The Valdemar Reread

By the Sword: The Ride

Mercedes Lackey doesn’t exactly play her cards close to her chest. Sure, sometimes you get an unexpected descendant of Vanyel or a series of events that seems like it must be Orthallen’s fault but which is never actually confirmed to be his doing, but major events are usually foreshadowed well in advance. If foreshadowed is the right word for “discussed in detail by multiple characters before the trilogy in which this event is the climax is even dreamt of by readers.”

And so it is with The Ride, which was featured in one of the songs that was included in the liner notes at the end of Arrow’s Fall.

In the song, Kerowyn (whose name scans beautifully) rides to save her brother’s bride. She is confronted by an old woman who orders her to choose a more stereotypically feminine role. Kerowyn asserts that she has no choice, as her father is dead and her brother is wounded. She then asks her grandmother for help, and receives Need the magic sword. Followers of last week’s comment thread should note that the song is said to have originated “several lands to Valdemar’s south” which is a boon to the faction that believes that By the Sword does not begin in Rethwellan.

When we meet Kerowyn, she’s in the kitchen of her father’s keep, directing a motley collection of inexperienced waiters. They are serving a seemingly interminable wedding feast, and apparently most of the budget was blown on the chef, who is a genius at sculpting bread dough. Bread is not an easy medium to work in, people! The bread sculpture of the stag and reclining doe (which was somehow made from dough that had raisins in it) must have been an engineering miracle. Kerowyn is distracted from the artistic genius in her presence by the incompetence of the waitstaff, and by her own inner monologue.

Although she is the bridegroom’s sister, Kerowyn is spending the wedding feast in the kitchen because her father did not hire a housekeeper to manage the Keep after Kerowyn’s mother died. Consequently, Kerowyn has been forced into a position of heavy household responsibility without being properly educated for it. She’s doing a great job yelling at the stableboys who have been pressed into service for this occasion, but she’s in over her head. Her father never sent her to the convent school where girls learn to manage keeps, not that she wanted to go. Because of her lack of education, she hasn’t managed to plan so she can spend the feast with her father and brother, looking for a future husband of her own, not that she wants a husband. And not that she wants to be at the feast, because she finds her brother’s bride, Dierna, sort of annoying. Kerowyn doesn’t know what she wants. She’s a seething mass of adolescent rage.

Just as it starts to look like Kerowyn might hurt someone in the kitchen, screaming is heard from the Great Hall. The kitchen staff bar the door and defend themselves until the attackers finish killing people upstairs and kidnap the bride. Kerowyn’s father is dead and her brother is gravely wounded. As the servants and the surviving women tend to the wounded, Kerowyn puts on her brother’s armor, saddles her horse, and rides for her grandmother’s tower to seek help in rescuing Dierna. The song cuts out at this point—it ends with Kethry giving Need to Kerowyn. We’re in uncharted territory now. Need and Kerowyn are on this mission together. They ride into the bandit camp, kill some sentries and take down a Mage. To Dierna’s abductors, it looks like Kerowyn is kicking ass and taking names. Need is doing most of the heavy lifting. Tarma and Warrl show up to help with the clean-up.

Dierna provides a counterpoint to Kerowyn in this section of the book. Although she is a year or two younger than Kerowyn, Dierna has the convent education that Kerowyn both envies and despises. What Dierna doesn’t have is agency. She’s a very young teenager, and her behavior in groups of peers is decidedly adolescent. On her own, however, Dierna is highly practical. Following her rescue, Dierna holds back Kero’s hair while she vomits, then searches the camp for her wedding presents. She’s relieved to hear that Kero’s brother, Lordan, has survived, because he’s “a very nice boy.” She’s really in to the fiber arts.

Kerowyn has few skills, a very small network of family relationships, and no romantic prospects at all. It’s fortunate for her that her estranged-but-caring grandmother had a magic sword on hand. Since Kerowyn has no magical abilities and few applicable fighting skills, Need takes over at several crucial points in the rescue, killing some bandits and a Mage. After the rescue, she returns to the Keep with Dierna, helps tend the wounded and restore order, and tries to figure out what to do with herself.

An important theme in both the song and the story surrounds the idea that Kerowyn’s actions are driven by necessity, and she has no choice but to defy traditional gender roles. But she did have a choice—she could have stayed home. Kerowyn made her initial choice quickly, but thoughtfully. She defended her decision to Tarma, her grandmother’s partner, who questioned her on the road. After the rescue Kerowyn finds herself wrestling with it again. Although Dierna is glad to be alive and her family is glad to have her back (with the possible exception of an evil uncle who is never mentioned again), they are unsettled by Kerowyn. This is an uncomfortable situation for Kero, who has more choices than Dierna but no clear plan for her future. Dierna’s life was threatened by a blood-mage with a magical leech. The threat facing Kerowyn—a life of boredom in the stillroom – is less literal but just as deadly.

Once again, Tarma and Kethry’s help is instrumental to a rescue. As the section ends, Kerowyn follows Tarma and Kethry out of the Keep to begin her education as a mercenary. Tune in next week for chapters 6-11!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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