Chapter Nine: Lord Reiss
Days turned to nights. Rain wetted the world and thunders shook the sky as a black blanket of clouds loomed over the realm. Muddy puddles and glimmering green crops on the land, boots, chariot wheels and hooves splashing wet stone pavements, water sliding down tiled roofs and tapping windows.
In public settlements like stores and taverns, word spread like wild-fire of Sina's victory over the Savages. And, of course, of Stohess's destruction and all the dead, but the people emphasized on the victory, of the retreat of the army - because that meant peace, even if temporary.
The Savage army's true whereabouts was still to be publicized, but for now the people could breathe.
After idealistic clashes, a nine month old war, a regicide and a siege and massacre, they breathe and cannot taste the ash.
But the city of Sina buzzed in chaos. Taverns, inns and shops in the marketplace were all rumors, not only of the war's outcome, but of unbelievable things, too... things for skeptics and heretics, things from dreams and tales. Things of monsters. People saw the smoke and fire, rumors from Stohess's region said that the battle had been nightmarish, that they refused to believe in the monster soaring through the sky, roaring and screeching and burning everything.
Together with that faint whisper of a werewolf sighted on the road a month ago, and a fresher rumor of two murdered soldiers in the valorous Reiss Manor enshrouded in similar mystic conspiracies; these were just too many rumors of the same kind. The very ones the Church repented, from the literature they banished and censored, from preaches of believers they hunted and tortured.
The people weren't happy to learn they had been wrongly punished.
Started whispering poison and planning riots.
The Inquisition struggled to maintain the iron fist over the people, hunting down these new 'heretics', imprisoning them in underground dungeons, with no food or drink and barely any clothes, before bringing them to their hellish tortures and then burning them on a public square - warning flames, ashes of martyrs.
They worked with fear like they always did, but forgot they felt it too.
The first riot occurred inside their church. Seven priests were butchered in the altar, screams breaking the eerie silence and bouncing against dark walls and windows, blood on robes and cold stone floor.
Eventually, the Military Police arrested the four rioters and closed the church to clean the crime scene and bury the bodies.
Only three mere days after the Battle on Stohess, rumors had burst and an Inquisition had been challenged.
Commander Erwin Smith resided in his house's office, in the noble district. Scrolls and dusted, beige parchments littered his desk. His quill bruised his journal's pages with black, delicate calligraphy, the tempest outside muted by his concentrated scribbling. A candle melted inside his lamp, casting shadows on his face and hands and over the creases and foils of his white shirt.
He detailed his plans now that the Savage attacks had receded, intending to dispatch squads to scout the battlefield and possibly track the Savage's whereabouts. He also wanted to relieve the vanguard, return them to their homes, if circumstances allowed it.
He was well aware of their weariness, but if the Realm were to need them here, that's where they would stay.
He had also revised the Scouting Legion's state.
Military-wise, they were in quite a drastic situation with all the casualties they suffered. Sure, they've just recruited seventy-two new scouts from the 104th, and new recruits were enlisting on Rose and Maria Headquarters from other training camps, but that couldn't possibly hope to refill the gaping hole on their manpower.
And Erwin Smith really couldn't find comfort in the possibility that he wouldn't require many men after the Savage's retreat.
And on the other hand, their economical hindrance was as expected - wars aren't cheap, as is common knowledge. A lot of supplies to purchase for smelting new weapons and armors, they'd probably also require the breeding of more horses, the ones the trainees brought belonged to Shadis and would soon need to return to their owner. They would also need to eventually renovate HQ for the newcomers.
He would need a loan from the High Constable, and the Scouts were already costing the crown quite a bit of coin due to their constant suicidal missions…
With a slow furrow of his thick eyebrows and a slight turn of his neck, Erwin quizzically set down his quill when he heard the abrupt, loud and impatient hammering against his door.
For instances he was about to blame the exterior storm and city noise, when the knocking echoed again through the house.
"Military Police!"he heard, "Lord-Commander Erwin Smith, open the door!"
He scrunched his nose, his dusty-golden eyebrows casting a shadow on his azure eyes.
'I guess my time's over.' His thoughts and face were devoid of bitterness or worry 'Still… three days, Nile? That's quite the delay.'
He dragged his chair, smoothed his clothes, and strode towards his front door, his footsteps silent over the carpet on his dark hallway as he walked past his bedroom, the kitchen and dining room and then eventually his hall and front door, vibrating as another sequence of rude knocks sprung from outside.
"Erwin, I know you're awake, open up! It's Nile!"
He opened the door and offered a neutral expression at the other Commander and his five accompanying knights, cloaks soaking against their wet armors.
"Good evening, Nile. Sirs." He said as he bowed his head.
"Erwin Smith," Nile said, scowling conspicuously, ignoring trivialities and barking over the crashing water and rumbling thunder, "With the power of authority conceded to me as Knight and Lord-Commander of the Military Police, I hereby declare your arrestment for plotting without the High-Constable's admission, and abusing of your power over Sina's defenses under times of war, risking the safety of this castle and its citizens, and the lives of your subordinates."
Erwin hummed quietly, relaxing his features. He could taste in Nile's words how much he was enjoying finally subduing him, he saw the sparkle in his eyes and the malicious, subtle, almost unnoticeable, quirk at the corner of his lips.
He opted to smirk too, "I'm not allowed to say anything in my defense…?"
"You're allowed to remain silent." He looked over his shoulder to bark again "Cuff him!"
Erwin didn't protest when two knights approached him with rusty, cold chains and adorned his wrists with the rain-washed metal ornaments. He rolled his wrists and stretched his fingers, chains clinking and whistling as he moved.
"Honestly…" Nile said mischievously "…you weren't expecting to pull on people's strings forever… were you, Erwin?"
The blonde smirked gently, "I was conscious of this outcome."
"You still did it, though."
"It avoided a siege." He said wisely, broadening his smirk and tilting his head.
"Why did you do it?" Nile asked, bitterness in his curiosity.
"It's a complicated and long tale. We don't want to make the Lord High-Constable wait, do we?"
She arrived at Sina fairly early, three hours on horseback, a brief break for cheap beer and aged bread in between. She led her horse inside the vanguard's camp, offering smiles and nods to those who greeted her or called her exhilaratingly, and trotted towards somewhere where she could stable her horse. Then, she walked calmly towards the map tent, stopping in front of the structure, staring at the layers of soaked white canvas, closed in front of her.
Inside, Levi's monotonous, calculated voice echoed "That fucking idiot… leaving this whole mess behind for me to clean…" He sighed heavily, possibly pacing slowly and pressing his digits into his tense forehead.
