Read The Sworn Sword Page 1

  A Song of Ice and Fire began life as a trilogy, and has since expanded to six books. As J. R. R. Tolkien once said, the tale grew in the telling.

  The setting for the books is the great continent of Westeros, in a world both like and unlike our own, where the seasons last for years and sometimes decades. Standing hard against the sunset sea at the western edge of the known world, Westeros stretches from the red sands of Dorne in the south to the icy mountains and frozen fields of the north, where snow falls even during the long summers. The children of the forest were the first known inhabitants of Westeros, during the Dawn of Days: a race small of stature who made their homes in the greenwood, and carved strange faces in the bone-white weirwood trees. Then came the First Men, who crossed a land bridge from the larger continent to the east with their bronze swords and horses, and warred against the children for centuries before finally making peace with the older race and adopting their nameless, ancient gods. The Compact marked the beginning of the Age of Heroes, when the First Men and the children shared Westeros, and a hundred petty kingdoms rose and fell.

  Other invaders came in turn. The Andals crossed the narrow sea in ships, and with iron and fire they swept across the kingdoms of the First Men, and drove the children from their forests, putting many of the weirwoods to the ax. They brought their own faith, worshiping a god with seven aspects whose symbol was a seven-pointed star. Only in the far north did the First Men, led by the Starks of Winterfell, throw back the newcomers. Elsewhere the Andals triumphed, and raised kingdoms of their own. The children of the forest dwindled and disappeared, while the First Men intermarried with their conquerors. The Rhoynar arrived some thousands of years after the Andals, and came not as invaders but as refugees, crossing the seas in ten thousand ships to escape the growing might of the Freehold of Valyria. The lords freeholder of Valyria ruled the greater part of the known world; they were sorcerers, great in lore, and alone of all the races of man they had learned to breed dragons and bend them to their will. Four hundred years before the opening of A Song of Ice and Fire, however, the Doom descended on Valyria, destroying the city in a single night. Thereafter the great Valyrian empire disintegrated into dissension, barbarism, and war.

  Westeros, across the narrow sea, was spared the worst of the chaos that followed. By that time only seven kingdoms remained where once there had been hundreds—but they would not stand for much longer. A scion of lost Valyria named Aegon Targaryen landed at the mouth of the Blackwater with a small army, his two sisters (who were also his wives), and three great dragons. Riding on dragonback, Aegon and his sisters won battle after battle, and subdued six of the seven Westerosi kingdoms by fire, sword, and treaty. The conqueror collected the melted, twisted blades of his fallen foes, and used them to make a monstrous, towering barbed seat: the Iron Throne, from which he ruled henceforth as Aegon, the First of His Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.

  The dynasty founded by Aegon and his sisters endured for most of three hundred years. Another Targaryen king, Daeron the Second, later brought Dorne into the realm, uniting all of Westeros under a single ruler. He did so by marriage, not conquest, for the last of the dragons had died half a century before. The Hedge Knight, published in the first Legends, takes place in the last days of Good King Daeron’s reign, about a hundred years before the opening of the first of the Ice and Fire novels, with the realm at peace and the Targaryen dynasty at its height. It tells the story of the first meeting between Dunk, a hedge knight’s squire, and Egg, a boy who is rather more than he seems, and of the great tourney at Ashford Meadow. The Sworn Sword, the tale that follows, picks up their story a year or so later.

  The Sworn Sword

  A Tale of the Seven Kingdoms

  George R. R. Martin

  In an iron cage at the crossroads, two dead men were rotting in the summer sun. Egg stopped below to have a look at them. “Who do you think they were, ser?” His mule Maester, grateful for the respite, began to crop the dry brown devilgrass along the verges, heedless of the two huge wine casks on his back.

  “Robbers,” Dunk said. Mounted atop Thunder, he was much closer to the dead men. “Rapers. Murderers.” Dark circles stained his old green tunic under both arms. The sky was blue and the sun was blazing hot, and he had sweated gallons since breaking camp this morning. Egg took off his wide-brimmed floppy straw hat. Beneath, his head was bald and shiny. He used the hat to fan away the flies. There were hundreds crawling on the dead men, and more drifting lazily through the still, hot air. “It must have been something bad, for them to be left to die inside a crow cage.”

