Sir Henric was bottled fury again when she woke him. She’d waited so long in the stall she nearly fell asleep, but she dared not be found. When she finally crept out of the stable and up to the room, it was near dawn.
“I thought you’d run away.” Sir Henric said, sitting up and pushing her away. She crept back, but her jaw clenched. She would not be afraid. Not now. The bleeding had waned, but she felt it dried and itchy on her thigh and sorely wished a wash and rag. Sir Henric sniffed and threw back the covers. He still wore his clothes from the night before, except for his boots. He’d been ready to ride, to go, but with her? Or without? Him. She told herself. I am a boy and will be made a man.
“You smell like shit and horse. Where were you?”
“The stable,” Sky said. “There were men, men and… I heard…”
“Men?” Sir Henric stood and came closer. His eyes were fury still but also worried. His hands were fists, but then they rested gently on Sky’s shoulders. “Did they… did they hurt you?”
“No!” she said, shaking his head. “No I only listened, they… they…” she lowered her voice, a whisper so low he knew the older knight would have to strain to hear. “They plan to murder Lady Inara, on her Crowning Day!”
The knight said nothing for a long time. He simply stared at her. His hands lifted off Sky’s shoulders after a time and then he turned to pulled on his boots. “Men, assassins. Is that it, boy?”
“Yes, Sir. That’s what they said.”
“Are you truly afraid to fight Peter? Is this some sort of story? Sky I…” Sir Henric shook his head, sighing. “Your mouth has gotten me into situations I can not recall without wanting a strong bit of southern ale.”
He doesn’t believe me, she realized, stunned. She frowned, clenched her hands at her stomach, kneaded them. Her eyes darted to he window, at the dawn that was beginning to break. “It… it was a man with a broken nose and a scar,” she said, drawing her finger across her cheek. “Sir, you have to believe me. I’m not making this up!”
The knight sighed and sat on the bed. He looked tired, worn. The years were beginning to show on his face, in the gray lines of his hair. White spotted his beard and the lines around his eyes were not simply laughing ones. His eyes made Skyah feel ashamed. They were far away, a little lost, and very tired.
“What am I to do with you? I swore an oath to your mother to protect you. You go seeking adventure everywhere, see swords where there are only puppet shadows. You laugh at death but have not truly experienced it. If there are knives after the Lady, her knights should be told.”
“Sir Corgan is just a tourney knight!” Skyah shouted to make him see the truth of it. Sir Henric rolled his eyes. Skyah stood, pointing at the door. “He is! Peter told me! He says he’s never been in a real battle but likes to talk about it! He was drunk last night, you saw it! You must have!”
“Watch your tongue,” the knight said, his eyes narrowed. “You’re talking about a nobleman, something you are not. Whether Sir Corgan has seen battle or not, something has tested him. He was knighted, Sky. Do not forget that.”
“Enough.” Sir Henric rose and reached for the discarded sword on the bed and belted it on. He pointed to their pile of gear. “Get the gambeson, you’ll need it. And the hauberk and helm.”
There was nothing for it. Sky went to where their gear was stored and pulled out the woolen gambeson, a thick jacket made to absorb blows, and buttoned it shut. Next she unwrapped the leather that held a chain hauberk. Chainmail was heavy and for Skyah, it was like a mountain was pulling her down from the shoulders when she wore it. She was plenty fast but did not have the muscle that true squires might. As Sir Henric helped her into it, she sagged with its weight.
“Don’t shame me,” he said, though his voice was not as cutting as the words suggested. He placed a large hand on her head. “Just… do your best. This is what you wanted, to be a squire. Just remember to fight like I’ve shown you, like a man. No one will know.”
Make me a man. For a moment, Skyah imagined the girl that had left Gray Town, fleeing the fires and the pestilence. She had been so scared, crying until Sir Henric had threatened her. The resolve grew in her, that she would never be as weak as she’d been. She would be a knight and defend others like her mother. But she was only a squire and the hauberk felt like a mountain. Skyah forced away her doubts and stood straight, like a boy a father might be proud of.
“I will, Sir,” she said. “And after…”
“I will speak with Sir Corgan while you fight Peter.”
Skyah smiled, then nodded. She felt confidence in herself grow as he grabbed up her helm. It was a simple thing, made much like a bucket with eye-slits and breathing holes. The padding inside was set for his own head. Most helms required an arming cap to be put on first, like a small hat tied around your head for a helm to rest on, but Sir Henric preferred to line his helms so they could be donned quicker, and removed just as quickly. “Speed is vital,” he’d told her.
Last, she grabbed up her quarterstaff. Five feet of tempered wood about as thick as a man’s thumb, Skyah had taken a liking for the weapon years ago. It allowed her to use its length to her advantage, keeping stronger, taller foes at bay while she found an opening. Sir Henric had told her that in some areas of the world, women used staves for just that reason.
