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.
A loud common room greeted him inside. Dark skinned men with thick, rope-like hair filled the space. They had the look of sailors and barbarians about them and their voices were all raised in discordant harmony, singing along with a young man of Sky’s age. He had the look of a squire about him, Sky was sure of it. His shoulders were still slim but muscled and he wore the simple, finely woven linen tunic that often went under armor. His hair was thick and straight, flowing just over his ears and was the color of good, tilled earth. His skin was tanned and his eyes were dark, brown or gray maybe, Sky wasn’t sure.
The song he sung was a bawdy one, telling of a bare chested girl going about teaching young men about bedding their future wives. Sir Henric caught him staring and lightly slapped the back of his head before leading him towards a fat, balding man who stood chewing on a silver coin. When he saw them approach, the man tucked the silver away and smiled. “Good evenin’, a pint or a room or ye be lookin’ for both?”
“Both,” Sir Henric said. “But just water and a bit of porridge for the boy.”
“Aye?” the man said when Sky frowned. “Your… boy then. Beggin’ your pardon but I thought… well never mind.”
“I want a pint,” Sky said and ducked the cuff that was meant for his head.
“Mind your mouth, and it’ll be porridge or you’ll have nothin’ at all.”
“Mother run off?” asked the man after Sir Henric had paid him. He turned out to be named Jacks and was the innkeeper, the brewer and cook. He’d bitten every piece of copper that Sir Henric had paid him, as if doubting their worth.
“Something like that,” the knight told him and when he said nothing else, Jacks moved off into the kitchen to fetch their orders. Sky caught sight of someone who didn’t look much like a sailor or laborer. He was a big man, older like Sir Henric, and fat, rather than muscular. He had the swoon of a drunken man and was shaking the boy who’d been singing. The boy’s knight? Sky wondered about that and looked to his own master. Sir Henric sat staring at them, sipping his pint and rubbing at his chin.
“Sir?” he whispered.
“Second floor, third room on the right, go take our things up to it. Be quick now.”
“Do you know him, Sir?”
“Do you want a slap upside the head?”
Sky went. He pulled the saddle bags, bedrolls and weaponry and carried them up an exterior stairwell that Pate showed him. It took him three trips but all their gear finally sat in a lumped mess in the middle of the floor. A small hearth stood at one end of the room while the only window looked out over the rear yard. He opened the window and prayed silently to the Judge to be good and send some cooler weather on the morrow.
A pain began to bother him as he descended the steps back to the common room and Sky stopped halfway down. Cringing he closed his eyes, hoped it would just pass, but it had been some time since this pain had come to him and it was due. Please, Judge, be merciful. Just a few more days? A few more weeks? He wanted to ask for a month, but this injury would never heal. It was less when he was starving, and worse when he was well-fed. When he complained, Sir Henric always said nothing. “You’re getting grown,” he said once, and his voice would always be just a little bit sad.
He did not see Sir Henric in the common room. After a brief search he discovered that he was no longer in the inn. Missing was the other knight as well, or the man he’d thought of as a knight. The squire still sat at one of the tables though, playing a game with six large sailors. He sat spinning a copper piece until it began to wobble, then they all slapped at it. Sky knew this game well, he’d been very good at it back at Gray Town where he’d grown up. Whoever caught the coin beneath their palm won it. A simple game that oft ended in broken fingers and sore hands.
Sky came to them and caught the eye of the squire. At this distance, Sky saw he had a short, upturned nose and a light dusting of freckles. He’d just begun to fill out a tall frame, and his face was angular and had the look of a hawk. Sky liked the look of him. He had a pile of copper and some silver and appeared to be winning when Sky approached. He gave a sniff. “You the one that come in with the graybeard?”
Sky nodded. “Aye, Sir Henric of Whitetower.”
Some of the other men turned to look at him now, but most were still spinning and slapping. The boy smiled, showing perfectly white teeth. “I’m Peter,” he said, offering a freckled hand. “I squire to Sir Corgan, one of Lady Inara’s knights.”
“Sky,” he offered and shook.
“Me and the others was just playin Spin-the-Weasel, want in?”
He did and for near an hour he sat with them and slapped at copper coins. He dined on the porridge and drank the water the innkeeper gave him, but more often than not, he drank the wine the Peter offered him. He accepted every time, and found himself liking the other boy.
At the end of the game, Sky had dislocated a pinky finger which Peter fixed for him. Another man broke a thumb and laughed about it. The others had some bruises, but for the most part, the injuries were light. Sky came away with three copper more than he’d begun with, but Peter had been quick. His fingers had danced beneath all the other hands, snapping out the coins before most people could move. His winnings must have been twenty-fold what he’d put in.
“You’re damn quick,” Peter said after the men had gone off to other tables or bed. They sat drinking from a wine cup that Jacks refilled for him. Once, he saw Peter slip the man what looked like silver. “Truth be told, thought you was that graybeard’s daughter.”
Sky blushed and hid it behind the rim of the mug. “Lots of people think that,” he said. “My mother was as pretty as they come, Sir says.” The wine was getting to his head and he found it harder to keep his tongue. What he said was true. Everywhere he and Sir Henric went, men and women were mistaking him for a girl. He wished he had to shave, that would put an end to it.
“And your father? Was he a pretty maid too?” Peter laughed but did so with a smile that made Sky feel good, rather than offended. He shook his head. “No, I don’t know who he was. Ma was north-born.” He shouldn’t have said that, he knew. North-born had a reputation for carrying disease. It had been what killed his mother in the end. He tried not to think about her, or the screams and flames that had marked her death.
“Yeah? So you got dragon’s blood in ya?” Peter said this with a whisper, a secret smile on his face. “My Da told me I’d make myself a king one day with some dragon’s blood.” He laughed again and shoved at Sky with the back of his hand, nudging him as if to share the joke. “Know any good north-born girls? A sister maybe?”
“No,” he said with a blush, turning away for a moment and picked up the wine that Peter had filled for him. Talking to this boy felt good, natural. Whenever he and Sir Henric had met other knights and squires, he’d been made to sit in the room and sharpen the swords. It had felt like forever since he’d had a conversation with anyone interested in him.
“Bugger,” Peter said with a laugh and smiled at him. That smile made Sky feel hot in his cheeks. He hoped it wasn’t showing. It was probably the wine. Biting his lip, Sky looked down into his cup and tried not to think about it.
“Hey, do you have dreams?”