  Sometimes Egg could be as wise as any maester, but other times he was still a boy of ten. “There are lords and lords,” Dunk said. “Some don’t need much reason to put a man to death.”

  The iron cage was barely big enough to hold one man, yet two had been forced inside it. They stood face to face, with their arms and legs in a tangle and their backs against the hot black iron of the bars. One had tried to eat the other, gnawing at his neck and shoulder. The crows had been at both of them. When Dunk and Egg had come around the hill, the birds had risen like a black cloud, so thick that Maester spooked.

  “Whoever they were, they look half starved,” Dunk said. Skeletons in skin, and the skin is green and rotting. “Might be they stole some bread, or poached a deer in some lord’s wood.” With the drought entering its second year, most lords had become less tolerant of poaching, and they hadn’t been very tolerant to begin with.

  “It could be they were in some outlaw band.” At Dosk, they’d heard a harper sing “The Day They Hanged Black Robin.” Ever since, Egg had been seeing gallant outlaws behind every bush. Dunk had met a few outlaws while squiring for the old man. He was in no hurry to meet any more. None of the ones he’d known had been especially gallant. He remembered one outlaw Ser Arlan had helped hang, who’d been fond of stealing rings. He would cut off a man’s fingers to get at them, but with women he preferred to bite. There were no songs about him that Dunk knew. Outlaws or poachers, makes no matter. Dead men make poor company. He walked Thunder slowly around the cage. The empty eyes seemed to follow him. One of the dead men had his head down and his mouth gaping open.

  He has no tongue, Dunk observed. He supposed the crows might have eaten it. Crows always pecked a corpse’s eyes out first, he had heard, but maybe the tongue went second. Or maybe a lord had it torn out, for something that he said.

  Dunk pushed his fingers through his mop of sun-streaked hair. The dead were beyond his help, and they had casks of wine to get to Standfast. “Which way did we come?” he asked, looking from one road to the other. “I’m turned around.”

  “Standfast is that way, ser.” Egg pointed.

  “That’s for us, then. We could be back by evenfall, but not if we sit here all day counting flies.” He touched Thunder with his heels and turned the big destrier toward the left-hand fork. Egg put his floppy hat back on and tugged sharply at Maester’s lead. The mule left off cropping at the devilgrass and came along without an argument for once. He’s hot as well, Dunk thought, and those wine casks must be heavy. The summer sun had baked the road as hard as brick. Its ruts were deep enough to break a horse’s leg, so Dunk was careful to keep Thunder to the higher ground between them. He had twisted his own ankle the day they left Dosk, walking in the black of night when it was cooler. A knight had to learn to live with aches and pains, the old man used to say. Aye, lad, and with broken bones and scars. They’re as much a part of knighthood as your swords and shields. If Thunder was to break a leg, though… well, a knight without a horse was no knight at all.

  Egg followed five yards behind him, with Maester and the wine casks. The boy was walking with one bare foot in
a rut and one out, so he rose and fell with every step. His dagger was sheathed on one hip, his boots slung over his backpack, his ragged brown tunic rolled up and knotted around his waist. Beneath his wide-brimmed straw hat, his face was smudged and dirty, his eyes large and dark. He was ten, not quite five feet tall. Of late he had been sprouting fast, though he had a long long way to grow before he’d be catching up to Dunk. He looked just like the stableboy he wasn’t, and not at all like who he really was.

  The dead men soon disappeared behind them, but Dunk found himself thinking about them all the same. The realm was full of lawless men these days. The drought showed no signs of ending, and smallfolk by the thousands had taken to the roads, looking for someplace where the rains still fell. Lord Bloodraven had commanded them to return to their own lands and lords, but few obeyed. Many blamed Bloodraven and King Aerys for the drought. It was a judgment from the gods, they said, for the kinslayer is accursed. If they were wise, though, they did not say it loudly. How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have? ran the riddle Egg had heard in Oldtown. A thousand eyes, and one. Six years ago in King’s Landing, Dunk had seen him with his own two eyes, as he rode a pale horse up the Street of Steel with fifty Raven’s Teeth behind him. That was before King Aerys had ascended to the Iron Throne and made him the Hand, but even so he cut a striking figure, garbed in smoke and scarlet with Dark Sister on his hip. His pallid skin and bone-white hair made him look a living corpse. Across his cheek and chin spread a wine-stain birthmark that was supposed to resemble a red raven, though Dunk only saw an odd-shaped blotch of discolored skin. He stared so hard that Bloodraven felt it. The king’s sorcerer had turned to study him as he went by. He had one eye, and that one red. The other was an empty socket, the gift Bittersteel had given him upon the Redgrass Field. Yet it seemed to Dunk that both eyes had looked right through his skin, down to his very soul. Despite the heat, the memory made him shiver. “Ser?” Egg called. “Are you unwell?”

