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 3 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!
The Sworn Sword: Part 3
Dunk goes to the dam, but it is guarded, and he retreats. He and Egg have a conversation about whether Egg’s father Prince Maekar sulks, and Dunk points out that retiring from court because the king named Lord Bloodraven his Hand instead of him could count as sulking. Egg declares that his father should have been the Hand, not some bastard-born sorcerer. Dunk reminds him that Bloodraven was washed clean of bastardy by his father King Aegon the Unworthy, but Egg retorts that all bastards are born to betrayal. Dunk tells of how he never knew his parents, how they could have been whores or thieves, and that Egg is most likely squiring for a bastard. Egg is silent after this.
Back at Steadfast, Bennis is unsurprised either by the Red Widow’s failure to yield or Egg’s news that their liege lord fought for the black dragon. Dunk goes to see Ser Eustace and reports on what happened. Ser Eustace says he will not stop Dunk if he decides to leave after learning of his rebellion, but insists he did not lie: his sons died for the rightful king, Daemon Blackfyre, and if things had gone differently he would be the one called “loyalist.” He speaks bitterly of losing his daughter Alysanne as a hostage in return for his pardon, and that he should have died instead with his sons.
Egg enters, and says the Red Widow claims he rebelled to get Coldmoat. Eustace seems confused by this, so Egg asks him why he became a traitor, then.
“Treason… is only a word. When two princes fight for a chair where only one may sit, great lords and common men alike must choose. And when the battle’s done, the victors will be hailed as loyal men and true, whilst those who were defeated will be known forevermore as rebels and traitors. That was my fate.”
Egg asks why he chose Blackfyre over Daeron, and Eustace says Blackfyre was an unparalleled warrior, while Daeron was “spindly,” and preferred consorting with septons, singers, and Dornishmen. He names the great knights that came to follow Daemon, because he was the better man. Egg says his father said “the sword is not the kingdom,” and Eustace calls Egg’s father a fool and threatens to beat him.
Dunk interrupts to say they are leaving at first light. Eustace asks angrily if he is going to “that whore’s bed,” but Dunk says no. Eustace insults him and yells at him to get out, then, and Dunk and Egg leave. Dunk spends the night guiltily daydreaming of Lady Rohanne, then dreams she is shooting him with arrows, naked, and he kisses her. Then he and Egg are woken by the commotion, and see that Wat’s Wood is on fire, and Dunk remembers what Rohanne had said about fire and sword.
Dunk tries to convince Bennis to run, or give himself up, but Bennis is having none of it, and talks with Eustace about how they should burn Coldmoat’s crops and mill as vengeance. Egg is dismayed, but Dunk assures him they are just talking. They decide to head to Fair Isle. Dunk makes ready to leave, trying to ignore where Bennis is drilling the peasants, but then asks what Bennis means to do. Bennis says they will hole up in the tower, and Dunk points out all the ways that won’t work.
Egg urges him to leave before they are trapped, but Dunk draws his sword and tells the peasants to go home. They stare at him dumbly, and he screams at them to go or they’ll all be slaughtered. The peasants scatter, ignoring Eustace’s shouts, leaving only Dunk, Egg, Bennis, and Eustace behind. Furious, Eustace asks what the Red Widow offered to Dunk to sell him out, and Dunk says he still owes some service to him, and is not leaving.
Eustace decides it’s better to go out fighting in the open, anyway, and goes to get his armor. Dunk sends Egg for his armor, and something else. They leave Ser Bennis behind to guard the castle, and ride to the smoking wasteland that used to be Wat’s Wood. Eustace suggests obliquely that the best way to end the conflict is to kill the enemy’s leader, referring to the story of the Littlest Lion; Dunk wonders if he can kill a woman, and resolves not to let it come to that. They wait at the stream, and Lady Rohanne soon arrives, accompanied by Inchfield, Septon Sefton, her maester Cerrick, and over thirty men-at-arms.
