A shrill voice hollered at him across the field.
"Squad Leader Erwin!"
Turning his head, the sounds of the surroundings collided with one another and distorted the calling of his name. He lost his composure for a second, his quick wits dulled by the soft pattering of rain, and blood. He stifled these emotions in an instant and reared his horse around with a grunt to face the source of the noise.
"What is it?" He responded strongly to the summons.
"We found something, Squad Leader!" The soldier replied, his voice timid, and shaking. Erwin noticed it lacked the composure that his had held. Rather, not composure - it lacked the feigned strength, he realised. Such was to be expected. He looked the soldier over, quickly. A pair of crystal blue eyes stared back at him. The soldier was youthful, lean of build… and his eyes were swimming in fear. Erwin almost hadn't noticed that the youth was drenched in fresh blood.
"Where is your horse, Markoff?" Erwin asked, sternly. "You won't survive out here without it."
"I know, Squad Leader, I'm sorry," the youth persisted, eyes watering; "there was nothing I could do. The Abnormal grabbed it, and Cara's horse had collapsed, we had to leave them so we could get away, I couldn't-"
"It's all right, Steiner. Horses can be replaced." Erwin said, deftly sliding down from the saddle to stand before the youth. He'd seen the young man around the training grounds of the Recon Corps; he was strong, and skilled, but like so many others, inexperienced. Erwin knew first-hand that there were two types of soldiers - the experienced, and the dead. He'd seen far too many men and women go over the edge with fear when facing their first Titan.
The youth stood in front of him, frozen, apparently shocked that the Squad Leader had spoken to him so empathetically.
Have I spoken to Markoff before, or not? I cannot remember. I do find it a little ironic
that he's always been more scared of me than the Titans.
"Markoff, control yourself. What is it that you've found?"
"We, uh-" Markoff stuttered in response, shivering. Whether it was due to fear or the cold, Erwin couldn't discern. Most likely, both. "We found a boy, sir."
Erwin inhaled in shock. They'd only found corpses, so far. All they'd ever found were corpses. Could it be him, alive?
"A boy? You're certain?"
"Yes, Squad Leader!" Markoff almost yelled in response; Erwin noticed that in the youth's urgency to respond, his voice peaked like a teenager.
Ignoring the crack, Erwin pressed for details.
"This boy, where is he? Is he safe?"
"I think a better question would be 'Are you two safe', Squad Leader."
Erwin's gaze left the shuddering Markoff and glanced past him at the sound of the womanly voice. He allowed himself a slight smirk when his eyes fell on Cara Agincourt, one of the best new recruits the Recon Corps had acquired. She would make a veteran soldier, for sure. He could see by her sunken stance and expression that she had been changed by the horrors of her first expedition - but unlike Markoff, had kept her britches unsoiled, and was coping with the situation.
"Elaborate, please, Agincourt." He responded.
"The kid came at us through the trees, sir. Must've thought we were hostile, as well as the Titans. Nearly gutted us both before I disarmed and hogtied him. Wasn't a complete success, though. Markoff shit himself."
So, he is here. I was right, thank God.
Erwin watched as Markoff doubled around on Agincourt, obviously painfully embarrassed about soiling himself in front of the Squad Leader.
"I did not! It's dirt, I fell off my horse!"
"Funny smelling dirt." Agincourt quipped in response, as she moved gradually closer. Erwin noticed that she'd sprained her leg, presumably when she'd fallen from her horse, and was walking with a slight limp.
"Hey, we're out here to kill Titans, right? How would you feel if you nearly got sliced open by some little shit?!"
"Looks like you didn't have a little shit, huh, Markoff."
"Fuck you, Cara! The knife didn't even come within a foot of your smart ass!"
Erwin decided that the frivolity was inappropriate given their situation.
"Enough!" He raised his voice, silencing the two of them. "What is the status of your squad? The cart?"
"Destroyed and dead, sir. We're the only two left."
"And this boy, he attacked you both?"
"Yes, Squad Leader!" Markoff yelled at him, forever trying his hardest to impress. "The little shit came right at us, and-"
"Shut up, Markoff, and calm down." Agincourt shouted. Erwin turned his head and scowled at her, impressed by her assertiveness but frustrated at the lack of answers. Time was always of the essence outside the Walls, and at the moment, they were wasting it.
