Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz, High Deryni Chapters 19-21

Welcome to the weekly reread of High Deryni!

Last week saw a surprising end to the bishops’ rebellion, and Morgan was awkwardly introduced to the mysterious redheaded beauty, Richenda. This week Wencit reveals the true extent of his evil, Derry comes in for more than his fair share of pain and suffering, and Morgan and Richenda have a heart-to-heart.


High Deryni: Chapters 19-21

Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 19 the venue shifts (with lots and lots of detail) to Cardosa, where Wencit, Bran Coris, and company are waiting for the royal army to arrive. Wencit is meeting with Bran Coris, and being arch and more than a little creepy. Lionel and Rhydon are kibitzing.

After a round of good-Bran-have-a-cookie, the discussion turns to Duke Jared and the rest of the prisoners from Cassan. Our villains have something nasty planned, but they’re not totally in agreement about it. Rhydon and Lionel are hissing and spitting at each other.

The plan is Lionel’s. Wencit is not a hands-on ruler. He delegates to the point that he has no idea what’s going on in parts of the war.

The meeting goes on for a bit. Then Wencit informs Bran that Bran’s wife and son are being held by Kelson. Bran bristles and gets all huffy about hostages. He doesn’t mention the wife. His concern is all about the son.

Rhydon reels him in. Kelson is not that kind of person, he points out. He adds a nasty little dig: “You can always make more sons, can you not?”

That makes Bran even huffier. Wencit talks him down and promises to protect Bran’s property—that is, his family. Bran backs off and gets all sheepish.

The scene ends with Wencit deciding it’s time to go and see “our young Derry.”

Poor Derry is in the dungeon, which since it’s in a castle on top of a cliff, has an actual window and a panoramic view. He fights through his aches and chains to (lengthily) look out and analyze the war preparations.

Wencit and Rhydon arrive, and Wencit is all arch and snarky. He needles Derry about how close Derry and Morgan are (wink wink sneer sneer), and then he goes there: they must be lovers.

This having been written in 1970something rather than 2016, Derry reacts with absolute fury, while Wencit keeps on needling and verbally stabbing and trying to break Derry mentally. After a while he adds a physical whip to the verbal torture.

Wencit’s eyes are “two pools of quicksilver,” as compared to Morgan’s “inky pools of mystery” a chapter or two back, which may be intentionally ironic. The good guy has black eyes, the bad guy has light ones.

Once Wencit gets physical, he escalates the pain factor, alternately barking and purring at his victim. This goes on and on and on (and on and on). Eventually Wencit adds not so vaguely unholy magic to the methods of torture. Of course he taunts Derry and invites the poor thing to try to kill him, which segues into Wencit allllmost forcing Derry to kill himself with a knife. Lengthily.

It’s all adding up to Wencit brainwashing and magic-washing Derry, and setting him up to betray Morgan. Derry reacts with a suitable level of hysteria. He goes on and on and on about it, and proceeds, lengthily, to set himself up for suicide. As the chapter ends, he’s just about to fall on the knife, which Wencit let him keep.

Chapter 20 proves Wencit right. Wencit whammied Derry, and he can’t kill himself. There’s more hysteria, with! exclamation! points!

Derry falls into a sort of half-state between consciousness and dream. In that state, he sees the same vision Morgan and Duncan have, of the robed man who looks like (but isn’t) St. Camber. But unlike the daring duo, Derry sees someone else underneath the image, a darker man in blue.

Meanwhile Kelson is on the march, approaching the plain of Llyndreth. Scouts have spotted what looks like an ambush up ahead. Kelson goes looking for Morgan to get some advice about what’s going on.

Morgan is talking to a scout a heavy brogue. The scout won’t say what he’s seen, but goes on and on about how awful it is. Finally Morgan, being Morgan, shuts the blather down and goes to investigate.

Warin is riding with Kelson. He notes the carrion birds around the apparent ambush site. This, he says, is not good.

It most certainly isn’t. The “ambush” is a tableau of very dead men in armor, being fed on by the birds. Very eventually, Kelson runs out of patience and rides down to the site.

All the corpses are wearing McLain colors, and all of them are impaled on stakes. Everyone is shocked and horrified at Wencit’s awfulness.

Warin has a brief attack of anti-Deryni bigotry. Kelson slaps him down. Arilan, in true historical-detective style, observes that according to the evidence, the impalement was done postmortem. Also, all the corpses are headless under the helmets. Arilan loses his temper over this.

Nigel, who can barely speak for horror, and the rest of the king’s party discuss how to handle this in front of the army. Morgan’s main worry, expressed to Arilan while Kelson is fretting elsewhere, is about how the army will react when the heads turn up.

