The Squire – A Tale of Aranor Part 9

She woke next to the sound of rain tearing across slate rooftops and pounding against shutters. Her eyesight came back more readily this time, the room coming into focus after only a few moments. It was a dim room that held a mix of pungent and spicy scents. Above her, the herbs tied to the ceiling rafters to dry told her why.

The room was small and round and empty aside from her bed and two chairs. It had only one window, its shutters tightly latched with an extra bar set into it. Even so the metal hinges creaked and groaned from the force of the gale outside. Water had soaked the stone around the shutters and more was collecting into a puddle on the stone floor. Flashes of light from the storm flickered through the narrow openings of arrow slits. Outside, thunder cracked and boomed.

The heat had broken. A soft linen sheet covered her along with a woolen blanket for warmth. She closed her eyes again but fought off the urge to fall back asleep. The memories of what happened seemed fuzzy and indistinct, like a story she had heard once long ago. She remembered Peter’s face, how shocked he’d been when he ran her through. The dream she had came back as well, but had it been truly a dream? Or had it been a True dream? She had dreamed of standing on Shield Port Keep with Peter’s arms around her. She’d dreamed of a little girl that was not her own. She’d dreamed of Peter’s sword ending her life. But she was alive, or so it seemed.

Slowly she flexed the fingers of one hand and then the other. They responded slowly but smoothly. With a deep breath, she moved her legs. The left moved as readily as her hands, her knee bending and she could feel the straw pallet beneath her feet. When she moved her body, however, the pain blinded her. It wasn’t the icy, stabbing pain she remembered before, but a throbbing, sharp pain. Biting her lip, she forced herself to try and sit up until she couldn’t take it anymore. When the pain made her dizzy, she fell back, sweating.

The door opened and Skyah hadn’t realized there was a door. It was set into a dark alcove, thin and arched and from it came Pate, the stable boy. He was carrying a tray carefully, his claw-like hand holding the metal sheet tight to his chest while the other wrapped around beneath it, fingers holding the whole thing against himself. On the tray she saw a small bowl with steam rising from it. There was a cloth and a small jar as well.

Pate struggled inside and then hopped himself around to push the door closed with his boot. He backed into the room then and only began to turn when he was near the bed. His eyes were on the tray, attention locked on keeping it from falling. He set it down on one chair and only then did he see her awake and went white as a ghost.

“Lady, uh Sir, uh…!” he shouted and slipped, falling onto his backside and nearly pulling the whole tray with him. He twisted, good hand keeping the whole thing on the chair. He looked back at her over his shoulder. “I.. I… didn’t know you was awake!” He flushed red and she realized his face was full of freckles.

She opened her mouth to speak but her throat was dry and cracked and no sound came. A swallow didn’t help and she coughed instead. Pate was on his knees and dipping the cloth into the steaming bowl. “Here my lady, just some warm honey water.”

He seemed ready to squeeze the water into her mouth but thought better of it and set the cloth down and handed her the bowl instead. It wasn’t nearly as a hot as she’d thought it would be and gulped it down, sweetened water running over her chin and across her cheeks. It was the best water she’d ever had and she was gasping when she set the empty bowl aside.

“I’ll fetch the Lady and Sir!” he said, and ran out.

Sir Henric and Lady Inara entered a few moments later, looking hurried and wide-eyed. “Could it be true?” the lady said and for the first time, Skyah realized that it must be late in the evening or early morning. Lady Inara was dressed in a simple linen dress, her hair set quickly. She’d come from bed perhaps, or she’d been in the midst of changing.

Sir Henric wore a rumpled white tunic and his usual britches and boots. He looked tired, his eyes heavy, his beard unkempt. At the sight of her, he seemed to wake instantly. He came to her side and took up her hand in both of his. The lady came to stand behind him and for the first time, Skyah became aware that she was not wearing her usual wrap. She pulled the blanket across her chest, but it was too late. Skyah wore only a thin linen shift, and it was not one she’d owned. Her secret was far from secret anymore.

“The boy hasn’t left your side in a fortnight. He’d let no one else tend you,” Lady Inara said, which made Pate flush again. “He’s fed you and checked your fevers. I am not sure what you did to gather such loyalty, but there it is.” The lady smiled and put a hand on Pate’s arm. “Why don’t you run and fetch her some real food now, mm?”

