Episode 1 of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Claudius Shelawn.
To: The Honorable Xardic Ceralac, Mayor of Liamelia
From: Mindartis Amahir, Clan Leader of the Wood Elves of Xilomelia
I hope this letter finds you, your family and your city well and prosperous. I’m writing to request aid and hospitality for the bearer of this letter, Valentine.
Four months ago, Valentine surrendered to our sentries in dire physical condition, suffering from exhaustion, exposure and malnutrition. He was armed with a rapier, daggers and crossbow, and wearing clothes of Drow manufacture. When our scouts brought him in for questioning, he was exhausted but entirely lucid, and told us that he had fled the nearby Drow stronghold of Physryk after a life of slavery. He has no memory of parents, siblings or family of any kind, and was raised entirely in Drow prisons and barracks. After years as a common slave, he was judged to be unlikely to flee. His skills in battle earned him training as a soldier, scout and spy, and eventually he was admitted to the army and inducted into a raiding party. Though he did not say so explicitly, his escape required exceptional restraint, fortitude and planning, and demonstrates his complete loyalty to the aboveground races, and his hatred of the Drow. Valentine was treated in Xilomelia for general exhaustion and minor wounds.
Valentine’s account of his imprisonment and upbringing is necessarily difficult to confirm, but it is consistent with stories from other prisoners, and with conditions observed by aboveground visitors to Drow cities. He provided rich detail, and remained consistent during questioning. As far as I have been able to determine, he has no motivation to lie or exaggerate. I believe that his story is true, and that he deserves whatever aid you can provide.
Despite tremendous suffering and deprivation, Valentine is a sober, reliable, talented young elf, who remains unswervingly dedicated to our cause. Neither I nor my interrogators were able to detect evidence that he has sworn an oath to Lolth, or that he has served Drow ends except when physically coerced. His enslavement was entirely involuntary, and he escaped at the first available opportunity, against tremendous odds. During Valentine’s illness and in the early stages of his recovery, my agents and I were able to inspect Valentine’s person thoroughly, and to confirm that he has no tattoos, brands or marks associated with loyalty to Lolth, and he carries no token. As you know, wood elves strive to maintain the safety of our citizens and troops, and I can say that I am entirely satisfied that Valentine’s interrogation was thorough, and that the information and evidence uncovered are valid.
Valentine is intimately acquainted with Drow habits and culture, and with the physical layout and defenses of the portions of the Underdark that he has seen. Under questioning, he readily provided information, and has expressed his willingness to provide further advice and insight to myself, or to the officials of your city.
I personally investigated the details of his story, and came to the following additional conclusions. Valentine was likely taken prisoner during the Xialo massacre 75 years ago. As you know all too well, the settlement was wiped out entirely; at the time, it was believed that a child was taken captive: Claudius, the three-year-old son of Lucius Shelawn, described as having gold hair and violet eyes. If this is the case — and I believe it is — then he is the cousin of your wife Sieia, and is a rightful citizen of Liamelia. Naturally you will want to confirm this independently, using your own sources and records. During his time with us he selected his adult name, Valentine. He went through our naming ceremony, and swore fealty to Corellon Larithian. Previously he had been known by Charon, a slave name he received from the Drow.
Though he is a valuable resource and is trusted and well-liked here, Valentine is naturally eager to return to his people, and to be reunited with any remaining family. Please feel free to send inquiries or updates as necessary, or as you see fit.
Xardic sets the letter down and turns his gaze to the bearer, this Valentine. Xardic deals with suppliants every day in his official role — people requesting patronage, jobs, pensions. Valentine betrays no anxiety about the outcome, no discomfort under Xardic’s inspection. He’s standing on a silk carpet in front of Xardic’s massive desk in the quiet upper reaches of the capitol building. Valentine’s bearing isn’t oppressively military, but it is formal, erect, respectful but not servile. “This is an incredible story,” Xardic says.
“I’m sure it must seem unusual, sir.”
“What do you want from us?”
“As the letter says, I believe I have family in your city. I’m asking to be admitted to the city and reunited with my living relatives. In time, if it’s appropriate, I will request legal citizenship.”
“We’ll have to confirm the details of your story — satisfy ourselves that it’s true, and that you remained loyal to your race and family.”
“Of course, sir. That’s your right. It’s what I would do in your place.”
Xardic is piqued to have a young stranger endorse his decision. Valentine’s gaze remains steady, tranquil.
“While that’s happening, we’ll shelter you on the strength of this recommendation. Xilomelia is an ally, and Mindartis’ trust is not easily earned.”
“I’m glad, sir.”
“I have to ask a practical question: Do you have any money or belongings?”
“Mindartis gave me 10 silver pieces for travel. Five are left. As for belongings, I have the weapons you see and a change of clothing.”
Xardic shakes his head, “Fucking wood elves. Cheapskates, every last one. The city will pay for your lodgings while we check out the details of your story. My secretary will find you an appropriate inn. If we can confirm your background and loyalty, we’ll make further, private arrangements.” He’s about to dismiss Valentine, but hesitates. He’s a phlegmatic man with a good deal of professional reserve. He can’t help but be impressed with this strange, quiet young elf. “I have meetings for the rest of the day, but later this evening I’d like to hear what you have to say. The Drow pose a clear existential threat to our civilization. You have rare first-hand experience with this ugly truth.”
