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Wolves of the North

Chapter Text

There was a certain sense of shame Christa felt when the tailor had to roll up the legs of the heavy black riding trousers she tried on, and it only increased when she had to roll them up three times. She cut them, pinned them, and quickly sewed them with new cuffs. She did the same to two more pairs of trousers, and sold Christa three pairs of woolen socks, three heavy tunics that she pinned and sewed shorter, and a blue cloak that garnered the same shortening.

The sun had barely been up for twenty minutes before they had paid for their night at the inn and went to work. Eren remained with the carriage as the others headed into town for what they needed. While Armin and Mikasa shopped for packs and gear, Christa went to the tailor and the shoemaker. She came away from both wearing new clothes and knee high boots to match what the others wore. Annie, still wolfen, stayed close to her side even when she had been fitted for clothes.

They met back at the inn with their supplies, splitting up what was needed and what could be sold to lighten the load. They returned to the tailor to sell many of their clothes, and sold the carriage and luggage shortly after. The last part of the morning was spent selling off the two horses that had been drawing the carriage to purchase ones more suited for Armin and Christa to ride on. True to what she had said, the horses liked Christa so much it was difficult to pick one. But pick one they did, and they left the town with their packs laden heavy, the scroll buried in Christa’s, and Annie leading the way in her wolf form.

It did not snow that day, but the sun remained behind great iron gray clouds and the air was cold. Annie kept them moving against a wind frigid enough that they pulled the necks of their cloaks high on their faces and drew their hoods low on their brows. Annie’s pace was brisk; the horses trotted dutifully after her. Other travelers on the road raised a brow at the sight of horses and humans being led, but they did not put up a cry of “Wolf!” upon seeing Annie.

Very few breaks were given, and only to squat off the road or eat a ration. Much in the same way, very little was said. Mikasa, Armin, and Eren were grim after the previous night; Annie was completely silent; and Christa was too busy concentrating on riding well to try and strike up conversation. With the lateness of the year, they arrived at another town thirty miles onward just before the sun fully vanished under the horizon and the full moon came out from behind the clouds. Mikasa again procured the last two rooms at the local inn.

Once the door was locked behind them after dinner, Annie changed back into her human form. She sighed and sat on the end of Christa’s bed.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked, seeing her rub her feet.

“I’m fine. I haven’t had a chance to rest between trips.”

“Aren’t wolves creatures of endurance?” Mikasa asked.

Annie gave her a withering look. “Tell me that after three weeks of running with little sleep.”

There was faint admiration in Mikasa’s voice when she asked, “You ran the five hundred miles?”

“Mostly. I had to keep up with Ymir’s crow.”

Mikasa looked at her with a trace of a smile. “No wonder you were lazy yesterday.”

“Would you like the bed?” Christa asked. When both Mikasa and Annie looked at her in confusion, she said, “I’m sure it would be more comfortable than the floor.”

“Is that where you’re planning on sleeping?” Annie asked.

“I can sleep on our cloaks.”

“I know they call you a goddess, but show a little sense. You’re the one who has to ride for hours on end.” She started to continue, but gasped when Mikasa came over from her bed suddenly, picked her up under her arms, and ferried her back to the bed. The punch she aimed at Mikasa’s face when she was set down was dodged, though barely. “Don’t you ever do that again!”

“You can have my bed for tonight,” Mikasa said.

“That doesn’t change what I said! Grab me like that again and I’ll eat your right hand!”

Mikasa replied, “Try to do that and see how far you get with a cut throat.”

“Please stop,” Christa said, going to them and putting a hand on either woman’s shoulder. They continued to stare at each other, neither breaking the gaze until Christa stepped between them. She looked first at Mikasa, who looked past her still. When she looked at Annie, Annie turned away, eyes disinterested. Squeezing Mikasa’s shoulder, she said, “Thank you for giving her your bed.”

Mikasa hummed flatly and made herself a nest out of their cloaks between the two beds. She blew the lantern out and settled down with her sword in her arms, falling asleep in seconds. Christa watched her breathe for a time before lying down and looking to Annie. She put a hand over her mouth to keep from gasping. The backs of Annie’s eyes caught the light of the moon that poured in through the window, and shone bright green. Annie saw her shocked gaze and sighed, starting to close her eyes.

“No, please don’t,” Christa whispered. “Your eyes are beautiful.”

Annie raised a brow. “You say strange things to wolves. Are you planning on being this odd with Ymir?”

“What should I expect? You said she’s a brute.”

“I mean it. She’s vulgar and crass and takes pride in that.”

“Then she’s not like you at all.”

“No.”

Christa smiled nervously. “Well…I suppose it’s just until I deliver the letter.”

“I don’t think she’ll bite you, if it’s any consolation.”

“I hope not. I don’t want to become a wolf.”

“You actually believe that lie?”

“Can humans not be turned into wolves?” Christa asked.

Annie shrugged. “Maybe. It’d take magic I don’t know.”

“Would Ymir?”

She shrugged again. “You’d have to ask.” She rolled onto her other side, dragging the quilt over herself. “Go to sleep. The sooner we get to Utgard, the sooner I can rest easy.” She dropped off quickly, leaving Christa to listen to her and Mikasa breathe.

Christa watched the both of them for a while. They were similar in a way, slender but never looking frail. She could not forget their physical strength, and they cut commanding figures even as they slept. A soft wish crossed her mind, then. She wanted to take the place of Mikasa’s sword in her arms, or to press herself to Annie’s back beneath the quilt.

She smiled bitterly and pulled her own quilt up and over her head. The thoughts did not leave her until she fell deeply asleep.

-------

Born and raised in the flat land city of Trost, Christa knew mountains as shadows on the horizon. When they made better time than Annie planned and arrived at the foot of the mountains eight days later, she stared up into the misty peaks with her jaw hanging down. So long did she stare that Annie barked impatiently. Sheepishly, she spurred the horse onward, and they followed Annie up a stony trail single file.

The wind was worse in the mountains, battering them so fiercely that there was no hope to hold their hoods up. Even Annie was slowed by it, ears blown flat to one side. She turned her head back to look at them, and they heard her voice clearly.

We’ll get over the ridge to block the wind.

“How long will that take?” Mikasa asked over the noise.

A few hours if we move quickly. There’s no closer crossing point than that for the horses. She turned forward and walked fast against the wind.

They followed her, Mikasa taking the lead with Armin behind her. Christa came after him, and Eren brought up the rear. He was not allowed near Annie while on a horse, as he had shown a tendency to try to get his horse to step on her. Christa squinted for the wind in her eyes, keeping her head bowed. Her teeth chattered with the cold, which cut through her new clothes as easily as a blade. They went as quickly as they could with gusts threatening to tip them over in their saddles.

Once they crested the first great hill and cut through to the other side, the wind died at once. They were left with badly ruffled hair and frigid skin. Annie shook herself mightily and sat down to scratch her ears upright.

“Are we going to have to do that again?” Armin asked, patting his hair down.

Not until we cross to the other side of the valley and go to the other mountains there.

Mikasa looked out into the valley; a layer of mist kept her from seeing far. “How soon can we make a descent?”

Not for a few days. There’s no safe way down for a horse for miles.

“Let’s keep moving,” said Eren. Annie led them on, and they took great care on the path, as it was barely wider than the horses needed. With the wind gone, it was eerily quiet; Christa was sharply aware of the crunching of stones under hooves and the breathing of her horse. It was calming, and she stroked the horse’s neck instead of looking at the steep drop to her left.

It was dusk when they arrived at an alcove of stone large enough for them to make camp. With no wood to gather, they went without a fire. Annie, in human form, stared up at the waning moon and refused food.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Christa asked.

“I’ll wait,” she said, voice distant and eyes locked on the moon.

“More for us, then,” Eren said cheerfully.

Annie hummed flatly. Eren frowned at this, but concentrated on filling his stomach as well as was possible on dry rations and sips of water. Once their eyes had fully adjusted to the moonlight in the dark, they pitched two tents, Armin and Eren going into one and Mikasa and Christa in the other. Christa poked her head out to look at Annie, still so fixated on the moon.

