The Renz house was small relative to the other noble houses in the kingdom. With no male heirs, the heading of the house fell to Christa when she turned sixteen. By the time King Reiss summoned her at age nineteen, she had come to be known throughout the other houses and the kingdom at large as an angel of mercy, donating much of the meager wealth of her house and her personal time to houses of healing and the poor. She knew well the things people called her behind her back: “angel,” “goddess,” and “the golden lady of the land.”
As she was escorted to the capitol city of Sina, she wondered if King Reiss had heard of these titles, and if he put any stock in them. For the brief time she had been alone in the carriage, she put her hands together and prayed to the god of the southern lands that he had at least heard of her efforts and deeds. It took three days to reach Sina from her home city of Trost, and on the first day she managed to charm the blond soldier into the carriage for someone to talk to. He told her his name was Armin Arlert and that he was a captain of the king’s strategic corps, a designer of the art of battle. He was joined by Mikasa Ackerman, the captain of the king’s greatest fighting battalion, and Eren Jaeger, brother to Mikasa and one of her men.
On the journey, Armin told her the things she had heard faint whispers of in Trost. She heard of the fantastic glories of Mikasa, Eren, and their battalion; how they rarely to never lost soldiers in the heat of the war against the north. She listened to his tales of the savagery of their enemies, the wolves; how they were creeping slowly southward despite every effort against them. She sat there and tried not to tremble in front of him, but gave up when he himself began to shiver on recounting the wolves.
Christa did not know what the king could want of her, could not even begin to guess. It had been her dream to meet him ever since her mother passed away on the day before her sixteenth birthday. As they entered the walled city, her stomach turned to poisoned stone from nerves. Obediently she followed the trio through the palace hallways, and silently she came before the king.
He sat on his throne without expression, face covered with a rich silver beard and body covered in regal red and gold robes. Even though he was seated and at a distance, he loomed over her and made her feel even smaller than she already was. She knelt before him, wearing her finest robin’s egg blue dress, and bowed her head.
“What humble service can I offer you, your highness?” she asked.
“We have a letter that needs to be delivered,” he said, voice deep and rumbling.
Confusion took her. “Would…would you like me to be a courier, sire?”
“In a sense. You, boy, give this to her.”
She looked up to find Armin coming toward her with a sealed scroll. She took it, keeping her fingers away from the crimson wax imprinted with the Reiss house symbol of a lion’s head roaring. “Who shall I deliver this to, your highness?”
The room went silent. Christa looked to Armin, who only stared back with wide eyes. She then turned toward Mikasa and Eren. There was strain in Eren’s face; looking down revealed Mikasa grinding her heel on top of his foot. He pushed her away and said, “Sire, Ymir will have her killed if she sets even one foot over the north’s border!”
“She is not so hasty as you, boy. We have sent her a crow. She expects you before the end of autumn.”
“Could this message not have been sent by crow as well, your highness?” Armin asked.
“It is too important. We will have the girl deliver it personally.”
Christa had stopped breathing the moment the wolf queen’s name had been said. Because she could feel the command in the king’s gaze, she meekly asked, “Am I to go alone, your highness?”
“These three will accompany you.”
Mikasa took a half step forward. “But your highness, the war—my battalion—”
He cut her off with a wave of his hand; she fell back and lowered her head. “They will be led by Corporal Levi. You will not be missed.”
Eren opened his mouth, rage in his eyes, but Mikasa again stepped on his foot. She said, “Understood, your highness. When are we to depart?”
“At dawn tomorrow. The end of autumn is already near at hand.”
“Are we to go on our own?” Armin asked.
The king raised a brow. “Are you unable to read maps, boy?”
Armin snapped a neat salute, left arm behind his back and the side of his curled right fist over his heart. “I am able to read maps, your highness. It’s just that we will be traveling slowly with Lady Renz’s carriage, and we will be entering into enemy territory. Are we to have no escort of Ymir’s to guarantee us safe passage?”
“There will be one that finds you behind the walls. We do not allow wolves in our city.”
Eren snapped. “A wolf? You expect us to go past the front lines holding a wolf’s hand for safety? They’ll betray us by nightfall!”
“You dare speak like that to your king?” Reiss said.
Mikasa grabbed the back of Eren’s neck and forced him to bow low at the waist. “He meant no disrespect, your highness. He is exercising the caution of a soldier.”
“He will do well to remember to whom he speaks.”
“It—it won’t happen again, sire,” Eren said between grit teeth.
“See that it doesn’t.” He flicked his fingers to dismiss them. “Gather your supplies and be ready to leave at first light. Go.”
Armin helped Christa to her feet and squeezed her free hand when she was up. They left the throne room and the palace entirely. Blindly, Christa followed them to the barracks, staring at the scroll in her hands.
“Fuck him!” Eren bellowed.
Christa nearly dropped the scroll, and again when he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.
“You’re just gonna go?” he demanded. “You should burn that thing and run!”
The blood drained from her face. “He would brand me a traitor!”
“Better a traitor than dead!”
Armin gripped one of Eren’s arms. “He would kill her and you know it.”
