A lack of wind kept the smell of death from reaching them before they spotted the hanged man. Once they came close, the scent of rot was overpowering in the sweltering southern air. The skull was picked clean of flesh by crows and only stumps remained of legs, evidence of wild dogs or other predators.
Sky sat his horse and tried not to look at it.
“Fates be good and send us some wind,” he said and sneezed. His eyes watered and his throat was thick with phlegm. He drew it up and spit. The spittle seemed to disappear as it struck the dirt road. “Even the bloody dirt is parched to death. I hate the south, it wants to kill me.” He sneezed again and coughed. His head felt like it was full of wool.
A smack upside the back of his head made Sky wince and rub at the spot.
“You quit your whining boy, I’ll not have you crying just because it’s hot. Your mother’s blood warmed to it. Yours will too someday.” Sir Henric’s voice was softer than his words, and the mention of Sky’s mother made the knight look far away. He looked about as hot as Sky felt despite his words against complaint. He wore a sweat-stained silk tunic and had a scarf wrapped about his head, but beneath his dark beard, the knight had a placid expression about him. He could have been out for a simple ride along the Sea of Stars where it snowed all year round. The weather never seemed to bother the knight, or if it did, Sir Henric never complained about it. He’d been the same placid man for all five years that Sky had squired to him, no matter the situation.
“Aye,” said Sky. Sir Henric’s ability to bear the heat rankled him. He felt like he was melting within his linen and wool. “I’ll watch my tongue. I’ll watch it crack right off and fall out. If I don’t sneeze out my brains first.”
“It would be an improvement,” Sir Henric said and put heels to his mount, trotting ahead. Sky left him to it and drank from his water skin. He poured some of it down his face, hoping it would improve his mood. It didn’t. When the heat came strong, Sky’s head felt stuffed full of wool and snot. He sneezed almost as much as he breathed. There was nothing to be done but soldier on. Sometimes though, Sir Henric took pity on him when the heat made Sky’s head pound like a war drum. Those headaches were so harsh that he could hardly move. On those days, Sir Henric gave him cool water and let him sleep in the shade.
His horse, a fiery chestnut that Sky had named Dogger, bore him and his meager supplies easily. At just ten and five falls of age, Sky was a slight thing, willowy rather than stout like Sir Henric. The knight boasted five and thirty seasons of birth, though he looked closer to forty. He had never told Sky what season he’d been born to, leaving him to guess. Sky had tried to put a season to him, but could never decide.
“What do you think he got strung up for?” Sky asked, looking back at the dead man. He trotted Dogger up beside Sir Henric’s Nightsong, a brute of a black destrier with teeth that were quick to bite. As Dogger came side to side with him, Nightsong nipped at him and the chestnut shied away. Sky was forced to put his knees to him and keep him on course. Sir Henric did not even notice, the knight had his eyes on the horizon. Smoke rose in the distance, a freehold just beginning to come into view.
“This is Lady Inara’s land. Shield Port has been at war with Canton’s Song for as long as I remember. Most like he was one of Lord Canton’s men, acts as a warning.” The knight said. There was a strange catch there that Sky noticed, a hesitation at the lady’s name. It made him wonder. Sky spit again. “What’s the war about? He want Shield Port?”
“He wanted the Lady’s daughter. Raped her to death when she was out riding. She’s never forgiven the man, and bearing his sigil is as good a reason as she needs.”
Sky looked again at the dead man and saw something else. His manhood had been gauged out and flesh there was black and dead. Sky winced. “She cut his cock off before she killed him.”
“Inara’s grief knows no end, nor does her anger.”
There it was again. Sky paused and kept dogger back, letting Henric’s Nightsong trot ahead a few paces. He watched the knight and considered. He licked his lips, gazed back at the dead man and caught up.
“You knew her, Sir?”
Sir Henric gave him no answer.
“How did you know her?”
When the knight still did not give him an answer, Sky spat and snorted. His allergies were making him irritable. His head was already pounding and the sun was only making it worse. He later blamed the heat for his stupidity in what he said next.
“Was she your mistress or something?”
Sir Henric turned to look at him. Beneath his bushy eyebrows, dark eyes made Sky feel suddenly dry in the throat. He would have suffered the worst of his headaches rather than be looked at that way. Sky shrank away.
“Some day, you’ll understand,” the knight said, and they continued on in silence. Sky watched him for a time, not quite sullen. The knight had secrets to keep, and Sky had his. The difference was that Sir Henric knew Sky’s.
The sun began to fall to the west, casting long shadows of parched trees across the road. The hills on either side deepened and the road became a dry valley. Evening came swiftly once the sun passed beyond the western hills. Sky heard the sound of waves and saw masts of ships poking up from behind a line of long-roofed houses. His headache had begun to ease, the pounding less fierce as night brought cooler temperatures.
“Shield Port,” Sir Henric said before Sky could ask him. “I’d hoped to only see her again if I’d… but…” The knight looked back at him, his jaw set tightly. “Be careful what coins you have. And beware the girls.”