  “No,” said Dunk. “I’m as hot and thirsty as them.” He pointed toward the field beyond the road, where rows of melons were shriveling on the vines. Along the verges goatheads and tufts of devilgrass still clung to life, but the crops were not faring near as well. Dunk knew just how the melons felt. Ser Arlan used to say that no hedge knight need ever go thirsty. “Not so long as he has a helm to catch the rain in. Rainwater is the best drink there is, lad.” The old man never saw a summer like this one, though. Dunk had left his helm at Standfast. It was too hot and heavy to wear, and there had been precious little rain to catch in it. What’s a hedge knight do when even the hedges are brown and parched and dying?

  Maybe when they reached the stream he’d have a soak. He smiled, thinking how good that would feel, to jump right in and come up sopping wet and grinning, with water cascading down his cheeks and through his tangled hair and his tunic clinging sodden to his skin. Egg might want a soak as well, though the boy looked cool and dry, more dusty than sweaty. He never sweated much. He liked the heat. In Dorne he went about bare-chested, and turned brown as a Dornishman. It is his dragon blood, Dunk told himself. Whoever heard of a sweaty dragon? He would gladly have pulled his own tunic off, but it would not be fitting. A hedge knight could ride bare naked if he chose; he had no one to shame but himself. It was different when your sword was sworn. When you accept a lord’s meat and mead, all you do reflects on him, Ser Arlan used to say. Always do more than he expects of you, never less. Never flinch at any task or hardship. And above all, never shame the lord you serve. At Standfast, “meat and mead” meant chicken and ale, but Ser Eustace ate the same plain fare himself.

  Dunk kept his tunic on, and sweltered.

  Ser Bennis of the Brown Shield was waiting at the old plank bridge. “So you come back,” he called out.

  “You were gone so long I thought you run off with the old man’s silver.” Bennis was sitting on his shaggy garron, chewing a wad of sourleaf that made it look as if his mouth were full of blood.

  “We had to go all the way to Dosk to find some wine,” Dunk told him. “The krakens raided Little Dosk. They carried off the wealth and women and burned half of what they did not take.”

  “That Dagon Greyjoy wants for hanging,” Bennis said. “Aye, but who’s to hang him? You see old Pinchbottom Pate?”

  “They told us he was dead. The ironmen killed him when he tried to stop them taking off his daughter.”

  “Seven bloody hells.” Bennis turned his head and spat. “I seen that daughter once. Not worth dying for, you ask me. That fool Pate owed me half a silver.” The brown knight looked just as he had when they left; worse, he smelled the same as well. He wore the same garb every day: brown breeches, a shapeless roughspun tunic, horsehide boots. When armored he donned a loose brown surcoat over a shirt of rusted mail. His swordbelt was a cord of boiled leather, and his seamed face might have been made of the same thing. His head looks like one of those shriveled melons that we passed. Even his teeth were brown, under the red stains left by the sourleaf he liked to chew. Amidst all that brownness, his eyes stood out; they were a pale green, squinty small, close set, and shiny-bright with malice. “Only two casks,” he observed. “Ser Useless wanted four.”

  “We were lucky to find two,” said Dunk. “The drought reached the Arbor, too. We heard the grapes are turning into raisins on the vines, and the ironmen have been pirating—”

  “Ser?” Egg broke in. “The water’s gone.”

  Dunk had been so intent on Bennis that he hadn’t noticed. Beneath the warped wooden planks of the bridge only sand and stones remained. That’s queer. The stream was running low when we left, but it was running.

  Bennis laughed. He had two sorts of laughs. Sometimes he cackled like a chicken, and sometimes he brayed louder than Egg’s mule. This was his chicken laugh. “Dried up while you was gone, I guess. A drought’ll do that.”

