The mid-day sun was sweltering when she left him. She could hear his sobs as the door to the stable shut and the sound of the shield being thrown against the wall. Her sneezing only got worse the further from the inn she got. Wild flowers grew on the edges of the road and warehouse workers were tossing old hay into the alleys. Her nose was full of snot and she found herself snorting and spitting as much as breathing as she made her way towards the keep. She hoped she wasn’t too late, and had kicked Dogger to a quick trot.
The line of knights was a small one and she found them cresting a hill above the warehouses. There were four of them and all wore the white and yellow of Shield Port. They wore no armor beyond a thin-looking jack with shields strapped to their saddles. Each one carried a longsword, sheathed on the other side of the saddle. There was a woman that rode behind them, small and thin with thick black hair that was streaked with gray that Skyah assumed was the Lady Inara.
Lady Inara wore a silk riding dress, a fashion where the skirts were divided so you could sit astride a horse without it lifting. The dress was white and slashed through with yellow. Skyah could not make out any jewelry at this distance other than the thin, gold band around the Lady’s head.
And then four others came into view that she had not seen. They crested the small hill behind the Lady, two women that looked familiar to her. The ones that caught her eye were Sir Corgan and Peter. Sir Corgan was laughing and waving thick arms at the two women, recounting some story, perhaps. The one woman turned to say something and both of the girls laughed. When she heard that laugh, Skyah’s breath caught. The two women were Lena and Lana, the whores from the Peaks. Peter looked silent as death on his horse, his eyes widening when he saw her.
“Ho there!” the lead knight said as they saw Skyah. Warehouses were on both sides of them now, tall buildings with steep roofs. Each one had a balcony that faced the street and alleys that seemed too dark for mid-day. Skyah felt her nerves spark to life and her throat tightened. She sneezed by way of a greeting.
“Are you well, Sir?” the lead knight said. Skyah stared at him, but his voice was not familiar to her. His teeth seemed yellowed and rotting but, they were there. She glanced around until she spotted him, the man with the scar. He was riding just off to her left amongst the Lady’s other knights. He looked bored and hot, sweating in the noon-day sun.
“My lady!” she called out. “My name is Sky, squire to Sir Henric of Whitetower. I beg a word!”
The lead knight raised a brow at her but glanced back over his shoulder. Lady Inara was looking at her, an expression on her face that Skyah thought looked rather like one someone would use when appraising cheese for its smell. Skyah wasn’t sure she had even heard her.
She glanced to the two girls, who had ridden up on either side of Lady Inara. She pleaded for the Fates to not allow them to look at her, to not recognize her. The Fates did not answer her and Lena’s eyes went wide, her red lips parting in a white smile. “It’s the little squire I spoke of my lady.”
Lady Inara’s eyes narrowed and her lips pressed tight together. “Is it now?” She rode alongside the other knights, passing the scar-faced man with a relaxed gate. Skyah felt herself begin to shake. Something was about to happen, she had to stop it. Had to tell her.
“You were at the Peaks last night were you not?” the Lady asked when she was a few paces away, even with the lead knight. “Tell me true or you’ll answer for your lies.”
“Yes,” Skyah said. “Peter, Sir Corgan’s squire took me.”
“She gave me this,” Lana said as she came even with her lady. She showed her the silver coin that Peter had given her to pay with. “It has the press of Canton’s Song on it, my lady.”
Her chest felt gripped in ice, confusion mixing with real fear. The lead knight was looking at her with new interest. Something is wrong. She felt fear grip her, harder than before. She glanced between them and then at Peter. He lowered his eyes, shaking his head.
“My lady!” Skyah said. “Peter, the squire there, he gave me that to pay with.” She indicated him with a point of her finger. Every bit of it felt like a betrayal. She still felt his lips on hers, the feel of him against her, the feeling inside that he had stirred. She wanted to tell him I’m sorry. But he was going to kill Lady Inara.
“What use would a girl have of women at the Peaks,” Lady Inara said and looked to the lead knight. “Sir, take the girl. She’s a spy from Lord Canton. We’ll find her knight too, what was his name?”
“Sir Henric,” Skyah said, feeling dazed, numb. They’re accusing me? “I squire to Sir Henric… Peter gave me that coin…”
When she mentioned Sir Henric this time, the Lady’s face seemed to change, to soften. She looked confused. “What did you say, child?”
“She’s lying,” Peter said, ignoring Skyah’s look. “She tried to seduce me just this morning. Tried to put those same coins on my person. My lady I am nothing but loyal, you know that.”
“What?” Skyah said as Dogger danced a few feet away from the lead knight’s charger. She wrestled to keep a hold of her horse but it was the knight who caught the reigns. “Your weapon, squire.” The man demanded, holding out a hand. “Now.”
“What’s going on?” she asked. “My lady I came to warn you, your own men mean to kill you!” She pointed now at the scar-faced man. “He took coin! He means to murder you in front of your people!”
