It is too hot for cheering. Dunk mopped sweat from his brow. It is too hot for jousting. His head was beating like a drum. Let me win this tilt and one more, and I will he content.

  The knights wheeled their horses about at the end of the lists and tossed down the jagged remains of their lances, the fourth pair they had broken. Three too many. Dunk had put off donning his armor as long as he dared, yet already he could feel his smallclothes sticking to his skin beneath his steel. There are worse things than being soaked with sweat, he told himself, remembering the fight on the White Lady, when the ironmen had come swarming over her side. He had been soaked in blood by the time that day was done.

  Fresh lances in hand, Paege and Frey put their spurs into their mounts once again. Clods of cracked dry earth sprayed back from beneath their horses’ hooves with every stride. The crack of the lances breaking made Dunk wince. Too much wine last night, and too much food. He had some vague memory of carrying the bride up the steps, and meeting John the Fiddler and Lord Peake upon a roof. What was I doing on a roof? There had been talk of dragons, he recalled, or dragon’s eggs, or something, but—

  A noise broke his reverie, part roar and part moan. Dunk saw the golden horse trotting riderless to the end of the lists, as Ser Harbert Paege rolled feebly on the ground. Two more before my turn. The sooner he unhorsed Ser Uthor, the sooner he could take his armor off, have a cool drink, and rest. He should have at least an hour before they called him forth again.

  Lord Butterwell’s portly herald climbed to the top of the viewing stand to summon the next pair of jousters. “Ser Argrave the Defiant,” he called, “a knight of Nunny, in service to Lord Butterwell of Whitewalls. Ser Glendon Flowers, the Knight of the Pussy willows. Come forth and prove your valor.” A gale of laughter rippled through the viewing stands.

  Ser Argrave was a spare, leathery man, a seasoned household knight in dinted gray armor riding an unbarded horse. Dunk had known his sort before; such men were tough as old roots, and knew their business. His foe was young Ser Glendon, mounted on his wretched stot and armored in a heavy mail hauberk and open-faced iron halfhelm. On his arm his shield displayed his father’s fiery sigil. He needs a breastplate and a proper helm, Dunk thought. A blow to the head or chest could kill him, clad like that.

  Ser Glendon was plainly furious at his introduction. He wheeled his mount in an angry circle and shouted, “I am Glendon Ball, not Glendon Flowers. Mock me at your peril, herald. I warn you, I have hero’s blood.” The herald did not deign to reply, but more laughter greeted the young knight’s protest. “Why are they laughing at him?” Dunk wondered aloud. “Is he a bastard, then?” Flowers was the surname given to bastards born of noble parents in the Reach. “And what was all that about pussywillows?”

  “I could find out, ser,” said Egg.

  “No. It is none of our concern. Do you have my helm?” Ser Argrave and Ser Glendon dipped their lances before Lord and Lady Butterwell. Dunk saw Butterwell lean over and whisper something in his bride’s ear. The girl began to giggle.

  “Yes, ser.” Egg had donned his floppy hat, to shade his eyes and keep the sun off his shaved head. Dunk liked to tease the boy about that hat, but just now he wished he had one like it. Better a straw hat than an iron one, beneath this sun. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, eased the greathelm down into place with two hands, and fastened it to his gorget. The lining stank of old sweat, and he could feel the weight of all that iron on his neck and shoulders. His head throbbed from last night’s wine.

  “Ser,” Egg said, “it is not too late to withdraw. If you lose Thunder and your armor…”

  I would be done as a knight. “Why should I lose?” Dunk demanded. Ser Argrave and Ser Glendon had ridden to opposite ends of the lists. “It is not as if I faced the Laughing Storm. Is there some knight here like to give me trouble?”

  “Almost all of them, ser.”

  “I owe you a clout in the ear for that. Ser Uthor is ten years my senior and half my size.” Ser Argrave lowered his visor. Ser Glendon did not have a visor to lower.

  “You have not ridden in a tilt since Ashford Meadow, ser.”

  Insolent boy. “I’ve trained.” Not so faithfully as he might have, to be sure. When he could, he took his turn riding at quintains or rings, where such were available. And sometimes he would command Egg to climb a tree and hang a shield or barrel stave beneath a well-placed limb for them to tilt at.

  “You’re better with a sword than with a lance,” Egg said. “With an axe or a mace, there’s few to match your strength.”

