War… is bad. This is pretty common knowledge, and a widely agreed upon opinion unless you’re a war profiteer or something. But a pretty common trope for warriors in fantasy (or sci fi, or really any genre that might include war) is to have the POV character become disillusioned by war. They start off knowing, of course, that war is bad, but they have to see for themselves that there’s very rarely any glory, that the guys you’re fighting are mostly ordinary joes like yourself, and that there are very few things worth the kind of trauma and loss that result from war.
This chapter introduces a wide variety of new characters and gives us additional depth to some of the others. Alanna – after setting up camp for both Jon and Myles, who she’ll be squiring for during this campaign – decides to explore the camp and get to know some of the soldiers she’ll be fighting alongside. Here we meet Big Thor and Jem Tanner – a big, good, bear of a man, and a weaselly little jerk. Now, Big Thor is one of the only characters in all of fiction that I’ve had an extremely consistent mental image of for over a decade. Most of the time, my idea of a character’s appearance changes over time, with rereads or with additional context or just with a great fan-art portrayal.
Around the time I first read this book, my friends and I went to Celtic Fest – if you don’t have one locally, imagine a renaissance faire, but extremely Irish and Scottish in influence, with highland games and kilts, etc. That year, I was looking at a lot of the weapon booths – people making and selling swords, daggers, hammers, in the style of the era. I was admiring a particularly large sword – and remember that I was probably 13 years old, and maybe 5’2” – and this enormous, bearded redheaded guy in a kilt came over and taught me some tricks for carrying such a sword at my height. This guy, in my mind, is Big Thor, and he plays a similar role narratively for Alanna.
Big Thor takes Alanna under his wing, teaching her some blacksmithing tricks, some ways to hold her own in a fight, and he helps her adjust to life in the camp. He helps her cool down after pretty much any interaction with Jem Tanner, who is a dick. Tanner continually makes a big deal about the noble “Lord Alan” hanging around with the commonfolk, insisting that she is a spy for the nobles, that she’s not really on their side, etc. For the most part, Alanna doesn’t get to act particularly noble during her time at the camp – she barely sees any combat, she spends her time taking care of Myles’ and Jon’s armor and horses, and is mostly at loose ends. She’s not as busy as she’s used to being, which is a big adjustment for her.
During one battle, where pretty much all of her friends were involved but she wasn’t, Alanna decides to go down to the healers’ tents and ask Duke Baird if she can work there, making herself useful. Previously we’d seen Duke Baird back in book one, trying and failing to heal Prince Jon of the Sweating Sickness. He permits ‘Alan’ to work with him, remembering the lad’s prodigious healing talent – after all, didn’t Maude say back in the first chapter that Alanna had equal capacity for killing and healing? At any rate, he says, “You like to be busy, don’t you?” and Alanna responds, “I don’t like to waste my time. Is that the same thing?” It’s one of those things I’ve always wished was more relatable than it is.
There’s a moment here that now kind of reminds me of Hawkeye from M*A*S*H (the first time around with these books, I’d never seen the show). “Alanna followed the Duke from bed to bed, doing what he told her to do. If she had ever had a good opinion of war, it vanished by afternoon. Men died as she watched, and they didn’t care about what they had fought for. They only cared about pain and the Dark God’s arrival. Alanna could only help a little.” I think it’s notable here that her disillusionment with war comes not from actually fighting, but from trying – and failing – to save those who were fighting.
At any rate, Alanna nearly kills herself by over-extending her magic abilities; she keeps going far past the point when she needs to rest. Faithful ends up summoning Myles and Jon to get her to leave. Jon gets her to ride with him back to their tents, and, you know, it gets snuggly, as these things do. Faithful – saving Alanna’s ass for like the sixth time just in this book – warns her that someone is approaching, allowing her to sit upright and not look, as Faithful puts it, “snuggling up to Jonathan like a lovesick girl.” Alanna and Jon bond over their struggles with the war – Alanna throws up remembering all the grievous injuries she’s seen that day, and Jon confides that he threw up after his first combat.
Within a couple of days, Alanna does get to see her first combat as a part of this war – of course, it happens the day that Big Thor goes missing during his guard shift, evidently the work of foul play. Interestingly, Jon tries to get Alanna not to go and fight, hoping she’ll stay behind and stay safe – he loves her so patronizingly, and this kind of becomes a theme in their relationship, and in all of Alanna’s romantic relationships. Jon (and in book four, Liam) struggles to reconcile what he sees as two parts of her – the woman and the warrior. Only George understands that she’s no more one than the other, and that she can be both to the extent that she pleases.
This battle sees Alanna’s first kill, as well as her taking another major injury – this time a huge, deep sword cut all along one arm. She’s bleeding pretty heavily as the battle ends and she goes in search of Big Thor, fearing the worst. She eventually finds him – badly injured, half-blinded, nearly dead – lying in the river, having been attacked by Jem Tanner, who’s turned traitor and let the Tusaine forces through the gap in the guards. Alanna quickly assesses that he’s lost too much blood, that he’s too far gone to be saved. She uses the last of her magic to give him a peaceful, painless death – and immediately collapses, having truly overreached herself with this act.