“I’m no man’s spy,” said Dunk. “And m’lord has no call to speak of me as if I were deaf or dead or down in Dome.”

  Those flinty eyes considered him. “Down in Dome would be a good place for you, ser. You have my leave to go there.”

  “Pay him no mind,” the Fiddler said. “He’s a sour old soul — he suspects everyone. Gormy, I have a good feeling about this fellow. Ser Duncan, will you come with us to Whitewalls?”

  “M’Iord, I…” How could he share a camp with such as these? Their serving men would raise their pavilions, their grooms would curry their horses, their cooks would serve them each a capon or a joint of beef, whilst Dunk and Egg gnawed on strips of hard salt beef. “I couldn’t.”

  “You see,” said the lord of the three castles. “He knows his place, and it is not with us.” He turned his horseback toward the road. “By now Lord Cockshaw is half a league ahead.”

  “I suppose I must chase him clown again.” The Fiddler gave Dunk an apologetic smile. “Perchance we’ll meet again someday. I hope so. I should love to try my lance on you.”

  Dunk did not know what to say to that. “Good fortune in the lists, ser,” he finally managed, but by then Ser John had wheeled about to chase the column. The older lord rode after him. Dunk was glad to see his back. He had not liked his flinty eyes, nor Lord Alyn’s arrogance. The Fiddler had been pleasant enough, but there was something odd about him as well. “Two fiddles and two swords, a cross engrailed,” he said to Egg as they watched the dust of their departure. “What house is that?”

  “None, ser. I never saw that shield in any roll of arms.”

  Perhaps he is a hedge knight after all. Dunk had devised his own arms at Ashford Meadow, when a puppeteer called Tanselle Too-Tall asked him what he wanted painted on his shield. “Was the older lord some kin to House Frey?” The Freys bore castles on their shields, and their holdings were not far from here.

  Egg rolled his eyes. “The Frey arms are two blue towers connected by a bridge, on a gray field. Those were three castles, black on orange, ser. Did you see a bridge?”

  “No.” He just does that to annoy me. “And next time you roll your eyes at me, I’ll clout you on the ear so hard they’ll roll back into your head for good.”

  Egg looked chastened. “I never meant—”

  “Never mind what you meant. Just tell me who he was.”

  “Gormon Peake, the Lord of Starpike.”

  “That’s down in the Reach, isn’t it? Does he really have three castles?”

  “Only on his shield, ser. House Peake did hold three castles once, but two of them were lost.”

  “How do you lose two castles?”

  “You fight for the Black Dragon, ser.”

  “Oh.” Dunk felt stupid. That again.

  For two hundred years, the realm had been ruled by the descendants of Aegon the Conquerer and his sisters, who had made the Seven Kingdoms one and forged the Iron Throne. Their royal banners bore the three-headed dragon of House Targaryen, red on black. Sixteen years ago, a bastard son of King Aegon IV named Daemon Blackfyre had risen in revolt against his trueborn brother. Daemon had used the three-headed dragon on his banners too, but he reversed the colors, as many bastards did. His revolt had ended on the Redgrass Field, where Daemon and his twin sons died beneath a rain of Lord Bloodraven’s arrows. Those rebels who survived and bent the knee were pardoned, but some lost land, some titles, some gold. All gave hostages to ensure their future loyalty.

  Three castles, black on orange. “I remember now. Ser Arlan never liked to talk about the Redgrass Field, but once in his cups he told me how his sister’s son had died.” He could almost hear the old man’s voice again, smell the wine upon his breath. “Roger of Pennytree, that was his name. His head was smashed in by a mace wielded by a lord with three castles on his shield.” Lord Gormon Peake. The old man never knew his name. Or never wanted to. By that time Lord Peake and John the Fiddler and their party were no more than a plume of red dust in the distance. It was sixteen years ago. The Pretender died, and those who followed him were exiled or forgiven. Anyway, it has nought to do with me.

  For a while they rode along without talking, listening to the plaintive cries of birds. Half a league on, Dunk cleared his throat and said, “Butter-well, he said. His lands are near?”

  “On the far side of the lake, ser. Lord Butterwell was the master of coin when King Aegon sat the Iron Throne. King Daeron made him Hand, but not for long. His arms are undy green and white and yellow, ser.” Egg loved showing off his heraldry.

  “Is he a friend of your father?”

