Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment 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 Elven army limped into Arborlon, the King awoke, and Amberle and Wil met an old foe and a new friend.
This week, the Elfstones are stolen and regained, the siege of Arborlon begins, and Mallenroh makes a dramatic entrance.
Amberle and Wil leave Hebel’s cottage with the Rovers, headed towards the Hollows, where Safehold hides beneath Spire’s Reach. At a narrow crossroads, Cephelo halts the caravan and tells Wil that it is time to part ways. Wil asks Cephelo how he can later be found to deliver payment, but the Rover is suspiciously non-committal. Wil and Amberle bid farewell to the Rovers, but Eretria remains aloof and angry.
Hebel ruefully wonders about the fate of the young Elven brother and sister. Like Eretria, he sees some holes in their story, and eventually intuits that they may be in search of the ancient magic rumoured to lay buried under Spire’s Reach. Suddenly, a chill falls over Hebel as he senses a terrible presence watching him from the shadows. Just as quickly, whatever hunts him disappears, and Hebel recognizes that he’s never come so close to death in the 60 years he’s lived in the Wilderun.
Wil and Amberle reach the rim of the Hollows, and decide to descend before nightfall. Wil trips, bringing Amberle down with him, and she twists her ankle. They decide to wait until morning to continue their journey. Unfortunately, Wil discovers that the Elfstones are gone, stolen by Cephelo. He vows to retrieve them from the thieving Rover before morning, and leaves Amberle hidden in the bushes.
“Do you really believe the old man’s story? Do you think there are Witches living down there?”
She stared at him darkly. “Don’t you?”
He hesitated and then shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. Yes, I guess so. There is very little I don’t believe anymore.” He sat forward slowly, arms coming up about his knees. “If there are Witches, I hope they are frightened of Elfstones, because that is just about all the protection we have left. Of course, if I have to use the Stones in order to make them afraid, we may be in a lot of trouble.”
Fun question: Do you think the Elfstones would work as a weapon against the Witches? I can’t remember if Wil brings them to bear against Morag or Mallenroh (my recollection says “no”), but I’ve always found that one of the most interesting aspects of the Elfstones, limiting their use as a weapon, is that they’re only effective against creatures of magic, and can’t be turned against non-magic life. So, are the Witches of magic, or in control of magic? Would the Elfstones work as a weapon against Druids, who are trained in the use of Magic, but not born of it? I’ve always wondered if there’s a potential to use them as a catalyst to inspire or augment change in non-magical life, in the same way Wil’s brute-force use of the magic in this novel changes his family line for generations to come. Life in the Four Lands was dramatically altered by the magic awoken after the apocalypse marking the end of modern times, and the magic in the Elfstones seems to be a pure, concentrated conduit of that magic, capable of great, and potentially terrible things.
It’s funny how, after the visit to Hebel’s place, the Wilderun is starting to feel downright cozy. Wil and Amberle’s adventure is like unpacking a stacking doll of awfulness. Each time you think you’re done, something else comes along to show you just how bad it can get:
“Hey! You’ve gotta get past the Reaper in Drey Wood,” says the narrator, a grin on his wicked face. “Now, the Matted Brakes! Now you’ve gotta get through an old, creeky fortress at the Rock Spur. Want me to give you a ride on my bird to the Wilderun? Whoops, turns out that it’s a den of thieves! Oh, hey, it’s not so bad, but now you gotta go to the Hollows, a place even the people of Grimpen Ward are afraid of. Oh, and once you’re there, you have to creep past the evil witches to find Spire’s Reach, under which lies Safehold, a labyrinth that’s older than recorded history.”
“How long is this gonna go on?” Wil asked.
“Oh, I’ve got all day.”
Show of hands at who gasped out loud when Wil discovered that the Elfstones were missing.
Almost without thinking, Wil reached into the Rover tunic and lifted out the pouch that held the Elfstones. He fingered it idly and was about to return it again when he noticed something odd about its feel. Frowning, he opened the drawstrings and dumped the contents into his open palm. He found himself staring at three ordinary pebbles.
“Wil!” Amberle exclaimed in horror.
The Valeman stared at the pebbles in stunned silence, his mind racing.
“Cephelo,” he whispered finally. “Cephalo.”
Brooks does a great job of drilling further and further into bleakness, and, as always, continues to showcase that the Demons are the least of Amberle and Wil’s problems. Because, man, what a douche Cephelo is. It all seemed a bit too convenient that Cephelo would buy Wil’s story about the reward, and even negotiate his share down, but stealing the Elfstones is low even for the Rover. Could Wil have avoided the situation if he’d been honest with Cephelo? I don’t know. I gotta give credit to the Rover for not just slitting Wil’s neck and taking the Elfstones off of his corpse. Cephelo is ruthless, but I think he believes that he’s the good guy. That kind of cutesy rogue is a surefire sign that we’re reading an epic fantasy from the ’80s.
