13. Lessons in Elvish

Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.

Valentine and Sieia are first down to breakfast. “I’ve found someone to tutor you in High Elvish script,” she says, while pouring out Valentine’s coffee. “I’m proud I thought of it. Albertus is the head archivist for Liamelia. You’ll like him — he’s a pleasant old fellow. He remembered your mother immediately — she was a student of his.”

“Good God, Sieia, a professional scholar? Isn’t that overkill? I should think he’d hate teaching the alphabet to an illiterate soldier.”

“You’re not illiterate — you just don’t read and write High Elvish. I do think you’ll like him. He’s ancient — 700 at least — so he’s seen a lot of things come and go. He thinks of Xardic as a fire-breathing young whippersnapper. You’re to visit him at the archive this afternoon.”

Valentine feels an absurd sense of trepidation as he approaches the archive. It’s in the center of the city, part of a cluster of official buildings: harmonious, gracefully proportioned structures carved from marble and ornamented with heroic friezes. The archive itself features a two-story portico supported by Corinthian pillars. Valentine enters the lobby cautiously, but he’s still startled at the loud echo of his boots on the black-and-white marble floor. There’s a coffered ceiling with a tarnished silver chandelier; the latter has been abandoned in favor of a series of gas sconces fashioned out of silver oak leaves. There’s a countertop and a few reading desks, all made out of honey-colored oak. Valentine is standing uncomfortably, trying to figure out where to go, when he hears a soft bustling noise coming from a doorway behind the counter.

A tiny, wizened elf emerges, trots around to grasp Valentine’s hand. “You must be Valentine Shelawn. I’m Albertus. I’m delighted to meet you — I knew your mother. She was an Arahir — looked nothing like you — a little nut-brown thing like myself, not one of you tall, pale, noble-looking creatures. She was a wonderful woman just the same — bright, gifted, had a tremendous sense of fun.”

Valentine laughs, feels pleased almost against his will. “Did you know her well?”

“Mostly as a student, but well enough, I suppose. Sieia reminds me of her — of course, she has Arahir blood, as well.”

“Does she? I didn’t know.”

“Oh, my, yes. Two sisters married two brothers: Lavinia and Valeria, Tereus and Lucius. Lavinia was the beauty, Valeria the brains. I don’t know what the girls saw in those Shelawn boys. It must have been the uniforms — all that gold braid can dazzle the most sober, well-brought-up girl. That’s what they’re for, no doubt, so that military fellows like you have a chance.”

“I’m just infantry — nothing much to look at, I’m afraid.” Valentine is a bit stunned by his eloquence, but not displeased. Albertus continues chatting as he leads Valentine around the counter and up the stairs, to a smaller, private reading room. It’s a jewel-box of a room, book-lined, naturally, with a writing desk, a marble fireplace, and a couple of armchairs. The high windows provide excellent natural light, supplemented by a mix of gas lighting and candelabras. Albertus leads Valentine to one of the armchairs.

“I’ve lit a fire. Not that it’s cold, but I find it cozy just the same — a nice little luxury. You’ll want some tea while we chat. It’s quite good — we get such excellent tea here, this being a port city. Coffee is all very well, but it makes it hard to settle into trance, and my bladder isn’t what it used to be. Give me a good cup of tea, I say. Here.” He presents Valentine with a full teacup. “I’ve given you just a bit of milk, since this variety is very tannic. No sugar?” Valentine nods. “Exactly. You’re not one of these vulgar young sybarites.” He takes the other armchair, sips from his own teacup. “Sieia says I am to tutor you. Apparently your Drow captors neglected to provide you with a full classical education.”

“They were remiss, sir. My written Drow is good, I think, but I barely read and write Elvish.”

“You grew up speaking both Drow and Elvish, true?” Valentine nods. “When did you learn to write Drow?”

“Late, I think, by your standards. As a young adult, when I began military training.”

“What other languages do you know, spoken or written?”

“I speak Undercommon fluently, some Dwarvish. I used Drow operational language all the time — all soldiers do. The wood elves have their own sign language and set of calls for hunting. I picked up some of that while I was with them. My Common is quite poor, I think. I rarely heard it, and almost never had occasion to speak it.”

