Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Stronghold!
This week the war goes on, several endearing minor characters die tragically, Andry continues to be Andry, Pol continues to be Pol, and it’s all about Rohan as usual—with bonus dragon magic!
Stronghold: Chapters 21-25
So This Happens: As Chapter 21 begins, we’re in love with Rohan again and always. This time he enters Stronghold, awes yet another newcomer with his unparalleled charisma, and is, once again, azhrei or Dragon Prince. All this loveity-love-love makes me constantly hold my breath for him to get killed off. Because that’s usually what happens when the adoration ramps up to sixty-three out of ten.
Meanwhile Andry finally reacts to Brenlis’ death by freezing out the rest of his children and obsessing over his daughter with Brenlis, Merisel. Even she can’t keep him from going on a horseback ride to get away from his responsibilities as well as the refugee camp outside Goddess Keep, however, though he can’t escape alone: Tobren’s mother Rusina and her husband Oclel insist on accompanying him. A cheery outing with wildflowers turns tragic when the horses apparently escape, and Oclel dies (offstage) in the subsequent ambush. Andry fights them with Fire as he tries to get to the Goddess’ circle. Rusina sprains her ankle (my personal least favorite of all ways to slow down an escape) and assumes Andry’s face, apparently to help him escape.
Birioc leaves Swalekeep with great satisfaction, summing up in detail all the plots, plans, and politics of the war. He is looking forward to restoring Merida rule in the Desert. With himself, of course, as lord of them all.
Rialt, it turns out, is still at Swalekeep, and “horrified” by what has been going on in secret between Chiana and the enemy. He has help from Princess Naydra and the somewhat unfortunately named young Princess Palila, Chiana’s neglected daughter (explicit echo of Meiglan’s unhappy childhood there). Naydra is devoted to Pol and Rohan, and lets Rialt know Chiana has a job to keep him occupied (and presumably distracted from her undercover activities): overseeing shipping. This is much to his taste.
Palila, it turns out, has overheard Birioc admitting to (or bragging on) his Merida ancestry. Rialt wants to send word to Pol, but the resident Sunrunner is found conveniently murdered.
As this is happening, Rohan is in a right taking over Pol’s being out too long fighting the enemy. Rohan and Sioned have a spat over it, until Tobin intervenes. Pol, as she observes, has outgrown his too-obedient childhood.
Suddenly he appears with Kazander, in great high spirits, which further erodes Rohan’s temper. Myrdal saves the day, defuses Rohan’s temper, and allows Sioned to explain matters to Pol later. Pol doesn’t get why it’s such a problem that he was a little bit late. Sioned spells it out to him in detail and over his objections. He’s the heir. His safety is paramount.
The main debate here is between Rohan’s pacifist beliefs and the reality of war, and Pol’s practicality over Rohan’s idealism. Sioned tries again to get him to swear the Sunrunner’s oath not to kill with Fire, but Pol refuses. He needs to be able to do whatever is necessary. “Let me be what I am.”
Sioned continues to try, and fails as she has before, by saying the wrong things—and bringing up Andry, who is, as Pol notes bitterly, as expendable as everyone else but Pol.
Andry (who would take serious issue with his expendability) is captive, and his captors are perfectly calm about the fact there appears to be two of him. They’re wise to sorcerers’ tricks. Andry meanwhile is treating this as an opportunity to learn more about the enemy, and encouraging Rusina to escape. The lesson of the scene is that he isn’t adored as Rohan and Pol are, but his office commands loyalty.
Maarken in the meantime lays a successful ambush and destroys a troop of Vellant’im. (I think we’re supposed to get the contrast between Andry in captivity and his brother in charge, and Andry the autocrat and Maarken the, sort of, kind of, if you squint sideways, populist.)
Andry, having overheard a great deal of the enemy’s plans, makes his move. In the process he discovers that some of the enemy, in attempting to wear the Sunrunners’ rings, have betrayed the presence of sorcerous powers.
The escape does not go as planned. Rusina is killed. Most of the enemy die or are flattened by Fire. Andry is in bad shape; he passes out.
Chapter 22 shifts to Birioc. His plans are in motion and so is he. His relatives, unfortunately, aren’t entirely on board with his becoming Miyon’s legal heir.
Sionell and Tallain share a few moments before Tallain rides off to help her brother Jahnavi quash Birioc’s ambitions. Sionell is tart, as usual, and practical, as always.
Andry wakes in Goddess Keep. His horse came home without him, and his people went searching. Valeda fills him in on the events of the past three days. One of the enemy is still alive, though barely. Andry plans a public execution.
Chayla and Kazander share a few moments atop the Flametower (it’s couples week in this section). They’re still trying to figure out the enemy, including the older men’s tendency to carry little dragon figurines. They’re also clearly drawn to each other.