Peter’s question made Sky look back up, blinking. “Dreams?” he asked. “You mean, like at night?”
“No when you’re walking wide awake in the daylight,” Peter said and gave him a friendly nudge. The contact made Sky flush again. What was wrong with him? He didn’t want to make Peter think he was an idiot, not already.
“My Da used to say that north-borns get True Dreams. You know, like prophecies in their sleep and such.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Sky said, trying hard not to turn red. The dreams came, but he was never sure what a True Dream looked like. His mother had warned him of his dreams. They all seemed real to him, as real as the inn, as real as the world around him. He belched and held the back of his hand against his mouth to quiet it. “Fuck me but wine gets me good.”
“Gets me too,” Peter said and leaned close. “Gets me all bloody hard, ya know?”
Sky blinked and tilted his head. Then, realizing, he blushed. The wine had gotten to him, but not in the same way. He felt happy, like some weight had been lifted off his shoulders. The pain in his back was lessening and Peter’s smile made him feel good all over again.
“Getting to you too huh? Well.” Peter stood and offered a hand. “Lets have a piss and maybe see about a wench or two eh? I’ll pay. Or, rather, those fine gentlemen we played with will pay.” Peter flashed a silver coin, deftly tucking it from his sleeve where it had been hidden, then slipped it back. Sky felt his whole body flush. “Yeah, all right but… Sir might get back soon. He’ll beat me if I’m out.”
Peter put an arm around him and said, “Corgan’ll keep him out a while. Old bastard loves to talk.”
“Are you sure?” Sky asked.
“Trust me, I know.” Peter rose. “Let’s have a piss and we’ll go see some ladies about a ride.”
Peter’s voice was crude but somehow he also found it intoxicating. Mixed with the wine he’d drunk already, his words moved Sky from the bench towards the door. Outside, the heat hit him, momentarily snapping him out of his trance. I shouldn’t be doing this, you promised him. You promised her. Still he walked beside Peter to the ditch beside the inn, where the dark haired squire unlaced his pants.
I shouldn’t be doing this. Sky tried to tell his new friend this, but the wine made his tongue thick and his head was stuffed with wool. Peter had his back arched, a stream of liquid drowning a nearby patch of weeds. Sky hesitated, his brain trying to work through all the thickness, trying to grasp onto some sense that Sir Henric always said he was lacking.
“I… forgot something,” he muttered and hurried back towards the inn. It was the best he could do.
“Hurry up!” Peter said, laughing. “You have until the end of this stream…” As Sky sped his pace, he caught Peter add, “How much did I bloody drink?”
It had been enough for Sky to rush back inside, grab whatever was closest and hurry back. Peter was still lacing up his pants when he reached him. With a sniff, a cough and a spit, Peter glanced at him. “What’d you forget?”
Sky glanced down at his closed fist. He hadn’t even thought about it, he’d just grabbed the first thing he saw. It was a dinner knife. He felt heat rush to his cheeks and was glad for the closing darkness. Peter had a smile spreading from ear to ear, his voice a vibration on the edge of laughter.
“Sir says to mind the girls.”
“You won’t be needing that where we’re going, my friend,” Peter said and put an arm around him. Sky felt the knife coaxed from his clenched fist and Peter tossed it away. The heat came back worse this time, flooding his cheeks and neck and back. The pain pounded at his back and he groaned. Now Peter let out a full, deep belly laugh and slapped Sky on the back.
“Trust me, you won’t mind these girls.”
The women came strolling to them as they walked towards the brothels. One old enough to be his mother or grandmother touched Sky’s cheek. “Oh look, the pretty one is back. Oh won’t you come spend some time with me, sweet one?”
Peter eased her hand off his cheek and grinned. “Sorry miss, but we’re off to see the better views from the Peak.”
“Lofty women, lofty prices!”
Peter winked at Sky and pressed a silver coin into his hand. “Not lofty enough for us tonight.”
The brothel they ended up at was called The Perfect Peaks. It had only one floor but was as long and wide as some blocks. It looked cobbled together from half a dozen other houses, each one melding their steep, a-lined roofs with the other. It made him think of mountains, and perhaps that had been the source of the name. When he suggested it, Peter laughed.
“The peaks are inside.”
There were no mountains that Sky saw, but there were women, many many women. Most were dressed in gowns that were so thin that turned nearly transparent against candlelight. They sat on the knees of men or danced to the sound of a harp being plucked. The melody was one that Sky couldn’t recognize, and the voice was high and beautiful. When Sky looked, he discovered the singer was a girl who couldn’t be older than twelve.
The Peaks itself was a low ceilinged building with thick support beams ornately decorated in runic patterns. It was well furnished with thick tapestries and padded cushions. The patrons were well dressed too, Sky noticed. Most looked like merchants or ship captains. Some even looked like knights. There were outcoves with curtains set into the walls all around and within them, Sky saw women entertaining their guests on a more personal level. He tried hard not to stare.
Peter laughed when two girls took him by the arms. One was dark haired and green eyed, with skin as pale as snow. The other was blonde and blue-eyed, though her skin was not near as fair. This one turned to Sky and pursed her lips. “Why look at what our lovely Peter has brought us, Lena.”
The girl leaned forward and giggled, biting at Sky’s ear. The feel of her breath on his skin made his face go hot again. He closed his eyes and put his hands on her arms. She kissed him on the neck and he felt her tongue moisten the skin beneath. He pressed her away gently. “I really shouldn’t, Peter, I should go…”
“Please!” Peter laughed and motioned to the girl who gently pried the coin from Sky’s fingers. “Lana, I’ve a date with Lena, so why don’t you make Sky… welcome?” Then he was gone, swallowed by the crowd of women and flickering candlelight. The girl, Lana, smiled at him and slid close again. She took his hand and led him into one of the secluded outcoves. Sky There, Lana gently guided him down onto a padded bench and straddled him, looping her arms behind his neck. “How old are you?” she whispered.
“Fi-fifteen… fa-falls,” he managed. “Give or take a season, maybe two?”
She leaned close and whispered. “At fifteen, some boys are made men mm?”
Made a man, Sky thought. I would be made a man. He blushed and grinned, chewing on his lip.
“Mmm,” Lana said, swaying her hips against his. “Young, but I like them young. I’m young too, guess how old I am?”
