Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Checkmate, Chapters 10-12

Welcome to the weekly reread of Deryni Checkmate!

Last week, Morgan’s sailing trip turned deadly, Kevin reaffirmed his love for Bronwyn, and Rimmel continued being an obsessive creep. This week Morgan and Duncan go spying, Rimmell visits a sorceress, and the anti-Deryni factions get together to lay an ambush.

 

Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 10-12

Here’s What Happens: At the opening of Chapter 10, the weather is awful again, and Duncan is out in it, waiting lengthily for Morgan to show up. Finally he does, explaining that he’s had a lot of battening down to do before taking off on his super-secret mission. Officially he and Duncan are shut in the ducal palace, repenting their sins. Actually, of course, they’re derring-do-ing.

Duncan is bored, impatient, grumpy, cold, and wet. They leave Coroth, intending to stop at a place called St. Neot’s by nightfall.

Rimmell, meanwhile, is also out and about. He’s making the long climb to Dame Bethane’s distant retreat, with much rumination on his traumatic childhood run-in with a Deryni witch, and further fretting over what Bethane will be like and what she might do.

At long last he reaches her cave. It’s dark and her voice is androgynous, and she interrogates him as to who he is and what he wants. He stammers out his answer.

Finally she lets him see her—she’s a hag with a gold wedding ring—and she continues to question him about Bronwyn. He shows her the locket. She allows as how she might help, and her late husband would approve. Rimmell is shaky and apprehensive. He knows this can’t end well. But he perseveres.

She works a spell at length, with pauses to try to remember the details. In the process, she remembers Bronwyn as a child, and recalls who she is. She doesn’t want to hurt the nice little blonde Deryni girl. This confuses and upsets her. But she needs the food and money Rimmell brings. She continues to ruminate, almost deciding to work something very simple and harmless, “a charm of indecision,” but finally (since she assumes Bronwyn isn’t marrying anybody important; Deryni don’t get to make good marriages) opting to give Rimmell the full-on love spell.

She takes her time with it, for several pages of precise detail, while Rimmell sits in a spelled trance. Finally Bethane wakes him, gives him a “blood-flecked stone,” and tells him exactly how to activate the spell. There follows a further lengthy transaction in which Bethane takes a relatively small fee in gold, and asks Rimmell to remember her in his prayers and bring his children to see her.

He leaves. Bethane addresses her late husband, Darrell. She hopes she set the spell correctly, and worries about whether she was wrong to work against a Deryni. She’s not sure she said the right words. “It doesn’t matter anyway—as long as we’re together.”

It’s almost dark, and Morgan and Duncan have arrived in a ruin near the shrine of St. Torin. They have to pay their respects there in order to get into Dhassa, but tonight they’ll camp. It’s a weird place, and the horses are spooky. This is St. Neot’s, Morgan informs Duncan: an all-Deryni monastic school from before the Restoration. (Hm, we’re Elizabethan-ish here.) Morgan waxes expository, and Duncan learns some history. He and Brion used to come here, apparently because the locals avoid it in superstitious fear.

They camp, with badinage about their safety or lack thereof, Dhassa’s strong aversion to Deryni spies, and the virtues of the Fianna wine they’re drinking versus the notoriously bad wine in Dhassa. Finally they bed down, but Morgan is restless. He’s remembering Brion. He goes for a walk, and ends up in the burned-out chapel.

This takes him down memory lane, flashing back fourteen years to the day they visited the ruins (Morgan knows them well, which makes it odd that Duncan doesn’t, since they grew up together). Brion and fifteen-year-old Morgan are clearly close friends. Morgan wishes Brion could stay longer in Coroth, but he has work to do, “And then there’s Jehana.” Jehana was just as intransigent then as she has been ever since, and just as determined in her hatred of Deryni. Very “disappointing” for Brion. They banter about Brion’s horse, until suddenly Lord Ewan gallops up with news. Brion has a son. Brion is over the moon.

Morgan returns to the present, gradually, reflecting that the son is now himself king. He makes his way back to Duncan—and suddenly sees a light near the ruins of the altar.