Rohanne immediately accuses Eustace of having set the fire, but Eustace insists she did it, and accuses her of witchcraft besides. Rohanne demands he produce Ser Bennis, and Eustace refuses. Rohanne’s men make ready to attack, but Dunk calls out that if she crosses the stream she is breaking the king’s peace. Sefton points out that the king will never know nor care if he did. Dunk says he will stop them if they attempt to cross. Longinch laughs, but Rohanne wants to know how he proposes to stop them. Dunk says he will tell her, but only her. She rides out into the middle of the stream and invites him to join her there, and promises “not to sew him in a sack.” Eustace bids him to remember what he’d said earlier about the Littlest Lion.
Dunk goes to meet her. She apologizes for slapping him, and briefly reminisces about Addam. Dunk tells her that the king pardoned Eustace for Daemon, and that it is time for her to pardon him for Addam. Rohanne wants Bennis, but Dunk wants the men who set the fire and the dam down, giving Eustace the water in return for the loss of the wood. She still claims the fire was an accident, and wants to know how he will stop her crossing. Dunk shows her a signet ring. She demands to know where he got it, and Dunk tells her “in a boot, wrapped in rags.”
Dunk explains that if she tries to cross, he would fight, and likely die, whereupon Egg would go home and tell what happened here. She points out she could kill Egg too, but Dunk doesn’t think she will risk it: “…might be a spotted spider’s bite can kill a lion, but a dragon is a different sort of beast.” Rohanne concedes that she would rather be the dragon’s friend, but she still wants Bennis. Dunk refuses. She says she cannot afford to look weak by returning empty-handed. Dunk calls this kind of thing “a pissing contest,” and Rohanne is shocked and amused that he actually said that to her.
She points out, though, that those “pissing contests” are how lords judge each others’ strength, and as a woman, she “must needs piss twice as hard.” She names her enemies, and includes Inchfield among them, and says only her reputation keeps them at bay. Dunk draws his dagger, to her shock, but then lays the blade against his own cheek, and says it was he who cut the digger, not Bennis, and cuts himself in turn as recompense. Rohanne opines that he is quite mad, and that if he were better born, she’d marry him. She still maintains that she did not set the fire, and tells Dunk to tell Eustace that if he will not withdraw his accusation, she demands a trial.
The septon ritually blesses the stream, the site of the trial, and asks Rohanne and Eustace both to consider backing down, or taking the matter to Lord Rowan, but neither will agree. Inchfield is furious, and vows that Rohanne will marry him once this “farce” is finished. Dunk gives Egg back his father’s signet ring and instructs him to get safely back to Summerhall if Dunk dies. Egg replies that he would prefer Dunk didn’t die.
Dunk and Inchfield meet in the river. The duel is ferocious, and soon enough both men lose their seats and fall into the river. Dunk loses his sword, and can only defend against Inchfield’s relentless attack. Then Inchfield splits Dunk’s shield and temporarily blinds him; Egg screams directions to him, though, and Dunk lunges, knocking the other man down. They sink to the bottom, and Dunk manages to find his dagger and kill Inchfield with it before passing out.
He wakes in Maester Cerrick’s chambers in Coldmoat. Cerrick tells him he is badly injured and nearly drowned, but Cerrick knew how to revive him, and that Inchfield is dead. Dunk asks for Egg, and Cerrick calls him “a queer child,” but very devoted to Dunk. Cerrick says Egg is attending the wedding ceremony; apparently Coldmoat and Standfast are reconciled now. Rohanne had asked to see Addam’s grave, and her emotion over it had so moved Eustace that they are getting married. Dunk has no response to this, and hears rain as he falls back asleep.
Dunk sees her again the day they leave, over Cerrick’s protests at the amount of healing he has to do. Sefton hopes Dunk is not planning to go after Bennis, who’d ransacked Steadfast and taken off as soon as he was alone, but Dunk says Bennis “will keep” for now. Sefton despairs of him, and leaves. Rohanne meets him in the stables, and is glad Egg ratted Dunk out so that she had a chance to say goodbye.
She offers him a place at Coldmoat as Captain of the guard, but Dunk declines with a pointed remark about Ser Eustace. She looks angry a moment, but then says she must make amends, and offers him a magnificent blood bay mare to replace his old destrier. Dunk says the mare is too good for the likes of him, and Rohanne bursts out to say she had no choice but to marry Eustace, and insists he take the horse. He grabs her and kisses her instead, and says he knows what he wants to remember her by.