Sky didn’t know and guessing felt beyond him. He blinked and sputtered and put his hands on her hips, intending to gently nudge her away. She took his hands and placed them on her backside instead. “Six and ten springs,” she said and nipped at his nose, then kissed his cheek. “I’m no maiden but I can pretend if you like?”
“N-no,” Sky said and closed his eyes. His heart was beating so hard in his chest that she must hear it, that everyone must have heard it. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! His secret could not be kept from a whore. “Do not lie with anyone,” Sir Henric had warned him. “Less you be found out and then what will I do?”
“I can’t,” he said and pushed at her, but her legs were strong and she squeezed tightly, holding him there. “Yes you can,” she said and pushed his head back. He felt her tongue slide from his shoulder to his lips. The world was far away and getting further. She kissed him, and he did not resist.
She reached between them so suddenly that he could not stop her. Her hand squeezed between his legs, paused and then groped. She was searching and he knew he had to go. Sky pushed at her arms, trying to move her hand away, to stop her. She broke the kiss, her brow furrowed, eyes narrow. “The hell?” she said, a look of confusion in her eyes. He took her lapse in control to push her off of him and slide of the chair. She stepped back, blinking at him, and Sky moved into the crowd before she could say a word.
Peter was no where to be seen within the throng of patrons and girls attending them. It was a simple thing to wind his way into a corner and hide. He could have gone to the door but that meant going near Lana again.
He was about to turn and try and find a back door out when he stopped. He saw her, and she was grabbing at Peter’s tunic, trying get his attention. Sky’s heart pounded in his chest, but he stood, frozen. Peter wasn’t talking to the girl but a man, a large man with a scarred cheek and a nose that must have been broken half a dozen times. The man spit. Peter turned and Lana spoke in his ear. His face had a curious expression on it. Lana said something again, her face red in the candle light, but Peter only looked puzzled before his eyes caught Sky’s.
When Sky turned away, Peter was there in a moment, catching his arm. Sky wrenched it free and backed away. Peter hung back, as if unsure. His face still wore that curious expression. He seemed to be looking at him, appraising him.
“I think… I think I’m done here,” Sky said and turned, making for the door. “Sir should be back and he’ll give me a beating.”
He was halfway to the inn before Peter caught up with him. The warmth of the brothel and heat of the evening, combined Sky’s hasty retreat had made Peter hurry after him. When he caught up, he was sweating and his dark hair was tousled. The smell of him made Sky’s skin prickle. They said nothing at all until Peter sighed.
“Sky I didn’t mean… I mean, I thought that…”
“Shut up, just… shut up!”
They said nothing more until the inn was there and they were sneaking around the stable to the rear stairwell. Both of their knight’s horses were gone from their stalls yet, so Sky hoped he would never know his squire had been gone all evening.
“Sky,” Peter called. “Sky, talk to me.” Sky had rounded barn and was coming up on the stairs to their rooms. Peter was at his heels and grabbed at his shirt sleeve. Sky turned and shoved him.
“Leave me alone,” he said, wishing his voice had more heat than it did. To his ears it just sounded weak and unsure. Peter must have taken it the same way and didn’t let go.
Peter took a step up the stairs when Sky heard the horses. Peter frowned and looked over his shoulder with a curse. Sir Henric was riding up on Nightsong and even in the fading light Sky could see the man’s fury. When he caught sight of them, the knight cursed. The old man never curses.
Corgan rode up then, singing about a sun-kissed maiden on her wedding night. Peter sighed and came around to take his horse. Sky, knowing he’d been seen already, slumped his shoulders and went to Nightsong, taking the big black’s reigns. Sir Henric pulled his gloves from his hands and thrust his sword and scabbard at Sky. When he took them, Sir Henric belted him so hard in the ear that Sky staggered.
“Sir!” Peter shouted but Sir Corgan silenced him with a slap of his own, then laughed.
“Your knight would have had all of the men of Shield Port looking for you boy, but all the others were busy!” The fat knight stroked a thick mustache and laughed again. “He’s in quite the temper. I can contest to that. Rode his horse like a man possessed.”
“We were just at the brothel, Sirs, ain’t mean nothing by it.” This time Peter was silenced by a withering look from Sir Henric, which he then turned on Sky. He indicated the sword.
“Take this to the room and clean it, and we’ll talk of this.”
Sir Corgan laughed. “You needn’t be such a poor sort eh? Don’t take it out on the boy, he is just a boy and boys will chase wenches.” At the words, the older knight stiffened and turned. Nightsong danced slightly and Sky had to grip the reigns tightly to keep him from rearing. He was favoring his left foreleg and when Sky looked, he saw the shoe had been thrown and the hoof was bloody.
“Chase wenches?” Sir Henric roared. “My squires do not chase baseborn sluts.” He looked down at Sky, all anger burning in that gaze. “Is it true, were you at a whore house?”
Sky could not answer, his throat felt tight and he shook. The fear from that gaze took him and he felt tears welling in his eyes. Never cry, men never cry. The mantra did nothing and he shut his eyes instead, and nodded. He waited for the slap that did not come. After a moment, he opened his eyes and Sir Henric had dismounted. The knight didn’t look at him at all.
Sir Corgan looked amused. There was something else too, a glassiness of his eye. The man is drunk, Sky realized. Peter must have noticed too and dropped two coins into Sir Corgan’s saddle bags. Sky thought it an odd thing, and Peter didn’t seem to notice that he’d seen. Sky shook his head and looked for Sir Henric, meaning to ask if he wanted the horse re-shod.
Sir Henric shouldered open the door to the common room and heaving himself up onto the steps, his gate seemingly weary. The remaining knight slid from his horse and ruffled Sky’s hair. “So you’re Henry’s boy eh? Skinny thing. Got any muscle on you beneath all that wool?”
“Yes,” Sky said, gripping the sword his knight had handed to him tightly. “I can fight too. Sir Henric taught me good.”
“Taught me well,” Sir Corgan corrected and smiled. “That’s how you say it boy. He taught me well. Say it to me now, again.”
Heat burned on Sky’s cheeks and his knuckles turned white from his grip on Sir Henric’s weapon. “He… taught me… well, sir.”
“Good lad. Come see me tomorrow morning. I’ll have you spar with Peter here. What do you say, mm? Say an hour after sunrise?”
“Absolutely not!” Sir Henric shouted from the door, turning and slamming it behind him. He stalked to Sir Corgan and pointed at Sky. “The boy is two years your boy’s lesser and half-trained. Useless in a fight.”