"He was mistaken, Squad Leader." She continued. "The boy can't be older than ten. He ran at us covered in blood. His fighting style was out of fear and desperation, not out of skill. Whilst he was surprisingly aggressive for someone so young, he didn't do us any damage. He's just a scared kid."
It's him, no doubt.
"You've got hold of him, yes?" Erwin responded. He caught himself for a moment; why did he care so much about the life of some kid, after all the soldiers that had been lost on yet another fruitless expedition?
Because that kid's not from inside the Walls. He thought to himself. If.. if he's been out here since then… I can't bear to think what he's been through.
"Yes, Squad Leader!" Markoff was starting to annoy him, now.
"And, his weapon." Cara added.
"Weapon?" Erwin questioned further, as he re-mounted his horse in a swift movement.
"Yes, sir." Agincourt detailed. "Some improvised knife."
He cantered his horse slowly to allow Markoff and Agincourt to fall in alongside him.
"A child made a knife?"
"No, Squad Leader. No way he made that himself. It's very 'put-together', but the steelwork is that of a professional. Never seen anything like it, myself. I imagine it's an even higher quality than our standard issue blades."
"Little brat must've stolen it." Markoff unintelligently added to the conversation.
"We're outside the walls, idiot." Cara threw back at him. "Who could he have stolen it from, the Titans?"
Not the Titans. Erwin thought to himself. From his mother.
"We've got him just up here, sir." Cara told him, from his left. "The scouts have disposed of the Titans for now, but more will probably come. He's hogtied by one of the broken carts, up there."
"I see him." Erwin retorted, slowly bringing his horse up to a trot, moving away from them. "You two, fall back in with the scouts. I've got the boy."
"Sir." Cara responded, and he heard the loud pop of a flare gun from behind as he rode forward, signalling the scouts to pick up the two stranded soldiers.
"Are you seriously just going to fucking let him gallop off into the sunset…?" He picked up from Markoff as he rode away from them.
Going to have to discipline that one.
He knew time was of the essence, but he felt no need to break his horse into a gallop. The broken cart was only a few hundred meters ahead, and he always liked taking a moment's solace when out on expeditions. It was his way of dealing with the horrors of his first. He enjoyed the feeling of immense freedom, but also the undertones of fear; it kept him on his toes, and alert. It was a vitality he never seemed to find while inside the limits of the walls. Plus, he was sure that Levi and the others were more than capable of handling the situation. He'd taken a worthwhile risk in Levi, he knew.
There was another pop. In front of him, a long way. It was distant, but he could visibly see a long line of green ascending into the air, followed by another, and another. He trotted his horse to the edge of the forestation, a few metres away from the broken cart, which he saw was lying in the middle of the road, ruined. He could hear rustling, and the grunting of a child. The sound was muffled.
Was a mouth restraint really necessary? He thought. In amendment; That was most likely Markoff's idea.
He moved swiftly towards the source of the noise, his heavy footfalls making damp squelching noises in the sodden grass. He halted, thinking.
For the boy's sake, I ought to move the corpses.
He glanced around. The rest of Agincourt's squad were strewn around the wreckage of the cart. Some were even in one piece.
Another pop. He looked up again, through the rain.
More green flares. The formation is moving. I don't have enough time to sugar-coat this.
Breaking into a run, Erwin quickly rounded the side of the cart to find the boy on the floor, lying in the muck and wet. The Squad Leader noticed he wasn't hog-tied, anymore, however. To the boy's left, severed ropes lay on the floor.
Shit, he thought. my weapon is sheathed.
Erwin's soldier instincts quickly processed the glint of a knife.
"Stop!" He yelled, raising his hands in front of him. To his surprise, and gratitude, the boy did not cut him down, but remained where he was on the floor, gripping the knife in his left hand. It looked absurd; the weapon was far too large for a child. It was too large for most grown men. He looked it over; Agincourt was right. There was no chance the boy crafted the blade by himself. It was of a quality much like his own swords.
The rain was beginning to fall harder. He saw how it plastered the boy's hair to his head. A shocking and thick mane of orange - not red, like Agincourt, and others he knew, but true orange - he hadn't seen anything like it before. Beneath the orange was a fierce scowl, on a small, weathered face. The expression was caked in dirt, and blood.
It was the eyes that surprised Erwin the most, though.
Two fierce, emerald green eyes glared at him, out of hate and fear of the unknown. They were different, though; he'd seen eyes like that on veterans, on war heroes - but never on a child. They were old eyes. Eyes that had seen horrors, and worse. The eyes were eerily familiar, as if he'd looked into them a thousand times before.