Eren wrenched free of his hold and shook Christa again. “Which is worse, dying at the hand of the executioner or dying being ripped apart by the fangs?” He pulled her close to hiss, “You’ve never even heard of what a wolf does to a human, have you.”
She shook her head slightly, eyes wide.
“They devour us, flesh and bone alike. I have fought wolves who wear the skin of our soldiers as if it was leather. I have fought wolves whose mouths are stained with blood, even in their human disguises. They are going to do their best to kill us in the foulest ways possible, and they’ll go after you first for your soft body!”
Just as tears of panic and terror began to well in Christa’s eyes, Mikasa laid Eren out with a hard right punch to the jaw. As he lay on the ground stunned, Mikasa put a much gentler hand on Christa’s shoulder. She said, “I will not let that happen. We have been assigned to protect you, and we won’t fail you.”
Christa smiled a little for her and dried her eyes. “Thank you, Captain.”
Eren groaned as he sat up. “I still say you should make a run for it, but I’m with Mikasa. We’ll do whatever it takes to protect you.”
Armin patted Christa’s other shoulder. “You couldn’t be in safer hands, Lady Renz. Mikasa is the country’s greatest wolf-slayer, and Eren never gives up, no matter how many enemies he faces.”
“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Eren said. “You’d probably be able to negotiate our way all the way there if you had to.”
Armin laughed nervously. “I don’t know about that.”
“We’ll put our trust in this wolf guide,” Mikasa said, “however far that gets us before we’re betrayed.”
“You’re certain we will be?” Christa asked.
“Never trust a wolf if you want to live,” said Eren, crossing his arms.
“Caution is better than trust in a situation like this,” Armin said. “But for now we should buy the supplies we need. It won’t be pleasant if we’re stuck in the north when winter comes, so we should prepare for it happening.”
“I’ve heard that it’s possible to freeze to death in the north,” Christa said. “Is that true?”
“If you’re unprepared,” Mikasa said. “Which we won’t be if we go and buy what we need.”
They had to work quickly against the setting of the sun. They went all around the city to buy stores of food and clothes and cloaks that would withstand the cold of the north and its winter. They sold their horses for ones bred for longer and harder distances, and the carriage wheels were swapped out for ones designed for rougher roads. Christa was escorted back to her inn near the barracks after night fell, but she did not go to sleep. She stayed awake and looked at the sealed scroll.
It was important to the king to have it placed only in Ymir’s hands. He had chosen her to be brave, perhaps more than any soldier or hero the country had ever seen. He was asking her to venture into the wolves’ snowy keep because there was something to say. Perhaps it had to do with the war, which had lasted an entire generation already. Perhaps it was an entreaty for peace. This meant the king wanted to send her as a harbinger of peace, and he had chosen her over any other noble house.
Christa rationalized her fear away with these thoughts and greeted the dawn eagerly. She had been prepared to leave for hours before her door was knocked on, and she climbed into the carriage with a smile that baffled the trio. They set out from the city, but paused just beyond the north gate. When no movement seemed forthcoming, Christa opened the window and leaned her head out.
A blonde woman barely taller than Christa’s own short height stood before them. She was in black denim trousers and a white hooded shirt, hands tucked in the shirt’s front pocket. Curiously, her feet were bare, and Christa took her for a beggar until she saw Mikasa’s hand on the hilt of her sword.
From the driver’s seat, Armin called, “Are you our guide?”
“I am,” the woman said, and she began to walk forward. Christa saw Mikasa draw her sword slightly and heard Eren draw his entirely, and she felt her fear return. The woman did not paused and walked straight past Mikasa’s horse, which nickered nervously. She came to the door of the carriage and looked at Christa with hard, sharp blue eyes. “You’re the Renz girl.”
“Yes,” Christa said softly.
“Good.” In a flash she had climbed on top of the carriage. “Head north on this road until I tell you differently.”
“Get the hell down from there!” Eren shouted.
“Why?” the woman asked. “Is there something wrong with me sitting on top of your luggage?” When Eren did not answer, she said, “Thought so. Head north.”
Armin snapped the reins and set them to moving, Eren and Mikasa flanking them. They traveled for quite some time in a silence uncomfortable enough that Christa felt ill. After two hours, she steeled herself and decided to act the diplomat. Carefully, she opened the door and leaned bodily out to look at the top of the carriage. The woman sat with her legs crossed and her chin in her hand, staring out at the road.
“Miss?” Christa said. “May I ask what your name is?”
The woman looked at her from the corner of her eye a moment before looking back to the road. Loud enough that the others could hear, she said, “Annie Leonhardt.”
“May I sit with you?”
Annie looked at her again, and Christa was suddenly charmed by the fact that she did not try to hide the largeness of her nose. There was no movement or answer.
“Please?” said Christa.
Annie rolled her eyes, but stood up and moved to the edge. Crouching and stretching out one hand, she said, “Grab on.” Once Christa had taken hold of her with both hands, she lifted her easily onto the roof. They sat down side by side on the lone trunk and Annie resumed staring out at the road. Christa looked down at Mikasa and winced at the deep frown on her face. She shook her head when she saw Mikasa’s hand drift toward her sword again, and turned to Annie when both of Mikasa’s hands were on the reins.
“How far are you going to lead us?” she asked.
