Shiganshina District, year 843
The small vanguard rode through Shiganshina two abreast, with a trio of wagons bringing up the rear. They kept to a side street, leaving the main throughway clear for the return of the Survey Corps.
However, it did nothing to keep them from being seen.
“Grave robbers,” came the epitaphs.
Wearing their hoods pulled up over their heads to hide their faces, Hilde and the others paid them no mind. Instead, they made their way to Shiganshina’s south gate, eyes straight ahead.
Hilde’s heart pounded, initially because this was her first trip beyond the wall in over a year, but also because of Him. Mike Zacharius.
Hilde had not seen him in almost as long, but she had been assured that he was thriving within the Survey Corps.
“Breath, just breath,” she whispered, eyes closed tot he world around her.
Ivan nudged her then. “You’ll be alright,” he said. “The cannons will take care of most of them.”
Hilde smiled and nodded, wanting to tell him it wasn’t the titans that she feared.
Reaching the wall, they formed up on either side of the gate. Once the Survey Corps arrived home, they would only have moments before the gate would begin to close after them.
They would have to be fast.
The Liberty Bell began to toll, the first to herald their return. This was then followed by the rumble of the gate and the thunder of hooves. The horses tensed, ears pricked forward as they anxiously pawed at the ground.
The time to run was coming.
No sooner than the gate had opened tall enough to admit the horses, then a river of green and brown flooded through it. Riders flattened themselves low across the necks of their horses, not slowing down or rising up until they heard the rumble of the gate beginning to lower.
As soon as the main tide had stormed through, they kicked their horses into action. The animals squealed in eagerness, leaping into motion to charge against the current.
She kept her eyes on the brightness ahead of her as the last of the green streaked past her.
They hugged the walls of the gate tunnel, careful to give the wagons of the wounded and dead the right of way.
After the wagons came the stragglers flanked by the left and right wing spotters. Hilde’s old brigade.
Then, at the edge of her vision, she saw a figure turn to look directly at her. Mike.
Hilde’s heart leaped up into her throat, and she longed to call out to him. To tell him that she was sorry. But she couldn’t.
For all intents and purposes, she was dead.
There had only been a pair of seven-meter titans remaining outside the gate. No doubt stragglers of what had once been a group chasing after the Survey Corps. The fore-squad of the Black Cloaks had quickly taken care of them.
“They actually returned on time, for once,” Ivan said quietly.
“Fewer wounded, too,” Karl murmured.
“Yet not near the number came back as had gone out,” Ellis said, silencing them.
They stood on the south side of a hill, out of the sight of the watchers on the wall.
Ellis dismounted, gaze fixed intently on a small stack of rocks. Picking through them, he gingerly unearthed a small bit of folded paper.
“They went south, by the canyon way.”
Hilde’s eyes and ears were trained for the slightest sound or movement as they made their way south of the wall. The wagons kept to the center of the formation with riders ranging out around them. Even though they carried flares, they kept the black speck of the rider in front of them in range at all times.
Wall Maria was steadily growing smaller in the distance, yet the fifty meter behemoth of human engineering still rose tall on the northern horizon. Hilde promptly whipped her head toward the western sky when the sound of a flare echoed.
A yellow star. Loose horses.
Hilde took out her flare gun and loaded a yellow cartridge. Then, using her free hand and the bicep of her pistol hand to cover her ears, she fired the flare.
The gelding pranced sideways at the sudden noise, but regained his composure as Hilde nudged him into motion with her knees. He threw his head about, but jumped into a swift cantor readily enough.
To the east of them, more flares went up.
When she arrived at the small copse of trees, Hilde saw that several horses had been recovered already. They stood tethered to the trees they had sheltered under for protection from the sun, tails swishing idly as they fed on grass. Only one horse evaded her good-intentioned pursuers.
Immediately, Hilde recognized the mare as she trotted out the reach of the grasping hands. She was a dainty thing with a white blaze down her face and one white fore sock.
“Back off,” Hilde demanded, dropping to the ground. “You’ll never catch that one; not the way, anyhow.”
The reins of her gelding in one hand, Hilde gingerly stepped toward the mare, making shushing noises. The mare’s ears swiveled this way and that while her eyes rolled with fear. Yet, she allowed Hilde to creep closer.
“It’s okay, Daphne,” Hilde said softly, holding her hand out to the mare. “I won’t hurt you.” Sensing the mare’s anxiety, Hilde’s gelding whickered softly in an attempt to reassure her. “Come here, girl,” Hilde continued to coax, making kissing noises.
When Hilde came close enough to be able to reach for the reins, the mare snorted and tossed her head, dancing away.
“Easy girl,” Hilde crooned, continuing to hold out her hand. “Where’s Brin, huh? Where’s your rider?”
Remaining out of reach, the mare began to circle the woman and gelding, familiarity beginning to calm her fears and anxiety.
“That’s right, you remember me, don’t you?” Hilde murmured, daring a step forward, and then another.
Daphne’s ears flicked this way and that, uncertainty dictating her mannerisms, yet she allowed Hilde to finally take hold of her reins and draw her near.
“That’s a good girl,” Hilde whispered, slipping a hand beneath the strap of the bridle while stroking the mare’s neck with the other.
The gelding stuck his head over Hilde’s shoulder, neck arching as he reached his nose out to the mare. He gently snuffled in her face, taking in her smell while allowing her a chance to do the same.
“Thatta girl,” Hilde murmured, beginning to run her hands along the length of the mare.
Once she had calmed considerably, Hilde climbed back onto the gelding. As she gathered the reins and shifted the lead rope, she saw the rust colored residue on her hands. It was dried blood.
The continued south, recovered horses in tow. Their destination was to be an abandoned tower that served as a way-station for the Survey Corps. Once there, the plan was to rest until dark and then continue on with torch light.
The mare kept pace with the gelding, allowing some slack in the lead rope. Being with familiar company had calmed her considerably. As had washing the blood from her flanks.
Hilde was more angry than anything else. She gripped the lead rope tightly in hand, not wanting to lose her last connection with Brin.
She had been not much more than a girl when Hilde had first met her those few years ago. Lively and happy-go-lucky, despite being an orphan.
“I have no one left,” she had explained that first night in the bunkhouse, folded knees pulled up to her chest. “Papa died outside the wall a few years back, and the sickness took Mama…”
They had hung their heads in silent reverence. Many people within the districts around Maria, and even Rose, had been lost a swift and mysterious illness. It had taken mostly the old and weak, yet caregivers such as Brin’s mother had fallen victim as well.
“So I’ve decided to join the Survey Corps!”
Hilde forced herself to blink back tears, now not being the time for crying.
She was nearing the remnants of a long abandoned village. At some point in the past, a lightning strike had started a fire, leaving only charred stonework behind.
Almost at once, Daphne began to plunge and squeal, almost tearing the lead rope from Hilde’s hand. The gelding himself danced sideways a few steps, ears swiveling as his nostrils flared.
Hilde hissed through clenched teeth as she allowed the gelding to have his head. No sooner had the horses taken to a gallop, then a titan burst from the ruins.
They were on open ground, the nearest copse of trees still a haze on the horizon. Her only saving grace being that the titan was only a seven meter and that it had been at a standstill.
Hilde reached into her saddle back for her flare gun. She had no doubt that she could outrun the fiend, but she was not about to allow it to be a surprise for the others. Loading a cartridge, she raised the pistol skyward and fired the black star.
To her relief, an answering shot echoed from a little behind on her right, and then another still farther back.
Hilde heaved a sigh of relief, but it was all too short lived.