THE HEDGE KNIGHT
The story offered here takes place about a hundred years prior to the events described in A Game of Thrones
The spring rains had softened the ground, so Dunk had no trouble digging the grave. He chose a spot on the western slope of a low hill, for the old man had always loved to watch the sunset. “Another day done”—he would sigh—“and who knows what the morrow will bring us, eh, Dunk?”
Well, one morrow had brought rains that soaked them to the bones, and the one after had brought wet, gusty winds, and the next a chill. By the fourth day the old man was too weak to ride. And now he was gone. Only a few days past, he had been singing as they rode, the old song about going to Gulltown to see a fair maid, but instead of Gulltown he’d sung of Ashford. Off to Ashford to see the fair maid, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, Dunk thought miserably as he dug.
When the hole was deep enough, he lifted the old man’s body in his arms and carried him there. He had been a small man, and slim; stripped of hauberk, helm, and sword belt, he seemed to weigh no more than a bag of leaves. Dunk was hugely tall for his age, a shambling, shaggy, big-boned boy of sixteen or seventeen years (no one was quite certain which) who stood closer to seven feet than to six, and had only just begun to fill out his frame. The old man had often praised his strength. He had always been generous in his praise. It was all he had to give.
He laid him out in the bottom of the grave and stood over him for a time. The smell of rain was in the air again, and he knew he ought to fill the hole before it broke, but it was hard to throw dirt down on that tired old face. There ought to be a septon here, to say some prayers over him, but he only has me. The old man had taught Dunk all he knew of swords and shields and lances, but had never been much good at teaching him words.
“I’d leave your sword, but it would rust in the ground,” he said at last, apologetic. “The gods will give you a new one, I guess. I wish you didn’t die, ser.” He paused, uncertain what else needed to be said. He didn’t know any prayers, not all the way through; the old man had never been much for praying. “You were a true knight, and you never beat me when I didn’t deserve it,” he finally managed, “except that one time in Maidenpool. It was the inn boy who ate the widow woman’s pie, not me, I told you. It don’t matter now. The gods keep you, ser.” He kicked dirt in the hole, then began to fill it methodically, never looking at the thing at the bottom. He had a long life, Dunk thought. He must have been closer to sixty than to fifty, and how many men can say that? At least he had lived to see another spring.
The sun was westering as he fed the horses. There were three; his swaybacked stot, the old man’s palfrey, and Thunder, his warhorse, who was ridden only in tourney and battle. The big brown stallion was not as swift or strong as he had once been, but he still had his bright eye and fierce spirit, and he was more valuable than everything else Dunk owned. If I sold Thunder and old Chestnut, and the saddles and bridles too, I’d come away with enough silver to… Dunk frowned. The only life he knew was the life of a hedge knight, riding from keep to keep, taking service with this lord and that lord, fighting in their battles and eating in their halls until the war was done, then moving on. There were tourneys from time to time as well, though less often, and he knew that some hedge knights turned robber during lean winters, though the old man never had.
I could find another hedge knight in need of a squire to tend his animals and clean his mail, he thought, or might be I could go to some city, to Lannisport or King’s Landing, and join the City Watch. Or else…
He had piled the old man’s things under an oak. The cloth purse contained three silver stags, nineteen copper pennies, and a chipped garnet; like most hedge knights, the greatest part of his worldly wealth had been tied up in his horses and weapons. Dunk now owned a chain-mail hauberk that he had scoured the rust off a thousand times. An iron halfhelm with a broad nasal and a dent on the left temple. A sword belt of cracked brown leather, and a longsword in a wood-and-leather scabbard. A dagger, a razor, a whetstone. Greaves and gorget, an eight-foot war lance of turned ash topped by a cruel iron point, and an oaken shield with a scarred metal rim, bearing the sigil of Ser Arlan of Pennytree: a winged chalice, silver on brown.