He knelt, and felt one of his knees sink into the mud. His arms were still raised before him.
"I'm not going to hurt you, child." He spoke softly. At this, he noticed the boy's face loosen slightly.
He gestured at his own left hand, trying to make the boy drop the knife. The boy knew exactly what he was getting at, and tensing, threatened Erwin with the weapon. The Squad Leader backed up, but kept his cool. The child was scared, not hostile.
"Okay, okay." He gestured now to his mouth.
He saw the boy roll his eyes, turn the knife over, and plunge the blade into the mud. He nearly lunged backwards as the boy moved towards him, his soldier's instincts overpowering when outside the Walls.
He leant forward, slightly, and moved his arms up to untie the gag over the boy's mouth. He did so very gently, all the time maintaining eye contact with the child. He had been involved in hostage situations before; when it came down to subduing a scared individual, whether young or old, it came down to trust, and confidence. One wrong move and the boy could grab the knife and gut him on the spot.
What a way for me to go out. He thought. Countless expeditions, years of service, and then stabbed by a boy. Perhaps Markoff's statements had some validation.
The gag gave way, and Erwin removed it from the boy's mouth, tossing it aside. The boy just sat there, looking at him. Erwin noticed that while he still held a scowl, his eyes were also curious.
The Squad Leader placed a single hand on his chest.
"I'm Erwin Smith. I'm a Squad Leader in the Recon Corps."
He watched the boy. It looked as if he wanted to speak, but couldn't find the words.
"The Recon Corps." He gestured to the crest on his jacket. "Have you heard of us?"
Still no response.
He tensed and grimaced as the boy moved. He watched the knife rapidly slide back out of the mud and followed the blade until it was directly in front of his face. He loosened off when he realised it had stopped, and that the boy hadn't tried to kill him.
"What are you trying to show me?" He scrutinised the blade, trying to find what the boy was intending for him to see. He only saw mud, and steel.
He heard the boy huff and the knife was withdrawn. He almost made the child stop as he went to clean the dirt off of the blade, due to fear he would cut himself, but realised upon close inspection that the child knew to wipe with the dull side facing him.
So, it really is him. The blade is the same, no doubt. Perhaps the Commander will be accepting of the losses, now.
Erwin watched the boy spread the residue from the knife over his already filthy shirt, and saw the knife's blade dance back in front of his face.
This time when he scrutinised, he saw engravings. Letters? Characters, at the very least. They were crude, and he couldn't read them, but they looked familiar from when he'd once read about languages from the old civilisations.
A D A M
"I don't know what those mean, I'm afraid."
He saw the boy draw back, and the expression on his young face change from anticipation to disappointment. He watched the gleam of the knife quickly vanish as the boy slipped the huge blade into a makeshift leather scabbard loosely hung to his waist. Erwin found it subtly amusing that the weapon looked like a shortsword on the child's waist.
More pops in the distance.
He glanced up to his right, and saw more jets of green shoot into the gray, wet sky. The order to retreat. The Commander was pulling them out. Again.
Upon turning back, he noticed a small arm pointing towards the trails of the flares. He saw the boy was looking in amazement at the coloured jets.
He watched as the boy pointed to the flares, and then to him.
"Are those your people?" He almost thought the boy was asking.
Instead of speaking, he merely nodded, and stretched out his right arm. He then felt the tension of the boy's left arm, as it moved and clasped his. A sign of trust. He saw the boy was smiling, the old eyes in his tiny face as fierce as ever.
Erwin's ears sprang up at the sound of crunching trees in the forest a few hundred meters ahead of where they were. He saw red flares fly into the sky in his peripheral vision.
The boy knew it too, he noticed. Instead of reacting, he watched the emerald eyes turn and confidently look into his.
Time to act.
He swept the boy up in one quick movement, until the child was clasped on his wide back, and broke into the kind of speed a sprint only achieves when mortal danger is nearby. The tension on his harness and jacket told him the boy was still gripping tightly, and had no intention of letting go. The falling rain and the cold bit at his face. He placed trust in the child's conviction.
His horse was rearing with horror as he rapidly made up the ground towards where he had dismounted. In a swift movement he had performed countless times before, he swung himself up onto the saddle, calmed the horse, and quickly sat the boy in front of him.