“I’m your ticket for safe passage into Castle Utgard,” Annie replied. “I’ll escort you all the way to the throne room.”
“Did you volunteer to do this?”
Annie snorted. “What self-respecting wolf would volunteer to be a shepherd? Ymir ordered me to get you from Sina to Utgard.”
“Then she hand-picked you?”
“I guess. Why? What do you care?”
“I’m happy. You seem like a very serious person, so I’m sure you’ll protect us.”
“Do exactly what I tell you and I won’t have to protect you at all.”
Christa was unsure of how to respond to this, and so went to a different topic. “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”
Annie looked about. The road was empty in all direction, and the fields beyond the road were just as empty. She said, “Don’t scream.” All at once, a cloud of hot steam erupted from her skin, blocking her from view. When the wind swept the steam away, Christa was left staring at something she had never dreamed of seeing. Annie had become a yellow-furred wolf-woman, considerably larger than she had before in all respects. She stared at Christa with her blue eyes, still human-shaped but with black coloring where the whites had once been. She flicked her tail to strike Christa on the back. The action garnered her a strangled gasp. Another burst of steam came off of Annie’s body, and she had resumed her human form when it cleared.
“See how my clothes are still on me?”
“If I’d been wearing shoes, they’d have been destroyed by my feet growing so large so quickly.”
“Why—why aren’t your clothes affected?”
“We think it’s a blessing from Lady Mond to preserve modesty. No one’s really sure.”
“‘Lady Mond’? Do you worship the moon, then?”
Annie sighed noisily. “Playing teacher to a puny child from the south wasn’t the task I was given.”
Before she could think to stop herself, Christa said, “You’re not that much bigger than I am, and you don’t look any older.”
Annie raised a brow at her.
Christa felt as though she had been stabbed in the gut with a knife made of ice. “I-I’m sorry. I’ve never spoken to a wolf before. I know nothing about your culture.”
Annie sneered. “I know all about what your kind say about us. You already believe I’m a savage dog. I can smell the killing intent off your guards. The boy still hasn’t put his sword away.”
She leaned around Annie and found she was telling the truth. “Eren, please sheathe your sword.”
“No. If she makes a move, I’m taking her down.”
“You’ll never make it to Ymir without me,” Annie said.
“Is that a threat?”
“Yes. Do you want to see how far you get on your own?”
“Stop it, the both of you!” Christa said. “Eren, we’ve been ordered to carry out a task by our king. She’s been ordered to do the same by her queen. We should cooperate and be safe together.”
“You can’t cooperate with wolves,” Eren replied.
“Funny,” said Annie. “The same is true of humans.”
Eren opened his mouth, but Armin called over his shoulder, “Lady Renz is right, you know! We’ve all been given difficult and dangerous tasks by our leaders. Shouldn’t we try to exceed what’s expected of us?”
Eren again opened his mouth, but stopped at the pleading in Christa’s eyes. Looking disgusted with himself, he sheathed his sword and spurred his horse onward. Mikasa went after him, and Armin sighed heavily.
“I’m sorry, Lady Renz,” he said. “Eren is—”
“A hot-headed idiot?” Annie suggested.
Armin laughed weakly. “I wouldn’t put it so harshly.”
Annie sniffed quietly. “Aside from the bloodlust on those two, you three smell the same. Even in our packs we don’t smell like each other as much as you three do.”
“Could it be because we use the same type of soap?”
“It’s not a soap smell.”
“We’ve been together as a family ever since we were children. Is that a factor?”
“Close family,” said Annie. “Do you sleep in the same bed with each other?”
“Fairly often, but don’t let anyone know.”
Annie raised a brow. “Are you trying to make a joke?”
“A little. I can just drive if it makes you uncomfortable.”
Christa did her best to ignore the fear instinctively called up by the animalistic snarling undercurrent in Annie’s voice. “I—I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ You’ve come a long way to guide us. And I’m sorry for how Eren is acting. I’m sure it’s just a soldier’s caution.”
Annie looked at her a moment before humming flatly and turning back to the road.
“May I ask you a question?”
“That seems to be the only thing you’re good for, so sure.”
“You didn’t answer me before about if you worship the moon. Do you?”
“We like to say Lady Mond only has one eye, and when she blinks we become human. We don’t actually turn into humans or weaken or anything, but we still pray for her to blink quickly.”
“What are you weakened by, if not the moon?”
“Why would I tell you that in the presence of a man who wants to kill me?”
“Oh—oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it!”
“We already know the wolf’s weakness, Lady Renz,” Armin said. “A blade deep in their throat brings them down.”
“Good luck getting to a wolf’s throat,” Annie grumbled.
“Mikasa is very skilled,” Armin said.
“Why are we discussing how to murder my people? Do you think I want to play guide to people like you?”
“I meant no offense!” said Armin, voice pitching high. “I thought we were being frank! And it’s not as though the wolves are blameless. Mikasa, Eren, and I were all orphaned nine years ago thanks to a wolf attack on our town.”
“What town?” Annie asked.
“Where is it?”
“A hundred miles due west of here. Or it was.”
“Well, I only ever travel the path I’m going to lead you on, so I’m not the one who killed your families. Stop treating me like I did.”