How chilling is it to stand beside Hebel as the Reaper is stalking the shadows around the old man’s home. I can’t be the only one who’s surprised that the Demon doesn’t kill Hebel, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why the old man is allowed to live. The Reaper isn’t really in the habit of leaving living witnesses.
And, man, I was hit by a big ol’ semi-truck of feelings at the exchange between Wil and Amberle at the end of the chapter. It’s been such a joy watching their relationship mature throughout the novel, and the kiss, and Amberle’s words, are just perfect. I like that, despite the kiss, it feels like a bond built on mutual respect and care for one another, rather than a charged, in-the-moment, fit of ill-considered romance. These are two people who have found a love borne of shared experience—it transcends romance. Great stuff.
The Demons attack Arborlon at Dawn. Watching from atop the Carolan, Ander surveys the assault. To survive seems hopeless, but Eventine rides from the city, and the Elven troops and their allies rally around him. Ander offers his father the Ellcrys staff, but the King refuses, saying it belongs to Ander now. The Elven Princes recognizes a sadness in his father. Stee Jans, along with the Elven army, leads a strong defense against the Demon army, which continues to grow larger despite its heavy losses. The two armies alternate gaining and losing the lower gates of the Elfitch, which lead into Arborlon, until a monstrous Demon rises from the ranks, scaled and furious. It tears through the Elven ranks, only to be brought down single-handedly by Stee Jans, a victory that raises much furor in the Demon army, and joy in the Elven defenders. Without warning, the Demons retreat and give up the attack.
As Eventine and Ander meet with the Elven High Council, word arrives that Amantar, a Troll Maturen, has arrives with 1,500 Troll warriors, a huge boost to the Elven forces.
Allanon approaches the Ellcrys, and, to his horror, finds that the sentient tree is just days away from death.
A cry sounded from atop the Carolan, and cheers rang out. In the predawn gloom, Elves turned hurriedly to look, disbelief and joy reflecting in their faces as a tall, gray-haired rider came into view. Down the length of the Elfitch the cry passed on from mouth to mouth. All along the front line of the Rill Song, behind the barricades and walls, it rose into the morning until it became a deafening roar.
“Eventine! Eventing rides to join us!”
- Ehlron Tay
- Stee Jans
Eventine is remarkable, especially in an epic fantasy novel, for being a King who isn’t brought low by his ego—just the opposite, in fact, for he recognizes his inability to lead his people, and passes the torch to Ander, the unlikeliest of bearers.
[Ander] held forth the Ellcrys staff.
“This belongs to you, my Lord.”
Eventine seemed to hesitate momentarily, then slowly shook his head. “No, Ander. It belongs to you now. You must carry it for me.”
The ego-maniacal king who undermines the safety of his realm because he’s not able to see sense through his own quest for redemption is so overdone, it just makes it that much sweeter that Brooks had the maturity as a writer to allow Eventine to gracefully exit, to honestly self-evaluate his place within the Elven power structure, and make the rights moves, symbolized by his refusal to take the Ellcrys staff from Ander, and to ensure the ongoing safety of his people, while still recognizing himself as a symbol of power and unity for his soldiers.
It’s heartbreaking to be with Ander as he lays eyes on his once proud, once heroic father:
Here was the King who had stood against and finally triumphed over the Warlock Lord. Here was the King who had seen them through every crisis the homeland had faced. Wounded at Halys Cut, seemingly lost, he was returned again. With his return surely no evil, however monstrous, could prevail against them.
[Ander] saw in the King’s eyes a distance separating the Elven ruler from all that was happening about him. It was as if he had withdrawn into himself, not out of fear or uncertainty, for he could master those, but out of deep, abiding sadness that seemed to have broken his spirit.
Equally impressive is to see the way Ander accepts the mantle of leadership, something that he’s actively avoided for most of his adult life. Now, Eventine’s greatest gift to the Elves are the values he instilled in his last remaining son—the leadership and love that Ander bears for his people, and the bravery to stand with his fellow Elves to the end. In Ander, that great King still lives.
