Edged Weapons, Time Travel, and the Unexpected: Andre Norton’s Trey of Swords

Trey of Swords is not actually a novel. It’s a micro-trilogy: three interlinked and consecutive novellas. The viewpoint character of the first two is Yonan, son of a Witch of Estcarp and a Sulcarman, and the third novella is narrated by his lifelong crush, Crytha, an untrained but powerful witch.

The chronology is interesting, because it happens shortly after Three Against the Witch World, while Kemoc and Kaththea are off dealing with the events of Warlock of the Witch World. Eldest Tregarth triplet Kyllan plays a role, and he and Dahaun are very much an item, but the other two are busy elsewhere. I kind of enjoyed seeing Kyllan from the outside, and watching him be competent and in charge, though of course Dahaun rules.

I did not remember this one at all.

I must have read it, but nothing stuck, except the part about the three novellas instead of the single novel. So essentially it was new to me, and I enjoyed it. It’s not the heart-wrencher that the Gryphon books are, but it’s fast-paced, the characters are engaging, and the interwoven story, while not particularly new or different from other Witch World offerings–until the end–is entertaining. It’s a good read.

The first novella, “Sword of Ice,” introduces us to Yonan and his beloved Crytha. We get the by now familiar birth-to-young-adulthood story of the by now familiar Norton protagonist: an orphan of fundamentally incompatible heritage, who has never fit in with the people around him, and who doesn’t know who he is or what he’s meant to do.

In this case Yonan is half Old Race and half Viking-like Sulcar, but he seems to have inherited the worst of both: he’s blond and blue-eyed like a Sulcarman but he’s small and sickly, and he’s not particularly good at athletics or fighting. Left to his own devices, he would have been a scholar and possibly an Adept, though he doesn’t seem to have inherited his mother’s powers. That’s not unexpected: those powers, in Estcarp, are reserved for women.

Both Yonan and Chrytha are refugees from the war with Alizon. Yonan tells us what happened after the Witches nearly destroyed themselves with their great working that ended the war (and drove the Hounds over the sea, we know from the High Hallack novels). The Witches’ power was broken and the political situation likewise.

The two children are fostered by Lady Chriswitha and her warrior husband, Lord Hervon, who settled in a fortress near the formerly closed eastern border. This is the keep to which Kyllan comes under geas, spreading the “Eastward Ho” virus among the Old Race in eastern Estcarp.

And that is how the lady and her family end up in the Green Valley, helping with the war against the Shadow. Yonan’s mother is Chriswitha’s distant relative and best friend, but Chrytha is her niece. Chrytha has been promised since birth to Hervon’s son Imhar, which puts her completely out of Yonan’s reach.

Yonan yearns mutely after her, while she learns how to use her powers. She’s primarily a healer, and she and Dahaun have a great deal in common. Yonan however doesn’t have much of a place anywhere. When he’s old enough he joins the border patrol, because that’s what young men do, but he’s no great marvel of military talent.

On his first real mission, in fact, he’s caught in a storm and falls into a crevice, breaking his ankle. This is embarrassing but also fateful—and life-changing. Inside the crevice he finds a strange crystal object that he is convinced is the hilt of a sword, the blade of which is somehow melted into the rock. He also meets a Lizard man, Tsali, with whom he can’t communicate—he has no telepathic powers—but they manage to become friends anyway.

Tsali saves him, but he isn’t able to remove the sword from the rock. While convalescing in the Valley, he dreams of being someone else, a warrior from long ago, who carried the sword and died of a terrible wound—but not before thrusting the sword into the magically molten rock.

Yonan becomes obsessed with getting the sword out of the stone. With Tsali’s help Yonan decides that he must be the reincarnation of the ancient swordsman. Tsali helps him to find the crevice again and free the sword—but there’s nothing left of it but the hilt. Disappointed, Yonan returns to the Valley.

Shortly thereafter, Chrytha disappears. Her half-trained powers have made her vulnerable to magical interference, and the wicked subterranean Thas have lured her away. The people of the Valley have tried to follow her, but have run into a dead end.

Yonan is increasingly possessed by Tolar, his past self, and that is the voice that speaks, insisting that he can find her. He and Tsali set out on an underground odyssey, and find Chrytha deep under the earth, as well as deep under a spell, working some incalculable magic in front of a dragon-helmed, axe-bearing warrior encased in ice. The Thas carry her off before Yonan and Tsali can rescue her.

Yonan/Tolar finds a blade for the hilt at last: one of the icicles that surround the frozen warrior. With this he frees the warrior, whose name is Uruk and who knows him from the past. The two humans, with Tsali, track Crytha to the Thas village and free her.

The second novella, “The Sword of Lost Battles,” picks up the next morning, with Crytha still partially ensorcelled. The Valley is before them, and Yonan is loudly insisting that he is not Tolar. The sword has a name, he’s discovered from Uruk: it’s called Ice Tongue. Uruk doesn’t necessarily believe Yonan is Tolar reincarnated. It may just be that whoever holds the sword inherits the memories of its previous owner.