Chapter 11 picks up immediately, as is often the case in a Kurtz novel, with Morgan on high alert, investigating in cautious detail. A rat startles him, but he pushes on, finding a badly broken statue that turns out, on further detailed investigation, to be of Saint Camber. This makes Morgan suspect (at length) that there’s a Transfer Portal somewhere nearby. He wonders if it’s still functional. Probably not. He doesn’t have time to look. He has to confront the Curia tomorrow.

At this exact moment, a man named Paul de Gendas is approaching Warin’s camp. He needs to see Warin. His message is urgent—and it contains “uncanny good fortune.” He’s grinning all over the place.

Scene switch. Loris and Warin are arguing over the Interdict. Warin does not approve. Monsignor Gorony is there, “inscrutable.” Loris continues to justify his decision to lower the Interdict, when suddenly Paul arrives. He’s seen Morgan, and watched him camp at Saint Neot’s. Warin is thrilled. Paul is all set to arrange “a suitable reception.” Loris is in favor. “We must stop him!”

Warin is thinking. Loris pushes. Warin allows as how Morgan must be planning to disrupt the Curia, and he doesn’t want that to happen, either. He orders Paul to pick fifteen men for a ride to Saint Torin’s at dawn.

Loris wants to know what Warin is up to. Warin obliges. He wants to meet Morgan and see whose powers are stronger. He’ll capture the Deryni duke. Maybe Morgan will live. Maybe he won’t. Loris is not keen on Warin being the one to decide if Morgan lives or dies. He’s not totally convinced that Morgan is the Devil’s own, either. Warin begs to differ.

Gorony offers a compromise: drug Morgan with merasha to suppress his powers. Warin is totally against using “Deryni trickery” to trap Morgan. Loris isn’t really happy about it, either. Gorony keeps on arguing. He’ll obtain the drug himself, and make sure it gets into Morgan; then Warin can capture him. Loris can stand by to lower the Interdict if the trap fails.

Loris convinces Warin by assuring him that without Morgan there will be no Interdict and no suffering duchy, and by telling him he won’t be “tainted” by using a Deryni drug. Warin, “a true son of the Church,” accepts his authority.

Not willingly, but obediently enough. Loris leaves. Warin prays hard, that he’s done the right thing, that he’ll know what to do when he meets “Your enemy.”

On to Chapter 12, with the Lord’s enemy and ex-Father Duncan making their slow way through the pass and down to Saint Torin’s, with extensive description and background of the landscape and the shrine. There’s another way into Dhassa that avoids this bottleneck and the serious danger of the two spies being identified, but it’s much too far away. All male pilgrims (females are segregated) have to pay their respects and collect a token in order to enter the holy city. There really, really is no other way to get there in time. Really.

They arrive at the shrine. Morgan doesn’t dare uncover his “golden” hair. Duncan remarks on how the wooden shrine looks as if it grew instead of was built, and notes that it has an “eerie” air. Morgan doesn’t feel it. He and Duncan banter about Duncan’s priestly feels. Morgan is “impossible.” Morgan sobers up and tells Duncan about the ruined Camber statue and how he almost thought he was going to have another vision. (Because that’s exactly the right thing to talk about while waiting in line at the entrance to a human shrine where they have to scrupulously avoid being detected, instead of having this conversation on their three-hour ride through the wilderness from Saint Neot’s.)

While they’re having their conversation, a coach arrives in lordly state. Duncan (disarmed—no weapons allowed inside) heads into the shrine—it’s one at a time here—and Morgan watches the escort troop by.

Suddenly, the coach’s wheel gets stuck in the mud. Morgan, in his disguise as a commoner, is ordered to get himself muddy helping the lady’s carriage. The fact it’s a lady explains why the coachman is not swearing at the horses. Morgan and the rest of the common rabble get to work shoving at the wheels. The carriage rolls out of the mud. Morgan and company get cheerful thanks.

