Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s instalment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.
Last week, the King of the Silver River appeared to pull our heroes out of a fire, Wil and Amberle had a heart-to-heart, Artaq disappeared, and a love triangle found its third point.
This week, Wil outwits the Rovers thanks to a Demon attack, the Demon-wolves return (but so does Allanon), and Amberle faces the Elvish High Council.
Like a college freshman, Wil wakes up after his first Rover hoedown in Cephelo’s wagon with a splitting headache (and a smug Amberle watching over him.) They’re travelling west with the Rover caravan. Rumours abound of a “devil” in the Tirfing, on the edge of the Westland, but Cephelo boldly ignores them. After settling for the night, Eretria approaches Wil and offers help in freeing Artaq. In return, she wants to flee the Rover family with Wil and Amberle.
“What Cephelo says and what is true are not necessarily the same—in fact, very seldom the same.”
First off, can I get some of that “herbal remedy” that Amberle gives to Wil? It’d be a lifesaver. She’s once again delightfully snarky as she greets Wil and his hangover:
“I don’t need to ask how you’re feeling this morning, do I?” [Amberle] declared, her words barely audible above the rumble of the wheels. “I hope it was worth it, Valeman.”
“You’ve kept your wits about you,” [Wil replied.]
“Good thing one of us did.”
As if I didn’t love Amberle enough after the last few chapters, she continues here to show Wil what it means to responsibly manage their escape from the Demons. I think this is a big turning point for the two of them, as Wil begins to understand that their safety is a mutual endeavour, and that he can trust Amberle to carry some of the load. They need to grow closer in this way to have any chance of reaching the Bloodfire. Brooks shows tremendous patience in the way he allows their relationship to simmer, its flavours slowly blending and changing over the course of the long novel.
Wil’s explanation for his behaviour the previous night is passing, though it exposes some of his inexperience and naivety:
“At least you might try confiding in me a bit more than you have so far. It is not very reassuring to have to rely on you and not have the faintest idea what you’re about.”
“You’re right,” [Wil] agreed. “I’m sorry about last night. I should have told you more before we entered camp, but, to tell you the truth, I hadn’t made up my mind what we were going to do until just after we found it.”
“I believe that.” She frowned.
“Women are considered subservient to men; that is what is called the Way. For the Rovers, that is the natural order of things. They believe quite firmly that women are to serve and obey the men who protect and provide for them.”
(Side note: Rovers are idiots and the Way is absurd. Thank goodness Brooks does such a good job of reinventing the Rover culture over the generations that follow. Some of my favourite characters in the series are Rovers, including Rue Meridian from the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy and Wren from the Heritage of Shannara series.)
“I wanted to convince them that I understood and honored their beliefs. If they beleived that, there was a chance they would give Artaq back to us.”
“It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way,” Amberle remarked.
None of this excuses Wil for choosing to bring Amberle into the Rover camp completely blind. Thank goodness she has enough of a head to stay calm and play along while Wil treated her with such disrespect.
At least Wil recognizes how he messed up, and, if there’s one thing I admire about Wil, it’s that he’s constantly learning how to better adapt to the conflicts and challenges around him. He’s got a lot of heart, and means well. In fact, trying to make lemonade out of lemons, his plan to travel with the Rovers actually makes a lot of sense—except, you know, when it doesn’t, as Amberle points out:
“We have to have a way to get Artaq back from these people and we can’t do that if we don’t stay with them,” he whispered loud enough for her to hear over the creaking of the wagon. “And there’s another reason. The Demons that chased us from Havenstead will be looking for just two people—not an entire caravan. Perhaps travelling with the Rovers will throw them off. Besides, we’re still travelling west, which is where we want to go, and we’re traveling faster than we could on foot.”
“Fine. But this is dangerous as well, Valeman,” she pointed out. “What do you plan to do when we reach the Westand forests and Cephelo still refuses to give you Artaq?”
He shrugged. “I’ll worry about that when it’s time.”
Amberle very clearly sees what’s going on with Eretria and Wil, and is right to be concerned—mostly because any attempt by Eretria to flee with them will incite Cephelo’s wrath, which could jeopardize their mission. Eretria shows similar will when she defies her “father” by revealing to Wil that the Rover Leader had set her to surveil him.
