“The throne should take a lesson from Stark and Lannister,” declared Ser Kyle the Cat. “At least they fight. What do the Targaryens do? King Aerys hides amongst his books, Prince Rhaegel prances naked through the Red Keep’s halls, and Prince Maekar broods at Summerhall.”

  Egg was prodding at the fire with a stick, to send sparks floating up into the night. Dunk was pleased to see him ignoring the mention of his father’s name. Perhaps he’s finally learned to hold that tongue of his.

  “Myself, I blame Bloodraven,” Ser Kyle went on. “He is the King’s Hand, yet he does nothing, whilst the krakens spread flame and terror up and down the sunset sea.”

  Ser Maynard gave a shrug. “His eye is fixed on Tyrosh, where Bittersteel sits in exile, plotting with the sons of Daemon Blackfyre. So he keeps the king’s ships close at hand, lest they attempt to cross.”

  “Aye, that may well be,” Ser Kyle said, “but many would welcome the return of Bittersteel. Bloodraven is the root of all our woes, the white worm gnawing at the heart of the realm.”

  Dunk frowned, remembering the hunchbacked septon at Stoney Sept. “Words like that can cost a man his head. Some might say you’re talking treason.”

  “How can the truth be treason?” asked Kyle the Cat. “In King Daeron’s day, a man did not have to fear to speak his mind, but now?” He made a rude noise. “Bloodraven put King Aerys on the Iron Throne, but for how long? Aerys is weak, and when he dies, it will be bloody war between Lord Rivers and Prince Maekar for the crown, the Hand against the heir.”

  “You have forgotten Prince Rhaegel, my friend,” Ser Maynard objected, in a mild tone. “He comes next in line to Aerys, not Maekar, and his children after him.”

  “Rhaegel is feeble-minded. Why, I bear him no ill will, but the man is good as dead, and those twins of his as well, though whether they will die of Maekar’s mace or Bloodraven’s spells…”

  Seven save us, Dunk thought as Egg spoke up shrill and loud. “Prince Maekar is Prince Rhaegel’s brother. He loves him well. He’d never do harm to him or his.”

  “Be quiet, boy,” Dunk growled at him. “These knights want none of your opinions.”

  “I can talk if I want.”

  “No,” said Dunk. “You can’t.” That mouth of yours will get you killed someday. And me as well, most like. “That salt beefs soaked long enough, I think. A strip for all our friends, and be quick about it.”

  Egg flushed, and for half a heartbeat, Dunk feared the boy might talk back. Instead he settled for a sullen look, seething as only a boy of eleven years can seethe. “Aye, ser,” he said, fishing in the bottom of Dunk’s helm. His shaven head shone redly in the firelight as he passed out the salt beef.

  Dunk took his piece and worried at it. The soak had turned the meat from wood to leather, but that was all. He sucked on one corner, tasting the salt and trying not to think about the roast boar at the inn, crackling on its spit and dripping fat.

  As dusk deepened, flies and stinging midges came swarming off the lake. The flies preferred to plague their horses, but the midges had a taste for man flesh. The only way to keep from being bitten was to sit close to the fire, breathing smoke. Cook or be devoured, Dunk thought glumly, now there’s a beggar’s choice. He scratched at his arms and edged closer to the fire.

  The wineskin soon came round again. The wine was sour and strong. Dunk drank deep, and passed along the skin, whilst the Cat of Misty Moor began to talk of how he had saved the life of the Lord of Bitterbridge during the Backfire Rebellion. “When Lord Armond’s banner-bearer fell, I leapt down from my horse with traitors all around us—”

  “Ser,” said Glendon Ball. “Who were these traitors?”

  “The Blackfyre men, I meant.”

  Firelight glimmered off the steel in Ser Glendon’s hand. The pock-marks on his face flamed as red as open sores, and his every sinew was wound as tight as a crossbow. “My father fought for the Black Dragon.”

  This again. Dunk snorted. Red or Black? was not a thing you asked a man. It always made for trouble. “I am sure Ser Kyle meant no insult to your father.”

  “None,” Ser Kyle agreed. “It’s an old tale, the Red Dragon and the Black. No sense for us to fight about it now, lad. We are all brothers of the hedges here.”