Pate nodded and hurried to go. Skyah felt Sir Henric take up her hand and was gripping it firmly. She smiled at him and then frowned. “Sir, I’m… I’m sorry for this, I didn’t want, I thought maybe you’d…”

“No need for that now,” the knight said quietly and then, for the first time, he rose and drew her to his chest. He smelled of sweat and hearth smoke, and his embrace reminded her of a home she barely remembered. She cried then, and afterward she could not remember for how long. She thought he did too.

She ate biscuits and drank two cups of honeyed tea, both of which tasted better than anything she’d ever had before. Her stomach was roaring, wanting more but Lady Inara told her to go slowly, and to ease back into it. “You’ve been sleeping for almost two weeks. The wound you took should have killed you, but I know poultices most do not.”

Sir Henric was shooing the boy out again and closing the door. When he turned, he chuckled. “Inara is quite the herbalist. She saved your life.”

Skyah looked at the older woman with surprise and the lady smiled, shrugging. “I had many girls to take care of before I became Lady of Shield Port, many and more who got themselves hurt as bad as, or worse than, you.”

She blushed now and closed her eyes. “You know about… that I’m not…”

“A man?” the lady said and laughed. “No, my girls let me know of that long ago.”

“The Peaks? Those are your girls?”

Lady Inara nodded, her smile turning sad. Skyah remembered the honey-haired girl who had reached between her legs. Lena? Lana? She could not remember which one it had been. She remembered them riding with the lady on the day of the assassination. They are her spies. The realization was sudden and she felt stupid for having missed such an obvious connection. She remembered screams then, female screams. When the attack had happened, everything had turned to chaos. She did not remember seeing either of the girls during the fight.

“What happened to them, my lady? Are… are they okay?”

Lady Inara looked down at her hands, which had gripped Skyah’s other hand now. Soft thumbs were rubbing her palm, squeezing her fingers. The noble woman shook her head, bit her lip and shut her eyes. Skyah thought she saw tears there, but Lady Inara brushed them away too quickly to know for sure.

“Lena took a bolt through the neck. Her sister, Lana, rode hard for the town to summon help. She found Henry. It was too late for her sister however. I could not save her.”

Sir Henric put a hand on the lady’s shoulder, reaching across Skyah’s prone form to do so. There was silence then for such a long time that Skyah nearly felt the need to say something, to apologize. Which one had touched her? Which one laughed so casually with Peter?

“I’m sorry,” Skyah whispered, looking down at her feet. “This is my fault.”

“No,” Lady Inara said. “Far from your fault. You saved my life. You have a willfullness in you child, but a willfullness I admire.” She let go of Skyah’s hand and touched her cheek instead, then leaned in and kissed her forehead. “You remind me of my daughter. She always wanted to be a knight.”

“She is north-born,” Sir Henric said. “They have a spark inside them that’s hard to quench. It is in their nature.”

Lady Inara smiled at the Sir Henric, whose face had grown somewhat somber. He cleared his throat and gave a slight bow of his head. “This one wishes to be a knight too. I’ve tried to dissuade her from such… I’ve tried, but she’s as troublesome as Cayce ever was.”

At this, the older woman looked amused. “Troublesome? Why, Henry, I believe it was that similarity that saved my life. I would hope she makes more of that sort of trouble in the future! I made the mistake of trying to keep our Cayce safe and look what happened?”

She turned to look at Skyah and her dark eyes were searching her own. “You remind me of someone I lost, child. You remind me of my daughter… our daughter.” She looked at Sir Henric and finally, Skyah knew for certain. The girl who had been raped and killed had been Sir Henric’s as well. He’d never mentioned having had a wife before, just a woman who could not look at him anymore. The knight looked away from them, shaking his head.

“Her head is full of adventure. She’ll find nothing but what Cayce got.”

“A head full of adventure Henry, yes. Her fingers digging for a hold in this world but finding only silk and whore houses at the end.” She turned to look at Skyah, her eyes were shining, tears were rolling down both cheeks. Her voice wavered and broke. “You’ve a chance for much greater things, I think. Why did you fight for me, Skyah?”

