All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.
Author Mercedes Lackey is probably most famous for her Heralds of Valdemar series, where people known as Heralds bond to “Companions,” or white horses that embody the spirit of former Heralds. She’s also noted for her The Last Herald-Mage trilogy and its gay hero Vanyel (who kicks some serious ass) set in that same world. She’s written about fairy godmothers and what they go through and about a zillion other books. (She writes an average of 5.5 books a year!) The one that hooked many young readers first, however, was By the Sword, about a young woman named Kerowyn who is nothing like her family and is more interested in being a warrior than someone’s bride and housekeeper. There were very few books like it in the 1980s, and it struck a chord with many of us.
However, the entire story started with Kerowyn's sorceress grandmother Kethry and Kethry’s warrior partner Tarma. Unlike most fantasy novels with female protagonists, the “Vows and Honor” series’ main story wasn’t a romance. It wasn’t one where a woman fights until she meets a man to save her. The focus was these two women and the incredible friendship and love between them. With November being warrior women month, it’s the perfect time to revisit Tarma and Kethry and their unbreakable bond.
The series started with the 1985 short story “Sword-sworn” from Lackey in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthology. In it, a young sorceress named Kethry becomes oathbond to a warrior woman named Tarma. Tarma, a woman of the plains people named the Shin'a'in has lost her entire clan, including her intended during a raid. Tarma is the only survivor. After her recovery, she swears allegiance to the Warrior aspect of the Shin’a’in fourfold Goddess. This is the only way her people can declare a blood feud and enact revenge. When one swears to this Goddess, who takes a very active role in the lives of her people, all traces of sexuality, visual, physical, and emotional are removed, and the sworn person is trained every night that they’re not within city walls by the spirit of another who has so sworn. Tarma has become asexual by choice and though a demon offers to reverse her oath, she chooses to focus on her life as a mercenary and rebuilding her clan through her beloved oath sister Kethry.
Kethry is the very opposite of Tarma. She’s stunning and happy to engage in relationships, though they’re not at all the focus of her life. She becomes a powerful sorceress, though she doesn’t start out that way. She does marry and produce children to rebuild Tarma’s clan, but the guiding relationship in her life has always been her sworn friendship and sisterhood.
Tarma and Kethry travel the world together as mercenaries, battling evil, and very often being taken on side trips by Kethry’s sword Need. Need is quite a sword. She (there is a reason to use that pronoun) is enchanted. Need will imbue the one who wields her with magic if she doesn’t have it, or warrior prowess if that user is a magician, but won’t help in an area in which you already have a skill. In other words, help yourself if you can, and I’ll help where you can’t. On the sword is written, “Woman’s Need calls me, as Woman’s Need made me. Her Need I will answer as my maker bade me.” Need tends to pull Tarma and Kethry to battle any evil targeting women, though sometimes the sword gets it wrong. For instance, a fight between a woman and her husband wasn’t exactly something the woman needed rescue from, but the sword pulled them there anyway.
The series also deals very frankly with the realities of life on the road for women. Sexual assault is going to happen, they teach their young student Kerowyn, so here’s how you deal with it. However, the resulting trauma and lingering effects are dealt with as well. Again, this is something that you just didn’t see when the book was published, and it’s still relatively rare to find sexual assault appear as more than just an inciting incident in fantasy.
Throughout the series, Tarma and Kethry’s love for each other trumps everything. Both of them sacrifice over and over for each other. Kethry chooses to rebuild Tarma’s clan, follows her all over the land, using her magic skills in battle and her body to populate the clan. Tarma protects Kethry when she’s concentrating on magic, and they both come close to death over and over again for each other. In fiction, and especially in fantasy, it always appears that the ultimate goal, relationship-wise, is romantic love. It’s meeting your partner, who is your everything in every way. It’s all about romance and a lifelong bond between lovers. In “Vows and Honor,” that lifelong bond isn’t romantic. It’s about the devotion of friends who have sworn to be sisters. The bond is immediate and produced by Tarma’s Goddess, but the understanding between the women isn’t. They still have to get to know each other. One of the delights of the series is watching them struggle to understand each other. It’s seeing how they learn about who handles life on the road better, or who is a better hunter, or why a magic being chooses to bond to Tarma, who isn’t magical in any way. It’s about the mistakes they make when Need calls them to misunderstandings about each other. Their relationship isn’t perfect. It’s real. They have all the same problems that real friends do, the same fights and the same private worries. Yet, their bond still stands. They’re bound by magic, but their choices make it so much stronger.
Even better is that, when we are first introduced to this pair (for most readers), they’re older women. Kethry is a grandmother and Tarma is godmother and leader of the clan. They’ve set up a school for warriors, and it’s imperfect. Kethry is tired, as anyone would be, and is disappointed that her granddaughter doesn’t have a lick of magic in her. Remind anyone of their grandma? Tarma has joint aches and amazing advice, and she worries about her lifelong friend’s health. They’re also still incredibly powerful. Power doesn’t solve all your problems or take away misunderstandings. Friendship helps you along the road.
These are definitely worth a read if you haven’t yet met Tarma and Kethry, and you can get the entire series (minus the meeting in “Sword-sworn”) which includes The Oathbound, Oathbreakers, and Oathblood on Amazon here.
Have you read the “Vows and Honor” series? Which novels are your favorite celebrations of female friendships? Let us know in the comments.