A light summer rain was falling as Dunk and Egg took their leave of Stoney Sept.
Dunk rode his old warhorse Thunder, with Egg beside him on the spirited young palfrey he'd named Rain, leading their mule Maester. On Maester's back were bundled Dunk's armor and Egg's books, their bedrolls, tent, and clothing, several slabs of hard salt beef, half a flagon of mead, and two skins of water. Egg's old straw hat, wide-brimmed and floppy, kept the rain off the mule's head. The boy.had cut holes for Maester's ears. Egg's new straw hat was on his own head. Except for the ear holes, the two hats looked much the same to Dunk.
As they neared the town gates, Egg reined up sharply. Up above the gateway a traitor's head had been impaled upon an iron spike. It was fresh from the look of it, the flesh more pink than green, but the carrion crows had already gone to work on it. The dead man's lips and cheeks.were torn and ragged; his eyes were two brown holes weeping slow red tears as raindrops mingled with the crusted blood. The dead man's mouth sagged open, as if to harange travellers passing through the gate below.
Dunk had seen such sights before. "Back in King's Landing when I was a boy, I stole a head right off its spike once," he told Egg. Actually it had been Ferret who scampered up the wall to snatch the head, after Rafe and Pudding said he'd never dare, but when the guards came running he'd tossed it down, and Dunk was the one who'd caught it. "Some rebel lord or robber knight, it was. Or maybe just a common murderer. A head's a head. They all look the same after a few days on a spike.” Him and his three friends had used the head to terrorize the girls of Flea Bottom. They'd chase them through the alleys, and make them give the head a kiss before they'd let them go. That head got kissed a lot, as he recalled. There wasn't a girl in King's Landing who could run as fast as Rafe. Egg was better off not hearing that part, though. Ferret, Rafe, and Pudding. Little monsters, those three, and me the worst of all. His friends and he had kept the head until the flesh turned black and begin to slough away. That took the fun out of chasing girls, so one night they burst into a pot shop and tossed what was left into the kettle. "The crows always go for the eyes," he told Egg. "Then the cheeks cave in, the flesh turns green... " He squinted. "Wait. I know that face."
"You do, ser," said Egg. "Three days ago. The hunchbacked septon we heard preaching against Lord Bloodraven."
He remembered then. He was a holy man sworn to the Seven, even if he did preach treason. "His hands are scarlet with a brother's blood, and the blood of his young nephews too," the hunchback had declared to the crowd that had gathered in the market square. "A shadow came at his command to strangle brave Prince Valarr's sons in their mother's womb. Where is our Young Prince now? Where is his brother, sweet Matarys? Where has Good King Daeron gone, and fearless Baelor Breakspear? The grave has claimed them, every one, yet he endures, this pale bird with bloody beak who perches on King Aerys's shoulder and caws into his ear. The mark of hell is on his face and in his empty eye, and he has brought us drought and pestilence and murder. Rise up, I say, and remember our true king across the water. Seven gods there are, and seven kingdoms, and the Black Dragon sired seven sons! Rise up, my lords and ladies. Rise up, you brave knights and sturdy yeomen, and cast down Bloodraven, that foul sorcerer, lest your children and your children's children be cursed forevermore."
Every word was treason. Even so, it was a shock to see him here, with holes where his eyes had been. "That's him, aye," Dunk said, "and another good reason to put this town behind us.” He gave Thunder a touch of the spur, and he and Egg rode through the gates of Stoney Sept, listening to the soft sound of the rain. How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have? the riddle ran. A thousand eyes, and one. Some claimed the King's Hand was a student of the dark arts who could change his face, put on the likeness of a one-eyed dog, even turn into a mist. Packs of gaunt grey wolves hunted down his foes, men said, and carrion crows spied for him and whispered secrets in his ear. Most of the tales were only tales, Dunk did not doubt, but no one could doubt that Bloodraven had informers everywhere.
He had seen the man once with his own two eyes, back in King's Landing. White as bone were the skin and hair of Brynden Rivers, and his eye -- he only had the one, the other having been lost to his half-brother Bitterstell on the Redgrass Field -- was red as blood. On cheek and neck he bore the winestain birthmark that had given him his name.
When the town was well behind them Dunk cleared his throat and said, "Bad business, cutting off the heads of septons. All he did was talk. Words are wind."
"Some words are wind, ser. Some are treason.” Egg was skinny as a stick, all ribs and elbows, but he did have a mouth.
"Now you sound a proper princeling."
Egg took that for an insult, which it was. "He might have been a septon, but he was preaching lies, ser. The drought wasn't Lord Bloodraven's fault, nor the Great Spring Sickness either."
"Might be that's so, but if we start cutting off the heads of all the fools and liars, half the towns in the Seven Kingdoms will be empty."
* * *
Six days later, the rain was just a memory.
Dunk had stripped off his tunic to enjoy the warmth of sunlight on his skin. When a little breeze came up, cool and fresh and fragrant as a maiden's breath, he sighed. "Water," he announced. "Smell it? The lake can't be far now."
