By the Sword ends with a series of battles. The Skybolts, in combination with the Heralds and Valdemar’s regular army take on Ancar’s troops. Kerowyn’s initial strategy is to lead Ancar’s troops into a series of traps and drag them up the border towards Iftel. Daren is expected to come up from the south with the Rethwellan regulars. Ancar’s army proves larger and more inexhaustible than anticipated, and Daren and his troops are nowhere in sight. The Heralds plan to extract Selenay to a place of safety while the Skybolts make a last stand. Then, miraculously, Daren’s troops flank the Hardornens.
These events are dramatic because they aren’t just propelling the characters—they’re reshaping the entire kingdom of Valdemar.
Valdemaran culture and its national defenses have been built around its magelessness for almost a thousand years. Mages can’t work inside the country. People in Valdemar or within striking distance of a Companion have not been able to discuss Mages other than as history or legend. LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE ON THE PLANET HAS MAGES so this has been a huge cultural blind spot. I have not determined which recent events have convinced the Companions that this had to change. Whatever it was has to have happened before Elspeth was Chosen. It might have been Elspeth’s Mage Gift, which also set off the current conflict with Ancar. It might have been Hulda, who must have been aware of conditions in Valdemar, and how to avoid triggering the vrondi, before she arrived. It might have been Orthallen, who may have known that Kris was a Mage and may have built some of his conspiracies around his knowledge about Kris and other Mages within Valdemar. It could have been the Companions themselves, noticing an increasing number of Mages among the Heralds, which would strongly imply that the kingdom would have need of them. Or maybe they just thought having Herald-Mages again would be good PR. I am increasingly persuaded that Companions are not above being manipulative if they think it serves the greater good. Whatever the reason, the Companions are clearly tweaking Vanyel’s protections and changing the Web that links the Heralds together.
The first example of the changes in the Web is Iftel, which, like magic, is almost impossible for the people of Valdemar to talk about. WTF, Vanyel? It shares more than half of their eastern border! Since it is absolutely necessary for the Council to discuss Iftel when planning Valdemar’s defense against Hardorn, we get a whole paragraph about it now. Iftel has its own standing army, has no bandits and never hires mercenaries, despite having creatures as strange as some of those found in the Pelagirs. They prefer not to work with Heralds (I’m guessing this is because a lot of their government officials are Mages and having Companions around is inconvenient) but Iftel is otherwise friendly. This is a subtle reminder of Elsepth the Peacemaker’s marriage of alliance, back in Vanyel’s time. Something mysterious (I’m guessing a lot of Mages) keeps hostile armies from crossing Iftel’s borders. Kerowyn’s initial plan for dealing with Ancar’s armies involves bouncing them off of this border. I’m sure Iftel is thrilled, although this becomes irrelevant when Kerowyn’s plan fails.
Kerowyn’s plan looks brilliant at first. Ancar’s army treks into a swamp, and Need helps Kerowyn take out one of Ancar’s Mages. He’s riding a cow. Suddenly this army doesn’t look so intimidating. The Skybolts have miscalculated, however, by assuming that Ancar’s forces face normal human limits. Hardorn’s troops have been forcibly conscripted, and their families killed to provide the power source for the blood magic that controls them. Daren discovers this when Kerowyn’s retreating mages run into him on their way back to Bolthaven. Quenten and the rest of the Skybolts’ Mage corps tell Daren to delay crossing into Valdemar as long as possible, so instead of crossing the Comb directly into Valdemar, Rethwellan’s troops march through Karse and part of Hardorn. Karse is busy having a civil war (there are more Sun Priestesses involved) so their army does not notice. I’m not sure how Daren’s army got away with invading Hardorn, but their discovery of some gruesomely massacred villages sheds a lot of light on the strategic situation. En route, Daren also discovers a MindGift—he has Earth Sensing. This seems like something that Kethry or Waarl might have noticed while he was living with them. Or, possibly, Daren didn’t have a Mind Gift then, and does now that he is approaching Valdemar’s borders. Who can say what Rolan and Ahrodie got up to while they were in Rethwellan? Daren’s Earth Sensing provides a moment of contrast between Ancar’s forces and Kerowyn’s. While the Skybolts have been sustainably pruning willow groves, Ancar’s mages have blighted the land.
