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 company dwindled, the Reaper stalked the Pykon, Amberle and Wil met a Wind Rider, and the Ellcrys gave a gift to the Elves.
This week, the Free Corps arrives, the Elves march from Arborlon, and the Forbidding threatens full collapse.
Much to the delight of the Elves, news arrives that the Border Legion, famed military force of Callahorn, has arrived in Arborlon. That joy quickly turns to frustration and dismay, however, when Ander and Eventine learn that the Legion has sent only the Free Corps, a small unit of soldiers comprised of former thieves, cutthroats, and other unmentionables looking for a second chance at an semi-honest life. Ander welcomes the Free Corp leader, Stee Jans, to the city, and they make plans to march from Arborlon at dawn.
Long gray cloaks bordered in crimson billowed from their shoulders and wide-brimmed hats with a single crimson feather sat cocked upon their heads. Long bows and broadswords jutted from their saddle harness, and short swords were strapped across their backs. Each rider held a lance from which fluttered a small crimson and gray pennant, and the horses wore light armor of leather with metal fastenings. Escorted by the handful of Elven Hunters who had picked them up while on patrol east of the city, they rode through the rain-soaked streets of Arborlon in their precise, measured lines and glanced neither left nor right at the crowds who gathered to stare after them.
“The Free Corps,” Ander murmured to himself. “They have sent us the Free Corps.”
- Stee Jans
Long live the Free Corps!
I’ve gotta say, though the idea of a small mercenary corps consisting of former criminals commonly-abused trope, I always seem to love it. On this reread of Elfstones, I couldn’t help but think of the Bridge Four crew from Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings as I was reading Brooks’ description of the Free Corps. The big differences between the two are (a) Bridge Four consists of slaves trod upon by the rest of the army, cast to the front lines to die, where the Free Corps is a (albeit slim) chance at freedom and redemption for its soldiers; (b) where Sanderson focuses on the individual personalities of the various members of Bridge Four, Brooks’ characterizes the Free Corps as a whole, breathing life into the unit in the same way he does his characters. “While the past had been left behind by the soldiers of the Free Corps,” Brooks writes, describing the nature of the men that make up the Free Corps, “the future was an even more uncertain prospect. … Death was an ally of their existence, and they viewed it as an old acquaintance with whom they had brushed shoulders on more than one occasion.”
Despite their questionable background, Brooks introduces the Free Corps with a measure of pride and professionalism. They march into the city in rigid, disciplined ranks, eschewing the reputation of their individual pasts. This is a nice turnabout by Brooks, and immediately begins to lay the groundwork for pulling the rug out of reader expectations later on.
At its head—an avatar of the Free Corps’ doggedness, ferocity, and no bullshit attitude—is Stee Jans, who arrives just in time to capture my affection for the late Crispin—which is up for grabs, waiting for someone to swoop by like Superman to save it from a grisly end (how far from the bridge to the bottom of the Pykon?) Stee Jans is my Crispin rebound.
Stee Jans was a big man, seeming to tower over Ander. His weathered, yet still-youthful face was crisscrossed with dozens of scars, some of which ran through the light red beard that shaded his jaw, leaving streaks of white. A tangle of rust-colored hair fell to his shoulders, braided and tied. Part of one ear was missing and a single gold ring dangled from the other. Hazel eyes fixed those of the Elven Prince, so hard they seemed chiseled in stone.
In particular, I like the way that Jans challenges Ander’s frustration that Callahorn did not send a larger military body to join the Elves:
“Like most councils, [The Council of the Cities] finds it easier to talk about making a decision than to make it. … I understand that when Callahorn was under attack from the armies of the Warlock Lord, the Borderlands sent a request to the Elves for assistance. But Eventine was made prisoner by the Dark Lord, and in his absence the High Council of the Elves found itself unable to act.” He paused. “It is much the same with Callahorn now. The Borderlands have no leader; they have had no leader since Balinor.”
The past always haunts the present. Politics doesn’t interfere with Brooks’ plots very often, but this seems like a very incisive and biting way to put the Elves at peril. Jans cuts to the quick, and doesn’t hide his intentions or those of his countrymen behind falsities and lies. I like this about him, and I think it’s the first step in earning Ander’s trust, which will be vitally important in the late parts of the novel.