The anger in him made Sky react too quickly. His tongue was saying he’d do it before his brain could tell him to stop. He was embarressed and eager to prove he was not useless. Peter opened his mouth but Sir Corgan grinned.
“Settled then! On the morrow, we shall have glorious combat!”
“I said, no, Sir.”
“Your boy doesn’t seem afraid. Are you afraid, boy?”
Sky had seen his knight angry, but this fury was beyond it. His mailed fist clenched and his beard quivered. He thought he could hear Sir Henric’s teeth creaking.
“For that insult I should fight you. But if my boy wants a good beating and Peter will oblige him, so be it.”
And then, he was gone and Sir Corgan too, though he left with a belly of laughter. Sky wrapped Nightsong’s hoof and put him into his stall. Peter did the same for Sir Corgan’s charger, though he didn’t need to wrap any hooves. Sky was still rubbing down the destrier when Peter came to lean against the stall’s post. “You don’t have to do it, you know.”
“I’ll do it,” Sky said, too quick to be a simple decision. He flushed. “I’m not afraid.”
“Destroyer take Sir Corgan,” Peter said and put a hand on Sky’s shoulder. “I wasn’t saying you’re afraid. It’s just… Corgan’s a drunk and all he sees is his ‘glorious battle.’ He hasn’t fought in one actual battle, just tournaments.”
“Really?” Sky turned and frowned. “Why do you squire with him?”
“Same as you I bet, no real choice. I was given to him by Lady Inara.” Peter pulled back his coat and tunic and showed a white scar that ran from his neck to past his collar bone. “My father… he was killed and I got this. Lady Inara said I could still be of some use, and gave me to him. It could have been worse I suppose. Some boys never get picked to squire at all and spend the rest of their lives as paiges.”
It had all come out in a rush. Peter’s face had gone red, his eyes looking through Sky. He felt the sudden urge to comfort him but… that would give it all away. So instead, all he said was, “I’m sorry.”
Peter shrugged and looked about to spit but stopped himself. “Sir Corgan’s a pompous ass. I can outfight him with any weapon. Tomorrow?” The older boy suddenly frowned. “Back out, there’s… no honor in this.”
“I said I’m not afraid.” Sky turned his back on him then and closed his eyes. Make you a man. Lana’s words still clung to his mind and the feel of her fingers between his legs came rushing back. The tears came unbidden then, followed by silent sobs. The memories came too, of Sarina Gray and Kehli Stonefort sitting on their little stools. “Let’s play a kissing game!” Sarina had said. “Let Skyah be the boy, she is always wanting to be one!”
She hadn’t felt Peter come to her, but when his hands touched her shoulders, she flinched and turned, flailing to get him off. He said nothing but drew her close then, his arms strong and warm and full of tenderness. His breath was on her cheek and she stopped flailing.
“I know…” Peter said, his voice a croaking whisper that faltered and broke. She shook in his arms, the last of her mask falling away like snow shaken from bare tree limbs. She became all too aware of the curve of her hips, of his arms squeezing close to breasts that were wrapped in tight cloth. He knows. She closed her eyes.
“I don’t know what… I’m not…”
“Shh,” Peter hushed her, and she felt a hand squeezing her shoulder. “You don’t have to deny it. I know you’re a girl. I know.”
“How did you know?” she asked, unable to move, or push or escape. In Peter’s arms she felt suddenly safer than she ever had and didn’t know why. It scared her. “I never told no one.”
“Lana said you had nothing between… well nothing…” he faltered and Skyah felt her cheeks burn. “And then I looked.. and… I saw. I saw you.”
“I should have never gone, I’m so stupid!”
“No!” Peter’s voice was soft and when she opened her eyes, he had leaned back to smile at her. “Not stupid, brave! So very brave. Braver than… than any woman I’ve ever met. Why do you hide it? Why do you pretend to be a boy?”
“I forgot how not to,” she said and leaned against his shoulder. He held her and ran a hand through her short brown hair. He took the strands of it and combed through the thickest parts. It felt so good that Skyah forgot to cry.
“You’re beautiful,” Peter whispered. “And brave.” She felt his lips touch her cheek and she winced. Kehli had kissed her first. Skyah had been smaller than both of them, only twelve, and Kehli had been twice the weight. They had pinned her down, and Sarina had pinched her nose until she stopped screaming. The kiss had been rough and painful, Kehli biting her lip until it bled. When she’d cried out, Sarina had put the pointed toe of her shoe between her legs and pushed.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said and stepped back. “I should not have done that.”
She didn’t realize she was crying. Without him to hold her, she slid to her knees and gripped at her shirt. She drew it tighter around her, wanting to cover herself even though she hadn’t even unlaced her shirt. The sobbing grew suddenly so violent she couldn’t breath. The tears blinded her. He put a hand on her shoulder and she twisted away. “Go!” she shouted.
“Go! Get away from me!”
She didn’t see him go, but she heard the doors to the stable shut. She shifted back into the stable and nestled into the hay. Nightsong nuzzled at her but she turned her face into the stall’s wall and cried. In time, she slept.
She dreamed she stood on the widow’s walk of a castle that dwarfed any she had ever seen. It spread into a city so large she could not see the end of it. Sunlight kissed her face and warmed her skin. A fresh breeze blew in off the bay, a great expanse of water that stretched to the horizon. The ocean, she thought as it carried with it the scent of salt and spray. She reached behind her and pulled the pin in her hair, letting it tumble around her shoulders, thick and dark. It was warm and she let the shawl fall off her shoulders and rest in the crook of her elbows. Her dress was light, made of silk and soft linen. She wore no shoes and let her feet feel the warming stone pathway. The sun was setting ahead of her, sinking below the endless horizon of the sea.
A great drumming beat out a rhythm that drowned the ocean’s crashes. A dark shadow eclipsed the sun and when she looked up, she saw only a great, dark shape clouding the sky. It was serpentine and yet formless, like a memory just before dawn. It spoke in her mind and she knew this was a True Dream, a Dragon Dream.
“The Path of Kings is long and full of pain,” the shadow said. “This is what is. What could be. What will be.”
And behind her, Peter slid his arms around her waist and hugged her from behind. She leaned back against him, let her eyes close, felt him there against her. This felt safe, just like her mother had always said it would be.
“You’re beautiful,” he told her, his voice a whisper in her ear. “And brave.” She turned in his arms and drew him down, kissing his lips until they parted and she drew him down against her. They lay together on the stone, high above world as the salt and spray caressed them.
