Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
Valentine shows up at the breakfast table the next morning. His shoulders and neck are sore, he feels weak and fragile, but he’s determined to resume life. When Sieia sees him, she sets down the coffeepot hastily, with a thud.
“Valentine, what on earth happened to your hair?” she exclaims.
“Hm. Yes.” He runs his palms over the unevenly cropped stubble. “There was a bit of an accident to my hair. It’s short now.”
“Yes, it’s short.” She laughs. “Did you do it yourself? At least let my dresser even it out for you.”
“That’s a good idea. Would Madison do it? It feels like I missed a couple of spots.” Madison trims it very closely all over. It’s pleasingly soft and velvety, like mouse fur, but it looks terrible. He’s lost weight, too. Valentine’s new look is Late Concentration Camp, and it is not flattering. Elves of all races wear their hair long, usually in plaits or queues, occasionally in lovelocks like Aramil does. In the Underdark, it would be obvious that he’s taken a blood oath; in Liamelia, it looks like he’s battling typhoid fever. At this rate, he might as well start carrying weapons again, and showing his tattoos.
There’s more serious news afoot than Valentine’s haircut, however. Xardic is eager to take him aside, fill him in on the military situation.
“There’s no question now. It will be war. The Council of Elders voted yesterday to approve a declaration of war and start operations. We’ll begin in two days by undermining any remaining tunnels in the north foothills, blowing up the caverns. We’ve got eminent domain for cases where crops or structures will be destroyed. We’ll move on to the Physryk egress point, keep going until they assemble troops and show up to fight.”
“Can you pull enough troops together?”
“Oh, yes. We’ll start with the city guard and the marines. Mindartis will provide troops. God knows the wood elves are always ready for a fight. Will you join up? Fight with Brutus’ troops?”
“Of course. I’ve been training with them all along.”
Within the hour, a courier comes from Xiomelia. Xardic calls Valentine into the library. “They’ve started taking captives. You need to hear this.”
The wood elf is hot and dusty from his ride. “You’re Valentine Shelawn? Good. We’ve taken three captives so far, all carrying beholder tokens openly. They’ve been instructed to give the same message: This is unfinished business from Xialo. They’re coming for the last survivor. They won’t rest until the child, the slave Charon, is dead. They’re carrying this.” He pulls a playing card from his cloak pocket, hands it to Valentine.
Valentine glances down at it, laughs, says with cold precision, “The slave Charon will slaughter any troops they send and bathe in their fucking blood.”
Xardic cuts him off. “Fair enough.” Then, to the wood elf: “Thank you for your news. It’s a hard ride. We’ll see to your mount. There’s a meal for you in the kitchen. The footman will show you out.”
When the door closes behind the courier, Xardic says, “Valentine, we follow the law of combat here.”
“Yes, sir. It’s just trash talk. A Xyrec thing.” He looks down at the card again. The suit is clubs.
Charon, Xyrec Slave
Race: Gray Elf
Tattoos & Other Identifying Marks: Left hand tattooed with Xyrec brand. Right hand with Xyrec calling card. Shoulders and back heavily scarred from flogging.
Fights two-handed with rapiers. Proficient with crossbow, longbow, short bow, longsword, short sword, dagger (thrown), single-tailed whip, hand-to-hand combat.
To Be Killed.
Evidence to Collect: Tattoo of Xyrec brand (skin or hand), lock of hair.
Valentine shakes his head, pockets the card. “Wow. Deuce of Clubs. I’ve been demoted to a common slave. As for killing me and chopping my hand off, Aphion zhah au. They’re welcome to try.”
Brutus places Valentine in the same scouting unit he’s worked with before. Hector, Tarquin, Sextus and Itys greet him cheerfully, and include him in their training sessions and daily briefings. They all give him shit about his new haircut; Hector asks a few probing questions, and realizes that Valentine has taken a blood oath. It’s not discussed openly, but all four are committed to getting Valentine his 10 compensatory kills, and to collecting any necessary trophies. There’s the law of war, and then the law of the battlefield. After Hector speaks to Brutus on the side, they’re assigned to a wood elf unit, on the theory that what the gray elves don’t know won’t hurt them.
Despite his blood oath, Valentine thinks of himself as a coldly rational warrior, a professional soldier, not a thug or a mystic. He has known other elves, both wood and Drow, who descend into battle rage — or, if you prefer, who ascend to it. Valentine has never experienced this fundamental transformation on the battlefield; he believes that battle rage is godlike and bestial, not mortal and elven. His emotions in battle have previously been restricted to grim enjoyment. The night before the battle for Liamelia, Valentine experiences the usual itching dread and focus on operational detail, nothing more.
That night their section receives a simple objective: Take Hill #81. If they achieve the hill, they will have taken just over a half-mile of territory back from the encroaching Drow. Valentine thinks of such objectives as both arbitrary and critical. Arbitrary because their ability to take any terrain will likely be determined elsewhere, by factors they don’t control; critical because Hill #81 offers an excellent view of the surrounding countryside, and thus a meaningful tactical advantage.
Valentine accepts a broad range of outcomes regarding Hill #81. They may struggle bitterly, and claim it only with great loss of life; they may overrun it almost immediately and spend much of the day waiting for other troops to capture their objectives. Events elsewhere on the battlefield may render the possession or loss of Hill #81 trivial. New orders may be issued before daybreak, forcing the section to struggle bitterly for a different and equally arbitrary objective. A retreat may be ordered for no perceptible reason, forcing them to leave Hill #81 behind, its charms untasted. His team may never see Hill #81 up close, or all five of them may find graves there. In the hours immediately before battle, Hill #81 perfectly represents their collective fate.
