Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Checkmate, Chapters 7-9

Welcome to the weekly reread of Deryni Checkmate!

Last week, Morgan was at bad statesmanship but great at swashbuckling, and Gwydion entertained us with propaganda-laden verse. This week Morgan goes sailing, with deadly results. Derry goes spying, and finds more than he bargained for. And Bronwyn receives a painful reminder that being half Deryni isn’t all silks and roses.

 

Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 7-9

Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 7, Morgan, Duncan, and their splendid outfits arrive at the harbor on their way to visit the Hort of Orsal. Duncan takes time to ponder his ambiguous status and his equally ambiguous, neither clerical nor secular attire. We then get a detailed description of the ship, Rhafallia, about which Kurtz has clearly done her research. (The jib has just been invented. Which puts us at least a century out of the Middle Ages.)

Morgan hopes to be in Orsal before noon, at some length. Then his bluff and hearty captain appears, is introduced to Duncan, and welcomes Morgan’s party aboard. We’re introduced to each one—we’ve met the named players before, but we’re introduced to them again, in detail—and the short voyage begins. It’s quite convivial. We continue to get the benefit of all the research about the age of sail, while Morgan insists on no lesser tipple than expensive Fianna wine. Because expensive. (He seems to believe in the principle of “Always order the most expensive thing on the menu when you’re on someone else’s tab.”) The captain of course (and his very young son the cabin boy) has to oblige.

A great deal is made of sending the boy and young Squire Richard to fetch the wine. Amid this, we learn that a crewman named Andrew, who happens to be from Fianna, has been ordered to assassinate Morgan. He ponders this at leisure, and in deadly detail. He’s this world’s equivalent of a suicide bomber.

He’s Warin’s man, and he’s carrying poison. He drips some on his dagger, and, at length, makes his way to his turn at the tiller, palming the poison vial on the way.

Morgan and company are very much enjoying their wine and banter. Andrew drinks the poison, and is shocked at how awful it tastes. That shock almost betrays him. With a “sardonic smile,” he leaps. Richard the Squire sees him just in time, and intervenes. Andrew, devastated (and dying), is captured. Richard is wounded, and dies, at poignant length, after formally swearing fealty to Morgan.

Morgan is not a happy camper. Andrew, proud anti-Deryni bigot to the last, promises that there will be more assassination attempts. “All Deryni must die!”

Morgan is terribly calm, and “dark and dangerous.” Andrew is defiant. Morgan tries to force him, magically, to say who sent him. Andrew literally prefers to die. He believes his soul is at risk if he lets Morgan work Deryni magic on him.

Randolph the physician informs Morgan that Andrew has died of poison. Morgan orders Richard buried in Coroth “with full honors,” then discusses the situation with Duncan. They’re sure the order came from Warin, and that Warin’s revolt is out of control. They speculate about Warin’s personal charisma, and how he must have convinced Andrew to become a martyr for the cause. The Interdict, they agree, will make matters even worse.

They agree to cut the state visit short. Morgan has to get back and try to hold things together in Corwyn.

The scene shifts to the end of the day. Morgan ponders the now completed visit—His Hortic Majesty was not in a good mood, having had five prize stallions stolen by Torenthi raiders, and they did not settle anything regarding a mutual defense pact. Morgan ended up with the Hort’s eleven-year-old son, Rogan, as a squire, and had to leave some of his escort behind to hammer out the defense agreement.

On the voyage home, which seems to be much slower than the voyage out—everyone’s tucked in for the night—Morgan and Duncan discuss the day and the new squire, who does not seem happy with his new position in life. Rogan is not a knightly sort of child. Duncan pegs him as more of a potential monk. The poor thing will never be able to be what he wants to be. Morgan realizes Duncan sees himself in the boy. Duncan has to hide what he really is, and never fulfill all of his potential.

Morgan then proceeds to set up the nightly call to Derry. Duncan helps him as before, but there’s no answer. They discuss this, with some worry, and some amazement at how well the unabashedly human Derry has taken to magic.

Duncan worries that Derry might have got into trouble. Morgan dismisses this, breezily. “Derry thrives on danger.” He’s just fine, Morgan says.

