Rereading Melanie Rawn

Reading Melanie Rawn: Skybowl, Chapters 26–30

Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Skybowl!

This week the women take over, the men play catch-up, and we get to see some mirror magic.


Skybowl: Chapters 26–30

Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 26, Pol has locked himself up alone with the mirror, and set the accumulated, blooded jewels in the frame. He reflects on these, on his friends and enemies, and on who and what he is.

He triggers the spell—and the mirror speaks. Rosseyn tells Pol that he’s Pol’s ancestor, as were Gerik and Merisel, and that he recognizes three of the jewels. The emerald belonged to Merisel.

Pol tells Rosseyn about the war and the Vellant’im. Rosseyn tells him what they want with Meiglan: the “white sacrifice.” He also tells Pol about the white crown, which has been kept by Kazander’s people, the Isulk’im, and about the Tears of the Dragon, which must be present for the white sacrifice. And which Pol has sent to the enemy.

Pol begs him to explain how to use the mirror’s power to kill the enemy. Rosseyn refuses. Pol admits that he’s sick of killing, and Rosseyn calls him “my son.”

Then Rosseyn tells him how to use the mirror in a different way. (And here we are in father-son lecture mode, just like Rohan and Pol.) He can use, basically, propaganda. Pol tells him about what they’re already doing in that line. Rosseyn is much amused.

The father-son moment continues. Pol agrees to be taught what to do with the mirror. Rosseyn promises him he won’t be shadow-caught.

Meanwhile Andry visits Alasen, accompanied by her young Sunrunner classmates. Andry settles in for a long history lesson, which Alasen understands is intended to help them deal with Meath’s death. This segues into a story about, among others, Ostvel and Camigwen.

Jihan refuses to play along. She blames Andry for the whole war and all the deaths, because he had visions and he didn’t stop the war.

Alasen is shocked and pities Andry. Meig is calmly logical, and helps Andry down off the emotional ledge.

When the children are in bed, Alasen and Andry discuss Meig’s extreme giftedness, then Jihan’s angry giftedness, and Andry’s deep fear that in trying to stop the war, he made it worse.

She comforts him, they strike sparks off each other, and the interlude takes a sexual turn. Andry escapes before it gets completely out of hand, but not before he makes her deeply angry.

The priest describes the meeting with Pol, in poetic detail, to the High Warlord. The Warlord reads between the lines. He knows about the rivalry between Pol and Andry. He did not know about the defeat at Skybowl. The scene ends with the High Warlord reflecting, admiringly, on the marvel of womanhood that is Meiglan.

Sioned dreams about Rohan and Pol. Pol wakes her. He tells her about the mirror, with other news, including a message from Chayla, which he doesn’t understand: “Everything is all right now.” He goes on further about Rosseyn and what he learned, and promises not to do anything without consulting her. The scene ends in gentle teasing.

Isriam, en route to Stronghold, ponders his options. His dragon token wins him passage to the High Warlord.

The Warlord interprets Riyan’s message of treason, correctly, as a lie. Isriam brazens it out, and hands over the Tears of the Dragon. (Uh-oh.) The Warlord accepts Riyan’s terms. Isriam gallops back, alive and safe, toward Skybowl.

As Chapter 27 begins, Arlis is actively hating on snow, cold, and the road to Balarat. Laric teases him. Arlis ponders strategy and tactics, the reality versus the ideal of Sunrunner assistance (and Andry’s role in the shift from altruism to power-mongering), and, with Idalian, whether Aldiar is to be trusted.

Azhdeen wakes Pol in the morning with news that the enemy have taken the bait. They’ve left Stronghold.

He runs to tell Sioned, and finds her gone. As are Sionell and Alasen.

Tobin tells him how they got out. Pol is furious. Andry expounds on the location of the secret exits and where they lead. Chay adds to it. It comes out that Betheyn has also gone, as has Ruala.

(It’s the revolt of the women!)

Chay takes charge, with considerable relish. He even tells Pol what to do. When the young ones are gone, he and Tobin have an interlude, and we discover that Chay was in on Sioned’s plot. They discuss it, with some teasing and a little fretting. Chay ends by reflecting that if Sioned succeeds, she’ll end the war without a further battle.

Rohannon, somewhat guiltily, has been shadowing Aldiar, watching him closely. Finally he talks to Aldiar about what he’s doing there, and they discuss the difficulty and complexity of the sorcerers’ position. This partticular campaign is against “the wrong enemy”: Yarin rather than the Vellant’im. They should all be fighting together rather than separately.

The scene ends with both agreeing that Rohannon owes Aldiar his life. Aldiar promises to collect on the debt.

Pol and Andry are busy thinking about their women while the rest of the nobles plan the next round in the war. Andry is very annoyed with Alasen, until he finally admits that she might be running away from him. He spends quite some time chewing this over.