“Did…did you want to come in?” Christa asked.

“No. It’s been a while since the moon has been so bright while I’m outside.”

“Do you gain strength in the moonlight?”

“More or less. Go to sleep. We still have a long way to go.”

“Good night, Annie.” Annie neither replied nor looked away from the moon, and Christa drew back inside the tent. She tried to settle to sleep, but could not help her discomfort at lying on stone. The grass that had made their bed the last week had been difficult to get used to, but rocks beneath her sleeping mat were another matter entirely. Eventually, she lay flat out on her stomach and stopped moving to keep from waking Mikasa, who had managed to fall asleep in her usual ten seconds.

Christa turned her head to watch Mikasa as she slept. It was uncomfortable, being in endlessly close quarters with someone so pretty. Annie did not help the uncomfortable feelings. Christa knew how awkward and twisted her attraction to the both of them was, and she had long since sworn to never act on or speak to her attraction to women. Who she happened to be was bad enough; she wanted no enemies in her life, let alone the high church. She contented herself by stealing these moments to appreciate how lovely Mikasa was, and to think on how beautiful Annie’s pride made her.

“Christa.”

She jerked awake at the shaking of her shoulder. Mikasa knelt at her side, her bedding already packed away. Embarrassed, Christa hurried to do the same to her bedding, getting it arranged in her pack while Mikasa took down and packed the tent. They set off behind Annie, who seemed to thrum with eager energy. Her tail was held high as they traversed the mountain’s path. Past Armin, Christa could see Mikasa sit forward in her saddle slightly, but could not make out what she said. There was no response to be heard from Annie, and Christa took it to mean that they wanted a private conversation.

“Hey, Christa,” said Eren.

“Yes?” she said, turning enough to look at him without pulling on the reins.

“Ready to go home yet?” he asked, smiling a little.

“No, I’m all right. It’s an adventure to go so far from home.”

Armin, overhearing them, chuckled. “You’re very positive, Christa. I’m glad you’re the person we were tasked to escort.”

“No shit,” Eren said. “Most other nobles would’ve pitched a fit about camping in the mountains.”

“I’m all right, though I’ll admit it’ll be nice to get off the mountain. Are you used to camping like this?”

“More or less,” Armin replied. “Our survival training brought us to these mountains years ago. But we didn’t use trails like this, so we’ve got no choice but to follow her to make sure we don’t get lost.”

Eren snorted. “She’s probably leading us straight into a trap.”

“Please give her a chance,” Christa said. “She’s done nothing but help us.”

“To trick us!”

Christa sighed. “Then why bother saving me the other night? She could have let any number of horrible things happen to me, but she did her job and kept me safe.”

“So did Mikasa!”

“But then don’t you see that they’re the same?”

“Don’t ever put Mikasa on the level of wolves!” Eren snapped, words so sharp they made Christa flinch. “They’re nothing but wild beasts!”

“Eren, calm down or you’ll spook the horses,” said Armin, patting his own reassuringly.

Eren scowled, but stroked his horse’s neck when it tossed its head nervously. Christa did the same and went quiet. There were no more words had between them until Annie brought them to a fast-flowing, crystal clear stream. Eren helped Christa off her horse and told her to dump out the dregs in her canteen before filling it with fresh water. They paused at the stream’s side to eat a ration. Mikasa caught Christa’s wince when she sat down on a rock.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“No, it’s nothing,” Christa said, smiling. “I’m just a little sore from riding.”

“You’re not getting saddle sores, are you?” Eren asked.

“Let’s go on foot for the rest of the day and we can check tonight when we make camp,” Armin said.

Christa felt her face burn. “‘Check’?”

Armin blushed as well. “I—I meant Mikasa can check!”

Her face burned even hotter. “Erm.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Mikasa. “Getting saddle sores now will be far worse than a little embarrassment.”

“N-no, you’re right,” Christa said with a faint laugh.

Going on foot is going to slow us down badly.

“If she gets saddle sores and they’re bad, it’ll be hard to walk at all,” Eren said, scowling.

I’ll just carry her on my back, then. Your horses can keep up with me.

“No, that’s really all right! It’s fine for me to walk!”

Annie changed to her wolf-woman form and came over to knock Christa hard on the head with a curled finger. With a deeper, rumbling voice, she said, “Not when we’re trying to beat winter. I’ll carry you.”

Christa gave in and mumbled, “All right.” They finished eating soon after and tied a rope to the reins of Christa’s horse to Armin to use in guiding it forward. Annie crouched down and Christa, wanting to die on the spot, climbed onto her broad furry back and was arranged like a child riding piggyback. They went off with Christa’s arms around Annie’s neck and Annie’s arms hooked under Christa’s knees.

“You’re tiny,” Annie said. “I take back what I said about you being able to kill a wolf with your weight behind you.”

“I can’t help that!”

“Once we’re in the valley I’m making the witch teach you how to use your knife.”

Christa sighed in defeat. “All right.”

“Stop sounding so upset. The first thing we learn as cubs is how to defend ourselves. It’s an overdue lesson for you.”

Christa hummed because she had nothing to say, and laid her cheek on the back of Annie’s shoulder. While her fur was coarse, it was still comfortable enough to rest her face there and close her eyes. Instead of dwelling on the ache in her rear, she focused on the smell of Annie’s fur. It was a cold smell, what Christa imagined snow smelled like. She liked it, and inhaled deeply and steadily to take it in.

When next she opened her eyes, the moon was out and they were drawing close to another alcove to stop for the night. She let Annie put her down and hid her burning face in her hands. Annie, changing to her human form, stretched her arms high over her head and yawned.

“How badly have you been sleeping that you slept that entire time?” Annie asked.

“It hasn’t been that bad,” Christa said through her fingers.

“Bad enough that you wouldn’t wake up when I said your name,” Annie replied. “You’re really a weakling, you know that?”

“Come on, be reasonable,” Armin said. “Nobles aren’t used to roughing it. I’m sure she just needed a rest after a week of hard riding.”

Annie shrugged and sat atop a rock. “Even your snoring was delicate.”

“I snored?”

“Sort of. It was kind of cute.”

Christa’s stomach did a strange flip. “Oh. Erm. I’m glad it wasn’t annoying.”

“If you want annoying snoring, you have to go to Reiner and Bertholdt. They have their own room half a castle away from everyone else.”

“Rooms, you mean?” Armin asked.

Annie raised a brow. “Why would mates live in separate rooms?”

“Then it’s not a sin for you guys?” Eren asked, sounding impressed.

“Why would that be a sin? Those two idiots love each other, so that’s all Lady Mond cares about.”

“That’s refreshing,” said Mikasa.

Eren laughed. “Too bad all the women are wolves, huh, Mikasa?”

She shrugged, busying herself with pitching a tent.

Christa felt her stomach do another flip. She opened her mouth to ask, but felt it too personal and closed her mouth again.

Annie, though, had no such reservations and simply asked, “You love women, witch?”

“My name is Mikasa Ackerman, Leonhardt. I won’t be offended if you use it.”

“Fine, Ackerman. Do you or don’t you love women?”

“I do.”

Annie smiled slightly. “Then we finally have something in common.”

Their frankness made Christa dizzy; she stared at the both of them.

Eren took notice first and laughed again. “You scared her! I bet you’re one of the blind faithful and want to turn them into the church!”

“N-no, that’s not it at all! I’m just…surprised.”

“Well, most of what the church says is a lie anyway,” said Armin, finishing the tent for himself and Eren. “So you’ll never have to worry about Mikasa coming after you in the night aflame with lust.”

“Can’t speak for the wolf, though,” Eren said with a sneer. “They’re just animals, after all.” Annie slid off the rock, picked up a stone, and threw it dead center at Eren’s forehead. As he slumped down, clutching his bleeding forehead, she spoke in a snarl that pulled back her lips and showed her sharp teeth.

“We only mate with one person!” she said. “We don’t act like humans who fuck anyone who gives them the slightest attention! We pick our mates with care to make sure they’re our best match for the rest of our lives! Don’t you dare call us animals!”