She sat on a throne, her hand on Peter’s as he lounged on his own. A crown sat amidst his dark hair and a child ran about, clutching at her skirts. She lifted her, cradling her in her arms. Skyah saw eyes so blue they resembled a summer sky. The girl’s hair was red as flame, and she was so pale, so much like her that she dared to hope. But the face was not hers, she kissed her, wished her to be, but she knew. This is not my daughter.
“The Path of Kings is long and full of pain,” the shadow roared.
She stood on a mountain top, the snow blistering her exposed skin. Peter stood there, his sword shoved deep in her chest. A child with hair as red as flame lay crying, but she was not her daughter. Peter was crying, and so was she. He touched her cheek, his forehead lay against her own. “I’m so sorry,” he said, sobbing. “But I had to.”
Her heart’s blood ran thick and hot down her chest. She wiped at it, even as she slumped in Peter’s arms. “The Path of Kings…” she whispered to him. He kissed her, and she let him. She felt love in that kiss, and sorrow, and regret.
“Long and full of pain,” Peter said and then she dreamed no more.
She woke to the feel of blood snaking hot against her thigh. Shaking, Skyah shifted, reached between her legs, tried to stop it. She kicked and scrambled but there was no one there. Not Peter. Not a shadow. Only Nightsong. The horse nudged at her, stamped a hoof and shook his mane. Skyah shook, wiping the blood on her pants and wincing at the twisting pain in her back. The moon’s blood came hard and burning this time.
It took her a moment longer to realize she heard voices. Her breath caught but soon she accepted that the voices she heard was not the shadow’s. They were male, and they were inside the stable. Slapping a hand over her mouth, she shifted so the hay all but covered her. It tickled her nose, making her allergies threatened a sneeze. She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing it away as fear gripped her even tighter than the pain in her back.
“Quiet, you want to wake the whole bloody inn?”
“I be quiet, ain’t no one awake this hour, eh? What ya say you can’t say back at the Peaks?”
She heard hay shifting and a door moved. The voices came closer. She squeezed her hand over her mouth so tight her jaw hurt. Don’t make a sound, be invisible. Sir Henric had told her that the night they’d left Gray Town. Don’t let them see the girl. No one will know. They’d left on a moonless night, riding off the road and evading the patrols. The Shaking Disease had come and no one was to leave, especially the dragon-blooded girl. Barbarians from the north all carried the disease. It was the Witch Queen’s curse. They had found her mother instead. Be invisible. No one will know.
Shapes moved past the stall. One stopped in front of Nightsong and she saw a pair of eyes flash in a faint light, a candle perhaps. He was staring at Nightsong and she saw a mouth full of broken teeth.
“Now there’s a beaut. Think we take her?”
“Touch that horse and this is done.” The voice sounded familiar, but her fear kept her mind from knowing it. She couldn’t think, she kept seeing Gray Town, and the smoke and fire that had consumed her mother.
“Yeah,” the man, Dob, continued to look at the black destrier, who bared his teeth. Skyah didn’t move, didn’t even breath. Be invisible. The man looked over her hiding spot then and she shut her eyes. They would take her back to Gray Town and burn her too. She heard her mother’s screams the night they took her. She saw her arms, handing her to Sir Henric, telling him to go, to leave her. The blood, she remembered the blood most. And the fire after, when they were running. She heard her mother’s screams as she burned. They’ll burn me too if they know. They’ll burn me!
But the man did not see her and turned away.
“Aye, I’ll do it,” the broken-toothed man said. “Bitch ain’t like to marry me eh?”
“On her Crowning Day.”
“Aye, her bloody crowning day I get it. Kill the bloody whore, Canton gives me a bloody keep, I get it.”
Skyah listened, breathing slowly through her fingers. The two men were contemplating murder! Of who? Some whore? Lana? She thought of the whore from the brothel but, no that wasn’t right. Why kill a whore for taking you to bed?”
“One gold ain’t going to get you near her tomorrow. Two, or I’ll point you out to the rest of the guard.” It was the broken-toothed man again. She could not make out the other, he was whispering and they were moving away.
The men talking lower, their voices growing only slightly more heated. It sounded more like a negotiation for a night’s room than a killing. So the target had a guard? She felt a sinking feeling in her stomach then, and knew who they meant. She listened with all her ability, straining to pick out every word.
There were none. Instead, a clink of metal. Coins passed from hand to hand with a grunt, then a chuckle. She stayed silent, shut her eyes, opened her ears. She knew then. Only the Lady Inara would have a Crowning Day in Shield Port. Two men were going to murder Lady Inara and no one would know, but her. She had to know, had to understand. She forgot Peter, forgot the shadow. She forgot the blood that trickled down her leg. She forgot her fear. Be made a man. A knight knows no fear.
There was only silence, and then the slide of a door latch. The stable door opened. Footsteps and then more silence. She waited a moment longer, then peered around the stall’s wall. She saw a man huddled against the door, his cloak pulled tight. He was looking down at his hands. He glanced over his shoulder and Skyah froze. A big man with broken-teeth. In the moonlight she saw his face, scarred with a nose broken half a dozen times. He was the man Peter was talking to at the Peaks.
He left then. She’d been invisible and nothing at all.
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.
“You’re going to murder Lady Inara,” she said, not taking her eyes off the keep. “You’re from Canton, aren’t you?”
“What?” Peter sounded shocked and… there was something else besides shock in his voice. It was a dangerous tone.
“Is it true, Peter? Did you come from Canton’s Song?”
She looked at him now, her gray eyes finding his green ones. Even now she wanted to give in, to go with him. If she did, the keep would be hers. If she kept following… The Path of Kings is long and full of pain.
“Yes,” he said warily and frowned. “But I was just a boy, exchanged as good will by Lord Canton to the Lady and her knights. She didn’t care though and hung the messenger who brought me. She didn’t hang me but gave me to Sir Corgan.” He looked at her, wary. “Why do you ask?”
“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered. “Peter, I know… I… I know.”
His body went stiff in her hands and his eyes looked suddenly wary, like a rabbit who has spotted the wolf. They changed then, almost as quickly, into the wolf instead and Skyah took a step back. She tried to step back, rather, but the wall of the inn was there. There was no where to run from that gaze. His jaw tightened and his hands dug into her forearms. She squirmed.