Sir Henric opened the door and they headed down the hall and through the door into the bright summer morning. The heat was already unbearable and in the gambeson, Skyah began to sweat. Soon the woolen jacket would soil and smell as foul as the horses after a long, muddy ride in the summer’s worst heat. Sir Henric told him that was a good thing. “All boys stink,” he said.
Outside, the air smelled of hay and coal and dead grass. Skyah tried not to sneeze. The smell of manure and horse was there too, though not as strong. She heard the sound of mounted men in the distance but couldn’t decide where it came from. She was about to climb the stairs to have a better look when Sir Corgan and Peter arrived from the stable.
Peter’s face was troubled, dark eyes darting back and forth. When Sky shouted a greeting to him, he raked his hand through his thick, dark hair and put on a smile that looked forced. Sir Corgan came dressed in a brilliant green and gold doublet and striped pants of the same color, tucked into shiny black boots. Sunlight filtered down through hazy clouds, creating a dappled look about him, the garish garb looking even more harsh to Skyah’s eyes.
“There you are! A lovely morning for battle, eh?” Sir Corgan came to her and ruffled her hair. He smelled of wine and onion, and his eyes were glassy. When Sky glanced at Peter, he was leaning on his sword and looking towards the road.
“Is your squire ready, Sir?” Sir Henric said, separating the drunken knight’s hand from Skyah’s head with his own.
“Of course he is!” Sir Corgan moved and slapped Peter on the shoulder. “Aren’t you squire?”
Peter hefted his sword but did not take a step towards them. It was a tourney sword, blunted so as not to cut. His shield was large, round and made of a light colored wood, painted in the yellow and black of Shield Port. He was looking at her with apprehension, a frown on his lips.
“Well, speak up boy!” Sir Corgan walked towards Peter, his steps a little unsure. He reached out a hand, perhaps to touch Peter on the shoulder but his squire drew back. “Sir, I’d prefer not, there’s no honor in this.”
“No honor!” Sir Corgan looked stunned, his eyes wide and lips parted, showing wine-stained teeth. The look of shock quickly turned to a rage and he clenched his hand into a fist, shaking it at Peter. “This is the only honor a boy like you can deserve! Why I plucked out out of Canton’s clutches and saved your worthless life! Now you’ll duel Sir Henric’s squire, or I’ll send you back to him!”
Sky felt his own shock ripple through him. Plucked out of Canton’s clutches? He looked at Peter, wondering what that meant. Had he been one of Canton’s paiges? That felt wrong somehow. An image of Peter hung from a tree, half-eaten by crows and wolves came to Sky’s mind. Peter had told… he had said that she, Skyah of Gray Town, bastard daughter of a raped barbarian, was beautiful and brave.
No one had looked at her and said so much. All the boys in Gray Town had only said how awkward and silly she looked. They had made fun of her light colored eyes and pointed out how her hair had a hint of red in it. “Dragon’s blood!” they had cried, pulling at it day after day until she had cut it all off with a dagger. Her mother had cried over that and the man they served, Lord Wenton, had Skyah beaten for looking such a fright. She’d spent her time in the laundry until it grew back.
But Peter had seen through her short hair and sweat and shame. He’d held her and kissed her cheek. She’d wanted him to kiss more, but she hadn’t realized it. Looking at him now made something stir within her, a longing that almost eased the pain of her moon’s bleeding.
“Sir,” Sir Henric said. “If your squire does not wish to do this, then there will be other times…”
“No! I woke up to see glorious battle and my squire will give me glorious battle!” Sir Corgan grabbed a fist full of Peter’s hair and yanked his head back. “Won’t you boy?”
“Leave him alone!” Sky shouted before she realized she’d said it. She had shouted out of instinct and lost control of her voice. It had gone high and seemed a little girl’s scream in her head, but Sir Corgan seemed not to notice. Her own knight put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head.
“But, Sir, Sky is, he…” Peter began to protest but the fury on Sir Corgan’s face seemed to make him flinch. For a heartbeat, Skyah thought Peter might tell Sir Corgan about her secret, expose her for what she was. He seemed on the verge of still more but Sir Corgan belted him across the face, knocking him to the dirt. The knight picked up Peter’s shield and wrenched it off his arm, causing the boy to cry out and clutch at his shoulder.
“You don’t deserve this shield,” Sir Corgan said and seemed about to turn the shield into a weapon against his own squire when Sir Henric yanked him back, a strong hand around the other knight’s arm. “That’s enough Sir, unless you wish to duel me.”
The sheer look of surprise on Sir Corgan’s face made the drunken knight look almost comical. His mustaches quivered, his teeth clicked, his eyes were wide and confused as well as glassy. “My squire is disobeying, Sir! I must see to it!”
“He’s just a boy, Sir Corgan and the heat is awful. Let him go, let me buy you a drink.”