Egg is confused when Dunk comes out with Thunder instead of a new horse, but Dunk shows him the lock of red hair he has instead. They discuss which way to go; Dunk points out that Summerhall and Egg’s father is south, and Egg points out that the Wall is north.
Dunk looked at him. “That’s a long way to ride.”
“I have a new horse, ser.”
“So you do.” Dunk had to smile. “And why would you want to see the Wall?”
“Well,” said Egg. “I hear it’s tall.”
Dude, the Wall? Don’t go to the Wall! The Wall sucks!
Eh. Well, it’ll be another adventure, there’s no doubt about that. Which I suspect I will get to read about, eventually.
Something which I can’t decide I like or hate about ASOIAF is the extent to which Westeros society (and most or all of the other ones in this world, for that matter) is positively crippled by its worship of unbridled testosterone. Eustace’s rant about how Daemon Blackfyre’s prowess on the battlefield automatically made him a better king than Daeron—i.e. a skinny guy who “consorted” with scholars and artists, i.e. an intellectual by any other name—is insane from a logical point of view, yet this assumption goes absolutely unquestioned by either Eustace or Dunk (or Egg, or probably just about any other character who could have been listening). Because obviously a guy who’s good at bashing things with swords is also going to be a genius at statescraft, right? Riiiight. Muscles good! Uhnnn!
Mind you, I’m certainly not saying that all soldiers make bad kings, or that smart guys all make good ones. It’s perfectly possible that Daemon would have made an awesome king and Daeron would (or did) suck donkey balls at it. (As an aside, did the two contenders really have to have such similar names? Sheesh) The “insane” part of Eustace’s assertion lies in the assumption that good warrior skills always translate to good kinging skills—are, indeed, a prerequisite for the role—even though logic (and history) would suggest that someone with education, actual training in statescraft and (presumably) native intelligence would be on average far better at the job.
Not that these things are necessarily mutually exclusive with being a good warrior, but (a) serious training for one generally precludes serious training for the other, and (b) Eustace’s speech makes the dichotomy pretty explicit: you can be a badass warrior, or you can be a nancy-boy nerd, and never the twain shall meet. So both logistics and cultural prejudices would seem to work against anyone being excellent at both things. And yet, the assumption that “good fighter = good political leader” goes unexamined and unchallenged—at least by the characters.
Of course, Westeros is hardly alone in that attitude, as the number of U.S. Presidents who have also served in the military shows (a whopping 32 out of 43, in case you’re curious), but Westeros takes it to a fairly psychotic extreme, in my opinion. And I guess my like or dislike of this fact is based on whether I believe that this is a trait of which Martin is unconsciously approving, or if it is one he is sending up to demonstrate its ridiculousness.
But then, Martin seems pretty cognizant of tropes and unexamined cultural assumptions in general—you can’t deconstruct a thing if you’re not even aware it exists, after all—and so previous history leads me to think that he probably knows exactly what he’s doing on this count.
So, uh, yay for that. Although I also feel compelled to point out that knowing Martin is doing it on purpose does not actually make the phenomenon any less annoying.
Now, there is an obvious caveat here in how often leaders of Westeros, from kings all the way down to petty lords, are obliged to fight to keep their leadership positions—in fact that truth is pretty much the entire theme of this story—but that just devolves into a chicken or the egg argument over whether war would still be the way things were always settled if you stopped putting warriors in charge, so I’ll let you guys duke that out (heh) in the comments if you so desire.
(I will say that the one part of Eustace’s rant that rang absolutely true to me was the part I quoted, about how, essentially, the victors write the histories, and you’re more often than not only a traitor if history decides you are. He may have been wrong about a lot of things, but he was completely right about that.)
My initial argument, however, also leads into the other big point made here about leadership, which of course is Rohanne’s reflections on what a woman must do to lead in such an overwhelmingly patriarchal system. And her answer, it seems, is that if you cannot make your enemies fear you by making muscles at them, your alternative is to make them fear you by being, or at least appearing to be, absolutely bugfuck crazy. As one would have to be to murder four husbands in a row (or however many it was supposed to be), and sew people in sacks and drown them like kittens, and so forth and so on.
