Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 13-15

Welcome to the weekly reread of Deryni Checkmate!

Last week, Rimmel obtained a love spell from the witch Bethane while Duncan and Morgan visited a shrine in disguise on their way to the holy city. This week Duncan makes some hard choices and does some Sherlock-level detecting, Morgan meets Warin and just barely manages to survive the encounter, and we see Gwynedd’s Curia in action.


Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 13-15

Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 13, the weather is getting bad again, and Duncan’s out in it again, waiting for Morgan. This time there’s extra worry: it’s taking Morgan too long to pay his respects to Saint Torin. Duncan frets and fusses and messes with his horse and his hat, till finally he approaches the shrine—armed, which immediately attracts the grumpy monk’s attention.

The monk denies having seen anybody. Duncan, clean out of patience, breaks into the shrine and finds it empty. He investigates, using a combination of normal and Deryni senses, and finds Morgan’s cap—and the drugged needle in the gate.

He recoils in shock and mentally reconstructs what happened. He enters a Deryni trance, discovers that the monk was in on the plot, and realizes that the monk has gone to fetch reinforcements. He does not find Alaric.

Scene shift. Here’s Morgan, coming to and taking stock of his surroundings. He’s in a hall of wooden statues, and he is seriously not feeling well. Particularly once we get a classic Feet Shot which pans up to Warin’s face. Morgan realizes that he is “surely doomed.”

Duncan is still in the chapel and still investigating. He cleverly determines via an interrupted trail of candle wax that there’s a trapdoor under the carpet. He ponders this at length, with many questions and deductions. Finally he decides (cautiously) to go for it.

Suddenly he hears voices. He arranges his sword according to the latest secondary-world-medieval safety practices, stamps on the floor, and drops down the chute, “faster and faster into what danger he knew not.”


Morgan’s captors are roughing him up. He has no superpowers while the Kryptonite—merasha is in his system. Warin, surrounded by guards and goons, takes time for gloating, while Morgan pulls his thoughts together and manages to identify Monsignor Gorony. That is not a good sign at all, if he hopes to get a hearing from the bishops.

Worse, he has no control over his mouth, and starts echoing Warin. He frets over this for a while, then manages a somewhat feeble attempt at banter.

Warin isn’t impressed. He let Loris talk him into giving Morgan a chance to repent before he dies, and Gorony is here to hear his confession.

That’s exactly what Morgan was coming to Dhassa to do, he lies. He keeps on trying to talk his way out, but again, Warin isn’t playing. Morgan’s sentence, he says, is to be burned at the stake.

Morgan is appalled. He keeps talking as fast as he can. Warin keeps refusing to play. Morgan tries to get Gorony on his side, but that isn’t working, either. Morgan loses his temper—his sense of entitlement is hurting even worse than his head.

Morgan forces himself to calm down and stop arguing. It won’t get him anywhere. He starts playing for time. In the process he discovers that he still has “his trusty stiletto.” Concealed weapons (and lax security procedures) for the win.

But he doesn’t think he can escape. He starts his formal confession—and suddenly! Duncan drops down from above! Blade flashing! Swashes buckling with abandon!

Morgan does his trammeled and drug-addled best to help. He knows the odds are terrible. And then there’s Gorony, ordering the surviving goons to “kill them both!”

Chapter 14 picks up the sword fight from Duncan’s point of view. Blood is literally spraying on the walls. Then suddenly a torch falls, and the place catches fire.

Morgan is not winning his fight. Duncan gut-punches Warin and judo-flips Gorony (whooo!), taking him hostage.

Pause. Morgan is pounding obsessively at his opponent. Duncan snaps him out of it, and he’s horrified. Duncan takes time for some fine-grained snark about the “serious business” of killing priests, countered by Gorony’s half-throttled defiance.

He and Morgan, with Duncan dragging Gorony along, find that they can’t get the door open. It’s locked, Warin says. Grumpy Monk locked it. Meanwhile the fire is growing.

Stalemate. Warin will be happy to die if Duncan and Morgan go with him.

Morgan has an idea. He picked a lock once with Deryni powers. He can’t do that now, but Duncan can.

Which puts Duncan in a very difficult position. If he does it, he’ll out himself as Deryni, right in front of Archbishop Loris’ right-hand minion.

