Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
The sun does rise, as expected. Valentine wakes up just before dawn to a sense of quiet, animal satisfaction. The ground is unpleasantly hard and imperfectly cleared; it’s cold and a stiff breeze has kicked up; he’s in dire need of coffee. Nonetheless, his mind is still and clear. The mud is starting to settle.
The horses are foraging nearby, and seem to be fine. Aramil is sleeping peacefully. Valentine thinks it’s funny that he still sleeps so deeply and late, like a child. Valentine gets up, pulls his boots on, stows his bedroll. He packed a few days’ supply of coffee, so he rekindles embers of last night’s fire, and puts water on to boil.
Aramil was supposed to be banished with no more than 20 gold pieces worth of money and goods. Valentine violated that rule by bringing the chestnut mare and his weapons. Valentine is traveling light — he brought nothing but his weapons, clothes, about 20 GP, and a few days’ rations. In a few days’ time they’ll have to forage for food or buy it. Probably the latter, since Valentine’s foraging skills in the forest are negligible, even in fall, the richest season locally. He can snare rabbits and squirrel, and might get off a lucky shot at a partridge. He’s able to recognize a few edible greens, but not enough to feed two adult men. He’s a poor camp cook, so plain rabbit won’t serve for long. If he’s out more than a week he’ll need to find work, preferably something that pays partly in board.
He pours out a tin cup of coffee for himself. It’s hot and strong; there’s no cream or sugar, of course. Valentine warms himself by the fire and sips his coffee, boots propped up on a pile of firewood. The forest slowly wakes up around him. The bats fly home to bundle themselves neatly in their caves; the birds break into song. Valentine can tell some of the birds apart, and some of their calls are familiar, but he doesn’t know their names or habits. For him, they’re nothing more than a lovely backdrop. Squirrels ripple along the tree branches on squirrel business. He can smell a fox, but it stays hidden. The wood elves made good-natured attempts to make a woodsman of him, but he knows he’s not one yet. He can’t tell one tree from another, and he can only navigate using the most obvious features of the landscape. If he were to leave the highway, he’d soon be traveling in circles. He can start and douse a fire, but he’s not confident of what the horses need to remain healthy — if they can forage, or if he and Aramil will have to buy fodder for them.
For Valentine, however, these problems are solvable, even pleasant. They have enough money to ensure that they won’t starve. They’re traveling on a post road between two populous cities. Though they’ll travel through some areas with few inhabitants, they’ll always be within a few hours of a village. Later today they’ll enter wood elf territory, which Valentine considers to be a kind of adopted home. He knows their ways, and can claim hospitality and advice.
His situation is radically different than it was 11 months ago. At most, he and Aramil risk discomfort and a few bad meals. He has traded the security and ambiguity of city life for a mild adventure, and the promise of the open road. This situation is, for Valentine, deeply satisfying.
As Valentine starts on his second cup of coffee, Aramil begins to stir. A ray of sunlight is falling directly on his face. After a few sleepy attempts to adjust the hood of his cloak, he sits up blinking.
“Good morning, Sunshine. You want some coffee?”
“Sure.” Aramil sips it for awhile, frowns at the sun. “What do we do today? How far are we from Amakir? I haven’t thought about the trip at all.”
“It’s about three days’ travel. We’ll enter wood elf territory late this afternoon or this evening. We’ll pass near the old Xialo site and Physryk egress point the following day. They’re both off the highway. This is a post road, so once we leave wood elf territory we’ll pass through a series of villages before we get to the outskirts of Amakir. It’s a much larger city than Liamelia — seems more cosmopolitan — not just gray elves, in other words. There’s probably a large human population, for example. You have a letter of introduction to give to your Ceralac relatives, right?”
Aramil sighs. “Yes, and they know to expect me.” He looks sad. “What will you do when you’ve dropped me off?”
“I’m not totally sure. I don’t plan to go back right away. I’ve talked to Sieia about it. They know not to expect me.” He laughs, “And, honestly, I think they’ll be glad to be rid of me for awhile. I’m not a comfortable guest.”
Aramil says, “How funny that you still think of yourself as a guest.”
“I couldn’t support myself. I had no money, no profession, no home of my own. Of course I felt like a guest, and a poor one, at that. What will the Ceralacs do with you?”
“They’ll have a civil service job lined up for me, and some girl they want me to marry. They’ll have some shitty scheme planned out to restore me to respectability, you can be sure of that.” He finishes his coffee, and Valentine splits the remainder between their two mugs.
“You want my advice?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Don’t go there. You know it will only be trouble.”
“Easily said. They’re expecting me. Everything’s been arranged. It’s my last chance.”