Armin and Mikasa grabbed hold of Eren and Christa burrowed under Annie’s chin before either of them could rush at the other. From so close, Christa could hear the horrible growling that was rising in Annie’s throat; looking down showed her that her fingernails had turned to claws. Not knowing what to do, Christa put her arms around Annie’s shoulders and hugged tight. Bit by bit, the growling died off until she finally relaxed and pushed Christa away. She changed into her wolf form and slipped behind the tent Mikasa had pitched.

Christa turned to see Armin holding Eren’s hand while Mikasa murmured sound Christa understood as Mikasa ordering the wound to heal. A faint golden glow suffused the ends of her right hand’s fingers, and she stroked gently at the broken skin. It mended, and Mikasa took her hand away as the glow faded.

Eren started, “But she—”

Mikasa clamped a hand down tight over his mouth. “We have been ordered to fulfill a duty. You are acting out of line, and you have been since we left Sina. If this continues, you will take every night watch until we reach the other side of the mountains. Am I understood?” When he tried to pull her hand away to argue, she gripped his face tighter. “Am I understood, or do you need to take all of tonight’s watches with no rations until tomorrow night?”

He stared at her in fury, but eventually nodded. She let him go and they neither spoke nor argued. Eren went to tend to the horses, and Mikasa went to Christa. Christa stared up at her, caught somewhere between suddenly bashful and deeply unnerved by what had just happened. Mikasa patted her on the shoulder and said, “Have something to eat. I’m going to talk to her.”

“O-okay.” She watched her go around the back of the tent.

“Christa, come sit here a moment,” Armin said. He smiled as she drew close and sat down next to him. He took out a ration of jerked meat from each of their bags and held out one for her. She took it and bit into it, and as she chewed at it, he spoke again.

“I’m not really going to ask you to forgive him for how he’s been acting,” he said, toying with his food. “He’s always been intense like this. He and Mikasa have never told me what happened the day they met, but I doubt it was good.”

“They’re not related by blood? Or by marriage?”

“No, the Jaeger family adopted Mikasa after her parents were killed.”

“By wolves?”

“The most Eren has ever told me is that they were humans worse than wolves. ‘Less than dogs,’ he said.”

“Oh. But—weren’t your families all killed by wolves?”

Armin smiled sadly. “Yes, back when we were twelve.”

“Then you’re all only twenty-one? But you seem so much older, and especially Mikasa.”

He chuckled. “I get the same feeling about our fine furred compatriot. I’ve heard wolves can live for centuries. You should ask her if it’s true.”

“I should? Why me?”

“It’s clear that she likes you more than anyone else.”

She knew exactly what he meant. It did not keep her from blushing and stammering, “No, no I don’t—no, she can’t. I mean—”

Armin’s brows rose. “You, too?”

“Please don’t tell anyone,” she whispered urgently.

He struggled not to laugh, though it would have been kind. “You have nothing to worry about with us.”

She shook her head and stared at her knees. “It’s wrong.”

“Is it wrong of Mikasa and Annie?”

She shook her head again and felt like crying. “They’re different.”

Armin reached out and rubbed her back gently. “It’s just like Annie said. It’s love, so it’s not a sin.”

Once again, Christa shook her head. “I don’t want God to hate me.”

“I think God is loving and man is stupid,” Armin said, still steadily rubbing her back. “The church is the entity largely responsible for the war on the north—they keep telling us wolves are an affront against God, but I don’t see it. There’s a reason for the wolves to fight us, but no one is sure what it is because of all the obfuscation and propaganda from the church.”

“That’s heresy,” she said, though without any heat.

He laughed. “I was roughed up more than once during my youth for what I say, and they attacked me physically because they had no good response.” He patted her on the back. “Life is too short to indulge in the hatreds of a church. I say you try to live happily. If that involves telling the truth and seeing what happens, all the better.”

She rolled the hem of her shirt between thumb and forefinger. “Do you think anything would happen?”

“The only way you’ll ever know is if you don’t lie and just let things happen naturally.”

She thought silently for a time long enough that Eren finished tending the horses and returned to them. He crouched down in front of Christa, nudging her on the forehead when she failed to look at him.

“Think she’d accept an apology?” he asked.

“You want to apologize?” Armin asked.

Eren shrugged, but said, “I’m not making this easy for us. We should probably stay on her good side if we want to get around safely. So,” he said to Christa, “do you think she’d accept an apology?”

“I suppose if it’s very sincere.”

“She might be too surprised to accept it,” said Armin. He laughed when Eren punched him on the shoulder. “You might as well try.”

“Please?” Christa added.

He grinned at her and ruffled her hair hard. “I guess I have to if the goddess wants me to. What’s her name, again?”

“Annie Leonhardt.”

“Think I should wait until her and Mikasa come out?”

“That would be the wiser gambit,” Armin said. “Eat something while we wait.”

He did so, and they chatted amongst themselves about how quickly the weather was turning. A little less than an hour later, Mikasa and a human Annie rounded the tent and joined them in a circle.

“Eren?” Armin said when Eren was silent.

Eren cleared his throat and looked at Annie. “I’m, uh, sorry.”

Annie raised a brow. In a flat voice she said, “Really?”

“Yeah, really,” Eren said curtly. “Can’t a guy be sorry?”

Annie looked at Mikasa, brow still raised.

“I told you he’d apologize,” Mikasa said.

Annie sighed and looked back to Eren. “You’re sorry for calling me an animal who can’t control herself.”

“Yeah.”

“Does this apology also count toward how you’ve been acting like I’ll betray you at any second?”

“Yeah.”

She regarded him for a long while with her chin in her hand and her brow raised. Just as he began to squirm, she said, “Then I apologize for breaking the skin.”

“You’re not sorry for throwing the rock in the first place?” Christa asked.

“No.”

“I would’ve done the same thing if I were her,” Eren said. “It’s fine.”

Annie held out her free hand. “Truce for now?”

Eren stared at her. “You want to shake my hand?”

She smirked toothily, an ugly thing. “I want to see how uncomfortable I can make you.”

“Fuck you! I can shake your hand just fine!” He grabbed her hand and shook forcefully. “Truce for now!”

“Now that that’s finally done with,” Mikasa said, “what kind of time are we making?”

Annie dropped Eren’s hand lazily. “We’ll be able to come down off the mountain tomorrow afternoon if we get moving early. If we keep a steady pace, we should reach the path up the other mountain in another two weeks.”

“And what’s our terrain after the other mountain?” Armin asked.

“I’m going to keep us in the forests and off the main roads. We can smell outsiders and I don’t want anyone at our throats before I can howl to the castle.” She looked at Mikasa. “You smell like death even upwind, and we don’t like that.”

“Hey, she smells best next to Christa!” Eren said.

“I mean she smells like a death dealer. It’s her sword. No matter how well you clean it, I can smell all the blood that’s been on it, even when it’s in its sheath.”

“Your senses are remarkable,” Armin said, smiling eagerly. “I know so little about how wolves really are that it’s a treat to talk to you.”

“I hope you’re not expecting me to tell you all our secrets.”

He held up his hands. “No, no, not at all! I just love to learn about the world and all the people in it.”

Annie lifted her head slightly. “‘People’?”

“Of course. You’re a person, after all.”

She hummed softly and put her chin back in her hand. “I am.” She looked up toward the moon and took a deep breath of the cold air. “Go to sleep soon. I’ll wake you early.”

“No food for you again?” Mikasa asked.

“There should be deer in the valley I can hunt. I’ll wait.”

“You better let us help,” Eren said. “The last thing we need is for you to be so tired from hunting that you get us lost or something.”

“Then I hope you’re a good shot, because I’m not fetching the arrows where you miss.”

Armin laughed. “You’ll have a good hunting partner in Eren. He never misses.”

“As long as he misses me.”

“We shook, didn’t we? You track a deer, I bring it down. As long as we get a fire going, we’ll eat deer steaks tomorrow night.”

“Go to sleep so we have more time to hunt while you can still see.”