This is the choice the vision on the road prophesied. Of course he has to make it. He hands Gorony over to Morgan, fires up his powers, and pops the lock.

Gorony reacts as predicted. Shock! Horror! “A Deryni serpent in the very bosom of the Church!”

Morgan stiletto-jabs him into silence. Warin starts up a ferocious anti-Deryni, anti-spawn-of-Satan rant. Duncan takes charge of Gorony and sends Morgan ahead to fetch the horses.

Duncan hauls Gorony out and locks the door, with Warin screaming and the fire, we presume, growing. And there’s Morgan outside, frozen in front of the nicely prepped stake and pyre. They have to burn it, he says. He’s obviously off his head.

Duncan has to turn Gorony loose, with threats and warnings, and pries Morgan away from his attempt to set the pyre alight. Grumpy Monk shows up, but he calls the soldiers off from chasing the Deryni and concentrates on saving the burning shrine and the people in it. Duncan and a barely conscious Morgan make it to the horses and gallop away. And there are Warin and Gorony, back against the flames, shaking their fists in classic thwarted-villain style.

Duncan pauses for “a mirthless chuckle” and some fast strategizing, since Morgan is incapable of it. They have to get to Kelson before the archbishops turn on him next. There’s no facing the Curia now, and Corwyn is about to fall into full-on civil war.

He aims for Saint Neot’s, hoping to find a functional Transfer Portal. And then his bad weather karma literally falls on him again, with hard rain. He rides off in it, all too easily imagining Loris’ reaction to the fact he’s Deryni.

Readers don’t have to imagine: they see it live and in color. Loris is reacting at top volume, surrounded by a large number of clergy in the Bishop of Dhassa’s drawing room (up to the eighteenth century now, we are).

Flashback to Gorony’s muddied and bloodstained arrival and the shocking tale he told. Now the bishops are in a right taking, and Bishop Cardiel, their host, is sending eye signs to his friend and fellow youngest prelate Arilan (who is thirty-eight to Cardiel’s forty-one).

Turns out they’re “secretly in sympathy” with fellow Gen-X-er Morgan, and they think Loris’ frothing is amusing. They’re not happy about Warin, or about Loris’ “fanatic foolishness.” Arilan is thinking it’s time Gwynedd had a new Primate—not himself, of course, he’s too young, but someone he approves of.

Finally Loris calms down and makes a speech, half apology, half anti-Deryni propaganda. He calls for the formal excommunication of both Morgan and Duncan tonight after Compline. He pretends to be open to opposing arguments, but of course nobody attempts one.

Once Loris has said his piece and swept out, Cardiel calls Arilan out of the uproar that results, and invites him to a private, ahem, meditation in his personal chapel. They put on a little show for anyone who might be listening, then beat a quick retreat to the “sound-proofed” chapel (and now we’re up to the twentieth century—this book is big on the time travel).

Once they’re alone and unheard, they relax into easy friendship. Arilan notes that they have to go along with the majority of the Curia on Morgan and Duncan, for reasons of political safety, but not on the Interdict. Cardiel surprises Arilan: not only does he not think Morgan and Duncan are guilty of more than self-defense, he doesn’t believe in the inherent evil of Deryni.

It’s good Cardiel hasn’t told anyone else, Arilan says. The Curia wouldn’t understand. But Arilan does, says Cardiel, and so does God. That’s enough to go on with.

Arilan agrees. Now they have to discuss ways to increase the size of their faction.

Chapter 15 sees Morgan and Duncan arriving at Saint Neot’s in a howling thunderstorm. Morgan is in terrible shape. Duncan tucks him into the driest spot he can find and goes in search of a Transfer Portal. Morgan offers to help, but he’s too far gone. Duncan invokes a Deryni sleep spell to make sure he stays put.

Then he goes hunting through the ruins, while the storm continues to rage, and his imagination conjures memories of long-gone sacred rituals. He squeezes through fallen debris into the sacristy—and triggers a psychic alarm.

It’s a magical warning to any Deryni who might come looking for the Portal, left by the last survivor of a hundred monks. He tried to destroy the Portal before it could be “desecrated,” and left the warning, with the poignant line, “The humans kill what they do not understand,” and a last, desperate invocation to Saint Camber.

