Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Claudius Shelawn.
Despite training hard all day, Valentine can’t sleep that night. When Aramil invites him to meet a few friends, Valentine thinks, there won’t be news for several more hours. Might as well go. This is how he finds himself in a seedy tavern watching Aramil and two of his buddies drink something they call Blue Ruin. Valentine tastes his, grimaces, and asks the barmaid for ale, figuring it will be shitty but not incapacitating. As the night progresses, the group becomes more rowdy. They get thrown out of the tavern when Aramil makes a creditable but failed attempt to yank the tablecloth from under the place settings, and sends half the dishes crashing to the floor. They leave abruptly, with Valentine assuring the bouncer that, no, they don’t want any trouble.
The streets are quiet, the party is loud, and the area is poorly patrolled. One of Aramil’s friends becomes convinced that a nearby alley will offer a convenient shortcut, and they plunge into a series of twisting, narrow back lanes. They hit a dead end, and the three start arguing drunkenly about what to try next. Just about when they admit that they’re thoroughly lost, four cloaked figures block the exit and rush the party.
The two closest to Valentine are armed with daggers, so he doesn’t bother to draw weapons. Instead, he blocks their strikes, disarms one, and sends the other sprawling with a roundhouse kick. He starts to strike the one who’s still up. The thief manages to block a couple of blows, then drops his guard enough for Valentine to land three quick shots to the head, knocking him unconscious. Valentine turns to the last two, but they’ve already fled. He tackles the one who’s still moving. “Aramil! Hold this one while I search him.”
Aramil tries to pin the thief down, but he keeps flailing. “Fuck, Aramil — I said hold him, not give him a reach-around. Grab his arms and pin them. Like this. Now hold him.” Valentine starts to search the man roughly, checking for jewelry, going through his cloak pockets, ripping his shirt open. He pulls the thief’s boots off, inspects them briefly, then yanks his breeches down, coldly lifts his cock and balls, gropes his ass but doesn’t penetrate it. “Nothing.” The thief is rattled, clearly unused to such treatment. Valentine barks, “Who sent you?”
“No one — you looked rich. We tried to rob you.”
Valentine glances at Aramil, snaps, “Hang on,” and punches the thief in the jaw. His head snaps back into Aramil’s shoulder, and Aramil hears a crunching sound on impact. “You’re sure of it?” The thief nods. Valentine cocks his head, evaluates his expression. “All right. My name is Valentine Shelawn. You run back to your little den and tell your friends what happened. I’m a nice guy, so I didn’t draw weapons. But if you or any of your friends touches anyone from the Shelawn family, I’ll find you and kill you.” He stands up, signals Aramil to release the thief, who scrambles up and runs off. Valentine looks down at Aramil. “Are you OK? Any of your friends hurt?”
“I’m good.” They look around. One of Aramil’s friends is puking in the gutter while the other holds his head.
“Cool. Help me turn this guy over.” Valentine starts searching the second thief like he did the first, finding a cheap watch, a bit of red ribbon, and a purse holding three silver pieces. “Nothing.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Connections to the Drow. I’m being paranoid. They’re thieves. Assassins would have given us a harder time.”
They retrace their steps and head back to their lodgings. Valentine makes the others walk ahead because they smell like vomit. Aramil asks, “Did you enjoy that?”
“Searching that guy? Nah. He’s not my type.”
“No, I mean fighting like that.”
“Not enough to seek it out. But, yeah.” Valentine grins reluctantly. “I do. Dirty secret.”
“What about punching that guy?”
“You mean later? Not that. It hurts him more, he’s humiliated, feeling his injuries, scared. That kind of sucks. Did you enjoy the fight?”
“Yeah, I did.” Aramil winks. “I should hold guys down for you more often.”
Valentine cracks up. “Welcome to my world. Wait — did you deflect their strikes?”
“Yup. Landed three punches, too.”
He crows, “You’ve tasted blood! You can’t go back.” They pass under a street lamp, and Valentine says, “Are you sure they didn’t get you? Check your sleeve. Is that your blood?”
“Oh, shit!” Aramil rolls his sleeve back, revealing a shallow cut along his forearm. Blood oozes out sluggishly.
“A nice little defensive wound. Good choice — shows you didn’t pick a fight. Do you feel it?”
“Now I do,” Aramil says ruefully.
“We’re almost there. Wrap the edge of your cloak around it.”
When they get back to their lodgings, a messenger is waiting for Valentine with a summons from Xardic. Valentine asks the messenger, “He needs me there right away? How long have you been waiting?”