Whatever the truth of that, Yonan now has a dual self to deal with, and Chrytha is not really herself yet, either. To add to the joys of the moment, the sword cannot pass the protections on the Green Valley. Yonan has to leave it outside the border.

Once in the Valley, Yonan and Uruk discuss matters with Dahaun and her fellow ruler Ethutur, as well as Kyllan. Crytha is in worse state than Yonan knew: she’s essentially been possessed, and Yonan believes the power that has been manipulating her is the evil Targi, Uruk and Tolar’s old enemy who supposedly died in the Lost Battle.

Yonan continues to fight the second personality that keeps rising to the fore, with diminishing success. He declares that he has to end the ancient conflict with Targi: “The past must be erased, the evil geas broken.” He and Uruk turn around and leave again, to retrieve the sword and travel to the nearby ruined fortress city of HaHarc.

The plan, which pulls Yonan along without agency or effective resistance, is to travel back and time and change the past. He’s bound to undo his failure and win the Lost Battle.

Time travel! But not a lot of concern for paradoxes or for the effects of major changes on the present/future. Rather inevitably, though not easily, Tolar/Yonan and Uruk get the job done. Targi is a classic fairytale monster: he keeps the essence of himself separate from his body, inside a crystal skull. Only by destroying this can the warriors succeed. It isn’t Tolar who does that, either: the task requires Yonan, “yet unborn” in the time of the battle, and therefore immune to Targi’s sorcery. In the process, the sword, Ice Tongue, is destroyed, and Yonan is free.

Really free, to be his unique self. No more magical compulsions. No more not knowing who he is. And that’s his happy ending.

With the third novella, “Sword of Shadow,” the narrator changes. We finally hear from Crytha, who up to this point has been pretty flat; Yonan crushes on her but barely knows her.

Crytha has lived a life of mounting frustration. She has the powers of a Witch but no training, and no way to get any—until she comes to the Valley. Then she and Dahaun become close friends; soulmates, in fact.

If this weren’t Norton, and written in the Seventies, I would read the interactions between Crytha and Dahaun as sexual attraction, at least on Crytha’s side. She’s never happier than she is in Dahaun’s arms.

This doesn’t last, unfortunately. Crytha’s lack of knowledge is a portal of sorts, and it attracts an evil power. It’s not Targi as Yonan suspects, but another person of power, perhaps his lover, the evil sorceress Laidan. Laidan manifests her evilness not only through doing bad things but through being overtly sexual. She lures Crytha out of the Valley and tries to use her to restore Targi to life.

Crytha, like Yonan, has a past self, though she’s never quite clear as to who that is. Laidan calls her “little sister,” for what that is worth. Maybe not a lot, since Dahaun does the same thing, and she and Crytha may not even be of the same species.

Even after Targi is destroyed, Laidan continues to control Crytha. She moves on from Targi to another dark power, the summoning of which requires a blood sacrifice.

That sacrifice turns out to be Yonan’s Lizard friend, Tsali. Unlike Yonan, Crytha can communicate with him, and they’re friends and allies. Crytha saves his life by calling a trio of spiders to disrupt the delicate working of Laidan’s evil spell. The spell swallows the spiders, but it also sucks Laidan into itself. (Poor spiders.)

In the process of defeating Laidan, Crytha’s past self recalls an ancient, sometime ally, the Power called Ninutra. Here we learn that powers in Escore are not solely Light and Shadow. There’s a neutral range as well, and Ninutra sits squarely in it.

From Ninutra Crytha gets a Sword of Shadow, which she uses to defeat the spells laid on her and to free Tsali. Crytha has assumed (as one did in the Seventies) that Ninutra is male, but it turns out she was female, and she refused to go anyone’s way but her own. She was, in short, the original independent female.

Chrytha never does get a clear sense of her past self, but she recognizes an ancient bond with Ninutra—and choses to follow her example. Ninutra’s choices, and the place of power to which she calls Chrytha, feel like home. This is what Chrytha wants and needs. To be independent. To learn how to use the full range of her powers.

And that’s her happy ending. She won’t marry Imhar; they have nothing in common. She won’t pursue anything with Yonan, either. Her path is her own, and getting together with a man is in no way part of it.

I love that. Back when the book came out, I think I would have found it frustrating and kind of sad, and definitely not satisfying. I would be wanting Yonan to get his girl at last. I was terribly binary then.

Now? That’s an ending, that is. A woman doesn’t need a man to be happy. She can pursue her own goals, fulfill her individual dreams. She can be whatever she wants to be.

You go, Chrytha.

Next time: Zarsthor’s Bane.

Judith Tarr forayed into the Witch World with a novella, “Falcon Law,” in Four from the Witch World. Her first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published 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 dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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