I’ve gotta say, though, I’m not impressed by the Elven scouts, who pick up on the Free Corps when they’re “an hour east of [Arborlon].” That seems terribly close for a marching army to go unnoticed (even if they’re marching from a different direction than the expected Demon assault). The Elves, um… don’t seem very good at this war thing. Let’s catch wind of any militarized force before they cross our borders, hmm?
I love seeing Allanon beginning to groom Ander for command of the Elves. When news of the Legion arrives, Eventine immediately assume his place as leader, rising to meet with Stee Jans. Allanon, however, has other ideas.
“Elven King!” Allanon’s deep voice brought Ander’s father about sharply. “We have important work to do here, work that should not be interrupted. Perhaps your son might go in your place—if only to give greeting to the Bordermen.”
Allanon’s actions here are curious, and it makes you wonder how much of what he acts on is instinct—as though he recognizes the growing signs of weariness and weakness in Eventine—and how much has to do with trying to place as many pokers in the fire as possible—as long as Eventine and Arion still live, leadership of the Elves is sure, but, should they fall, Ander must have the skill and confidence necessary to take their place. Allanon never misses an opportunity to create future potential. Even Ander notices this:
It occurred to [Ander] that this was not the first time that Allanon had gone out of his way to include him when the Druid need not have done so. There was that first meeting when he had told Eventine of Amberle and the Bloodfire. There was his admonition to Ander upon leaving for Paranor to assume responsibility for his father’s protection. There was that sense of alliance that had brought him to his feet in the High Council to stand with Amberle when no one else would do so. There was this afternoon’s meeting when Allanon had given the Ellcrys staff to his father. Arion should have been present for these meetings, not he. Why was Arion never there?
Allanon’s strength has always been in waking hidden potential in the least likely sources. It is difficult for someone of Allanon’s disposition to control people like Eventine and Arion—they are headstrong and experienced, used to giving orders, not receiving them—but by empowering people like Ander Elessedil and Wil Ohmsford, the Druid creates strong, loyal (and easily manipulated) allies.
The Elven army marches forth from Arborlon, headed north for their final destination: the Hoare Flats—expected point of Demon explosion when the Forbidding collapses. Along the way, Ander has a conversation (choose appropriately based on the chapter you’re reading) with [random Free Corps Soldier]/[Allanon] who reveals to him [Stee Jans’ tragic and heroic past]/[that Wil Ohmsford and his Elfstones have joined Amberle on her quest to the Bloodfire]. Many beautiful vistas are passed along the way, and the Elven people cheer on their last military hope against the Demons.
At dawn, the Elves marched forth from Arborlon, to the wail of pipes and the roll of drums, voices raised in song, banners flying in splashes of vivd color against a sky still leaden and clouded. Eventine Elessedil rode at their lead, gray hair flowing down chain mail forged of blue iron, his right hand holding firmly the silver-white staff of the Ellcrys. Allanon was at his side, a spectral shadow, tall and black atop a still taller and blacker Artaq, and it was as if Death had ridden from the pits of the earth to stand watch over the Elves. Behind rode the King’s sons: Arion, cloaked in white and bearing the Elven standard of battle, a war eagle on a field of crimson; Ander, cloaked in green and carrying the banner of the house of the Elessedils, a crown wreathed in boughs set over a spreading oak.
It was an awesome procession.
- Ander Elessedil
- Arion Elessedil
- Emer Chios
- Eventine Elessedil
- Kael Pindanon
It was here that the army would make its stand.
- Ander Elessedil
- Arion Elessedil
- Eventine Elessedil
- Kael Pindanon
- Stee Jans
All right. So, these two chapters are almost exactly the same. Army marches, exposition occurs about the Elves’ military plans in place to thwart the Demon threat, and then Ander has an enlightening conversation. Really, I’m not sure why they were split in the first place, considering their both so short. In turn, I’m going to write my analysis for both of them at the same time.
Immediately, I’m struck by the Elves’ departure from Arborlon—and one line in particular:
The people of the city had come to watch. Atop the Carolan, on walls and fences, in fields and gardens, lining the way at every step, they bade farewell with cheers of encouragement and hope and with silences born of emotions that had no voice.