They’re all in Maarken’s room under Hollis’ stern eye. Andry takes time to admire Maarken and Chay’s strategic gifts—and to realize that they’re not mentioning Sunrunner spells, ostensibly because the enemy knows how to break them with iron. He decides this is really about his rivalry with Pol, which sends him off on an inner rant against his cousin, before it dawns on him that Pol has a really hard job and Andry is glad he doesn’t have to do it.

Not that Pol would let him anyway—and off he goes again. And then he comes back again to understanding how heavy Pol’s burden is, and how alone he is.

Eventually Pol takes charge. There won’t be a battle, he says—to Maarken and Chay’s voluble dismay. Andry speaks up, to offer magical help. Pol politely declines. It has to be Pol, alone, with his dual heritage.

Andry argues. Pol holds his ground, and tosses off a comment that gives Maarken a brilliant idea.

Chay gets it. So does Andry. Pol (ever dense) does not. It has to do with horses—specifically, Radzyn stallions. They gleefully refuse to tell Pol what it is.

Meanwhile, back at Radzyn, the guards are singing off key, and Tilal is hosting a meeting. They discuss Sunrunners, Saumer’s late-blooming powers, Yarin, and the Goddess Keep/High Prince conflict.

Suddenly a small army arrives, led by Gemma. Who is bright, steely, and full of family news. Also, going grey. And grieving for Rihani. She and Tilal comfort each other.

In Chapter 28, Feruche is full: the Skybowl contingent has arrived. We see the domestic arrangements, and Hollis and Audrite discuss the timetable. The sacrifice is happening in three days. Audrite has been doing the math and calculating the astronomy. The configuration of the moons is connected with the Vellanti ritual. They mock these beliefs, while discussing how the good guys will exploit them.

Pol and Walvis meanwhile are ranting about Sioned and company’s secret expedition, and Pol’s experiments with the mirror. Andry is not to know about the latter. They exchange news (Jeni and Sethric are still not speaking) and views, and catch up on where everybody is and what’s happening there. This segues into a long discussion of redheads and their various adventures and manifestations, then back to the news and plans. Pol is looking past the Vellanti war to further adventures with Chiana and Rinhoel (and, one presumes, sorcerers).

Andry, also meanwhile, is putting data together based on what he’s overheard about Chadric’s earring. He figures out the part about the stones and their power, and realizes he made a bad mistake by not keeping Andrade’s rings. He determines to figure out what Pol wanted with those stones.

Isriam is late to Feruche. He overslept, and he’s just made it as far as Skybowl.

He decides to change the plan. Someone needs to be in Skybowl to welcome the enemy, to keep up the pretense of Riyan’s treachery.

He rationalizes his decision, enters the creepily deserted castle, and settles in, at length and in detail. As the scene ends, he goes to sleep, dreaming of Rohan, who “would always be his real father.”

Andry stalks Chayla around the infirmary. He’s wise and kind, and he shows that he cares about her, even if he disagrees with her life choices.

Then of course, being Andry, he reveals his ulterior motive: he asks where Pol is. Having found out, he goes to the Attic and announces himself as Maarken.

(Oh, Andry. Andry, Andry, Andry.)

A dragon’s roar shocks Isriam out of bed. Ruala greets him and tells him who else has arrived in the castle.

Feruche’s escapees are all dressed, and doing kitchen work, as servants. They’re glad to see him: he can back up Ruala with the enemy, since they’re such blatant misogynists. Sionell tells him several dragons followed them, and it’s been a struggle to get them to leave before the enemy arrive.

Isriam tells them what he’s been up to. Over dinner, they discuss the dragons, and work out a story as to why there are so few servants left in Skybowl.

After dinner, Sioned wanders around the castle with her memories. Then she sits awake until dawn.

Andry in the Attic, sorcerously disguised as Maarken, gets the full picture of what Pol has been up to with the mirror. Andry/Maarken as a Sunrunner can’t use the mirror, or see who’s in it. He has to take Pol’s word for it.

Pol explains the plan. Andry/Maarken admires the sorcerers’ courage. Pol reveals that he knows he’s not talking to Maarken. Andry blew his cover by using both arms to gesture—Maarken hasn’t been doing that. Pol isn’t angry about the deception, and he claims it wasn’t necessary. “All you had to do was ask.”

Pol is blunt about what he doesn’t like about Andry’s behavior and policies. But he appreciates that Andry found Chayla, and that he’s helping with the war.

Pol asks, and needs, Andry’s help, if he gets trapped in the mirror. Andry will have to use the ros’salath, by whatever means necessary, using whatever and whomever he must. Even the children.

