This section is a classic.
There are a lot of books where a character runs away from home and sells their sword. There are a lot of books where a teenage character finds a mentor. The world of fantasy is full of magical artifacts that compel characters into interesting and improbable situations. And people fall in love and then back out of it every day of the week.
And then there’s this section of By the Sword, which has all of those things in the best possible way.
The section we dealt with last week was structured around questions at the crossroads. As Kerowyn rode to rescue Dierna, Tarma asked her why she dared, and as Kerowyn left the Keep to ride to the Tower, Tarma asked what took her so long. Tarma comes to the forefront in this section. Readers familiar with Oathbound and Oathbreakers will remember that she was always pragmatic but also relentlessly driven—she was on a Shin’a’in vendetta to avenge her slain clan, the Talesedrin. Here, we see her in a mellower age, her clan avenged and, thanks to Kethry’s biological contributions, beginning to be rebuilt. Kerowyn wants to be a mercenary and has no Mage Gifts, so Tarma is her teacher.
And, thrillingly, so is Waarl, the kyree who was the wolf-y part of the team back in the Oath books. Kerowyn is a MindSpeaker. The initial teachings—just enough to keep the thoughts around her from driving her mad—came from a book that Kethry covertly arranged to have delivered to the Keep. I’m thrilled to know that, somewhere on Velgarth, some printing house is churning out instructional manuals on managing Mind Gifts for those solitary unfortunates with no local experts or psychic animals to help them in their hour of need. I trust they know the value of their service, and I want to know everything about them. However, a young mercenary needs more than book learning. Kerowyn is unwilling to talk to her grandmother about her MindSpeech, so Waarl gives her lessons, mostly late at night.
During the day, Tarma teaches Kerowyn sword-fighting, tracking, and tactics. For strength and conditioning, she chops wood that Tarma has strapped to trees at odd angles. While Kerowyn has chosen to become a mercenary, her success is not a foregone conclusion—all she proved on The Ride was that she could let herself be wielded by Need. Tarma and Kethry have back-up plans for Kerowyn; She could join the Clan on the Dhorisha Plains. There is a certain honesty in providing Kerowyn with a second career option, but Kerowyn doesn’t need it. She’s an apt and eager pupil. In service of providing her with some competition, while also doing a favor for an old friend, Tarma takes on a second student.
The old friend is the King of Rethwellan, and the student is Darenthallis, the king’s third son. Daren is being sent away from court to put a stop to the constant friction between him and his older brother, the guy Selenay eventually marries. Daren’s oldest brother has been spoken for by the sword that selects Rethwellan’s rulers and will inherit. Because OF COURSE there is a sword. You can’t just leave the succession up to chance. Daren is being trained to serve as a commander in his brother’s army, and eventually as his Lord Martial.
At first, Daren and Kerowyn hate each other. Daren is patronizing, in addition to being wealthy and royal. He assumes that Kerowyn is a student of Kethry’s, learning a little sword work for some trivial reason. Kerowyn is annoyed with Daren’s attitude and jealous of Tarma’s attention. They antagonize and undermine each other until Tarma forces them into a teambuilding exercise. They’re supposed to be tracking Waarl together, but the crux of Tarma’s plan is that they can’t come back into the Tower until they cooperate. It takes some head injuries and a cold night sleeping rough in the rain, but they come around.
When Lackey writes two characters of the same age and the opposite sex in an isolated location, they virtually always end up in bed. And indeed, once they are on speaking terms, Daren and Kerowyn come together like they have magnets in their bathing suit parts. This is not meant to be a deathless love. Tarma reminds Kerowyn that even if they were in love, Daren is a prince of the blood, and not free to marry penniless aspiring mercenaries. Kerowyn is a realist. She’s simply excited about wanting and being wanted. Daren is inept.
Their love scene wends its adorable way through a checklist of romantic clichés. They have both a pillow fight AND a tickle fight. Daren fumbles with the lacings on the cuffs of his shirt and finally snaps them. Kerowyn is tingly, and then on fire. And just as Kerowyn is getting really into the moment, Daren finishes and falls asleep. The princes of Rethwellan have not earned themselves a good reputation as lovers.
Shortly after the death of Daren’s brother, Thanel, as a result of his attempt to assassinate Selenay, Daren’s father also dies. His oldest brother, now King of Rethwellan, calls him home. Grappling with a combination of grief for his father and excitement about taking his place in his brother’s court, Daren proposes to Kero. And here, Lackey brings the adolescent love affair back into line with the “questions at the crossroads” narrative that she has built throughout Part I of the book. Will Kerowyn give up her career plans for a conventional, but highly privileged life?
Absolutely not. She’s been trying to think of a way to scrape Daren off for months. Need chose Kerowyn for reasons that Daren has failed to understand. He loves her because she’s different from all the other women he knows, and consequently, he wants her to become like all those other women. Kerowyn has a magic sword and years of training. Her plan for the next five years involves a contract with a mercenary company, not light hunting and finger sandwiches. Daren goes home, and Tarma sends Kerowyn to join the Skybolts. Mercenary companies have the best names.
Tune in next week for chapters 11-14!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.