In last week’s blog post, Kerowyn committed to hauling herself and her mercenary company from Bolthaven (location unknown, but likely in or near Rethwellan), to Valdemar to fulfill Rethwellan’s promises, defend the realm from the evil sorcery of Ancar of Hardorn and his former nanny, answer the stirrings of Need, and possibly be reunited with her lover, the Herald Eldan.
It’s been a long time since Hulda appeared in the books, even though it’s only been a year or two since the characters on the page had to deal with her. When last we saw Hulda, she was all-but-humping Ancar’s leg while torturing Talia. The time before that, she was plotting evilly with parties unknown (but almost certainly Orthallen) to deprive Elspeth of the throne—she sort of graduated from a plot to ruin the life of an innocent child to a plan to arrange a marriage between that child and another kid who she had more successfully corrupted.
We won’t see Hulda again in this book—evidently, her plans keep her palace-based. But the plan we are looking at is, quite certainly, her plan. Or at least, her third plan, since the first two didn’t work out. These plots have been far more baroque and intense than anything that would be required by mundane territorial and political ambitions. Why is Hulda so interested in Elspeth? The answer to that question has a lot to do with Need stirring, Kerowyn heading towards Valdemar, and a certain princess being a descendent of Vanyel and having a top-secret Grove Born Companion. Elspeth hasn’t made an appearance in this book yet, but the awesome power of her protagonism is warping events across the surrounding kingdoms.
Kerowyn’s journey towards Elspeth began years ago, when she tried and failed to explain Magic and Mages to Eldan as they fled the Sun Priestesses of Karse. The final part of her path is more direct. She’s taking the Skybolts on a winter march from Rethwellan to Valdemar. The last winter march the Skybolts went on ended in disaster and mutiny. This one is much more orderly. Due to Kerowyn’s strategic leadership, every Skybolt now has his or her own string of Shin’a’in bred horses. They travel light, even in winter. The quartermaster wins hearts and minds by buying food from farmers as the Bolts cross the countryside. They stay warm at night in clever felt-lined dome tents. The tents are supported by poles cut from willow trees, which means, of course, that I have spent a good portion of the last week pondering the pervasiveness of willow groves in the various kingdoms of Velgarth as an indicator of climate zones and a marker of the Skybolts operational range. Rethwellan, Karse, Menmellith, and Valdemar certainly all share a temperate/cold climate roughly equivalent to USDA hardiness zones 2-6. It seems likely that a large portion of Hardorn and Iftel do as well. And I think the Skybolts probably don’t do any campaigning on the Dhorisha Plains. Willow trees respond well to periodic pruning, and Kerowyn’s concern for their fate highlights the Skybolts’ efforts towards ecological conservation.
Since she is a dramatically better leader than the last captain to take the Skybolts anywhere during the winter, Kerowyn has to sit on her horse and wait outside her tent until all the tents are pitched and someone has dug a latrine. Her feet get cold because riding boots that fit well in a stirrup do not provide much in the way of insulation. My impulse here is to write a short monograph on the history and utility of the stirrup, but I think we’re probably meant to notice Kerowyn’s commitment to duty, and to seeing that her people are cared for. She’s like a Herald without a country.
The Skybolts’ Mages make it two days past the Valdemar border. The sensation of constantly being watched by the vrondi works as Vanyel had originally intended it would. The strategic value of a mage’s potential contributions to the coming war means nothing to a small blue spirit from another plane. This is a telling demonstration of the drawbacks of Vanyel’s work—after all these years, no one knows how to turn off the alarm system. The effects of Vanyel’s spells are loosening enough that the Skybolts can tell the people of Valdemar about killing Mages. That’s handy.
Kerowyn herself also nearly flees Valdemar, because people keep singing her The Song—you know, the one about The Ride—usually out of key. If there is one sequence in the Valdemar series that begs for a colorful YouTube video, this is it. It’s like the Hero of Canton with a children’s choir and a hurdy-gurdy. Kero’s sense of humor sees her through to Haven, which is far away from the relevant border. But, of course, she has to go there because she has to meet Elspeth. Selenay has assigned Elspeth to be Kerowyn’s liaison.
Need has been quiet for a long time, more or less since Kerowyn crossed into Bad Roomate territory by refusing to ever rescue any women in peril. Since stirring on that evening in Rethwellan, she’s gone back to being quiet. On Kerowyn’s first encounter with Elspeth, however, Need sings. She clearly wants to be passed on, and she has identified her next bearer. Kerowyn declines to hand Need over immediately—she’s unwilling to drop the sword on Elspeth without warning, and she needs it herself in the upcoming military campaign. To be fair, this campaign is being fought to defend Elsepth’s crown. I think it might have been very interesting if Elspeth had faced Ancar’s army with Need in hand, but I can also see how that story might have been very short.
Tune in next week for more military liaisons, the return of Herald Eldan, and, of course, the invasion!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.