There was a contemplative, prolonged silence.
'Idiot…?' she repeated 'Which idiot..?'
Eventually, Levi spoke sternly again "First we need to scout the battlefield. Search for survivors, no matter how unlikely that may be, and track the Savages. Those were his final orders."
By the disdain in Levi's bored tone, she made a pretty solid guess on who he was talking about.
'What the hell happened? Did Erwin die?'
She opted for that moment to ungraciously spread open the tent's canvas, hunching and stepping inside, straightening her back to remove the drenched brown hood form her head, looking at them casually and amusingly as she set silence in the reunion between Mike, Nanaba, Levi, Keiji, Ian and Pixis, all looking at her like she were a vision, blazing their disbelieving eyes, freezing their hearts and minds.
Mike and Nanaba stared. Keiji looked stupid with his wide eyes and limp lower jaw. Pixis and Ian stared too. Even Lieutenant fucking Levi was stupefied, thin indigo strips gleaming in his widened, otherwise sharp and old, grey eyes, his whole body tense and still like stone.
"Oh, by all means, carry on. I didn't mean to interrupt." she said, hanging her soaking cloak and removing her equally soaked gloves, placing them atop a nearby table, and taming her damp and messy ponytail and bangs with her fingers.
Keiji was the first to speak, blinking his drying eyes and inhaling before blurting out an exasperated "S-Squad Leader?!"
Hanji grinned at him, hands on her hips, "Why hello there, Keiji! How are you fairing? Horrible weather lately, won't you agree?" she said "But if you don't mind me asking; what are you doing in a military reunion between superior officers?"
"I… a-after that battle and your… supposed demise…" he said hesitantly, keeping eye contact "I was promoted and took leadership of the squad…"
"Ooh…?" she chirped with an arched eyebrow "I wasn't even off for a week and you were immediately promoted? Just how badly did you guys want to get rid of me?"
"I-It's not like-"
"Didn't you die?" Levi interrupted very seriously and very calmly and slowly, his eyes still very wide and his body still quite rigid. Such abrupt statement and unusual body language proved his prevailing shock.
At his unchivalrous question, she chortled.
"Close." She said, pointing assertively at him before walking towards him "Speared a dragon's eye and didn't let go soon enough. It went berserk, flailing its head and raising its neck. I rolled down its back, got a few cuts and bruises… and then hit my head somewhere, and that's where everything turned black. I suppose I lost my consciousness before falling to the ground. The warrior's must have mistaken me for dead, lying unmoving and bloodied… so I waited until I felt the area was clear, managed a horse, then rode to Shadis's castle, where I rested and healed before heading back here."
Most members blinked confusingly at the simple explanation, like the occasion was an absurdly common thing to happen to anyone… meeting dragons and losing consciousness in battles and miraculously managing escaping alive.
"Pardon the delay." She finished, setting beside Levi, crossing her arms across her chest and resting her weight on one foot. Her dark green shirt wrinkled and rustled as she moved, too loose on her, like her brown vest, and Levi cringed at the soft stains and tears from usage. Looking down, he could see the creases on her black pants when she tried to fit them inside her boots, which luckily fit her.
Loaned clothes, by Shadis, when she had had to discard her torn and bloodied uniform, he deduced.
He couldn't see volumes of splints, so he only imagined ugly stitches and fading bruises, along with that small scar on her left temple, just grazing her eyebrow, and he wondered if she had made that while falling down the creature, cutting herself on some horn or scale.
"How the fuck did you manage a horse?" Levi murmured curiously then, narrowing his eyes and furrowing as he overcame his previous astonishment.
Hanji shrugged, "I stole one in Stohess, from the Savages. It wasn't particularly hard… most of the warriors were trying to tame the dragon, so I had a pretty clear path."
There was an uncomfortable, but justified, silence amidst the soldiers, stricken of the appearance of the death-cheating woman.
And then Mike chuckled throatily, his first prolonged and genuine fit of laughter in months, "You're unbelievable. This is unbelievable." He said with his hands digging into his face, shaking his shoulders as he muffled chuckles.
Beside him, Nanaba smirked and slowly shook her head at the brunette.
Mike sighed longingly, removing his hands and walking towards Hanji, slapping her shoulder playfully as he smirked "During this war I had thought I had seen it all, Hanji. But this… kidding death… it's absurd, I would have never expected that.
She seemed puzzled, tilting her head, "I'm not sure I follow?"
"But it definitely fits your nature." He said absentmindedly, ignoring her confusion. He offered one final chuckle before removing his hand "I'm glad you're back."
"Me too." Nanaba confessed with a smile.
"We all are." Pixis said at the head of the table, fingers on its surface, arms tense and eyes sober, shrouded by his grayed eyebrows and all those wrinkles "And I do believe this deserves a glass of wine, but unfortunately there are matters that need our attention."
"I thought you drank and commanded, milord?" Hanji teased, earning a stare by Lieutenant Ian.
Pixis laughed, "I wish I did, Squad Leader. It would definitely make work a whole lot more entertaining."
She chuckled and nodded, "Definitely." Then clamped her hands and asked, "So… what's the situation?"
"Well, for starters, your Commander has been arrested due to planning without the High Constable's consent. He's not in jail, just under Military Police custody."
"Is there a difference?" Levi asked. Hanji snorted and Mike smirked.
"Well… in one there's piss buckets and hay sheets… and in the other there's warm clothes and confinement to a room…" the Commander retorted and Levi huffed. Pixis then turned back to Hanji to judge her reaction.
"Why didn't they arrest you, Lord-Commander?" she asked "You and Erwin had been tasked with castle defenses, his strategies are your own, no? You were involved, guilty as well according to MP's… correct?"
"Erwin spoke in my defense. The MPs were very forgiving."
Pixis uncomfortably switched his footing, "They… do have a personal quarrel with the Scouting Legion…"
"I bet Nile jumped at the opportunity to arrest Erwin. I bet he drooled and hopped like a bitch." Levi muttered, his arms crossed, "Senile, sleazy low life and his ridiculous excuse of a beard."
"Aside from that, there was a murder in the church. Seven priests, stabbed by four 'heretics'." he explained "The Inquisition is losing its grip on the people, because the people are learning of the monsters… too many rumors around."
"It's all you hear in taverns and on the streets." Ian said "The soldiers started it all when they returned from the forest, now the trainees are helping."
But Hanji's eyes widened excitedly, like a child gifted with cookies and ponies, a jovial blush coating her cheeks, a huge smile gracing her lips before she squealed gleefully. Pixis's and Ian's eyes widened, the other soldiers remained quiet and still.