They are, for once, on the same page—even while they acknowledge that they’ll be back at cross-purposes soon enough. Then Pol drops the biggest bomb. If he fails in what he’s trying to do, he wants Andry to kill him. Andry is the only one he can trust to do that.

Andry adamantly and furiously refuses. Pol is, just slightly, amused.

Part Four and Chapter 29 begin the endgame. The Vellant’im have arrived at Skybowl, and the women and Isriam put on a brave (and in Ruala’s case gaudy) show.

Ruala and the High Warlord exchange barbed words. Ruala insists on speaking with the High Princess.

Events move forward. Meiglan and the priests are seen to enter Skybowl. The Warlord demands a written treaty, with terms. Ruala is not aware of any terms. She tells him to take as much gold as he can carry and get out. No ritual, battle, or celebration.

She pretends to show him “dragon gold.” It’s shiny sand. Lies, he says. She brazens it out. (We’ve seen this before, haven’t we?)

Sioned shows up, as a servant, offering wine. Ruala is horrified. Sioned is unfazed. Ruala continues to be horrified, and to stand up to the Warlord, who makes note of how different women are in this country.

The sparring continues, until Ruala reveals that she’s pregnant. Suddenly he’s all solicitous and respectful. She’s a vessel for a son, which changes her status significantly. She repeats her demand to speak to the High Princess.

They do some negotiating. He’ll do the ritual and the battle, but no feast. And Skybowl won’t be destroyed.

Ruala pretends to be all wibbly and upset. Isriam, solicitously, takes her upstairs.

Meanwhile, at Goddess Keep, a messenger runs straight past everyone to Edrel. The enemy are coming ashore. It’s dark, which puts the Sunrunners out of action. The nobles argue mildly about what to do. Edrel shuts them down. He has all the data he needs to extrapolate the enemy’s plan, and he has a plan of his own.

He and Norian discuss the plan privately. They also discuss Jayachin’s young son, for whom they feel responsible.

Antoun and the devr’im also discuss the situation. They want to manipulate Edrel into a battle, which they will not, or cannot, assist with. Jolan is all about saving Sunrunners and letting ordinary mortals take the fall.

She’s angry at Andry for abandoning her and the rest of the Sunrunners. The others are more sensible. Antoun does what he can to steer them away from battle and toward staying safe in the Keep.

Antoun has been communicating with Pol. He regrets the loss of his cover, and reflects on how he prefers Rohan’s peaceful and tolerant future to Andry’s Sunrunner hegemony and sorcerer genocide.

Pol locks himself in the Attic, reflecting on Andry’s unwillingness to kill him off. He confronts the mirror, and reflects on the many things he can do with it. The mirror is power, and he has it. He reflects on who he is and what his choices are. He faces Rosseyn.

Rosseyn is wise and fatherly. Pol begins the working. He’s half Sunrunner, so that’s his anchor to the physical world. The sorcerer half splits off, and rides moonlight to Skybowl.

The High Warlord is trying to be polite to Ruala. She’s not reciprocating. He remembers and mourns his favorite wife.

They make conversation about food supplies, trying to extract information from each other. The Warlord reflects, sourly, on priests and their “nonsense.” Then he reflects on women, specifically Meiglan and Ruala.

Suddenly Pol manifests in the bonfire. He’s impervious to steel. He addresses the Warlord, haughtily. The Warlord is equally haughty. Pol offers to let him and his people all go, and live. Or they can stay and die in battle.

The Warlord is almost tempted to take the route of peace. He realizes why. Because if he does, Meiglan can live.

The Warlord refuses. Haughtily. Realizing that he can’t stop the priests or save “her.

He defies the Azhrei, making a grand, roaring speech for his men’s benefit. Pol argues forcibly against him. Then a dragon roars. Pol is startled, and appalled.

Azhdeen has joined the party.

Sioned the serving woman gets the hell out of there. Isriam rescues Betheyn. Ruala pretends to be frantic, screaming that the Azhrei has sent his dragon to kill her. The fire flares, and Pol vanishes.

Interlude in the present tense: a confusion of colors, personalities, personas, impressions. Pol pulls the whole of his complex self together.

Alasen, Sionell, and Betheyn do the dishes. Betheyn is not happy with Isriam for carrying her out of the hall. Ruala still hasn’t been allowed to see Meiglan.

Sioned shows up. She managed to talk to Azhdeen, though he’s not her dragon—another first in a life full of them. They discuss both the dragon’s craziness and Pol’s.

It comes out that Alasen made the fire leap, to cover the women’s departure. She’s no longer afraid of her powers. Alasen and Sioned comment on Pol’s speech—it’s what Rohan would have done. Sionell isn’t so sure.