  Ser Glendon seemed to weigh the Cat’s words, to see if he was being mocked. “Daemon Blackfyre was no traitor. The old king gave him the sword. He saw the worthiness in Daemon, even though he was born bastard. Why else would he put Blackfyre into his hand in place of Daeron’s? He meant for him to have the kingdom too. Daemon was the better man.”

  A hush fell. Dunk could hear the soft crackle of the fire. He could feel midges crawling on the back of his neck. He slapped at them, watching Egg, willing him to be still. “I was just a boy when they fought the Red-grass Field,” he said, when it seemed that no one else would speak, “but I squired for a knight who fought with the Red Dragon, and later served another who fought for the Black. There were brave men on both sides.”

  “Brave men,” echoed Kyle the Cat, a bit feebly.

  “Heroes.” Glendon Ball turned his shield about, so all of them could see the sigil painted there, a fireball blazing red and yellow across a night-black field. “I come from hero’s blood.”

  “You’re Fireball’s son,” Egg said.

  That was the first time they saw Ser Glendon smile.

  Ser Kyle the Cat studied the boy closely. “How can that be? How old are you? Quentyn Ball died—”

  “—before I was born,” Ser Glendon finished, “but in me, he lives again.” He slammed his sword back into its scabbard. “I’ll show you all at Whitewalls, when I claim the dragon’s egg.”

  * * *

  The next day proved the truth of Ser Kyle’s prophecy. Ned’s ferry was nowise large enough to accomodate all those who wished to cross, so Lords Costayne and Shawney must go first, with their tails. That required several trips, each taking more than an hour. There were the mudflats to contend with, horses and wagons to be gotten down the planks, loaded on the boat, and unloaded again across the lake. The two lords slowed matters even further when they got into a shouting match over precedence. Shawney was the elder, but Costayne held himself to be better born.

  There was nought that Dunk could do but wait and swelter. “We could go first if you let me use my boot,” Egg said.

  “We could,” Dunk answered, “but we won’t. Lord Costayne and Lord Shawney were here before us. Besides, they’re lords.”

  Egg made a face. “Rebel lords.”

  Dunk frowned down at him. “What do you mean?”

  “They were for the Black Dragon. Well, Lord Shawney was, and Lord Costayne’s father. Aemon and I used to fight the battle on Maester Melaquin’s green table with painted soldiers and little banners. Costayne’s arms quarter a silver chalice on black with a black rose on gold. That banner was on the left of Daemon’s host. Shawney was with Bittersteel on the right, and almost died of his wounds.”

  “Old dead history. They’re here now, aren’t they? So they bent the knee, and King Daeron gave them pardon.”

  “Yes, but—”

  Dunk pinched the boy’s lips shut. “Hold your tongue.”

  Egg held his tongue.

  No sooner had the last boatload of Shawney men pushed off than Lord and Lady Smallwood turned up at the landing with their own tail, so they must needs wait again.

  The fellowship of the hedge had not survived the night, it was plain to see. Ser Glendon kept his own company, prickly and sullen. Kyle the Cat judged that it would be midday before they were allowed to board the ferry, so he detached himself from the others to try to ingratiate himself with Lord Smallwood, with whom he had some slight acquaintance. Ser Maynard spent his time gossiping with the innkeep.

  “Stay well away from that one,” Dunk warned Egg. There was something about Plumm that troubled him. “He could be a robber knight, for all we know.”

  The warning only seemed to make Ser Maynard more interesti
ng to Egg. “I never knew a robber knight. Do you think he means to rob the dragon’s egg?”

  “Lord Butterwell will have the egg well guarded, I’m sure.” Dunk scratched the midge bites on his neck. “Do you think he might display it at the feast? I’d like to get a look at one.”

  “I’d show you mine, ser, but it’s at Summerhall.”

  “Yours? Your dragon’s egg?” Dunk frowned down at the boy, wondering if this was some jape. “Where did it come from?”

  “From a dragon, ser. They put it in my cradle.”

  “Do you want a clout in the ear? There are no dragons.”

  “No, but there are eggs. The last dragon left a clutch of five, and they have more on Dragonstone, old ones from before the Dance. My brothers all have them too. Aerion’s looks as though it’s made of gold and silver, with veins of fire running through it. Mine is white and green, all swirly.”

