Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Today’s entry is Part 1 of “The Hedge Knight: A Tale of the Seven Kingdoms,” which originally appeared in the anthology Legends: Stories By The Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Robert Silverberg.
Previous entries are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual chapters covered and for the chapters previous to them. As for the comments, please note that the Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler thread here on Tor.com. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.
And now, the post!
The Hedge Knight: Part 1
Dunk digs a grave for his old master, Ser Arlan of Pennytree, who had died on their way to a tourney at Ashford Meadow. Dunk is grieved at the old man’s death, but supposes he lived longer than most. He says a few awkward but sincere words over Ser Arlan’s grave, and then debates what to do next. He considers the old man’s armor, but it is all far too small for Dunk, who is near seven feet even at sixteen (or seventeen). At length he takes the old man’s sword and ties it to his waist with rope, and heads to the tourney at Ashford.
He reaches an inn and decides to stop for a meal. He meets a young boy who has no hair and assumes he is the stableboy, and orders him to see to Dunk’s horses. The boy gives him lip in return, and is skeptical of Dunk’s claim to be a knight, but Dunk leaves the horses with him anyway. Inside, he learns from the innkeep that he’s a day’s ride from Ashford. The only other customer in the common room is a young drunken lord, who tells Dunk he dreamed of him, and warns him to stay away from him before stumbling upstairs. The innkeep tells Dunk not to mind the lordling.
After his meal, Dunk returns to the barn to find the boy wearing Arlen’s armor and sitting on Thunder, the warhorse. Dunk laughs at the sight and orders him off. The boy mouths off to him, but obeys, and then asks Dunk to take him along to Ashford as his squire. Dunk considers that the boy surely had a better life here, and refuses. He tries to give the boy a penny, but the boy ignores it and watches him leave, sullenly.
Dunk reaches the tourney grounds and marvels for a bit at the sigils of the great houses there before finding an out-of-the-way spot to make his own camp. He knows he must do well in the tourney to have any hope of finding a place in a noble house. He bathes, thinking of Ser Arlan’s tales of seeing the last dragon (a sickly thing) before it died during the reign of Aegon the Unlucky, and then takes Ser Arlan’s shield with him back to the tourney grounds. He finds an armorer, Steely Pate, who agrees to outfit him for six hundred stags plus Arlan’s old armor. Dunk is dismayed at the price, but gets Pate to agree to hold two silvers in trust for the rest, which Dunk promises to get by the next day. He tells himself all he has to do is win one joust and he will have the funds he needs.
He returns to his campsite to find the boy there, cooking dinner. He orders the boy away, and threatens to haul him home, but the boy replies that he’d need to take him all the way to King’s Landing for that. Dunk is annoyed, but cannot bring himself to beat such a defenseless boy. He sees that the boy has washed his clothes and tended the horses. He asks what happened to the boy’s hair, and the boy answers that the maesters shaved it off. The boy asks for his name, and Dunk lies that “Dunk” is short for “Ser Duncan the Tall.” The boy is skeptical, but tells him his name is “Egg,” which Dunk assumes is a reference to his bald head. He decides to take Egg on as a squire, and tells him so; Egg appears pleased. Dunk sees a shooting star above, and takes it as a sign of luck.
The next morning, he leaves Egg at the camp with threats to hunt him down if he steals or runs off, and hopes he is not being a fool to trust the boy. He goes to the castle to see Plummer, the master of the games, and tells him he was squire to Arlan of Pennytree, who knighted Dunk before he died. Plummer has never heard of Ser Arlan and is skeptical of Dunk’s claim. Dunk tells him Ser Manfred Dondarrion might remember Arlan, and Plummer tells him if Manfred will vouch for Dunk he may enter. He also warns Dunk that if he loses, he will lose his horse and armor to the victor, but Dunk tells him he will not lose.
He goes to the barn, intending to sell the palfrey Sweetfoot to the master of horse, but instead sees the Targaryens arrive in full panoply. One of them, who Dunk thinks might be one of King Daeron’s grandsons, orders Dunk to see to his horse, but Dunk tells him he is a knight. The princeling is skeptical, but then is distracted and leaves. The master of horse arrives, but has no interest in buying Sweetfoot. Dunk introduces himself to two of the Kingsguard accompanying the princes, Ser Roland Crakehall and Ser Donnel of Duskendale, and is relieved to hear they do not intend to enter the lists, though he wonders what he will do if required to face a prince.