A few chapters ago, I was hard on Brooks’ ability to write gritty, hard-hitting large scale battle scenes, but I’ve always admired the way that he writes city sieges. From Tyrsis in The Sword of Shannara, to Arborlon here in Elfstones, many of the most memorable moments from the early Shannara novels (since large-scale warfare sort of disappears in the latter half of the series…) are the choking, frenetic moments when the great cities appear on the verge of falling to the vast armies of their foes. You can tell that Brooks is someone who takes pride in his home, and that familial and societal roots mean a lot to him, because his heroes never fight harder than they do when backed up against the walls of those they love most:
The Demons attacked Arborlon. With a frightening shriek that shattered the morning stillness and reverberated through the lowland forests, they burst from the cover of the trees, a massive wave of humped and twisted bodies that stretched the length of the Carolan. In a frenzy that cast aside reason and thought, the creatures of the dark swept out of the gloom that was still thick within the shadowed woods and threw themselves into the waters of the Rill Song. Like a huge stain spreading over the water, they filled the river, large and small, swift and slow, leaping, crawling, shambling bodies surging and heaving through the swift current.
The Demons fight to take back a home that was stolen from them, with no intent to return to their prison, and the Elves fight to protect the only home they’ve known for generations. It’s more intimate than the retreat from Worl Run and Halys Cut, there’s a sense of impending danger, and personal loss that saturates every word. You can feel Anders’ gut-wrenching fear in his every observation. Chilling.
But the Elves did not panic. Though the number, size, and ferocity of the Demons who came at them might have broken the spirit of a less determined defender, the Elves stood their ground. It was to be their final battle. It was their home city that they defended, the heart of the land that had been theirs for as long as the races existed. All else had been lost now, from the Rill Song West. But the Elves were determined that they would not lose Arborlon. Better that they fight and die here, the last man, woman, and child of them, than that they be driven entirely from their homeland, outcasts in foreign lands, hunted like animals by their pursuers.
Allanon’s vision of the Ellcrys, just days from death, puts a fast clock on things. Surviving the siege is one thing, but it is all for naught if Amberle cannot return to Arborlon before the Forbidding collapses entirely. And, as we know from the next few chapters, she’s off on a bit of an adventure that’s not helping her race against the clock.
I love the Trolls in Brooks work, so I’ll just leave you with this wonderful passage from Amantar about the renewed bonds of friendship between the stalwart Northerners and their Elven brethren, which I believe is particularly important to consider given recent events:
“Always before, Trolls and Elves have fought against one another; we have been enemies. That cannot be forgotten all at once. Yet for everyone, there is a time to begin anew. That time has come for Elf and Troll. We know of the Demons. There have been encounters with a scattering of them already. There have been injuries; there have been deaths. The Rock Trolls understand the danger the Demons pose. The Demons are as great an evil as the Warlock Lord and the creatures of the Skull mark. Such evil threatens all. Therefore it is seen that Elf and Troll must put aside their differences and stand together against this common enemy. We have come, my countrymen and I, to stand with you.”
Wil races through the Wilderun in pursuit of the Rover caravan, determined to recover the stolen Elfstones. He runs into Eretria, who had a change of heart after letting him fall for Cephelo’s greedy plan, and gives him an ultimatum: let her tag along, and she will recover the Elfstones. Will agrees, and they resume their pursuit. They find the remains of the Rover caravan, dead bodies, including Cephelo, strewn about like straw men. Wil finds the Elfstones clutched in Cephelo’s hand, useless to a Rover with no Elven blood.
Stupid! That was the kindest description he could render for what he had done, letting Cephelo fool him into thinking that he could have the Rover’s aid for nothing more than a vague promise.
Oh, poor Cephelo. Well, not really. He was a bastard—but, in a funny way, I almost admired him. Not for his methods, which were mostly deplorable (like, say, selling off his daughter?), but rather for his loyalty to his Rover family. At all turns, he was making subjective decisions to strengthen his family, to become more powerful, and to provide for those beneath him. He was thief, and succumbed to exactly the egomaniacal end that I spoke of Eventine avoiding above, but his actions were almost always based on understandable internal logic. He always believed that he was the good guy. Even to the end, he fought alongside the Rovers in his family, and went down with the ship.