Skyah wasn’t sure what to say. The revelation had made her feel nervous and awkward, a girl of fifteen falls. The question confused her but the answer came easily, her mind going back to the night-time ride away from Gray Town.

“I promised my mother I would protect others. She told me it was my Fate to wear the wounds of the world, but I didn’t know what she meant then. I think I know, now. I promised her that and… Peter is, did you… is he…?” She couldn’t get the rest out. She couldn’t say, Is he dead?

Lady Inara sighed. “Peter Canton disappeared after he wounded you. I think seeing you fall broke something in him. The boy cared about you, perhaps to the doom of his revenge.”

“He wanted to give me a castle,” Skyah murmered and lay back, her eyes closed. She imagined those arms around her. The salt spray. The warm sun. The throne. But always the red-haired girl that was not her own. She let out a long breath. He had also tried to frame her, use her to fulfill a birth prophecy. But yet… he’d held her as he thought she lay dying. The Path of Kings is long and full of pain.

“I fear the boy was right about one thing. I’ve held my sword against Canton’s Song too long. I’ve amends to make to the boy in a way. His father had been… a good man, and brave to come as he did. I killed him because I was angry. Peter only wanted to revenge for that.”

“What will you do?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

“Sir Corgan is dead, but he was a fool. Sir Dobson was a traitor and he has perished as well. Dobson did for Corgan and Lena. Peter killed no one, save his own man, and nearly you. I’ve sent a peace accord to Canton’s Song, offering a truce if Peter would come to me with an acceptable death price. They haven’t seen him, and some mouths tell me he fled north. If the boy never returns then…” Lady Inara shook her head. “I will not continue this cycle. I must find peace with Canton.”

Skyah nodded and a small weight lifted from her shoulders, only to be replaced by a new one. She saw Peter climbing, clawing at loose rock and shifting dirt, trying to reach the top of a mountain. The dream was a True Dream, she had no doubt of that.

“And what of me?” she asked. “I disobeyed my knight and… and…”

“Saved a noble woman and proved her own nobility?” Lady Inara said, her lips rising into a smile. “I’ve a reward for that, Skyah. But I will give it on my wedding day.”

“Wedding day?” Skyah asked.

“Wedding?” Sir Henric said, dropping her hands. “What bloody… who…?”

Lady Inara laughed. She laughed so hard that she nearly collapsed from the chair. It was a sweet sound, a true, loving sound that made Skyah want to join in, to throw her arms around this woman and hug her. It felt so good to hear a laugh, a wonderful, true laugh of happiness.

“Oh Henry, oh you should see your face! Our wedding you bloody idiot! I told you that if you ever came back, it must be to marry me and so here you are.”

“But… only if I brought our daughter home?” Sir Henric stood, shaking his head. He wrung his hands and ran them over his beard. “She is dead, Inara. Dead!”

“Cayce is lost, yes. We cannot have her back, Henry. However you brought me another.” Inara turned and leaned down, pressing warm, wet lips to Skyah’s forehead. “Another girl just like Cayce, who saved my life. Henry, you came back to me and you brought me more than I could have ever asked for. She is not of our blood but a heart-daughter, perhaps?” Lady Inara walked around the bed and seized Sir Henric’s face in her hands and kissed him. “You are an idiot but you are marrying me anyway.”

And so they were.

By the time Skyah was able to stand again, her sixteenth fall had come and winter was stirring in the air. The weather broke early, ushering in her birth season with a series of frozen mornings. It was on the second week of the frost that Sir Henric and Lady Inara married.

They had a silk dress made for Skyah, who would stand in witness for Sir Henric as his only family. After they’d fitted her into it, she walked along the widow’s walk and let the wind blow off the sea and through her hair. It was growing out now and lay tucked behind her ears. The wind had mussed it, like an invisible lover’s hands. She touched the scar on her chest. It still hurt and she could not stand for very long yet, but that day she stood for an hour and listened to the sea. She waited but she waited alone.

During the wedding, Shield Port Keep was decorated with banners of cloth of gold and silver. Inara invited Canton’s Song to the wedding as well and the lord’s son himself came, along with ten of his knights. Most of the knights were rough looking men and gave as many dirty looks to the Shield Port men as they got, but not a single fight broke out.