Ah, how much they've missed this crazy bitch.
"That's… that's…" she sighed "That's the most wonderful thing I've heard in the last thirty years…"
"Isn't that a little bit too much?"
"Shut up Levi, don't ruin it." She warned vividly. The man's expression remained bored. Hanji continued "Don't you understand…? This means their wrongs will finally be paid… long decades of torture and hypocrisy… will finally come to an end… sure it's going to be a massacre, many people are going to die and burn… but, as Erwin puts it, no victory without sacrifice, right…?"
"You'd lead this revolution, Squad Leader?" Ian asked.
Immediately, the dreamy and childish face evaporated, "Of course not. Not until this war is over, no. After that, I'd gladly slaughter all of those pedophilic, sadistic, greedy leaches."
"We cannot let a civil war unfold." Nanaba said "We cannot handle the dead or the demographic and idealistic tension."
"We can't fight two wars at the same time." Keiji agreed.
"Erwin certainly wasn't counting with this." Pixis said "He had intended to publicize the truth about the monsters in a way that would prevent these conflicts… not spring them. But I suppose it can't be helped. The situation needs to be contained, and we also need to learn of the Savage army's location and condition, if we should prepare for a siege or any plot… or if the soldiers can return to their homes."
"We'll do our separate duties." Ian said "As Lord-Commander Erwin had instructed, two scout squads will track the Savages, whereas Garrison troops will try to tame the people."
"I'll go, I'm familiar with the terrain." Hanji promptly blurted, "I'll need a new uniform, though. My other one was… quite ruined."
They all stared at her voluntarism cautiously.
"Aren't you injured…?" Pixis asked.
She shook her head, "It took me four days to return precisely because I was healing, Lord-Commander. I'm fully healed now, no fractures, sore muscles, bruises or infections. I'm ready and willing to go."
He nodded, "Alright then, if you say so. I'll trust you're wise enough to judge your health." he declared "Who'll accompany you?"
"I'd wish to, milord." Nanaba said, limping forward.
Mike's head snapped in her direction alarmingly. Levi raised his eyebrows slowly. Hanji stared curiously. Pixis, Ian and Keiji merely watched.
"Aren't you injured…?" Pixis repeated.
"No, milord." She answered curtly, straightening her back, her face impassive and serene as her calming, pale-blue orbs fix on the commander's dusty browns.
"You haven't been in a mission in a while." Mike said calmly and slowly, knowing not to embarrass her, or himself, by bringing his personal feelings into a military reunion, swallowing his worry and need to snap at her recklessness, in favor of begging for her logic.
"I think I still know how to shoot and ride."
"Can you even crouch?" Levi asked rudely.
She slowly turned to him, slightly tilted her head and said shortly "Of course."
"But… your squad… it all died back in that attack." Hanji reminded softly.
Nanaba sighed through her nose, feeling annoyance bubbling inside her and prodding her tongue. This was absolutely unnecessary, in her opinion. She lost a leg, not her skills, she's still a capable leader a damn good shot, why are they hesitant?
"Who were the 104th's top trainees?"
A silence settled. Hanji brought a hand to her hips, craning her neck upwards and bringing a pointer finger to her parted lower lip.
"Hmm… from lowest to highest in skills… Mina Carolina… Thomas Wagner… Daz-"
"Which ones survived?"
"Oh…" she furrowed in concentration.
Levi sighed, "Connie Springer. Sasha Braus. Jean Kirchstein. Marco Bodt." He drowsily looked up at Hanji, feeling her surprised glare "I had nothing to do. So I informed myself of the new mutts."
Nanaba nodded once, swiftly turned to the brunette and said "There's my squad."
"Bodt's injured." Levi declared. Nanaba seemed unpleasantly surprised, "The dragon burnt half of his face, or so I've heard."
"Poor, little boy…" Hanji lamented.
"He's recovering." Levi informed "His friend vehemently defended that he would return as soon as possible, even said he'd join the Scouts."
"No matter," Nanaba said to Levi "It's a scouting mission… one less member isn't going to affect much my performance. And since he's willing to join, once fully recovered, I will gladly recruit him."
The commander smirked and nodded approvingly.
Due to the receding of danger and the appearance of this storm, the vanguard soldiers had taken the habit of resting in their respective HQs, preferring stone roofs to soaked tents.
Headquarters were grey and sturdy looking military buildings protruding out of the walls, very far away from Military Police HQ, next to the king's castle. While Scouts and Garrison HQs were dull and ugly, with moss and filth crawling up the eroded stones, MP HQ was pompous and majestic, and bristling and sparkling with its clean, white walls and windows and swaying, unicorn flags atop towers.
Mike listened to the rain. His comrades had retired for the falling night, after bowls of dense and unappealing stew and mugs of black beer. He could hear their snores ricochet with the dancing and cracking of torch fire and the swooshing of wind torrents against HQ's walls.
He walked up a stairwell, reaching the Squad Leaders' private quarters. His own room was along these dimly lit corridors, but he wasn't searching for it.
A minute of booming footsteps and Mike reached Nanaba's room. He knocked without wondering if she would be awake or not.
He heard the rustling of bed sheets and the whimpering of the mattress, the creaking floorboards through the void of her room. The doorknob clicked and the door opened, and Mike looked down at the surprised blue eyes and shadows dancing along her pale face, her white shirt messy from the bed, her pants' right sleeve empty from her missing limb.
"Mike… hi." She greeted quietly, supporting herself on the door "It's late, what are you doing here?"
He sighed a laugh at her straightforwardness, lowering his eyes to his boots as he thought on how to phrase his motives without sounding too much like a hopeless idiot, and he wondered, for the first time, just how much professionalism would he throw away by doing this, how much of their friendship.
He hummed thoughtfully, still quiet and still finding a lot of interest in his black footwear.
"Uh… Mike?" she tempted, searching for his eyes "What is it? You're uneasy, is something wrong?"
He briefly lifted his gaze, just a trade of cerulean glances, then he muttered "Ugh, n-no. Nothing's wrong." He said, possibly more to himself.
"Don't lie to me, Mike."
He sighed heavily, blinking before raising his head to look down at her "I'm worried about you, that's all."
There was a stunned lump in her throat at his sudden confession, so abrupt after his initial reluctance. She sighed too, annoyingly "That's unnecessary." she backed away from the door, grabbed her walking cane, and hopped back to bed, leaving the cane next to her bed-side table and sitting against the bed's headboard.
"No, it's not." He argued, following her in.
Nanaba watched him close the door and furrowed suspiciously.
"I'm a veteran scout, a Squad Leader. Just because I'm one leg short it doesn't mean I became any less skilled."