Splinters went everywhere as the trees behind him burst, and he felt the all too familiar sense of death running right up behind him. He slapped the horse on the rump, sending it straight into a gallop, and sped it away from the Titan pursuing them.
I have to return to the formation, but this Titan is driving me away from it.
He didn't look back, but just by listening to the rapid and massive footfalls, could tell the Titan was not only an abnormal, but keeping pace with him through the forest. They rapidly moved through the trees, and every time they burst behind him under the force of the Abnormal's speed, he shielded the boy with his cloak, his own face becoming scratched by the debris.
He cut around a corner. The horse was doing incredibly well, he noticed, and the boy was quiet. Everyone was concentrating on staying alive.
The Titan was still hot on his heels. He could almost hear its breathing, now. Ten metre class, at least. Rounding another corner, he looped around and pushed back to where he'd first been met by Markoff and Agincourt, confusing the Titan by doing so. There was no trace of any soldiers here.
They made it out, then. I hope.
He felt his hood fly back under the force of the wind as they broke through the treeline, into the open. He held close to the edge of the forest, trying to coax more out of his steed as he heard the Titan explode through the treeline and tumble across the field. That wouldn't be the end of it, he was sure.
Hold the treeline, Erwin. It allows you maneuverability, yet the option to use your 3DMG if necessary.
He was hoping he wouldn't need it, though.
The treeline started to curve to his left, towards the direction that the formation had been moving in. He had to either lose this abnormal or kill it himself - he wasn't planning to let it wreak havoc amongst already tired and injured soldiers.
"Hyaah!" He yelled, wringing the reigns of his horse. The horse responded. He felt its entire body shift underneath him, and their speed almost doubled. He leant closer down to the animal, shielding the boy by doing so.
All this time, not so much as a single scream from the child. He was impressed.
He noticed the sounds of the footfalls gradually becoming quieter, when he listened closely through the rain and the falling of hooves on wet mud. As long as he lost the Titan, there was no need to engage. That was the whole purpose of this formation plan he'd formulated, after all. Whilst it wouldn't completely eliminate casualties - that would be impossible and unintelligent to discuss - it at least delayed the rate at which they occurred as opposed to facing the enemy head-on and trying to fight them through attrition. That was always fruitless. He knew. He'd been on missions like that.
He jerked slightly as the boy's arm shot forward, pointing into the distance. Erwin could see vague outlines of horses, and a cart, through the grey drizzle.
"That's the Recon Corps!" He yelled, forgetting for a moment that the boy most likely couldn't understand him. "The rear vanguard, and the carts!"
The Commander shouldn't be too far away. Neither should Levi.
He mustered more out of his horse, and they began to gain on the rear of the formation. He'd lose sight of them time to time due to the inclement weather, but kept his bearings true and pushed up on their position.
The Abnormal, Erwin, don't forget that you didn't kill it.
He quickly wrestled with the knapsack strapped to the side of his horse's' saddle, and fumbling around on the inside, drew his flare gun. He felt the boy shudder from the sound as he fired the gun, after directing it up and behind him. A sharply coloured plume of red burst into the gray mist behind him.
See it, please see it.
His hopes were satisfied. Not too much further ahead of where they were, another red line rocketed into the sky in his vision. He forced the horse even more, their speed increasing slightly as they ploughed across the rugged grassland terrain.
He began to notice units drifting past on his left, and right. Fellow soldiers. The rear scouts. He allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. Morbidly, there was something more comfortable about being ripped to shreds by monsters with your friends than having the same happen alone. He was snapped out of his thoughts when he noticed two horses approaching him on the left flank.
"Squad Leader Erwin!" A voice hollered at him, the sound oddly distorted by the wind, but still comprehensible. As he looked to his left, the silhouetted riders came into view, emerging from the grey.
"Agincourt, Markoff." He responded to them, allowing a small smile to crack across his face. Not that they could see, though. "I'm glad you made it out of there."
"So are we, sir." He was pleasantly surprised when Markoff responded to him, for once, not obnoxiously. He appeared to have taken a leaf from Agincourt's book.
"Did you get the boy, sir?" He heard Agincourt ask him, her voice raised to cut through the weather.
"Ask him yourself." He responded, gently drawing his cloak back from over the boy's head. He saw the emerald green eyes look straight at Agincourt, to which she smiled, despite the boy scowling.
"I'm glad." He heard he respond. "It must have been horrible for him out here. You're a good man, Erwin."