"All I can smell is Maester, ser. He stinks.” Egg gave the mule's lead a savage tug. Maester had stopped to crop at the grass beside the road, as he did from time to time.
"There's an old inn by the lake shore.” Dunk had stopped there once when he was squiring for the old man. "Ser Arlan said they brewed a fine brown ale. Might be we could have a taste while we waited for the ferry."
Egg gave him a hopeful look. "To wash the food down, ser?"
"What food would that be?"
"A slice off the roast?" the boy said. "A bit of duck, a bowl of stew? Whatever they have, ser."
Their last hot meal had been three days ago. Since then, they had been living on windfalls and strips of old salt beef as hard as wood. It would be good to put some real food in our bellies before we started north. That Wall's along way off.
"We could spend the night as well," suggested Egg.
"Does m'lord want a featherbed?"
"Straw will serve me well enough, ser," said Egg, offended.
"We have no coin for beds."
"We have twenty-two pennies, three stars, one stag, and that old chipped garnet, ser."
Dunk scratched at his ear. "I thought we had two silvers.”
"We did, until you bought the tent. Now we have the one."
"We won't have any if we start sleeping at inns. You want to share a bed with some peddler and wake up with his fleas?" Dunk snorted. "Not me. I have my own fleas, and they are not fond of strangers. We'll sleep beneath the stars."
"The stars are good," Egg allowed, "but the ground is hard, ser, and sometimes it's nice to have a pillow for your head.”
"Pillows are for princes.” Egg was as good a squire as a knight could want, but every so often he would get to feeling princely. The lad has dragon blood, never forget. Dunk had beggar's blood himself... or so they used to tell him back in Flea Bottom, when they weren't telling him that he was sure to hang. "Might be we can afford some ale and a hot supper, but I'm not wasting good coin on a bed. We need to save our pennies for the ferryman.” The last time he had crossed the lake, the ferry only cost a few coppers, but that had been six years ago, or maybe seven. Everything had grown more costly since then.
"Well," said Egg, "we could use my boot to get across.”
"We could," said Dunk, ,but we won't.” Using the boot was dangerous. Word would spread. Word always spreads. His squire was not bald by chance. Egg had the purple eyes of old Valyria, and hair that shone like beaten gold and strands of silver woven together. He had as well wear a three-headed dragon as a brooch as let that hair grow out. These were perilous times in Westeros, and...well, it was best to take no chances. "Another word about your bloody boot, and I'll clout you in the ear so hard you'll fly across the lake."
"I'd sooner swim, ser.” Egg swam well, and Dunk did not. The boy turned in the saddle. "Ser? Someone's coming up the road behind us. Hear the horses?"
"I'm not deaf.” Dunk could see their dust as well. "A large party. And in haste.
"Do you think they might be outlaws, ser?" Egg raised up in the stirrups, more eager than afraid. The boy was like that.
"Outlaws would be quieter. Only lords make so much noise.” Dunk rattled his sword hilt to loosen the blade in its scabbard. "Still, we'll get off the road and let them pass. There are lords and lords.” It never hurt to be a little wary. The roads were not as safe as when Good King Daeron sat the Iron Throne.
He and Egg concealed themselves behind a thorn bush. Dunk unslung his shield and slipped it onto his arm. It was an old thing, tall and heavy, kite-shaped, made of pine and rimmed with iron. He had bought it in Stoney Sept to replace the shield the Longinch had hacked to splinters when they fought. Dunk had not had time to have it painted with.his elm and shooting star, so it still bore the arms of its last owner: a hanged man swinging grim and grey beneath a gallows tree. It was not a sigil that he would have chosen for himself, but the shield had come cheap.
The first riders galloped past within moments; two young lordlings mounted on a pair of coursers. The one on the bay wore an open-faced helm of gilded steel with three tall feathered plumes; one white, one red, one gold. Matching plumes adorned his horse's crinet. The black stallion beside him was barded in blue and gold. His trappings rippled with the wind of his passage as he thundered past. Side by side the riders streaked on by, whooping and laughing, their long cloaks streaming behind.
A third lord followed more sedately, at the head of a long column. There were two dozen in the party, grooms and cooks and serving men, all to attend three knights, plus men-at-arms and mounted crossbowmen, and a dozen drays heavy laden with their armor, tents, and provisions. Slung from the lord's saddle was his shield, dark orange and charged with three black castles.
Dunk knew those arms, but from where? The lord who bore them was an older man, sour-mouthed and saturnine, with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He might have been at Ashford Meadow, Dunk thought. Or maybe we served at his castle when I was squiring for Ser Arlan. The old hedge knight had done service at so many different keeps and castles through the years that Dunk could not recall the half of them.
The lord reined up abruptly, scowling at the thorn bush. "You. In the bush. Show yourself.” Behind him two crossbowmen slipped quarrels into the notch. The rest continued on their way.
Dunk stepped through the tall grass, his shield upon his arm, his right hand resting on the pommel of his longsword. His face was a red-brown mask from the dust the horses had kicked up, and he was naked from the waist up. He looked a scruffy sight, he knew, though it was like to be the size of him that gave the other pause. "We want no quarrel,: m'lord. There's only the two of us, me and my squire.” He beckoned Egg forward.
