A boy, never unaware of war and its consequences, waits always for the day of battle and of war. Endurance hardens him to discipline but mercy tempers his unhappiness with a true pity and longing for peace.
War comes, indeed, he is called to battle as a man, and his heart, so heavy already, is wrung by the necessity of war. He is duty-bound to go, though, and raises the necessary strength within himself to go on. He leaves his home without a backward glance. Falls into a sleepless routine of riding, cleaning armor, planning strategy, sending messengers, eating, and sitting late into the night by a campfire.
Rains begin to fall, making the ground slippery and muddy; the men's morale is low. Soon they begin to travel uphill, taking shelter in caves at nightfall--there are wolves in the hills. They are able to stay one night at an abbey, but some of the soldiers are uncouth and destroy some of the abbey's good possessions. A skirmish, a battle, and the disapproval of his father all dishearten the knight. A further battle turns out better, but the banner bearer falls and the enemy cheers. Finally word comes and messengers go back and forth about the deciding battle.
Finally, the dawn of the last battle arrives, and when the armies align, the enemy send their starving children out first, hordes of starving children, and behind them arrows and crossbow bolts. The soldiers are drawn and haggard with fear and exhaustion, and are easily defeated without many deaths--a few desperate men die before the knight finds a strategy to win them over. Why had none before noticed the desperation with which they fought, and why their bands were so swift, so fierce, so small?
Takes a handful of knife-wounds from a traitor who is gaining power from the prisoners, more than power, and the knight is taken slowly back to the monastery, back to the castle for recuperation. The castle is being run by women and old men; all that is left from the war when so many men were still at the border. He feels out of place, useless, and helpless to do anything for himself. People patronize him, fear him, and nobody seems to know what he has gone through. One of the king's younger sons is set to page for him, and eventually he finds occupation in writing, piecing and repairing his chain mail, and riddling.
One night, sleepless, finds him in the chapel. The floor is cold, the fires are out, and once again he feels outside in the wind with the wolves surrounding him in a deadly heat, a fire that consumes to ash his very bones. Waking, he finds his wounds reopened and that he cannot stop shaking. Only then can he rest. Unable to return to his room, someone finds him and helps him back with a promise not to reveal what happened, what he said in his delirium, or that he himself reopened his wounds.
Word finally comes of his deeds; his father returns, the men return, and he is held in high honor---much to his chagrin. A feast is held, a solution is found to the starvation of the people, and the seasons begin to change slowly to autumn.
The soldiers find him less grim, more patient, and less angry. This is strange, and requires new acquaintance to be made--not to mention that his men have been shifted from leader to leader, that they have experienced things he had not. One afternoon finds him copying books and not feeling the drive or need to train himself for a battle already won--but then, battles against this sort of thing are never fully won.
Sleepless, one night, he walks among the gardens of the castle, to the outer fields, to the fringe of the forest, and sees a unicorn which charges at him, but is at the last moment that the beast is diverted and distracted by the sound of a maiden singing from a window. They walk the short distance to the wall, where lighted windows can be seen, and a fog begins to appear near the ground. Suddenly a man's voice cries out, calling for the knight, and he looks over to the sound. The maiden's voice stops, her light disappears, and when he looks back, the unicorn is gone. Returning the call to the guards, he tells them he was sleep-walking; they understand as no one has been himself after the war, and let him go without a word.
In the ensuing celebrations, a tourney is held, and he fights in it--showing his men that he has not forgotten them, that he will come back. His father looks to him for strategy in feeding, housing, teaching the people, and on a view of what did happen at the castle while he was absent. The other knights yet think well of him for having protected the people--even though they were once the enemy--above his own life.
Somehow the story ends with a feeling of purpose and of mystery, of something beautiful that he cannot quite touch but is haunted by.