A stableman in town buys Sweetfoot for seven hundred and fifty stags, and Dunk gives two coppers to a puppeteer girl he’d seen the day before and liked. He invites her shyly to have a drink with him, but she says she has another show, and Dunk feels like a fool. He watches the other knights training; one of them, Ser Steffon Fossoway, challenges Dunk to a sword duel, but Dunk begs off, to Steffon’s disdain. Embarrassed, Dunk stalks off, but Steffon’s brother Raymun hurries after him to apologize for urging the duel. He asks who Dunk means to strike, and Dunk tells him he will not enter the lists until the third day. Raymun wishes him luck. Dunk hopes that it is not too much to hope for, being named one of the champions of the tourney despite his low origins.
At the camp, Dunk shows Egg the armor he’d gotten for Sweetfoot’s price. Egg points out that the armor is plain, and Dunk replies that’s good enough for him. He thinks the boy is too bold, but he likes that, and promises to take him into town the next day. Egg seems fearful about going into the castle, but Dunk assumes he will get over that in time.
Ser Manfred, it turns out, does not remember Ser Arlan, and has no interest in vouching for Dunk. Despairing, Dunk returns to see Plummer and finds him in the castle’s Great Hall with Lord Ashford and a Targaryen prince, who is arguing about his son Daeron with another man sitting in Ashford’s seat, who he calls his brother. The first prince is angry at Dunk’s intrusion, but his brother bids Dunk to speak. Dunk explains about his situation. The others are ready to dismiss Dunk, but the man in the seat says he remembers Ser Arlan, and that he unhorsed the Grey Lion, who Dunk remembers was Ser Damon Lannister, now Lord of Casterly Rock. The man remarks that Lord Damon is entering the lists the next day.
He recalls breaking four lances against Arlan before defeating him at Storm’s End, and Dunk realizes the man is the crown prince Baelor Breakspear, and falls to his knees in apology. Baelor is unoffended, though. Dunk stammers that Arlan said Baelor was “the soul of chivalry,” and the Seven Kingdoms would be safe in his hands. He further realizes the other prince must be Maekar, the youngest of the king’s sons. Baelor says the decision to let Dunk enter the lists is up to the master of games, but he sees no reason to deny him, and Plummer perforce acquiesces. Maekar kicks him out impatiently then, but first Baelor tells Dunk that as he is not a trueborn son of Arlan’s, he must find another sigil to bear than Arlan’s winged chalice. Dunk promises he will.
Dunk is tempted by a red-haired whore, but resists the notion and goes to find Egg at the puppet show. He goes to the tall puppeteer girl and offers to pay her to paint over Arlan’s chalice on his shield. She asks what he wants painted over it, and Dunk is stumped momentarily, but asks for sunset colors for the field. Egg says the device should be an elm tree. Dunk agrees, but adds that it should have a shooting star above it. The girl says she can have it done by the next day. She introduces herself as Tanselle Too-Tall, and Dunk blurts she is not too tall at all, and blushes.
The next day at breakfast Egg chatters with surprising knowledge about the chances of the various knights in the lists, and Dunk listens attentively. They go to the crowded field to watch the opening competitions, and Dunk remarks to Egg that the dark-haired Baelor does not look much like a Targaryen. Egg says Baelor is said to resemble his mother, a Dornish princess. Two of the five champions are Lord Ashford’s sons Androw and Robert, likely to fall quickly, and Egg points out the third, Lord Leo Tyrell of Highgarden, called Leo Longthorn, and says Dunk will not want to face him; Dunk replies irritably that he doesn’t need Egg’s advice on who to challenge. The fourth champion is Ser Humfrey Hardyng, from the Vale of Arryn, and the fifth is Prince Valarr, Baelor’s son.
The challengers are announced and select their opponents. The Grey Lion chooses Lord Tyrell, and his son Ser Tybolt Lannister chooses Ashford’s oldest son Androw; Lord Tully of Riverrun picks Ser Humfrey Hardyng, Ser Abelar Hightower Prince Valarr, and the younger Ashford, Robert, is called out by Ser Lyonel Baratheon, called the Laughing Storm. All ten of the competitors’ lances are broken on the first pass, to the crowd’s roaring approval. Ser Abelar is unhorsed and dazed on the second pass, and Lord Tully and Ser Humphrey go to swords. The other knights go to a third pass, and the Grey Lion yields to Lord Tyrell as Ser Humphrey beats Lord Tully at the sword.
