All around them, young children clambered over and onto members of the Black Cloaks as they sat at the tables set up in the center of the village. Little fingers poking at their equipment as they asked “to go flying.”
“Come on, please!” a few of them begged of Hilde. “Just to the tops of the trees!”
“You kids had a turn already,” Ellis scolded, carrying a toddler in his arms. “You should go help your mothers set the tables.”
“Yes, sir,” they said, groaning with disappointment, but hurrying off to do as they had been told.
Hilde chuckled and shook her head. “They admire you,” she said.
“They admire all of us,” Ellis corrected, sitting down on the bench. “This is my youngest granddaughter, Ellia.”
The little girl studied Hilde with big blue eyes, squinting slightly as she sucked the fingers of one hand. With the other, she then pointed to Hilde’s face before turning to look at Ellis, questioningly. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, Hilde put a hand to her cheek, tracing the slightly dimpled scar found there.
“Pay her no mind,” Ellis said gently. “Like the other children, she’ll come to accept that we all have scars of our own.”
Hilde smiled wanly.
“They teach them the history of the walls here,” at her perturbed expression, he amended, “the purpose of the walls, about how without them, humanity would have been devoured long ago. Much like how most other school age children are taught.”
He shifted the girl about on his lap, who was beginning to drowse.
“They are even taken up onto the wall and allowed to see a titan for themselves. There is no whitewashing, no keeping them isolated. The only things standing between them and certain death, is that wall and those of us willing to go beyond it.”
Hilde nodded, more from acknowledgment than from agreement. “A very dark lesson,” she said quietly.
“These are some dark times that we live in,” Ellis said.
Dinner that night was treated like a true celebration. There was music and dancing, and of course the food. There was roasted meat and thick and crusty bread slathered with creamy butter. A wide assortment of garden fresh vegetables, and fruits drizzled with cream.
Despite there being just under one hundred people present, there had been enough food prepared to feed the entire Survey Corps, as well as the Garrison soldiers, of Shiganshina.
“Oh, wow,” Hilde said, struggling to swallow one last bite of food. “I really cannot eat another bite!”
There were chuckles of agreement and sympathy from many of those sitting around her.
“Yeah, they have really outdone themselves,” Anais said, using a bit of sweet bread to mop up some cream from her bowl. “But what they don’t send back with us, they put into the cellars for later. The underground aquifers will keep it plenty cold for several days.”
It really was an idyllic location. There was fertile farmland, lush grazing pastures for the horses they raised for the military, and some of the best water Hilde had the pleasure to drink.
“So what keeps the Government from meddling?” Hilde asked, feeling a bit suspicious.
An old man, borderline drunk, cackled at her question. “Because it’s a bribe!” he hooted. He then stood and made his way over, the contents of his cup sloshing out over the brim. “They gave us this land to keep the truth buried. But the Ackerman blood is still strong!”
The music stopped as all eyes were now upon them.
“Be quiet, old man,” Karl said quietly. “You’ve had too much to drink, and I think that you should go sleep it off.”
The old man studied Karl with bleary eyes. “Alistair, you should know this better than anyone. You have the blood!”
Karl did not reply. Making eye contact with someone behind the old man, he merely jutted out his chin in the direction of the drunkard. A pair of villagers darted forward then.
“Come on, Papa,” the woman said, gently taking the cup from the old man’s hand. “It’s late, so let’s get you to bed.”
The bonfires were already dying down, and the candles on the tables were sitting in pools of wax.
“I’m not done yet, girl,” he protested.
“Come on,” the woman’s husband said, resting his hand on the drunk’s shoulder.
Scowling, the old man slumped his shoulders in defeat. “The Truth will out,” he muttered as they led him away.
“What was he talking about?” Hilde asked, meeting Karl’s gaze.
“Forget about it,” he growled as he lumbered to his feet and left the table.
With the liveliness of the festivities having drawn to a close, the villagers began to clear the tables. Several Black Cloaks filtered away to be with family, Faye and Ivan among them. Hilde stayed behind, resting on her elbows as she clutched her mug in both hands.
Ackerman. She had heard that name before, back when she was a girl in Stohess. A series of grisly murders in the Capital having been contributed to a “Kenny the Ripper.” But what could that possibly have to do with a group of religious heretics?
And the mention of bloodlines. Could that mean that there was some sort of claim to power that they were denied, hence the bribe?
Deep in thought, Hilde absently chewed on her lower lip. “You look sexy what you do that,” Porter drawled as he strolled over to her.
Hilde glanced up at him, hiding her disgust. Porter’s constant, disgruntled cynicism was enough to poison his entire aura and make him unbearable to be around. And when he had been drinking, he got worse.
“Can I help you?” she asked, already dreading the answer to come.
“You wanted to know the story of the Ackerman’s and the bloodline, yes?” He took a long draw from his mug. “Well, I can tell you about it, provided that you can make it worth my while.”
“What happened, Porter, did the village women turn you down?” she snorted as she crossed her arms over her chest.
“I’ll have you know that I was in the First Squad of the Military Police Brigade,” he said proudly, jabbing his chest with a thumb.
“So it was your job to hunt down Kenny the Ripper?” Hilde asked, skeptical.
