Titling this blog post was a struggle.
Last week I used a location. Kerowyn’s location is kind of a big deal in these chapters, so I could have stuck with that theme and called this “Karse.” The week before that, I used a career milestone, so I could have returned to that theme and called it “Skybolts.” Or, I could be really honest about the central focus of what I’m about to write.
If you’ve gotten this far, you already know how that went.
When we left Kerowyn last week, she had turned down Daren’s proposal of marriage and was preparing to join the Skybolts, a mercenary company of good repute. When we rejoin her this week, she’s well-established with the Bolts. She’s in command of a team of scouts. Need continues to play an active role in her life and has been persuaded to act as a team player—the Skybolt’s Mage has convinced her to protect the entire company from Magical attack. The relationship between Kerowyn and Need is starting to look a little lopsided—Need is magnanimously shielding all of Kerowyn’s co-workers, but Kerowyn hasn’t rescued any women since The Ride.
The Skybolts are in Menmellith as part of a multi-company mercenary team fighting bandits on the Menmellith/Karse border. I love Karse. I’m not a huge fan of its ruling class of theocratic fascists, but I’m impressed by their ability to create a totalitarian state in a pre-industrial society with no mass media. The Sunpriests’ ongoing efforts to maintain control ensure that Karse is a thrilling vortex of dirt and danger. So naturally, Kerowyn goes there. The Skybolts are attacked and routed. On the retreat, they split up to mislead their attackers, until finally, Kerowyn is alone on the wrong side of the border. Need is excited about this—there are definitely some women in peril in Karse! Kero has to fight Need over not riding to their rescue, and starts having dreams about an old woman and her adolescent apprentice. I infer that something in Karse has started the process of waking Need up.
Kerowyn has to hide from her pursuers, and from the priests of the Sunlord, who are unusually ubiquitous in this section of By the Sword. She risks capture to rescue Herald Eldan, whose been picked up by a sadistic priestess and is facing certain torture. We’ve met Eldan before. He was the storyteller who was performing when Talia, Dirk, and Kris arrived at the party in Arrow’s Flight and was later seen snuggling with Selenay. Eldan acknowledges this aspect of his romantic past early on, I guess in case Kerowyn ever visits Valdemar and hears about it. He claims he didn’t know Selenay was the heir, which is just a stupid statement to make. There aren’t that many Heralds. The man is a spy. Failure to spot royalty at close range is a disqualification for that line of work.
Kerowyn also shares her romantic past, which consists entirely of Daren. It’s been a long dry spell. But what with tending each other’s wounds, and MindSpeaking each other—Kerowyn has never before had a mind-to-mind conversation with a human, apparently MindSpeech carries quite the stigma in the mercenary community—and fleeing the Karsite Sun Priestesses who are doggedly stalking them, they find time for quite a lot of sex. Eldan is impressed by how much sex there is, which is saying something because he’s a Herald. Kerowyn and Eldan are living rough, so it makes sense that they would find a variety of places to have sex that many readers might find uncomfortable under usual circumstances. Like in the tree, where they’re hiding while waiting for a Karsite patrol to move on.
Tree sex seems to me to carry a range of risks that make it inadvisable for anyone not equipped with an ekele (which would be much more like having sex in a house with a tree growing through it than like having sex in a tree). For one thing, there’s the risk of falling. In the Collegium Chronicles, Mercedes Lackey was so concerned about the fall injuries that she described the safety features of Kirball equipment. But when a mercenary and a Herald have sex in a tree, falling is NBD. Trees also carry other risks. Like sap in unpleasant places. And barkburn. And encounters with possibly quite large populations of insects.
I’m not entirely opposed to romance. Kerowyn and Eldan are precisely the sort of people who should fall in love. They’re adults. Their initial attraction is explained by the dramatic circumstances of their meeting, and then deepens as they get to know each other. They actually have conversations. But while they’re having sex in one tree and an assortment of caves, we’re watching them go at it, rather than looking at what’s going on around them.
Something is going on in Karse that has lead to an unusually large number of brainwashed priestesses with MindGifts trying to track Eldan and Kerowyn down. Need seems to be attracting them. I can think of a lot of exciting things that could happen if you put a Herald, a mercenary, a brainwashed Sun Priestess and a magic sword together in a cave. I don’t get to see any of them.
Kerowyn’s goal is to escort Eldan back to Valdemar, collect a ransom for him, and return to the Skybolts in Menmellith. Eldan and his Companion Ratha would like to get Kerowyn over the border into Valdemar. All Kero knows about Valdemar is that her grandmother visited once and didn’t enjoy it. Eldan thinks Kerowyn will like Valdemar so much she’ll want to stay. Ratha is also certain it would be awesome if Kerowyn visited Valdemar. He refuses to explain why in a way that implies that he has got a squad of ninja-Companions waiting at the border, and is having to forcibly remind himself that there are some important distinctions between a Herald’s Choosing and an abduction.
Kerowyn is the most pragmatic of this trio, and the only one who can understand the connection between the Sun Priestesses’ interest in her and Eldan and Need. Her efforts to explain this to Eldan are undermined by Vanyel’s Curse (although, in the moment, Kerowyn blames Need). She can’t abandon the sword—she’s bonded to it, and she can’t risk letting it fall into the hands of a Sun Priestess. After multiple failures to cross any border out of Karse with Eldan and Ratha, Kerowyn sneaks away in the night. She leaves behind her heart, and a note reminding Eldan that he promised she would get paid for rescuing him.
Tune in next week for Kero’s further adventures with the Skybolts!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.