“I…” he stuttered and dropped his hands. He looked back towards stable yard, and then towards the inn. She was afraid he would leave her, and she made to touch his arm, clutch at his gambeson. He was sweating and the smell of him filled her head. Don’t go, she pleaded silently. Peter, turn away from this!
“Please,” she whispered. “Peter, no one knows… you can, you can walk away.”
“Can I? Truly?” he said, still not looking at her. She nodded, though he couldn’t see.
“Yes! Please, come here, come with me.”
She held out her arms to him.
He turned back. A wince cut his features but he slid between her arms. She pulled him close to her, arms close around him. His hands cupped her chin and his lips found hers. She closed her eyes. I’ve done it, she thought, holding him tightly. I’ve saved him. The dream of the thrones came to her again, and the little girl that was not hers. The Path of Kings, the shadow said. What will not be. The widow’s walk, Peter’s embrace, his kiss, his love all flooded into her mind. It was a True Dream, can I really save him?
She wanted to believe she could and clutched him tighter. Please Peter, stay with me! She would give herself up to him if it meant he would stay, that he would not go and hurt Lady Inara. Do I love you? The idea seemed reckless, but she felt love reckless. “You will know love, one day,” Henric had told her. Is this what love is? This heat? This… wanting?
“Peter,” she whispered, the kiss breaking. His hands were beneath her tunic and she felt her wrappings pulled away. Rough-skinned palms and fingertips touched her, painfully at first but then gentler, more careful. She gasped, her fingers gripping his dark hair. “Stay,” she pleaded. “Take me somewhere and stay.”
He pulled back, his hands sliding down her sides. It made her shiver and her eyes closed. When he spoke, his voice seemed pained and wet. He might have been crying, but she could not bear to open her eyes and see.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Forgive me, some day.”
“Peter–” she said, her eyes snapping open. Pain struck her in the side of the head and stars exploded in her eyes. Her limbs went all to water and she fell. As she slipped into blackness, she felt herself being lowered to the ground with careful arms. Peter’s voice whispering something in her ear, something she heard but never understood.
“Are you all right, sir?” The voice was a boy’s, a young boy’s. It sounded so far away in the darkness. She felt someone shaking her, but for a time all she heard was the voice. Slowly, as if waking from some slow, meandering dream, she clawed her way to wakefulness. Her eyes fluttered open, the sunlight bright and painful. Standing over her was the stable boy, Pate.
“I heard a noise, sir squire, came to see,” he said. “Someone hit ya with this I think? Or ya fell on it.” He held up a rock for her to see. She couldn’t imagine why someone would hit her with a rock. Or had she fallen? Where was she? She turned her head but saw only the mud and brick of a wall, the sunlight of a yard, and wooden slatterns of a stable. She was in an alleyway. Peter had kissed her in that alley. Peter had…
Peter had hit her in the head with a rock. The realization made her sit up so fast that her head swam and she groaned, falling back down as another explosion of stars danced across her vision. It took a few more moments for them to clear, and when they did Pate still sat over her, crouched on his heels, his good arm wrapped around skinny knees, his deformed arm clutched against his chest.
“I’d go see the Thane, sir, uh squire but I ain’t know where he is,” Pate said, shrugging bony shoulders. “The Lady keeps one, up in the castle, but he don’t come down for the likes of us.”
Lady Inara! It all flooded back to her in that instant. Peter taking the coins with a flashing grin, Peter talking to the man in the brothel with the scarred-face and that same man again in the stable. They were going to murder Lady Inara and no one knew it but her.
Skyah stood on shaky legs. The straps that she had worn around her breasts were loose and she reached beneath her tunic and ripped them away. Pate stared at her, his large brown eyes even larger as they widened.
“You’s a girl!” he said.
“I’m a squire,” Skyah told him and blinked away the last of the stars floating in her eye sight. “There is a chestnut in there named Dogger, my horse.”
“I remember, I always remember horses sir, err… my lady.”
“Squire,” she said and exhaled a held breath. “I need him saddled and barded with any spare leather. Do you know how to bard a horse?”
The boy smiled faintly. “Yes uh… Squire, I was a paige to me Da once, but he died and no other knight would take me on account of this hand.” He held up his thin and deformed left arm. “Don’t work so good, but I can bard your horse.”
“Well,” Skyah said and put a hand on his shoulder like Sir Henric always did when he’d done something good. “You’ll be helping your Lady out today if you bard Dogger.”
Retrieving her armor, Sky re-buckled the gambeson, retrieved her mail and helm and grabbed up her quarterstaff. She rushed up the stairs to her room, hoping to find Sir Henric, but found no trace of him. He wasn’t in the common room either when she looked in through the window. He wouldn’t believe me anyway.
Pate was laying thick leather wraps across Dogger’s middle and cinching the saddle straps tight when he walked in. The horse stood perfectly still, his head high and nostrils flaring. Skyah stroked his nose and neck but spoke no words to the horse. The two of them had a silent partnership. There was no need of comforting words for Dogger to understand her. The animal simply… knew, without words. “Dragon’s blood,” Sir Henric had spat when Skyah had asked him about it. “They say the Witch Queen can talk to animals and see with their eyes. Unnatural things.” She never spoke of it again to him.
The boy was good at his job and finished quickly. The barding was crude made mostly of unfinished saddling leather but it would turn aside a weak blow. Skyah helped him finish, making the straps tight and securing her helm to the saddle. Horns shouted in the distance.
“The Lady’s coming down from the Keep,” the boy said with a smile. “It’s her Crowning Day ya know. Raised from common folk like us, she was.”
“What raised her to nobility?” Skyah felt the need to know as she cinched the last strap. “What did she do?”
“The women raised her,” he said. “She ousted the old ruler with them women from the Peaks. He used to take one every month and rape her public-like. She put an end to it. If you take my meanin.” The boy put a finger across his throat and Skyah nodded.
“You know a lot for a stable boy,” she said with a small smile she couldn’t help but show.
Pate shrugged. “I hear things, people talk like I’m invisible and such.”
Be invisible. Skyah knew exactly what he meant.
Dogger was armored and saddled with such efficiency that Skyah was impressed. The boy had been faster and more attentive than she had ever been with Sir Henric’s horse. He would have made a good squire, had his arm not been deformed. She told him as much when she mounted and took up her staff from where it leaned against the wall.