  There was enough truth in that to annoy Dunk all the more. “There is no contest for swords or maces,” he pointed out, as Fireball’s son and Ser Argrave the Defiant began their charge. “Go get my shield.” Egg made a face, then went to fetch the shield.

  Across the yard, Ser Argrave’s lance struck Ser Glendon’s shield and glanced off, leaving a gouge across the comet. But Ball’s coronal found the center of his foe’s breastplate with such force that it burst his saddle cinch. Knight and saddle both went tumbling to the dust. Dunk was impressed despite himself. The boy jousts almost as well as he talks. He wondered if that would stop them laughing at him.

  A trumpet rang, loud enough to make Dunk wince. Once more the herald climbed his stand. “Ser Jay of House Caswell, Lord of Bitterbridge and Defender of the Fords. Ser Kyle, the Cat of Misty Moor. Come forth and prove your valor.”

  Ser Kyle’s armor was of good quality, but old and worn, with many dints and scratches. “The Mother has been merciful to me, Ser Duncan,” he told Dunk and Egg, on his way to the lists. “I am sent against Lord Caswell, the very man I came to see.”

  If any man upon the field felt worse than Dunk this morning, it had to be Lord Caswell, who had drunk himself insensible at the feast. “It’s a wonder he can sit a horse, after last night,” said Dunk. “The victory is yours, ser.”

  “Oh, no.” Ser Kyle smiled a silken smile. “The cat who wants his bowl of cream must know when to purr and when to show his claws, Ser Duncan. If His Lordship’s lance so much as scrapes against my shield, I shall go tumbling to the earth. Afterwards, when I bring my horse and armor to him, I will compliment His Lordship on how much his prowess has grown since I made him his first sword. That will recall me to him, and before the day is out, I shall be a Caswell man again, a knight of Bitter-bridge.”

  There is no honor in that, Dunk almost said, but he bit his tongue instead. Ser Kyle would not be the first hedge knight to trade his honor for a warm place by the fire. “As you say,” he muttered. “Good fortune to you. Or bad, if you prefer.”

  Lord Joffrey Caswell was a weedy youth of twenty, though admittedly he looked rather more impressive in his armor than he had last night when he’d been face down in a puddle of wine. A yellow centaur was painted on his shield, pulling on a longbow. The same centaur adorned the white silk trappings of his horse, and gleamed atop his helm in yellow gold. A man who has a centaur for his sigil should ride better than that. Dunk did not know how well Ser Kyle wielded a lance, but from the way Lord Caswell sat his horse, it looked as though a loud cough might unseat him. All the Cat need do is ride past him very fast.

  Egg held Thunder’s bridle as Dunk swung himself ponderously up into the high, stiff saddle. As he sat there waiting, he could feel the eyes upon him. They are wondering if the big hedge knight is any good. Dunk wondered that himself. He would find out soon enough.

  The Cat of Misty Moor was true to his word. Lord Caswell’s lance was wobbling all the way across the field, and Ser Kyle’s was ill-aimed. Neither man got his horse up past a trot. All the same, the Cat went tumbling when Lord Joffrey’s coronal chanced to whack his shoulder. I thought all cats landed gracefully upon their feet, Dunk thought as the hedge knight rolled in the dust. Lord Caswell’s lance remained unbroken. As he brought his horse around, he thrust it high into the air repeatedly, as if he’d just unseated Leo Longthorn or the Laughing Storm. The Cat pulled off his helm and went chasing down his horse

  “My shield,” Dunk said to Egg. The boy handed it up. He slipped his left arm through the strap and closed his hand around the grip. The weight of the kite shield was reassuring, though its length made it awkward to handle, and seeing the hanged man once again gave him an uneasy feeling. Those are ill-omened arms. He resolved to get the shield repainted as soon as he could. May the Warrior grant me a smooth course and a quick victory, he prayed as Butterwell’s herald was clambering up the steps once more. “Ser Uthor Underleaf,” his voice rang out. “The Gallows Knight. Come forth and prove your valor.”

  “Be careful, ser,” Egg warned as he handed Dunk a tourney lance, a tapered wooden shaft twelve feet long ending in a rounded iron coronal in the shape of a closed fist. “The other squires say Ser Uthor has a good seat. And he’s quick.