“I’m sure Mikasa is telling Eren the same thing,” Christa said. “Right, Armin?”
“I’m sure she’s telling him to calm down. Oh, here, they’re coming back.” He bade the horses to stop as Eren and Mikasa rode back to them. He asked, “Have we come to an agreement?”
“It’s the same as it’s always been,” Eren responded, glaring up at Annie. “You turn on us and you die.”
“I don’t feel like dying at the hands of the witch, so you don’t have to worry about a stupid move like that from me.
“‘Witch’?” Christa asked.
“The wolves call me a witch because they think I know killing magic to be able to kill so many of them,” said Mikasa. “I’m surprised word of me has gotten all the way to Castle Utgard.”
“Reiner can’t shut up about how much he hates you.”
“Reiner Braun?” Armin asked, snapping the reins and urging the horses onward again. “Isn’t he the commander of the wolf army?”
Eren laughed. “So she’s so incredible that your entire military is afraid of her? And you’re leading her right into the throne room of your queen!”
“And you’re going into the country of wolves with just one person to make sure no one kills you in your sleep,” Annie replied. “I think we’re even.”
“Please don’t fight anymore,” Christa said before Eren could snipe back. “It’s such a lovely day out. Can’t we just enjoy it?”
Annie looked at her with a raised brow. “You’re not asking me to make friends with you, are you?”
“Oh—no, I’m not trying to impose! I was only thinking that the weather is going to turn soon. We’re already in the middle of autumn and we’re headed north. Shouldn’t we enjoy the warm sunshine while it lasts?”
Annie examined her in silence.
“I know!” said Christa. “Is it true wolves have a form where you look like a dog?”
“Why don’t you change into that form and soak up the sun? I’m sure it’ll feel good!”
The silence did not lift.
“Is it uncomfortable to be in that form?” Christa asked, nervous about offending.
“You want me to relax?”
“Yes, exactly! We have a long road ahead, so we should start out well rested.”
Annie glanced at Eren and Mikasa. They made no move for their swords, though they met her eyes. Gaze lingering long on Mikasa, she eventually looked back to Christa. “Fine.” After checking their surroundings once more, she closed her eyes. Steam poured from her skin, and when it cleared, a yellow-furred wolf sat upright next to Christa. Annie settled on her stomach, eyes forward and tall ears up and searching for sound.
After a few minutes of silence, Christa leaned down and softly said, “Now I wish I hadn’t suggested you change forms. I’m so curious about wolves.”
You can keep asking me questions.
Christa stared at Annie, who stared right back. “Erm…was that your voice in my head just now?”
Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know wolves had that ability.”
Only when we’re in this form. We can’t make human speech like this.
“That’s amazing! Is it magic?”
Probably. If you want to know about magic, you need to talk to Ymir.
A chill slithered down Christa’s spine. “What is she like?”
Ymir? She’s very strong and extremely fast. She’s queen because she’s the most powerful wolf in the north in terms of magic, and she and Reiner aren’t that far apart in strength.
“Is…is she nice?”
Annie chuffed a noise that sounded like a derisive snort. She’s a brute. She likes to wrestle with Reiner until they’re both bloody, and they tie more often than not.
“Then is she cruel?”
Annie regarded her with her nose raised. She might take pity on you for being so small.
Christa shivered. “I hope so. I don’t feel any ill will toward her.”
Ever own a dog?
“My mother bought me two puppies when I was a little girl. They were very sweet and obeyed me.”
Obey Ymir like your dogs obeyed you and you’ll be fine.
Christa frowned. “I’m not about to be anyone’s dog.”
Except your king’s.
Another chuff of air came in time with Annie reaching up with her hind leg to scratch her ear. I’m sure.
“Then what does that make you to Ymir?”
A member of her pack. She’s our leader. I’m actually useful to her.
“And I’m useless to the king?”
You sure can’t win him his war. Can you even lift a dagger?
“I see no reason to carry a blade.”
We’re headed into dangerous territory. We’ll buy you a knife in the next town.
Even a weakling like you can get a knife into a wolf’s throat if you put all of your weight behind you.
“You think it’ll come to that?”
Better safe than sorry. I’m surprised your guards didn’t buy you one in Sina.
“I feel confident in their skills.”
Sure. We’re still buying you a knife before we reach the north’s border.
“When do you think that’ll be?”
Another ten days if we go like I want us to. I hope you bought warm clothes.
Christa smiled. “I suppose if I get too cold I can just cuddle up to you.”
Annie bristled, fur standing up along the length of her back. I am no one’s pet.
“I—I’m sorry. I meant it as a joke.”
She turned back to the road, but hit Christa hard with her tail. I am a wolf, not one of your childhood pups. You should make an effort to remember that.
“I will. I’m sorry.” Another great period of silence ensued then, carrying them through miles and miles. Annie changed back into a human when the roads and fields were empty again, and they soon came to a town.
“Hold it,” Annie said as Armin made to follow the path around the town.
“What?” Eren asked.
Annie jerked a thumb toward Christa. “She needs a knife.”
“Why?” Armin asked. “She has all of us to protect her.”