  “Your dragon’s egg.” They put it in his cradle. Dunk was so used to Egg that sometimes he forgot Aegon was a prince. Of course they’d put a dragon egg inside his cradle. “Well, see that you don’t go mentioning this egg where anyone is like to hear.”

  “I’m not stupid, ser.” Egg lowered his voice. “Someday the dragons will return. My brother Daeron’s dreamed of it, and King Aerys read it in a prophecy. Maybe it will be my egg that hatches. That would be splendid.”

  “Would it?” Dunk had his doubts.

  Not Egg. “Aemon and I used to pretend that our eggs would be the ones to hatch. If they did, we could fly through the sky on dragonback, like the first Aegon and his sisters.” “Aye, and if all the other knights in the realm should die, I’d be the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. If these eggs are so bloody precious, why is Lord Butterwell giving his away?”

  “To show the realm how rich he is?”

  “I suppose.” Dunk scratched his neck again and glanced over at Ser Glendon Ball, who was tightening the cinches on his saddle as he waited for the ferry. That horse will never serve. Ser Glendon’s mount was a sway-backed stot, undersized and old. “What do you know about his sire? Why did they call him Fireball?”

  “For his hot head and red hair. Ser Quentyn Ball was the master-at-arms at the Red Keep. He taught my father and my uncles how to fight. The Great Bastards too. King Aegon promised to raise him to the Kingsguard, so Fireball made his wife join the silent sisters, only by the time a place came open, King Aegon was dead and King Daeron named Ser Willam Wylde instead. My father says that it was Fireball as much as Bittersteel who convinced Daemon Blackfyre to claim the crown, and rescued him when Daeron sent the Kingsguard to arrest him. Later on, Fireball killed Lord Lefford at the gates of Lannisport and sent the Grey Lion running back to hide inside the Rock. At the crossing of the Mandel, he cut down the sons of Lady Penrose one by one. They say he spared the life of the youngest one as a kindness to his mother.”

  “That was chivalrous of him,” Dunk had to admit. “Did Ser Quentyn die upon the Redgrass Field?”

  “Before, ser,” Egg replied. “An archer put an arrow through his throat as he dismounted by a stream to have a drink. Just some common man, no one knows who.”

  “Those common men can be dangerous when they get it in their heads to start slaying lords and heroes.” Dunk saw the ferry creeping slowly across the lake. “Here it comes.”

  “It’s slow. Are we going to go to Whitewalls, ser?”

  “Why not? I want to see this dragon’s egg.” Dunk smiled. “If I win the tourney, we’d both have dragon’s eggs.”

  Egg gave him a doubtful look.

  “What? Why are you looking at me that way?”

  “I could tell you, ser,” the boy said solemnly, “but I need to learn to hold my tongue.”

  * * *

  They seated the hedge knights well below the salt, closer to the doors than to the dais.

  Whitewalls was almost new as castles went, having been raised a mere forty years ago by the grandsire of its present lord. The smallfolk hereabouts called it the Milk house, for its walls and keeps and towers were made of finely dressed white stone, quarried in the Vale and brought over the mountains at great expense. Inside were floors and pillars of milky white marble veined with gold; the rafters overhead were carved from the bone-pale trunks of weirwoods. Dunk could not begin to imagine what all of that had cost.

  The hall was not so large as some others he had known, though. At least we were allowed beneath the roof, Dunk thought as he took his place on the bench between Ser Maynard Plumm and Kyle the Cat. Though uninvited, the three of them had been welcomed to the feast quick enough; it was ill luck to refuse a knight hospitality on your wedding day.

  Young Ser Glendon had a harder time, however. “Fireball never had a son,” Dunk heard Lord Butterwell’s steward tell him, loudly. The stripling answered heatedly, and the name of Ser Morgan Dunstable was mentioned several times, but the steward had remained adamant. When Ser Glendon touched his sword hilt, a dozen men-at-arms appeared with spears in hand, but for a moment it looked as though there might be bloodshed. It was only the intervention of a big blond knight named Kirby Pimm that saved the situation. Dunk was too far away to hear, but he saw Pimm clasp an arm around the steward’s shoulders and murmur in his ear, laughing. The steward frowned, and said something to Ser Glendon that turned the boy’s face dark red. He looks as if he’s about to cry, Dunk thought, watching. That, or kill someone. After all of that, the young knight was finally admitted to the castle hall.

