25. A Fate Worse Than Death

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

To: The Honorable Lucius Ceralac, Mayor of Liamelia

From: Mindartis Amahir, Clan Leader of the Wood Elves of Xilomelia

Dear Lucius,

By now you will have received news via courier of the destruction of the Xialo settlement. Words cannot express my grief and outrage at this terrible crime. I, and all of Xiomelia, offer our deepest condolences. You and I have worked tirelessly to strengthen the alliance between our people, so I hope I need not tell you that our pact of mutual aid remains in force, and we regard our bonds to Liamelia as sacred.

Certain details have been omitted from the courier’s verbal account; I am writing to supply these details now. From Xiomelia’s perspective, the contents of this letter are not sensitive — all information was gathered by troops on the scene. The nature of the crime and the outrages committed are potentially inflammatory, however; the details of the scene may reveal motives or connections that the families involved would wish to keep private. By providing these details in a separate annex, my aim is to allow you to choose how this information will be distributed, and to whom.

As you know, no survivors were found. The victims — five adults and one child — were were captured, brought to a central location, and tortured over hours or days:

Tereus Shelawn, Lavinia Shelawn (nee Arahir), Lucius Shelawn, Valeria Shelawn (nee Arahir), Valerius Shelawn, Camilla Shelawn

It is not possible or, perhaps, desirable to reconstruct each victim’s ordeal entirely. Troops on the scene were able to say the following with certainty:

  1. The victims were drugged throughout their ordeal using a stimulant and hallucinogenic developed by the Drow. The drug causes hyper-arousal and vigilance, and prevents victims from entering a trance state.
  2. The victims were tortured — cut, flogged, burned and branded — prior to being killed.
  3. Both male and female captives were subjected to a fate worse than death.
  4. All were buried alive from the neck down, and died of dehydration and exposure.

Claudius Shelawn, the youngest son of Lucius, was missing, and presumed to be taken prisoner. As you know, the Drow enslave children old enough to be weaned, but too young to retain memories of their previous lives.

I have enclosed a calling card, which was left at the site. No one in Xiomelia was able to read the inscription, which is in Drow.

Believe me, sir, when I say that I remain your faithful ally in this time of trouble.

Mindartis Arahir

A standard-sized playing card is attached with a paper clip. The back is printed with the now-familiar image of a lidless eye over the Theates motto. The whole is framed with ribbons and fasces. He flips it over. It’s the Queen of Hearts, depicted in black, white and half-tone gray instead of red. She’s holding a short sword. Her skin is black; her eyes and hair are pure white. Her expression is one of grim triumph.

It’s hard to describe Valentine’s mood as he reattaches the card, restores it and the letter to the folder. He does not feel anger or outrage. Sorrow comes closer to the mark — sorrow mixed with a kind of awe. The facts in Mindartis’ letter have provided vivid detail, but Valentine feels, if anything, that they’ve obscured the meaning of events, or made that meaning more difficult to grasp. He stands up, places the folder in the center of the otherwise empty table, locks the door behind him.

He finds Albertus by the fire in his reading room, sipping tea and looking over an illuminated manuscript. Albertus looks up, sees Valentine’s expression. “You’ve read it? Sit down. Let me get you a cup of tea. No, I won’t have any objections. Tea is the very thing for you now.” Albertus’ domestic bustling helps to restore a sense of normalcy. “Here, assam. The flavor is distinctive, earthy. I think you’ll like it.”

Valentine inhales the steam rising from the teacup. It does smell obscurely like earth or peat. “Thank you.” And for a moment, Valentine focuses entirely on the scent and flavor of the tea, the warmth of the teacup in his hand, the task of placing the saucer and teaspoon on the table between them. “It’s very good.”

After a time, Valentine says, “There was a phrase I didn’t fully understand.” He quotes the High Elvish, “‘The captives were subjected to a fate worse than death.’”

“Rape, my dear boy. They were raped.”

Valentine laughs weakly. “Okay, that makes sense. It sounded strange in the middle of that list: flogged, flayed, branded, burned, subjected to a fate worse than death, buried alive. Poor Mindartis, having to deliver that news.”

“It’s a bit old-fashioned. At one time, it was a stock phrase, even used in legal documents. The meaning would be clear to anyone accustomed to dealing with such matters in an official capacity.”

Valentine looks down, busies himself with his tea for a moment. “It wasn’t a routine raid. They weren’t looking for slaves or trade goods. It was a very specific, personal act of revenge.”

“So you know about the old scandal. Not so old, after all — less than 150 years.”

“I know that Sieia has a Drow half-brother, and that he was born and raised here. That’s all.”

“It’s hardly a secret, and it was common knowledge among your parents’ generation. There’s no harm in telling you the details, I think.” Albertus sighs, organizes his thoughts. “About 150 years ago, we fought the Drow almost constantly. There was an egress point near here, and they were much given to raiding. The Xyrec have been good neighbors compared to that lot. About 130 years ago, prisoners were taken during a large-scale raid. We ransomed them, as is our custom. One, a woman, was not returned. She was detained in the mountains north of here, in an abandoned mineshaft. Tereus Shelawn had the key.

“She escaped eventually, but not before she bore a son, whom she abandoned in Liamelia. That was Inglorion. The scandal couldn’t be overlooked. Tereus was court-martialed for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. It was hushed up to some extent — he was offered the opportunity to retire from the military, and did.

“The strain on the family was considerable. Lavinia stood by Tereus, as did your father and mother. Understand this: They were not exiled. Tereus and Lucius both continued to hold official positions. Allowances were made for the strain of the war and Tereus’ distinguished service. But Tereus was a proud and difficult man, and not one who was prone to admit error.