“Where have you been all day?” the Valeman asked conversationally.
“Watching you,” she replied, then smiled wickedly as she saw the look that appeared on his face. “You didn’t see me, of course. You weren’t supposed to.”
He hesitated uncomfortably. “Why were you watching me?”
“Cephelo wanted you watched.” She arched her eyebrows. “He doesn’t trust you—or the Elven girl you claim is your sister.”
This, followed by her second revelation that Cephelo will not return Artaq further fuels the reader’s understanding of her desperation to leave the Rovers behind, to seek a life outside the rule of the oppressive Leader.
“If I help you regain your horse, then I want you to take me with you when you go.”
This is a bold promise, and forces Wil into a position to either betray Eretria or anger Cephelo, who seems like he might be fond of vengeance. Luckily, as we see in the next chapter, the Demons make the decision for Wil.
Dinner among the Rovers is interrupted by a booming cough—the rumored “devil,” which it turns out, is a Demon loosed from the Forbidding. By sheer accident, it stumbles across the Rover caravan, and tears into the travelling people like they’re rag dolls. Cephelo leads a valiant defence, but is no match for the Demon. Wil knows he must test the power of the Elfstones, but fears his ability to do so, and worries that using them might alert the rest of the Demons to his position. With no other option, however, he summons their power and… nothing. A barrier of some sort sits between Wil and the Elfstones. He tries again and smashes through the barrier, and the Demon is devoured by the Elfstones’ magic. The Rover caravan is saved, but Cephelo is furious. When Wil won’t give him answers, he sends the Valeman and Amberle away with Artaq. Eretria is left behind.
For a reason I’ve never really been able to pinpoint, I’ve always considered this chapter as one of my most iconic in all of the Shannara series—along with Walker Boh’s journey through the Hall of Kings, Allanon’s first visit to the Hadeshorn, and Bek Ohmsford leading the Jerle Shannara through Ice Henge. I guess it’s partly due to the discovery that Wil’s magic doesn’t work as expected, but also because of the fact that the Demon attack is pure coincidence. The fight agains the Demon shows the courage of the Rovers, and also introduces Wil’s difficulty in using the Elfstones, which will become an integral part of the story moving forward, setting the stage for the Wishsong—a central form of magic that is available to most of Wil’s descendants in later Shannara novels.
Was it irresponsible of Wil not to properly educate Cephelo about the threat that the “devil” posted to his Family? Yeah, it was. Regardless of the way the Rover treats him and Amberle (and let’s be honest here, he’s feeding them and letting them travel in trade only for Wil’s abilities as a healer—he may be a thief and a liar, but he could just as easily have conked Wil over the head, made off with Amberle and sold her off to another Rover family), there are still children and defenceless people travelling with the caravan who deserve a better chance at safety.
The assault from the Demon itself is impressive, in part because the Demon itself is enormous, dwarfing even the Reaper (if not so smart and deadly):
An instant later the creature appeared through a gap between two of the wagons, pushing aside the wooden homes as if they were made of paper. It was unquestionably a Demon—but much bigger than anything the Valeman and the Elven girl had encountered fleeing Havenstead. It stood on two legs, more than fifteen feet tall, its massive body bent and heavy and covered with mottled brown and gray hide that hung from it in thick folds. A crest of scales ran from its neck the length of its back and down either leg. Its face was blasted and empty, a mass of teeth curving out form jaws that opened wide to emit its deep, booming cough. From two great, clawed hands dangled the broken body of a Rover guard.
And Cephelo’s valiant defense, with nothing but a broadsword, is equally impressive—drawing the Rover Leader in a new light. He leads the attack:
Cephelo threw himself directly into the Demon’s path, leaping up to thrust his broadsword deep into the creature’s gaping mouth.
And then, even when injured, puts himself right back into the mix in an effort to rally his troops:
Cephelo began hobbling frantically toward the battle, supporting himself with a broken pike, his dark clothing torn and covered with dust and blood.