"Squire? Do you claim to be a knight?"
Dunk did not like the way the man was looking at him. Those eyes could flay a man. It seemed prudent to remove his hand from his sword. "I am a hedge knight, seeking service."
"Every robber knight I've ever hanged has said the same. Your device may be prophetic; ser...if ser you are. A gallows and a hanged man. These are your arms?"
"No, m'lord. I need to have the shield repainted.”
"Why? Did you rob it off a corpse?"
"I bought it, for good coin.” Three castles, black on orange... where have I seen those before? "I am no robber."
The lord's eyes were chips of flint. "How did you come by that scar upon your cheek? A cut from a whip?"
"A dagger. Though my face is none of your concern, m'lord."
"I'll be the judge of what is my concern."
By then the two younger knights had come trotting back tosee what had delayed their party. "There you are, Gormy," called the rider on the black, a young man lean and lithe, with a comely clean-shaved face and fine features. Black hair fell shining to his collar. His doublet was made of dark blue silk edged in gold satin. Across his chest an engrailed cross had been embroidered in gold thread, with a golden fiddle in the first and third quarters, a golden sword in the second and the fourth. His eyes caught the deep blue of his doublet, and sparkled with amusement. "Alyn feared you'd fallen from your horse. A palpable excuse, it seems to me, I was about to leave him in my dust."
"Who are these two brigands?" asked the rider on the bay. Egg bristled at the insult: "You have no call to name us brigands, my lord. When we saw your dust we thought you might be outlaws, that's the only reason that we hid. This is Ser Duncan the Tall, and I'm his squire."
The lordlings paid no more heed to that than they would have paid the croaking of a frog. "I believe that is the largest lout that I have ever seen," declared the knight of three feathers. He had a pudgy face beneath a head of curly hair the color of dark honey. "Seven feet if he's an inch, I'd wager. What a mighty crash he'll make when he comes. tumbling down."
Dunk felt color rising to his face. You'd lose your wager, he thought. The last time he had been measured, Egg's brother Aemon pronounced him an inch shy of seven feet.
"Is that your warhorse, Ser Giant?" said the feathered lordling. "I suppose we could butcher it for the meat."
"Lord Alyn oft forgets his courtesies," the black-haired knight said. "Please forgive his churlish words, ser. Alyn, you will ask Ser Duncan for his pardon."
"If I must. Will you forgive me, ser?" He did not wait for reply, but turned his bay about and trotted down the road.
The other lingered. "Are you bound for the wedding, ser?"
Something in his tone made Dunk want to tug his forelock. He resisted the impulse and said, "We're for the ferry, m'lord.”
"As are we...but the only lords hereabouts are Gormy and that wastrel who just left us, Alyn Cockshaw. I am a vagabond hedge knight like yourself. Ser John the Fiddler, I am called.” That was the sort of name a hedge knight might choose, but Dunk had never seen any hedge knight garbed or armed or mounted in such splendor. The knight of the golden hedge, he thought. "You know my name. My squire is called Egg."
"Well met, ser. Come, ride with us to Whitewalls and break a few lances to help Lord Butterwell celebrate his new marriage. I'll wager you could give a good account of yourself."
Dunk had not done any jousting since Ashford Meadow. If I could win a few ransoms, we'd eat well on the ride north, he thought, but the lord with the three castles on his shield said,"Ser Duncan needs to be about his journey, as do we."
John the Fiddler paid the older man no mind. "I would love to cross swords with you, ser. I've tried men of many lands and races, but never one your size. Was your father large as well?"
"I never knew my father, ser."
"I am sad to hear it. Mine own sire was taken from me too soon.” The Fiddler turned to the lord of the three castles. "We should ask Ser Duncan to join our jolly company."
"We do not need his sort."
Dunk was at a loss for words. Penniless hedge knights were not oft asked to ride with highborn lords. I would have more in common with their servants. Judging from the length of their column, Lord Cockshaw and the Fiddler had brought grooms to tend their horses, cooks to feed them, squires to clean their armor, guards to defend them. Dunk had Egg.
"His sort?" The Fiddler laughed. "What sort is that? The big sort? Look at the size of him. We want strong men. Young swords are worth more than old names, I've oft heard it said."
"By fools. You know little and less about this man. He might be a brigand, or one of Lord Bloodraven's spies."
"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 Dorne."
Those flinty eyes considered him. "Down in Dorne 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 oldsoul, he suspects everyone. Gormy, I have a good feeling about this fellow. Ser Duncan, will you come with us to Whitewalls?"
"M'lord, 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 horse back toward the road. "By now Lord Cockshaw is half a league ahead."
"I suppose I must chase him down again.” The Fiddler gave Dunk an apologetic smile. "Perchance we'll meet again some day. 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 devisedhis 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 grey 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, "Butterwell, 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 a while 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 armor. '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 grey 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-andthirty, 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 met 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 only see 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.