It’s just so… quaint. So much of modern secondary world fantasy—from the Joe Abercrombies, to the Elizabeth Bears, Kameron Hurleys, or Brandon Sandersons—are concerned with drawing vivid, sometimes brutal depictions of wartime, complete with communities and societies collapsing in on themselves due to the terrors and pressures of war. Those aforementioned authors do a tremendous job of analyzing the socio-economic complexities of war, and building outward from there as their protagonists navigate towards an improved status quo. This scene of Arborlon, overflowing with energy and well-wishes, is so unabashedly positive and naive that I can’t help but feel a lot of warm fuzzies, something that’s missing in a lot of modern, hard-nosed fantasies.
Brooks does a wonderful job of illustrating the gorgeous vistas of the Westland. It’s always a pleasure to take a stroll through his worlds—like a master painter with oil on canvas, he brings worlds to life with just his words.
Allanon continues his grooming of Ander, which I think is one of the most compelling sub-plots for the novel. Does Allanon know what’s coming? I can’t tell. He obviously can’t predict the future, but the way he treats Ander obviously shows a respect for the Elf. Does he suspect that Eventine’s flagging strength might make him unfit to rule? Or that Arion’s rash behaviour might lead him to a grisly end? They’re both likely outcomes for the Elven rulers. Or perhaps he just likes to lay the groundwork for many opportunities—grooming Ander, taking him into his confidence, as a last resort should the worst befall Eventine and Arion. Needless to say, if you can’t see the foreshadowing, you haven’t been reading closely enough!
Allanon telling Eventine that the Elves are basically screwed is amazing. Eventine’s immediate resignation is equally amusing:
“We should be able to hold [Baen Draw] for several days,” the King continued [like an idiot]. “Longer, perhaps, if they do not flank us [, because our bitter rivals, who nearly wiped us off the planet a millennia ago, lack basic war tactics.]”
“Two days, no more.” The Druid’s voice was flat, unemotional [but a look of pitying sadness gathered at the corner of his eye to form a single tear drop as he realized the utter ineptitude of his allies.]
Eventine stiffened[, realizing he had a lot of Grey’s Anatomy to catch up on in the next two days]. “Very well, two days.”
(Please excuse my dramatic interpretation of the events.)
Also, who knew the King of the Elves was so austere? I’d’ve thought the King would travel with a three-ton, solid gold dining table, not some “makeshift table of planks laid crosswise atop logs.” What sort of nation is this that he’s running? One of heathens.
There’s a fun theory among Terry Brooks fans that Stee Jans and Garet Jax, the popular weaponsmaster introduced in The Wishsong of Shannara, are one and the same. There’s not a lot of evidence for it besides Jans’ coloring and his age (can you believe he’s only in his twenties as leader of the Free Corps?)—I believe the theory was first introduced by Teresa Patterson in The World of Shannara, an old companion book for the series. While I suspect that Brooks is amused by the theory, and its most like just unsubstantiated fan conjecture, I do like to have fun by playing along. The story related to Ander, which highlights Jans’ incredible prowess and never-say-die personality, certainly makes the connection a compelling one.
Another brief note to mention that the Free Corps soldier’s description of their company, and their orders to decimate the gnomes, reminds me a lot of the Red Slash, an extreme military unit commanded by Dallen Usurient—central to the plot of the most recent Shannara novel, The Darkling Child.
“Ten years ago, a band of Gnome raiders was burning and killing the people at the edge of the borderlands. Vicious little rats, and a bunch of them at that. The Legion tried everything to trap them, but nothing worked. Finally the King sent the Free Corps after them—with orders to track them down and destroy them, even if it took the rest of the year.”
Where the men of the Free Corps are searching for a new opportunity, putting their lives on the line as penance for past mistakes, and sacrificing themselves for their Elven allies, the Red Slash uses their military might to eradicate perceived threats—bullies. At the beginning of The Darkling Child, under Usurient’s command, the Red Slash eradicates a pirate village—every man, woman, and child—with efficient and chilling brutality. They’re like two side of the same coin.
How much of that soldier’s recollection of the campaign against the gnomes is colored by his prejudice? What if they were just trying to protect their homes and families? What comes around, goes around in the Four Lands, and I wonder if the ruthlessness of the Red Slash might owe its beginnings, in some small way, to the Free Corps—a sign of how the Four Lands have changed.
Next Time on the Reread
The Forbidding collapses once and for all.
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.