He shook his head, biting back a snarl at her stubbornness. But he opted for a quiet approach, more in his character.
"Even with a fake leg… you still limp, Nanaba." He said carefully and softly, his eyes gentle and his hands extended by his sides expressively "You're slower and less agile, and you know that doesn't work in a scout's favor, in your favor, in the slightest..."
She watched him intensely in silence, her hands on her thigh. He took that as a sign to go on.
"I understand that as long as you stay on your horse you'll be fine. And the fact that you're crippled doesn't affect your archery skills, I'm aware…" he slowly walked to her bed, sitting down, the mattress sinking and singing under his strong physique. He faced her and went on with the same suave voice tone "… but what if you're on foot… and need to run? Or what if someone gets close to you, what then?"
She listened calmly and quietly, and though through her eyes and soft furrow you could see her annoyance, she wasn't sighing, or rolling her eyes, or ignoring him, but he doesn't know if that is a sign that she's listening, or if it's just Nanaba's characteristic maturity, where such acts of distaste were beneath her persona.
He kept those insecurities at bay, looking at her caringly.
He grew bold with her silence and decided to take it a step further, his pulse quickening in his strong neck and throbbing in his ears, like a quiet but roaring drum.
He swallowed and reached for her hand, grazing her bones with his beefy digits, "You understand, don't you…?" he snaked his strong and big fingers around her slender ones, the harsh skin of his thumb caressing her knuckles.
"Your chances of survival would be… small." He whispered, boring his eyes on their hands.
Looking at him, all hunched and gentle and caring, so broad and tall, so short and flimsy, his words like whispered honey and his hand like smooth, ticklish feathers, Nanaba had enough. She understood him, she really did, and she was glad he was so loyal and protective of her.
But she wasn't a cripple.
'Except I am.'
And she wasn't weak. And she wouldn't die.
Her hand jumped out of his embrace and both her hands hooked themselves on his arms, grappling him down on to the mattress, her shoulders and head making up for the support her missing leg would have provided when she climbed on top of him.
He yelped gutturally and froze at her action, eyes wide, fixated on her calm and determined ones, breath stuck in his lungs.
Slowly, she set her hands on each side of his head, and he felt intimidated under such intimate motion, her gaze capturing his like hypnosis, her thighs brushing his hips.
"… N-Nanaba… what are you doing?" he murmured incredulously, unsure of what to think or say or want, or where to place his hands.
Honestly, he had expected this outcome. Hoped for it, really.
He was fairly certain of a mutual attraction, and knew they only ever needed a reason to reach this point. That, and their military life never offered many opportunities for them. After all, relationships between soldiers weren't very encouraged, especially during wars.
The prospect of her getting hurt had been a good enough reason for Mike. So he had come here with the intention of properly dissuading her, but to also finally have her like the woman he craved and admired.
But he had never expected for her to be so willing.
She sat on his abdomen, finding it difficult to stay on her knees, and opted to set her hands there too, flat on his stomach and feeling its warmth from beneath his shirt. Her eyes bore into his rising and falling chest.
While she contemplated, Mike decided to play along the lines she was thinking.
"Nanaba." He said tentatively, rising to his elbows, then to an uncomfortable sitting position, hands slowly crawling up her thighs, past her hips, then loosely settling on her lower back.
The blonde adjusted herself on his lap and sighed under his touch.
"Nanaba." He called again, one hand leaving the small of her back to cup her chin, tilting it so she would look at him "Promise you won't go tomorrow. Promise me you'll stay here, where it's safe, and I'll go in your stead."
Same hand brushed past her jaw, her cheek, her neck. She blinked twice, feeling shivers on her spine, her back, her arms, warmth on her chest and face from his body, soft tickles on her cheeks and mouth from his breath, and on her forehead she felt his messy bangs as he got even closer.
She was feeling so warm because of him, her body melting and her eyes closing. She heard her heart in her ears, and she sighed again.
She turned her head and felt his lips on the corner of her mouth.
"You know I can't do that, Mike." She whispered, her hands crawling up his chest to cradle his face, turning back to him and backing away enough to speak and think and look at him "The Scouts are my life, Mike. It's all I'm good at, it's where I learned and matured, and where I intend to die."
"Nanaba…" he growled "… be prudent, please…!"
Her hold tightened, her voice strengthened, "You're not going to stop me, Mike."
His hands retreated to her waist and there he felt her hip bones under his tightened hands, lowering his head as he lost to her, her hands sliding down his face and stopping on his chest.
Stubborn woman. He couldn't sway her out of this madness, and she didn't seem to want to… so maybe she was proud, aside from stubborn. And though he understood her, knowing she didn't want to be treated any differently because of her missing limb, he just couldn't bid her wish, treat her the same way.
Not after his mistake and her almost death, not after her pain and his incompetence and cowardice, all the guilt that haunts him still, that she promptly forgave.
And certainly not after holding her hands, or sleeping by her side or playing guardian for a month or so. Oh, and certainly not after any of this.
"… But I can promise you that I'll return, if that helps." she whispered softly. She must have noticed his ceaseless worrying.
He raises his head to watch her with cloudy blue pools, softening his hold again, "It doesn't."
She tilts her head, snaking her hands upwards, "Too bad." she smirked.
"Let me stay." He said suddenly, then he worried that might've come out too rudely, so he added softly, "Please."
Her response came in three seconds of silence, a bob in her throat, then a sigh and a kiss as she pushed him down onto the squealing cushion, drowning him in sheets and body warmth and dancing lips, fingers lost in hair strands and exploring skin as their night clothes crawled out of their boiling bodies.
Ymir was leaving Historia's quarters, her quick strides echoing through the hallways perturbing her alert being, her throbbing head and erratic pulse.
She had taken the habit of frequently informing Historia of the country's situation, of the war's progression, the victory and Commander Erwin's arrest, the murdered priests in Sina and, of course, of all the rumors of monsters from the soldiers.
Historia was very grateful of her work, and Ymir couldn't really understand why she was doing this.
For the first time, Ymir wasn't being selfish. No entirely, at least. Perhaps she was doing this to protect herself, because she was so lost in this whole werewolf and Reiss situation she would gladly accept any sort of guidance, and if protecting Historia could lead to answers, even if that wasn't entirely implied, then Ymir would do just that. And she hadn't noticed yet her plans for the future had completely changed through the course of the weeks.
And that's how her life had been playing.
So she eavesdropped and reported, and Historia scolded but thanked her, and Ymir protectively alerted her senses around her, and the little heiress was none the wiser.