They were wed in the courtyard, an open ground in front of the main doors of the keep, surrounded by its walls. A small dais had been raised and Pate sung while several of the Peaks women lent their voices in support, Lana among them.

After their vows, Sir Henric became Lord Henric of Shield Port. Inara then gave a short speech to the lordling of Canton’s Song, an apology and offer of truce, should his lord father take it. Her only concession was that should Peter Canton return to Canton’s Song, that he offer his sword hand for his part in the plan. She also offered a death price for Peter’s father, a sum of gold and a horse that was among her finest. Hearing Peter’s name made Skyah feel a twinge of pain in her chest, and she remembered her dream. She wondered if Peter was riding north even now, looking at that mountain.

After the gold was given, Canton’s Song became as jolly as the rest.

At the end, Lord and Lady Inara officially recognized Skyah as their adoptive child before all gathered and Lady Inara gave her a chain of Shield Port to wear. She was dubbed “First of Shield Port” and was told that should her newly adoptive parents die, she would inherit the castle.

It was then that Lady Inara asked for Sir Henric’s sword. The newly raised lord seemed confused, this had not been planned. He gave it when she held out her hand, drawing the freshly polished blade out and offering her the pommel. Lady Inara turned to the crowd, the sword held in open palms, as if offering it to them.

“Today Sir Henric becomes Lord Henric, and today I raise another to knighthood. In the early days of summer, I was nearly killed by assassins in my own guard. I lost several brave friends that day, but gained something else.”

She turned and looked right at Skyah, her expression beaming. The wedding had gone on for almost two hours and Skyah was feeling weak. Her chest burned and knees kept wanting to buckle. Pate stood with her, his one good hand on hers to keep her steady. Lady Inara kept her gaze as she spoke, the sword still offered to the crowd.

“I call you to stand before me Skyah, squire to Lord Henric of Shield Port. Come and kneel.”

The crowd had gone silent. They were all looking at her. Pate nudged her but her feet felt frozen to the ground. There were so many people watching, most with interest, some with confusion. Sir Henric, she kept forgetting to think of him as Lord Henric, had crossed his arms and looked down at his feet. Lady Inara beckoned. She went and with Pate’s help, lowered herself to her knees.

“Skyah, Squire of Lord Henric, I swear beneath the Three Fates and by my right as nobility that what I say here is law. You possess the three qualities nobility requires: bravery, compassion and a sense of justice. You have protected those who cannot know to protect themselves and put your life in jeopardy for another’s. This is the path of knighthood and I charge you with its duties. Where were you born?”

Skyah’s head was swimming. Knighthood? Paths? She didn’t understand, and looked to Lord Henric, who had his arms still crossed, his eyes closed now. She looked back to Lady Inara, who held the sword in both hands now, the tip raised up to the sky, parallel to her.

“Gr…Gray Town,” she said.

“Then I dub you Sir Skyah Gray, knight of Shield Port, knight errant of the realm and all those who recognize you,” she said and lowered the blade to Skyah’s shoulder. It touched her lightly, like Peter’s hands had. Then it touched the other shoulder and she felt…

“I’m a woman,” Skyah said, looking up at her. It wasn’t a question, not anymore. It made her smile. She had done those things and now that she remembered, she hadn’t done any of them as a boy. Not one.

“Yes,” Lady Inara said. “And a knight. Let your story begin.”

When she rose, painfully, from her knee, Skyah rose to a hush of voices, many looking at one another and pointing at her. It was Pate who cried out the first cheer and then the entire group of girls from the Peaks began to shout her name. A rush of pride came from her in that moment. She was a woman and she was a knight.

“Sir Skyah Gray,” Pate sang from his perch on the dais. “That is what they will say.” He finished with a caress of his fingers across the harp strings and from then on, Skyah became Sir Skyah, a knight of Shield Port and the realm abroad. Her story was retold throughout the wedding feast, of her journeys as a boy and fight with the assassins. The fight with Peter turned into a grand duel all over the streets of Shield Port by the end, and no one was sober enough to say a word otherwise.

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