“It’s for caution’s sake,” said Annie. “You really want her left defenseless if something does happen?”
“All right,” Mikasa said, adjusting the crimson scarf round her neck. “I’ll take her.” She opened the carriage door on horseback and dismounted inside to help Christa down from the roof. She said, “I want to see everyone and everything exactly how it is when I come back. Am I understood?”
Armin and Eren saluted where they sat; Annie shrugged. Sighing, Mikasa led Christa into the town and, asking for directions, went to the blacksmith.
“What do you make of her?” Christa asked quietly as Mikasa perused the smithy’s selection of daggers.
“Leonhardt?” She set down one dagger and picked up another to test its weight. “I’ll be happier when we’re off this mission, but we’ve been given a good guide.”
“How can you tell?”
“Her eyes. She could tell our intent, but I can tell hers just as easily. She doesn’t want us dead, she just wants to get the mission done and for us to leave her alone. That’s the most you can ask for when your enemy is leading you home. Try to hold this.”
Christa took the dagger when it was offered, gripping it tight when the weight surprised her. “Isn’t this a little much?”
“The blade has to get through a thick pelt of fur and an equally thick layer of skin. It also has to withstand the speed and force necessary to cut from here—” She put her thumb at one side of her throat and drew a line over its front to the other side. “—to here before you’re grabbed or bitten.”
“How many wolves have you killed? I’ve heard it’s hundreds.”
“One hundred and four, currently. I imagine that number will increase by the time we reach Utgard.” She plucked the dagger from Christa’s hands and gave her another. “How does this feel?”
“Well…all right? Is there a feeling I should look for?”
“The proper blade will feel right in your hand.” She sighed again. “I would have made you a knife if we’d had greater notice.”
“You’re a blacksmith?”
“Every soldier makes their own sword. If we make it, we can trust our lives to it. It can be better to trust in the sword you’ve made than just your prayers alone.”
“Mikasa? Who do you worship?”
“The goddess of the east. My prayers to her to be given strength to protect what family I have left have been answered.”
“Maybe I should pray to her. The god of the south doesn’t seem to hear me.” She looked at the dagger in her hands and frowned. “I don’t think this works, either.” She looked at the table as Mikasa laid the dagger down. One in the far corner caught her eye. “What do you think of that one?”
Mikasa picked it up. “One edge, like my sword.” She put the dagger on the edges of her middle and ring fingers, raising a brow when it balanced easily. She flicked her fingers with some effort to toss it into the air, and slipped her right hand through the guard to catch it. Seemingly satisfied, she handed it to Christa. For her part, Christa fumbled with how to arrange her hand on the grip. Mikasa moved behind her.
“Like this,” she said, arranging Christa’s hand so her fingers were beneath the guard, knuckles aligned with the back of the blade. She held on to Christa’s hand and thrust out with it. “There, you’ve buried the blade. Now for the draw.” She brought Christa’s other hand up to push hard at the back of the blade, dragging it through the air with the opposite hand.
“That,” said Mikasa, “is how to kill a wolf. How does that feel?”
Christa had to bite her tongue because she knew well that Mikasa did not mean how it felt to be held like that. “Like—like I could hurt someone other than myself.”
“Good.” She let go of Christa and took the knife, heading off to the smithy. She came away five minutes later with the dagger and a belted sheath for it. They belted it to Christa before they left the shop. People gave them a wide berth upon seeing Mikasa’s sword on her hip, and they gave Christa odd looks when they noticed her dagger. True to Mikasa’s order, Armin, Annie, and Eren were unscathed when they returned. Annie got off of the roof and held out her hand. Fumbling still, Christa offered her the dagger.
“This will do,” Annie said, sniffing the iron and sneering. She gave it back and opened the carriage door. Climbing up, she leaned around to say, “Repeat it.”
“Remain on this road for the next fifteen miles, and then take the fork to the right,” Armin said. “There will be a town to stop at for the night three miles after that.”
“Good boy.” She got inside, leaving the door open. With little else to do, Christa had Mikasa help her into the carriage and closed the door behind herself. She sat upon hearing Armin snap the reins and looked at Annie. She was flat on her back on the other seat, legs bent right over left. Hands tucked behind her head and eyes closed, she looked as though she was already asleep. Christa, exhausted, settled back to drift off.
“Thought you’d be more cautious now that I made you buy a knife,” Annie said.
Christa forced her eyes open, seeing that Annie’s eyes were open and upon her. “Why?”
“You’re in a small box with a wolf. Wouldn’t anyone be nervous?”
“Well…I am, but…Mikasa trusts that you’ll do your job. You will, won’t you?”
Annie sniffed the air. “You’re terrified of me.”
“I am. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not giving you a fair chance. You’ve done nothing to me but get angry when I offended you. And the others are ready to kill you at a moment’s notice. This is probably the most unpleasant thing you’ve ever had to do, and I’m not making it easier. Can you forgive me? I’ll try to make it up to you somehow.”
Annie looked at her until Christa lowered her eyes. Suddenly, she said, “I gather information for Ymir. When she received a letter from Reiss saying he would send the head of the Renz house to her, she sent me to learn about you. They call you a goddess, you know.”
“I do know.”