“Not long. Half an hour.”
“Let me get my friend into bed.” Valentine knocks on Aramil’s door, asks “How’s your arm?”
“It’s OK. The bleeding has stopped.”
“Have the landlord take a look at it — he seems like a clever fellow. I have to go out again.”
Aramil cracks the door. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll tell you later. Get some rest. I’ll check with you when I get back.”
The messenger leads Valentine to Xardic and Sieia’s townhouse. The facade is dark; the messenger uses a latch key for access, leads Valentine to the library. Xardic is standing at his desk with a grim, green-eyed wood elf. “This is Brutus. He’s in charge of our reserve troops and guard. Brutus, I’ve told you about Valentine.” They size each other up as they shake hands. Brutus has a brusque manner and a scar running the length of his jaw, which Valentine finds reassuring. “We have further information. Brutus, please brief Valentine.”
“Around sundown yesterday, a caravan of 11 merchants and four guards stopped at an abandoned farmhouse in the foothills north and east of here. It was overcast. It’s likely that they intended to take shelter. They were attacked while making camp in the main house. A source in the area heard a commotion. By the time he reached the scene and made a cursory search, the travelers were all dead and their attackers were gone. The source notified the magistrate, who summoned the local militia, then secured and searched the scene himself. He was unable to track the attackers. He’s not a ranger, and is unfamiliar with the enemy.”
“What do you need from me?”
Brutus gives Valentine a measuring look. “You were part of a Drow raiding party.”
“Yes, sir. For about 20 years. I should point out that I trained with Drow troops, but I was a scout and raider, not an elite warrior. Different purpose, different tactics. I don’t know as much as I’d like to about how they fight.”
“No one does. I’m leading a scouting party down there to debrief the magistrate and try to locate the enemy. It’s intelligence gathering — get in, get the data, get out. They’ll have strict instructions to avoid an engagement. Are you willing to come along, lend us your expertise? It’s a party of five soldiers. You’ve be the sixth.”
“Of course. When do we leave?”
“When can you be ready?”
“I left my crossbow and ammunition back at my lodgings. If you can supply me with a ranged weapon, provide rations, I’m ready now.”
“How about a long bow?”
“We’ll leave from here in an hour, if Xardic will allow us to brief here.” Xardic nods.
Brutus takes his leave. Xardic starts rolling up the maps. “I appreciate this. All of Liamelia does.” He slides them into an oilskin case, hands it to Valentine. “It’s dangerous.”
“Oh, yes,” says Valentine. “Very.”
The scouting party files in 30 minutes later. Once they’re settled around the table, Brutus starts. “I’m Brutus. I’ll be leading the scouting party, and delivering this brief. Other members of the party are Itys, Sextus, Tarquin, Hector and Valentine. The operation begins as soon as we’re done here. Weather is hot and humid; rain has fallen over the area for three days. Strong chance of rain during the operation. Roads will be muddy, so watch for that. We’ll travel by horseback to a farmhouse five miles from the site, arriving just after daybreak. We’ll stable our mounts, get a briefing from the magistrate. From there we’ll proceed on foot to the site. The site should be secured by the local militia — basically, farmers with pitchforks. We’ll inspect the site, gather additional data, see if Hector here can find any tracks. If tracks are present, we’ll follow them with the intent of determining their numbers, location and direction of travel. We have strict orders to avoid engaging with the enemy. I’ll repeat that: We will not engage the enemy in battle. No heroes — the goal is to gather data and live to fight another day. We spend the day in the field, ride back at dusk. Mounts and rations have been provided. Keep any incidental expenses under per diem. Sextus, this means you. Any questions? Itys? Sextus? Tarquin?”
Tarquin asks, “What assurance do we have that the site is secure?”
“Locals won’t disturb it. Aside from that, very little. We won’t move troops into the area until after this op is complete. It’s farmers with pitchforks. If they’re attacked, they’ll flee or be killed.” Tarquin nods. “Hector?” Hector shakes his head. “Valentine?”
“I don’t ride.”
“I wish I were. Drow don’t ride at all. I started lessons 10 days ago.”
“So you know how.”
Brutus looks thoughtful. “That will suck for you. But we have to move fast, and I’m not driving down there in a coach-and-four.” The others snicker. “If it’s any consolation, none of these guys can ride for shit. If the horses can take it and roads permit, we’ll bring them up to a canter. If you get saddle sick and have to puke, let me know. You okay with that?”