Say anything of Cephelo, but he’s brave, and utterly loyal to his Family. I think Brooks sort of intends Cephelo to be a villain, and he is in the way that he stands between Wil, Amberle, and their goals, but I’ve always felt sort of enamoured by him. He’s controlling and I disagree with basically all of his ethical and moral decisions, but the loyalty he shows here, the fearlessness in the face of obvious defeat, is admirable—a showcase of Brooks’ ability to write good characters who make bad or evil decisions, and vice versa. Though Cephelo’s actions may make my gut roil sometimes, I always understand why he acts the way he does, and that makes me believe in him more than almost anyone else in the novel.
On the flip side is Wil, who is conflicted throughout the battle, not just because of his hesitation when he realizes that using the Elfstones might reveal him to the Demons, but also due to the way his lack of confidence creates a self-fulfilling prophecy about his ability to use the Elfstones.
Raising his fist above his head, [Wil] willed forth the power of the Elfstones.
He experienced a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. The one thing he had feared most had come to pass—he could not control the power of the Elfstones.
Because of his half-Elven blood, Wil has a natural barrier in place that makes it difficult to use the Elfstone’s magic—indecision is as damning for Wil as if he lost the Stones altogether. Only by pushing through the barrier, and believing in his right to wield their power, is he able to overcome the issue:
The creature was almost on top of them. Wil Ohmsford held forth the hand that gripped the Elfstones. There was no hesitation, no confusion within him now. Driving inward, he smashed aside the barrier that stood between himself and the power of the Stones, smashed it aside through strength will born of desperation and need, without yet understanding what it was. As he did so, he sensed something change within himself that he could not explain and did not feel was altogether good. There was no time to give it thought. Reaching down within the heart of the Elfstones, he brought them to life at last. Brilliant blue light flared up from his clenched hand, gathered itself, then burst forward to strike the Demon.
Wil notes that using the magic changes something in him, in a way that is not “altogether good.” This change is central to the rest of the Shannara series, and it’s interesting to consider that if Wil had not been able to summon the magic, if the Demon had defeated him and Amberle, the rest of the Shannara series would be entirely different, even if Allanon, Eventine, and Ander miraculously found another way to defeat the Demons.
Wil leaving Eretria behind, despite her valiant actions in the fight against the Demon and her obvious desire to leave the Rover Family, is startling—I was genuinely surprised the first time I read the novel. It makes their reunion, which you know is coming, all that much more impactful and tense.
After leaving the Rovers, Wil and Amberle travel through the night until they reach the edge of the mighty Mermidon River. With no obvious crossing point, the Valeman and the Elf decide to finally rest, trusting that distance from the Rover camp is enough to keep them safe from Demons for the time being. They discuss Wil’s use of the Elfstones the night before, and Amberle warns him of the danger of Elven magic. They wake the next day and swim across the river. That night, just when it seems like the pursuit is behind them, they hear the baying of Demon-wolves. Once again, Artaq proves his worth, carrying them through another exhausting chase. Just as it seems the Demon-wolves will catch them once and for all, the Dagda Mor appears in the sky. With seconds to spare, Artaq gains the Valley of Rhenn, and Allanon appears, his presence enough to scare away the Dagda Mor. The Druid, Wil, and Amberle trade survival stories, then head towards Arborlon.
“Elven magic causes different reactions in different people. It has always been so. It is a magic born of the spirit, and the spirit is never a constant.”
- The Dagda Mor
The chase scene here is interesting, but we’ve seen it all before (minus the brief appearance by the Dagda Mor—anyone else surprised that he had Amberle in his sights and failed to convert on the touchdown?) It’s tense, and Wil’s mid-chase realization that gaining the Valley of Rhenn means nothing since the Elves won’t be expecting them, is heart-shattering and well played by Brooks. I think the two most interesting elements of this chapter, however, are Amberle questioning Wil about the Elfstones, and her first encounter with the Druid.
In the first scene, and during the journey after crossing the Mermidon, we see another side to Amberle—one that’s curious and patient, peaceable and contemplative. Thus far, her journey to Arborlon has been fraught with anxiety and frustration, so it’s nice to see her let loose a bit, and we finally meet the Amberle that the residents of Havenstead knew and loved.
As she questions Wil about his experience using the Elfstones as a weapon against the Demon, admitting that she noticed him struggling, she forces Wil to consider the experience, which was obviously confusing and painful for him.