“You’re soft. The wilder soldiers would love to devour you.”
Christa began to tremble, closing her hands tight on her knees. “Would…would you eat me?”
“I’ll eat weak humans, but not pathetic ones. You’re safe with me.”
“What about the others?”
Annie smiled, and Christa grew pale at the sight of her long, sharp teeth. “I’d love to eat the witch, but I don’t know a single wolf who doesn’t. The other two probably taste terrible.”
“Please don’t eat us,” Christa whispered, unable to raise her voice.
For a long time, Annie stared at her, face without expression. Christa tried and failed to fight down her fear, dropping her gaze to her feet.
“Not yet,” Annie murmured, and rolled onto her side to turn her back to Christa.
They traveled for the rest of the day in silence. Christa was unsure if Annie was truly asleep or just immobile. The only movement that came from her was when night creeped into the sky, and she lifted her head to sniff at the air. Closing her eyes, she changed into her wolf form and sat primly in the center of the carriage.
Here’s what we’re going to do. I will act as your hound in towns we stop at during the night while we’re still in the south. You may pet me.
“I thought I wasn’t allowed to touch you.”
We have to keep up appearances, and my not wearing shoes this time of year is a giveaway to what I really am. You may pet me and treat me like your hound while we’re in town. I expect to be fed.
“Of—of course. But…like a dog at the table?”
Scraps are fine. I would prefer that you order meat for me alone. Her ears twitched as the carriage came to a stop. You should also make sure no one else touches me. I tend to bite people without warning.
“Oh, please don’t do that,” Christa pleaded.
Then make sure you’re the only one who touches me.
“All right, all right.”
Annie inclined her head toward the door. Ladies first.
Christa, worrying at her lip with her teeth, opened the door. Eren was standing just beyond and offered Christa his hand for help down. He scowled upon seeing Annie as a wolf and made to shut the door, but Christa stopped him. Because there people around, she cleared her throat and said, “My hound comes with me, Eren. You know she hates waiting alone.”
He gaped at her. Eyes narrow, he whispered, “She put you under a spell, didn’t she.”
“I swear she didn’t,” Christa whispered back. “We have to keep up appearances. Please, Eren, just pretend she’s my dog.”
He sneered at Annie as she hopped out of the carriage. They regarded each other, Eren’s hand resting on the pommel of his sword. Annie did not wait for him to move, instead cutting between him and Christa to circle tightly around Christa’s legs and sit down at her side. She barked roughly and pushed her head under Christa’s hand.
Armin came away from tending to the horses, took one look at the situation, and laughed easily. “Milady, you and your hound. We can never separate the two of you.”
Mikasa came up from the door of the inn they had stopped at and said, “There’s two rooms to spare. They’re serving dinner soon.”
“Let’s get the trunk down and inside,” Eren said, climbing onto the driver’s seat. He and Armin got the trunk, carrying along to Mikasa’s lead. Christa and Annie brought up the rear, Christa feeling dwarfed by Annie’s large size.
“You’ve got quite the bitch there, girly!” a man said as they passed by his table. “Ever thought of breeding her? I’ve got a hound at my farm if she’s in heat soon.”
Christa put a hand on Annie’s back, feeling a low rumble building in her muscles. “She’s not old enough to breed yet.”
The man laughed. “At that size? She’d put out a fine litter. Let her come with me. I’d love to have a pup with fur like that.”
Christa looked down to see Annie’s hackles start to rise and stepped forward to hide this behind her skirt. Firmly, she said, “She’s not for breeding, not for you or me.”
The man’s brows rose in surprise. “All right, then, if you’re so dead set.”
“Come on, girl,” Christa said, stepping lightly after the trio with Annie quick to follow. They went up the stairs and to the last two rooms on the right.
“You and Armin take that one,” Mikasa said to Eren, pointing at one room. “Put the trunk in the other. We’ll be staying together.”
“But what about Annie?” Christa asked.
Mikasa looked at her blandly. “Dogs sleep on the floor unless you want to give up your bed.”
Christa looked at Annie, who looked at her with the same bland expression. They both were forced to step aside for Armin and Eren going into the room with the trunk. Armin and Eren rummaged in the trunk for fresh clothes before retreating into their room to change. Mikasa gestured for Christa and Annie to come inside, closing the door when they all were in the room.
“It’s the best we could do at nightfall,” Mikasa said. “It probably doesn’t compare to what a noble house had.”
Christa dropped down heavily on one of the two beds. She smiled. “It’s nice. I suppose we better enjoy it while it lasts.”
Why did you bring in the trunk?
Mikasa started, hand going for her sword. She stared at Annie, who stared back with her tail slowly sweeping the floor.
“Wolves can put their thoughts into another person’s head?” Mikasa asked, voice faint with shock.
If you want to put it that way. Answer my question. Why the trunk and nothing else? Are you that worried it’ll be stolen?
“It’s where we’re storing the message from King Reiss,” Christa said.
Out in the elements?
“We’re only headed into snow,” said Mikasa. “We’ll store it in the carriage once that starts.”
Annie padded over to the window and sniffed at the open seam. Are you ready for that now?
“Already?” Christa asked in a moan.