Mikasa, having been eating a ration of meat, swallowed what was in her mouth and stood up. She tapped Christa on the shoulder. “Come on.” Christa followed her, confusion filling her. They went into their tent, Mikasa sitting down cross-legged on her sleeping mat. Christa did the same on hers, hands on her knees. After a few seconds, Mikasa said, “You forgot.”

“What?”

“I have to check to make sure you’re not getting sores.”

Christa felt a blush spread from her neck to the tips of her ears. “Oh. I—I did forget.”

Mikasa sighed softly. “I promise I won’t make anything strange.”

“N-no, I’m sorry, I’m the one making it strange.” She took a deep breath. “What do I need to do?”

“Just pull your trousers down enough for me to see where you hurt.”

“Erm…all right.” Wanting sincerely to be struck dead on the spot, she undid her belt and pulled her trousers down to her knees. She moved as Mikasa bade her to, lying on her stomach with her face in her arms. When Mikasa’s callused hands prodded carefully at her hurting flesh, she winced and drew in a sharp breath.

“Well,” Mikasa murmured, “it’s good we caught this now. Go ahead and pull your trousers back up.”

She did so, sitting gingerly. “Is it bad?”

“I want Annie to carry you for the next few days to let you heal.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It can’t be helped. You’ve never ridden this long. We’ll see about adjusting the saddle’s fit once you can sit up there properly again.”

“I really am sorry. I didn’t want to bother anyone.”

“You should have said something sooner, but we’ll take care of it. Try to get some sleep.” She got under her blanket, put her sword in her arms, and fell asleep.

Christa watched her again that night, still unable to parse what Mikasa had said earlier and what that might mean for her personally. Only as she fell asleep did she realize that Mikasa had changed how she referred to Annie. The thought made her smile, though she wasn’t sure why.

--------

Annie’s word proved true; they reached the path down the mountain at midday, reaching the valley floor before the sun was gone. She and Eren set out immediately and on foot to hunt down something to eat. Armin and Christa gathered firewood from a cluster of trees some yards away from where they made camp, picking the few apples that had not fallen off the branches. They returned with their arms laden, and piled the wood at the center of their camp.

Not long after the sun had set and they had started a fire, they heard footsteps in the grass and turned. Eren, grinning enormously, walked next to Annie in her wolf-woman form, a dead buck draped over her shoulder. Christa, fascinated, watched as they skinned and cut up the bled deer. In no time at all, they were cooking up great slabs of meat, and Annie in her wolf form devoured what they would not eat.

Christa ate with vigor, enjoying something she had never tasted before. It was warm in front of the fire, and she stared into the flames when she was finished. It felt as though it had been forever since her belly had been filled well, and looking at the others told of how their moods had taken a turn for the better with a good meal. Annie even came out of the shadows in her human form to sit between Mikasa and Christa, and they relaxed to the crackling of the burning wood.

“Annie?” Christa said.

Annie, legs stretched out so her feet were closer to the fire, replied, “What?”

“What is the north like? I’ve never heard stories about it.”

Annie looked at her a moment, but did not argue. “Quiet. We’re surrounded by mountains on all sides. Castle Utgard is built out of a mountain in the middle of the country. But we still have enough flat land to raise our meat and grow things. And there are forests with trees so high it’s hard to climb them in a single day.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Who doesn’t miss their homeland?” She looked at Mikasa. “Don’t you miss the east?”

“Sometimes. I couldn’t leave my family, though.”

“But I know how you feel about your parents,” Annie said, turning from Mikasa to stare into the fire. “Mine died in the war, too.”

Christa did what came naturally and put a hand on Annie’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Was it recent?”

“It was fifty years ago, so not really.”

Fifty?” Armin asked.

“Fifty-two.”

“Then wolves really do age at a different rate than humans!” Armin said, smiling. “That’s amazing!”

“How the hell old are you?” Eren asked.

“It was my fifty-eighth birthday this summer.”

“And you barely look twenty,” Armin said, scrutinizing her face. “Do wolves age at a third the speed humans do?”

Annie shrugged. “You’d have to ask Hanji. They’re the one who knows the most about the differences between humans and wolves.”

“Who’s Hanji?” Christa asked.

“A scholar at the castle. They're weird, to say the least, but they're really smart.”

“A wolf scholar?” Eren said. “I didn’t know you had scholars.”

“They're also a strategist, and they've been doing that since the start of the war.”

Armin’s eyes shone bright. “A strategist? Do you think they'll meet with me?”

“They won’t tell you our plans, you know.”

“No, it’s just that I want to talk to someone who does what I do! It’ll be incredible to talk to someone with more than sixty years of experience!”

“We’ll see how long you’re staying after you deliver the letter.”

“I hope not long,” Mikasa said. “It’ll be impossible to travel back this way with snowfall.”

“Isn’t it very cold in the winter in the north?” Christa asked.

“Utgard is built in a mountain with a hot spring below it. The castle and the town stay pretty warm.”

“That’ll be nice,” said Armin.

“It’s fucking freezing already and we’re in the middle of a valley,” Eren said. “The sooner we get to Utgard, the better.”

“We’ll stay in the valley for another two weeks, heading north against a river,” said Annie. “Then it’s a week on the other mountain before we can get into the forests that lead to Utgard. After that, it should be two weeks, maybe ten days if we go fast.”

“You’re certain this is the safest path?” Mikasa asked.

“It’s safest for you. I’d be going on main roads and staying at inns if it was just me.”

“Can you really smell our swords that strongly?” Armin asked.

“Yes, frankly, and didn’t you notice something strange?”

“Like what?” Christa asked.

“The last few inns we stopped at before the mountain were all talking about a rumor they’d heard. You didn’t pay attention?”

Mikasa frowned. “I thought I’d misheard, but I’ll trust your ears over mine any day.”

“What? What’s wrong?” Christa asked, feeling anxiety clawing up her throat.

“Word had it in the taverns that your king sent a peace treaty to Ymir.”

“But we don’t know that,” Christa said. “He didn’t tell us what his message says. And why would that be a dangerous thing to know?”

Annie sighed. “Because there are plenty of people on either side who wants to see the enemy completely annihilated, and a peace treaty will get in the way of that. We got lucky in the south because humans were scared of my fangs and their swords. Wolves are not so fearful. I want us off the roads to make sure we’re tracked as little as possible.”

“Are we in danger?” Christa asked.

Annie shrugged one shoulder. “Life is dangerous. It’s a little less dangerous right now.” She yawned and stretched. “Go to sleep. It’ll be easier riding tomorrow.”

“Eren, take second watch, and Armin third,” said Mikasa. “I’ll take first tonight.” She arranged her scarf high on her face as Eren and Armin went into their tent. Christa lingered, but went into the other tent after seeing that Annie and Mikasa would not move.

She pulled her blanket up to her chin and lay on her side to face the lit side of the tent. All she could hear was the faint crackling of the fire, but she was unsure if there was anything else to hear. Sleep came quickly on a full belly, and for the first time since leaving Trost, she had a dream.

It was a peculiar dream. She thought she woke on her other side with her face buried in Annie’s fur, hand on her back. Very muffled, she thought she heard Mikasa saying something. Letting out a breath, she snuggled in closer and fell out of the dream and back into warm darkness. Waking properly came from Eren shouting through the canvas, and Christa jerked violently to hear it. What she found on waking surprised her: Mikasa was not out from beneath her blanket.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked.

Mikasa groaned as she sat up. “I’m fine. I couldn’t fall asleep for a while.”

You couldn’t fall asleep? Are you really sure you’re all right? Should we rest for the day?”

Mikasa looked at her with the smallest trace of embarrassment before tossing her blanket off and beginning to pack. “I’m fine. I was just up late talking to Annie.”

“Really? About what?”

“She wanted to know about the east. I told her what I can remember.”

“How long did you live there?”

“Until I was seven. Then my family moved to my father’s home in Zhinganshina. Come on, get packing. We’ve made everyone wait long enough.”

Christa nodded and packed her gear with a practiced hand. They got moving quickly, and their pace was just as swift now that they were on flatter land. Christa was grateful to be on Annie’s back with how fast they were going; the idea of being on her horse made her wince.