“The girls?” Sky grinned. “Why would I do that?”
“Just mind yourself. Else I’ll give you something to mind, boy.” Sir Henric said, raising a hand as if to clap him upside the head. “Don’t forget your promise.”
“I won’t,” Sky said and danced Dogger away, not chancing that raised hand.
Shield Port turned out to be a small freehold. The largest places were the brothels and the inns. The warehouses often had second floors which were also brothels and inns. They turned off the freehold’s main road to pass between two large warehouses with women leaning out of second story windows. One of them called out to Sky.
“Ain’t you a pretty lad! How old ye be?”
“Not old enough,” Sir Henric told him as he twisted in his saddle to reply. “Nor fit enough.”
“Aw, yer father be welcome too!” Another girl shouted from a window further down. “Like as not I take him and Jenna down there take your pretty son. Just a silver for the two of us!”
“My Squire is too young, good mistress, thank you all the same.”
“Squire? Well we give discounts to knights don’t we Jenna?”
“That we do! A silver for the two of us!”
A sharp gail of laughter followed in their wake as Sky and Sir Henric spurred their horses on. Sky’s face wore a smile of mirth. Sir Henric’s wore a scowl.
By the time they reached an inn called the Silver Stag, Sky had received no less than fifteen offers of discounts and each one had called him prettier than the last. He’d grinned like a loon after that until Sir Henric cuffed him upside the head and told him to mind himself. “I need no wandering-eyed boy tripping me up,” he growled as they unhorsed at the stable. Sir Henric told him to take Dogger and Nightsong inside and find a stableman. “Else I’ll dump with you a ship and send you even further south.” That had wiped the smile off Sky’s face better than the slap. He nodded and went in.
The stable was thick with the smell of hay and manure, but the sound of someone singing made even the worst of that merely a distraction in Sky’s mind. The song was sweet and melodic, but there were no words, just a voice and a feeling. His mother had sung to him when he was very small. Her voice had been thin and cracked, where this one was smooth and beautiful.
The singer turned out to be a boy, pock-marked and scrawny with a shriveled left arm that curled back against his chest. He couldn’t be more than ten or eleven springs or summers. Sky blinked at him. “You’re the stable boy?”
The boy started, his song cut off abruptly, jumping at the sound of Sky’s voice as he walked the horses in.
“Yes Sir… uh, name’s Pate,” the boy told him, his eyes squinting at Sky. Pate, Sky thought. My father’s name was Pate. He felt that gaze bore into him, studying him. He shrank back a little, letting Nightsong interrupt the boy’s, Pate’s, gaze.
“I’m a Squire, not a knight,” Sky said. “Two stalls and feed, I’ll rub them down. What was it you were singing?” Sky watched as the boy fidgeted, large brown eyes staring up through a mop of light brown hair. The boy was barefoot and he shifted his feet amongst the hay, nervous.
“Nothin sir, err squire sir. Just singin, beggin your pardon.”
“It was…” Sky wanted to say ‘beautiful’ but men did not use such words when talking about music, at least not when they were sober. “Very… talented.”
The boy smiled faintly, but his eyes narrowed and he seemed to take Sky in more closely, those large eyes confused and curious.
He offered the boy a few coppers, which he took awkwardly. When he didn’t move, Sky frowned. “What?”
“Nothin,” Pate said and turned, but he looked over his shoulder at Sky all the while. When he looked too long, a flush crept into Sky’s cheeks. Turning, he raised a fist. “Stare at me like that and I’ll bugger you with a bloody horseshoe!” That stopped his staring, but not Sky’s flush. As he unsaddled and rubbed down both horses, Sky knew his secret was becoming harder to keep, the older he got. He tugged his tunic looser, wishing it was cold enough for a thick gambeson instead.
He watched Pate work, curious how a boy with only one good arm could possibly act as a stableman. It turned out to be a fascinating study and he took longer to rub down Dogger and Nightsong than normal. Pate wore no shoes and often grabbed up straps or wooden handles with his feet, tossing them to his good hand or holding things down so his good hand could tighten or loosen. Sometimes, Pate even used his teeth in place of his other hand. Still, every so often, Sky saw that claw-like little hand grasp something and hold it, usually pressed against his chest.
“How’d you get that injury?” Sky finally asked. Pate looked up, confused.
“Injury, uh, sir?”
“Your hand,” he said, indicating his left arm. “How did that happen?”
Pate blinked at him, then looked down at the arm, shaking it a little. It reminded Sky of a chicken, fluttering a useless wing. Sky felt his face grow warm when he realized it probably wasn’t an injury at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a long moment of silence. “That was stupid of me.”
Pate smiled at him, a small, shy smile and went back to work. Sky finished his work quickly and gave Pate coppers he had left, hoping it would make up for his short-sighted comment. Who was he to judge a boy on such a thing? In a way, he felt like he could understand Pate’s plight.
Part of him anyway, the part that he kept hidden.