"Thank you, Agincourt."
They have no idea. You're not good, Erwin. You're selfish.
"You know, Levi isn't happy, sir." Erwin felt his brow drop into a scowl at the sound of Markoff's sarcasm. "He keeps saying it's a waste of time for a high-ranking officer to save a mysterious child."
Hot air for the other troops. Levi and Hanji both know the real reason we're even out here.
"Markoff," Erwin responded, choosing to use sarcasm against the annoying soldier, "when is Levi happy?"
He allowed himself a smile at the joke he'd made at Levi's expense.
That shut him up. The Squad Leader thought to himself. Then; Drop the humour, Squad Leader. You have authority to maintain.
"Where is Levi now?" He asked the two newbies, trying to regain some of his former composure.
"Just up ahead, sir, past the rear carts." Came Agincourt's response. He liked her. Direct, to the point. None of the needless expressionism that Markoff constantly felt it was necessary to flaunt.
"Thank you." He said as he began to spur his horse forward, away from the two recruits. Before he could get far, he was hailed again by Agincourt.
"Sir!" He slowed his horse and turned his head to her.
"Squad Leader Hanji is with him." He watched her say through the mist. Was that concern on he saw on her face?
Hanji is known for her unorthodox methods, after all. Perhaps she and I aren't as different as Agincourt thinks.
"Noted". He said, turning his head away from Agincourt, and driving the horse forward, away from the two.
She must be concerned that I would just turn the child over to Hanji. He mulled. He pulled back the cloak again, and looked at the back of the child's head. He could see the boy's eyes were fixed firmly on what was in front of them. The rain was easing, now.
No, not this time. Hanji will show restraint, or deal with me.
The scientist had developed a level of notoriety throughout the higher-ups of the Recon Corps - her experiments were perfectly above board, at first. He remembered her asking him to bring back some flowers from outside the wall to see if they grew in a different way outside the safe environment. They didn't, of course. The lack of any tangible results mixed with Hanji's untamable ambition was a mix that Erwin didn't approve of. He remembered things - with good reason - getting rather tense between her and the leadership when she started requesting to bring back body parts of deceased Corps members from expeditions. He remembered she'd even prompted to try and capture a Titan, once, and been practically laughed out of the Walls by the Commander.
Still, Erwin realised that he liked her. Perhaps not in the traditional sense. He knew he trusted her, and had great respect for her abilities, but he couldn't help but shudder at some of experiments she suggested. Needless to say, he wouldn't let her go to town on the boy. He was certain she'd have a field day, given the chance.
No. The boy is mine. He thought to himself as they began to gain on the rear carts. He could see the outlines of horses. All this caring about people is going to get you killed, Erwin.
He doubted that the boy and Levi would get along, though. He knew next to nothing about the child, and Levi had a habit of being abrasive at best with other people. They did, however, share the same sense of drive. That he knew. The same necessity to survive, to save others. The same determination.
The horses were closer now, he saw.
He motioned towards them as fast as his horse could carry them. He kept his eyes trained on them as they gradually gained, trying to figure out who was on the rear vanguard. As he drew up behind them, the red of Hanji's plume of hair became visible through the fog. He quickly whipped the cloak back over the boy, for now. He was relieved when the child didn't object.
"So, you got him?"
He nearly leapt out of his skin at the sound of a voice just to his right. He'd been so focussed on catching up that he hadn't noticed the horse approaching from his flank.
"The others, they all the bait?" The voice said again, dripping with sarcasm.
"Levi." He replied, not even turning his head to look, as he was fully aware who the person was. No one else could get the drop on him like that.
"I guess you already know how excited Hanji is."
"Of course." He replied gruffly, noticing how Levi's tone resembled Markoff. "You disapprove of the decision?"
"No one can foretell the outcome." He heard Levi utter.
Those words really stuck with him, then.
"If you think something will come of this boy, whether that's through experiments, or training, that's enough for me."
He finally turned and looked at Levi. The young man met his gaze, his eyes as sly and focussed as ever.
"Just don't become a Dad." Levi continued. "I know it's tempting. But you've been doing this job longer than I have. Caring about people is useless."
"Training, you suggest?" Erwin said, raising his voice slightly in an attempt to change the subject. It was awkward, and he heard his voice come out louder than necessary, forgetting that he no longer needed to shout over the rain. He was glad the Levi didn't seem to care.
"He's been out here, Erwin." Came the sarcastic response.
