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.
Today we’re talking about Elspeth, Herald-Mage and daughter of the Queen of Valdemar from the Heralds of Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey. She's a witch who takes a different path, despite the fact that the one she leaves behind would have been lovely. It just wasn't what she wanted.
Let us set up Valdemar for you. It’s a fictional country that is part of a world where magic isn’t unusual at all. There are mages that wander the lands from different schools of magic. However, in Valdemar, there is only mind magic. Those who possess mind magic and a pure heart are Chosen by Companions, which appear to be white horses with blue eyes, but are really a lot more. Those Chosen are called Heralds and they fight for the kingdom, adjudicate disputes and protect the populace. In the distant past, they were merely regular magic users. Long ago, however, a certain famous Herald made that impossible. Now, they can only use mind magic (telepathy, fire starting, empathy, etc.) and have mostly “forgetten” about the other stuff.
Elspeth makes her first appearance in the bestselling Arrows of the Queen trilogy. She’s the daughter of Queen Selenay of Valdemar, but being the Heir doesn't guarantee her happiness. Her father tried to murder her mother and died trying, and an evil maid twisted her into a sort of a jerk to keep her from being Chosen by a Companion, despite the Heralds’ best efforts. The Queen’s Own (sort of a second in command) Talia tried to help her and had to pull in many allies to take down the evil woman, cure her fear of Companions, then finally tame the Brat, as she was called.
Still, this beginning to a royal life wasn’t exactly something to get over quickly. In fact, in the Valdemar series (and in most of her work), Lackey addresses mental health issues like PTSD, Post-traumatic growth, anxiety, phobias, recovery from sexual assault and more. The issues don’t go away when the story demands that they should for plot reasons. Recovery takes time, and Elspeth’s upbringing and early trauma changes her and pulls her from the path set out for her. In fact, her Companion Gwena, lovely and kind though she is, seems to be pulling her along a path that is set out for her; one that would mirror a storybook. (This is another theme that Lackey tackles in her books; being pulled down a traditional path and writing with traditional plotlines.)
Though Elspeth was made Regent over Valdemar by her mother during conflicts, she realizes that there is another path for her. She and her childhood crush Skif, another Herald, set out to see if they can find the other sort of magic that seems to be needed in Valdemar right now. With her Companion trying to hook her up with Skif (fairytales again) and pulling her down a road she doesn’t want to be on, she fights to be taken seriously and to be allowed to make her own choices. She’s battling the whole “but-we’re-not-oppressive-and-we’re-trying-to-take-you-down-a-good-path” sort of mindset.
When she arrives in a place called K’Sheyna, she learns about the Hawkbrothers, those who use a different kind of magic that is far more powerful than anything she’s ever seen. They are caretakers of the land, and the magic nodes in K’Sheyna bleach their hair white and the birds they bond with. She studies her mage gift to help defeat an enemy of the Hawkbrothers (not all guys, in case you were wondering) and falls in love with a man named Darkwind. He’s trying to throw off his brooding youth and childhood trauma as well, and having as hard a time of it as she is. Neither of them just grow up when they need to for the story. They have to work at it over the course of quite a number of books. He decides to return to Valdemar with Elspeth and brings along friends to return magic to the land. They need it since there is a huge magic war brewing.
Elspeth gives up the throne and works with her magic, but it’s changing her. She’s being "bleached" by it, an outward sign that she’s different. This woman has always been an outsider, first by virtue of being the Heir, then by her attitude (Valdemar has an awful lot of good-hearted people and it's sort of odd to be a brat), then by her gift and choices the Heralds don’t understand. For anyone who has felt like an outsider, it’s pretty easy to relate. The thing that makes this all divergent, however, is that typically in fantasy, we see people rebelling against an unjust system. They’re fighting against misogyny, or cruelty or a class system that is oppressing people. They’re rising up against an evil parent, a sibling that wants them dead or some such evil. Those motivations are easy to understand. Everyone roots for them. They take the evil down or escape, and all is well.
Here, we see a woman who wants to take a different path and has magic that is unique from everyone else’s. The thing is, everyone she’s rebelling against is really trying to help her. They believe in her. They want the best for her. Nothing they’re asking of her is really wrong. In fact, her life would be lovely, full of accepting and kind people. It’s just not what she wants. Sometimes when you rebel against something that is a great choice, no one understands why. Even when they’re lovely people who are accepting of so much, they just don’t get it. Elspeth is working with very, very dangerous magic, and no one understands why she wants to do this, even though they all live lives of service and take risks themselves. We can all understand what that feels like. “You could do so much good if you do what we do. You’ll be happier and it is far less dangerous.” We’ve all heard that. Sometimes, though, you have to take a different road than everyone else, even if that road is harder. Even if it’s dangerous. Even if it’s weird to everyone else.
We celebrate a witch who chose an alternative path, despite the happiness she’d find on the regular one. Let’s remember that too: even when everyone has your very best interests at heart, it’s still okay to do something different.