The titan was gradually falling farther and farther behind when the mare lost her stride. Screaming in pain and fear, the horse plowed into the dirt. Hilde’s grip on the lead rope jerking her from the saddle.
Hilde hit the ground hard, reflexively exhaling upon impact. Although her ribs had healed well, pain still blazed throughout her torso.
Daphne flailed about on her side in the effort to regain her footing. However, one front foreleg was clearly broken.
Meanwhile, the gelding had checked his pace and doubled back to where Hilde knelt, panting on the ground. “That’s my boy,” she murmured, using the nearest stirrup to pull herself up.
In the ever-shrinking distance, Hilde could make out the form of the approaching titan.
“Persistent bastard,” she hissed through clenched teeth.
The smart thing to do, would be to get back in the saddle and run like hell. After a time, the titan would give up. If they all didn’t outrun it first.
But then there was Daphne. Hilde could not bring herself to leave the mare in such a tragic position.
The gelding stomped a hoof impatiently as his nostrils flared.
“I know,” Hilde groaned, levering herself into the saddle. “But I have some unfinished business.”
Steadying herself, she drew her controllers and locked in a set of fresh blades. Then, using her knees, she urged the gelding into a run.
The intervening distance closed quickly as woman and horse charged at the titan.
The abomination resembled a young man in appearance, with not too displeasing features. However, there was a ravenous hunger in its eyes.
Hilde readied her swords, the gelding hyper-aware of the slightest of commands given by her knees. Seemingly as one, they came within reach of the titan. Swiftly avoiding the grasping hands, they circled around behind the monster.
Hilde sliced at first one oversize ankle, and then the other. A huge gout of steam billowed forth as the titan lost balance. It then crashed forward onto its hands and knees without a grunt or a whimper of pain, its dopey expression never changing.
“Now or never,” Hilde growled, standing in the saddle and firing her anchors.
The wedge-shaped metal bit into the titan’s thigh as it crouched on hands and knees. It’s expression remained unchanged, but there was a ravenous glint in its eyes. Pushing off with her toes, Hilde cranked the gas and rocketed upward.
The titan had reached toward her at almost he same moment, but a twist by both woman and horse saw them safely out of reach. The gelding squealed and kicked as he veered away from the behemoth, taking a wide berth.
Hilde, however, pirouetted in mid-air, her anchors coming loose as touched down on the titan’s backside.
“Here I am, you bastard!” she raged, spittle flying from her mouth as she stormed up its spine toward the nape.
She could almost sense the ripple of the muscle and sinew as the titan attempted to twist its head and arms about in an effort to grab her. Hilde sprang lithely into the air the moment it toppled forward face first into the dirt.
Anchors fired a second time, latching themselves into each should of the beast. “Die you fucker!” Hilde screamed, blazing toward the nape head first, brandishing her blades in tightly clenched fists.
There was a satisfying snick as the twin blades bit into the titans flesh. One meter by ten centimeters. The chunk of meat went flying a split second before the titan’s body went limp and fell to the ground with an earth shaking rumble.
The massive gout of steam forced Hilde to leap clear of the abomination and stand at a short distance. In that short space of time, the titan had already begun to disintegrate.
Hilde dropped to her knees, feeling as if she were winded, her heart pounding in her ears. She had done it. She had faced her first titan since that day, and she had won. She did not freeze, she had not second-guessed herself. She did not even think, it had been pure instinct.
“Nice job,” a voice said from a few feet away.
Hilde jerked around, having not even known anyone had been there, her focus on the titan so razor sharp. Behind her he was Commander Ellis, sitting astride his horse as if they had been out for a leisurely ride. “I couldn’t risk it harming anyone else,” she answer simply, getting to her feet.
She gave her blades a swift flick, sending the remnants of the steaming ichor spattering to the ground before she then returned them to their holsters on her hips.
“I would expect nothing else,” the Commander said, giving her a thin lipped smile. “Now, about this other matter…”
Hilde promptly remembered Daphne then. “Oh no!”
She found the mare flailing on the ground and squealing in agony. Karl sprawled over top of her, trying to keep Daphne from getting up.
“Easy girl, easy,” Hilde whispered, rushing over to her and beginning to stroke her nose.
“Leg’s busted,” Karl said quietly.
Even if he had said nothing, Hilde could see the proof for herself as blood covered bone protruded from the mare’s foreleg. Under normal circumstances, Daphne would never run again, let be ride-able. Outside of the wall…
“I know,” Hilde answered with a quiet sniff, blinking back tears.
She got to her feet, hands resting on the hilts of her blades. Taking a deep breath, she drew the right-hand blade and swiftly cut the mare’s throat. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Daphne gave one last squeal and her body briefly shuddered before going still as red blood gushed forth, forming a pool. Hilde quickly brushed tears from her eyes before moving to clean her blade. The last thing she needed was to hurt herself because she was unable to see.