Mikasa frowned, going to the window and opening it further. A cold wind blew it, touched by humidity. She breathed it in until the wind died, and she closed the window completely with an even greater frown. “How many miles is it to Castle Utgard from here?”
Five hundred, and we’re heading straight to the mountains from here. Find her a horse, because that carriage won’t carry her much further than this town.
“Find us a different path,” Mikasa said. “There has to be a better way.”
Not if you want to get there before the winter. Do what I tell you.
Mikasa and Annie stared at each other, a muscle working clearly in Mikasa’s jaw. Desperate to break the tension, Christa said, “I can ride.”
“Lady Renz, riding for an afternoon is one thing,” Mikasa replied. “Five hundred miles carrying a pack through however many miles in the mountains with winter coming is another entirely.”
“It sounds like we don’t have a choice,” Christa said. “I can manage.”
Mikasa glared at Annie. “You’re sure there isn’t a better way?”
This is the easiest path. I scouted it out for horses specifically. There are no roads through the mountains wide enough for that carriage, and we have to go through the mountains if we want to avoid the front lines.
“Then it’s decided for us,” Christa said with a helpless shrug.
Don’t worry. There’s a stable here. And I’m sure someone will be glad to buy your carriage.
Still Mikasa glared, and Christa went to her to touch her elbow. “It’s really all right. Horses like me. I promise I won’t slow anyone down.”
Eventually, Mikasa relented. “If we really have no choice.” She opened the trunk and began to change into clean clothes. Though Christa, blushing, turned away to give her privacy, Annie watched her while sweeping the floor with her tail. Mikasa’s shirt came off and revealed a few scars here and there on her arms and sides. Annie tilted her head.
“What?” Mikasa asked.
“I’m a soldier. We all have scars.”
Don’t you know any healing magic?
“I know enough to close wounds. Scars are natural.”
I suppose they are for humans. I’ve never seen a scar before.
Mikasa pulled on new trousers and her boots and buckled her sword at her waist. “Then we’re all learning something today. Lady Renz, are you all right in those clothes?”
“I’m fine. And please, no more titles. The Renz house was never that important. Calling me ‘Christa’ is fine. And the same goes for you,” she said, nodding to Annie.
She chuffed air and shook her head, ears batting at the air. “Girl” is good enough for you.
Mikasa scowled at her, but Christa again touched her elbow. She sighed and gestured for both of them to follow her. “They’re probably serving dinner now.”
They joined Eren and Armin in the hallway and went back down to the tavern on the first floor after looking the doors. They occupied one of the last tables left, Annie slipping under the table to sit with her head on the bench between Christa and Mikasa. A girl came to them and they ordered; Christa received a strange look when she requested an extra plate full of meat for Annie. Food and ale arrived quickly after Mikasa explained about Christa’s name, and they all sank into eating to relieve the hunger of the day.
Fascinated, Christa watched Annie devour the meat off the plate on the bench, barely pausing to breathe at all. She did pause at one point, looking over her shoulder under the table. She looked up at Christa.
Tell the boy that the next time he steps on my tail, I’m ripping his foot off.
Christa looked at Eren with a frown. He responded by taking a drink of his ale with a cool expression. She said, “Eren, don’t do that.”
“Step on her tail.”
“Eren, don’t lie,” Mikasa said. “We all knew you’d step on her tail if you ever had a chance.”
“I saw you do it,” Armin said. “Let’s not fight at dinner.”
Eren tried to protest further, but stopped at the sight of begging in Christa’s face. “Fine,” he muttered into his mug, and took another drink. They finished in silence, Eren leaning back against the wall behind him with a groan.
You should think of this as your last good meal for the next month and a half.
Christa looked down to find Annie staring up at her again. Whispering, she asked, “Why?”
Because it’s going to be what we hunt on the way along to supplement your rations. She looked toward Mikasa and licked her hand. To her credit, Mikasa did not startle at this, eyes only widening briefly before she looked down. Do you have bows for hunting?
Mikasa nodded slightly.
Good. I don’t feel like hunting on my own for all of you.
With a raised brow, Mikasa lifted her head and set her eyes on Christa. Christa said, “I suppose we have no choice but to hunt if we’re going to go off the road.”
“Hunting?” Eren asked, sitting properly. “Are the rations going to run out that fast?”
“We’ll have to save those for the mountains when we can’t really hunt,” said Armin. “I’m sure we’ll have it easier with a proper hunting hound with us.”
“You’ll help, won’t you?” Christa asked.
Annie gave a brief bark and licked Christa’s hand as well. Reassured, Christa gently stroked her head. They got up from the table and returned to their rooms; Mikasa locked the door behind them.
You noticed, I assume?
“The three men at the table behind us?” Mikasa asked. “I did. I can’t believe they’d be so foolish as to try to rob us.”
“‘Rob us’?” Christa asked. “What are you talking about?”
“We’re on the road now. We have to be vigilant about highwaymen and thieves.”
And others who want to kill us for fun. Or my fur.
Mikasa smiled gently at the worry in Christa’s face. “You have nothing to worry about. I won’t let anything happen to you, and Eren and Armin are right across the hall.” She patted Christa on the back when she nodded once. “Let’s turn in for the night. It’s been a long day.”