Suddenly they see riders—Meath, with escort, barely escaping the enemy.
Meath has news and messages from Prince Chadric, and is somewhat shocked to see how much Sioned has aged. Sioned is severely stressed by the rift between Rohan and Pol over the conduct of the war. So is Meath, once he experiences it in person. He and Maarken discuss the situation, with all its complex family dynamics and political ramifications. They also discuss the difficulty and frustration of Sunrunner communications in winter weather.
After Maarken leaves, Rohan comes in for much the same discussion. It revolves ultimately around the Sunrunner’s oath, which Pol has not sworn and Meath (and Maarken) has. This is a major theme throughout the books. Meath won’t commit himself to break the oath, but he swears fealty to Rohan and his family.
Miyon and the Merida are plotting evilly. Miyon is going to pay a visit to his grandchildren, Pol’s daughters. He knows who and what Birioc is; he’ll name him heir if he wins the Desert.
Maybe. He hasn’t firmly decided which side he wants to be on. Yet.
The Merida have set Tuath ablaze. Tallain arrives too late, and finds Jahnavi dead (offstage), though his wife and children are alive. Tallain swears vengeance against the Merida.
Birioc and his brothers are not in harmony. There is talk of how terrible an opponent Rohan is—others, too, but it’s always about Rohan. Birioc does not intend his brothers to survive the war.
As Chapter 23 begins, Rohan and Sioned share a moment. They anguish over the rift with Pol, and Rohan goes through one of his patented rounds of passionate self-doubt. Sioned goes through one of her patented rounds of being totally and absolutely about Rohan.
Andry visits the refugee camp outside Goddess Keep, and meets with its (female) leader. We get a hint of classism, as he nobly condescends to admire the woman’s competence (as long as she keeps her place). She proposes that the refugees swear allegiance to Andry as their lord.
She likes power. So does Andry. They get along perfectly.
On his way back to the keep, Andry gets a message from Tobin. The people around him think he’s communing with the Goddess. He makes no effort to correct the mistake.
Andry is not a nice person.
The sun is finally out and the Sunrunners are taking full advantage of it. It all revolves around Rohan, as usual, as he gets the news from all the various locations. The grief of Jahnavi’s death strikes deep. The young people around Rohan are getting a sense that war is hell.
Sioned is hard at work Sunrunning, with the rest of the Sunrunners in Stronghold. She discovers that Kostas is striking out on his own toward Catha Heights, having deliberately left his Sunrunner behind. She lets him know she’s on to him (which he will possibly misinterpret as a positive signal), and heads toward her spy in Goddess Keep.
Meath relays his segments of news to Rohan. Everyone is blown away by Rohan’s ability to keep everything straight.
The war isn’t going as badly as he feared. But there are puzzles, such as the tendency of Sunrunners to disappear where Yarin is. Chiana comes in for some discussion. Then Sioned comes blazing in, having found out what Andry is up to at Goddess Keep: setting up “a Sunrunner princedom.”
Rohan, of course, understands Andry perfectly. So does Pol. Rohan takes the opportunity to lecture Pol about balancing royal and Sunrunner power.
In Part Four, and Chapter 24, we shift to a domestic scene: Meiglan and the very pregnant and seriously overdue Lisiel watching over the children at play. Lisiel, with her sorcerer blood, knows the baby is male. Meiglan takes the opportunity to angst again about her failure to produce a son who survives childbirth.
Meiglan is all about Pol. She doesn’t really get how the princess thing works, but she’s trying. It’s all about appearances, she’s concluded, and she’s very good at it. She dreads being caught out.
Suddenly Lisiel goes into labor. Meiglan soothes her with music. There is strain between the Sunrunner physician (Meiglan suspects he’s Andry’s spy) and the non-magical version. As night comes, Lisiel delivers a large, very dark, very male child.
Meiglan flees when the child’s father arrives. As she pauses by a window to watch the lamps being lit outside, a visitor appears, full of fulsome delight to see her. It’s her father.
Meiglan is not having a good day.
Kostas is doing somewhat better, but it galls him to be fighting to win back his own lands. An envoy arrives with terms: Patwin’s daughter/Chiana’s niece/Kostas’ own niece by marriage, Izaea. They go back and forth for a bit, until she threatens his old flame, Gemma. That is a mistake. In front of his assembled commanders, he sentences her for treachery, and slices off her ear. Kostas, as he remarks, is “not as civilized as some.”
Miyon in Dragon’s Rest is plotting evilly, assisted by the children’s tutor Catallen. While he contemplates all the different branches of his complex plans, he happens upon the cottage Pol built for Meiglan with his own hands. In it he finds a stash of supplies that are obviously intended for Meiglan and the children. Meiglan is preparing to escape.