Porter grinned at her as he reached out to touch her shoulder. “What do you say we go find us a quiet spot and I can tell you all about it?”
“You’re drunk, Porter,” Hilde said with a sigh as she brushed his hand away. “And besides, you’re not my type.”
A sneer crossed Porter’s face. “I’m better than you could hope to get, you scarred-up bitch!”
Hilde got to her feet then. “Goodnight, Porter,” she said as she turned to walk away. “Go get some sleep.”
He grabbed her by the wrist. “I’m not done talking to you,” he snarled.
Hilde’s face contorted with anger as she made to pull away, yet he stubbornly held on. “Let. Go!” she demanded through clenched teeth.
“And what if I don’t?”
Balling up the first of her right hand, Hilde promptly smashed it into his left eye.
Porter’s hand snapped open as he blinked in surprise. “You hit me,” he protested.
“Yeah, and I’ll do it again if you don’t get out my sight,” she threatened, her voice low and menacing as she cocked her fist back in preparation to punch him a second time.
“You stupid bitch,” he muttered as he turned and stomped away, hand to his already swelling eye.
The villagers who bore witness to the altercation stifled their laughter as they all watched him leave.
“Serves him right,” one of the women giggled.
“Yeah,” Hilde agreed, shaking out her hand. “But he has a hard head.”
Craving solitude, Hilde had her bedroll spread out alongside the fence to the horse pasture. She lay on her back, hands resting on her stomach as she looked up at the summer sky. The night was clear, allowing her to see the stars.
“I punched the last guy who tried to mess with me,” she warned the approaching set of footsteps.
“So I’ve heard,” Karl said quietly.
Hilde leapt to her feet, snapping a salute out of habit.
Karl snorted. “I’m not military,” he said, then amended, “not officially.”
Hilde still held the salute, her gaze pinned to the ground. “I’m sorry, sir, I let my temper get the better of me.”
Then Karl laughed, as if it was the best joke that he had ever heard. Confused, Hilde lifted her eyes to look at him.
“Porter gets slapped at least once every time we come out here. Hell, Faye damn near busted his lip last winter,” he explained. “No, what you did was ‘justifiable use of reasonable force’.”
Hilde dropped the salute, but still stood at attention. “Then why is he allowed to drink?”
“Because it makes him stupid,” Karl said, matter-of-fact. “He forgets that he’s not in the Capital anymore, and the women of Maria have no problem with reminding him of that.” Then he shrugged. “Plus, when he makes an ass of himself, the chagrin makes it easier to keep him in line.”
“How genial,” Hilde muttered.
“This is a civilian outfit under contract with the Military. We police our own as we see fit,” Karl retorted, walking over to the fence. He was hiding it well, but Hilde could make out a bit of a limp.
“How badly are you hurt?” Hilde demanded, following after him.
Karl waved off her question. “Just some bumps and bruises, nothing to be concerned over.”
Hilde snorted. “I damn near broke my back the last time I took a hit like that.”
Karl merely glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “I’m tougher than I look,” he said simply.
“Is that what the old man was talking about? Is the Ackerman bloodline special or something?” She rested her chin on her hands as she leaned against the wooden fence, watching some of the horses graze in the moonlight.
“You could say that,” Karl murmured. “I don’t know the full story myself, but I was always told not to advertise my heritage.”
“So they’re exiles, or dissidents, or something?”
Karl chuckled softly. “It certainly sounds that way.”
“Yet another reason why I want to get out of this cage…” Hilde muttered.
They fell into a mutual silence for several moments. The sound of their voices had drawn the attention of a few of the horses, who were lazily grazing their way over to them.
“You see that pale streak across the sky?” Karl asked, pointing upward.
Hilde craned her head up to look. “Yeah,” she answered. “What about it?”
“The village Oldsters call that the ‘Road to Heaven.” He traced his fingers along the line to the south. “And there, just peeking up over the top of the wall, is the Sudrstjarna.” He said, leaning in to help her find it.
In the distance, Hilde could make out the flat, black void on the horizon that was the southern edge of wall Maria, and the brightest of the southern stars just above it.
“The what?” she asked, turning toward him.
“The South Star, roughly,” his face seeming to be a lot closer to her than it should be.
Hilde’s face grew hot, and she knew that it had to be a bright shade of pink just then.
As he leaned in closer still, Hilde felt whiskers tickle against her ear as a nose snuffled her hair and she laughed. Startled, Karl stumbled back a step. “Sneaked up on us…” he grumbled.
Hilde’s gelding then promptly began to nuzzle at her face when she turned toward the horse. “I think that he was a bit spoiled before,” she said with a grin, reaching into her pocket for a bit of apple that she had secreted away. “I was saving this for the morning,” she scolded, surrendering the fruit.
The horse only lipped it from the palm of her hand, crunching happily.
“Well, you two seem to be getting along,” Karl said, sounding a bit dejected. He looked up at the moon a moment. “It’s getting late, we better get some sleep. We head back to the castle in the morning.”
“Understood,” Hilde said, rubbing the gelding’s nose. Once Karl had gone, Hilde put her arms around the animal’s neck. “Thanks for the assist,” she whispered.
The horse only nosed at her pockets, looking for more treats.