“When you used the Elfstones, did you … ?” She hesitated, as if not sure of the word she wanted. “Did you… hurt yourself?
“That is a curious question[,” Wil said.]
“I cannot explain it, really—it was a feeling I had when I watched you. At first you could not seem to control the Elfstones. You held them up and nothing happened, although it was clear enough you were trying to use their power to stop the Demon. Then, when they did at last come alive, there was a change in you—a change showed in your face … almost like pain.”
“There was a block somewhere within me. I do not know what it was or what caused it, but it was there and it would not let me use the Stones. I could not seem to pass around it or go through it.”
Self-acceptance is a common theme running through most of Brooks’s novels. Many of his protagonists must face harsh truths about themselves, ultimately finding strength through their journey to self-discovery. One of the greatest examples from his work is Grianne Ohmsford, who appears in many of the later Shannara novels. Wil speaks of something within him being changed, referring mostly of the way the Elven magic has evolved within him—birthing a new magic—but I also believe that this change is mental and emotional. It’s at that moment, when the Elfstone magic finally responds to his call, that Wil Ohmsford is utterly and irrevocably committed to the journey to the Bloodfire. He’s no longer an anoymous Healer, but a hero for the land. Somewhere, deep down, he knows this, and it’s frightening.
The second most interesting part begins with Amberle’s shocking plea for Wil not to use the Elfstones again, especially when she follows up the request by saying:
“It was not my choice that brought you on this journey, and I feel badly that you are here at all.”
To my recollection, this is the first time she speaks from a place of responsibility for the mission—before, she’s always been a victim of the Druid’s plans, mistakenly torn from her peaceful life because of her bloodline. Here, she takes responsibility for Wil’s involvement, and it’s a tremendous moment for her character.
Then, of course, to make matters even more interesting and labyrinthine, she reams Allanon out about his manipulative ways, condemning him for stealing her away from her home and her new life.
The Elven girl nodded wordlessly, astonishment filling her sea-green eyes—astonishment, and a touch of anger.
Amberle did not bother to disguise her anger. “Where have you been, Druid?”
Allanon seemed surprised. “Looking for you.”
“It appears that you have been mistaken much of the time,” Amberle snapped.
Allanon said nothing, his eyes meeting hers.
“What worries me at the moment is that the Demons have been one step ahead of you from the beginning. How many times now have they almost had me?”
Allanon rose. “Too many times. It will not happen again.”
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Amberle is of royal blood, that she grew up among the powerful and privileged Elessedil family, but seeing her stand toe-to-toe with the Druid, who, as readers, we’ve had described to us time and again as being enormous, both physically and magically, and intimidating, goes to show how much authority Amberle can draw on when necessary. Along with her anger, it took a tremendous amount of bravery to challenge the Druid in this way, but I think it earns Amberle a great bit of respect from Allanon, Wil, and the reader.
My absolutely favourite bit of the chapter, though, is Allanon’s reaction to Wil’s surprise at seeing him alive:
“We thought you dead!” [Wil] burst out in disbelief.
“It seems that someone is forever declaring me dead before the fact,” the mystic remarked somewhat petulantly.”
Allanon appears in Eventine Elessedil’s chambers, and demands that he convene an emergency meeting of his most trusted advisors. An hour later, Allanon presents Amberle to the most powerful and influential members of the Elvish High Council, who argue over Allanon’s proposal that she speak with the Ellcrys, to see whether the Elvish girl is still one of the Chosen—the last bearer for the Ellcrys’ seed. Arion, Amberle’s uncle and Crown Prince of the Elvish royal family, leads the charge against Amberle, arguing that she is no longer a Chosen, and a stain on her family, but Ander throws his support behind her. Eventually the rest of the High Council agrees with Ander.
Allanon says Amberle will meet with the Ellcrys a few days hence, but almost immediately upon the council convening, he tells her that she must speak with the tree that night, unbeknownst to the Elves. She reluctantly agrees.
“Amberle Elessedil is your last hope.”