  “Quick?” Dunk snorted. “He has a snail on his shield. How quick can he be?” He put his heels into Thunder’s flanks and walked the horse slowly forward, his lance upright. One victory, and I am no worse than before. Two will leave us well ahead. Two is not too much to hope for, in this company. He had been fortunate in the lots, at least. He could as easily have drawn the Old Ox or Ser Kirby Pimm or some other local hero. Dunk wondered if the master of games was deliberately matching the hedge knights against each other, so no lordling need suffer the ignominy of losing to one in the first round. It does not matter. One foe at a time, that was what the old man always said. Ser Uthor is all that should concern me now.

  They met beneath the viewing stand where Lord and Lady Butterwell sat on their cushions in the shade of the castle walls. Lord Frey was beside them, dandling his snot-nosed son on one knee. A row of serving girls was fanning them, yet Lord Butterwell’s damask tunic was stained beneath the arms, and his lady’s hair was limp from perspiration. She looked hot, bored, and uncomfortable, but when she saw Dunk, she pushed out her chest in a way that turned him red beneath his helm. He dipped his lance to her and her lord husband. Ser Uthor did the same. Butterwell wished them both a good tilt. His wife stuck out her tongue.

  It was time. Dunk trotted back to the south end of the lists. Eighty feet away, his opponent was taking up his position as well. His grey stallion was smaller than Thunder, but younger and more spirited. Ser Uthor wore green enamel plate and silvery chain mail. Streamers of green and grey silk flowed from his rounded bascinet, and his green shield bore a silver snail. Good armor and a good horse means a good ransom, if I unseat him.

  A trumpet sounded.

  Thunder started forward at a slow trot. Dunk swung his lance to the left and brought it down, so it angled across the horse’s head and the wooden barrier between him and his foe. His shield protected the left side of his body. He crouched forward, legs tightening as Thunder drove down the lists. We are one. Man, horse, lance, we are one beast of blood and wood and iron.

  Ser Uthor was charging hard, clouds of dust kicking up from the hooves of his grey. With forty yards between them, Dunk spurred Thunder to a gallop and aimed the point of his lance squarely at the silver snail. The sullen sun, the dust, the heat, the castle, Lord Butterwell and his bride, the Fiddler and Ser Maynard, knights, squires, grooms, smallfolk, all vanished. Only the foe remained. The spurs again. Thunder broke into a run. The snail was rushing toward them, growing with every stride of the grey’s long legs…but ahead came Ser Uthor’s lance with its iron fist. My shield is strong; my shield will take the blow. Only the snail matters. Strike the snail, and the tilt is mine.

  When ten yards remained between them, Ser Uthor shifted the point of his lance upward.

  A crack rang in Dunk’s ears as his lance hit. He felt the impact in his arm and shoulder, but never saw the blow strike home. Uthor’s iron fist took him square between his eyes, with all the force of man and horse behind it.

  * * *

  Dunk woke upon his back, staring up at the arches of a barrel-vaulted ceiling. For a moment he did not know where he was, or how he had arrived there. Voices echoed in his head, and faces drifted past him — old Ser Arlan, Tanselle Too-Tall, Bennis of the Brown Shield, the Red Widow, Baelor Breakspear, Aerion the Bright Prince, mad sad Lady Vaith. Then all at once, the joust came back to him: the heat, the snail, the iron fist coming at his face. He groaned, and rolled onto one elbow. The movement set his skull to pounding like some monstrous war drum.

  Both his eyes seemed to be working, at least. Nor could he feel a hole in his head, which was all to the good. He was in some cellar, he saw, with casks of wine and ale on every side. At least it is cool here, he thought, and drink is close at hand. The taste of blood was in his mouth. Dunk felt a stab of fear. If he had bitten off his tongue, he would be dumb as well as thick. “Good morrow,” he croaked, just to hear his voice. The words echoed off the ceiling. Dunk tried to push himself onto his feet, but the effort set the cellar spinning.

  “Slowly, slowly,” said a quavery voice, close at hand. A stooped old man appeared beside the bed, clad in robes as grey as his long hair. About his neck was a maester’s chain of many metals. His face was aged and lined, with deep creases on either side of a great beak of a nose. “Be still, and let me see your eyes.” He peered in Dunk’s left eye, and then the right, holding them open between his thumb and forefinger.

  “My head hurts.”

  The maester snorted. “Be grateful it still rests upon your shoulders, ser. Here, this may help somewhat. Drink.”