The army handles the cremation of the bodies with apparent calm, but it’s now clear what kind of person Wencit is. They march on to the next camp, where Kelson has another meeting with Nigel and the daring duo.

Kelson has a job for Morgan: to tell Lady Richenda what happened. Kelson is very considerate of her delicate female sensibilities. Duncan is all chuckly about that. She’s stubborn, he says. Kelson urges Morgan to mansplain the situation, with fussing about how he shouldn’t have let her talk him into bringing her.

Morgan goes to obey Kelson, with some lengthy angsting over honor and the fact that she’s another man’s wife. But! It’s a royal order! He has to obey!

The lady has a chaperone: a “Sister.” Richenda is all fairytale beautiful and impossibly mysterious. She’s been putting her son to bed—obviously she dotes on him.

She shows him off to Morgan. He’s adorable, of course. Meanwhile Morgan can’t help noticing the mother’s bed near the child’s.

She plays on his sympathies, all sweet and soft and charming. She’s so lonely, what with being a traitor’s wife. Morgan defends her, of course, as loyal to the king and “a young and helpless woman.”

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.


They indulge in some small talk. She can’t help talking about Bran. She knows what happened with the impaled corpses, and is a bit sharp about being suspected of involvement in it, somehow, in collusion with her husband.

Morgan hastens to assure her that’s not what he thinks at all, with apologies for any misunderstanding.

She discusses Bran. Good father, “not a model husband.” Probably not reachable by her, after what happened with the corpses. But she still wants to try.

She’s quite blunt about her and her son’s prospects. They’re a traitor’s family. They can’t expect much of a future.

Then she wants to know what Morgan gets out of this. Morgan goes on about how he’s a rebel and an open Deryni and there’s a conundrum there.

They discuss this. She points out that his powers made sure Kelson became king.

Morgan is even more taken with her than before. She’s making him think about being Deryni. He notes that Deryni are “a little different from ordinary men.”

She’s not so sure.

Then things between them get fraught. She wants to make a confession. He tries to fend her off. She talks about destiny and fate. He’s appalled. She’s married. To someone else. Whom he might have to kill.

She doesn’t even blink. Whatever, she says. “You are my heart.”

He’s all no no, we can’t do this!

She’s losing patience. “Must I spell it out?”

And then the inevitable happens. Mind-meld. She’s Deryni. For real. Completely confident and completely self-aware.

He’s blown away. She’s his soul mate! They belong together!

Then reality crashes in. Everything is so complicated now.

Suddenly Duncan interrupts. Kelson needs Morgan. Wencit’s men are building something.

Morgan totally forgets about Richenda while he goes off to do important man things. After a lengthy round-and-round about “Wencit is building something! He must be building something! It sounds as if he’s building something! What is he building? Why is he building it?,” the chapter ends.

Chapter 21 opens at dawn. It takes a while for the narrative to meander around to the fact that the enemy has set up heads on spikes, too far away to identify. Then a parley party rides out from the enemy lines. Kelson sends a man to meet it, while he watches with a spyglass.

The riders are quite exotic, but one is familiar: Bran Coris. The other two are Lionel (so sexy! So exotic!) and Rhydon (whom Arilan actively hates).

Back in the enemy army, Wencit has shown up. Morgan, also possessed of a spyglass, points him out. Kelson frets again about Richenda. He really doesn’t think she should talk to her husband, with the usual refrain about no place for a woman and shouldn’t have brought her.

Morgan, as usual, doesn’t think anybody could have stopped her. Kelson has to agree with that.

Then it’s back to men things and war things. One of Wencit’s barons is coming with a message. Morgan warns Kelson to be careful. Kelson doesn’t need the warning.

The messenger says he comes from Lionel. Lionel wants Kelson to bring six of his own men out to parley. Kelson is all haughty about treating with “a mere duke.” Where’s the king?

The messenger doesn’t blink. He’s a hostage, he says, for Kelson (or his proxy)’s safe return.

Kelson haughtily agrees to talk to Lionel, and orders Morgan and Arilan to come with him, with Duncan and Warin as escort. Nigel is in charge of the army while he’s gone. Then he leaves the hostage, disarmed and chuckling, to wait under guard.

Kelson and Morgan and Arilan face off with Lionel and Rhydon. Kelson’s horse is fussy, picking up Kelson’s tension. The other two appear calm.

Rhydon opens the meeting, all cordial and cheerful. Arilan really does not like him. Rhydon is enjoying this much too much. He’s all silky and nasty.

He has something for Morgan: Derry’s Camber medallion. Morgan holds himself together. Rhydon says Derry’s alive, but he may not stay that way.

Kelson is furious. Rhydon chuckles. The enemy do a lot of that. He wants to propose a trade: Kelson’s “high-ranking prisoners” for Derry.