“A drink you say?” Sir Corgan turned to look down at Peter, and his shock melted away to what looked like simple irritation. “Why not? I’m to have no glorious battle today, I might as well have a drink. The Lady isn’t due out until after mid-day.”
Sir Henric turned the drunken knight towards the inn and motioned for Skyah to tend to Peter. Then the two men made for the door. As soon as they had entered, the door swinging shut, Skyah dashed to where Peter lay in the dirt, staring up at the sky. Blood smeared his lower lip from where Sir Corgan had hit him and Skyah worried at it with a bit of her tunic.
“You’re injured,” she whispered. “Oh I hate that man!”
To her surprise, Peter began to laugh. “It’s not that bad,” he said and turned his eyes on her. They were bright and green and beautiful and they made Skyah’s throat close up. She felt sick to her stomach and drew her hands away from him. One of his caught her left and he kissed her fingers. “I thought you were angry with me?” he whispered.
“No,” she said. The heat of his lips remained on her skin and she dare not flex her hand, afraid it might send the feeling away. “I was scared, that’s all.”
He smiled and sat up, wiping what blood was left on his lip with his hand. “Are you afraid now?.”
“No,” she found herself saying. “But I was afraid for you just now.”
“For me?” he laughed. The sound was beautiful, just like his eyes and she found her cheeks heating. I’m blushing! Like a stupid maid I’m blushing! She tried to fight the sensation down, to be a man, not a stupid girl, but when Peter looked at her, the girl would not go away.
“Yes,” she said and looked away.
After, Skyah wasn’t sure if it was his embrace or his kiss that happened first. It was brief but it made her dizzy and soon she was following him into the small alley between the stable and the inn. His lips were like two points of fire on her own, burning her from the inside, but she was unable to pull away. His hands were in her short hair and his body pressed against her own. She felt him grow against her and that stirring inside returned so forcefully that she felt drunk. She wanted… she wanted… what?
His hands moved from her hair and pulled off her gambeson. The thick woolen jacket slid off her sweaty shoulders and back and she forgot it. His fingers slid beneath her tunic and found the strips of linen that kept her breasts clenched tight against her chest. The wrap had almost been forgotten. She wore it without thinking and it had seemed a part of her own skin after a while. She was thin but her growing shape was becoming more noticeable by the day and the wrap had to be cinched tighter. Just now she longed to be free of it.
“I want you,” Peter whispered into her ear.
“I’m full of dirt and dust,” she complained, but the voice that said it seemed far away and belonging to another girl. All she could know or feel was Peter’s warmth against her, and the stirring inside her.
“I’ll have you, caked with all the dirt and dust of Shield Port,” he said and kissed her. His hands moved away from her breasts and cupped her face. “Come away with me. I’ve money and… soon I’ll have some inheritance. I’ll give you a castle and you can dress any way you like, would you like that?”
Her dream came back to her, falling with Peter to the stonework of the battlements. She tasted the salt air, felt the breeze off the bay. She imagined the throne and her hand on his. For a heartbeat she wanted nothing more. Even the silk dress seemed welcome, but then she remembered the little girl that was not hers. She remembered Peter’s sword buried in her heart.
“Yes but… I can’t,” she said, her hands becoming fists against his chest so they did not clutch at him. He frowned and she lowered her eyes, unable to stand the hurt in those green orbs. “I’m sorry Peter, I… I just can’t.”
“Is it Sir Henric?” he asked. “I can teach you better than that old Knight Errant. You’re… you’re not married to him are you?”
She blinked. “Married? No, not… no! He… knew my mother that’s all.”
“Is he your father?”
Sky frowned but the question had come to her mind too many times to simply deny it. He’d loved her mother, that much she knew. She didn’t remember coming south to Gray Town, but her mother had said it was after she was born. Perhaps she lied? But why would she do such a thing?
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
His hands found hers and clutched them tightly. She could not meet his eyes. If she looked at them, she was afraid she might give in. The dream seemed so real to her, laid out so simply that she felt the cool breeze on her face, the smell of salt in the air, the feel of Peter’s arms around her. She wanted to look up, to tell him she’d go with him for certainly this was what love felt like. There had been no one to tell her what it could or would be, but certainly this was it.
Her eyes did not find his but rose past his shoulder, to look out towards the sea. A breeze had begun to slide in off the water and caressed them in the alley. It made her short hair twist and dance. She smelled the salt on the air and she saw the castle of Shield Port rising above the buildings below it. It was a simple castle with a widow’s walk along the top of the large keep and a wall of gray stone. From there, she imagined, if you walked its length the sea’s breeze would always find you.
Her breath caught. We dream True Dreams. Her mother had said that to her before she died, looking at her with eyes like sapphire. Eyes of the north-born, of the dragon-blooded. The tales always told how they could dream of events that would be or could be. She was of that blood and she had dreamed of walking the Widow’s Walk of Shield Port. She knew she dreamed True.
Just like she knew that the other man’s voice in the stable had been Peter’s.