And tonight was a full moon. But this time, Ymir was prepared.
Melted wax and spiced venison and wheat bread leftovers stung her nostrils, the faint scent of barrels of red wine and beer, and the soapy smell of recently scrubbed wooden floorboards too. Her masters slept, she could hear some of their snores. She could hear the whispered conversations between guards, talks of fights and food and women. The rain bashed against the mansion consistently, and it unnerved her sensitive ears to no end.
She went down the stairs, reaching the Mansion's first floor, its empty and dark Main Hall, a hallway to the kitchen and storages, another one to the library, many others to rooms she couldn't remember.
Opening the rumbling, heavy wooden door, the winter air slapped her feverish cheeks and rain splattered against her face and chest, and the full moon chanted unto her bestial heart.
She managed to contain herself, avoiding yelling and panicking like last time. Her dilated pupils found a group of seven guards in the distance, and she sniffed others quietly patrolling the gardens under a torch's warmth.
She slipped outside, carefully closing the large doors, and then ran along the mansion's walls until she was in the dark and silence, away from windows or a guard's sight.
She let the transformation take over. Surprisingly, it wasn't half as painful as was the first time, since she was expecting the same overwhelming stretching and breaking, like she would burst, but instead she just felt discomfort and the familiar pain of anatomical rearrangement, and then it was over before she knew it.
Her vision, like last time, was still a dreamlike realm, with hazy lines and images with blotched colors. And her sense of smell was even more acute. She could smell rain-wetted tree trunks and leaves, mixtures of mud and grass, the moss on the eroded and humid marble of the fountains, the ale on a guard's breath, the faint smoke and burned rags from torches and another one she couldn't place.
And that was strange, because she could smell this, she wasn't imagining it, but she couldn't define it.
And that troubled her.
She looked around, the scenery blurring as she turned her big, muscular neck, and then took another long sniff. The scent came from above. Her throat vibrated and her ears clasped against her skull, her lips snarling and her nose twitching as she pondered this.
She found herself wanting to dig her black claws onto the mansion's stones, but decided against it because the dents and scrapes on the wall would just spring more rumors and investigations, and the people were already inclined to believe in monsters, they didn't need to know they sheltered one.
She remembered just how far she had tossed that soldier, a month ago, and figured she might as well test her strength.
A few steps back for impulse and then a jolt through her thighs and she found herself jumping so high she thought she would crush her legs once she landed. But she didn't, landing with a loud sound atop the mansion's ceiling and cracking tiles and splashing water under her paws.
The smell was getting stronger now.
It smelled of snowflakes and honeyed peaches.
'That's one weird combination.'
On all fours, she started twisting her head about and sniffing repetitively, walking and following the scent.
Snowflakes and honeyed peaches turned into a scent she was fairly familiar with.
Under her paws she could tell the unevenness of the ceiling, and she found herself facing a tower, rain washing the tiles on its cone ceiling and tapping the window.
And she snorted.
'Of course it smells like her. These are her chambers.'
She jumped towards the tower's ceiling, almost slipping and falling but hanging on by clumsily digging her claws deep into the tiles, and she hoped this wouldn't come back to haunt her.
She carefully lowered herself, peering inside the window, upside-down as she was.
Curtains. White, she knew, but black behind the lidded and wet window in that dark room.
And that surprisingly frustrated her as she watched her blurred, disfigured reflection, her bared teeth, her dark and soaked fur, her small, dark eyes and her big ears turned to the sides, as she knew the little girl that was sleeping inside this tower, as her so familiar smell of fresh apricots and oranges, she was certain, faintly filled her through the glass and every other scent, and she wondered what would the petite, pretty blonde, blue eyed heiress think if she were to pull the curtains and gaze upon her, Ymir, the werewolf.
She growled lowly as she chuckled, imagining her squeal and her clumsy fall. And her face, oh her face would've been priceless.
And then the curtains were pulled in the void silence of the dark chambers.
Slender and long fingers gently and silently tugged the fabric.
And the rain was silent and her body grew numb under the searing water, and all the smells of mud, grass, marble, moss and tree trunks were nothing.
She could only smell ice, frosting her nostrils and burning her lungs and freezing her insides until little shards poked at her organs.
And Ymir looked at the palest man she had ever seen.
Pale blue eyes, the color of an ice sheet. His lips were a thin line, his face was bony, all angles and jaws and cheekbones. And she grew even more gelid as she gazed at this corpse of a person, shoulders square as he held onto the white curtains, face and eyes impassive and unmoved as he stared up at a werewolf's teeth and jaws, and Ymir was the one who was afraid.
She didn't notice the faltering of her hold on the tower.
She fell and flipped in the air, her paws slashing at rain drops and air currents and carving three long strips into the wall, and she didn't even think of how stupid of her that was.
She ignored the pale man as she desperately tried to hold on to something, anything.
Tiles cracked and exploded, and pebbles and mud flew as her paw tore a chunk off of the wall when she tried to grab it, water splashing everywhere, a panicked howl was muffled by the storm. Her claws marked the stones as she failed to hold on, and then she was falling, and she choked on rain water and her eyes stung from bolt-like droplets. Air shot out of her lungs when she collided onto the ground and crushed the earth, feeling mud on her soaked fur and her spine burning and her head buzzing.
But she had to move and hide.
One glimpse upwards and she panicked as she could not see the man in Historia's chambers.
Who was he? Why wasn't he afraid? Why did he seem dead? What was he doing in her room? Why couldn't she smell him?
She ignored the dizzying questions and pulled herself up from the mud and water with a groan, and she started running, ignoring her pain, ignoring how she was already healing, focusing on guards, on smells and noises since her sight wasn't all that good.
And she tore paw imprints into the mud and grass and almost crashed into a patrolling soldier. But managed to sneak behind him, careful as she stepped over mud and water puddles, and barks and pebbles that cracked under her clumsy, heavy paws, but she managed.
With one final rush through nature hallways and bushes, she found herself surrounded by tall trees, where the Reisses grew their lemons, apples, oranges and grapes, though the trees were mostly naked of fruit or leaves now, and just seemed like black, wet and slender monsters with many, many arms and claws.
She ventured deeper into these woods and ducked to sit to calm her thundering heart and think. Her senses were coming back, rushing with smells and sounds.
"So, you're who she picked?"
Ymir felt ice cubes grazing her throat, all of her muscles tensing as she quickly turned towards the sickening voice, finding the same face, same eyes, same thin lips now curled into a soft, defying smirk.
His purple robe didn't seem wet. He didn't seem tired from pursuing her, and his clothes weren't disheveled and there was not a single blonde thread of hair out of place, slick against his skull, smooth and pale. His back was straight, his hands behind his back as he took three slow strides towards her.
