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 Sworn Sword: A Tale of the Seven Kingdoms,” which originally appeared in the anthology Legends II: New Short Novels 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!
Scheduling note: The holidaze doth be upon us, citizens! And thus it is that this is the last ROIAF post of 2013, as your Auntie Leigh intends to be in a very debilitating holiday way from here until January-ish. So it shall be that the Read will resume on Thursday, January 9th, and not before. Whoo hoo!
The Sworn Sword: Part 1
Dunk and Egg find two dead men crammed into a cage at a crossroads on their way back to Steadfast, where Dunk is in service to Ser Eustace Osgrey. Egg opines that the men must have done something bad to deserve to die like that, but Dunk tells him some lords dole out such punishment for the pettiest of crimes. Egg has romantic notions of gallant outlaws, but Dunk doesn’t think any of the ones he’s met were particularly gallant. The punishing drought this summer has driven many from their lords’ lands, despite the exhortations of King Aerys and his sorcerer Lord Bloodraven for them to return home. Dunk remembers seeing Bloodraven once in King’s Landing, and shivers at the memory that the sorcerer had looked back at him.
The unsavory Ser Bennis of the Brown Shield, who refers to Ser Eustace as “Ser Useless” and refuses to call Dunk “Ser Duncan,” meets them. Dunk tells him they had to go further than expected for the wine, as the krakens raided Little Dosk. Egg interrupts to point out that the water under the bridge is gone, and Dunk wonders what will happen to the crops now. He tells Egg to go on to the keep with the wine while he investigates what happened to the stream. Bennis mocks him, but then decides to come along. Bennis warns Dunk to avoid the left bank, which is where the lands of the Lady Webber of the Coldmoat, also called The Red Widow, begin.
Half a league upstream, they find the stream has been dammed and the water diverted into Webber lands. Bennis opines this will end in blood, and they accost the ditch diggers and demand they dismantle the dam. The diggers refuse, and Bennis gets aggressive, slicing one of the men’s faces open. Angry at Bennis, Dunk commands them to run, and tell their lady they meant no harm, but only want their water back.
Heading back, Bennis opines both that they should have killed all the diggers, and that they should have lied to Ser Eustace about why the stream dried up in the first place. Dunk replies that a sworn sword owes his lord the truth, and Bennis mocks that, as well as his proprietary language re: the smallfolk, asking if Dunk’s been made Eustace’s heir. Dunk reflects that Bennis may have ridden with Ser Arlan once, but he has grown “mean and false and craven.”
They meet Egg back at the hold, and Dunk makes Egg take Bennis’s horse too, even though Bennis spits on Egg in return for the courtesy. They find Eustace polishing a decrepit shield, which he tells them is the shield of his ancestor Ser Wilbert Osgrey, called the Little Lion, who killed King Lancel Lannister and turned his army back from taking the Reach. Dunk and Bennis tell him about the dam, and Eustace declares the insult cannot be borne. Bennis points out that they don’t have the manpower to dismantle it or to defend themselves while doing so.
When he hears what Bennis did to the digger, Eustace warns him that Lady Webber has “a spider’s heart,” and is said to have killed all her siblings as well as three husbands, and will surely come after Bennis for the insult, as she came for “Lem.” Bennis corrects him to say he meant “Dake,” referring to the man she’d had tied in a sack and drowned. Dunk suggests that they go to Lord Rowan, Eustace and Lady Webber’s mutual liege-lord, but Eustace says Rowan will be no help, and tells Dunk he must go to the villages and round up all the able-bodied men to help them.
After delivering Eustace’s message to the unenthused villagers the next day, Dunk asks Egg if Egg is angry about yesterday. Egg replies that he is Dunk’s squire, not Bennis’s, who is mean and pinches him. He says that Bennis has never even bothered to name his horse; Dunk replies that that is a common practice, to avoid becoming too attached to the beast if it dies, but remembers that Arlan used to name his horses anyway. Dunk remembers that Bennis used to pinch Dunk too, and tells Egg to tell him if it happens again. Egg is indignant to learn he will be expected to help train the smallfolk as well, but Dunk admonishes him that Egg would be just as at a loss in their village life as they would be in court life, and that he should treat them with respect. Egg considers this.
The eight villagers they wind up with the next day are a rather poor lot, and Bennis sneers and insults (and pinches) them before taking them to cut spears and tutor them in their use. Egg suggests giving them last names to keep them separate (many of them having the same name), and the villagers are thrilled to be given “lord’s names.” Eustace gives them a speech, and they train the villagers as best they can for the rest of the day. After, Dunk forces them all to take baths, and after they eat and go to bed, Bennis crudely opines they’ll stand no chance against actual knights.
Egg is disturbed by the paucity of the villagers’ ability to defend themselves, either in training or equipment. Dunk tells him that’s how war is, but Egg insists this is “smaller and stupider” than real war. He is dismayed that they have given the villagers names now. He suggests using his “boot,” but Dunk refuses, and reminds Egg of his father’s instructions to keep his identity secret except in dire need. Dunk reflects that Egg has been a good companion for over a year, and Dunk thinks of him almost as a younger brother, but reminds himself that Egg is not his brother, but a dragon prince. He bathes and goes up to the roof to sleep. He remembers Ashford and how he’d thought a falling star meant luck, but thinks it didn’t turn out that way for him there, and hopes no stars fall that night.