Valentine cocks his head, studies Aramil’s expression. “It’s true that I don’t have a father and mother to disappoint. The family cuts me a lot more slack than they do you. I’m not the oldest, and the heir. But if it were me, I’d walk away. Go back when you’re ready, which might be never. Respectability doesn’t seem to be your thing. I know it’s not mine.”
“You’re totally respectable. You were ready to marry an heiress, settle down, have little violet-eyed kids.”
“Oh, yeah. I was ready to get married. I loved Ariadne desperately. But I think I dodged a bullet there. Sure, we would have had a house and money and status, but I don’t understand those things. I don’t have any table manners. Can you imagine me trying to manage her fortune, raise kids, create some kind of legacy? And you know, she was a sweet little creature, but we didn’t have two thoughts in common. I might have adapted — I certainly would have tried. But I think I would have been miserable, and I might have made her miserable, too.”
Aramil gives a silent whistle. “What are you going to do?”
“How much do you know about why the Drow attacked us?”
“Not much. Dad and Xardic never discussed that kind of thing with me.”
“What a couple of dicks,” Valentine says. He shrugs, and adds, “There’s no harm in your knowing now. A lot of it is old history, anyway. A long time ago, Tereus Shelawn held a Drow prisoner of war captive and raped her repeatedly. She bore Sieia’s half-brother, Inglorion, then escaped and abandoned him in Liamelia. When the opportunity came up, she wiped out the Xialo settlement for revenge. I was the only survivor. When I escaped from Physryk, she decided to track me down and kill me for the sake of completeness. Liamelia declared war on her people, the Theates clan.
“Here’s the weird part. At a key moment in battle, their troops withdrew from battle. We declared victory, but the outcome always seemed suspicious to me. I think Inglorion had something to do with it. He lives down there at least some of the time, has a clan token, a calling card — he’s one of them. In any case, the blood feud isn’t settled. She’s alive, I’m alive. Slave catchers are still on my trail.”
“Holy fuck. So you’re still in danger?”
“Yeah. I think Sieia understands, but everyone else thinks that we won and it’s all settled. I’ve thought about it, and either I can hide out in Liamelia and let them take potshots at me, or I can try to settle it myself somehow. The first step is to find Inglorion.”
“So you’re going to the Underdark?”
“Yeah. I don’t see any alternative.”
“Through Physryk? Where you were a slave and people will recognize you?”
“I’ll look for another way in.”
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“Probably. It’s a Xyrec thing. We kill close up, face-to-face. I’d rather go down fighting. Aphion zhah au, you know?” They’re done with their coffee, so Valentine rinses the mugs, douses the fire, packs up the last few items. By the time they saddle the horses and head out, it’s full daylight — a warm morning promising to turn into a beautiful fall day. They mount up, start to trot down the highway toward Xiomelia.
Valentine is brimming over with simple, animal well-being. He looks over at Aramil, whose expression is one of settled dread.
“You really don’t want to go, do you?”
Aramil looks over, surprised out of his reverie. “What? No. I don’t want to go.”
They canter along in silence for a few more minutes. Valentine says, “Did I ever tell you how I met Inglorion? I think about it a lot, but I don’t think I ever told you about it.”
“I had dinner with him and Sieia when he was passing through Liamelia. He pretty clearly went in and out of the servants’ entrance. No one acknowledged that he was there, and only Sieia’s dresser saw him.”
“What was he like?” Aramil’s inquiry is mechanical.
“I’m not sure I can describe him. He’s not a big guy — shorter than either one of us, very slender. Sieia said he was considered runty when they were growing up. He’s quiet. Didn’t ask a lot of questions or offer much information.”
“You’re obviously fan-boy on him. Why?”
“This is going to sound crazy. There’s something very uncanny about him. He’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen: angelic features, white hair, white skin, Drow eyes. Even so, I knew without a doubt that he could kick my ass. I fight double-rapier, which is unusual. It takes a lot of strength and speed, and it’s risky because you can’t use a shield or wear heavy armor. You’re committed to moving fast and doing a lot of damage.”
Aramil nods. “Yeah. So?”
“I saw Inglorion’s weapons. He fights double-longsword. You learned to fight longsword, right? Do you do it one-handed?”
“No. No elf does.”
“No, because it takes a huge amount of strength. I leave that shit to dwarves and humans, and most of them don’t dual-wield because they’d rather carry a shield and wear heavy armor. So, Inglorion is smaller than I am, and he fights two-handed with longswords. I can’t imagine how hard he has to train to do that. Double-longsword, no shield, light armor — that’s fucking badass.” Valentine laughs. “I am fan-boy on him. He seems like another species. And Sieia keeps saying that I remind her of him — that we’re alike in some way.
“So I feel like Inglorion has something to teach me. He’s my fate.”