  Dunk was dismayed. Well, I won’t be soaking now. He swung down to the ground. What’s going to happen to the crops? Half the wells in the Reach had gone dry, and all the rivers were running low, even the Blackwater Rush and the mighty Mander.

  “Nasty stuff, water,” Bennis said. “Drank some once, and it made me sick as a dog. Wine’s better.”

  “Not for oats. Not for barleycorn. Not for carrots, onions, cabbages. Even grapes need water.” Dunk shook his head. “How could it go dry so quick? We’ve only been six days.”

  “Wasn’t much water in there to start with, Dunk. Time was, I could piss me bigger streams than this one.”

  “Not Dunk,” said Dunk. “I told you that.” He wondered why he bothered. Bennis was a mean-mouthed man, and it pleased him to make mock. “I’m called Ser Duncan the Tall.”

  “By who? Your bald pup?” He looked at Egg and laughed his chicken laugh. “You’re taller than when you did for Pennytree, but you still look a proper Dunk to me.”

  Dunk rubbed the back of his neck and stared down at the rocks. “What should we do?”

  “Fetch home the wines, and tell Ser Useless his stream’s gone dry. The Standfast well still draws, he won’t go thirsty.”

  “Don’t call him Useless.” Dunk was fond of the old knight. “You sleep beneath his roof, give him some respect.”

  “You respect him for the both o’ us, Dunk,” said Bennis. “I’ll call him what I will.”

  The silvery gray planks creaked heavily as Dunk walked out onto the bridge, to frown down at the sand and stones below. A few small brown pools glistened amongst the rocks, he saw, none larger than his hand. “Dead fish, there and there, see?” The smell of them reminded him of the dead men at the crossroads.

  “I see them, ser,” said Egg.

  Dunk hopped down to the streambed, squatted on his heels, and turned over a stone. Dry and warm on top, moist and muddy underneath. “The water can’t have been gone long.” Standing, he flicked the stone sidearm at the bank, where it crashed through a crumbling overhang in a puff of dry brown earth. “The soil’s cracked along the banks, but soft and muddy in the middle. Tho
se fish were alive yesterday.”

  “Dunk the lunk, Pennytree used to call you. I recall.” Ser Bennis spat a wad of sourleaf onto the rocks. It glistened red and slimy in the sunlight. “Lunks shouldn’t try and think, their heads is too bloody thick for such.”

  Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall. From Ser Arlan the words had been affectionate. He had been a kindly man, even in his scolding. In the mouth of Ser Bennis of the Brown Shield, they sounded different. “Ser Arlan’s two years dead,” Dunk said, “and I’m called Ser Duncan the Tall.” He was sorely tempted to put his fist through the brown knight’s face and smash those red and rotten teeth to splinters. Bennis of the Brown Shield might be a nasty piece of work, but Dunk had a good foot and a half on him, and four stone as well. He might be a lunk, but he was big. Sometimes it seemed as though he’d thumped his head on half the doors in Westeros, not to mention every beam in every inn from Dorne up to the Neck. Egg’s brother Aemon had measured him in Oldtown and found he lacked an inch of seven feet, but that was half a year ago. He might have grown since. Growing was the one thing that Dunk did really well, the old man used to say.

  He went back to Thunder and mounted up again. “Egg, get on back to Standfast with the wine. I’m going to see what’s happened to the water.”

  “Streams dry up all the time,” said Bennis.

  “I just want to have a look—”

  “Like how you looked under that rock? Shouldn’t go turning over rocks, Lunk. Never know what might crawl out. We got us nice straw pallets back at Standfast. There’s eggs more days than not, and not much to do but listen to Ser Useless go on about how great he used to be. Leave it be, I say. The stream went dry, that’s all.”

  Dunk was nothing if not stubborn. “Ser Eustace is waiting on his wine,” he told Egg. “Tell him where I went.”

  “I will, ser.” Egg gave a tug on Maester’s lead. The mule twitched his ears, but started off again at once. He wants to get those wine casks off his back. Dunk could not blame him. The stream flowed north and east when it was flowing, so he turned Thunder south and west. He had not ridden a dozen yards before Bennis caught him. “I best come see you don’t get hanged.” He pushed a fresh sourleaf into his mouth. “Past that clump o’ sandwillows, the whole right bank is spider land.”