Hilda crouched in the trees at the base of the hill with her battalion. She was too far away to locate Claude, but the Empire’s fire attack was large enough for the chaos to be visible even from her location. Funny, she’d been avoiding him for days, and now she couldn’t stand not being able to see him.
Damn it, had he put her so far out of the way on purpose? Because she’d asked to be benched? If so, she regretted ever making the request. Waiting when friends were fighting and dying was far worse than being out there herself.
She chewed on the inside of her lip, searching for a sign. The Kingdom army was on the move, making a beeline toward Edelgard. The Alliance seemed to be staying out of the way—but no. There went the infantry, pushing forward, not toward the Kingdom but the Empire. It appeared Claude was trying to flank Edelgard’s forces and push them toward the Kingdom ranks. If it worked, it would take out a large chunk of the Imperial army.
And then all hell broke loose. More flames, wind spells, lightning—the battlefield became a storm of arrows and magic. It was impossible to tell friend from foe. Hilda tore her gaze from the ground and looked at the sky. A wyvern formation rose from where she suspected Claude was. A Pegasus battalion—was that Ingrid leading them?—detached from the Kingdom and engaged.
Hilda turned to her troops. “The plan’s dead! To Duke Riegan!”
She didn’t bother waiting for them to respond. Branches whipped her arms as she broke out of the trees, running despite her heavy armor. Freikugel cut down everything in her path. The world narrowed to the battle in the sky, where she caught a flash of gold. Claude.
The blood of her enemies sprayed her armor and face as she raced toward the battle. If something happened to him, if he died before they could mend things between them, she’d never forgive him. She clenched her teeth, smashed skulls, and cleaved heads from shoulders as she rushed toward her best friend. Arrows filled the sky, but they came from the direction of the Alliance, not the Empire or Kingdom, and were aimed squarely at the pegasus corps. Thank the goddess for Ignatz and his snipers.
But they weren’t enough. A mounted battalion barreled toward where Ignatz was. A man in black armor laid about with a Relic. His hair glinted red in the smoke-stained sunlight. Sylvain Gautier. If he killed Ignatz, she was going to pull his still-beating heart from his chest.
Hilda roared and tore through the enemy—both Kingdom and Empire—like a wire through a block of clay. She spared a glance around her. The pegasus corps clashed with the wyverns, the quarters too close for archery. Claude was an excellent swordsman, but could he beat Ingrid’s lance? Hilda’s legs burned, but she forced herself to go faster.
She looked up again just as a wyvern with gold tassels on its bridle fell out of the sky. “Claude!”
The wyvern ricocheted off a pegasus on its way to the earth, slowing its descent. The wyvern rider bailed at the last moment. A pegasus warrior bearing a Relic followed it to the ground.
Hilda arrived just in time to find Claude on his back, scooting away with his left leg dragging and Failnaught raised. Ingrid advanced on him, still astride her mount, Relic pointed at his chest. Hilda bellowed as she launched one of her throwing axes. The weapon sliced into the pegasus’s hindquarters, and it reared with a shriek. Ingrid battled for control of her beast.
The galloping of hooves came at Hilda from her left. It was the dark knight from before, Sylvain. His relic glowed red, but its light was nothing compared to Freikugel’s.
“Don’t you dare touch her,” he shouted. “Ingrid, are you all right?”
Hilda braced herself. The bastard was going to try to run her down. Let him try. He’d learn why the Gonerils were the only ones able to hold a foe like the Almyrans at bay.
She waited until he was nearly on top of her. Sylvain raised his Relic. She sprinted forward and threw herself into a slide, hefting Freikugel as she went. Sylvain shouted as his horse was cut from under him. He went sprawling into the dirt, and Hilda picked herself up and sprinted toward Claude. Ingrid had dismounted, her Relic raised. Hilda screamed and tackled her. Bones crunched as Hilda’s heavy, armored body smashed Ingrid to the ground. Somewhere behind Hilda, Sylvain cried out.
Hilda rolled to her feet, Freikugel held high, and stood between the enemy and Claude. Let the bastards come. She’d cut them to pieces if they tried to touch him.
“H-Hilda?” Claude said. Ash and dirt streaked his face, his padded coat stained with blood. His cape was torn.
Ingrid staggered to her feet, holding her ribs with her free hand. Hilda scowled. Sylvain approached from her other side, Relic at the ready. All other soldiers had backed away at the sight of the four Relics, leaving a circle of clear space. There was plenty of room to maneuver.
“What are you doing?” Hilda shouted. “Why are you fighting us?”
Ingrid snarled. “That’s rich, coming from the ones who mutilated our messenger before dumping the body.”
“The what?” Hilda glared at Ingrid. “We never received any messengers from the Kingdom, not since the request for aid drawing Gloucester away from the bridge.”
“And we’re just supposed to believe you?” Sylvain said, rage filling his face.
“Hilda—” Claude said.
“Shut up,” Hilda snapped at him over her shoulder. “If you say one more word, it’s lights out for you.”
She turned to the two Kingdom nobles. “You honestly thought we’d turn on you after letting you try to kill Lorenz at Myrddin? That we’d make that kind of decision lightly? Are you out of your minds?”
“But—” Sylvain began.
“I was at the command center the whole time. Not a single messenger came from your king. We came here to help you, you morons, and look what you’ve done!”
Ingrid and Sylvain shared a look, faces pale.
“Even after all this, I still don’t want to have to kill you,” Hilda said, advancing with Freikugel. “But I will if you don’t get out of here now. And if you’ve killed any of my classmates, you’d better watch your backs, because I will not rest until I’ve sent you to your graves.”