Androw Ashford loses to Tybolt after three more passes, and Robert lasts for nine broken lances before finally yielding to Ser Lyonel Baratheon; Lord Ashford is pleased that his sons acquitted themselves so well, but Dunk thinks to himself that he must do even better. Three new challengers enter; Ser Pease Caron chooses Lord Tyrell, Ser Joseth Mallister chooses Ser Humfrey, and Ser Gawen Swann chooses Prince Valarr. Egg immediately identifies Gawen as the least dangerous of the three. Gawen is unhorsed on the second pass, and yields, claiming it was well-fought, but Egg complains that it wasn’t; Dunk tells him to be quiet, but thinks he would have a chance against the prince himself.
Egg is cheering on Caron against Lord Tyrell, but Tyrell soon defeats him. The tourney goes on, Leo Tyrell and Lyonel Baratheon doing tremendously, but Dunk is most impressed with Ser Humfrey Hardyng, who defeats fourteen valiant knights. Prince Valarr wins nine victories, but each of them against undistinguished foes; no truly skilled knights ever challenge him. Late in the day Prince Aerion Brightflame, Maekar’s son, enters the lists, and Dunk recognizes him as the man he met at the stables. Egg seems agitated at his appearance. Aerion laughs at Valarr and challenges Ser Humfrey, calling that it is “time [he] faced the dragon.”
As they charge, Egg suddenly shouts “Kill him!”, though Dunk is not sure which knight he’s talking to. Dunk sees that Aerion’s lance is too low, and realizes with horror that he is aiming for Ser Humfrey’s horse instead. The lance pierces the horse in the neck and it goes down; Ser Humfrey tries to leap free, but gets caught in the stirrup, and his leg is crushed between the fence and the falling horse. People rush onto the list to try and free Humfrey from the thrashing, dying horse, but Aerion has to be held back from going for the trapped knight with his sword. Dunk feels sick, and Egg demands to be let down from Dunk’s shoulders. Dunk tells Egg he must be strong in the face of such mishaps, but Egg declares Aerion meant to do it. Dunk thinks so too, but refuses to admit it out loud.
The tourney is over for the day after that. Ser Raymun Fossoway finds Dunk and Egg on the merchants’ row with the news that Humfrey was declared the victor of the last joust, but will be unable to continue with his leg broken in two places, and that rather than replace him, the tourney will continue with four champions instead of five. Dunk thinks that he has no chance against Leo Tyrell, Lyonel Baratheon, or Tybolt Lannister, but that surely a hedge knight could not challenge a prince. He asks Raymun who his brother Steffon means to challenge, and Raymun says Tybolt, unless another knight shows weakness first, Steffon not suffering from an excess of chivalry. He invites Dunk for a drink, which Dunk reluctantly accepts after Egg maneuvers him into it.
At the Fossoway pavilion, Raymun comments that Aerion is in a rage that Humfrey was named the winner of the match, but bets it was Baelor who advised the decision. Dunk says Prince Baelor is an honorable man, and Raymun laughs that it is no secret that Aerion is “a bad piece of work,” and is grateful he is so far down the line of succession. He opines that Aerion would not have aimed for the horse if his father Maekar were watching, but Maekar has left Ashford to search for his son Daeron the Drunken, along with his youngest son. Raymun pities Maekar, always overshadowed by his brothers, and now his own sons as well: Daeron is a sot, Aerion vain and cruel, his third “so unpromising they gave him to the Citadel to make a maester of him”… Before he gets to the fourth son, Egg bursts in to tell Dunk that Aerion is hurting the puppet girl Tanselle.
Raymun cautions Dunk about engaging the prince, but Dunk runs after Egg anyway to the puppet show, where Aerion is manhandling Tanselle while his men-at-arms wreck the stage. Dunk sees Aerion break one of Tanselle’s fingers, and Dunk strides up, grabs Aerion and punches him so hard he goes down. He kicks the prince twice more before the prince’s men haul him off and pin him. Aerion gets up, and asks why Dunk threw his life away for “this whore,” who he calls a traitor, and calls for a hammer to break all of Dunk’s teeth with before he disembowels him. Then Egg calls out for them not to hurt Dunk. Dunk tells him to shut up and run or they’ll hurt him. Egg says they won’t, or they’ll answer to his father and his uncle. To Dunk’s confusion, the men-at-arms back off.