And again he scared the shit out of her, and she didn't even hear or smell him coming.
'Just what the fuck are you?!'
"I don't suppose you can speak, can you?" he asked casually, eying her jaws and analyzing her skull structure "You don't seem like you can."
Ymir growled, deeply and menacingly, drooling past her shaking, snarled lips and hungry jaws. She stood on two feet, back hunching naturally and long arms flexing and tensing, claws begging for use.
She was warning him. And she was angry that he wasn't afraid, that she was the one who was terrified and clueless. And she was aching to tear him apart and eat him, but couldn't understand this deep, deep hatred for this man, an almost natural hatred, but she ignored that for now.
He wasn't fazed by her offensiveness, instead taking one step closer and tilting his head, narrowing his eyes as he stared deep into her dark ones.
'What the fuck do you want?!'
"… Ymir…" he murmured "… that's an uncommon name. Where did she find you?"
'H-how in the f-fuck does he know my name?!'
Ymir stammered growls and took hesitant steps back.
'She? She, who, Historia?!'
"No, my wife." He answered, and Ymir's growls immediately stopped as her small eyes widened.
This was Frendel Reiss, she concluded.
The esteemed duke that supposedly never left his quarters.
And he's now calmly talking to her, as a werewolf, after previously being in Historia's room, while she slept.
And he was reading her mind.
She slumped back again, curling defensively and touching her hands to the ground. He stood still, watching her amusingly, those stupidly pale eyes boring freezing pits into her own.
He was reading her fucking mind.
He chuckled softly, a terrifying, deep and breathy sound, smiling lines adorning his clean and pale, shaved face, "Psychic powers are in my kind's nature. They're hard to learn, but with age and knowledge you can eventually grasp them."
She returned to growling, holding back her bark, remembering the patrolling soldiers.
'Just what the hell are you?'
He smiled again, "I'm Duke Frendel Reiss, head of the Reiss family, owner of some mead, wine, honey and beer companies, dear friend of the crown, husband of Beatrix and father of Historia. Pleased to meet you, Ymir." He said with a polite bow "Who are you?" he threw back.
'If you know my name… don't you know the rest?'
One hand was still behind his back, the other curled and stretched his agile and slim fingers as he thought for an answer, "Well, no. It's not that simple. Notice that just to learn your name I stared at you for three minutes. Learning more… would probably require hours and, quite possibly, a more physical approach."
She huffed, 'What do you want?'
"A simple task." He answered, stepping closer again, taking his time to cross the distance "I know Beatrix recruited you to… 'protect' my daughter." He started, eyes fixated on the mud he stepped with his fine, black boots, "Her protectiveness is… understandable. She's a woman, after all, and a mother no less. She'd do anything to safeguard her children, even ask for a stranger, a werewolf, to do her bidding."
Ymir didn't like the way Frendel phrased Beatrix's wish. Ymir wasn't being Beatrix's slave, and she definitely wasn't being manipulated.
"But I can't allow that. I've traced a perfect future for Historia and our family. A future where there's peace and order and a just rule, and nobody needs to be afraid of anything." He stopped in front of her, looking her in the eye and offering a smile "You'd like this future too, Ymir. You're a werewolf. You don't want to run, hide and lie throughout your entire life, do you?"
She growled and wrinkled her nose, 'What are you talking about? What are you going to do, overthrow the monarchy?' she thought sarcastically, then added idly 'Are you the leader of the Savage army?'
Again, his fingers danced thoughtfully, "Yes, but no. The Free People," she corrected as if tutoring a child "have their own King. No, I'm just an ally. An ally with money and power, and together with the Free People, we'll build a world of freedom and justice. Where the poor are fed and paid, where different religions aren't forbidden and where people like us don't need to hide."
'Sounds childish. A world like that doesn't exist. Humans are jealous and greedy – it's in our nature. There will always be men with power and ambitions, and there will always be pawns to do their will. There will always be injustice.'
"I never said I would make the perfect world. I said I would make a just world." He said knowingly, and her mind remained silent "And I want Historia in that world. I have a gift for her, I can make her better and superior, so she can survive better in this new world. Our kind is… how did you put it? Ah yes, powerful and ambitious." He sighed "Sadly, Beatrix… doesn't share my opinion…" he chuckled murkily "…even if she's 'ambitious' too."
Ymir grew ominous, 'What are you doing to them.'
"To Beatrix? Nothing. To Historia, I told you already – I'm helping her."
Ymir roared and spat in his face, uncaring for anything, moved by unexplainable rage. Her huge hand grabbed his neck, raising him in the air.
'WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO HER?!'
He kept on smiling, "Don't make me repeat myself… please. And I really think it would be wiser if you let me down and calm yourself."
'SHUT THE FUCK UP!'
His golden eyebrows shook briefly and his face contorted "Please refrain from yelling in my head."
Her eyes widened manically, and she felt her canine heart pumping ferociously, blood, liquid fire in her veins, and she opened her jaws and roared. Her muscles burned and her bones shivered, and her fur dried off from her steam and heat and raised itself crazily around her neck and back.
She turned around and threw him blindly. He grunted when the earth shattered under him and grunted again when he collided against a tree trunk, several meters away from Ymir.
She dashed at him, growling and barking.
He coughed and then sat against the tree. He raised his hand.
And Ymir felt like she had been enraptured in a bubble of void, stopping dead in her tracks, shaking with rage as she struggled to get past her shock and be set free of this trance.
He raised himself without much effort, his hand still outstretched.
"I can do more than just read minds, you know." He said "Previously, I was using 'telepathy', I'm sure you've heard of it. And this… this is called 'telekinesis'." He finished softly, then lowered his hand, and Ymir crashed violently against the ground, bruising her jaws and almost breaking her hands and snapping her ear, and then Frendel flicked his wrist up, and Ymir groaned and growled as she floated upwards.
And when he quickly lowered his hand, Ymir crashed again, the earth shattering around her, mud and rocks on her mouth and eyes, her left shoulder awkwardly twisted and its elbow broken, bleeding against the rain and the wet ground. And she whimpered and squealed, like prey in a cage, and tried to flee and run away from him, more human than her, more beast than her, but all she managed were a pathetic crawl and soft groans, helplessly trapped in the same crushing and glowing bubble of nothing.
His boot smashed her head, and she growled as best as she could, looking up at him through mud and rain water, and she could see his icy eyes, his purple lips, his white skin and the blue veins around his neck and wrists.
And all this cold and lack of life was all so bitterly familiar.
