The captain’s body cartwheeled off the parapet and hit the stones of the courtyard with a crunch that seemed to suck all the sound out of the besieged keep. The two-dozen exhausted soldiers left on the walls all froze, staring at the growing pool of blood.
“He’s dead,” said the lieutenant, slumping against the ladder that led up to the parapets. “He’s dead, and it’s just a matter of time before they breach the gates.”
The keep was still under construction, and had been ill-prepared for an attack. No siege weaponry to strike back with. No provisions for a prolonged battle. The smithy at central command hadn’t even delivered shields for the footsoldiers yet.
Beyond the walls, a war horn sounded a fresh charge on the gates. The archers atop the wall hunched down, panic-stricken faces turning to the lieutenant for orders.
“We… We have to surrender. We don’t stand a chance…” He glanced around, unable to focus on any one thing for more than a second. “Someone find me a white flag, a sheet, a pillowcase. Anything. We don’t deserve to die here.”
A boom and the crack of wood sounded as an enemy battering ram struck the barricaded main doors. The soldiers nearest the gate recoiled, save for one stoic-faced spearwoman, who pivoted into the ready position.
“We’re too late,” the lieutenant said, eyes going wide. “They’re coming in.”
Another boom. The sound reverberated around the courtyard, louder than anything the lieutenant had heard in his life. The door began to splinter.
“There’s no hope! We don’t even have shields! They’ll kill every last one of us. There’s no—”
“THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE!” the spearwoman’s voice boomed as she slammed the butt of her spear on the cobblestones, drowning out the lieutenant and the din beyond the walls.
Every head in the keep turned to her. The soldiers fell silent.
“Who here still draws breath?” asked the woman. “Who here has a sword, or spear, or bow in their hands?”
The men and women on the walls looked around hesitantly, eyeing the weapons they clutched in white-knuckled grips.
“Then there is still hope,” said the woman. “There is hope in your hearts! There is hope in the fury of your sword arm! Hope in the swiftness of your draw and the trueness of your aim!”
BOOM! The gate shuddered behind her. This time, the bronze lion’s head on the front of the battering ram could be seen for a moment before the doors closed on its roaring maw. The soldiers flinched, but stood their ground.
“I will not hear a single voice say there is no hope while we have steel in our hands and the strength to swing it. Archers, fall back from the walls! Loose on anyone who breaks through that gate. Spears, line up with me!”
The soldiers began to move, taking the positions she pointed to. The lieutenant’s mouth worked silently, but then he too fell into line.
BOOM! The woman pulled the footsoldiers in close around her.
“I was up on the walls earlier, and I only spotted one battering ram. That’s their only way in, and we’re going to take it from them.”
BOOM! The troops eyed each other with nervous hope.
“We’re going to raise the bar on the gate. On the next charge, they’ll rush through with their hands on the ram and their guards down. We will cut them down where they stand.”
“You!” She pointed to two soldiers near the back. “The moment they come through, pull the ram clear of the gates and shut them again.”
They nodded, tightening their grip on their spears.
The woman pounded her spear on the stones and began to chant, her voice ringing loud and clear above the clamour.
“Take heart, because your enemy fears you! Take heart, because they drown their terror with horns and drums!”
Another crash at the gate. The woman strode toward the bar as she sang out, her voice rising.
“Take heart, because our victory song is louder than horns! Take heart, because triumph is the loudest drum!”
Another crash at the gate. The brass jaws of the lion ripped out splinters of wood as the ram drew back for one more massive blow that would shatter the gate.
The woman quietly lifted the bar, pivoting to set it against the wall. Then she lowered her spear and nodded at the soldiers around her.
“Today, you are warriors! But tomorrow, you will be legends!”
A dozen archers drew back their bowstrings. A dozen soldiers readied their spears.
The battering ram came through the door, and the regiment struck in unison.
When the relief force arrived, they had expected to find the keep doors smashed wide open and a mound of bodies feeding crows in the courtyard. Instead, they found the gate damaged but standing, and the walls patrolled by men and women with proud bearing and watchful eyes. They looked nothing like the raw recruits who had been sent to hold the unfinished keep.
The gates opened at the company’s approach. As they entered, the captain noted that the keep’s gate bar had been replaced by a thick battering ram that had been cut down to size. The handles were still there, but the cap had been hewn off, leaving an end of splintered wood.
“Who commands here?” he asked.
One of the sentries descended to greet him. “I was the lieutenant here.”
The sentry nodded and led the captain toward the back of the courtyard, where a woman in armour was drilling the troops. In one hand, she held a spear. In the other, she hefted a massive lion’s head shield with splinters of wood embedded in its bronze teeth.
It struck the captain as strange, as the reports said the garrison had no shields, but he brushed the thought away. Too much about this day was strange already.
The woman spotted the captain and called a halt to the drill.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “She’s not the captain assigned here. Who the hell is she?”
Although she was no taller than any of the soldiers around her, she seemed to rise above every man and woman in the courtyard as the ranks parted and she raised a hand in greeting.
Not taking his eyes off her, the former lieutenant answered in a reverent tone, “We call her the Atlanta.”
This week’s Archive story comes from Peter Chiykowski, co-writer of the forthcoming EMBERWIND: The Songweave Tapestry campaign. He’s the creator of the webcomics Rock Paper Cynic , Is It Canon?, and What’s George Doing Today?, the viral Twitter sensation Dad Joke Han Solo, and the postcard fiction project The Shortest Story.