The next morning was filled with tearful farewells. Even though it was only a short distance between the castle and the village, it would still be some time before the families could reunite.
Hilde sat astride her horse, waiting silently for the command to head out. Feeling like an outsider, she kept her gaze firmly on the neck of her chestnut gelding. In the light of the morning sun, she could make out the slightly darker streaks of brindle striping. Sensing her desire to leave, the gelding pawed at the ground.
Lithe and lean, he was bred to run, and run he loved to do. “Be patient, silly boy,” Hilde crooned, rubbing his neck.
One by one, members of the Black Cloaks began to mount up, taking their respective places in the formation. Not four feet ahead of Hilde, sat Karl, his posture alert to everything that was going on around him.
She felt heat flood into her cheeks at the thought of his attempt to kiss her the night before. He had been drinking, and no doubt had been be-spelled by the amorous activities going on around them all. Even Hilde had not been immune, but fresh air and solitude had cleared her head.
To Hilde’s immediate left, Faye climbed up into the saddle, a knowing smile on her lips. She winked surreptitiously at Hilde, but said nothing.
Once everyone had gained the saddle and the villagers had stepped back, Ellis held up his hand. No sooner had he thrown it forward with a cry, than a thunder of hooves answered.
As soon as they had returned to the castle, the horses were promptly taken care of. Tack and blankets were removed, water and grain provided, and coats were combed and brushed. The gelding swished his dark tail about happily as he crunched his oats, all but oblivious to Hilde and her efforts with the currycomb.
Once he was finished eating, Hilde turned him out into the small pasture behind the stables. So long as the weather was fair, it would only be cruel to keep the horses shut in. As the animals frolicked in the pasture, squealing playfully, Hilde looked over her tack.
Running her fingers over both sides of the leather straps, she sought out any potential thorns or burrs that could irritate the horse. She also checked over all of the loops, buckles, and fasteners as she did so; anything frayed or broken would need to be repaired. Lastly, she carefully oiled the wood of the saddle.
“That horse is going to be so very spoiled,” Faye commented, raking out her horse’s stall.
Hilde smiled in reply. “We take care of each other.”
“I heard what happened last night,” Faye drawled, scooping the dirty straw into a wheelbarrow.
“And just what did you hear?” Hilde asked, keeping her gaze focused on her work.
“That Porter was being a louse and you gave him what he had coming.” With that, she pointed down the aisle toward where Porter was mucking out his own horse’s stall. “He has a lovely shiner to prove it, too.”
Hilde relaxed. “Yeah, he was a real jerk alright,” she admitted.
Breakfast was a rapid affair of porridge and bread. Hilde mechanically shoveled food into her mouth, needing to be up on the wall for guard duty in fifteen minutes. Feeling eyes upon her, Hilde turned her head to glance down the table.
Porter glared back at her, a dark circle about his eye from when Hilde had punched him the night before.
“Careful, Porter, or your face will stay that way,” Ivan quipped between bites.
Porter only muttered something under his breath before going back to his food.
“He’ll get over it,” Ivan assured her.
They were atop of Wall Maria, spread out in groups of two. Titans were not their chief concern, but they were always on the back of their minds. Instead, they were on the lookout for interlopers of the human variety.
“So boring,” Anais muttered, walking with Hilde.
Hilde smiled gently. “But that’s a good thing. We don’t need anyone snooping around.”
“There’s not even a titan…” Anais said, complaining further.
“You’re itching to go out there, aren’t you?” Hilde asked, jutting her chin out toward the land beyond the walls.
Hilde shrugged. “It’s been a year since I’ve been out there. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to handle it anymore,” she admitted.
“If you’re worried about what happened in the training exercise yesterday, don’t be,” Anais protested. “A lot of us falter our first time back in the game.”
“Did you?” Hilde asked.
Anais laughed. “Of course not!”
“So you’re telling me that you had no flashbacks or anxiety during your first contest?” Hilde asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Oh, hey, someone’s coming,” Anais said, pointing off toward the direction of the castle. She raised a pair of binoculars and looked off down the wall. “Your boyfriend’s coming.”
“You mean Porter? That man’s an idiot…” Hilde muttered, taking up the binoculars.
But who she saw was Karl, not Porter.
Both women promptly snapped a unified salute. “Sir!”
Karl sighed, rolling his eyes. “I wish that you wouldn’t do that,” he muttered. Yet, despite the scowl, he still appeared to appreciate the show of respect.
He turned to Anais then. “Would you excuse us please, Foster.”
Anais raised her eyebrows at Hilde as she turned to go the opposite way. “Not your boyfriend, huh?” she mouthed.
Karl waited patiently for Anais to move out of earshot, a hand resting on his blade scabbard. Then he beckoned for Hilde to walk with him.
Hilde glanced at Karl from the corner of her eye. He kept his eyes trained on the stone of the wall beneath their feet as they walked. She kept her hands planted on her control holsters.
“I just wanted to apologize,” he said quietly.
Hilde didn’t speak, only pursed her lips.
“My behavior was unacceptable, and I sincerely hope that it did not damage the respect that you hold toward me, or the trust that exists between us.”
Hilde was a bit taken aback. “It’s fine, really,” she said, her cheeks flushing as she tried to wave off his words with her hand. “I mean, we all had been drinking…”
“That only makes it all the more inexcusable. I will understand if it is your wish to transfer to another team,” he said, speaking quickly.
“Sir,” she began, then said, “Karl.”
He stopped talking and turned to look at her directly, clearly embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” Hilde said, offering him her hand. “Let’s put this behind us and move on.”
Relief crossed his features as Karl took her hand. “Alright.”