  Egg made a face. “My father never liked him. In the Rebellion, Lord Butterwell’s second son fought for the pretender and his eldest for the king. That way he was certain to be on the winning side. Lord Butterwell didn’t fight for anyone.”

  “Some might call that prudent.”

  “My father calls it craven.”

  Aye, he would. Prince Maekar was a hard man, proud and full of scorn. “We have to go by Whitewalls to reach the kingsroad. Why not fill our bellies?” Just the thought was enough to cause his guts to rumble. “Might be that one of the wedding guests will need an escort back to his own seat.”

  “You said that we were going north.”

  “The Wall has stood eight thousand years, it will last awhile longer. It’s a thousand leagues from here to there, and we could do with some more silver in our purse.” Dunk was picturing himself atop Thunder, riding down that sour-faced old lord with the three castles on his shield. That would be sweet. “It was old Ser Arlan’s squire who defeated you,” I could tell him when he came to ransom back his arms and tumor. “The boy who replaced the boy you killed.” The old man would like that.

  “You’re not thinking of entering the lists, are you, ser? “ “Might be it’s time.” “It’s not, ser.”

  “Maybe it’s time I gave you a good clout in the ear.” I’d only need to win two tilts. If I could collect two ransoms and pay out only one, we’d eat like kings for a year. “If there was a melee, I might enter that.” Dunk’s size and strength would serve him better in a melee than in the lists.

  “It’s not customary to have a melee at a marriage, ser.”

  “It’s customary to have a feast, though. We have a long way to go. Why not set out with our bellies full for once?”

  * * *

  The sun was low in the west by the time they saw the lake, its waters glimmering red and gold, bright as a sheet of beaten copper. When they glimpsed the turrets of the inn above some willows, Dunk donned his sweaty tunic once again and stopped to splash some water on his face. he washed off the dust of the road as best he could, and ran wet fingers through his thick mop of sun-streaked hair. There was nothing to be done for his size, or the scar that marked his cheek, but he wanted to make himself appear somewhat less the wild robber knight.

  The inn was bigger than he’d expected, a great gray sprawl of a place, timbered and turreted, half of it built on pilings out over the water. A road of rough-cut planks had been laid down over the muddy lakeshore to the ferry landing, but neither the ferry nor the ferrymen were in evidence. Across the road stood a stable with a thatched roof. A dry stone wall enclosed the yard, but the gate was open. Within, they found a well and a watering trough. “See to the animals,” Dunk told Egg, “but see that they don’t drink too much. I’ll ask about some food.”

  He found the innkeep sweeping off the steps. “Are you come for the ferry?” the woman asked him. “You’re too late. The sun’s going down, and Ned don’t like to cross by night unless the moon is full. He’ll be back first thing in the morning.”

  “Do you know how much he asks?”

  “Three pennies for each of you, and ten for your horses.”

  “We have two horses and a mule.”

  “It’s ten for mules as well.”

  Dunk did the sums in his head, and came up with six-and-thirty, more than he had hoped to spend. “Last time I came this way, it was only two pennies, and
six for horses.”

  “Take that up with Ned, it’s nought to me. If you’re looking for a bed, I’ve none to offer. Lord Shawney and Lord Costayne brought their retinues. I’m full to bursting.”

  “Is Lord Peake here as well?” He killed Ser. Arlan’s squire. “He was with Lord Cockshaw and John the Fiddler.” “Ned took them across on his last run.” She looked Dunk up and down. “Were you part of their company?”

  “We net them on the road, is all.” A good smell was drifting out the windows of the inn, one that made Dunk’s mouth water. “We might like some of what you’re roasting, if it’s not too costly.”

  “It’s wild boar,” the woman said, “well peppered, and served with onions, mushrooms, and mashed neeps.”

  “We could do without the neeps. Some slices off the boar and a tankard of your good brown ale would do for us. How much would you ask for that? And maybe we could have a place on your stable floor to bed down for the night?”

  That was a mistake. “The stables are for horses. That’s why we call them stables. You’re big as a horse, I’ll grant you, but I see only two legs.” She swept her broom at him, to shoo him off. “I can’t be expected to feed all the Seven Kingdoms. The boar is for my guests. So is my ale. I won’t have lords saying that I run short of food or drink before they were surfeit. The lake is full of fish, and you’ll find some other rogues camped down by the stumps. Hedge knights, if you believe them.” Her tone made it quite clear that she did not. “Might be they’d have food to share. It’s nought to me. Away with you now, I’ve work to do.” The door closed with a solid thump behind her, before Dunk could even think to ask where he might find these stumps.