“Yes, sir.” Valentine leaves, satisfied with the morning’s work. He has room and board, and Xardic has provided the cues he needs to continue in the strange role he’s landed.
Xardic’s secretary leads Valentine to an inn and pays for a week’s lodging in advance. The inn is modest enough that insult may be intended, but this is lost on Valentine. The sheets are crisp, the curtains are bright blue, the walls are wood-paneled and whitewashed. Valentine inspects the linens down to the neatly folded towels at the foot of the bed. Fabric in even small amounts still strikes him as rare and costly, so he’s prepared to be delighted by the inn, with its profusion of napkins, dishtowels, carpets and bedspreads. The very existence of a laundry amazes him. In the Underdark, fabric and fresh water are scarce, and wet items are sadly prone to mildew. He arranges to have his clothes pressed and boots polished, and when the servant leaves, he buries his face in a pillow, thinking, “The sun has its own scent.”
A messenger appears at the inn late that afternoon with a note from Xardic requesting an interview that evening in the inn’s private parlor. When Valentine enters the parlor, Xardic has taken off his jacket, and is in his shirtsleeves, making up the fire. “Take a seat while I finish this. I’ve ordered dinner. Just a neat, plain meal. I hope you won’t object.”
“Not at all, sir. It will be welcome.”
Xardic finishes nursing the fire past the early, delicate stages, then pulls up a second chair to join Valentine, who is blinking at the flames with feline satisfaction.
“My archivists were able to confirm the substance of the letter fairly quickly, though they didn’t discover any fresh details. The wood elves’ records about these kinds of conflicts are necessarily more complete.” Valentine nods, waiting for Xardic to continue. “Your position is a delicate one, of course. There’s no question of your race and family. Your face, coloring and bearing all attest to your heritage. You have an innate dignity, if I may say so.”
“Thank you, sir. I hope that’s true.”
“On the other hand, we have no record of how your parents died. As far as I can tell, the destruction of your home was complete. There are no eyewitnesses aboveground: you’re the only survivor, and naturally you have no memory of events. From my perspective, as a city official, the case is a difficult one. The question of citizenship is a difficult one. Citizenship is highly prized — many elves live their whole lives in Liamelia and never gain it.”
Valentine bows his head, waits for Xardic to continue.
“You have good character, valuable skills, detailed knowledge of our worst enemy. The Drow threaten our very existence, and you have information about their culture, habits and defenses, even about the layout of their cities. You shared some of this with Mindartis.”
Valentine thinks back to his early days among the wood elves. He was weak, tormented with hunger, exhausted, cold. He remembers the sensation of putting on dry clothes, sleeping in a warm bed. The shivering finally stopped. He knows that Mindartis was with him for hours. He has no memory of what was said — he still feels aching, almost childlike gratitude for his care. “I did, yes.”
Xardic chuckles at Valentine’s reserve. “You told him everything — he came away entirely convinced of your loyalty and worth.
“I’ll be frank, Valentine. If you prove yourself an equally valuable ally now, I see no reason to withhold citizenship and all its privileges. You have family here — first and second cousins. The records suggest that my wife is a cousin of yours. She’s a Shelawn, and I believe that you are, too. There’s a strong family resemblance. Your coloring is unmistakable.”
Despite himself, Valentine feels a rush of longing. He was a slave for so long, an object of physical loathing. Drow habits, weapons, language and gestures were deeply impressed upon him, but he was always set apart by his gold hair and deep violet eyes.
“I’m speechless. I hoped I had family, but I didn’t know.”
Xardic places his hand on Valentine’s shoulder. “We’re glad you came back. You’re more valuable than you know.”
They’re interrupted by waiters knocking. Dinner is ready. They prepare the table, and Xardic reviews the dishes and place settings, then dismisses them and serves Valentine himself.
As Xardic carves the joint, Valentine comes to a decision: he will tell Xardic what he wants to hear, no more, no less. He will invent nothing and conceal nothing, but he will select every fact and detail specifically to reinforce what Xardic thinks he already knows. Valentine neither trusts nor mistrusts Xardic, and he’s indifferent to the fate of the Drow. He has no higher goal than to earn Xardic’s trust and approval, and to secure himself a home and family.
They talk into the night. As Valentine feeds Xardic details, the mayor opens up about his horror and loathing for the Drow. They want what the gray elves have, crave it desperately. They’re relentless and cunning, have managed to place spies in surprising places, and exercise almost total control over markets for key commodities. It’s been years since they’ve struck at a gray settlement, but that’s just a sign that they’re waiting, plotting, gathering strength.
When the fire has sunk into embers, Valentine says, “Sir, there’s one thing I must tell you. I was nothing — a slave — but slaves are never permitted to escape. I have to assume that I’m a target, and that they’ll strike at me eventually. If you take me in, there’s some risk to your family. The Drow are patient. That risk will never disappear entirely.”
“You’re right to mention it. Valentine, know this: as long as you stay in here in Liamelia, with your people, the Drow will never touch you.”
Valentine bows his head again. “Thank you, sir.”