And then he came for them. She raised her weapon just in time to deflect a hard blow from the side. It sent her reeling and just caught a second blow with the other half of her weapon. An overhanded swing she caught squarely in the middle, pivoted and struck him in the cheek. He grunted but hardly seemed dazed. They stepped apart again and circled, just a foot apart. It began quickly again, his blows landing so hard that her hands were going numb and her blows not finding enough power to do any damage.
Finally his big hands wrapped around her much smaller ones and he drew her to him. The blow of his forehead crashing into her own made stars explode across her vision and she fell back, dazed. He aimed his sword at her chest and she knew it was over.
Skyah braced herself for it. She did not close her eyes, she would face her own death, stare it in the face. The sword flashed forward and she prepared for the pain, but none came. She instead heard the loud thunk of metal on wood. A large, round shield had put itself between his sword and her chest. When she blinked, she saw the shield had a small boy attached to it. Pate crouched behind the large circle of wood and pushed with all his youthful might pushing the sword away from them.
“Pate?” she said, not understanding.
The man’s roar came just before savage blows that Pate had to dance backward to block. Each strike rung as steel kissed wood. Skyah spun the staff in hands, drawing it behind her back, gaining momentum before transferring both hands to the last foot and swinging. The strike reached around Pate’s shield but the man blocked it with his sword.
More blows struck Pate’s shield and each one made the boy fall back, nearly crashing into Skyah. She rained blows down on the knight, but each one was turned aside. Peter, she thought. He can’t leave us to this! He’ll come. He’ll stay here with me. The thoughts were idiotic, the mental rantings of a teenage girl who faced death with each backward step.
When the knight reached out, grabbed hold of Pate’s shield and pulled him forward, the boy stumbled and fell. He landed on his chest, the shield trapped beneath him. It seemed to happen so slowly after that. The knight raised his sword, preparing to plunge it into Pate’s back. She called out to him. Her feet were moving, he staff held in both hands. She swung, caught the blade in its downward thrust, pushed it aside. “Run!” she shouted, but the knight kicked, sending Pate rolling away. There was blood in his wake, staining the dirt
She didn’t see the fist that crunched into her side, but she felt the wet snaps inside her chest. The wind fled from her lungs and the next blow came from the sword’s flat edge and knocked her backward. Her vision was blurring, but she thought she saw Lady Inara step up to the knight and shove a small knife in his side. He howled and with another savage punch sent the older woman toppling into the dirt as well.
Skyah felt her back hit a tree and she tried to stand. The knight came at her, hit her with the pommel of his sword and she felt her knees go out. He stepped on her hand and the staff was gone.
“Bloody bitch,” the knight said again. The sword came whistling down and she wondered if it would hurt. Her eyes closed. She wished she could say goodbye to Sir Henric.
The knight screamed instead and her eyes snapped open. A sword blade appeared through the front of the man’s chest, spraying her with blood. It was warm, like rain. The man grasped at the sword tip, cutting his hands with each desperate pull. “Oh no,” he muttered. “Hurts like…” The knight sank to his knees and began to shake.
“I said not the girl!” Peter shouted and pulled his sword free. The knight convulsed, vomited green bile and red blood. He cried, sobs filled with coughs as he shook his life out in the dust. Peter spit on him.
“Peter…” Skyah said. She gasped for air, tried to find her feet but stumbled, fell to her knees again. Her hand found her staff and she used it to prop herself up. Peter was still standing there when she managed to stand at last. He wore a frown and shook his head.
“I’d have given you a castle,” he said. Then he turned and walked towards Lady Inara. The older woman was kneeling next to where Pate had rolled. She felt his cheeks, his neck. Pate, oh you stupid, brave… Skyah couldn’t think of him just now and watched Peter instead. He gripped his sword in one hand, the naked steel ready to kill.
“Peter!” she tried to shout, but it came out in coughs. Somehow she found the will to run. Every breath hurt, each footfall causing a stab of white hot, searing pain in her chest. Still she overtook him, turning to stand in front of Lady Inara, half-bent in pain. She amazed herself with how still her hands were on her staff. “I-” Another cough made her nearly lose her legs. “I… I won’t let you harm her.”
Peter looked at her with such confusion that for a moment, Skyah allowed herself to hope it had been a misunderstanding. That he had come to help. She lowered her weapon just a little.
“Canton,” Lady Inara said. “You mean to do murder to the Lady who raised you Squire?”
Peter turned his attention on Lady Inara, his expression souring. He raised his sword and gripped it with both hands. Skyah raised her own, pointing the tip of the staff at his throat. It would keep him at bay, she had reach on him. But it hurts so much, one blow and I’m done.
“You murdered him!” he screamed. “He just wanted peace and you hung him! Made me watch. You didn’t raise me squire, you made a mockery of me!”
Lady Inara did not move from Pate’s side. When Skyah looked back for just an instant, she caught sight of his chest rise and fall. He was alive. Thank the Fates.