Once Christa had changed into sleeping clothes and had gotten into bed, Mikasa blew out the lantern and set herself upright in the other bed, sword in her lap. Annie lay down by the trunk, and the room was silent. Christa fell asleep quickly listening to that silence, comforted by the sight of Mikasa.
When it happened, she thought she was dreaming. There was no reason for a man to be standing over her bed with a knife in his right hand and his left reached for her. Christa stared, wondering what she had done to deserve a dream that made her blood run cold.
A whip crack of snarling sound made the man turn, eyes wide. He did not have time to react more than that. With the faintest hiss of metal, Mikasa was up and off the bed, slicing off the man’s left hand. Annie came in from the other side, leaping fangs first into his throat. Wolf and man slammed into Mikasa’s bed, sending it across the floor. The man did not struggle when they stopped; half of his throat had torn away in Annie’s jaw. She let the flesh drop to the floor as she turned back around and charged for the door with more snarling coming past her bloody fangs.
A second, dim-looking man had stepped into the doorway on hearing the noise, and Annie ripped out his throat as well. The door across the hall was open, but Eren, sword drawn and blood, tossed his dead foe aside.
“Mikasa!” he called. “La—Christa!” He relaxed when they came out of the room unscathed, but stiffened again at the blood on Annie’s muzzle.
Footsteps started to come up the stairs; they could see light approaching. Christa looked from the light to Annie and quickly went to her, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms around Annie.
The innkeeper gave a shriek when she saw them covered in blood. Christa saw the fear in her eyes when she looked at Annie, and hugged tighter until she was understood. Annie acted the concerned dog, whining and lapping at Christa’s face. The innkeeper relaxed visibly.
“Call for your sons or whoever it is that gets rid of your trash,” Eren said, aiming a short, hard kick at the head of one corpse.
“I’ll—my husband, I’ll get him.” She hurried away, leaving them in the dark.
“What time is it?” Christa asked, letting go.
“It should be dawn soon,” Mikasa replied. “Do you think you can sleep any more?”
Christa thought of all the blood and savaged flesh and shook her head.
“Let’s put you and the mutt in front of the fire,” Eren said as he wiped off his sword on the shirt of a dead man. “You can rest where it’s warm, at least.” He fetched a long green cloak from the trunk and draped it around her shoulders when she stared at the floor past Annie and made no move to take it. He helped her to her feet and led her and Annie down the stairs to the tavern. They passed the innkeeper on their way, and Christa spoke faintly to her.
“Could you heat a bowl of water?” she asked. “I’d like to clean my hound’s face.”
“At once, ma’am.”
Eren made her sit before the still burning fire in a chair he pulled over before striding away. There was nothing for it; Christa stared into the fire and watched the man’s hand being cut off and his throat ripped out again and again.
That was the first time you’ve seen death.
“Yes,” Christa whispered.
It scared you.
Christa shuddered and closed her eyes. It was only when she heard someone say, “Ma’am,” that she looked up. The innkeeper stood there with a bowl of steaming water and a towel draped over one arm.
“For your dog,” she said when Christa only stared at her. She did not linger after Christa had taken the bowl and towel; Annie watched her hurry away. Christa got off the chair and sat in front of Annie, touching her chest to draw her attention.
“Please don’t bite me while I do this.”
I can clean myself just fine.
“Please? It’s the least I can do to thank you.”
Annie stared at her. Christa, already shaken and shaking, met her gaze somewhat steadily. Eventually, Annie sank down on her stomach and held her muzzle out over the bowl.
Get on with it.
Remembering when she had cleaned her dogs in childhood, Christa guided Annie to rest her jaw in the bowl, nose above water. She cleaned the blood from Annie’s fur and made her lift her head when she was done. Gently, she rubbed her muzzle dry, taking care to dry the spots where water had run down to her chest.
“Thank you,” Christa said, voice still soft.
“If it weren’t for you and Mikasa, I’d likely be dead.”
Raped and dead, more like. I saw the way they looked at you and the witch during dinner.
“Then I should thank you even more.”
Annie chuffed a sigh. I have a job to do. I’d be leaving you to the mercy of others if it wasn’t for that.
“You really would?”
You’re not a member of my pack.
“Oh.” With some warning, she put her arms around Annie once more.
Let me go before I bite your ear off.
“Just for a second,” Christa said, pleading. “I was so scared.”
And you’re asking a wolf to comfort you?
“Just for a second.”
Annie sighed again. After a moment, though, she rolled her head against Christa’s.
You owe me.
“Will Ymir listen to me if I tell her you’ve done well?”
There were a few seconds of hesitation on Annie’s part. You would do that?
“If it’ll help you, of course.”
You really want to help a wolf?
Annie slowly swept her tail over the floor. If I keep protecting you and guiding you well, will you tell Ymir?
“The moment I see her.”
She squirmed slightly to make Christa let her go and looked her in the eye. Do you swear?
“On the life you just saved.”
For a few more seconds, Annie was stone still. We’ll shake on it when I’m in human form.
Christa smiled broadly and threw her arms around Annie to hug her tight. Annie took the embrace silently, and kept her eyes closed until the others joined them.