“Impudent little wretch,” [Prince Aerion] said to Egg, spitting a mouthful of blood at the boy’s feet. “What happened to your hair?”
“I cut it off, brother,” said Egg. “I didn’t want to look like you.”
Okay, so, just for the record, I TOTALLY CALLED that Egg was a Targaryen, way before this last moment. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but I totally did.
I knew pretty much from the moment we met him that he was going to turn out to be More Than He Seemed, but at first I figured he was probably just some random noble’s son. Somewhere around where Martin kept mentioning the trademark Targaryen hair, though, was where I suspected he was more like a random royal son, and his reaction to Aerion at the tourney clinched it. If I had Aerion for a brother I’d want someone to kill him too.
So is he Maekar’s third son, or fourth? They said something about the third son going to the maesters, and Egg told Dunk that maesters shaved his head, but that was obviously a lie anyway, so he could be the fourth son. That makes more sense anyway, since Maekar was off searching for Daeron the Drunken (his first son), and his youngest son, and Daeron and Egg were at the inn together before Egg followed Dunk to Ashford.
Because Daeron, of course, is obviously the drunk lord Dunk ran into at the inn on the way to Ashford. I have no idea what’s up with the dreaming thing, though. I note, however, that if I had presumably accurate prophetic dreams all the time, I might be driven to drink too.
Yeah, and if I had these gems for a family? I might run away too. Egg looks to be the only undamaged twig on this particular branch of the Targaryen tree.
That is such a thing with that family, too, isn’t it? They don’t appear to do anything by halves. Either they’re amazing and brilliant people, like Daenerys or Baelor or (I suspect) Egg, or they’re complete fucking nightmares.
Case in point, the delightful Aerion, who appears to be gunning for Viserys’s position as On-Screen Targaryen I’ve Liked Least So Far. Not that he’s taken the prize, but it’s early yet. Crippling a knight for, apparently, the LOLZ is a grand start, though! Ugh.
Anyway. Dunk is a pretty great protagonist, I think. He’s got a lot of flavors of young untried hero characters we’ve all seen before, but he is refreshingly himself as well, and his genuine (if unpolished) grief for his mentor gains the reader’s sympathy for him right away. I like him and I want him to win, and that’s just about what you need in a protagonist.
You can already tell he and Egg would make a great team—literally brawn and brains—assuming Egg doesn’t have to go back to his family after this. And assuming Dunk doesn’t get executed for assaulting a prince, of course, but I feel fairly safe in predicting that that’s not going to happen.
What is Egg’s real name, I wonder? No doubt I’ll find out. No bets on whether it’s going to have an “ae” grapheme in it. Which, by the way, I persist in pronouncing “ay-ee” in my head even though I know that’s wrong. However, it is very helpful for remembering how to spell Targaryen names, so I deem it useful even if incorrect.
(Which means yes, I mentally pronounce “Daenerys” as “Day-ee-NER-iss,” even though I’m sure it’s supposed to be only three syllables, as in “Day-NER-iss.” One day I’ll get to watch the TV series and see how they pronounce all the names, and probably be very discombobulated as a result.)
Poor Tanselle, though. Is it terrible that I hoped that she’d already finished Dunk’s shield before Aerion broke her finger? Yeah, I think that’s kind of terrible, but it honestly was the first thing that popped into my mind! *hangs head*
On a random note, for some reason, “Steely Pate” is the most hilarious name for an armorer ever. Not that I was even aware there was a contest for that particular prize, but if there were, this guy would totally win it. “Steely Pate.” Ha!
More generally, I’m really liking this story so far. It has what satellite stories for larger series generally always have: a comfortable sense of familiarity with the world and cultural traditions built by the series proper, while still being something new and different within that framework.
And, additionally, without the pressure or tension of the ongoing storylines in the main series. After the combine harvester that was ASOS, a relatively simple story about a dude trying to win a joust is a refreshing break. Granted, even here Martin cannot resist layering on politics and rivalries and history swirling around (mostly) above Dunk’s head, but it wouldn’t be ASOIAF if it didn’t have that. And I won’t deny I got a little thrill at recognizing the various Houses and ancestors of characters I know from the series proper, as well as anticipation to see who else might turn up in the course of the story. (Will I get a Stark? I wonder!)
So kudos to everyone who thought I should read this before AFFC. I am having fun with it (though it turned out to be really hard to summarize), and am eager to see how it turns out!
But that will not happen until next Thursday, my chickies! See you then!