  He found Egg sitting on the horse trough, soaking his feet in the water and fanning his face with his big floppy hat. “Are they roasting pig, ser? I smell pork.”

  “Wild boar,” said Dunk in a glum tone, “but who wants boar when we have good salt beef?”

  Egg made a face. “Can I please eat my boots instead, ser? I’ll make a new pair out of the salt beef. It’s tougher.”

  “No,” said Dunk, trying not to smile. “You can’t eat your boots. One more word and you’ll eat my fist, though. Get your feet out of that trough.” He found his greathelm on the mule and slung it underhand at Egg. “Draw some water from the well and soak the beef.” Unless you soaked it for a good long time, the salt beef was like to break your teeth. It tasted best when soaked in ale, but water would serve. “Don’t use the trough either, I don’t care to taste your feet.”

  “My feet could only improve the taste, ser,” Egg said, wriggling his toes. But he did as he was bid.

  * * *

  The hedge knights did not prove hard to find. Egg spied their fire flickering in the woods along the lakeshore, so they made for it, leading the animals behind them. The boy carried Dunk’s helm beneath one arm, sloshing with each step he took. By then the sun was a red memory in the west. Before long the trees opened up, and they found themselves in what must once have been a weirwood grove. Only a ring of white stumps and a tangle of bone-pale roots remained to show where the trees had stood, when the children of the forest ruled in Westeros.

  Amongst the weirwood stumps, they found two men squatting near a cook fire, passing a skin of wine from hand to hand. Their horses were cropping at the grass beyond the grove, and they had stacked their arms and armor in neat piles. A much younger man sat apart from the other two, his back against a chestnut tree. “Well met, sers,” Dunk called out in a cheerful voice. It was never wise to take armed men unawares. “I am called Ser Duncan the Tall. The lad is Egg. May we share your fire?”

  A stout man of middling years rose to greet them, garbed in tattered finery. Flamboyant ginger whiskers framed his face. “Well met, Ser Duncan. You are a large one…and most welcome, certainly, as is your lad. Egg, was it? What sort of name is that, pray?”

  “A short one, ser.” Egg knew better than to admit that Egg was short for Aegon. Not to men he did not know.

  “Indeed. What happened to your hair?”

  Rootworms, Dunk thought. Tell him it was rootworms, boy. That was the safest story, the tale they told most often…though sometimes Egg took it in his head to play some childish game. “I shaved it off, ser. I mean to stay shaven until I earn my spurs.”

  “A noble vow. I am Ser Kyle, the Cat of Misty Moor. Under yonder chestnut sits Ser Glendon, ah, Ball. And here you have the good Ser Maynard Plumm.”

  Egg’s ears pricked up at that name. “Plumm…are you kin to Lord Viserys Plumm, ser?”

  “Distantly,” confessed Ser Maynard, a tall, thin, stoop-shouldered man with long straight flaxen hair, “though I doubt that His Lordship would admit to it. One might say that he is of the sweet Plumms, whilst I am of the sour.” Plumm’s cloak was as purple as name, though frayed about the edges and badly dyed. A moonstone brooch big as a hen’s egg fastened it at the shoulder. Elsewise he wore dun-colored roughspun and stained brown leather.

  “We have salt beef,” said Dunk.

  “Ser Maynard has a bag of apples,” said Kyle the Cat. “And I have pickled eggs and onions. Why, together we have the makings of a feast! Be seated, ser. We have a fine choice of stumps for your comfort. We will be here until midmorning, unless I miss my guess. There is only the one ferry, and it is not big enough to take us all. The lords and their tails must cross first.”

  “Help me with the horses,” Dunk told Egg. Together the two of them unsaddled Thunder, Rain, and Maester.

  Only when the animals had been fed and watered and hobbled for the night did Dunk accept the wineskin that Ser Maynard offered him. “Even sour wine is better than none,” said Kyle the Cat. “We’ll drink finer vintages at Whitewalls. Lord Butterwell is said to have the best wines north of the Arbor. He was once the King’s Hand, as his father’s father was before him, and he is said to be a pious man besides, and very rich.”