It’s funny how nostalgia can colour your opinion of people like Cephelo after their death. As I’ve mentioned before, I have this daydream of a version of Elfstones in which Cephelo roots out Wil’s cause early on and joins him in his quest for the Bloodfire, and I think it could have been something special. (Or, it could have just been a rehash of the relationship between Shea Ohmsford and Panamon Creel…)
Finally. Finally! Finally, Wil comes to his sense and accepts Eretria’s aid (though grudgingly). His insistence on protecting her from danger by refusing to let her tag along was kind of annoying, and totally disrespectful. Like, I get that he has the keep his mission secret, and probably doesn’t want to tell her about the Reaper if he doesn’t have to, but in what world does adding a capable, worldly companion to your team reduce your odds of accomplishing your goals? The first time, I get it, but the second time he refused, at Hebel’s home, it was clear that Eretria had experience in the Wilderun, and could more than hold her own physically (better than either Wil or Amberle, frankly), making her a huge asset. Plus, she’s an adult who can measure the proposed risk/reward for herself. She begged for his help, because she knew that staying with Cephelo was worse than anything ahead of Wil and Amberle, and he kept saying no. That she had to back him into a corner, by allowing Cephelo to steal the Elfstones, just goes to show how scared she was of her place within the Rover family. Wil should have known better.
On another topic, how friggin’ creepy was this chapter? From Cepehlo clutching the Elfstones, to the riderless horse, to Whistle Ridge, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. This particular passage stood out:
A new sound rose from somewhere ahead, faint at first, lingering like an echo in the midst of the sharper, quicker sounds, then stronger and more insistent. It grew into a howl, high-pitched and eerie, as if such pain had been inflicted upon some tortured soul that the limits of endurance had been passed and all that was left before death was that final, terrible cry of anguish.
Jesus. How am I supposed to sleep tonight? Brooks’ writing can often be very prosaic, putting function over flourish, and he’s guilty of using the same descriptions over and over (if I have to hear about Amberle’s “child’s face” one more time…), but then he slaps you across the face with such a passage, and you just sort of marvel at the way he’s able to paint these vibrant, emotionally resonant images in your mind with very little effort. Where the cry of the Rovers fighting the Reaper might have been an obvious way of setting the tone for this chapter, it’s also expected and kind of bland. Whistle Ridge puts you on edge immediately, even though, at that point, you don’t know that anything is wrong. It’s so, so much more effective than the sounds of battle ringing through the forest.
Wil and Eretria discover that Amberle is missing. Hebel appears, and Will tells the old man that Amberle has disappeared. He warns them that she’s likely a captive of one of the Witch Sisters, Morag and Mallenroh. Wil decides that he must go after Amberle—Eretria and Hebel immediately pledge to join him. Along with Drifter, Hebel’s hound, the descend into Mallenroh’s end of the Hollows.
Amberle wakes in the darkness of the Hollows, carried by the gnarled, wood-like creatures of Mallenroh. She calms herself, and chooses not to fight against her captors, hoping for the advantage of surprise at a more opportune time. Her captors bring her to a mysterious tower.
Wil calls a halt due to the darkness of the Hollows at night. Hebel offers a plan, and fastens a rope to Drifter and to the waists of each companions. Drifter leads them through the darkness. Hebel somehow figures out that Mallenroh has taken Amberle, and reports that the Reaper is nowhere to be found. They find one of Mallenroh’s stick men, who, on being spotted, begins moving away. On Hebel’s beckoning, they follow. Eventually, the stick man leads them into to Mallenroh’s tower. Suddenly, the drawbridge raises, trapping them within, and Mallenroh appears to welcome them to her home.
“No need to rush, Elfling. That’s the Hollows we’re talking about, remember? Nothing down there but the Witch Sisters and the things that serve them. Anything else sets one foot in the Hollows gets snatched right up—I know that from what Mallenroh told me sixty years ago.” He shook his head. “By now, the girl and the thing tracking her are keeping company with one of the Sisters—that or they’re dead.”
Oh, Wil, Wil, Wil.
Wil hesitated only a second, then began searching for the bushes in which he had hidden Amberle. He found them almost at once and pushed his way to their centre. There was no one there. For an instant, he panicked. He groped about for some sign of what might have happened to the Elven girl, but there was nothing to be found. His panic increased.
Teacher: “Class, who here thinks leaving Amberle in a bush with a busted ankle is a reasonable idea?”
Wil puts up his hand.
Teacher: “Okay, and who thinks that the moment you leave her alone in the Hollows, which is a part of the Wilderun that even the locals are afraid of, that she’ll be snatched up by the rumoured Witch Sisters, or worse?
Everyone else puts up their hand.
Teacher: “Thanks, everyone. You may go outside for recess. Wil, may I have a word with you?”
Like, come on, dude, what did you expect?
Losing the Elfstones was obviously devastating for Wil, but did he really expect anything good was going to come of abandoning Amberle? Doubly so when Eretria showed up (with an extra horse!) and he didn’t bother to go back and retrieve her, or, better yet, let Eretria get the Elfstones and took the extra horse back to where Amberle hid. I know he doesn’t trust Eretria, but there are so many better options here for Wil, especially when his main prerogative is protecting Amberle—the Elfstones are useless if Wil’s not actually with her.