  Poor Egg was not so fortunate. “The great hall is for the lords and knights,” an understeward had informed them haughtily when Dunk tried to bring the boy inside. “We have set up tables in the inner yard for squires, grooms, and men-at-arms.”

  If you had an inkling who he was, you would seat him on the dais on a cushioned throne. Dunk had not much liked the look of the other squires. A few were lads of Egg’s own age, but most were older, seasoned fighters who long ago had made the choice to serve a knight rather than become one. Or did they have a choice? Knighthood required more than chivalry and skill at arms; it required horse and sword and armor too, and all of that was costly. “Watch your tongue,” he told Egg before he left him in that company. “These are grown men; they won’t take kindly to your insolence. Sit and eat and listen, might be you’ll learn some things.”

  For his own part, Dunk was just glad to be out of the hot sun, with a wine cup before him and a chance to fill his belly. Even a hedge knight grows weary of chewing every bite of food for half an hour. Down here below the salt, the fare would be more plain than fancy, but there would be no lack of it. Below the salt was good enough for Dunk.

  But peasant’s pride is lordling’s shame, the old man used to say. “This cannot be my proper place,” Ser Glendon Ball told the understeward hotly. He had donned a clean doublet for the feast, a handsome old garment with gold lace at the cuffs and collar and the red chevron and white plates of House Ball sewn across the chest. “Do you know who my father was?”

  “A noble knight and mighty lord, I have no doubt,” said the understeward, “but the same is true of many here. Please take your seat or take your leave, ser. It is all the same to me.”

  In the end, the boy took his place below the salt with the rest of them, his mouth sullen. The long white hall was filling up as more knights crowded onto the benches. The crowd was larger than Dunk had anticipated, and from the looks of it, some of the guests had come a very long way. He and Egg had not been around so many lords and knights since Ashford Meadow, and there was no way to guess who else might turn up next. We should have stayed out in the hedges, sleeping under trees. If I am recognized…

  When a serving man placed a loaf of black bread on the cloth in front of each of them, Dunk was grateful for the distraction. He sawed the loaf open lengthwise, hollowed out the bottom half for a trencher, and ate the top. It was stale, but compared with his salt beef, it was custard. At least it did not have to be soaked in ale or milk or water to make it soft enough to chew.

bsp; “Ser Duncan, you appear to be attracting a deal of attention,” Ser Maynard Plumm observed as Lord Vyrwel and his party went parading past them toward places of high honor at the top of the hall. “Those girls up on the dais cannot seem to take their eyes off you. I’ll wager they have never seen a man so big. Even seated, you are half a head taller than any man in the hall.”

  Dunk hunched his shoulders. He was used to being stared at, but that did not mean he liked it. “Let them look.”

  “That’s the Old Ox down there beneath the dais,” Ser Maynard said. “They call him a huge man, but seems to me his belly is the biggest thing about him. You’re a bloody giant next to him.”

  “Indeed, ser,” said one of their companions on the bench, a sallow man, saturnine, clad in grey and green. His eyes were small and shrewd, set close together beneath thin arching brows. A neat black beard framed his mouth, to make up for his receding hair. “In such a field as this, your size alone should make you one of the most formidable competitors.”

  “I had heard the Brute of Bracken might be coming,” said another man, farther down the bench.

  “I think not,” said the man in green and grey. “This is only a bit of jousting to celebrate His Lordship’s nuptials. A tilt in the yard to mark the tilt between the sheets. Hardly worth the bother for the likes of Otho Bracken.” Ser Kyle the Cat took a drink of wine. “I’ll wager my lord of Butterwell does not take the field either. He will cheer on his champions from his lord’s box in the shade.” “Then he’ll see his champions fall,” boasted Ser Glendon Ball, “and in the end, he’ll hand his egg to me.”

  “Ser Glendon is the son of Fireball,” Ser Kyle explained to the new man. “Might we have the honor of your name, ser?”

  “Ser Uthor Underleaf. The son of no one of importance.” Underleafs garments were of good cloth, clean and well cared for, but simply cut. A silver clasp in the shape of a snail fastened his cloak. “If your lance is the equal of your tongue, Ser Glendon, you may even give this big fellow here a contest.”