And—beat—a Moment! Morgan looks up into “a pair of the bluest eyes he had ever seen set in a pale, heart-shaped face of incomparable beauty.”

The Moment stretches. And stretches. Morgan belatedly remembers he’s not a duke, and tries to get the lady’s attention again by introducing himself as “Alain the hunter.” The head rider moves him along, but not before he exchanges grins with an adorable red-headed child—and gets another smile from the lady.

Morgan is all happy and full of himself. Duncan comes out wearing a silver Torin badge on his hat. Morgan reluctantly surrenders his sword and goes in. He takes his time, taking in the outer area of the shrine and the grumpy monk in charge, who hints strongly that he might want to make a donation. Having put his coin in the slot, he’s let through into the inner shrine. He’s condescending about how common it is. But it has “a certain charm.” He kind of likes it.

After lengthy, detailed description, with Morgan offering art criticism about the decor (Morgan thinks the crucifix is a little too King Regnant for him), and a moment of flashback to the woman in the carriage, Morgan unlatches the gate to the altar and is startled when it scratches him.

Then he realizes in panic that he’s been drugged with merasha. He collapses at some length and in horrifying detail.

 

And I’m Thinking: Kurtz can stretch a tense scene to the very breaking point, and still keep you reading. Even while you’re skimming rapidly, dreading the outcome, because you know it’s going to be awful but you can’t stop, you can’t give up, you have to see what happens.

Morgan keeps right on being an arrogant twit, which I thought was dashing and romantic when I was a teen, but now I’m just, oh, come on. But he gets his comeuppance here. I do wonder, with the number of people tramping through, how the monk has time to lay the trap for just one man. He must be a lot faster on his feet than he looks—and the conspirators have to be counting on a delay between pilgrims.

Everything is closing in on our good guys in these chapters. Rimmell’s long, long climb and Bethane’s long, long rambling thought process tells us there’s horror coming. This cannot end well. No way can it do any such thing.

And then we have Morgan and Duncan being all sneaky and spy-movie-esque, but Warin’s man spots them instantly. They’re not nearly as good at spying as they like to think.

I do think the setup at St. Torin’s is over the top. Let’s make really, really sure there’s no other way in, and let’s be really, really determined to make sure this is an ambush Morgan can’t possibly get out of. Not that he has any clue it’s about to happen, or even dreams it can. It’s like one of those plotting sessions when you think of every possible loophole and figure out a way to close it tight, till there are so many holes full of so many restrictions that it’s like, are we trying too hard? And of course, it’s just for men. Women aren’t included. Which makes me wonder about Richenda’s large and lavish escort. That’s all men. But they don’t have to go through the shrine. (Yes, readers-along, her name is Richenda.)

Ah, Richenda. We’ve just had another smack upside the virtual head of Jehana the relentlessly hateful and stubborn (but beautiful!). Here’s the Belle Dame, the exquisite image in her elaborate carriage, seen through pure and literal male gaze. Love interest on a pedestal, and love at first sight, of course. We don’t know what she thinks, except for that enigmatic smile.

The completely male focus of the flashback, with Jehana presumably popping the kid out painlessly while her husband is off hanging with his bestie, is kind of, well, wow. It does not appear that Brion even realizes his wife has gone into labor, or that he’s had any interest in being there for her. It’s completely and entirely about having a son. Never mind who did the actual work of producing him. This is really Seventies. Men real humans. Women Other. Even when a woman is writing the book and dwelling on her male characters with a distinctly female sense of what’s appealing and what’s sexy. That combination of female perspective and male dominance is very much of its era.

Bethane is part of this, too. She means well, but she’s batty, and of course, being old, she’s all hideous and ugly and creepy.

But the story moves. It certainly does. The world is fully realized, the landscape vivid and scrupulously imagined. The two shrines—ruined Saint Neot’s and rustically unique Saint Torin’s—balance each other. The reader can’t stop reading. It’s all rushing inevitably toward so many bad and dangerous things, and we have to hope (and maybe pray, if we’re fully in the spirit of the setting) that our heroes will make it through intact.

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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