Their team moves out an hour before dawn, and meets the first resistance soon thereafter: three pickets of two Drow guards each, all easily overcome. Valentine accounts for four of the six; Hector silently applauds his efficient four-stroke killing of guards #5 and 6, which is almost a matter of momentum. When #6 slumps over into eternal silence, Hector, Tarquin, Sextus and Valentine feel mild disappointment; they also realize that they left Itys somewhere behind. They swiftly harvest fingers from Valentine’s four kills. Valentine hasn’t done it before, and he finds it surprisingly difficult to chop the pinkie off a dead opponent. It’s distasteful and awkward to roll them over, brace their hands — still troublingly warm and pliant — and hack a finger off with one of his throwing daggers. Once this business is complete, Hector and Valentine storm forward, broadsword and rapiers drawn; Tarquin and Sextus follow with arrows half-nocked, prepared to provide covering fire.
The Drow troops at the foot of Hill #81 have dug foxholes and used the excavated dirt to throw up casual breastworks. Hector and Valentine crest the nearest breastwork in silence and work with terrible efficiency, surprising, slaughtering and maiming four Drow. A fifth escapes, and Hector tackles Valentine to prevent him from pursuing his prey down the shallow trench, hissing, “Are you crazy? Don’t outrun your covering fire — let Tarquin take him.” Tarquin sends a volley of arrows down the trench, and minutes later they’re able to confirm that two found a target in the back of the fifth Drow warrior, whose nose, mouth and entry wounds are already thick with pink foam.
The trench circles the hill like terracing, so they they abandon it to advance to the next line of defenses. Though they’ve fought in relative silence and have not permitted any escapes, crossbow bolts rattle through the tree trunks with eerie regularity. Hector picks up a spent bolt with his gloved hand to show Valentine, Sextus and Tarquin the poison glistening at the tip.
Even now, with poisoned crossbow bolts whistling around them, Valentine feels that he’s moving with uncanny assurance and ease. They track the fire to its source, a team of three Drow in a shallow foxhole: one to apply poison, the second to load alternating crossbows, and the third to fire into the darkness below. Tarquin announces their presence with a volley of three arrows, two of which staple the third Drow to a bow’s wooden crosspiece. Hector and Valentine plunge into the foxhole from opposite sides. Hector finishes his opponent with one blow, then slashes the throat of Valentine’s guy before he can deliver the final rapier strike. Valentine feels blood spatter his breastplate, and stage-whispers in mock-indignation, “You kill-stealing son-of-a-bitch!” He dips his pointer and index fingers in blood, and draws crimson stripes of warpaint across his own cheeks, then Hector’s.
They collect Tarquin and move on. They spot a tunnel opening 20 yards behind the crossbow foxhole. Six Drow are crowded around it, preparing to descend. Swifter than thought, swifter than any mortal reaction, Valentine slips away from Hector and rushes the clustered enemy. Miraculously, none of them is armed with a crossbow; they see Valentine’s approach, draw weapons, brace for impact. Tarquin nocks and fires arrows with unholy speed, injuring two of the six, while Hector watches helplessly.
In a sense, Valentine, too, is a spectator. He sees himself attack, feels each rapier strike on the enemy’s armor. Valentine witnesses his own battle frenzy with mingled surprise, horror and awe — he can no more stop striking than the can ward off past tragedy.
Valentine must have neglected some spirit dance beforehand, some libation to a battlefield god, because even in his frenzy, edged weapons can touch him. As Valentine dispatches enemies three and four, then stabs the original, injured two, the fifth throws a dagger, which hits Valentine with enough force to stagger him. A short-sword stroke follows that sends Valentine to the ground, and a long, troubled darkness.
When Valentine regains consciousness, he is snug in Liamelia, in Sieia and Xardic’s townhouse, in the tiny indigo room. This seems so improbable that he closes and re-opens his eyes. He still sees the tiny figure of Corellon Larithian, pale, impassive, lit by a half-dozen candles.
“Shit,” he murmurs.
He feels a cool touch on his wrist, catches a whiff of rose, jasmine and ambergris. “Your fever has broken,” says Sieia.
“Wow. Fuck.” His eyes focus only with great effort. He can neither reach for her hand, nor sit up.
“Your wounds became badly infected.”
He remembers the assault on Hill #81, but it seems impossible, incredible. “Sieia, did I — what happened?”
She leans over him, bringing her face into his field of view. She has her usual expression of barely-repressed amusement. “You almost died, dear Cousin, but you sent 10 Drow down before you. Hector and Tarquin told me the story themselves. ”
“It would have been 11 if that son of a bitch Hector hadn’t stolen one of my kills.”
“You were beyond reason. Neither of them had seen anything like it.” She flashes a smile. “I have, because I’ve seen Inglorion fight. You’re a true Shelawn.”
“Did I really rush six Drow at the mouth of a tunnel?”
“You did. Your team far outdistanced the rest of the company — Hector and Tarquin had a terrible time getting you back across the front. Good thing you’re not heavy.”
“I’m an idiot. I should be court-martialed.”
Sieia laughs. “You’re going to be decorated.”
“So it’s over and we won? I feel like I know that even though I’ve been unconscious.”
“The battle was decided the following day, when the row abruptly withdrew their troops and fled. Liamelia is saved.” She leans over, kisses his brow. “Rest, dear Cousin. You’ve been unconscious. You haven’t had a proper trance in days.”