Dunk dreams that he is digging a grave for his horse Chestnut in the desert, weeping, while Dornish knights mock him. Ser Arlan and Prince Baelor are there, asking why he never wept for them, and Prince Valarr (who died in the Great Spring Sickness) berates him for getting his father Baelor killed, when he could have been the greatest king since Aegon the Dragon. Egg is helping Dunk dig, but the sand keeps slipping back. Then he sees the villagers, all sporting mortal wounds, and Bennis laughs at him that he has more graves to dig, for the villagers and himself and the bald boy too. Dunk shouts at Egg to run, but the grave collapses upon itself, burying them both.
Well, that’s not ominous or anything.
So this story is interesting, in the way that it sort of isn’t interesting—at least so far. By which I mean that Egg, for all his unconscious privileged arrogance, really does have a point about how fundamentally petty and stupid and pointless this is—people fighting and dying over the provenance of a stream. It’s not a kingdom or a city or anything that will have any real impact at all in the larger scheme of things, and it seems obscene, almost, that there will be blood shed over it. And yet, upon which where that stupid little stream goes depends the livelihoods and probably even the actual lives of the people who use it; to them, it means everything, even if it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. The importance of a thing, we should frequently be reminded, is an extremely relative concept.
And it is the instinctive recognition of this fact, I think, that sets Dunk up to be a hero, and a knight in the truer sense of that word. Because he gets that relativity of importance, without having to articulate or reason it; he intuitively understands why this stupid little stream is important, even if larger forces may not care about it, something that neither Bennis nor Egg really get.
The difference between Bennis and Egg, of course, is that Egg’s lack of understanding is due to ignorance (something Dunk is already nudging him toward correcting), whereas Bennis’s lack is due to the fact that he just doesn’t give a shit. The former can be remedied; the latter, not so much.
This is connected to the larger theme of the story (at least thus far), which is about naming. Dunk tells Egg that knights frequently fail to name their horses, so as to lessen the grief if/when the horses are killed, but reflects that Arlan (who is obviously meant to represent the epitome of an exemplary hedge knight) always named his horses anyway. And that’s about the crux of it, I think. Naming a horse (or a person) gives them significance, meaning; it means that they are individuals, worthy of mourning as such, but more importantly, worthy of protecting as such. Egg did more than he knew when he suggested surnames to differentiate the villagers, and his later regret over the notion means he obviously realizes that fact.
But it is so much better, I think, to have the regret of naming a person, and granting them the dignity of personhood, and perhaps having to mourn them later, than taking the much more comfortable path of pretending that they never were people at all. Because that way lies atrocity, and no two ways about it.
I am extremely curious, by the way, about this Lady Webber, and whether she will turn out to be the terrible vicious predator she has thus far been made out to be or… not. Going by previous experience, the truth of the matter will be a tad more complicated than “yes, she is evil,” but still, it’s a little hard to explain away killing your own siblings AND three husbands as anything but, well, evil. We Shall See.
In other, more random notes:
It probably says… something that I read the opening line, “In an iron cage at the crossroads, two dead men were rotting in the summer sun,” and thought, well of course there are. Because this is ASOIAF, dontcha know!
“The Day They Hanged Black Robin”: is apparently a song about noble outlaws in Westeros, but the first thing it made me think of was the old (and disturbing) nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” (Which, Google informs me, was later adapted into an even more disturbing 1935 Disney cartoon, which somehow managed to cram jaw-droppingly blatant racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic caricatures in with depictions of egregious police brutality, a kangaroo court, proposed lynchings, and an on-screen apparent murder, into eight minutes of what is supposed to be children’s entertainment. Holy crap. Were they going down a checklist or what? I mean, the only thing missing is a fat joke. Sheesh. “Values Dissonance,” indeed.) (Don’t click that.)
ANYWAY. I don’t know if the reference was intended or not, but my brain produced it, and thus I inflict it on you in turn. BECAUSE IF I HAVE TO SUFFER SO DO YOU. Neener!
King Aerys? I get that Valarr died, but I totally missed that there was an Aerys in the succession in this generation. I probably just wasn’t paying enough attention. It’s still a rotten shame that Baelor didn’t get to take the throne, though. Which is something Dunk is apparently feeling quite a bit of guilt about, judging by his dream. Which is something I don’t blame him for even as I don’t agree that he was responsible for it happening. Nobody forced Baelor into that trial, man. That was on him.
But still, a shame.
Also: “Lord Bloodraven?”
Wow. I think that was a Penny Arcade joke back in the day.
Aw, and his men are called “Raven’s Teeth,” that’s adorable.
Well, and I’m sure that he’s not going to be significant in any way to this story. Because mentioning him, at length, at apparent random isn’t noteworthy or anything. Nope.
“Nasty stuff, water,” Bennis said. “Drank some once, and it made me sick as a dog. Wine’s better.”
This is both funny and, from what I understand, fairly accurate in your basic medievalish setting. Or your basic modern setting, actually; God knows if you’re stupid enough to drink from just about any river or stream without boiling the water first, you deserve exactly what you’re very likely to get.
“Ser Useless should of fucked a few more peasant wenches while he still had a bit o’ sap left in them old sad balls o’ his,” [Bennis] said. “If he’d sown himself a nice crop o’ bastard boys back then, might be we’d have some soldiers now.”
Martin certainly does have a gift for turning a pungent phrase, doesn’t he? I admire that in a person. I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY.
And that’s where we stop for the year, my peeplings! I wish you all an extremely, nay, egregiously merry end of the year festivities, whatever they may be, and I will see you afresh in the new calendrical turning thingy! Cheers!