It was a wide valley, but they traveled northwest until they reached a fast-flowing river. After crossing at a narrow point, their path kept them along the bank of the river; deer drinking from the water scattered on their approach. They kept moving for the entire day, stopping only to drink from the river or squat among the trees that littered the valley. Truly stopping came a short time before sunset, and Eren and Annie set out to hunt while the others made camp. Once they were done eating the deer Eren shot, Annie came out of the shadows and stood before Mikasa and Christa.

“Stand up,” she said.

Mikasa did so, but Christa looked at them both with confusion. “What are we doing?”

“Teaching you how to use your knife,” Annie replied.

Christa’s eyes grew wide. “But—but what if I hurt you on accident? I don’t know how to use it yet—I could cut you!”

“As long as you don’t cut my throat, we’ll be safe. And Mikasa knows healing magic, so she’ll be fine.”

Mikasa helped Christa to her feet when she did not stand, saying, “Do you remember how to hold it?”

Christa nodded and drew the knife. The weight was still so unfamiliar to her, and she could not help but stare at the blade, shining orange with the firelight.

“Now come at me,” Annie said, raising her fists.

“But I don’t want to hurt you!”

“I doubt you ever could. Come at me.”

Christa looked to Mikasa, who nodded wordlessly. Gritting her teeth, she held out the knife before her and took a slow step.

“What good will that speed do you?” Annie asked. “For the last time, come at me.”

Christa swallowed hard and ran at Annie. In the next instant, she felt and saw the world spin before landing flat and hard on her back. Dazed, the breath knocked out of her, she stared up at the starless, cloudy sky.

“Oh my god!” Armin said, hurrying over and kneeling at her side. “Christa, are you all right?”

“What the hell was that?” Eren said. “I’ve never seen a wolf do anything like that in battle!”

“My father taught me how to fight in this form in case I had to hide my identity in a fight.”

“What just happened?” Christa asked, sitting up slowly.

“Come here,” Annie said. She put her hand on the back of Christa’s neck and her foot at the front of Christa’s ankles. She pushed with hand and foot alike. “With the way you were running, it was nothing to flip you. Did you actually close your eyes before you tried to strike?”

“Well…”

“Closing your eyes on the strike is dangerous,” Mikasa said. “Keep them open next time.”

Annie released her and took a step back, raising her fists again. “You haven’t got any basics to even start learning the blade. Put it away.”

“And come at you again?”

“Yes. Try to land a punch on me anywhere.”

Christa sheathed her knife and looked closely at Annie. She lifted her own fists to mimic her, but drew them closer to her face in a guard. She closed the distance between them with a thrown fist, and gasped when Annie sidestepped and caught her wrist. She felt Annie’s foot come behind her knee and bend it hard and fast. With a hard wrench, she was on her backside with Annie crouched behind her and her own arm wrapped tight around her throat.

“Know what you did wrong this time?” Annie asked.

Christa shook her head slightly, barely able to move.

“You dropped your other hand the second I grabbed you. If you keep your other hand up, you could use it to punch if your main hand is incapacitated.” She picked Christa up under her arms and set her on her feet. “Do you know how to throw a proper punch?”

“That was the first punch I’ve thrown in my life.”

Annie hummed flatly and turned to Eren. “Mikasa said you were right behind her in hand to hand combat during training. Teach her to punch.”

“Me?”

“You want to be useful, right? And you,” she said to Armin, “you be her punching bag. Wrap your hands and let them be her targets.”

Hit him?” Christa said. “I can’t do that!”

Armin laughed. “No offense, but I doubt you’ll do more than give me a few bruises.” He went to his pack and dug out scraps of cloth, which he wrapped round his hands.

Eren sighed as he stood up. “Teaching a noble to punch. That’s a story to tell the battalion. Okay, hands up. Let me see your fists.” Within a few seconds of glancing at her clenched hands, he nodded. “Okay, good. You’re a good mimic.” He rearranged her fingers minutely and then held up his own fists. “Feel how they are? See mine? Always go for that feeling and focus on holding them up like I am.”

“Okay.”

He moved to stand beside her. “Okay, now punching isn’t just throwing out your fist. You put your weight into it, from shoulder to hip. Step into it.” He demonstrated, exhaling hard as he did. “Give it a try. Armin, give her a target.”

Armin stepped forward and held out his left hand. Christa looked at him uncertainly, but clenched her fists tighter when he nodded. She thought on what Eren had said and done, and punched as hard as she could with her right fist. Armin caught her fist in such a way that she felt how hard she had hit him. Her knuckles stung faintly and her heartbeat had stepped up in speed. She looked at Eren and smiled when he nodded.

For the rest of the evening, they trained her how to punch, how to hold herself, how to guard. This was how the evenings were passed for the next week. By the end of the week, she and Armin had begun to circle each other, Armin aiming light but swift jabs at Christa for her to block or dodge. Every time Eren praised her for being a fast learner, a burst of exhilaration made her shiver. Even Annie and Mikasa nodded wordlessly at her progress, and she fought down the urge to grin like a fool when she saw them nod.

On the eighth night, Annie did not let Armin wrap his hands immediately. She said to Christa, “I want to teach you this before we get on the mountain again.”

“What is it?” Christa asked.

Annie changed into her wolf-woman form, caught her around the waist, and draped her over her right shoulder. “If you’re captured, this is how a wolf will carry you. Try to draw your knife.”

Christa did her best, squirming and twisting in Annie’s tight hold to grab her knife with her left hand. She managed it, grinning when it was in her grasp. “Got it!”

“How far down can you reach with it?”

Christa, careful to keep the point of the blade from Annie, reached down as far as she could and patted with her free hand. “Here.”

“Good. That’s a good place to stab a wolf to get them to drop you.”

“I thought a wolf’s only weakness was their throat.”

Annie put her on her feet and changed back into her human form. “Stabbing anything in the back will at least hurt it. Try to remember where to stab, because you won’t have a way to the wolf’s throat when they carry you like that. They won’t be expecting a little woman like you to be carrying a knife under your cloak.” She turned to Mikasa. “Your turn. Show her how to use the knife.”

Mikasa stood up, and Christa was reminded that her method of teaching was close quarters and done by holding her. She willed herself to not blush, but knew she failed all the same as Mikasa guided her through forms and motions. They retired for the night soon after, but Christa did not close her eyes. She felt bolder, and so she took a deep breath and rolled onto her side before Mikasa could fall asleep.

“Can I ask a personal question?” she said.

“I suppose,” Mikasa replied. “What is it?”

“Have you had many lovers?”

Mikasa shrugged. “A few flings, but nothing’s lasted. It’s hard to not be able to go out for a day with your lover, or to not be able to hold her hand publicly.”

“I can only imagine. But you’re very brave to have loved a woman at all.”

She frowned and muttered, “I don’t see why one has to be brave for love.”

“I’m not saying you should have to be brave. I just admire you and Annie so much.” Before she could stop herself, she asked, “What do you think of Annie?’

Mikasa went very quiet and very still. “I think she is a dedicated and earnest woman, despite her attitude at times. And she is very pretty.”

All at once, Christa understood the faint strain in Mikasa’s voice. For a few moments, she was confused at her lack of heartbreak over the revelation. The confusion passed when she recognized being happy over someone else’s happiness, something she had known all her life. Whispering, she asked, “Do you like her?”

In a murmur equally as quiet, Mikasa said, “Yes.” She sighed. “Let’s go to sleep, Christa.”

“Okay,” Christa said. “Good night.”

They slept, and Christa could not help but study every last little interaction between Annie and Mikasa over the next several days. Things she hadn’t put much stock in—lingering glances, calling each other by first name—seemed to have much more meaning. When she returned to her horse, she noticed how often Mikasa sat forward in her saddle to have private conversations with Annie, running in her wolf form again. She tried to read Annie in the evenings when Mikasa was teaching her the knife and holding her close in her arms, but she could not parse the mild expression on Annie’s face.