“Thank you,” the boy said, his smile a little shy. He had his head down, looking at the hay. “Beggin yer pardon but… well…”
“What is it?” Skyah asked, sorry the boy was so flustered with her. She was only a squire, not a knight to be stuttering over.
“If’n it be okay I…want to go with you.”
The boy was backing away as Skyah wheeled Dogger around. She frowned at him and Pate looked suddenly afraid, like she might draw that sword and use it on him. She looked at him, a skinny boy with a deformed arm and no shoes. He could care for a horse but what good would he be against Peter or the scar-faced man? Skyah doubted she would be any good against them.
“Your place is here,” she said, trying to sound reasonable. “Tell Sir Henric where I’ve gone.”
The boy ducked off to the side and rummaged in the hay for a moment, returning with a wooden shield. Round and almost as tall as he was, the shield bore a House sigil that she didn’t know. A golden harp sat across a green field. “My Da’s shield,” Pate said. “I took it when they brought his body back. I can help!”
The look on his face was so desperate that she almost said yes. She could use some help, but how could she endanger this boy? He’d be killed, and for what? Surely it was a noble cause, a worthy cause but… he was just a boy. And you are just a girl, she thought and her face burned red. She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, Pate.”
“But I can help you!” he cried. The boy hefted the shield and his claw-like hand seemed to twitch and curl in on his chest. He held it with his other hand. “People don’t look at me like you do,” he said. “You know, like I’m a person. Women do sometimes. Like me own mother used to before she… she died. I want to help you, sir, Squire, my lady. Please!”
Sympathy welled in her then and she bit her lip.
“My father’s name was Pate,” she said and for the first time, believed it. The gods, all three of them, had not mattered much to Skyah as she was growing up. There had been priests and wisewomen who told her all the stories about how the Fates worked, how the Weaver wove the strands of your life, the Judge picked which ones you deserved and the Destroyer cut them at their ends, but she’d never really believed it. Somehow, this boy having that name made her believe just a little. She smiled.
“Take me with you, Sir, my lady,” the boy said, his voice pleading. “Ain’t nothing here but this war you see? I… I can be a good Squire again, you see how I do with horses? I can clean your armor too! I do good with those, everybody says so.” He was shifting his weight, keeping the shield steady in front of him.
“I can fight, watch your back! Please Sir, my lady?”
Skyah rode Dogger close and sighed. “I’m only a squire, but if I ever become a knight, I’ll come back for you, I promise.” They were both looked down on, ignored, invisible. She would prove that otherwise today, and if she could, she’d give Pate that same chance. But not today.
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.
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.
What will be.
Peter struggled up a steep slope, dirt and rock crumbling beneath his fingertips. His hands were bloody and raw, his face covered with frost and dirt. As he climbed, he slid a pace for every two he gained. The mountains were impossibly high around him, rising like some creature’s teeth, chewing at the cloudy sky. Snow fell. A stiff, cold wind blew.
Around him a forest was sparse, the soil too hard to support much life. Crab grass was all that grew this high among the rocks and clouds. The air was thin and he sucked down air heavily, unable to catch his breath.
Ahead of him the path twisted through jagged rock, steeper and steeper until it disappeared into the mist. A dark shape floated in that haze, flapping giant wings, beating gusts of wind down at him.
His grip found loose rock and his feet were unable to stop him. He slid and fell and rolled, end over end until he collided with a solid outcropping of rock. He called out in pain and wept.
A murder of crows descended from a peak of impossible height and landed near him. They collided with one another as they touched ground, melded together, fused into the shape of a woman with hair the color of flame. He stared at her, eyes wide, afraid. She smiled at him.
“The path of kings is long and full of pain, Peter Canton,” the woman said.
“I’m not afraid,” he said, his voice wavering, breaking.
The woman touched his face with hands so cold they hurt. Her eyes were as blue as any frozen winter sky, her skin the color of new fallen snow. She was beautiful but there was a terrible power about her that made him tremble.
“We shall see,” the woman said and rose, her body becoming a horde of screeching crows. Peter watched them fly into the mist, towards the enormous winged creature that was descending, descending, descending until its leathery wings burst through the mist. Fire burst from a vicious maw and the mist collapsed. It came at him then, and Peter knew fear.
Skyah woke, gasping, her throat raw and dry. She could not see. Her hands felt like they were trapped in sand and she was barely aware of her legs. The pain began instantly. Her body was gripped with a cold so fierce it burned, a pain that stabbed from her insides and tried to rip its way free of her.
She cried out and felt soft hands on cheeks and smelled the faint scent of roses. Death flowers? She feared that she was lying on her funeral byre and the hands were putting the oils over her eyes. No! She wanted to cry out. No I’m not dead! But all she managed was a weak, “not… I’m not…”
“Easy child,” a woman’s voice was saying. Skyah could not see but she thought the voice belonged to the hands that smoothed her cheeks. They were comforting, like her mother’s had been. She began to see shapes moving above her.
“Where…? Who…” she said, but her voice failed her again.
Sir Henric’s voice was the next she heard. It sounded on the edge of cracking and one of her hands was being gripped by two large ones. She could not make out what he said at first and another jolt of pain made her whimper and moan.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Sir Henric said to her then, and she felt him leaning over her, the scruff of his beard scratching her skin as he kissed her forehead. The shapes became faces and his leaned over her, his broad face and graying beard had lines of worry all over it. More gray had crept into the beard, she thought. “Sir?” she whispered and began to remember what had happened. She shut her eyes and felt the tears come, stinging her eyes. “Sir I’m sorry… I’m sorry…”
There was a moment’s silence before Sir Henric chuckled, a wet sound that seemed full of an emotion that was not anger. The woman’s voice was there again, soft and soothing, but indistinct. She turned her head and saw Lady Inara. It was her hands she’d felt. She held Skyah’s other hand in one of her’s and in the other she held a wooden cup.
“Drink this child,” she said. “It will ease the pain. You’ve been badly wounded. Opileaf will help,” she was holding the cup to her lips. It tasted foul and sweet at the same time. It turned her stomach, but she drank it down anyway.
She felt instantly drowsy and her eyes closed. Her body felt made of lead, being dragged down beneath a pit of sand. She was on the verge of surrendering to it, a painless abyss that called to her. It was Inara’s voice that held her back. She was not speaking to her, but to Sir Henric, Skyah knew that somehow.
“She looks so much like her,” Inara said and Skyah felt a woman’s soft hands on her cheek again. “So much like her, Henry.”