"Look Ymir, it's simple." He said, no smiles or gentle gazes "You abandon Beatrix, or I'll kill you. You'll keep on with your duties with Historia, but leave our family's business alone. She won't learn anything of this world, or attempt at leaving this mansion. She'll stay until she's fit for taking over the family."
And then he removed his boot from her head, and Ymir wanted to bite his foot off but couldn't even manage a growl. And he smiled as he said, "And when this world comes to pass… and the new one settles… you could stay with Historia. She likes you a lot, after all." He chuckled softly "And considering married life, children and business, she'll definitely need a lover at some time, don't you agree?"
After his mission that morning, Jean returned to Marco's home. He wanted nothing but to return to his own, remove his new uniform and bathe, then eat and sleep the day off. But his friend was injured from saving him, Marco deserved to know what had occurred in his absence.
Sasha and Connie wearily followed, wanting to visit the freckled boy too, and their Squad Leader came as well to personally summarize the mission.
It had gone smoothly. Essentially because all they found was a desolate field of nothing.
Charred wooden catapults and tents, rotting corpses and deteriorating faces, food for crows and vultures. Troll and horse carcasses, flies, a stench of rot and decay the smoke hadn't shrouded. And old blood and mud on steel, rusty from rain, on a vast, stretching sheet of ash the rain would still need to wash away.
And Stohess was just black, crumbling structures, broken windows, empty streets and dead bodies.
They stayed just enough to track the army, full aware of the disease positively tainting the air.
Splitting up, after twenty minutes of scurrying, they found a trail of multiple footsteps. It led to the forest, and the trail went on through shadowed lands and mazes of trees, and after following it for another twenty minutes, the trail ended.
With nothing in their power to do, they just deduced they ran off inside the forest, hiding in the mostly uncharted territory, perhaps travelling further through southern plains, or climbing up northern mountains. The Scouting Legion would just need to thoroughly scout the land, but for now there was nothing else they could do, so they returned home.
Nanaba had left the Bodt's household shortly after explaining the expedition to Marco, politely denying his mom's food and drink and then retiring back to Scouting Legion HQ to report to Levi.
And so the three fresh scouts sat by Marco's table, his mom chanting idly from the kitchen, and they enjoyed bread, cheese, sausages and mead, their cloaks on their chair's backs, their new swords resting against the wall.
"You're going to choke, Sasha." Connie commented to the girl as she wolfed down her meal.
She muttered gibberish in between bites, spiting bread crumbs and cheese on her plate.
Marco laughed jovially, and Jean watched with his head on his palm, muttering "At least some things never change."
She swallowed audibly then took a long swig on her drink, finishing with a satisfied sigh, pushing aside the plate and letting her head fall loudly on the table. Her eyelids seemed heavy and there was a tired, happy smile on her lips.
Connie watched his friend close her eyes and wondered if he should allow her to sleep now, instead of at home, but decided to let her be. So he crossed his arms atop the table and rolled his neck until it cracked.
"So, uh…" he murmured, then turned to Marco "How's your wound?"
"It's getting better. The physician says just one more week and I won't need any more bandages."
He nodded "That's good. But, you'll need ointments, or something, right?"
"I'm already using ointments. Every morning and evening, when I change bandages." He explained, fingers intertwining and untwining "But I'll need to keep on using those, to quicken the scarring, as well as vinegar, to avoid infection."
Jean watched and listened in silence. Sasha was breathing evenly, her head now atop her arms on the table's surface.
"I see." he murmured, scratching at the harsh, growing hairs on the back of head for a while, and Marco tilted his head with a smirk because he knew Connie was nervous about something he wanted to say.
"So, can we… see it?"
The boy laughed quietly, closing his eyes, his smiling cheeks adorned with freckles, "Well, I'd need to take off all of these just to show you… and it's tiring to put them on, so I'd rather keep them for now." He answered with a smile "Maybe next week."
"Oh… okay." He answered simply, lowering his head.
"It's not pretty, you know." Marco added, still smiling "It's really ugly. The skin's all torn and red, my eye's all sunken, there's no ear and you can see my teeth against the thin skin that remains of my cheek. Why would you want to see something like that?"
Jean silently watched Connie, arms crossed on his chest. The shorter fellow shrugged, still avoiding Marco's amber eyes, "Just curious. Maybe it would look good on you… made you intimidating, or something."
"Intimidating…?" He laughed again, shaking his head, "Alright, Connie."
The boy smiled embarrassingly, scratching at the table.
"You know… I'm itching to go on an expedition. I hate being completely useless like this, stuck in here." Marco confessed.
Jean sighed, reaching for his mead "I would love being stuck here." He took a brief gulp, eying the dusty green bottle as he swallowed "I'd trade horse shit and this fucking armor for food, drink and clean clothes any day."
"But the uniform's so nice!" Marco said in awe.
"Yeah, it is." Jean agreed, setting the bottle down to fidget with his shoulder guards, his counters and his vambraces "But it's itchy as fuck. And my balls have never been tighter."
Marco laughed again, hand on his face. Connie seemed confused with his open mouth and his slight furrow, "I don't think so… I love it."
"Then you, my friend, have a very small pair."
He threw bread crusts at him, "You stupid fuck."
More laughter, and then, silence. Connie trailed the table's wooden fissures with his dirty, chewed nail. Sasha breathed through parted lips, and the hazel eyed bow wondered if she was drooling on her new uniform. Jean finished his mead, twirling the bottle in his hand, and Marco watched him with a healthy hand on his burnt arm, over the bandages and shirt.
"Do you think they died…?" it was a very faint and soft whisper from Sasha's mouth, and it startled them all.
"What the fuck Sasha, weren't you asleep?" Jean cursed, massaging his brow, her sudden question guilty of his rudeness.
Connie looked down curiously at her eyelashes, shadowing her partially opened eyes, and arched an eyebrow, "What are you talking about?"
She drowsily pulled her head from her arms, unaffected by Jean's outburst "Thomas… and Mina. And Eren, Armin and Mikasa…"
"Oh…" Marco said solemnly. Connie scratched his head again, looking away from the girl.
"Thomas and Mina were killed." Jean said "Along with Franz, Dazz, Nik and the others. Hannah told me."
Marco turned to him, "Where's Hannah? Is she in the Scouts?"
"Franz's dead." He said, as if no more explanations were needed "She's in the Garrison."
"You think she would have joined the scouts if Franz were alive?" Connie asked.
"Well… they were a pretty noble couple." Jean commented, looking away "I think they would."
"I think so, too." Marco agreed.
"Then…" Sasha whispered again "… what about Eren, Mikasa and Armin…?"