Two weeks after arriving in the valley, they came away from the river and made their climb onto the other mountain. The wind, which they had mostly forgotten about, battered them violently. The only reprieve came at night, when Annie led them behind a large outcropping of stone. They slept cold that night without a fire; Annie warned against using the firewood they had gathered so soon and in such strong winds. After the sun rose and they traveled more miles, they cut through the mountain to escape the wind.

Here it is. The north.

With the wind gone, another eerie quiet prevailed. There was a great forest at the foot of the mountain far below. In the distance, shadows of more mountains could be seen. From their height and location, they could just make out farmland to the west of the forest, and specks of towns were scattered about. Roads stretched here and there, and looking straight north revealed a mountain in the middle of otherwise flat land.

“That’s where we’re headed, right?” Eren asked, pointing at the mountain. “The castle built out of a mountain in the middle of the country.”

That’s home. Come on, we’re staying up here for a while.

In an attempt to beat the deepening chill, they moved as quickly as they dared. While not truly treacherous, the path was again wide enough only for what the horses needed. Single file they went, and they did not talk because the color of the sky weighed heavily on their minds.

It was early on the third day of being on the mountain that it happened: snow gently began to fall. Christa saw Mikasa’s shoulders rise and heard Eren snarl, “Fuck,” behind her.

Keep moving. It’s just a flurry.

“What, can you smell how long it’s going to snow?” Eren snapped.

It’s too early for a lot of snow, even up here. Stop worrying about it and keep moving.

The snowfall ended before there was even a dusty layer on the ground, but the temperature did not rise any further that day. A small fire was built that frigid night, rationing the wood. Because they could not stop shivering, Eren and Mikasa wrapped their cloaks and arms around Armin and Christa respectively. Armin took first watch that night, bundled tight in his and Eren’s cloaks, and Christa and Mikasa went into their tent.

“Come here,” said Mikasa. She made Christa lie close beside her before laying blankets and cloaks over the both of them. When she gathered Christa in her arms, Christa was glad she was turned away because of how badly her face burned.

“What, erm, what about your sword?” she asked.

“I’m more worried about you freezing. I know this is strange, so I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s all right! It doesn’t feel strange at all.”

“Good.”

“But—”

“We’re safe. Annie’s been sleeping close to our tent.”

“Oh.” She did her best to relax then, closing her eyes and listening to the way Mikasa breathed when she fell asleep. It was comforting to know that both women were near, and she pressed close to Mikasa and managed to drift off despite the cold. When she woke next, it was to discover that she had her face buried in Annie’s fur, and she jerked back in shock. Annie lifted her head and Christa could picture her raised brow.

Mikasa asked me to stay in here with you while she did last watch. She thought you’d freeze.

“I’m not that delicate,” Christa grumbled. She rubbed at her eyes. “How long before the sun rises?”

You have a few more hours that you can sleep. Get some more rest. We have a long day ahead of us. She rolled slightly and pushed against Christa. You can get close to stay warm. She set her head back down when Christa burrowed up to her.

“Annie?” Christa said.

Go back to sleep, Christa.

“Do you think Ymir would let us stay for the winter?”

Are you worried about getting caught here?

“Snow’s started falling. How will we get back this way?”

I’d figure it out. Stop worrying and go to sleep.

“But—”

She’d probably let you stay. Go to sleep already.

Still tired and aching from riding and training, Christa did as she was told, but not before realizing she had been right. Annie’s fur did smell like snow. She was woken by Mikasa shaking her, and they got moving in a morning just as cold as the night before. For the rest of the journey in the mountains, they passed the nights in the same way. Mikasa would hold Christa until it was her turn for watch, and Annie would lie next to her for the time Mikasa was outside.

They came down from the mountain five days on without incident, and entered into a deep forest that stretched out north toward the lone mountain. Annie led them quietly, stopping every so often to smell the air or listen to the traces of wind that slipped past the trees. More often than not, she changed their direction upon doing this. When night fell, she would neither go hunting with Eren nor let them build a fire.

“Why not?” Eren said. “We’re hungry and freezing!”

“I smelled other wolves at the western edge of the forest. I want us to get deeper before we do anything that could really give us away.”

“How do you know they haven’t smelled us already?” Armin asked.

“I can smell better than most wolves. They won’t catch your human scent.”

“I guess that big nose is good for something,” Eren said, grinning. He dodged the branch Annie halfheartedly threw at him and laughed. He stopped laughing when Mikasa punched him hard on the shoulder. “Come on, it was funny.”

“I’m used to it,” Annie said, shrugging.

“I think you’re lovely the way you are,” Mikasa said firmly. When Annie looked at her with no expression, she met her gaze without flinching. It was quiet then, the others looking from one woman to the other with no one being willing to break the strange silence.

“Your scarf brings out the color in your face,” Annie said quietly, looking away. “It’s pretty.”

Christa felt like clapping, but kept herself to smiling broadly. Her smile faltered at the way Eren’s brows came low on his face. He took to his feet and pulled Mikasa to standing.

“I want to talk to you,” he said, dragging her along. Mikasa, frowning, pulled her arm out of his grasp, but followed him out of the clearing.

“They’ll get lost,” Armin said anxiously.

“They’re only going far enough for you two to not be able to hear them,” said Annie. “He wants me to hear this.”

“Hear what?” Armin asked.

Annie looked at him with a raised brow. “You’re the smart one. Tell me what’s wrong with your sister paying a compliment to a wolf and getting complimented back. He’s yelling at her.”

Armin sighed and put a hand to his brow. “This will end badly. She grew out of listening to him when she was named captain two years ago.”

For a few moments, Annie was silent, listening to what Armin and Christa could not hear. Then, her brows rose. “She told him to shut up and let her choose her partners on her own.” She looked uncomfortable and stood up, walking quickly away in the opposite direction that Mikasa and Eren had gone. Christa hurried to her feet and followed after her, hopping over roots and rocks to avoid tripping. She caught up to Annie, who had stopped in another clearing under the bright moonlight. She looked at Christa with her glowing eyes and looked miserable.

“What’s wrong?” Christa asked.

“What future do you see for a member of the wolf queen’s pack and the greatest wolf-slayer of the south?” Annie asked in turn. “Even if we did mate, do you think she would give up her life to live here with me? You humans may have flings, but that’s not what wolves do. It’s not what I do.”

“Why did you compliment her? You’re going to lead her on!”

Annie frowned. “Because I didn’t feel like breaking her heart.”

“Then you do like her?”

“Yes,” Annie said at length. “For the same reasons she told you she likes me.”

Christa’s eyes widened. “You heard? You’ve known how she feels about you all this time?”

“I have.”

“Why didn’t you act more distant? You will break her heart this way!”

“There’s no way this journey will help happily for any of us.”

“Why don’t you even try?” Christa asked, frowning. “What if she’s the one for you?”

Annie sneered at her. “That’s great, coming from you.”

“What? What’s special about me?”

“What do you want to be special about you? How do you want to catch our eyes?”

“I don’t understand.”

Her sneer darkened. “Do you think we’re stupid? Your little crushes on us are painfully obvious.”

Christa’s veins ran cold. “You—you knew that, too?” She took a step back when Annie advanced on her, and again and again until she was backed up against a tree. She flinched when Annie put a hand down either side of her head. The sight of her glowing eyes, green bright within the blue, made her shiver. Annie leaned close enough that Christa could feel her breath on her lips, and spoke quietly.

“This is what you want, isn’t it?” she asked. “For me or Mikasa to hold you close.” She moved one hand to hold Christa’s chin. “To kiss you.” She let go of Christa’s face when she saw the blush that took to her cheeks. “Would you give up your life in the south to live with a wolf?”

“I—”

“Don’t bother answering. You were the daughter of nobility. You were well-loved by your people. How could you ever—”

“I would.”

Annie laughed scornfully. “I’m sure.”

“I would! What makes you think my life in the south is so wonderful that I wouldn’t give it up for love?” Her blush darkened and she put a hand over her mouth.

The scorn left Annie’s face for surprise.

“No, that’s not the right word!” Christa said in protest. “It’s too soon for anything!”

“But there’s the hinting of it. Do you feel the same way about Mikasa?”