'You're right." He conceded. If the boy could already handle himself outside the Walls at this age, he had the potential to make a fearsome Recon Corps soldier. An investment, he remembered.
He was snapped out of his stupor by Levi.
"I'm filthy." He heard the younger man say, his voice laden with distaste. He watched Levi's horse slowly pull ahead, and made his steed do the same. They were now gaining rapidly on the slower-moving carts. Erwin couldn't stop himself swallowing at the premise of presenting the boy to Hanji. In the distance, he could see the extremities of Wall Maria coming into sight. The horizon was still drenched in haze. He kept the cloak over the boy's head, for the time being.
Levi was the first to pull up alongside Hanji. He watched as the young man conversed briefly with her, most likely making some snide quip, and then as Hanji turned her head to see him. He reared his horse up on the left flank of hers. He noticed that the formation had slowed, now. They were almost home.
"Erwin!" He heard her voice deliver. He noticed the slight peaks in her pitch. She was excited, again.
"Hanji." He replied, calm and collected. "I'm glad you're okay."
"So am I." He heard the scientist joke. "So, I heard you've brought me a present?"
He sat upright when Levi scoffed sarcastically at the comment.
"I wouldn't say that, no."
"Oh, Erwin! Please!"
He sighed, and gently drew back his cloak from the concealed boy. He saw the child was clutching to the horse's neck, and watched the burning emerald eyes dart up to Squad Leader Hanji.
He tensed as Hanji over-reacted. As usual.
"Oh, Erwin!" He listened to her begin. "He's absolutely beautiful! What a darling! And to survive out here for so long, how exceptional! What an interesting addition he would be!"
He saw Hanji reach towards the boy, and was slightly concerned for how he'd react. Luckily, the boy dealt with her melodramatics. Erwin noticed he was far from pleased, though.
"He's so cute!" He heard her go on. "Don't you think so, Levi?"
The following comment from Levi was the most satirical he'd ever heard from the young man.
With that, his eyes followed Levi's horse as it galloped forward, up to central vanguard, and away from them. He saw the height of Wall Maria just ahead. Not much further, now.
"I'm thinking of monitoring him." He started, trying to change the subject from Hanji's experiment collection.
"Oh, Erwin!" He cringed slightly at her over-annunciation. "You would make such an incredible father!"
He sharply took in breath at the premise of that level of responsibility. Fathers in a world like this were more courageous than he could ever hope to be.
"No, nothing like that." He began quickly, desperately trying to reign in the conversation. Hanji always had an incredible knack at warping his words to make him feel uncomfortable. He knew she took a bit of fun in slipping under his tough demeanour.
"Send him to a border family, perhaps. In one of the outer districts. Trost, or Shiganshina. Visit him every now and again. When he's old enough, he can enlist."
"Just to throw him away in the Recon Corps?" He noticed Hanji visibly pout. Her displays were starting to get on his nerves. "What a waste of a golden scientific opportunity."
"He's a child, Hanji." Erwin decided it was time for force. He spoke with authority. "Not a Titan. Not wild flowers. Not an experiment."
He felt relief when the scientist sighed.
"Fine, not an experiment. I'll keep watching him, though."
"I'd expect nothing less."
He noticed her breathe deeply.
"It is intriguing though, don't you think? That he's survived out here for so long on his own. How old is he, ten, maybe? Twelve?"
"I don't know."
"A pity. No chance he could've gotten over or through the Walls this young, though. It's him, no doubt. Perhaps you're right about the training, and I-"
He quickly turned to face Hanji. She had cut off mid sentence, and he noticed her gaze was fixed on the large scabbard hanging from the boy's small waist.
"What is that?"
"It's his weapon." Erwin head himself respond. He almost didn't realise he had. He was too focussed on reaching for the knife.
I didn't tell Hanji or Levi about the knife. Maybe it'll distract her ramblings for a moment, or two.
He saw the boy's head dart around, and the old emerald eyes stare straight into his.
He gently moved his right hand forward after gesturing to the knife. He kept his palm open, facing the sky. He thought it would say, "May I?"
He suddenly found the string-wrapped hilt of the blade sitting in the palm of his hand. He clasped it quickly, conscious of not dropping it. He took some pride in the fact the boy had surrendered the weapon immediately. Maybe he was beginning to trust him.
"That's a big knife." Came Hanji's response. "And that steelwork? I've never seen anything like it. Look at those ripples!"