Dunk looked at the shield, scooped up the sword belt, and looked at the shield again. The belt was made for the old man’s skinny hips, it would never do for him, no more than the hauberk would. He tied the scabbard to a length of hempen rope, knotted it around his waist, and drew the longsword.
The blade was straight and heavy, good castle-forged steel, the grip soft leather wrapped over wood, the pommel a smooth, polished, black stone. Plain as it was, the sword felt good in his hand, and Dunk knew how sharp it was, having worked it with whetstone and oil-cloth many a night before they went to sleep. It fits my grip as well as it ever fit his, he thought to himself, and there is a tourney at Ashford Meadow.
Sweetfoot had an easier gait than old Chestnut, but Dunk was still sore and tired when he spied the inn ahead, a tall, daub-and-timber building beside a stream. The warm yellow light spilling from its windows looked so inviting that he could not pass it by. I have three silvers, he told himself, enough for a good meal and as much ale as I care to drink.
As he dismounted, a naked boy emerged dripping from the stream and began to dry himself on a roughspun brown cloak. “Are you the stableboy?” Dunk asked him. The lad looked to be no more than eight or nine, a pasty-faced, skinny thing, his bare feet caked in mud up to the ankle. His hair was the queerest thing about him. He had none. “I’ll want my palfrey rubbed down. And oats for all three. Can you tend to them?”
The boy looked at him brazenly. “I could. If I wanted.”
Dunk frowned. “I’ll have none of that. I am a knight, I’ll have you know.”
“You don’t look to be a knight.”
“Do all knights look the same?”
“No, but they don’t look like you, either. Your sword belt’s made of rope.”
“So long as it holds my scabbard, it serves. Now see to my horses. You’ll get a copper if you do well, and a clout in the ear if you don’t.” He did not wait to see how the stableboy took that but turned away and shouldered through the door.
At this hour, he would have expected the inn to be crowded, but the common room was almost empty. A young lordling in a fine damask mantle was passed out at one table, snoring softly into a pool of spilled wine. Otherwise there was no one. Dunk looked around uncertainly until a stout, short, whey-faced woman emerged from the kitchens and said, “Sit where you like. Is it ale you want, or food?”
“Both.” Dunk took a chair by the window, well away from the sleeping man.
“There’s good lamb, roasted with a crust of herbs, and some ducks my son shot down. Which will you have?”
“He had not eaten at an inn in half a year or more. “Both.”
The woman laughed. “Well, you’re big enough for it.” She drew a tankard of ale and brought it to his table. “Will you be wanting a room for the night as well?”
“No.” Dunk would have liked nothing better than a soft straw mattress and a roof above his head, but he needed to be careful with his coin. The ground would serve. “Some food, some ale, and it’s on to Ashford for me. How much farther is it?”
“A day’s ride. Bear north when the road forks at the burned mill. Is my boy seeing to your horses, or has he run off again?”
“No, he’s there,” said Dunk. “You seem to have no custom.”
“Half the town’s gone to see the tourney. My own would as well, if I allowed it. They’ll have this inn when I go, but the boy would sooner swagger about with soldiers, and the girl turns to sighs and giggles every time a knight rides by. I swear I couldn’t tell you why. Knights are built the same as other men, and I never knew a joust to change the price of eggs.” She eyed Dunk curiously; his sword and shield told her one thing, his rope belt and roughspun tunic quite another. “You’re bound for the tourney yourself?”
He took a sip of the ale before he answered. A nut-brown color it was, and thick on the tongue, the way he liked it. “Aye,” he said. “I mean to be a champion.”
“Do you, now?” the innkeep answered, polite enough.
Across the room, the lordling raised his head from the wine puddle. His face had a sallow, unhealthy cast to it beneath a rat’s nest of sandy brown hair, and blond stubble crusted his chin. He rubbed his mouth, blinked at Dunk, and said, “I dreamed of you.” His hand trembled as he pointed a finger. “You stay away from me, do you hear? You stay well away.”
Copyright © 2015 by George R. R. Martin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.