“We best be moving,” the Commander said, walking his horse over them, the gelding in tow. “We are not far from the Keep and much needed rest.”
It was a slow train of horses that wound its way along the path up the hill to the stone keep. Quietly alert, they filed through the single gate that was barely wide enough to admit the wagons before dismounting.
Hilde had been riding with the reins slack in her hands, knees barely needing to guide the gelding as he had followed along behind the others. Even now, he plodded placidly up to the water trough and plunged his nose into the water that was being drawn up from a nearby well.
Hilde the same as slid down from his back, feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted more than physically, yet her body still ached. She clapped the gelding on the shoulder as she allowed him a bit more water before then leading him away from the trough. If he drank too much at once, it could make him cramp up later.
Sensing her sadness, the horse lifted his head to sniff her in the face, water still dripping from the bristly whiskers around his nose. “You brat,” Hilde muttered, using her fingernails to give him a brief scratch on his neck before leading him over to the pole shelter.
There were a pair of hitch rails running along the center of the shelter with several small grain buckets lining the ground beneath it. Picking up the nearest one, Hilde turned it upside down and tapped it against the rail to knock out the little bit of dirt and dust before taking a small bag of grain from her saddlebag and pouring a little bit into the bucket.
The gelding eagerly immersed his snout into the wooden bucket for his treat, tail swishing happily as he crunched. “You were a good boy, today,” Hilde told him quietly as she rubbed his neck.
“Well, I see that you are still in one piece,” Ivan said, leading his own horse over for some grain.
Hilde made to answer, but a large yawn nearly dislocated her jaw, the popping sounds quite evident.
Ivan smirked. “Welcome back to south of the wall,” he said. “It has missed you.”
Hilde arched an eyebrow. “If I could avoid the rest of the welcoming committee, I will be good,” she said, looping the gelding’s reins to the hitch rail. “Well, I think that I am going to catch a nap while I can.”
And with that, she pulled her bedroll from the back of her saddle and made for the keep.
The keep was nothing more than a single story stone tower that had been battered by the elements since it had been abandoned to the titans all those years earlier. The Survey Corps had since designated it as a way station for their expeditions beyond the wall. They kept supplies in the cellars, mostly anything salted or dried, but it was also accompanied by a dark and lumpy mold that made everything taste like yeast. However, it kept the food from going bad for so much longer.
It was one of these older rations that Hilde accepted from the quartermaster and carried over to a secluded corner with her bedroll. They carried food themselves, but it was only to replace what the Black Cloaks took for themselves.
“The pains we go through for the Corps,” Anais said with a playful grumble as she plopped down next to Hilde, promptly tearing off a chunk of jerky.
“So I see,” Hilde replied, giving her jerky and hardtack a once over before taking a bite.
“I hear that you faced your first titan since being back,” Anais grinned. “Welcome back!”
Hilde took a moment to chew her food before responding. “We found Daphne today,” she murmured.
Anais swallowed abruptly, spurring a coughing fit that she slapped into submission with a closed fist to her chest. “Seriously?” she breathed. “Any idea what happened to Brin?”
Hilde shook her head, taking a sip of water from her canteen. “I have an idea,” she said sadly. “I found blood.”
“Shit,” Anais said with a hiss. “She was just a kid…”
“I know.” Hilde broke off a small piece of her hardtack and stuck it in her mouth. She did not chew, merely allowed it to sit on her tongue and absorb her saliva.
“What about Daphne?”
Hilde shook her head again, tears welling up in her eyes.
“My god,” Anais whispered. “I’m sorry Hilde.”
Hilde swallowed the hardtack, the feeling much like a small stone making to join an ever bigger one in her stomach. “I put her down myself.”
Anais put her arm around Hilde and rested her head on her shoulder. “At least she didn’t suffer.”
“Unless the two of you are going to make out, I suggest that you shut the hell up!” Porter snarled from across the room.
“You shut up!” Anais snapped, throwing a chunk of stone at him.
“All of you shut it,” Karl demanded. “We move out at nightfall, so I suggest that you eat and get some sleep!”
Porter shot Hilde and Anais a glare as he shook out his bedroll. His other eye was now ringed by a dark bruise, and his nose even looked a little off-kilter.
“He got his ass kicked earlier today,” Anais whispered. “I heard he was showing off and his second had to keep him from being titan chow…”
“I said quiet!” Karl growled as he walked by.
Hilde smiled wanly at Anais before moving to spread out her own bedroll and crawling into it. She then lay on her side, back to Anais, as she chewed on her piece of hardtack. She just wanted to forget it all, slip into quiet oblivion…
Hilde was awakened by a kick to her foot. Opening one bleary eye, she could just make out the figure of a man standing over her in the gloom of the main hall. “Get prepped,” Karl said quietly before walking away.
She rolled over with a groan then, immediately regretting having had to sleep on the stone floor. Levering herself onto hands and knees, she then proceeded to arch her back this way and that in an effort to work the kinks out.