"That's not what I need your help with." Erwin responded. He turned the knife over, revealing the engraved characters on the rear side of the blade. He brought the blade up into the light, and let Hanji view the scrawled letters.
"There are letters, or characters engraved on the side of the knife. They are crude, but they look like something from the old civilisations. I can't read them."
He was beginning to get sick of Hanji when he heard her inhale in shock, much more loudly than was necessary.
"I know those, I know those!" He listened to her sprawl frantically. He thought she'd almost fallen off of her horse when she buckled over the side, but on closer inspection, realised that she was fumbling around in the knapsack strapped to her saddle.
"You brought books with you?" He asked, unimpressed.
"Of course I brought books!" Came the muffled voice from the side of the horse. "I always bring books! You never know what you might find, out here."
He sighed. Hanji's horse could easily drop 10 kilograms of carrying weight just in books.
"Ah, here we go!" He braced himself as she sat up. "Look!"
He looked reluctantly at the cover of the book. It was a Recon Corps intelligence book, written by Hanji.
Of course. I'd be foolish if I thought I'd escaped her ego.
"A dossier on Ancient Languages, with artifacts retrieved from outside the Walls. Written and compiled by Hanji Zoe." He droned, annoyed.
Hanji didn't seem to notice the discomfort in his voice.
"Yes! Aren't I wonderful. Anyway; here."
He watched her carelessly whip through pages, nearly tearing some out in her haste.
"This, these, here. These characters. Artifacts with them on were obtained from the far West, in the ruins of an old town. We haven't been able to go as far as the cities, obviously, but there's bound to be more there. These characters are unusual. They're similar to German in appearance, but they construct completely different words."
Erwin managed to glance a look of the title of the page between Hanji's lectures. The page was covered in phonetics, and more of those symbols, in comparison to ones that he could read. A translation chart.
"Are they incomplete?" He asked, curious. He knew he shouldn't fuel Hanji's eagerness, but there seemed to be a very small amount of the foreign characters compared to the ones that he could read.
"We're not sure, but there are certainly considerably less of these than there are of our own letters." He watched her look at the blade. "The knife, give me the knife."
He did as he was bid, to the boy's distaste. He felt the smaller body twitch in front of him, but calmed the child by placing his free hand on the boy's head.
He watched as Hanji pressed the blade to the pages of the book, comparing the characters.
"These, here. This one, two of these, and one of this…." He watched as she gestured, and compared the letters on the knife to the characters he understood. "A… D… A… M… . Adam. Adam?!"
He was taken aback by her sudden frustration.
"What, what is it?"
"That's not a word." He heard her say. "I'd been deciphering some old text we'd found in a house with these characters, a religious book, I think. Anyway, that's not important. What matters is that Adam isn't a word. Erwin, It's a name."
His eyes worked their way back to meet the boy's.
"What's the language, Hanji?" He asked, taking the knife back from the scientist and returning it to the boy, who he watched slide it protectively back into its sheath.
"We don't know for certain. Something old, from the West. We think that it was called English, but no one speaks it any more. It's long dead."
From that far West? Hundreds and hundreds of miles? Surely not.
He felt the dull heat of the sun fade as they followed the rest of the formation into the entrance tunnel of Wall Maria. They had lost a large amount of their forces, again. Erwin felt strong dissatisfaction at that, but his new plans for only engaging the Titans when necessary had helped minimise the deaths as much as possible. Needless to say, he was beginning to realise the importance of exceptional soldiers. If this boy could match Levi, perhaps even himself, then the sacrifice of this expedition may have been worth it. Erwin knew the big picture was more important, after all. That was why the Commander liked him.
The tunnel was dark, and damp; he'd had enough of dark and damp. The boy had too, he could tell.
He leant forward so that the child could hear him.
"Not far now. You'll be safe here."
He saw the boy turn, and smile warmly at him.
Gradually, a few at a time, the returned soldiers emerged into the Shiganshina district. The weather had begun to change, he noticed, and golden sunlight emerged from the clouds. He was glad that this would be how the boy would view the cities for the first time.
He glanced down as they exited the long tunnel, into the town. He squinted slightly at the sudden appearance of light, and then saw the boy.
He watched the small body sit upright, and gaze around in wonderment at the settlement on the interior of the Wall. He couldn't resist using the boy's original name once.
"This is it, Reece." He said softly. "What we are. Welcome home."