Miyon, grinning evilly, burns the place down. Then he pretends it was an accident, while signaling loud and clear to Meiglan that he knows what she’s been up to.
Mirsath, Karanaya, and Johlarian have a council. They’re trying to understand what the enemy is up to. It appears to be all about Rohan (as everything is). Mirsath is baffled and terribly frustrated, and trying to figure out why the enemy want Lowland.
Tobin is pondering the same thing. Lowland, Radzyn, Remagev. They mean something. It has to do, she realizes, with dragons (and Rohan of course is the Dragon Prince).
Kostas spies on the ambush he’s laid, using a newfangled device (originating from Rohan, of course), a spyglass. He has a plan to capture Catha Heights, and a side plot to find out if Chiana is actually a traitor. She is, as he suspected.
Kostas is in his element. This isn’t Rohan’s age of peace. This is war, and Kostas is an old-school warrior prince.
Meiglan is having a sharp altercation with her maid Thanys. She is not safe where her father is, and she is going to take the children and escape to Stronghold. Pol is in Stronghold. Pol will protect her. (Not a thought in her head for anyone else in the castle, including the new mother and the baby.)
Thanys wants to go with her, but Meiglan needs her to distract Miyon. Thanys accepts the need for this, and comforts Meiglan.
Tobin enlists Sioned in a plan she’s concocted, and Sioned enlists a baffled Pol. Sioned calls for dranath to help her with a spell from the Star Scroll, which she has never performed before.
In Chapter 25, Kostas is having a grand time parading past Catha Heights. Exactly on time, Kostas’ man inside has “neutralized” the gates.
Sioned’s spell is not succeeding. There is teasing. Tobin insists that Pol do it. It needs a diarmadhi.
There is a brief bit in which Pol reassures them as if they were Meiglan, then remembers that “Neither of these women had a timid bone in her body.”
Which is probably why Pol chose the wife he did.
Pol begins to work the spell, reflecting on the differences between Sunrunner magic and sorcery—and on the fact that the two sides of his magic are separated by some barrier that he can’t break.
He conjures an image of Karanaya, and gives her his message. Tobin thinks she knows how Karanaya can get rid of the Vellant’im.
Karanaya thinks she’s going mad, until Pol proves he really is contacting her without any form of light. He also wants to know what strange magical thing she’s wearing around her neck (it’s her dowry, the six black pearls called the Dragon’s Tears).
When Karanaya regains consciousness, she tells Mirsath what the plan is. They’ll use dragons.
Kostas’ squire and commander Rihani is waiting for battle, and he’s scared spitless. When the battle happens, he dissociates. He comes to after, with no memory of being a major hero. Catha Heights is taken and Kostas is planning to go in.
Karanaya and Mirsath are dressed to the tens, and Karanaya is dressed to seduce. She carries the Dragon’s Tears in her hand.
She uses them to demand that the enemy leave “or be destroyed.” One of them recgnizes the pearls: he’s the merchant who sold them to Lady Michinida right before the invasion began.
Karanaya flings one into the moat, backed up by Johlarian with Sunrunner’s Fire—and Sioned conjures a dragon through Johlarian, until he can’t take it any more.
By that time, the Vellant’im have fled.
Sioned is pleased with herself, and also very tired. She and Pol tease each other. Tobin hopes the spell drove the enemy away “for good.”
Kostas rides into Catha Heights. Izaea and her uncle are prisoners inside, and Izaea’s sister is careful to distance herself from both of them. Kostas personally beheads the first two, and sends the sister into exile.
Then Kostas makes his squires knights. Suddenly Kostas is attacked—and Rihani recognizes a Merida knife. Rihani doesn’t even remember skewering the assassin.
Kostas dies. His last thought is for his wife Danladi.
Meiglan is in Dragon Gap, riding through the rough country in the dark. She is going to Stronghold. Where Pol is. Where he will keep her safe.
And I’m Thinking: Meiglan may be a complete scared rabbit, but she reminds me that rabbits can gut you if you try to hang on to them. She has one thought in her fluffy little head, and that’s Pol. Her whole world is Pol.
Meanwhile everyone else is being clever or warlike or bloodthirsty or gleefully evil. And Rohan is the center of everyone’s universe. Especially Sioned’s.
I don’t think Rawn likes to write the deaths of characters she likes. Over and over she throws the viewpoint as far away as she can, and next we know, whoever it is is dead and people can do their grieving where we can see it. We do get to see Oclel die, but the actual attack is, again, offstage.
I am a little baffled about the Dragon’s Tears. The merchant/spy sold them, apparently voluntarily. Now he wants them back, as if they were stolen? I’m not getting the logic. Unless it’s part of a plot to frame the “thieves” and get the invaders revved up to reclaim the treasure?
I’m sure we’ll find out. Maybe even in this book, though it’s nearly done.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in April. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.