The thing about this, though, is that I can totally believe it could happen this way. Wil panics, and in the anxiety that results, he weighs situation and his options poorly, and makes a huge mistake. He’s young, and, if we’ve learned anything so far, rash in his actions. It’s been drilled into him that his control of the Elfstones is the key to keeping Amberle safe, and his shortsightedness doesn’t allow him to recognize that the Elfstones are only one of his keys to protecting Amberle—he’s ignoring all the rest by leaving her in the bushes with a twisted ankle. Self-confidence is a huge theme in this novel—from Ander and Eventine, who must find and rebuild theirs, to Stee Jans, who bleeds confidence and inspires others—and this is a moment where Wil allows his anxiety to overrule his self-confidence.
It’s a neat little narrative trick that Brooks pulls to allow us to know that Amberle was taken by someone other than the Reaper. Does it reduce the tension, because we know she lives, or add a bit of spice, thanks to the rumour of the Witches? A bit of both, I’d say. I can’t imagine I’m saying this, but thank goodness she was only kidnapped by the Witches, and not discovered by the Reaper. How epic would a Mallenroh and Morag vs. the Reaper showdown be, though? I have to think the Witches would win.
Speaking of narration, I found it profoundly irritating early in this chapter that we were suddenly privy to Eretria’s thoughts, and without any warning:
Pride, stubbornness, and the strange attraction she felt for the Valeman flared within her. She could not permit him to do this to her again. Without hesitating, she went after him.
[Wil] heard the sound of another horse following and realized that Eretria had come after him.
Brooks has a tendency to jump around from character to character, but often gives readers a solid indicator that we’re shifting point-of-view—an extra break after a paragraph, or even a whole new chapter—so it feels doubly odd that he’s suddenly introducing a new POV mid-chapter, without any sort of warning or context, then immediately dumping it. Add to that that we haven’t ever (from what I can recall, correct me if I’m wrong) had a glimpse of the story from Amberle’s perspective, and Eretria joining Wil, Allanon, Ander, Eventine, the Dagda Mor, Hebel, and the rest of the small cast of POV characters feels unusual.
Hebel reappearing is fun. He was a curmudgeon, and obviously didn’t like Cephelo, but he’s also a brave sunovabitch, and shows a lot of character by chasing after Wil and Amberle in the dead of night, when he knows something deadly is on the prowl. The guy’s at least in his seventies, and he was tracking the Reaper! Badass old dude. He doesn’t deserve what’s coming to him.
How can you not squee when someone says this?
“You said yourself that no one should go into the Hollows,” Wil pointed out. “I don’t even know why you’re even here.”
Hebel shrugged. “Because it doesn’t matter where I am anymore, Elfling, and hasn’t for a long time. I’m an old man; I’ve done in this life the things I’ve wanted to do, been where I wanted to go, seen what I’ve wanted to see. Nothing left for me now—nothing except for maybe this one last thing. I want to see what’s down there in those Hollows.”
On the surface, it seems kind of sad, like he’s given up. But, it’s more like he’s decided to live again, to gamble in a way that’s only available to those who have lived a full, rich life, yet continue to seek new adventures. Hebel’s sort of wonderful, now that I think about it. “I’m tired of being sane,” he tells Wil, “tired of just thinking about going down there instead of doing it.”
I had to laugh when Amberle thought “briefly of Wil, trying to imagine what he might do in her place. … Who could tell what crazy stunt [he] might try in such a situation.” Even after all of their shared affection, and the obvious emotional bond they’ve developed, she still ruefully makes fun of his harebrained approach to life. It’s cute.
Also cute: Mallenroh’s parading tree-men.
It was a man made of sticks—two arms, two legs and a body all of sticks, gnarled roots curling out from the ends of the arms and legs to form fingers and toes. It had no head.
I don’t know why—they’re obviously formidable guards—but I’ve always found them to be kind of like an adorable version of Tolkien’s Ents. Or, I suppose, the enchanted end-result of a master Dwarf wood-carver taking up an Ent for his or her craft. The whole section involving Amberle’s arrival at Mallenroh’s fortress reads like a fairy tale to me.
It’s funny how, after all, their foray into the Witches domain, likely saved them from the Reaper, who fears Morag and Mallenroh enough to avoid their domain. Odds are that if they’d stayed their path, if Amberle hadn’t been kidnapped, the Reaper would have found and killed her. Funny thing, fate.
Next Time on the Reread
The siege of Arborlon continues, Mallenroh measures her prisoners, and Wil is reunited with Amberle.
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.