Read an Excerpt
The Hedge Night
A Tale of the Seven Kingdoms
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, heighho, 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, bigboned 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 the rain 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; as with 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-andleather 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 anm 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 oilcloth 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-andtimber 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.”
Dunk stared at him uncertainly. “My lord?”
The innkeep leaned close. “Never you mind that one, ser. All he does is drink and talk about his dreams. I’ll see about that food.” She bustled off.
“Food?” The lordling made the word an obscenity. He staggered to his feet, one hand on the table to keep himself from falling.
“I’m going to be sick,” he announced. The front of his tunic was crusty-red with old wine stains. “I wanted a whore, but there’s none to be found here.
All gone to Ashford Meadow. Gods be good, I need some wine.”
He lurched unsteadily from the common room, and Dunk heard him climbing steps, singing under his breath.
A sad creature, thought Dunk. But why did he think he knew me? He pondered that a moment over his ale.
The lamb was as good as any he had ever eaten, and the duck was even better, cooked with cherries and lemons and not near as greasy as most. The innkeep brought buttered pease as well, and oaten bread still hot from her oven. This is what it means to be a knight, he told himself as he sucked the last bit of meat off the bone. Good food, and ale whenever I want it, and no one to clout me in the head. He had a second tankard of ale with the meal, a third to wash it down, and a fourth because there was no one to tell him he couldn’t, and when he was done he paid the woman with a silver stag and still got back a fistful of coppers. It was full dark by the time Dunk emerged. His stomach was full and his purse was a little lighter, but he felt good as he walked to the stables. Ahead, he heard a horse whicker. “Easy, lad,” a boy’s voice said.
Dunk quickened his step, frowning.
He found the stableboy mounted on Thunder and wearing the old man’s armor. The hauberk was longer than he was, and he’d had to tilt the helm back on his bald head or else it would have covered his eyes.
He looked utterly intent, and utterly absurd. Dunk stopped in the stable door and laughed.
The boy looked up, flushed, vaulted to the ground. “My lord, I did not mean–”
“Thief,” Dunk said, trying to sound stern. “Take off that armor, and be glad that Thunder didn’t kick you in that fool head. He’s a warhorse, not a boy’s pony.”
The boy took off the helm and flung it to the straw. “I could ride him as well as you,” he said, bold as you please.
“Close your mouth, I want none of your insolence. The hauberk too, take it off. What did you think you were doing?”
“How can I tell you, with my mouth closed?” The boy squirmed out of the chain mail and let it fall.
“You can open your mouth to answer,” said Dunk. “Now pick up that mail, shake off the dirt, and put it back where you found it. And the halfhelm too. Did you feed the horses, as I told you? And rub down Sweetfoot?”
“Yes,” the boy said, as he shook straw from the mail. “You’re going to Ashford, aren’t you? Take me with you, ser.”
The innkeep had warned him of this. “And what might your mother say to that?”
“My mother?” The boy wrinkled up his face. “My mother’s dead, she wouldn’t say anything.”
He was surprised. Wasn’t the innkeep his mother? Perhaps he was only ’prenticed to her. Dunk’s head was a little fuzzy from the ale. “Are you an orphan boy?” he asked uncertainly.
“Are you?” the boy threw back.
“I was once,” Dunk admitted. Till the old man took me in.
“If you took me, I could squire for you.”
“I have no need of a squire,” he said.
“Every knight needs a squire,” the boy said. “You look as though you need one more than most.”
Dunk raised a hand threateningly. “And you look as though you need a clout in the ear, it seems to me. Fill me a sack of oats. I’m off for Ashford . . . alone.”
If the boy was frightened, he hid it well. For a moment he stood there defiant, his arms crossed, but just as Dunk was about to give up on him the lad turned and went for the oats.
Dunk was relieved. A pity I couldn’t . . . but he has a good life here at the inn, a better one than he’d have squiring for a hedge knight.Taking him would be no kindness.
He could still feel the lad’s disappointment, though. As he mounted Sweetfoot and took up Thunder’s lead, Dunk decided that a copper penny might cheer him. “Here, lad, for your help.” He flipped the coin down at him with a smile, but the stableboy made no attempt to catch it. It fell in the dirt between his bare feet, and there he let it lie.
He’ll scoop it up as soon as I am gone, Dunk told himself. He turned the palfrey and rode from the inn, leading the other two horses. The trees were bright with moonlight, and the sky was cloudless and speckled with stars. Yet as he headed down the road he could feel the stableboy watching his back, sullen and silent.