Sylvain held up his hands and backed away. “And here I thought Dimitri had cornered the market on crazy.”
“Sylvain!” Ingrid shot him a look.
Sylvain’s expression sobered. “Is it true? About the messenger?”
“I swear on the Gonerils’ reputation,” Hilda said. “May my brother strike me down if I lie. You and I both want the same thing—to defeat the Empire and stop this hideous war. Edelgard knows that, so what better way to ensure victory than to make us suspicious of each other and fight?”
Sylvain looked at Ingrid and nodded.
“Even if we believe you,” Ingrid said, “It’s too late. We can’t take it back.”
Hilda lowered Freikugel a fraction. “But we can stop it now. I’ll have the Alliance forces fall back. You focus on defeating the Empire. And when this war is over, I expect a formal apology from your king for letting himself get played so badly by the Adrestians.”
“We’ll see what we can do.” Sylvain limped over to Ingrid.
Hilda nodded. “Now get out of here before I change my mind.”
She kept Freikugel at the ready, all her senses focused on the battle around her, as Sylvain and Ingrid retreated. The fighting raged on, but few dared come near as long as she had her Relic at the ready. When she was sure no one was poised to attack, she turned to Claude.
He stared up at her, eyes wide. “You are magnificent.”
“You bet your perfect little butt I am.” Hilda bent and pulled him to his feet. That leg of his was definitely broken. She slung his arm over her shoulder and dragged him away from the fighting. Anyone who tried to stop their retreat ended up cut in half.
“You’re upset,” Claude said between clenched teeth. It was obvious he was in pain, but she was in no mood to coddle him.
Hilda struck out at an Empire brawler, felling him in one stroke. “I’m a proper lady, and ladies never curse, but even so—fuck you, Claude.”
“That can be arranged,” he said with a weak smile.
“Oh. My. Goddess. You did not just try to joke with me.”
“You should be sorry for a lot more than that.”
“I know, and I am.”
Goddess damn it all, where was Marianne when they needed her? Lysithea would do in a pinch, but judging by the explosions, the sorceress was half the battlefield away. Claude was just going to have to suffer. Well, he deserved it.
“You should have never attacked.” Angry tears formed in the corners of Hilda’s eyes. “You should have hung back in the trees until the Kingdom was in trouble. Then you could have swooped in and saved them, and they would have known we were allies.”
Claude sighed. “I really thought we could do it.”
His weight grew heavier and heavier until she was half-dragging, half-carrying him. He tried to limp along on his good leg, but he began to shake. Hilda clenched her teeth and glanced at him. His skin was dangerously pale, and his eyes were starting to roll back in his head.
Enough was enough. “Leicester Alliance! Fall back in the name of the Duke,” she bellowed. “Pass it along! Fall back! Let the Kingdom take the lead!”
Hilda bullied every unit she saw into either retreating or passing along the message and covering the others’ retreat. Fortunately, Leonie showed up shortly after, and her cavalry made short work of spreading the message. The retreat proceeded in an orderly fashion.
“What now?” Leonie asked. She, Lysithea, Raphael, and Ignatz, along with a few other commanders, stood at the ready.
Hilda swallowed. Damn it, now they expected things from her. She could either argue with them that she wasn’t in charge, or she could get this done and get Claude safe. He’d passed out, a dead weight on her shoulder, although he somehow managed to keep his grip on Failnaught.
She took a deep breath. “Lysithea, I need you to do what you can for Claude. Leonie, keep an eye on any stragglers. Raphael, you lead the retreat, and Ignatz, your snipers should remain toward the rear to cover us. The rest of you, get your men in order and get out of here as calmly and quickly as possible. The Kingdom and Empire can grind each other to dust for all I care.”
Everyone nodded and hurried off. Hilda turned to Lysithea. “Can you heal him while we march?”
“I can try.”
Hilda tucked Freikugel into the straps on her belt and hooked Failnaught around it. Claude was as limp as a noodle as she slung him over her shoulders. Her armor was likely bruising him, but that was the least of her worries.
“I think it’s bad,” Lysithea said.
“I know.” Hilda gritted her teeth and marched forward. Claude wasn’t tall, but he was taller than she was, and heavier. It was awkward, slow going. If only he were conscious—she could have given him an elixir or something.
“Hey,” Hilda said to Lysithea. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
Lysithea blushed. “Why wouldn’t I be? You know, you’re really something when you make an effort.”
“Don’t tell anyone. They’ll expect me to do it next time, too,” Hilda said with a half-smile.
“I think it’s a bit late for that.”
The retreat went off without a hitch. When they made camp that evening, Claude safely ensconced in his tent, Hilda finally had an opportunity to tally their troops. Their losses were huge. She could only imagine the decrease in numbers the Empire and Kingdom forces had suffered.
Enough was enough. This war needed to end.
But first, Claude had to survive. When the evening watch took over, Hilda entered Claude’s tent, stripped off her armor, and slept on the ground by his cot as healers came and went. In the morning, they kept him asleep and put him in a litter as they continued their march. And so it went all the way back to Derdriu. The healers would let him wake up enough to eat and drink and relieve himself, and then they’d put him back under.
Hilda almost wept with relief when they finally reached Claude’s chambers. She retreated to her own quarters, bathed and dressed in fresh clothes, and hurried back to his side. While she was gone, the healers had cleaned him and re-bound his broken bones. Tomorrow, they said, he’d wake up.
She ushered them out then retreated to his side. No way was she sleeping on the ground in here. The gossips could go jump out a window, she decided. Enough was enough. She slipped under the covers beside him, laid her head on the pillow next to his, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.