“The practice of creating settlements — daughter communities — had fallen into disuse by that time. The city couldn’t guarantee security beyond its walls, and Liamelia had largely given up its ambitions to settle the interior of the island. They gray elves were pleased with Liamelia as it was — remote, rich, secure. Unlike humans, we’re not an ambitious or restless race by nature.

“Over time, Tereus became preoccupied with the idea of creating a settlement and living in a pure way, off the land — being self-sufficient. Difficult, but not impossible in this climate. He was a very charismatic figure — much admired, even at that time. He persuaded your father and mother and one other family to settle with him and Lavinia at a site three days’ travel up the river. His son, Marcus, declined to join them. He was already established in Liamelia, and had a young son, Aramil. Sieia and Inglorion had left Liamelia many years before; I think you know about their flight. You and your brother and sister were too young to have any say in the matter, of course. They named the tiny settlement Xialo.

“That was in the spring. The raid happened the following fall, just after the first harvest. When it happened, few details were released — just that everyone had been killed, and you’d been taken captive. The Drow responsible were long gone when the crime was discovered. There was no real hope of avenging the settlers’ deaths or rescuing you. Slaves never escape. You were mourned as dead, with the rest of your family. Perhaps because the details weren’t known, over time the prevailing attitude in Liamelia came to be that the Drow had had their revenge, and that perhaps rough justice had been done.”

Valentine says quietly, “I’m surprised anyone could think differently.”

“Some people were never satisfied with the outcome — Lucius Ceralac, and Xardic after him. I imagine it preyed on them, knowing the details of the massacre — knowing that the family had suffered like that. The revenge seemed excessive, barbaric. They felt that the Drow were crazed with blood, that their blood lust would never be satisfied.” Albertus studies Valentine, whose face is stern, gilded by firelight. “What about you? Do you feel the need to punish the Drow? Seek vengeance?”

Valentine looks up, startled. “I? Certainly not.” Then, because Albertus seems to be waiting for further explanation, he adds, “I think I see it like the Drow would. Any Drow warrior who was held captive like that would suffer tremendous loss of honor and status. She would be seen as weak, vulnerable. She would be a target. She couldn’t afford to rest until she’d taken revenge, restored her status in the eyes of her peers. Her life would be a misery to her — it really would be a fate worse than death.”

“They enslaved you, kept you prisoner. You were flogged, whipped, confined.”

Valentine shrugs, smiles. “That wasn’t personal, you know. Everything that seems so important to the gray — a little boy with golden hair and violet eyes, one of the last Shelawns — that means nothing to the Drow. They probably grabbed me at the last minute to barter for safe passage through Physryk. I was a pawn, an afterthought.”

Brave words. Even as he speaks them, Valentine knows that they cover a deep, wild, unexpressed sorrow.

It has become Valentine’s custom to ride east each evening, just past the city gates, and to watch the sun set over the harbor. He waves to the sentries, who know him by now. The roan canters easily up the hillside, to the foot of the south mountains. Once he’s gained a good vantage point and the highway is no longer in view, Valentine dismounts, loops the reins over a low-hanging branch. He strides a little further up the slope, so that he can keep an eye on the roan without being disturbed by any ill-timed nipping, stomping or crapping.

The sunset is glorious. The sun gilds the peaks before and behind him. As he watches, they turn to rose, then slowly bleed to deepest crimson. A bank of thunderheads has gathered over the sea, and the sun’s rays stain sheets of distant rain. The valley is dark as if pooled with ink. Valentine can just pick out the glow of Liamelia’s capital dome. As darkness settles in, the scene fades to black and white — the granite cliffs to the north and the marble halls below glow with the warmth they’ve collected throughout the day. The ocean is black, deep, utterly cold.

In this moment, Valentine feels a fondness, an ache, a longing he can’t define. Seen from afar, he loves the pretty little harbor city. Now he feels the extent of his losses — a suffocating, choking, limitless blank within. And so Valentine kneels down on an unmarked hillside, presses his palms to his wet and burning eyes, and gives way to coarse, heaving, ugly sobs — abandons himself entirely, rocking against the dirt and stone.

After a time, the force of his grief abates. He feels his tattoos, familiar, cool under his heated skin. He becomes aware of the dew settling, the roan snorting quietly nearby, the ground beneath him. It smells like assam tea.

During the ride, Valentine bundled up his cloak and tied it to the saddle. He retrieves it now. As always, it smells of cedar. As he draws its folds around him, Valentine imagines Inglorion bringing his beloved, orphaned sister back to Liamelia. He couldn’t have expected to inherit. He must have known that he couldn’t stay, and that she wouldn’t be permitted to leave again. He imagines it must have been a purely generous act for Inglorion to surrender his sister to their family — a gesture of hope and trust.

Little Claudius Shelawn remains opaque to Valentine — a cardboard cutout of a fair-haired, dark-eyed princeling. But Inglorion lives in Valentine’s imagination: An angelic shadow figure, a quiet voice, a silver gaze, an outstretched palm offering a dagger, a white-hot image beyond color.

Valentine remembers the question Ariadne asked weeks or months ago: “I know it hurt, of course. I wanted to know — how you could stand it — how you could stand so much pain.” And his own answer, more universal than he knew: “It probably helped that I had no choice.” This is the question he wants to ask, the answer he needs to hear: How we all stand so much pain. If it helps that we have no choice.

As he mounts the roan and prepares to ride back, Valentine thinks, How nice to have a horse and a cloak and a home, and a room to go back to. How nice to have a tailored shirt, and leather gloves that fit, and rapiers that suit my grip so well.

The last of his sorrow melts before a ray of pure, naive satisfaction.

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