“Your uncle raped my daughter to death, Canton. I demanded a blood price, but only your father came. A hostage was not enough.”
“My father he… he hated his brother,” Peter was gripping the sword so tight that Skyah saw his fingers turning white. She just wanted one good distraction, one good moment and she could knock him senseless. Peter kept an eye on her too and stayed out of her reach.
“That was a long time ago boy,” Lady Inara said, her voice sounding tired.
“You hung a man this week, just for wearing the badge.” Peter shook his head and circled. Skyah stepped with him but it became a limp. She nearly stumbled as the pain in her chest flared, threatening to bring her to her knees.
“He put a knife in one of my girls,” Lady Inara said. “Bethany was a good girl, but not enough sense to stay inside the town. I had no choice.”
“When you’re dead, my uncle will give me Shield Port,” Peter said, a strange sort of grin on his face. “I was going to burn it, I don’t need your whore of a town, but… but…” He faltered and his eyes found Skyah’s. She felt for him in that instant, that look felt so sincere. Stay with me. She wanted to shout it, to make him save himself, but speech felt beyond her. It seemed to take all her effort just to keep her staff upright.
“I wanted to give you a castle.” He said it so softly she almost missed it. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I tricked you. I didn’t… I didn’t know you were… I thought you were just some boy.”
“Peter…” she said, her breath coming in gasps. She lowered her staff. “Let’s… go back to the inn… okay?”
“I’m sorry.” Peter sniffed and shook his head. “But my father… he told me about my birth’s blood, and what it said. When the wisewoman spat it on my forehead she told me that with a north-born’s child I could walk the Path of Kings. Let me do this, Skyah. I’ll make you a queen one day.”
The dream came roaring back to her. The thrones, her hand on Peter’s. She gripped it so tight even as the child tugged at her skirts. But she is not my daughter. The shadow cried out that dream’s destiny. What could be.
Skyah looked behind her, to the Lady kneeling in the dirt, her hands protectively on Pate’s chest. Sir Henric had told her the words of knighthood the day he gave her the staff. “To be noble in deed, not in blood, is the path of knighthood.” She she looked back at Peter, the offer still a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
Noble in deed.
“No,” she said. Her voice was cracking, a whisper. Almost a sob. He didn’t love her, he wanted her blood. He had used her.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said, his voice tired, heavy. He struck so fast that she barely had time to keep the sword point from taking off her ear. She smacked it aside with her staff and stepped back, trying to use her staff’s length as leverage. She was slow, each step sent more shocks of pain through her. Her knees felt like they were full of sand and she could barely feel her toes.
Peter attacked again and again, each time she barely caught the blow on the staff’s edge. Wood chips flew off her weapon, the ends of it were becoming whittled down, destroyed. Each block came slower than the last, and Peter’s strikes were so precise, so quick that she missed one and it cut her shoulder. She cried out and nearly dropped the staff.
“Run!” Peter shouted to her. “Please, go!”
“No!” she growled, anger fueling her flagging strength. She would not let him beat her. He had used her, made her fall in love, all for power? The dream was True. He had to be stopped. She could not let him through. Noble in deed. She was a north-born daughter of a woman burned by a mob, she was nothing until this moment. Noble in deed.
It was over in seconds, but those few seconds seemed to tick by as if stopped, held back by the Judge herself perhaps. Each sword cut, thrust and parry that came at her she seemed to see before it happened. She parried, reposted, struck, but each time she did, Peter answered her. He was too fast, and finally, it was over.
Peter struck hard and she caught it in the span of wood between her hands. She pushed up, knocking the blade away, swung and struck him in the cheek. He stumbled, turned and seemed about to fall. The stumble turned into a spin, the sword coming at her so fast, so hard that she barely had time to throw the staff in the way. Steel bit into wood and the staff snapped, spinning out of her hands in two different directions. With a roar, Peter completed the blow, turning it into a thrust.
What will be. Skyah was not on a mountain top. There was no snow freezing her cheeks, stinging her eyes. Nothing was the same except for the sword, the blade shoved through her chest. She felt its bite, hot and pinching. She felt like she was crying on the inside of her chest. Warmth spread through her legs and then she couldn’t feel them. She fell into Peter’s arms. He caught her, his eyes wide.
“Sky! Sky! Oh bloody… oh F… Sky!” He had abandoned the sword, which was still inside of her. She felt it there, cold and unyielding, suspended. She felt it rip, cut and pinch with each movement. She could not find her voice.
“The girl needs a Thane, boy!” Inara’s voice was somewhere nearby. She felt Peter’s lips on her cheek. It was such a strange sensation. The ground was there then, flat against her side. Dust filled her nose and she tasted it on her tongue.
“Sky…” That was the last she heard of Peter’s voice. He was gone then. Her vision had gone too, she couldn’t see much beyond the shape of a woman. There was a noise, hooves thundering against packed dirt. More voices came and she thought she heard Sir Henric call her name. The last thing she heard was Lady Inara.
And then, blackness.