He means Richenda and her son, of course. Morgan is horrified, but he has to let Kelson handle it. The trade can’t happen, and Kelson knows it. And Morgan can’t do a thing about it.

Kelson plays for time. Rhydon’s escort produces a shrouded prisoner. It’s Derry.

Derry is terribly pale. He knows what’s happening. He briefly relates what happened. Kelson apologizes for the decision he has to make. Derry is brave and steadfast.

Wencit won’t like it, Rhydon says. Wencit won’t like it at all. Kelson understands that perfectly well.

Derry rides back to the enemy lines, all upright and stalwart. Meanwhile, Wencit’s messenger is having an apparent out-of-body experience between Duncan and a very fidgety Warin.

The other shoe finally drops. Warin’s men raise a series of gallows and march out a hundred prisoners in McLain colors to stand under them. In the middle, under the ducal banner, Duncan (with spyglass) recognizes his father.

Shock. Horror. Kelson’s horse goes berserk. All the prisoners are hauled up and hanged.

Kelson’s army is enraged. Warin, a split second behind Duncan, spits Wencit’s still-smiling messenger with his sword.

Everybody is trying to get back behind friendly lines. Except, of course, Morgan, who takes off screaming after Derry.

Derry breaks and heads toward Morgan. Lionel tries to stop him. Lionel and Morgan slug it out, Lionel’s horse trips and throws him, then Rhydon’s archers start shooting. An arrow takes out Rhydon’s horse. Rhydon lands on his feet. (Lucky man! Also, very athletic.) Lydon rounds up his horse and remounts, and Rhydon tries to stop the archers, but not before an arrow catches Derry in the back.

Morgan hauls poor Derry across his saddle and spurs back to the royal lines. Those are in an uproar, though Kelson is trying to get them under control. This is exactly what Wencit wants.

The army breaks and starts to charge. Kelson pulls up in front of them, horse in “a perfect levade,” then invokes a hugely dramatic spell that literally draws a line in the dirt: crimson flames, which his army’s horses won’t go near.

When he’s made himself perfectly clear—while the enemy watch without moving—Kelson releases the spell. “The King of Gwynedd was human once more.”

Except for his “grey Haldane eyes.” We get that twice in this scene, in case we haven’t been paying attention the first time.

He rides back to his army, and he’s all dramatic and royal. The army salutes him with the thunder of sword on shield. (Ooo! Drama!)

Then Kelson checks in with Morgan and ascertains that Derry is still alive. Morgan has Warin summoned to heal him (having handed that job over, apparently). Then Kelson and Morgan discuss what Wencit just did.

They’re not sure why he tried to get Kelson to fight before he was ready, since Wencit doesn’t seem ready, either. Then Kelson asks Duncan if he’s all right.

Duncan is not all right. He’s horrified that he killed the hostage. He and Kelson debate the morals and ethics of that, but are quickly cut off.

The enemy’s parley party is coming back, this time with Wencit. Maybe it’s a trap, but Kelson knows he has to chance it. He takes the same people with him, including Duncan, who promises to control himself.

Kelson, with his usual infallible instinct for drama, takes up the royal banner and rides out under it “to meet the Deryni enemy.”


And I’m Thinking: There’s plenty of drama here, and some magnificently visual set pieces. There’s also some very hard reading, between the lengthy passages of Derry-torture and the horrors of the impaled corpses and then the hanging of the Duke and his men. I had to keep stopping myself from skimming, and from wanting to red-pencil all the padding and the repetitions. These chapters would have benefited from some heavy line editing.

Plotwise they didn’t pull me up short. The story moves and the characters are acting pretty well in character. Wencit is over the top, but he’s meant to be. He’s a movie villain. So is Rhydon and even the Torenthi messenger.

I’m pleased to see Richenda finally developing some personality. She’s still completely under the thumb of the patriarchy, and she’s a scheming and manipulative female, but she has a brain and she actually uses it. She runs intellectual rings around Morgan.

The whole destined lovers with crossed stars and fated mind meld thing became a trope in later fantasy—Melanie Rawn played on it with her bonded couples, for example. It’s not badly done here. She’s full Deryni, and it’s pretty clear she’s lightyears better trained and more magically capable than Morgan. But they manage to interact on a more or less equal level.

Unlike Kelson, who can’t deal with her at all. He just babbles about women’s frailty and women’s place and then gets out of there. Morgan is much more accurate in his assessment of Richenda’s capabilities.

She gets ditched instantly, of course, when Important Man Stuff happens. But that’s standard in this universe.

So here we are, with a battle about to start, Derry a total mess again and needing magical healing, and Kelson being pretty awesome actually. Even Morgan is less annoying than usual.

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, and she’s currently completing a sequel. 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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