“She’s not our daughter, never will be.”
“No, but she’s yours, in a way, and I cannot… I feel like I’d be losing our daughter again…”
Sleep came then, sudden and deep, but this time it was dreamless.
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.
It was a near spring when she finally saddled Dogger. Pate was bundling her clothing into a satchel atop of an old gray mare that had seen better days. The weather was warming, but the wind still blew cold through the open stable doors. She smiled. The cold air felt like a long-forgotten embrace. Sir… Lord Henric had been right. Ice ran in her veins.
“Are you leaving us without saying goodbye?” The voice came from the side door and striding through it were the Lady Inara and Lord Henric. She was dressed in a simple woolen gown with golden thread work, her graying hair caught in a net. Lord Henric wore a simple black doublet made of velvet, something new and rich she’d never see him wear, but his woolen pants and boots were the same ones Skyah had always seen him in on the road. That made her want to smile.
“I didn’t wish to disturb you, my lady,” Skyah said and tried a curtsy but the action caused a twinge in her chest, making her catch Dogger’s saddle to not fall.
“You’re not healed yet,” Henric said and crossed his arms. “Stay a while longer, you don’t have to go.”
The offer had been tempting. Shield Port was small and comfortable and Skyah had never even had a room of her own before. It over looked the ocean and she could walk out onto the Widow’s Walk and feel the spray on her face. Peter was there sometimes, a phantom smiling at her, shaking his head. “I wanted to give you a castle,” he’d say. It was part of why she could not stay.
“I do,” she told him and straightened. Her clothes had been thrown away and Lady Inara had new ones tailored for her. They were men’s clothing, but tailored for a woman. She did not hide her bosom as she did before, the lines of her hips were no longer concealed beneath a loose jack. Her doublet was cinched and hugged her sides, her pants loose at the thigh and tucked into sturdy new boots that were more comfortable than anything she’d ever worn in her life. “Thank you for everything, I cannot ever repay you.”
“You saved my life and became my daughter,” Lady Inara said, her voice a whisper. “That is payment enough.” She came closer and put a hand on her arm, and then her cheek. The lady’s eyes were glistening. “I will miss you, but I knew you would soon leave as soon as I touched that sword to your shoulder.”
Henric grunted, shaking his head. “See sense, child! You have a home here. Stay with us.”
Skyah looked from Henric to Inara, and the look in the older woman’s face was one that understood her. She had to go, but she would be missed. Skyah realized she would miss them both too.
“I’m sorry but I have to,” she said.
“Where will you go?” Henric said, his beard quivering.
“North,” she said.
“North?” Inara blinked at her and frowned. “That is a direction, not a destination. What is there in the north?”
“Blood,” Skyah said. “And a mountain.”
“Blood? Mountain?” Henric spread his arms wide. “Think sense girl. You’ve been knighted, not given the world. It’s dangerous out there. I promised your mother… I swore I’d…” His voice failed him then and Skyah felt slightly guilty. She wanted to go to him, to embrace him and tell him that he’d always be the only father she’d ever have. A part of her wanted to stay, to have this growing family that offered her a home, and still another part, a larger part, remembered the Dream.
“Henry, she has a purpose to fulfill,” Lady Inara said, still staring at her. There was a small smile on her lips. She was happy and Skyah thought there was a hint of pride in those eyes. “There is something for her to do, some great deed left for her, can’t you see that?”
Henric didn’t answer, but only looked away, to where Nightsong stamped his hoof and shook his head. For a moment Skyah thought he was going to go to his horse and come with her, but he only sighed.
Skyah looked from him to Pate, who was finishing with his old gray. She’d promised to take the boy with her and he’d had his father’s shield repaired to bring with him. The mountain loomed in her mind, and Peter was falling, falling. She struggled to tighten the strap on Dogger’s saddle.
“There is something I must do,” she said. Inara was nodding, Henric was shaking his head. The lady of Shield Port bid her to wait just a moment and turned, asking her husband to fetch ‘it.’ She didn’t know what she meant until Henric returned with the most beautiful fighting staff she had ever seen. The wood was plain but tempered, oak possibly, and the ends were capped with steel.
“Heavier than that last one, reinforced with steel rods through the center. It won’t break like your old one.” Lord Henric sighed and came close, offering it to her. She took the weapon, holding it like it was made of glass. She had never owned more than a dirty tunic before she’d come to Shield Port and now she had her own forged weapon. She preferred the staff to the sword after all. There was also the silk dress that Pate had carefully packed for her.
There was a snort and dancing of hooves and when Skyah looked up, Henric was leading Nightsong to her. “Take him too. He’ll serve you better than Dogger.” The black destrier looked at her, snuffled her cheek and she stroked his neck. It was hard to see through the tears that sprung into her eyes. “This is too much.”
“You’ve earned it,” Inara said softly. “Let your new squire have your old horse. That one seems about to have its last gallop.” Skyah turned to Pate who had begun to transfer her things from Dogger to Nightsong. He stopped, his good hand cradling a bag under his arm.
“New squire, my lady?”
“Pate, you served me well in that battle as well. Had I a mind I should have raised you too, but I feel you might do better as Sir Skyah’s squire first. What do you say?”
Pate looked from her to Skyah, who laughed away a happy sob. “A proper squire, Lady Inara. I couldn’t think of a better one.” Pate colored, his whole face turning red.
“My honor, Sir, my lady.”
When their things were transferred to their new mounts, Skyah struggled into her saddle with Pate’s help. She looked back at Lady Inara and Lord Henric. They held hands, the other raised to her in fairwell.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Go with our blessing,” Inara said and touched Lord Henric on the arm.
“And remember to visit,” Henric put in, his voice tight.
She smiled to him. “I will. I promise.” She turned Nightsong and made for the open stable doors. Pate followed her on Dogger. Once they were out on the road, he came up alongside her. “What is all this about a mountain and blood, Sir?”
Skyah smiled to herself and didn’t speak until they were through the gates of Shield Port, the entirety of Aranor spreading out before them. “I dreamed of death once and I stopped it. Now there’s a path I have to find, and someone else to save.”
“A path?” Pate asked. “There are paths all over, how will we know the right one?”
“We’ll know it when we see it,” she said. “The Path of Kings is long and full of pain.”
Pate looked up at her, wincing, his claw-like hand touching the shield at his side. A cold wind began to blow and she closed her eyes.
What will be, she thought. Will be.