The lead knight spat and pulled at Dogger, who danced and nearly reared. She heard one of the knights shout something about this being the trick. Her horse spun around she lost her grip on the reigns. She heard the sound of steel sliding from leather. A hand gripped at her collar and she was falling, slamming into the dirt ground.
A man stood over her, one of the knights. He had a sword in his hand, and he looked down at her with a face that was scarred and hideous. He pressed a boot against her throat and pushed. Breathing was impossible and she gripped the boot, pushing uselessly in an attempt to draw a breath. She felt his sword press against her chest. “None of that now.” The point dug into the mail of her hauberk.
“Brave girl,” Lady Inara said. Skyah tried to twist her head back, trying to see her, to warn her, but the broken-toothed guard’s boot was still there. She couldn’t breath, couldn’t speak. Her chest began to burn from the pain of it. She pushed and the boot pushed back.
“Bind her, I wish to speak to her,” Lady Inara said. The scar-faced man didn’t move, even when Lady Inara asked him again, this time louder. It was Peter’s voice who made him move.
“It’s time,” Peter said.
She heard a grunt. The sword slipped back into its sheath and the man instead unhinged a crossbow from his belt.
“Sir Dobson,” she heard the lady say. “I said bind her and bring her here.”
The boot lifted from her neck and the scar-faced man twisted and brought the crossbow up. With a loud pop the bolt struck the lead knight in the chest, toppling him from the horse. She heard one of the girls scream. Lady Inara shouted something Skyah could not hear, and the world turned to chaos.
Horses reared and kicked. Men screamed. Women screamed. Dust became a cloud as hooves and boots scrambled. The heat made her faint in the thick armor and her head felt stuffed with sawdust. She turned onto her stomach and clawed with hands, pushed with her knees. She saw her quarterstaff roll into view and she reached for it, wrapping her fingers around it. There came the sound of steel ringing on steel. A man screamed again.
The dust swirled. Shapes moved like shadows in the maelstrom. A horse reared and a figure fell from it.
Skyah found her legs just as the scar-faced man appeared from the dust cloud. His sword was drawn and bloody and he spat in the dirt. She saw him look at her and then at another shape in the swirling cloud of dust and dirt, Lady Inara. He ignored Skyah and walked towards Inara, fist tightening on his sword.
Skyah didn’t think. She ran and barreled into him. The man felt like he was made of stone, a wall so thick she might never hope to move it. He grunted, but hardly even stumbled as he swatted her away with a backhanded blow that sent her sprawling in the dirt. The shock of pain knocked the breath from her. Gasping, she backed away, boots scrambling in the dirt, hands frantically searching for her dropped quarterstaff.
Lady Inara stood over her, her lip bloodied and one arm hanging limply at her side. Skyah coughed and could only watch as Inara spat at the scar-faced man. “Is this what loyalty is?”
“Canton gold is enough,” the man said and stepped forward. “The boy is too spineless to gut you himself.” He shrugged and shouldered his blade, an almost lazy action. Where are the other knights? The thought was the first coherant one she could manage as she sucked down a lungful of dust-filled air and coughed. Her fingers closed around her quarterstaff and she drew it to her side.
“You cannot hope to–”
Lady Inara never got to finish the statement. The man lunged at her, the blade whipping around into a two-handed slash aimed to cut her shoulder to hip. Fear vanished in that instant for Skyah. There was no thought, only the feel of the weapon in her hand and the movement of her muscles. She swung, holding the five foot staff by its last few inches in both hands. The end connected with the man’s stomach and she pushed as he lunged forward. With a gasp and groan, he stumbled sideways, slipped and fell. Skyah rose.
“You will not harm her!” she said, sounding braver than she felt.
“Bloody bitch,” the man said, struggling to his knee. Skyah didn’t wait to see what else he might say and swung again, striking for the man’s neck. The staff connected with his padded shoulders instead, but hard and he cried out. She was pulling the staff back in preparation for another two-handed swing when he caught the end of it in his fist. The eyes that stared at her under his scarred and heavy brow burned with rage and he ripped the weapon out of her hands as if he was taking it away from a child. He threw it over her head. She reached for it and missed.
Coughing, he stood and charged.
Without her staff, she was defenseless. Her leather gauntlets would do no good against a sharp blade and she carried no shield. She backpeddled as he came at her and ducked as the first swing would have taken her head off. The steel blade rang against the side of a building and Skyah rolled out and popped back to her feet, scuttling back towards where the Lady Inara had been.
“You’re brave girl,” the Lady said as the assassin stalked towards them again. “Stupid but brave.” You are beautiful. And brave. Peter’s voice rang in her mind along with her own. A knight knows no fear. She was afraid but had no time to feel it as the man bore down on them. She put herself between him and the Lady. There could be no ducking, no dodging this blow. If she did, it would strike Inara.
She felt Inara’s hands on her own then, and her quarterstaff was once again hers.