“I’m sure you’ll pick up written Elvish without too much trouble. Your mother had a knack for such things.”

Valentine hesitates. “Are you certain, sir? Isn’t it a bit late? My mother must have learned it as a child — I didn’t start writing in any language until my 40s.”

“Nonsense. How old are you? Not even 100 yet. You’d be a poor creature indeed if you couldn’t learn to write a language you speak fluently. Why, at your age the only language I had was High Elvish — I would have been sadly puzzled to read Greek, or even Common. You know Elvish characters, don’t you?”

“Yes, and I can spell words out. It’s hard going, though. And I’m missing a lot of vocabulary — things that we didn’t speak of in the Underdark.”

Albertus waves away these difficulties with one hand. “Certainly. It will be very interesting. Learning a language as a child one takes so much for granted. The experience is much richer as an adult, I think. I would like very much to have you as a student. In return, I ask that you teach me Drow. I’ve always thought it strange that so few of us know it.”

“Do you have any samples of Drow text?”

“None that I know of. Perhaps in the archives.”

“I’d be surprised if you did. You know that the Drow don’t keep archives or libraries? At least, not like this.”

“I didn’t. I’d always heard that they weren’t a particularly literate society — more given to committing deeds than recording them — but I never gave that much credence. It sounded like High Elvish pride, to me.”

Valentine laughs. “It’s not that they can’t write. Paper is relatively scarce, so they recycle paper records annually and commit anything important to another medium. The Drow think of anything written on paper as ephemeral, trivial.”

“What other media do they have?”

“It varies from place to place. The Avril were actually paper-intensive for Drow — they were traders, so they had access to sources of paper, and records to keep. My clan, the Xyrec, had a communal tapestry. I think they added about five lines a year, and the attitude was, this better be important, because there’s so little silk to be had. The Cyrx kept carved stone monuments, and had an elaborate system of beading for clothing and jewelry. And for personal and family history, all Drow use tattoos.”

Albertus looks puzzled. “But their skins are black!”

“You’re thinking like a high elf — in terms of color. The Drow see color poorly — they rely on thermal imaging. They see warm-blooded creatures, including themselves, as white-hot. For tattooing, they use a clear fluid that resists heating up to full body temperature. It shows up as gray or black on a white-hot background.”

“How curious. You’ve seen examples of this?”

“I have two. But my darkvision isn’t good enough to see them well most of the time. They’re invisible with even very dim ambient light. In total darkness, I see a blur or stain. But to the Drow, they’re absolutely distinct and detailed — quite vivid, I’m told. It’s easier for us feel them then to see them.” Valentine places the back of his left hand against his own cheek. “Summer’s not the best time — they stand out more when I’ve come in from the cold and my hands start to warm up. But here, on the back of my left hand. Chi is used as shorthand for the Xyrec clan. The other, smaller characters spell my old slave name, Charon.”

Albertus extends his wrinkled fingers, traces the back of Valentine’s hand lightly. “Yes — it’s quite distinct. You must feel it all the time.”

“I don’t think of it. I’ve had it since childhood. It’s a brand, like you would apply to livestock. It means that I’m Xyrec property, and should be returned to them if I stray.”

“And the other?”

“It’s on my right hand. I got it when I was inducted into a raiding party.”

Albertus traces the back of Valentine’s right hand gently. “It’s faint but distinct. I don’t think I would notice it if you hadn’t told me. What is it?”

“Crossed rapiers over the Ace of Spades, with the Xyrec motto beneath. ‘Aphion zhah au.’ Death is close. Or, even, death is here — a strong sense of death coming to call, paying a personal visit.”

“What a curious people.”

Valentine smiles, sips his tea. “In many ways, I find the gray equally curious. How will you teach me to read and write like a good little gray elf?”

“We’ll start with children’s books, I suppose. There are books of mythology and history that might prove useful. You’ll work on penmanship and take dictation — strengthen the connection between speech and writing, and expand your vocabulary. And you can teach me my letters in Drow.”

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