“I forgot how much this sucked,” she muttered as she got to her feet, Anais already on the move.
“It’s only going to get better, trust me.”
Various groans and strings of curse words heralded the movement of the others as they too started getting to their feet and gathering their gear. Hilde rolled up her blankets before tying them with the leather thong and slinging them up over her shoulder. She then followed after the others down the torch lit corridor to the entrance of the keep.
Her ODM gear felt especially heavy as she strapped it about her hips. She rapped the gas tanks with her knuckles to ensure that they had been topped off before then trooping out into the dark night.
Small torches lined the few paths around the keep. Two stood on either side of the narrow drawbridge, marking where the two meter deep trench surrounded the small tower and was filled sharpened wooden posts that stood straight up.
Only meters out from the trench was a crumbling three meter tall wall. Even now, watchers patrolled along the broken parapet, torches in hand. In truth, the wall would do precious little against a titan determined to get in, but it did provide a small bit of comfort.
As she neared the stables, the gelding whinnied in excitement and stood proudly as when she loosed his reins from the hitch post. He then almost pranced as she led him out into the courtyard. “You shouldn’t be so silly,” Hilde scolded as she slapped him on his backside, the horse playfully dancing sideways.
“Alright, this is where the shit gets real, people,” Ellis began, keeping his voice low but was still audible. “We will be splitting up into squads. With full night, the titans will not be near as much of a threat, but the torches may lure them in, so stay vigilant.”
Hilde swiftly climbed up into the saddle where she was promptly handed a lighted torch.
“The protocols for flares will still be in effect, though black will be replaced by white.”
‘The flares…’ Hilde thought.
The application was simple enough. Green signaled a direction change, yellow was for loose horses. Red meant a kill site, while black warned of a titan.
By no means were any of them happy to see a black flare, but a red one was something else. It meant blood and death, pure and simple. Hilde had yet to see one with her own eyes, but she knew that it was only a matter of time. That thought alone filled her with dread for the simple fact that she may have to recover Brin’s body in the process.
“If you should find yourself separated from the main host, get to high ground and fire a lavender flare. Help will get to you as soon as possible.”
The gelding sidestepped impatiently, picking up on Hilde’s nerves. Making shushing noises, Hilde rubbed his neck with her free hand.
“Remember people, do this because we came back while they couldn’t.”
They had ridden onward to the south and east. Their pace was slow, yet still brisk. Their ears were strained for any and all sound while they read the slightest of body language from the horses. The titans were no where near as active at night as they were during the day, yet the Black Cloaks could leave nothing to chance.
In the distance, Hilde could make out the torches belonging to the other squads. The Black Cloaks had less than a quarter of the numbers of the Survey Corps, yet they took on this mammoth mission of their own volition either way.
She kept her flare gun in hand, loaded with a white-star. Each member of her squad had a different flare cartridge loaded, just in case.
They had only traveled a few kilometers from the keep when the horses alerted them to their first kill site. They dismounted to prepare to scout the scene and Faye fired of her red flare to signal the other squads to the location. A moment later, ten red stars streaked across the sky in response.
The metallic smell of blood was heavy in the air, threatening to make them sick as the churned up ground tried to trip them up.
“They appear to have been in full-on formation when they were attacked,” Karl said, holding his torch a mere inches from the ground so that he could study the scene. “At least two titans, maybe three. They must have been trying to make the Keep before it got too dark…”
“So close, yet so far,” Ivan murmured as he stubbed his toes on the wilted and blanched ground that marked the spot of a vanquished titan. “At least they took one of them with them.”
“I don’t see any actual remains,” Faye said as she came back from scouting the perimeter of the site. “It appears that they were able to recover their fallen.”
“If we could get the Survey Corps to accept the flare system, then there would be fewer casualties,” Ellis muttered, mostly to himself. “If there is nothing here, let’s move on,” he said simply.
Hilde’s mind could not be quiet. The kill spot had not been all that far from the Keep, yet despite the Corps’ best efforts at recovery, the Black Cloaks were sure to find the remains of the Titan’s binges sooner or later.
She cringed in distaste at the thought of finding one of those large pink masses. From what they could tell, titan’s had no digestive system. They ate people until they could hold no more, then vomited them back out. The contents of their stomach bile would then harden and solidify into an over-sized and sticky ball.
“You alright, Baumgard?” Ellis asked, riding close to her.
“Yeah, just thinking…” she murmured.
“Well, don’t let yourself get too far down that rabbit hole,” he said, his horse keeping pace with the gelding. “We need you on your toes out here.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered. “It’s just that I can’t help but think of Brin.”
“Tell me about her.”
“She rode relay between the Front line squads, as well as to and from the center of the contingent,” Hilde began. “She and Daphne could outrun just about any one of us, titans too.”
There was the hint of a smile in Ellis’ voice. “It sounds like she saved a lot of lives…”
His voice faded out just as they both noticed a violet flare in the pitch black sky.