- Emer Chios
- Kael Pindannon
Allanon continues to show a penchant for dramatic entrances, first with his literal blink of an eye appearance in Eventine’s chambers, then by bursting into the Elven High Council with two mysterious robed figures at his side. I love the thought of the generations-old Druid sitting in silence, waiting for just the right moment to leap into the King’s chamber, seeming to appear out of nowhere. Or blocking out his entrance to the council chambers ahead of time, then heading down to the local seamstress to get the perfect robes tailored for maximum drama. The fate of the world is at stake, but trust Allanon to entertain and startle you in the meantime.
Amberle’s reunion with her family is predictably heated, and it’s difficult not to feel her pain as Arion springs to his feet, livid, yelling, “No! No, Druid! Take her back to wherever it was you found her!”
Allanon pleads with the Elven High Council to consider the opportunity that Amberle represents:
“You would question whether she is still a Chosen?” The faint, mocking smile passed quickly across his lips. “Know then that she questions this as well. But I have told her, and I have told her grandfather, and now I tell you, that no feelings in this, neither yours nor hers, will determine the truth of what she is. Your feelings are not of any consequence. … Your concern should be with the survival of your people—your people and the peoples of all the Lands, for this danger threatens them as well.”
I think the most interesting way to approach this chapter is to watch Eventine and his two sons. Through Ander’s eyes, Brooks loudly proclaims that Arion is Eventine’s favourite son and most trusted advisor. As Ander scans the Elven High Council, he contemplates his brother, seated next to the King:
It was Arion to whom the King would look first, just as he always did whenever an important decision was required. Arion was his father’s strength, and the old man loved him fiercely. Just his presence lent Eventine a sense of reassurance that Ander knew he could not provide, however he might try.
The way I see it, Eventine sees a lot of himself in Ander. Arion is a crutch, a passionate advisor who is able to make the difficult choices of which Ander and Eventine are incapable. Most of the time. In this case, however, Amberle’s situation with the Ellcrys requires empathy and forethought, but Arion is blinded by anger at Amberle’s “betrayal,” which compromises his ability to see what every other member of the council so plainly does: if Amberle offers a hope to stop the Demon threat, it must be explored, regardless of open wounds.
“Hurt gives way to bitterness,” Brooks wisely says, “bitterness to anger.” Arion does not have that same strength of character as Ander, and is far past bitterness. Ander considers his brother:
Arion lacked compassion and at times exhibited a stubbornness that obscured his good sense. … There was great bitterness within the Crown Prince, much of it caused by the obvious grief that this girl had brought to the King. It was impossible to tell how deep that bitterness ran.
Arion might be trying to protect his father from further hurt, but his blindness will burn many bridges. Eventine’s eventual decision to allow Amberle to speak with the Ellcrys, forgetting his hurt, shows that, at their core, he and Ander are more alike than they might realize.
It shows incredible resolve that Ander, who has removed himself from Elvish politics entirely, is the first to come to Amberle’s support, especially after his early reluctance, in which he considers casting a popular vote, rather than an impassioned vote.
What would his own advice be, [Ander] wondered suddenly? He would be asked to speak, yet how could he trust himself be objective where Amberle was concerned? Conflicting emotions colored his reason with their intensity. His hands locked before him on the table in response to what he was feeling. Perhaps it would be best if he said nothing. Perhaps it would be best if he simply deferred to the judgement of the others.
Ander sets a precedent that his fellows can follow, opening a floodgate of support for Amberle, but driving a wedge between him and his brother.
Allanon shows Amberle an enormous measure of respect in his response to Emer Chios’s question of why he did not take her to see the Ellcrys in secret. “She should not be forced to come in secrecy and stealth,” the Druid answered, “but openly. If she is to go before the Ellcrys, it should be with your approval.”
Of course, nothing the Druid says is straightforward, and he quickly complicates matters by whisking Amberle off to see the Ellcrys immediately after the Council convenes, rather than waiting a few days as the Elves believe is the plan. This game of chicken ensures two things: a) Amberle can’t change her mind, or fall into a depression as she waits her trial at the Ellcrys, and b) the Demons have no time to react.
It was a great risk, but I think the Druid makes the right call here.
Next Time on the Reread
Amberle meets the Ellcrys, and the quest for the Bloodfire begins.
Hugo Award winner Aidan Moher is the founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.