It was a black day under a sky full of fire when the Wolf Queen came to the city of Avara. Her armies marched unstoppable through the fields and the dales, bringing fire and rapine and slaughter with them, and smoke boiled up on all sides of the walled city like a hundred funeral pyres. The defenders could smell the burning flesh of men and beasts, and they saw the masses of prisoners driven with whips ahead of the armies to be put to raising their siegeworks.
Actaon was no knight on that day, and he stood on the walls with many men who had fled to the city with family and all they could bear to take refuge behind ancient stone fortifications. When he and his mother and children passed through the gate, the walls looked so thick and heavy he did not fear that anything would breach them, but he had not yet seen the might of the Wolf Queen’s army. Now he looked on her battalions of steel covering the earth and saw the siege towers moving like giants along the roads, dragged by ragged bands of slaves, and he knew that the fist of the queen could indeed sunder the city.
And so when they called forth for every able man to take up arms in defense of the city, Actaon left his children with his mother huddled in a crowded house with a hundred other fearful refugees, and went to to the walls. He was older than the fearful young men, and it had been many years since he lifted a sword. Yet there were no swords to be had, only stacks of hastily-made spears with the heads still black from the forging.
He took up a spear and a leather helmet and took armor made from a cowhide with a hole cut for the neck and with a rope to tie it in place. It was poor war-gear, but it was all there was, and he found his callused hands still fit to a spear-haft well enough.
The knight who commanded their part of the wall was Sir Peles, and he was an older man, but with iron still in his gray hair and hard-jawed face. His armor was old and had been battered and hammered back into shape. His sword-hilt was worn smooth and the blazon on his shield was long worn away to a simple sheen of aged wood scarred and chipped by many wars.
He had a gruff voice and a hard stare, and he frightened the boys who gathered to fight with him almost as much as the enemy did. Actaon knew that was good, and recognized the mark of an experienced warrior. Perhaps only he saw the fear that glinted in the knight’s eyes when he looked at them. The other young men and mudfoot farmers were too afraid to notice anything else.
Actaon knew they would storm the walls, and he knew they would attack from as many directions as possible to try and find a weak point. There would be many of them, for the city was large and there were not enough men to guard it all around. They would pour against the walls like a flood-tide, and somewhere the walls would break. There was no answer for it, and the only other choice was to bend their necks for the slave-noose. Actaon would not see his children led away into servitude under a tyrant queen, and so he would fight, as he had when he was young.
They watched the enemy formations gather like stormclouds. Men marching this way and that way, making themselves into a great hammer poised to smite the vast walls. They tore down fences and burned the bodies of those who fell exhausted in their labors and were slain. The smell of cooked flesh hung heavy over the city, fitting for the mark of a savage queen.
Horns blew with a tone that split the air, and then the force and wrath of the army was loosed upon the city. Actaon saw the kindle of fire-arrows as the flame was passed down from one man to the next, and then like a swarm of lights they lifted as one and vaulted through the dark sky to rain down on the walls. He and the other men ducked down behind the parapet and heard the arrows rattle and sing as they struck stone. Here and there they found wood or flesh and then there was a scream or an outcry.
A burning arrow, head smeared with pitch, struck hard in a wooden cart laden with heavy stones, and one of the young recruits made to rise and run to it and douse it, but Actaon knew better and laid a hand on his arm and held him back while two others rushed to quench the fire. Even as they moved from shelter the second wave of arrows – this one unlit – slashed down and caught those who had exposed themselves, and one of the boys went down screaming, a shaft piercing through his shoulder and emerging from his chest.
He did not scream for long, and blood stained the stone as he coughed it out and died. The other boy ran and sheltered again as more arrows fell, and now Actaon heard the drums beating out the cadence of the march. Under cover of the storm of arrows, the infantry were on the advance. He heard their commanders shouting, heard the tramp of thousands of feet, and then he heard the sound of wood on stone as ladders were pushed to the top of the wall.
“Rise!” Sir Peles called out, and they leaped up to meet the assault on the points of their spears. The attackers climbed into a storm of their own arrows, seemingly heedless of the danger, and flung themselves over the edge of the wall with sword and axe and battle-scream.
Actaon came up with his spear already braced, and he lunged in and caught the first assailant in the center of his chest. The point barely penetrated the tough scaled armor, but the force of the blow shoved the man off the ladder to plummet down to a screaming end below. Actaon knew this was a pushing match, and he made sure the boys around him followed his example. The enemy swarmed up the ladders and tried to get over the rim of the wall before they could be forced down.
The wall turned into a churning, threshing battle as the invaders forced their way over the walls in knots and clumps, hacking down the inexperienced defenders before they could stop them. Blood fed the stones again, as it had so many times in so many ages.