Duncan of course has to make sure the Portal was actually destroyed. Sure enough, there’s nothing there. He and Morgan will have to get to Kelson in Rhemuth the old-fashioned way, and be prepared to ride to Culdi right after that for Bronwyn’s wedding. He goes to wake Morgan and get started.

While Duncan does his best to elude pursuit, the Curia gathers for the great and terrible rite of excommunication. We see it in detail, gesture for gesture and word for word. Then at the end, when all the candles have been dashed to the floor, one still remains alight. No one knows whose it is.

And I’m Thinking: But I read ahead, and I have a suspicion. I won’t spoiler it for those who are reading along in order.

Compared to the last three chapters, which were heavy on the eyeroll factor especially when it came to the female characters, these three are nonstop with the action and the drama. Duncan and Morgan manage to burn down Saint Torin’s, Morgan comes in for some casual and not so casual torture, Duncan gets to buckle every swash in sight, and one of Loris’ wet dreams is finally realized. We get to see Warin as Evil Overlord, and we meet a new pair of besties: Arilan and Cardiel, who are remarkably comfortable and sure of themselves while the world is erupting around them.

When I first read the book, I thought, goodness, pushing and just past forty are young? And Tolliver is fifty. That’s so old. Now I’m like, wow. They are just kids. They have the same cocky confidence Morgan does, though they’re about a decade older and considerably more savvy about how they get their way.

(Also, you know, the idea that medieval people were old at thirty? does not explain why thirty-seven-year-old Peter Abelard was regarded as this fiery young whippersnapper, though it was slightly skeevy that he had an affair with seventeen-year-old Heloise. Kurtz knew that very well, and here are two prelates of Abelardian vintage, quietly conspiring while the old guard tramples ahead with its bigotry and unexamined hate.)

There are some truly wonderful bits here. That line: The humans kill what they do not understand. It gave me the shivers. Still does. The haunting ruin of Saint Neot’s sank into my consciousness and became the living abbey of St. Ruan’s (ruins, get it?), and the ritual of excommunication taught me more about medieval religious and cultural underpinnings than any of the textbooks I was reading in my classes at the time.

I really got the horror of what was being done, and the absolute ruthlessness of it: consigning souls to damnation by ripping them away from the Church. It took real hate to spearhead this, and real fear on the part of the Curia to go along with it.

It’s hard for moderns, especially American Protestant* Christians, to understand how awful this was. The Church was the path to eternal life. There wasn’t any alternative. If you weren’t in good standing with the Church, you didn’t get a pass to Heaven, and you were guaranteed a spot in Hell.

*That’s one of the key things the rebels of the Reformation were protesting against: the idea that salvation was only attainable through the medium of a priest and the blessing of an all-powerful Church.

The whole culture was built around the idea that human life was a brief interval during which a person had to do everything he could to qualify for the big reward: eternity in Heaven, next to God. One way to do so was to do lots of good deeds. But he also had to make sure he ticked off all the boxes of Church requirements—Mass, sacraments, confession—and most important, was given the Last Rites immediately before death. Those were a sort of spiritual hard reboot, deleting all the dying person’s sins, so he died with a clean soul.

If he didn’t meet these qualifications, he might, provided his compliance score was high enough, get a further probationary period in Purgatory, which was not a nice place to be. Otherwise, that was it. He was done. He went forever and ever to Hell, which first and foremost was the absence of God. Which meant no joy. No light. No hope. Nothing. For eternity.

That’s what the Curia has done to Morgan and Duncan, and what conventional thinking decrees for Deryni. They’re bad to the bone, and there’s no salvation for them. They’re the Devil’s own.

Which means that Cardiel’s little speech is radical: in fact it’s heresy. And heresy is another terrible awful horrible thing which leads to the stake Morgan is so absolutely appalled by.

Warin…well. Let’s read on and see what I ended up thinking about him. Here, he’s a pretty standard sneer-and-gloat villain. Gorony is suitably slimy and Loris is a complete bigot. Seeing him through Arilan and Cardiel’s eyes as a ranting fool is interesting, but I agree with them: he might be an idiot but he’s genuinely dangerous.

Kind of apt, right here and now in these United States. Come to think of it.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in 2015. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.


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