Line space.

Portentous last line.

“But Derry was not safe.”

Chapter 8 begins with the same line. We flash back to morning, when Derry left Fathane. Derry is plotting his next move and pondering last night’s misadventures. He’s working hard to avoid discovery; he aborts his plan to scope out Medras and heads back to Corwyn.

Nightfall finds him in “Warin country” but within reach of an inn he knows. He comes across a manor under attack, with its fields afire. He can’t risk being caught if he tries to intervene; he has to watch the attack through to its end. After the attackers leave, he moves in to try to help any survivors. He notes the coat of arms on the dead retainers’ livery—in detail, with proper terms of heraldry (definitely not Twelfth Century here).

He finds an aged survivor, introduces himself and questions the man, who answers as best he can before asking Derry to offer his dagger as a surrogate cross for “solace…to ease my passage into that other world.” Derry obliges, and the man dies.

Derry takes stock, realizes Warin has upped the ante from rebellion to murder, and makes a decision he thinks Morgan will not approve of. Derry, as Morgan noted at the end of the last chapter, loves him some danger. (Derry may be wrong about Morgan’s approval.) He’s going to track down Warin. He makes his difficult way toward the inn he was originally aiming for, and finds it occupied by armed and clearly dangerous men. They’re wearing falcon badges. Derry has found his quarry before he even really started to look.

The taproom is full, and there’s something major going on. There’s a badly wounded man on a table. Eventually, after a couple of pages of description and internal Derry-monologue, Warin himself appears, radiating charisma.

After more pages of introduction, summary of events at the manor, and the narrative making really, really clear that Warin is really, really charismatic, Warin proceeds to heal the man, with religious-tinged ritual (some of it in Latin) and much taut drama. Warin, charismatically, prays the man back to health, which is hailed as a miracle. And Warin is lauded as “a new messiah.”

Derry knows where he’s felt that kind of personal magnetism before (and remember, Derry was the wounded man Morgan healed with much less fanfare but similar results, back in the first book). He has to get back to Morgan with what he’s discovered. “Warin might be a Deryni!”

In Chapter 9, we jump directly to this meeting, with Morgan being suitably shocked and incredulous. Morgan and Duncan have been having a workout with swords, and are all sweaty and sexy. They’re also interrogating Derry somewhat sharply. Is Warin Deryni? Can humans heal? Is healing a Deryni talent or…?

Duncan doesn’t believe Warin knows he’s Deryni, if he is. He “seems sincere.” He’s also, Morgan points out, acting like a saint or a messiah. Humans haven’t connected Deryni powers with saintly miracles, though the latter often originate in the former.

Derry wonders how this can be used to convince humans that Deryni are actually like Warin. It’s not going to be easy, and meanwhile Warin is drawing in followers at an alarming rate. Duncan reveals that Archbishop Loris has called a conclave at Dhassa in two days, and Bishop Tolliver has already left. The Interdict is going to happen. Morgan, in turn, tells Derry that he and Duncan are going to Dhassa to try to appeal the decision. If necessary he’ll submit himself for penance, to keep Corwyn from being overrun by Warin’s anti-Deryni crusade. Derry wants to come, too, but Morgan sends him to Kelson to make a full report. Derry is good with that. He leaves, and Morgan and Duncan continue with preparations for their adventure.

Bronwyn meanwhile is at Castle Culdi, admiring the scenery and being all full of herself about her wedding. She trips lightly down memory lane, remembering a happy childhood and halcyon days in the bosom of her family. Her mood darkens abruptly when she overhears three of her ladies in waiting debating whether Bronwyn is “a woman like us” or “a common Deryni!” Two are not fans of Bronwyn. The third does her best to defend her and “that unspeakable brother of hers!”

Bronwyn is suitably discouraged and upset, with much chewing over the human-Deryni conflict and her own place in it. Are Deryni bad? Is magic bad? She never really used hers, except to call birds when she wants to feed them. Which she rationalizes as completely not wrong so there. “They were jealous—that was all!”