Pol wakes up. Andry is there with Chay, Walvis, and Maarken. Pol fills them in. He’s “frustrated and humiliated” that the Warlord couldn’t see the sublime good sense of what he offered.

They discuss, with some bickering, what to do next. Azhdeen is back, and safe. They’ll ride to Skybowl in the morning.

They drink to all their various plans and powers. At chapter’s end, Maarken apologizes to Pol for thinking he was trying to steal Andry’s job. Andry remarks that he doesn’t want Pol’s job, either. Maarken is happy to wrap it up and get everybody headed toward Skybowl.

Chapter 30 sees Tilal and Andrev in the ruins of Stronghold. Tilal finds the sight actively painful. Gemma distracts him with conversation, smacks down a bit of mansplaining, and shares grief for Rihani. Then she says that Rohan’s reign of peace left them all massively unprepared for this war—and his philosophy killed their son. They agree that killing is a necessity. There’s no choice.

The women in Skybowl discuss what to make for the next meal, with some black humor. They’ll be preparing some…interesting recipes. Sioned takes a detour down memory lane, with a litany of the dead in whose names she’s doing this.

All but Rohan. He would never approve of what she’s about to do.

Aldiar, Idalian, and Rohannon have a sharp discussion about the nature and uses of power, and whether sorcerers are evil. The first two nearly come to blows. Rohannon literally cools them off with snowballs in the face.

Arlis comes with news, and a message for Aldiar: Laric wants to see him. The scene ends in teasing about how cold it is.

Alasen races into the kitchen and drags the rest of the women to the hall. The enemy warriors are undergoing a ritual of cleansing. Ruala sneers at their belief. (The good guys are prone to this.) Sioned tries to figure out what the parts of the ritual signify.

She and Ruala speculate about the use and symbolism of salt. Sioned reflects that these men can be manipulated through their beliefs, segues into a desire to know more about these people’s legends, and ponders the nature of mythmaking in general. Then she reflects on the origins and nature of the High Warlord’s power, and on how tidy legends are compared to real life.

Pol and Maarken on the march hear Andry singing a hymn to the Goddess, to help with morale. He’s changed the final words from victory to killing.

He means well. Pol is not happy.

Sionell leaves the hall at Skybowl, unable to stand it any longer. She can’t imagine any man of her people kneeling like those warriors—except Pol. Pol would do anything to save lives. That’s his arrogance and his imperviousness to embarrassment.

Tallain would do it, too. She compares them. He wasn’t arrogant at all, but ultimately he and Pol got the same results in their very different ways.

She goes on, musing over her two loves, until Alasen comes running in (again) to tell her now the enemy are about to imitate the dragon’s sand dance. They’ve fallen completely for the manufactured mythos.

A hundred sorcerers work a spell with false dragons’ teeth, to gratifying effect. The women speculate as to how they got there and who persuaded them to do it.

Then the show ends and it’s time for the women’s part of the production. Sioned is downright horrifying in her glee, in Sionell’s opinion.

At Goddess Keep, meanwhile, the Sunrunners participate in their own consciously dramatic ritual. Norian is not impressed. She and Edrel gossip about Jolan, and speculate that she’s angling to make Torien Lord of Goddess Keep.

Edrel realizes he’s stuck in the position of defending Andry against his own people. He is not amused.


And I’m Thinking: Things are really hitting the fan here. Our very secular good guys are caught in a malestrom of warring belief systems, and for the most part they’re openly scornful. Smart people, it’s clear, don’t believe in myths, and good people don’t exploit those myths to manipulate other people.

Unless, of course, they’re Sioned and Feylin and company, and it’s a war and bad guys are bad and they have to do whatever they have to do. Moral ambiguity, it’s what’s for dinner.

The women have not only got uppity, they’ve left the men to their marching and magicking and gone to work making stuff happen. The men are really kind of hapless. Pol works some spectacular magic, but uses it stupidly, again, and fails, again. As usual.

Meanwhile the women are embroidering secret messages in cloaks, mastering secret passages, and brewing dire recipes intended to bring down armies. It’s the triumph of the traditional female sphere.

What’s fascinating is that domestic details, kid-raising, housekeeping, kitchen chores, are presented, matter-of-factly, as equal to the traditional male pursuits of war and governance. They both have strong roles to play, and we see both as important and significant.

This is really subversive in the context of epic fantasy. It’s the female gaze with bells on. War, says Rawn, is a stupid, wasteful, horrible thing, and there’s nothing noble or glorious about it. What matters is the process of living from day to day, keeping the kids fed and the bills paid, and keeping everyone alive and healthy.

Her beloved Rohan made a career of avoiding war—and his descendants are paying for it, as well as for atrocities committed by their distant and forgotten ancestors. It’s all a grand mess, and it’s coming to a head.

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.


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