Actaon stabbed his spear into another man and pushed him back, heard him scream as he fell. The attackers were not skilled at siegeworks, because they put the ladders too high, and he could see them extended over the top of the wall. In the lag between one attacker and the next he stabbed his spear into the exposed wood and shoved, calling the other boys to join him. They rushed to add their spears and backs to the effort.
The ladder was heavy, laden with armored men, and there would be other soldiers clustered at the base, trying to hold it hard against the wall. They pushed, and pushed, and even as another attacker reached the top a boy ran over and hurled a head-sized rock into his chest and dashed him backward. The ladder began to give, and as soon as it tipped enough, the weight of the men climbing it began to work against the men holding it up. They had to shove it hard to get it to tip past the point of balance, and one of the boys fell, clutching an arrow through his neck. But then the ladder swung away, slow, then faster, and they all shouted as they saw it smash down among the enemy.
But there were too many gaps in the wall, and in places the enemy had begin to flood over the battlements. Actaon had lost his spear, so he caught up a sword fallen from the dead hand of an enemy. It stunned him for a moment, because it felt as ready and right as it ever had. Perhaps time and weariness might have dulled it, but they had not.
A crowd of enemies came rushing along the wall and he saw they were the wild, face-painted warriors of the upper Fells, the tribesmen called the Uvor who worshiped the Wolf Queen as a goddess. They wore only scraps of armor and wielded their swords and axes like madmen, and he bared his teeth as he met them.
He turned aside blows and brought the broad-bladed sword crunching down into flesh and bone. He stopped the momentum of their rush with sheer ferocity, and the boys who fought beside him stared as he killed three men with three blows and sent the rest reeling back, shouting and shaking blood from their eyes. Heartened, the defenders clutched their spears and rushed in among the enemy and stabbed them, killing two more. The Uvor chopped two of them apart and then Actaon was on them again.
His blade split a skull in half and scattered dark brains across the wall. He took the sword in both hands and steel met steel in a scream of sparks. He shoved a warrior’s axe aside and clove through his neck and down to wedge the bent blade in his breastbone. It would not come free and Actaon left it wedged in bone, blood pouring around it like a flood.
There was a lull in the battle, and Actaon cut the straps of a dead man’s breastplate and cast off his bloodstained leathers. He belted the plate on with a length of cloth so it would hold in place, and then he took up another sword from a fallen man. “Gather the weapons,” he told his boys, and they did. Despite deaths he had more men around him than he had at the start, as others came to join him.
Enemy soldiers rushed up the ladders, and he saw they were mercenaries. Men with leather jacks and steel helms, and he knew the Uvor had been sent as shock troops, to kill and die and inspire fear. Actaon gave a roar like a lion, a cry such as he had not given since he was much younger, and his men screamed and followed him when he charged against the parapet.
They went into the mercenaries and threw them back from the wall with blood and steel, and they killed the ones who forced their way through. Men fell with arms and faces hacked away, lay howling in their own spilled guts. Actaon killed and killed and he felt the fire in his chest as he breathed hard, a fire he did not know he had forgotten.
He heard a great voice lifted above the tumult, and when he looked he saw Peles striding up and down the wall with arrows studding his shield and his red sword in his hand, calling on the men to kill and stand and die if they had to. Wherever he went, the resistance stiffened and held, and wherever the attackers broke through he was there, his heavy sword taking a toll of steel among those who dared too close.
When he passed Actaon, he looked at the fallen and the wounded. He saw there were more of the enemy dead and he met Actaon’s eye and nodded in a silent, grim approval, and what passed between them was the essence of war.
The attackers came against them three times, leaving more and more dead heaped around the base of the wall. In between the assaults they hurled the enemy slain and wounded from the walls and screamed their defiance even as the wounded cried out for mercy. The weak and the unlucky had been carved away, and the men who reached the fall of night were hardened, as ash-wood in a fire. The enemy drew away with their ladders and left the dead to stink and rot, while they kindled their fires and sang their battle-songs to the smoke-covered moon.
Actaon scavenged among the dead, and soon he was fitted with better war-gear. He had a mail shirt and a shield battered and scarred by sword-strokes. He had a battered steel helm with an aventail and a heavy, long-bladed sword with a corded grip and a deadly balance. He sat against the wall, his back to the enemy, and he flexed his aching hands.
He looked up as someone came close to him. The other men were huddled around the watch-fires for warmth, and they left him alone, but it was Peles who came through the night mist and stood close, looking out across the walls to the enemy fires.
“You are no humble hoeman,” the knight said. “You fought like ten men today.”
“I was a fighting man, once, in my youth,” Actaon said. “I gave that life up.”