Suddenly Rimmell appears. He wants to show her his plans for the palace in Kearney. She’s kind and courteous. He’s thrilled that she’s actually speaking to him. He offers his cloak to keep her warm while she visits her mother’s funerary chapel. She’s grateful and polite.

After she leaves, Kevin shows up, all jaunty and jingly, and asks Rimmell where Bronwyn is. Rimmell tells him.

And off goes Kevin. Rimmell has decided not to anything violent to Kevin. But Rimmell is in love, and he will not be stopped.

He’s been asking locals what to do to make a woman love him. Most of their suggestions are either preposterous or clearly counterproductive, but he keeps being referred to a widow/holy shepherdess/witch named Bethane who lives up in the hills. He’s going to look for her—rationalizing mightily—after he’s retrieved his plans from Kevin’s rooms.

Once he’s there, he finds the plans. He also finds a locket with Bronwyn’s likeness. He steals it and flees like “a man possessed.”

Bronwyn meanwhile, in her mother’s tomb, is still upset by the conversation she overheard. She contemplates her mother’s effigy and the decor of the tomb with its lovely stained glass, until Kevin arrives and she bursts into tears.

Kevin is all strong and kind and comforting. He jollies her with memories of their childhood—he’s seven years older—and she responds with the time he talked her into forming a mind-link with him.

She’s still all weepy. He coaxes the reason out of her. He’s all ready to go dashing to her defense, but she’s all, no no, there’s nothing to be done, and he’s all, you’re Deryni and I love you, and then it’s all laughter and love and “three days from now you’re going to be my wife!”

While this is happening, Rimmell is lying alone, obsessing over the locket. He’ll die if he doesn’t have Bronwyn. He’ll go to Bethane in the morning, and she’ll do her thing. “And the woman would be Rimmell’s.”

 

And I’m Thinking: Way to double down on the creeper factor, there. The ominous music is swelling. We know this cannot end well. Bronwyn and Kevin are much, much too happy. And Rimmell is much too fixated on owning her.

In the meantime, Bronwyn proves that she has an emotional age of fourteen, despite being a dozen years older, and Kevin gets to be all manly and strong. Unlike Alaric and Duncan, she has never learned to use her magic. She’s been a Good Girl, she’s stuck to her shopping and her pretty outfits, and now! She’s a BRIDE!

So much for her having any agency. The ladies in waiting are stock figures, with! Exclamation! Points! Just like the idiots around that gigantic idiot, Queen Jehana.

Morgan, to be fair, is not acting any more mature. He continues to be an arrogant twit, and he’s so offhand about the danger he’s putting Derry in on all possible fronts that we just know he’s going to catch some huge karmic backlash. Meanwhile he’s dashing off here, he’s dashing off there, and he says he wants to be in Corwyn to hold his people together (once again ditching the boring boringness of actual government on his poor dull minions), but five seconds later he’s off again. He must derring! He must do! There are buckles to be swashed!

Duncan has some poignant moments, as he copes with the loss of his priesthood. The question of good versus evil, faith versus observed reality, and magic versus miracle, not to mention genetics versus a good Christian upbringing, is central to these books, and Duncan’s at ground zero.

So is Warin. His healing “miracle” is a classic illustration of “my sacred religion, your evil superstition.” The complete absence of any speculation to whether the “new messiah” is actually a Deryni, seeing as to how he’s using supernatural powers early and often, is not as unbelievable as one might think. People honestly cannot conceive of this holy man being a demonic Deryni. It’s not in their world view.

Warin’s anti-Deryni hate speech is portrayed as deluded and awful but also charismatic and powerful. I find it ironic that when women do it, it’s petty and stupid and wrong-headed, but when a man does it—whether Warin or an archbishop—it’s terrible and deadly and dangerous. Women’s space is trivial. Men’s space is Important.

The story flies along, as compulsively readable as ever. Even stepping back to ask questions, I can’t deny the skill with which Kurtz keeps her narrative moving. She can crank the drama to 11, but then give us some bits of interesting research and personal intimacy–friends, lovers–while we catch our breath.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in 2015. 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, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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