  Dunk made himself swallow every drop of the foul potion, and managed not to spit it out. The tourney,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Tell me. What’s happened?”

  “The same foolishness that always happens in these affrays. Men have been knocking each other off horses with sticks. Lord Smallwood’s nephew broke his wrist and Ser Eden Risley’s leg was crushed beneath his horse, but no one has been killed thus far. Though I had my fears for you, ser.”

  “Was I unhorsed?” His head still felt as though it were stuffed full of wool, else he would never have asked such a stupid question. Dunk regretted it the instant the words were out.

  “With a crash that shook the highest ramparts. Those who had wagered good coin on you were most distraught, and your squire was beside himself. He would be sitting with you still if I had not chased him off. I need no children underfoot. I reminded him of his duty.”

  Dunk found that he needed reminding himself. “What duty?”

  “Your mount, ser. Your arms and armor.”

  “Yes,” Dunk said, remembering. The boy was a good squire; he knew what was required of him. I have lost the old man’s sword and the armor that Steely Pate forged for me.

  “Your fiddling friend was also asking after you. He told me you were to have the best of care. I threw him out as well.”

  “How long have you been tending me?” Dunk flexed the fingers of his sword hand. All of them still seemed to work. Only my head’s hurt, and Ser Arlan used to say I never used that anyway. “Four hours, by the sundial.”

  Four hours was not so bad. He had once heard tale of a knight struck so hard that he slept for forty years, and woke to find himself old and withered. “Do you know if Ser Uthor won his second tilt?” Maybe the Snail would win the tourney. It would take some sting from the defeat if Dunk could tell himself that he had lost to the best knight in the field.

  “That one? Indeed he did. Against Ser Addam Frey, a cousin to the bride, and a promising young lance. Her Ladyship fainted when Ser Addam fell. She had to be helped back to her chambers.”

  Dunk forced himself to his feet, reeling as he rose, but the maester helped to steady him. “Where are my clothes? I must go. I have to…I must…”

  “If you cannot recall, it cannot be so very urgent.” The maester made an irritated motion. “I would suggest that you avoid rich foods, strong drink, and further blows between your eyes…but I learned long ago that knights are deaf to sense. Go, go. I have other fools to tend.”

  * * *

  Outside, Dunk glimpsed a hawk soaring in wide circles through the brig
ht blue sky. He envied him. A few clouds were gathering to the east, dark as Dunk’s mood. As he found his way back to the tilting ground, the sun beat down on his head like a hammer on an anvil. The earth seemed to move beneath his feet…or it might just be that he was swaying. He had almost fallen twice climbing the cellar steps. I should have heeded Egg.

  He made his slow way across the outer ward, around the fringes of the crowd. Out on the field, plump Lord Alyn Cockshaw was limping off between two squires, the latest conquest of young Glendon Ball. A third squire held his helm, its three proud feathers broken. “Ser John the Fiddler,” the herald cried. “Ser Franklyn of House Frey, a knight of the Twins, sworn to the Lord of the Crossing. Come forth and prove your valor.”

  Dunk could only stand and watch as the Fiddler’s big black trotted onto the field in a swirl of blue silk and golden swords and fiddles. His breastplate was enameled blue as well, as were his poleyns, couter, greaves, and gorget. The ringmail underneath was gilded. Ser Franklyn rode a dapple grey with a flowing silver mane, to match the grey of his silks and the silver of his armor. On shield and surcoat and horse trappings he bore the twin towers of Frey. They charged and charged again. Dunk stood watching, but saw none of it. Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall, he chided himself. He had a snail upon his shield. How could you lose to a man with a snail upon his shield?

  There was cheering all around him. When Dunk looked up, he saw that Franklyn Frey was down. The Fiddler had dismounted, to help his fallen foe back to his feet. He is one step closer to his dragon’s egg, Dunk thought, and where am I?

  As he approached the postern gate, Dunk came upon the company of dwarfs from last night’s feast preparing to take their leave. They were hitching ponies to their wheeled wooden pig, and a second wayn of more conventional design. There were six of them, he saw, each smaller and more malformed than the last. A few might have been children, but they were all so short that it was hard to tell. In daylight, dressed in horsehide breeches and roughspun hooded cloaks, they seemed less jolly than they had in motley. “Good morrow to you,” Dunk said, to be courteous. “Are you for the road? There’s clouds to the east, could mean rain.”