“Wise,” Peles said. “There are few good ends for a man of the sword. We die in battle, or we grow old and afraid and become cowards. If you take up the sword, and do not lay it down, it will finish you.” The old knight leaned on the stone. “It may finish all of us yet, no matter what path we have followed.” He looked down. “Many sons of farmers and old men who never held a sword have died by them today.”
“War is like a storm,” Actaon said. “Once you are in it, it strikes men down without care.”
“I know I will not come out of this battle,” Peles said. “I have decided on this. I have grown children far away, and no one else who will mark my passing. I will stand and die with courage, as a knight must.”
“We may all die here,” Actaon said. “We should all wish to do it well.”
With the cold before dawn the soldiers of the Wolf Queen loosed a hideous barrage from their siege engines, and burning stones rained down upon the walls, smashing the fortifications and crushing men, scattering fire wherever they struck. Actaon drew his men back down the steps inside the walls and waited it out as death fell from the sky. Lighter missiles, burning with pitch, hurtled over the walls and fell upon the city, kindling a hundred fires in moments.
Great stones hammered against the tower, again and again, and the men felt the earth shake under them. Masonry cracked and splintered, and Actaon gave warning when he saw the tower itself begin to sag and twist. Defenders tried to flee from the battlements, but they could not all escape before the tower cracked and split apart, and many men went down into the ruin as the tower collapsed and took part of the wall with it, ripping a great hole in the fortification itself.
A pillar of dust rose into the dawn sky, and Actaon spat out stones and bellowed for his men to gather themselves. Anyone who heard him rallied to his side, and as a wave they rushed into the breach, wading through broken masonry and coughing out dust.
They were barely in time, as a wave of barbarian warriors rushed the gap, and they met them there in the terror and fury of battle. Actaon smashed into the foe in a wave of steel and bloodlust, and his shield split at the first impact, so ferociously did the lines rush together. He hewed with his sword in a sea of blades, and he heaped dead men before him in the broken stone. The defenders charged in with their spears and reaped men like a harvest, until javelins and axes chopped holes in their ranks, and they began to waver and crumple. Actaon killed the enemy until they lay before him in a bulwark of the slain, but he could not stem the tide alone.
Then a figure in dark armor loomed out of the dust and smoke, and it was Sir Peles, faceless and terrible in his helm and with his sword in his hand. At the head of his men-at-arms he led a battle-wedge into the enemy and threw them back. Dead men heaped the stones, and smoke from the city boiled into the sky.
Now the Wolf-Queen sent her knights into the breach, and towering men in black armor with cloaks of fur hung with teeth came out of the dust and crashed against the defenders, and everywhere they forced the men of the city back. Armored men hard as steel cut through the brave boys who fell dead under their feet, trod into the dust without mercy. Spears glanced from their shields and breastplates, and their great swords and axes split flesh and bone.
Only Peles would not fall back, and he fought them face to face, shields clashing as they came together, swords striking with a sound like thunder until they were toothed like saws and dyed with blood. Peles fought until his shield split, and then he was struck a great blow on his helm and fell to his knees, blood rushing from his mouth.
It was Actaon who screamed a war-cry and led a charge to where he lay. He rushed in and met the wolf knight who raised his sword for the kill. He smote a great blow upon the enemy breastplate and split the steel with his stroke, sent the man staggering back. Other men rushed to join him, and in a great and furious exchange of blows and wounds they drove the enemy back. Men caught Sir Peles up and bore him back from the breach. They laid him on the street among broken stone and charred wood, and Actaon drew off his helm to look upon his face.
Peles lay with his eyes dark with blood and red around his mouth, running from his nose. His head was dark and he trembled in all his limbs. “I die as I wished,” he said, spitting blood. “As I wished.” He pressed the hilt of his battered sword into Actaon’s hand. “Stand, and hold them. Die as you must, as warriors must.” He clasped Actaon’s hand around the bloody hilt of the sword, and then he died. His hand fell away, and his great body sagged inside his dread armor.
Actaon gripped the sword, and he looked at the faces gathered around him, at the smoke-filled streets and seared buildings, terrified faces looking down on him. He thought of his children, huddled and afraid and uncomprehending. He looked to the breach in the wall, piled with dead, and he knew the enemy would come again soon enough. There was no other to prevent it.
“Help me with his armor,” he said. “He would not want it to lie fallow on this day. Help me and when they come again, I will meet them.”
At noon, when the fires of the city and upon the plain billowed smoke into a shroud that covered the sun, the Wolf Queen sent her armies against the broken wall one more time, and this time she sent her great champion Logor, the Knight of Wolves, the Eater of Souls. He left his horse behind and climbed into the breach, towering in his blackened armor and with the hazy light gleaming on shield and helm. He planted his standard there where the dead were piled highest, and he voiced his howl against the battlements.