“I…do. I know it’s sinful of me to feel anything like this.”

“It’s not sinful. You southerners are idiots.”

Christa looked down, feeling sick. “I’m sorry. But—the both of you are such wonderful people.”

“So you want us to settle for you if we can’t have each other, is that it?”

“No, that’s—”

She caught Christa’s chin again. “Tell me the truth.”

“I don’t want anyone to settle! I want both of you to be happy!”

“You just wish it was with you.”

Christa swallowed hard and looked up to meet Annie’s gaze. “Yes.”

Annie looked at her a long time before leaning in close again and rubbing her nose against Christa’s. When Christa looked at her in confusion, she said, “It’s how we show affection.”

“Oh.”

“Come on, let’s get back before they start yelling for us.”

She caught one of Annie’s hands before she could go far. “Annie?”

“What?”

“If things were different, do you think you and I could have had a chance?”

“Maybe. But we don’t now, and that’s what matters at the end of the day.” She turned her hand over and clasped Christa’s fingers a moment before letting go entirely. “Come on.”

Christa followed her back to the other clearing, where the tents had been pitched and Eren and Armin were nowhere in sight. Mikasa sat by one tent, sword in her arms, and looked toward them on their approach. She and Annie stared at each other for a long silent while.

“Stay with Christa until I’m off watch, please,” Mikasa said.

Annie shrugged, but changed into her wolf form and followed Christa into the tent. They arranged themselves quietly, but Christa only pretended to sleep. Her heart ached too much to let her rest, and she held Annie’s fur as tightly as she could while hoping Annie would make no mention of it. When Mikasa came in from the cold, she continued to feign sleep and let Mikasa hold her. She now held no beliefs or wishes that Annie and Mikasa did not know what she was doing. She could not help it; the thought of them all being alone when there was some hope made it impossible to sleep.

Over the next few days, Christa only caught a few hours of sleep a night. This was partly due to her unhappiness for Mikasa and Annie, and the rest of the problem lay in how cold it was. Snow had truly begun to fall by then, and thin layer added upon thin layer to become two inches after four days. The fifth day saw a snowfall that doubled the depth. Only by being so deep in the forest and protected by the canopy did they escape being trapped.

The sixth day saw Christa losing the ability to get warm. She shivered violently even with two layers of clothes, and every gust of wind cut her to pieces. It was midday and the snow was falling heavily when Christa started to see colors and shapes. She panicked in her saddle and let go of the reins to try to sway away what she saw. She tipped out of the saddle completely and fell, landing on her side and cracking her head on the ground. She lay stunned and with the world spinning before her eyes. She was rolled onto her back and her shoulders were lifted, and she looked blearily up at Annie.

“Hi,” she said dimly.

Annie rolled up her sleeve to press the underside of her arm to Christa’s sweaty brow. “You’re really hot.” Scowling, she asked, “Why didn’t you say anything about being sick?”

Christa could not parse what was said; her head was splitting and the world was too cold to allow comprehension. “What?”

The others dismounted and came to them. Mikasa crouched down and touched her wrist to Christa’s forehead. She frowned, but only said a spell to put healing magic on her fingers. She touched the broken skin on the side of Christa’s head, closing the wound. She opened her mouth to speak.

A long, distant howl came in through the snowy leaves.

At once, everyone looked to Annie. Her face had gone taut, the color leaving her cheeks.

“What did it say?” Armin asked, brows low and voice hard.

“They caught the scent of her blood on the wind.”

“I thought you said you were leading us deep enough into the forest that other wolves wouldn’t smell us!” Eren said.

“The wind changed and it’s human blood,” Annie replied. She changed into her wolf-woman form and pulled Christa onto her back. “We need to get moving.”

“What else did it say?” Mikasa asked, gripping Annie’s elbow.

“To send the hunters.”

Christa did not understand why Mikasa, Eren, and Armin all looked so grim so suddenly. All that mattered was that Annie’s fur gave her some measure of warmth, and she clung to her as best as her trembling arms would allow. In less than a minute, Annie set off at a run with the horses galloping behind her. Christa drifted in and out of consciousness, marveling every time she opened her eyes at how the light changed so quickly. It was dim and then dark, dim again, and then dimness fading into the dark.

Everything and everywhere was noise. Christa, dizzy again, stared at Annie’s back and listened to her panting breath. Hooves crashed through the underbrush. Christa heard Eren shout something and was shocked to find she could understand speech again.

“How much farther?” he asked.

Annie came to a stop and sniffed in every direction. She tilted her head back and howled, long and loud.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Eren snapped.

“I’m howling to the castle,” Annie panted. “I’m telling my pack to come to me.”

“But you just gave away our position!” Eren said.

“The wolves know who she is,” Armin said. “You did it to scare them off, didn’t you?”

Annie nodded. “Trying to. We have to keep going.” They began to run again, and the dark around them continued to deepen. Eventually, Christa thought she heard something else. She looked away from Annie’s back. Mikasa rode hard to their right, and Armin to their left. Turning back showed Eren behind them, and looking past him revealed a large gray wolf running close behind him.

“Eren, look out!” Christa said.

He drew his sword and turned in the saddle, slicing through the wolf’s throat as it became a wolf-man and tried to leap at him. Armin and Mikasa drew their swords as the sound of snarling and snapping began to rise. Seemingly at once, they were surrounded, and they were forced to stop. Annie put Christa on her feet, and she and the others formed a circle around Christa.

“What do you want?” Eren demanded.

“Your skin, boy!” said a wolf-man. He snarled when he was struck across the muzzle by a wolf-woman.

“The humans,” the wolf-woman said to Annie. “Give them up.”

“No,” said Annie.

The wolf-man laughed. “Give ‘em up. We’ll share.”

“No,” Annie said again. “Shut up,” she said to Eren when he opened his mouth.

“What does your pet have to say for himself?” called another wolf-man.

“I’m not her pet!” Eren shouted, voice breaking from rage.

“Shut up,” Annie said sharply, the vibration of a growl in her words.

“Why are we talking?” another wolf-woman said. “You know she’s stalling.”

“I want to know who’s with her,” the first wolf-woman said. She moved to stand in front of Mikasa’s horse. “What’s your name?”

Mikasa frowned and tightened her grip on her sword, but only started to count aloud, turning in her saddle to catch the eye of each wolf. When she reached the leader, she had counted seventeen. She swung down from her horse and held out her sword in a silent challenge. The first wolf-man charged forward with a snarl, but Mikasa dodged the arm he stretched out for her face. She drew a blade from the scabbard of her sword and slashed the inside of his elbow. As he shouted with pain, she cut through his throat with her sword.

It was a bold move that did not favor them. The other wolves fell upon them, and Christa watched in horror as they clawed and bit at Annie and Mikasa on the ground. Eren and Armin remained on horseback but, based on their shouting, Christa could only imagine that they, too, were gaining injuries. Her fear cut through some of the fever haze, and she clung to the fact that no one had fallen to the ground.

Everyone jumped at the horrible pained scream Eren let out suddenly. Christa turned in time to see him ripped off his saddle and thrown into the distance. She thought she saw blood spiraling away in the air as he went; she thought his left leg had been torn off from just below the knee.

“Eren!” Mikasa shouted, voice high with tension. She tried to sprint after him, but a wolf-man tackled her from behind. Before he could sink his fangs into the back of her neck, Annie wrenched him off her and tore out his throat with her fangs. Christa tried to go to Mikasa, to help her up, but she was caught around the waist, draped over a wolf-woman’s right shoulder, and carried away at a sprint.

Blinded by panic and dulled with sickness, Christa only struggled weakly at first. When kicking the wolf in the stomach had no effect, she went still. Something Annie had said nagged at the back of her mind. The wolf-woman shifted her slightly; her sheathed knife dug into her thigh. She remembered and began struggling anew, reaching desperately for her knife. Once it was in her hand, she swallowed hard and swung down harder.

The strike was true; the wolf-woman screamed and stumbled, her legs lost. Christa tumbled as the wolf-woman fell, and she scrambled away without looking where she was going. Everything was spinning again; she could barely breathe. Her gait slowed quickly, and she came to a stop amidst trees. Unable to hear anything past her own breathing, she began to turn around.