Connie refrained from answering, resting his mouth atop his linked hands, on the table. Marco chewed his cheek, looking down. Jean answered for them, again.
"If they haven't shown until today…" he furrowed "… they're most likely dead."
Sasha seemed to panic with that answer, her eyes widening and moistening, her hands clenching and shaking "But…! Mikasa-"
"Is just one girl." Jean said very slowly, his eyelids blinking and showing his golden eyes boring at Sasha's wide and red light browns "Against thousands of Savages. Carrying Armin and Eren." The name shook past his gritting teeth, a hand curled into a fist, and he felt tissue and fiber tense and vibrate beneath his chainmail and his shirt under it.
"Jean…" Marco murmured, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder.
It was no secret to no one of the boy's feelings for the eastern girl, so this comment was particularly shocking, coming from him.
"She was… probably killed as she tried to protect that pitiful ingrate." he glowered and growled "That… that sad, sad brat… always preaching of vengeance and justice and shit… and then ends up dying."
"We don't know that!" Sasha pleaded. Definitely these weren't the answers her ears had craved. A tear slid down her cheek, slipping past the glimmering pools at the corners of her wide eyes.
Jean breathed a somber chuckle "And I ended up joining the Scouts before that fucking asshole." Jean rambled on.
"She better not be dead!" Connie blurted out, pent up with his Sasha's sadness and Jean's depression "Not after what she did… it… it had better not been all in vain."
Both Jean and Marco looked at him curiously, blinking consecutively with tilts of their heads and furrows. And Connie realized that perhaps they didn't know, that they hadn't told them yet of Mikasa's resolve that had condemned so many lives. And Sasha stopped whimpering and ranting beside him, to look at him with puffy and glimmering, stunned eyes and wet, long eyelashes.
"What did she do, Connie?" Jean demanded calmly after a while.
And they told them everything. The dragon appearance, Mikasa's evident intentions, Sasha's and everyone's failed attempts at persuading her out of her blindness and selfishness, and then how thirty-six trainees, of a group of fifty, died because she had traded them for her 'family'.
They didn't seem angry because Connie and Sasha hadn't told them. Maybe because this was so shocking. But mostly disappointing. And absolutely enraging for Jean.
As much as he denied it, Jean was as much of an angered kid as Eren. He was completely intolerant to insults, lies and bullshit, and often relied to violence when utterly unnerved, which happened far too often.
So, learning this, they would expect the boy to scream his heart and lungs out, bleed from his eyes and throat, flip chairs and punch dents into walls until purple and red marred his knuckles. Of course, this was all exaggeration, but Jean was an exaggerated guy, so they expected him to, at least, yell and cuss.
Maybe even cry.
But he just brought his hands to his face, smudging his skin, stretching his lips, cheeks and nose, and disarranging his eyebrows and fringe.
And hysteric laughter echoed in his hands.
Cold air licked his face like a kiss from a blade. His cloak and armor were damp, and snow entered through the hole on the sole of his boot. He couldn't feel his toes under his soaked sock, but figured that too much contact and they would freeze, and then he would have to amputate them.
But he was so tired he couldn't even move a finger.
He was so hungry.
And so, so, so cold.
He was starting to go numb. His tongue tasted like dirt, perhaps he should drink. But he didn't have the energy to crawl over to their little stash and reach for their waterskin. He would need to wait for them, inside this little tent of tree barks and snowed foliage, under this bundle of tattered cloaks, these rags.
Wait for them, so they could help him.
Perhaps those two would be lucky. Perhaps they would hunt deer. Or some bird. Or a wolf. He would even eat wolf if he had to… he was so hungry…
He had lost track of time, but he thought he had seen the third full moon through his desertion a few days ago, so perhaps it had been three months.
Three months. Three bloody months in this loneliness, sickness, hunger and thirst, amidst all this snow and all these trees, avoiding cities and establishments, the latter because they wouldn't want to pass out over steaming porridge and promises of sheets, cushions and a fucking ceiling, since they had no money to pay for it.
He remembers a highwayman, once. Eren killed him promptly, of course, and they took his money and anything else they could salvage.
But with that they had bought food and supplies, and there was nothing left to spend for a bed.
That had occurred in their first weeks of desolation.
Or had it been sooner?
Was it before, or after, they had to eat Mikasa's horse?
No… that happened recently, certainly, a month after they encountered Savages and ran for their lives, through the forest and up mountains, meeting pines, snow, wolves and bears.
So the highwayman was in the beginning, Armin was sure.
And somewhere in between, he remembers they had traded Eren's horse to some farmers, for vegetables and bread. And, of course, when night came, they returned to same farmers to steal money, more food and their horse back. But it eventually died when they reached the mountains, couldn't take the weather or the hunger, sadly.
Armin focused his hallucinating, screaming mind when he swore he heard hooves. Slow strides, digging through snow, followed by a deep grunt.
And he started to panic.
He was too weak. Food and drink he reserved to Eren and Mikasa, who were capable of fighting way more proficiently than he was. His bow wasn't nearby, either, taken by the others for hunting.
He heard a heavy weight and boots stepping on snow, furs and fabric rustling together with steel plates as strides brought this intruder through a path of white towards him.
Armin was famished and thirsty and sick.
A solid punch could kill him.
But he could use the knife in his shaking hands. Play asleep, control the fear and shaking, avoid sobbing or clattering his teeth, just until he was close enough so he could slit his throat.
He just hoped the blade was sharp enough.
He was above him, he could feel his weight in the air, hear the cold puffs of air through his mouth.
A sword left a scabbard with a faint, metal chant, and Armin realized just how flawed his gamble had been.
He felt the tip against his shoulder, then a boot forcing him to lie on his back and look at him.
He was enormous, broad shoulders carrying a barbaric-like, spiked and studded armor, furs around his neck from his warm cloak. There was a round shield on his back, along with a very big and seemingly sharp axe. His short blonde hair was impervious to the icy air, his jaw were square, adorned by a thick, golden beard. His nose was strong and made Armin's seem feminine, his thin eyebrows were furrowed warningly.
And his eyes were too familiar to him. His whole face was.
"Greetings, stranger." he said, gentle as he bore a sword in his hand and Armin's fate at its tip, "You don't belong here. What are you doing here?"
And then Armin completely forgot the sword and his possible eminent death, and his dazzled, cold-numbed and hunger-hallucinated mind was absolutely sure of something. The memory was real, another face was fresher, but he remembers those eyebrows and eyes on aged parchment all the same.
"You're…" his voice scraped his throat and ice shards spiked his lungs, "… Reiner Braun…"