“I call for a champion!” he roared. “I call for any within this city born a warrior! I call on any with the courage to meet me in single combat! Come and prove your bravery in blood!” He drew his long sword and beat it upon the rim of his shield, making a sound like a battle-drum.
It was Actaon who came forth, but he wore the armor of the fallen Peles as his own. It fit him better than he would have guessed. He carried a new shield, and in his hand was Peles’ sword, the notched edge ground sharp again. He marched ahead until he faced Logor across no more distance than a spear-length, and he stood with his feet wide and braced. The Wolf Knight stood a head taller than he, and was massive as a man made of oak. He laughed at Actaon.
“You are who they send? I will break you in half and use your sword to pick my teeth!” Logor beat his sword upon his shield again, and the world seemed to go silent as they rushed together. The clash of shield on shield was a crack like splitting stone, and Logor tried to fling Actaon back, but he found he could not.
Actaon felt a strength in him as he had not since he was young. He met the strokes of that mighty sword on his shield, and he returned his own blows that chopped pieces from the wood. Logor tried to strike him on the helm and drive him down to his knees, and then he stepped in and tried to bind the shields so he might strike down over Actaon’s back, but each time Actaon slipped aside and delivered another terrific blow upon that black shield.
In fury, Logor rushed upon him, trying to knock him over, and even as he sidestepped Actaon turned his foot on a loose stone and fell. Logor bellowed and turned, smote down at him with the point of his shield and struck his breastplate so savagely that the steel dented in and Actaon felt his teeth vibrate inside his skull.
Logor swept his sword down and Actaon met it on his shield square and hard, and the blade split the wood in half and rang against his vambrace. But for a moment the steel was wedged in the shield, and Actaon used that moment to wrench the blade half out of the giant’s grasp, and then he drove his sword up and the point crunched through the plates that guarded Logor’s belly.
The giant grunted and staggered back, and when Actaon drew back his sword that last finger-length was red. He got to his feet and when Logor charged him again, he flung the broken shield in his face and when he flinched aside Actaon met him with a two-handed stroke that crushed his gorget and snapped the leather ties of it. Blood poured out over the black armor as the broken armor fell loose. Logor dealt him a terrible blow across the side that creased his armor, and then he staggered.
Actaon took the moment and gave the man a great buffet on the helm with the pommel of his sword and knocked him sprawling in the dust. He tried to rise and Actaon rained two-handed blows on his arm and helm until the sword was torn from Logor’s hand and he fell, spitting blood and moaning. Blood ran out of his neck, and Actaon could not see how badly he was wounded.
He turned his sword in his hands and gripped the ricasso, held it poised to stab downward. “Should I offer mercy where you have given none? What would be the reward for such an act?” He placed a foot on Logor’s chest. “Tell me why should you live?”
He heard the tread of feet and turned, looked through the smoke and most and saw a formation of knights draped in wolfskins, and among them a tall woman with black braided hair and armor hung with fingerbones and teeth. A hush of fear fell over all the onlookers, as they looked upon Thera, the Wolf Queen.
“Never have any prevailed over the strength of Logor,” she said. She wore no helm and he saw she was beautiful in a fierce way, with scarred cheeks and paint across her eyes. “I would know the name of the man who stands over my fallen champion.”
Actaon did not move, held his sword ready to strike. “I am Actaon, and that is all I shall be. I will kill him if you try to prevent it.”
“Kill him or let him live,” she said. “That is yours to choose, not mine. But you have won a contest, not this battle.”
“I know it,” he said. “But I will die to prevent you setting foot within this city.”
“Join me, and swear to be my champion, and I will spare the people of this city,” she said. “The towers will fall, and the streets will burn, but I shall let the people leave with whatever they may carry with them. That is my offer to you. Choose.”
Actaon was silent, and he stood unmoving as a statue for a long time. He thought of his mother and his children, and knew he would never see them again, not now. “Swear this upon your life,” he said. “For if you play me false I shall take that life with my own hands.”
“I swear it, and that is the word of a queen,” she said.
He looked at her, and then he drove Peles’ sword into the earth beside Logor’s head and left it there. He went forward, among men who were like wolves, and he bent his knee to the Wolf Queen, and swore his life to her.
By night, Avara burned. The streets were filled with fire, and men who howled as they looted whatever there was to take. The light of the blaze reached up to the skies, lighting the low clouds as if by the very forge of the death-god at work upon the earth. Under the night a long column of people fled before the terror of the invaders, carrying everything they could, staggering and weeping, but alive. They left the city of their ancestors, their homes and their histories behind them. Many left the dead, unseen and uncounted, left to be burned in pyres of bone. One man watched them from the walls, face hidden behind a battered helm, and on his shoulders hung a mantle made of wolfskin.