Axile looked out the arrow slit of his tower. The day was dark and grey and cloudy, rain threatening to fall on the hosts before his field. One was his, a ragged band of brigands, thieves and robbers from his dungeons, as well as farmer men who would not suffer the tyranny of Tuvein from the West. The other host was his: Tuvein, the man who would style himself emperor of all the land. He had come to Axile under the banner of friendship and sat with him, ate of his meat and bread and drank of his wine, and then had threatened him with conquest.
“Join me, Axile. Join me, and together we can rule.” His words had been charming, but Axile had known many men who called themselves kings or lords, and he knew that men who sought power never wanted to share. He had denied the man his request of friendship, and the next day Tuvein was gone, a cloud of dust following behind his hard-ridden horse.
Then Tuvein had returned, a host of armed men at his disposal, spears and shields and swords gleaming in the sun. Axile had ridden out, a white flag above his head. “A coward alone would not meet his foe in open battle!” he called, riding to and fro before the ranks of men. Then Tuvein showed himself, resplendent in a suit of fine steel armor and mail, his sword drawn and shimmering under the light of the hot sun.
“No man before has called me a coward, Axile,” he had said. “That alone will I make you pay for. I ask again, join me. With my army and your men, together we could accomplish many things.”
Axile spat and rode away. His garrison was sent out the next day to muster as many as could be found, and a small host of defenders was summoned, armed and armored and sent out. “My Lord,” said a voice. Axile was ripped from his reverie. His squire, a tall lad, thin as a twig with dark hair and darker eyes, was there. “It’s time to don your armor.” He helped Axile slip his mail on, padded doublet over top and the breastplate. He checked the straps two times before moving and getting a pair of greaves from the table and setting to strapping them on.
“It’s a long time since I waged war, boy,” said the man. He felt tired and his limbs heavy. “What people call war is nothing but petty battles now. This, this is real war. Tuvein from the West seeks dominion over all, but I will not be his first conquest.” The boy looked up at him. “Would you like to fight in a war, boy?”
“I wish to be a soldier, my lord,” said he. “I want to ride a horse and wear a sword at my waist. I want ladies to swoon at me. But I don’t want to be in a war.” He handed Axile a gauntlet, and went to fetch the other.
“That’s a boys answer. No knight can be one without war. Knights aren’t needed without war.” He ruffled the boy’s hair before slipping on the second gauntlet. The plate metal felt heavy. “I could make you a knight now, if you want. Let you taste battle and see what it’s like.”
“No, my Lord, I don’t wish to join this battle.”
Axile smiled. “Smart boy. Fetch my sword and shield.” The boy hurried away and came back with a longsword and shield. The blade was cased in ash and black leather, and the shield was painted with Axile’s device, a tower on a green field with the sun setting behind. He took these.
“Join the archers, supply arrows and bowstrings to them who need it. When this battle is done I will knight you.”
He went out and down, climbing from the top of his tower to the base. Someone held the reins of his horse. “Rain casts an I’ll omen,” said the man holding the horse. Axile slipped his foot in the stirrup and mounted.
“Indeed,” said Axile. “But I do not think it is ill for us. Rain will cast Tuvein’s army in the mud.”
“Very good, my Lord.”
Axile rode away, letting the man alone. He joined the ragged host that was his army. Riding out before them, he looked out over the men assembled. “This is war,” he said quietly. Then louder, “This is war! Tuvein comes to rob us of our lands, our rights and our women! He would call himself emperor, and by that style he would claim all that we own! That will not pass! If Tuvein of the West wishes to rule, he will have need to find a different people to kill and rape and conquer! You men have served me long and faithfully, and when this war is over you will be rewarded! Those who came to my service just recently, from my dungeons, I promise you freedom should we prevail!”
All the men screamed and cheered, banging their swords against shields and their spears against the floor. “Axile!” some roared, and others, “Down with Tuvein! Down with the West!”
Axile held his sword high in the air and roared along with the rest. Then he wheeled his mount around to face the invading army. “To war, boys, to war!” And he charged.
The thundering of hooves was loud in his ear, and the thundering of men behind and before, and then there was a ring of steel on steel. He brought his sword crashing down and felt it collide with something. The sound of scraping metal grew louder and he heard someone scream near him. His horse reared, its legs flailing wildly. Axile saw one man’s head crushed by the beast’s hooves.
Then he saw him, Tuvein of the West, his mail and armor stained with the blood of men and horse. He turned his horse about and spurred it to full gallop at the man styling himself emperor. As he approached, however, Tuvein turned his horse, a black stallion, toward him, a cruel smile on his mouth. Axile saw him mouth the words, “I win.” Axile brought down his sword hard against the horse’s neck as he went past. The death cry of the animal was terrible, and Tuvein tumbled from his seat.
Axile wheeled around and galloped again toward his foe. His sword flew as though it were his arm, but he felt his horse lurch and fall; the man from the West had cut the legs from his speeding animal. His own leg gave a sickening crunch as the horse tumbled sideways, and pain shot through him. A cry escaped his lips as he struggled to free himself. Tuvein advanced, his sword hanging loosely from his hand.
“Kill me, if you want,” Axile spat, his words venom. “You’ll just end your cause, if you kill me.”
“Will I?” asked Tuvein, stopping before the fallen warrior. “I think that killing you might be the first of many steps toward my cause. If you’re dead, I can claim your lands and castle as mine own. Your men and people will be mine, and they will serve me, or they will die.” He put his hands on the horse’s corpse and rolled it off of Axile. “I am no coward, Axile. I will let you stand, and then I will kill you. But before I do, I want you to remember that I offered you my friendship.”
“You offered me servitude.”
“I offered you life.” He offered his hand to the fallen man and helped him to his feet. Axile stood, but when he tried to put his weight on his left leg he almost fell again. “Put up your steel, Axile,” said Tuvein. His own sword was bared toward Axile.
The man with the broken leg gripped his sword; his hand was sweaty and the grip slipped in his hand. His shield, which was oak and steel, was dinted and chipped, but the sigil could still be seen. His movements were swift and well-aimed, but Tuvein brought up his own blade to deflect them. Then he swung his sword about toward Axile. He caught the blow on his shield; wood chips flew everywhere, red and green and brown with paint. Another blow and another and another followed the first, and he managed to catch them all, reciprocating with a strike of his own, drawing blood from Tuvein’s arm.
Then a blow caught Axile on his arm, his sword arm. Then another got his shield arm, then nicked his neck. Blood soaked his limbs and dripped down his plate armor and mail, soaking his chest and stomach. Then the blow came, knocking his sword from his hand. No, knocking his entire hand, gauntlet, sword and all, to the ground. Blood gushed from his wound, and the pale white of bone and yellow of marrow peeked out of his wrist. Another blow sent his arm and shield to the ground, cut at the shoulder.
He fell to his knees, and pain rushed through him again as his leg touched, the bone sliding independently beneath the skin. He craned his neck to look up at Tuvein: his sword and armor were still red with blood. His gauntlets were dinted at the knuckles and small pools of rain and blood were in the hollows. “Remember, you had the chance to live,” said Tuvein. He lifted his sword and buried it in Axile’s throat. Axile felt the blade pierce him and the blood bubble in his mouth. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. As his vision blurred, he thought of the boy he had promised to knight.
’No matter… Tuvein of the West will kill him anyway.