I’m not clear, by the way, on whether I’m supposed to know if she actually did those things or not, or just pretended that she did. Probably it’s confirmed or not somewhere in the story, but if so I missed it and I don’t have the moral fortitude to go searching to find out, frankly, so I’m going to assume that my impression (that it was left open to question) is correct for now. In which case, I have to say I find it equally plausible for either possibility to be true.
I… have a lot of feelings about the idea that women must either be or pretend to be maniacally unstable and/or evil in order to compensate for the fact that men will always dismiss or underestimate them as a threat otherwise, and most of them are terribly ambivalent. This is a trope, by the way, which I’ve seen continually repeated in stories, and if I’m going to be brutally honest, I’ve always been torn between being really angry at it, and kind of nodding and saying, well, if that’s what gets the job done…
Not to mention, just guiltily enjoying seeing the shoe on the other foot every once in a while. Women have always had to live in fear of men, and I’m not going to lie and say there’s not a bit of visceral satisfaction in seeing the tables turned.
And maybe admitting that means I have to turn in my feminist card, or maybe just my logic card, because surely ruling by means of atavistic terror is no better than ruling by means of I’ll smash your face in if you don’t, so by those lights Rohanne’s method is no better than what I was just complaining about above. Fear is fear however you achieve it, after all, and it remains a stupid way of determining who gets to be in charge.
Then again, I could also argue that Rohanne’s method is no worse, either, at least not from where I stand. And saying that ruling by fear is stupid doesn’t change the fact that more often than not that’s the way things end up getting done. Blah.
Ugh, ASOIAF. Why must you always make me think thinky thoughts?
Anyway, I suppose at some point I should also talk about the actual protagonist of this story, eh?
‘Cause, see, Dunk is sort of almost a cheat by Martin standards, because he is one of the very few ASOIAF characters I’ve come across so far who really is a straight-up hero. Which explains why he’s been relegated to side-story status, maybe, since apparently we can’t be having any of that nasty unambiguous heroism clogging up the grayness of the main storyline, now can we? HEAVEN FORFEND.
But seriously, Dunk seems to be that thing we don’t really get in the main novels: a character whose honor is not only mostly pure, but whose mostly-pure honor actually helps solve problems instead of making them infinitely worse.
Not only that, but he’s the rare whole package of battle prowess and statesman’s savvy that is precisely what people keep expecting their warrior-kings to be, and what they so seldom are. Dunk talks a lot of shit about himself and his supposed lack of brainpower, but the fact is that he was the only one of this sorry lot who figured out how to resolve the conflict without it becoming a massacre, by driving off the peasants, by requesting the one-on-one with Rohanne, and by waiting until just the right moment to apply the one bit of leverage he had (i.e. Egg’s ring) to its highest possible effectiveness.
And yes, that was dependent on Rohanne also being smart and savvy enough to recognize that leverage for what it was and give him the out, but that in turn was dependent on Dunk’s accurate judgment of her character, on what he thought she would and would not do. Which he was right about.
So, yeah. Dunk, basically, is the unicorn of ASOIAF.
…Right down to the virginity, hah. But hey, at least he has his first kiss under his belt. Progress, baby! You’ll get laid eventually! I hope!
(As an aside, was I the only one who found the idea of Rohanne having to sleep with Eustace now kind of really icky? Because, dude. She was in love with his son. That is all kinds of creepy. Politically expedient, yes. But also, creepy. Erg.)
And, yeah. I feel like there is more I could say—like about how I have all kinds of feelings about Egg and his slow education on How Not To Be An Over-Privileged Douchenozzle, courtesy one Dunk, and his obvious devotion to his knight and how they mask their affection for each other with insincere threats of violence because BOYS and how that’s kind of stupidly adorable, but I think I just did say that, if rather incoherently, so I should probably just leave it.
All in all, this was a really good story with some very thought-provoking themes, fun banter, exciting action, and of course a little soupçon of heartbreak, because how else would we know what series we’re reading? I approve, would recommend.
That said, while I have enjoyed the Dunk and Egg stories very much, I’m sort of relieved to be getting back to the main storyline, because I kinda really want to know what happens, yo. But we will be coming back to Our Unicorn eventually, never you fret.
And that’s that! So stay tuned for the beginning of my Read of Book Four in A Song of Ice and Fire, A Feast For Crows, going up next Thursday! Whoo! Adios, muchachos!