she judged to be toward the center of the forest. Faye, Ivan, and Karl were nearby, each of them facing a different direction. Hilde strained her eyes and ears for signs of the other squads. She heard gentle rustles and even a muffled cough. She had been warned that Karl’s squad would be a prime target, so to discover that her team was surrounded was no surprise.
Karl’s hands moved in the form of gestures, giving them instructions. And then the sound grenade went off.
As soon as they all heard the blast, there was a flurry of motion. Except for the four of them. Holding their positions, they waited until the last possible moment, several teams bearing down on them. Then, at the last possible second, they leaped or dropped clear of the advancing teams.
Hilde and Faye had both leaped clear, while Karl and Ivan had dropped. Now, the two men were skimming along under the branches of the titan wood.
Hilde had quickly lost track of the two men as her anchors bit deeply into the trunk of a not too distant tree. As the cable began to wind, she narrowly avoided the groping hands intent upon the handkerchief tied about her upper arm. She twisted and allowed the cable to go slack, dropping several feet.
Craning her head around, she spotted her would-be assailant just as Faye got the drop on him and swiped his flag from his arm. “You’re out!” the woman crowed, pulling her anchors before dropping down into a crouch on a branch.
Just then, his partner came sweeping down toward her. Faye leaped down from her temporary perch, orchestrating a graceful fall before firing her anchors. Cables arced through the air to bite deep into the underside of the limb she had been on, and then she cranked the gas to full.
As Faye rocketed toward her pursuer, he was forced to check his trajectory. However, it was in vain as Hilde skimmed past him, taking his flag with her.
“Two down,” Faye said with a huff, theatrically wiping her brow with the back of her hand.
“Don’t get cocky,” Karl scolded as he touched down next to them. He and Ivan each had a flag apiece as well.
“What’s the count so far?” Faye asked.
“Well, Latimer and his squad are down,” Ivan said, waving his flag. “Camiglio and her squad were working their way here, but Eising engaged.”
“They are going to try to pin us down again,” Karl growled. “So let’s move.”
She had become separated from her squad after having been forced to dive for cover on the forest floor. She still had not been able to shake Porter, however; the former Military Police soldier doggedly persistent in his pursuit of her flag.
Her back was arched, straining against the forces of gravity as Hilde’s momentum careened along to speed her up and around the trunk of an enormous tree. At the peak of her trajectory, her anchors popped loose. She then tucked her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them as she dropped into a controlled fall that she had practiced numerous times.
It was all a blur as the ground rushed up to greet her, and for one brief moment, she flashed back that day beyond the wall…
Paralysis took firm hold of her then, her ODM controls falling from slack hands. Watching as the ground as it flew ever nearer, there was a blur of tan and the gut-wrenching pain of something slamming into her.
She was unceremoniously flopped onto her back, the mammoth forest rising tall above her. Her ribs and stomach hurt to even breath, but she forced herself to take in steady breaths in and out.
“Are you alright?” Karl growled, lurching into view. His face was lined with concern as he knelt next to her.
“I think so,” Hilde groaned, rolled onto her hands and knees. Her ribs ached from where Karl had collided with her, and from them both hitting the ground.
“You froze,” he stated, matter-of-fact.
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you two alright?” Anais demanded, touching down on the ground, Porter, Faye, and Ivan not far behind her.
“We’re fine,” Karl said, making to get to his feet and stumbling.
“Are you sure?” Ivan asked, stepping up to try to help him. “You took the brunt of it in the fall.”
“I’m fine!” Karl snapped. “Return to the horses, we’re done here.” Then, with a sideways look at Hilde, he palmed his controls and rocketed up into the trees.
Faye and Anais pulled Hilde to her feet. “What happened?” Anais asked.
“What do you think happened?” Porter demanded, his face twisted in a sneer. “She fucking choked.”
“Can it, Porter,” Ivan snarled.
“No, he’s right,” Hilde murmured, her eyes downcast. “I froze and someone got hurt because of it.” She pushed away from the two women then. “I can make it back on my own,” she said.
Then, to prove her point, she fired her anchors up into the trees to follow after Karl. Halfway back, a grenade sounded to signal recall.
The First Squad didn’t speak during the trip back to the village, despite the train of excited chatter behind them. The others rode with their heads held high while Hilde could only stare down at the reins in her hands.
She had frozen, causing Karl to put his own well-being at risk. Without his intervention, she would be a shattered mess on the forest floor. Even now, he sat hunched in the saddle, clearly uncomfortable.
Hilde sighed and shook her head in the attempt to clear her mind. They were nearing the village, and it wouldn’t do for her to sour the joyous occasion.