With Daren delayed and Ancar’s troops being relentlessly driven into Valdemar, things look bleak for the combined forces facing Hardorn. At the last possible minute, Daren and the Skybolts’ Mages free the zombie armies of Hardorn, who turn on their officers in homicidal rage. This is super-convenient for Kero. It’s also a great demonstration of how Mages don’t have to be Vanyel-class to have a major impact on events. One Mage who can find stuff, plus one Mage who can move stuff, equals one knife strategically embedded in the back of the guy controlling the army and a dramatic reversal of Valdemar’s fortunes.
Valdemar’s ragtag army still has to fight the final battle. In the chaos, Hellsbane is killed. Kerowyn’s first Hellsbane was a gift from Tarma when she rode off to join the Skybolts. There have been several Hellsbanes since that time, with some dying in battle and some retiring as brood mares with Clan Talesedrin on the Plains. All have been smart, loyal, and indispensable to Kerowyn’s work. The current Hellsbane takes a sword to the heart while trampling some of Kerowyn’s attackers. Her self-sacrifice was only one small part of what made her one of the greatest of her name. In the heat of battle, Kerowyn has no time to mourn, but looks for the nearest riderless horse. And hey! There is one! It’s an ugly shade of yellow. New Horse and Kerowyn finish the battle before it shakes the dust out of its coat, looks deep into her eyes, and Chooses her.
Kerowyn’s new Companion is named Sayvil. It’s Vanyel’s bitchy polyamorous aunt in equine form, providing another subtle reminder of Vanyel’s time! She must have been waiting just out of sight until Hellsbane fell. Daren loses his horse too. He gets Chosen mid-battle by the Companion Jasan. It’s Savil’s sometimes-insensitive lover! At this point, the subtext has become text. Jaysen was also a pretty powerful Mage, and his last known death was a direct result of his shock at learning that Vanyel was Jisa’s father. That’s an interesting piece of information to reintroduce into the Heraldic Circle, should the Companions choose to do so. It looks like Valdemar decided it needs its Herald-Mages back in an advisory capacity.
Being Chosen in the middle of a battle seems inconveniently distracting, but Daren has a busy schedule today. When the battle ends, he looks into Selenay’s eyes and is also lifebonded. Princess Juliet Habsburg-Lannister is pleased that Valdemar is acquiring Daren’s military expertise, and that his Choosing allows him to rule as co-consort. Lifebonds conquer all, so apparently her being his dead brother’s ex-wife isn’t incredibly awkward. Daren and Kerowyn are now tied to Valdemar for good. The Skybolts get a border town. Quenten takes over Bolthaven as a White Winds Mage School. Clan Talesedrin moves their horse fair. This resolution feels suspiciously tidy for events of such magnitude.
And thus ends the Valdemar re-read. I started this project, back in October, because I felt that these books were important. I still feel that way—Vanyel was in the vanguard of the cultural changes that led to last week’s Supreme Court decision recognizing marriage equality. Vanyel, and Lackey’s other LGBT characters, don’t behave like they were created to teach a lesson. Lackey isn’t immune to being preachy, but most of the time, her characters just live their truth. Amidst the fantasy of the magic powers, the psychic-horse Companions, the instantaneous bonding of souls, the crises and conspiracies, some of the most radical things Lackey’s characters do are also the most ordinary. Other aspects of my view of Valdmar have changed. I have learned so much about Velgarth’s geography—I can now draw the map of Valdemar and its neighbors from memory. I have embraced my fascination with Valdemar’s infrastructure, politics, economy, financial systems, and cuisine. And I have been SO THRILLED each and every single time someone read, liked, shared, tweeted, or commented. It’s been an adventure. Thank you for reading!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.