They file out, head down to the stables where the horses are waiting. Brutus checks their tack before they mount, tightens down the saddle girths on Valentine’s horse, a lean, nasty-looking roan out of Xardic’s stable. “That fucker puffs his ribs out. Bites, too. You good to mount him?”
“Sure.” Valentine scrambles up, settles into the saddle, takes the reins.
Brutus mounts a tall chestnut, moves to the front of the line. “Hector, you’re next, then Itys, Sextus and Valentine. Tarquin, you’re rear guard.”
With that, they trot trough the streets of Liamelia, and out the main gate. The roan’s paces are stiff, but once they’re cantering on the open road, he loses his inclination to balk. An hour in, he seems to understand that he’s stuck with a stiff rider who fiddles with the reins too much; he ignores Valentine and takes his cues from the other horses.
This is when Valentine remembers something about himself that he conveniently forgets between operations: he’s always jittery before battle. He’s not conscious of feeling fear — he never is. His nerves take the form of physical discomfort. The roan’s paces are shit. The tack seems improperly adjusted or perhaps the wrong size. He’s vaguely saddle-sick. His last trance was more than 36 hours ago, and his has a long, unpredictable day ahead. The temperature rises with the sun. He starts to sweat, and his cloak collar itches so badly that he can barely keep still in the saddle. All of this is communicated in some form to the roan, which twitches its ears and tail angrily, and casts the occasional bitter over-the-withers glance at its rider. In short, as he rides, Valentine is consumed by a sense of exhausted confusion. He’s convinced that he’s ill-prepared and incompetent, and that he’s finally going to be dealt a humiliating ass-kicking, if he makes it to the scene of operations at all. Valentine’s manner becomes increasingly grim and silent; he tries to divert himself by anticipating how the enemy will react.
As Valentine thinks about it, though their mission is dangerous, the Drow warriors are in a much worse position. Drow are accustomed to fighting on their own turf. They rely on traps, ambushes and poison, and attack only when their strength is superior. They’re accustomed to the discomforts of the Underdark: confined spaces, little food, fresh water and oxygen, dim light or absolute darkness. They have excellent infrared vision, and scorn the use of torches and camp fires. Drow know every detail of their home caverns, tunnels and cities, and far from fearing spiders, keep them as pets and livestock, and occasionally ride larger breeds into battle.
Aboveground, none of these familiar conditions apply. Drow see poorly in sunlight. They’re acclimated to a narrow range of temperatures, and don’t have enough leather and cloth to outfit troops for temperatures aboveground. They’re aware that rainfall, snow and wind exist, but have little practical experience with these conditions. For the Drow, forests and fields are unpredictable, risky, and unpleasant. Aboveground, the Drow fear that they will get lost or trapped, and die. Aboveground raiding is a specialized skill, one often delegated to slaves like Valentine whose health and morale improves with exposure to sunlight. It’s not an easy task to find 15-20 Drow warriors who have spent time aboveground, then, and who are prepared for the challenges they’ll face. Valentine assumes that the enemy will have been extensively briefed and drilled, but may still make basic mistakes: in flight, they’ll discard their cold-weather cloaks; they will neglect to light fires for warmth, or to dry out their socks and boots after fording a stream. Two soldiers will get heat exhaustion; another will get hypothermia.
That said, Valentine knows that their small scouting group will be slaughtered if they’re unlucky enough to confront the enemy, and not just because they’re outnumbered. The Drow are physically tough and suicidally brave, because they’re routinely whipped, flogged, tortured and exposed to toxins. They’re accustomed to hunger, thirst and illness, and routinely train to the point of physical and mental collapse. Drow are also famously brutal in warfare. They don’t exchange or ransom prisoners — they enslave, torture or kill them. Leaders encourage the taking of trophies — fingers, ears, strips of skin bearing particularly fine tattoos. Casual rape is uncommon, because Drow forces are fully integrated; however, they have no compunction about using it as a deliberate tactic. Wood elves are nomadic and tribal, and some fairly rough diamonds can be found among them, but the cruelest wood elf stud would be shocked at the routine battleground conduct of a Drow debutante.
Valentine knows from experience that individual Drow are very much like other elves; Drow culture, on the other hand, is unquestionable monstrous. Valentine has given considerable thought to why this is so. The Underdark is grim and physically harsh, and deprivation is chronic; Valentine believes that Drow culture — brutal, pragmatic, ruthless — is a logical response to the environment that spawned it.
This is the enemy they’ve come to fight: a score of ruthless elite warriors in pursuit of an unknown object, who will become increasingly cornered and desperate the longer they stay aboveground; the people Valentine knows best, shaped by a place he unconsciously considers home.