A clawed hand grabbed her by the head and smashed her face-first into a tree. While her nose snapped, it was not a hard enough blow to steal her consciousness. In the next instant, she understood why the wolf wanted her awake. After pulling off her pack, the wolf-woman dug her claws in deep at her right shoulder and ripped across her back down to her left hip. Christa screamed until the wolf-woman choked her silent. She was thrown through the air then, slamming against another tree and getting bark in the wounds.

Still, she clung to consciousness. Death, once an abstract to her, loomed close as she lifted her head and saw the wolf-woman advance. Her fear of death was infinitely greater than any pain and, somehow still clutching the knife, she struggled to her feet. The wolf-woman drew closer. Christa tightened her grip.

A voice deep, rich, and sharp as a sword rang out and said something. Christa understood it as a command to stop, but her limbs remained mobile. She ran at the wolf-woman upon seeing her look of wide-eyed shock and lack of movement. Doing as Mikasa had drilled into her, she plunged the knife into the wolf’s throat and cut through to the other side. When she drew the blade back, the wolf-woman slumped to one side and fell.

A hand tapped Christa on the shoulder. She spun about and stabbed as hard as she could. She was caught by the wrists and held still. When she ceased struggling and looked up, she stopped breathing. Eyes the color of rich honey looked at her from a face dark of skin and heavily freckled. Lank black hair framed that feminine face, and a smirk took the woman’s lips. Christa’s feet were swept out from under her and she fell onto her rear with a grunt.

In a burst of steam, the woman turned into a solid black wolf-woman, and she tipped back her head and howled. A chorus of howls met her. Soon after, more howls, now of pain, filled the air. The wolf-woman laughed.

Christa lost consciousness.

————

Her face ached, and she wasn’t sure why she was lying face-down on a soft bed. She tried to roll over, but a hand gently caught her shoulder.

“Mikasa?” she asked, cracking open her eyes.

A woman with her brown hair pulled up into a ponytail high on the back of her head smiled at Christa. “No, Sasha. Sasha Braus.” She brought Christa back down to her stomach. “Your friend had me get all the bark out with my claws before she healed you, but she said your back would hurt. Don’t lie on it just yet.”

“What?” Christa asked, confused. “Why?”

Sasha put her palm on Christa’s brow. “They did say you had a fever. Don’t you remember anything?”

A cold knot of tension coiled in her stomach. “We were attacked in the forest.”

“Yes, exactly! I thought you’d lost your memory for a moment.”

“Are we in Castle Utgard?”

“That we are. You’re safe.” She held Christa down when she tried to sit up. “No, we’ll see Ymir later. Rest until then.”

“What about my friends? Are they all right?”

“Don’t worry at all. You’ll see them when we go before Ymir.”

“But Eren—he was thrown off his horse. I thought I saw…was he injured?”

“He’s okay, I promise.”

Christa felt only tiny pangs of reassurance. “Can I see them before then?”

Sasha started to speaking, but stopped short and sniffed the air. She stood from her chair and turned to the door, putting her flat right hand at an angle on her forehead in a salute. The door opened and Annie came inside.

“Ma’am!” Sasha said. “Your charge is well!”

Annie waved a hand and Sasha moved aside, letting her crouch beside the bed. She offered Christa her hand when she reached out.

“Thank goodness,” Christa said, letting out a sigh. “Sasha said everyone’s all right.”

“She’s not lying. Mikasa sent me to check on you.”

Christa smiled. “You’ve been at her side, haven’t you.”

Annie did not reply to this. “Do you think you can stand? Ymir wants your message. She’s getting impatient.”

“I think so. Can you help me up?”

She did so, and Christa wobbled with dizziness a moment. Sasha steadied her on one side while Annie did the same on the other. Once she was stable, Annie went into the pack at the foot of the bed and retrieved the still sealed scroll. She put it in Christa’s hands, and the three of them when out of the room. A man and a woman standing outside the door saluted as they came out, and everyone they passed in the hallways did the same on seeing them.

Annie brought them to a room some distance away, and Christa’s heart rose at what they found inside. She hurried to Armin and Mikasa, sitting at Eren’s bedside, and hugged them each in turn. Mikasa patted her on the shoulder.

“I’m so glad you’re all okay,” Christa said, reaching out to hug Eren, who was sitting upright.

“We got lucky that the castle guard arrived when they did,” Armin said. He smiled at Sasha. “I owe you my life, captain.”

“You’re welcome!” said Sasha. “Happy to help.”

“All right, we can catch up later,” Annie said. “Ymir’s going to get pissed off if we don’t go see her. She wanted to see you all when Christa woke up.”

Eren sighed noisily and swung his legs out from beneath his blanket. He stood up on two bare feet and rose up on his toes to stretch. “Let’s go.” He went past Christa without putting on the boots that sat next to the bed, but Mikasa and Armin stood up to follow him before Christa could ask.

Annie and Sasha took the lead, with Christa flanked either side by Mikasa and Armin and Eren bringing up the rear. They eventually arrived at a pair of enormous doors, closed and blocked by two men. One was dark of skin and hair, and he was so tall that Christa, more than head and shoulders shorter than him, felt uneasy. Beside him was a man not quite as tall, but broad, muscular, and fair of skin and hair.

The blond man stepped forward, bent down close to Annie, and he rubbed their noses together. Smiling, he said, “You’re late.”

“They’re heavy sleepers,” she replied. She noticed how his smile turned over when he looked at Mikasa, and she stepped between them. “Stop it, Reiner.”

He rolled his shoulders and forced a smile back onto his face. “Sorry.” He turned to the dark skinned man and nodded. “Let’s get them in there, Bertholdt.” The two men pushed the doors open, revealing the large room inside. With night beyond the windows, torches in plinths along the walls and candles in iron chandeliers above were lit. At the far end of the room, at the other end of a long, lush red rug, was an ornate metal throne atop a three-stair raised space.

Atop that throne, Christa was shocked to discover, was the dark skinned woman from before, clad in a long-sleeved, green tunic and black denim trousers. She had draped her long body sideways in the throne, and did not sit up properly until they were closer and Annie, Reiner, and Bertholdt had left them standing before the throne. Christa stood clutching the scroll, eyes locked on the woman because the woman’s eyes were locked on her. Annie went to the woman’s side.

“This is Ymir,” said Annie. “Queen of the north, leader of my pack. Ymir, Christa Renz and her guards.”

Ymir waved a hand, and Mikasa, Eren, and Armin stepped away from Christa. She held out the same hand, curling her fingers. “Lemme have it.”

“Erm,” Christa said, “milady, I just—I wanted to tell you that Annie was very good to us and she—”

“I said to give me that.”

Christa stopped talking and went to her, offering the scroll and stepping back down the stairs. Relief washed over her when Ymir broke the seal and started to read, but it changed to shock at the dark sneering scowl that pulled at Ymir’s mouth.

“Read this,” Ymir snarled, holding out the scroll. “Out loud, so everyone can hear you.”

She went up the stairs and took the scroll. Clearly and loudly, she read aloud, “‘To Ymir, great wolf queen of the vast north. Our countries have long been at war, and countless lives have been lost. To usher in peace, I, Reiss of the south, send you a gift.’” Christa hesitated, but continued. “‘I send you my—’” She went silent, eyes widening and heart shattering.

“Read it,” Ymir said.

“‘I—I send you my…my daughter to be your wife, and three guards to act as your servants. I know they will do their duty admirably.’” There was no more to the letter beyond the king’s signature, but she stared at the scroll nonetheless. She did not jump when Ymir took hold of her chin.

“What’s your real name?” Ymir asked, still scowling.

“Historia Reiss.”

A low growl came up through Ymir’s throat. “So, little princess, your old man just sent you as a sacrifice to the wolf queen. How’s that make you feel?”

Christa looked at the scroll and, beginning to weep hopelessly, shredded the paper, threw it in Ymir’s face, and stormed out of the throne room without listening to any of the calls of either of her names.