  “His wealth is all from cows,” said Maynard Plumm. “He ought to take a swollen udder for his arms. These Butterwells have milk running in their veins, and the Freys are no better. This will be a marriage of cattle thieves and toll collectors, one lot of coin clinkers joining with another. When the Black Dragon rose, this lord of cows sent one son to Daemon and one to Daeron, to make certain there was a Butterwell on the winning side. Both perished on the Redgrass Field, and his youngest died in the spring. That’s why he’s making this new marriage. Unless this new wife gives him a son, Butterwell’s name will die with him.”

  “As it should.” Ser Glendon Ball gave his sword another stroke with the whetstone. “The Warrior hates cravens.”

  The scorn in his voice made Dunk give the youth a closer look. Ser Glendon’s clothes were of good cloth, but well-worn and ill-matched, with the look of hand-me-downs. Tufts of dark brown hair stuck out from beneath his iron halfhelm. The lad himself was short and chunky, with small close-set eyes, thick shoulders, and muscular arms. His eyebrows were shaggy as two caterpillars after a wet spring, his nose bulbous, his chin pugnacious. And he was young. Sixteen, might be. No more than eighteen. Dunk might have taken him for a squire if Ser Kyle had not named him with a ser. The lad had pimples on his cheeks in place of whiskers.

  “How long have you been a knight?” Dunk asked him.

  “Long enough. Half a year when the moon turns. I was knighted by Ser Morgan Dunstable of Tumbler’s Falls, two dozen people saw it, but I have been training for knighthood since I was born. I rode before I walked, and knocked a grown man’s tooth out of his head before I lost any of my own. I mean to make my name at Whitewalls, and claim the dragon’s egg.”

  “The dragon’s egg? Is that the champion’s prize? Truly?” The last dragon had perished half a century ago. Ser Arlan had once seen a clutch of her eggs, though. They were hard as stone, he said, but beautiful to look upon, the old man had told Dunk. “How could Lord Butterwell come by a dragon’s egg?” “King Aegon presented the egg to his father’s father after guesting for a night at his old castle,” said Ser
Maynard Plumm.

  “Was it a reward for some act of valor?” asked Dunk.

  Ser Kyle chuckled. “Some might call it that. Supposedly old Lord Butterwell had three young maiden daughters when His Grace came calling. By morning, all three had royal bastards in their little bellies. A hot night’s work, that was.”

  Dunk had heard such talk before. Aegon the Unworthy had bedded half the maidens in the realm and fathered bastards on the lot of them, supposedly. Worse, the old king had legitimized them all upon his deathbed; the baseborn ones born of tavern wenches, whores, and shepherd girls, and the Great Bastards whose mothers had been highborn. “We’d all be bastard sons of old King Aegon if half these tales were true.”

  “And who’s to say we’re not?” Ser Maynard quipped.

  “You ought to come with us to Whitewalls, Ser Duncan,” urged Ser Kyle. “Your size is sure to catch some lordling’s eye. You might find good service there. I know I shall. Joffrey Caswell will be at this wedding, the Lord of Bitterbridge. When he was three, I made him his first sword. I carved it out of pine, to fit his hand. In my greener days my sword was sworn to his father.”

  “Was that one carved from pine as well?” Ser Maynard asked.

  Kyle the Cat had the grace to laugh. “That sword was good steel, I assure you. I should be glad to ply it once again in the service of the centaur. Ser Duncan, even if you do not choose to tilt, do join us for the wedding feast. There will be singers and musicians, jugglers and tumblers, and a troupe of comic dwarfs.”

  Dunk frowned. “Egg and I have a long journey before us. We’re headed north to Winterfell. Lord Beron Stark is gathering swords to drive the krakens from his shores for good.”

  “Too cold up there for me,” said Ser Maynard. “If you want to kill krakens, go west. The Lannisters are building ships to strike back at the iron-men on their home islands. That’s how you put an end to Dagon Greyjoy. Fighting him on land is fruitless, he just slips back to sea. You have to beat him on the water.”

  That had the ring of truth, but the prospect of fighting ironmen at sea was not one that Dunk relished. He’d had a taste of that on the White Lady, sailing from Dorne to Oldtown, when he’d donned his armor to help the crew repel some raiders. The battle had been desperate and bloody, and once he’d almost fallen in the water. That would have been the end of him.