33. Valykria

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

The next few days of travel are uneventful. Though Aramil tries to take an interest in his surroundings, he’s subdued and sad as he reflects on the consequences of his actions. Valentine, on the other hand, is profoundly relieved to be freed of constant scrutiny and opportunities for failure. His mood shifts away from his habitual cold reserve to cheerful tranquility.

Both Marcus and Xardic assured the travelers that they could claim hospitality from the squire of Amakir, Servilius. The Amakir and Shelawn family trees meet somewhere, though no one is precisely sure where; they’re more connections than cousins. The general letter of introduction Xardic provided should allow Aramil and Valentine to rest their horses and claim room and board for a day or two. Xardic’s manner of describing the family suggested that they’ve got good blood, but have declined in wealth and prominence. They should be pleased to offer shelter to a couple of Shelawns loose in the neighborhood.

Aramil and Valentine approach the Amakir manor house at a canter, passing through an open gate and down a long, winding, poorly maintained carriageway. As the trees thin, the carriageway curves around to form a semicircle in front of the manor house. On the clover and grass within the semicircle, an elvish youth is absorbed in a strike drill with a punching bag. He’s wearing breeches and a white linen shirt. He’s slung a bandolier of daggers from his hips, and a sheathed longsword lies nearby. Valentine notes that the youth is tall and fast, with excellent reach. His technique and footwork are exceptional. As they canter up, he drops into a resting stance.

Aramil calls out, “Good evening! We’re travelers from Liamelia — Aramil and Valentine Shelawn. We’re distant relations of Servilius Amakir.”

The youth looks uncomfortable, tongue-tied. Valentine wonders for a moment if he younger than his height would suggest. As they rein the horses in, the stranger replies in a clear alto: “You’ll want to talk to my father, the squire. If you wait here I’ll get him, and a groom for your horses, as well.”

Now, looking down, something clicks: the voice, the way the sweat-damp shirt clings to the fighter’s form, the way the breeches ride on her hips. She is tall, slim, unmistakably female, and embarrassed to be caught training in masculine attire. As she hurries away, she throws over her shoulder, “I’m Valykria — welcome.” Her eyes are violet. Her long, black hair is pulled back, but a few damp curls cling to her neck and temples. For the first time since Ariadne’s death, Valentine feels a sharp thrill of desire as he watches her stride up the wide stone steps. He takes a deep, pained breath as she disappears into the portico.

“Was that a girl?” asks Aramil. “How odd.”

“Oh, yeah. Definitely a girl.” Valentine cuts himself short, finally says, “Amazing reach and footwork.”

Aramil laughs. “That’s all you noticed?”

“I’m too much of a gentleman to comment on the rest.”

Aramil eyes him with amusement. “A bit lanky for my taste. It’s hard to tell in that outfit — she might clean up well.” He sees Valentine’s jaw tighten, says, “Really? I’ll be quiet, then.”

When summoned from his accounts, Squire Amakir proves to be a bluff, uninteresting gentleman of the old school — poorly educated, bristling with prejudices he’s eager to share, a widower who displays an outdated chivalry that might draw a sympathetic response from Aramil after a few drinks, but that provokes painfully stiff reserve in Valentine. He offers them room and board without hesitation, adding, “I’m sorry about my eldest daughter’s poor manners — I’ve told her again and again that she’ll never catch a man with that kind of behavior. I’m sure you’ll both overlook it. She’s young and headstrong — just needs a firm hand on the reins. I’ve done what I can with her, but her mother passed away years ago, and I’ve never been much of a hand with the ladies. She’s had a string of governesses, each one more useless than the last, as far as I can tell.”

“We’re grateful for your hospitality,” says Aramil. “I take it you keep country hours?”

“Oh, yes. Dinner will be in an hour or so. The housekeeper will show you to your rooms. We don’t usually dress for dinner, but you’ll want time to rest and clean up before meeting the ladies.” He hands them off to the housekeeper, a comfortable old soul who’s obviously spent her life in service with the Amakir family.

Valentine has no objections to how Valykria cleans up. For dinner she wears a fitted lavender gown that sets off her slim figure and dark hair and eyes well. Valentine’s only objection is that custom requires that Aramil, the senior Shelawn, should take the eldest daughter of the house down to dinner, leaving Valentine with her significantly less intriguing sisters, Anna and Virginia. After what seems to be an interminable meal, the party retires to the drawing room for tea. Aramil takes the opportunity to murmur, “She’s a bit shy. I talked you up quite a bit — weapon master, honorably wounded in battle, raised by spiders, but otherwise a fine fellow.”

Valentine eyes him suspiciously. “I don’t trust that smirk at all. I didn’t say anything about you because they’re simple creatures, and you’ll have them eating out of your hand in minutes.”

“I’ll certainly try. It’s poor sport, but I have to fill the time somehow.”

When they enter the drawing room, Valykria is acting as hostess by serving tea. Valentine is inclined to retire to the periphery — perhaps to lounge in front of the fireplace — but Aramil mutters, “Oh, no you don’t,” and shoves him firmly in Valkyria’s direction. “It’s tea for you, Sir Spider. Get me a cup, too — milk, one cube of sugar.”

As Valentine approaches, a pained expression crosses Valykria’s face. Her gaze falls to the tea-things. Her lashes are thick and dark, and they flutter as she tries to look up. She doesn’t blush, precisely, but her cheeks are flushed. She fusses with the teacups, greets him breathlessly. “Do you want some tea, sir?”

“Please. With milk for me, and milk and one sugar for my cousin.” He wishes he knew how to put her at ease. She spills a bit of the tea while pouring it out, and fumbles with the sugar tongs. The two cups are finally ready, and she hands them over with her gaze lowered. “I put in two lumps of sugar — is that OK?”

He accepts the teacups. “Aramil will drink what I give him.” He wants to say something more, but he’s afraid of startling her further. “Thank you.” He lingers there, prolonging the moment for no good reason. He admires a delicate curl that’s escaped to trail down the nape of her neck. Her hair is raven-black against her fair skin.

After the trip across the room, half of the tea has splashed out of the cups and into the saucers. Aramil takes his, observing, “Good thing I don’t like tea.”

Valentine sits down next to him. “Where did the other two go?”

“Anna will be accompanying Virginia on the piano. Virginia is a noted amateur singer,” says Aramil primly.

“Delightful. Don’t they need a page-turner?”

“Are you volunteering?”

“God, no. I don’t read music. You know that.” As Valentine speaks, his eyes linger on Valykria as she serves tea to her father, and then starts to clean and stow the tea-things. Once she finishes, Valentine starts up from his seat, determined to approach her again. He has no clear plan, but he’s afraid she’ll simply bolt. She looks like she wants to plead a headache. There’s a minor stir as the other two sisters bring back their sheet music and get settled at the piano; Valentine uses it to sit down next to Valykria and say, “I wanted to tell you — I was impressed with your footwork and reach. Your sparring skills are excellent. I hope it’s not rude to say that.”

Her eyes meet his for the first time. “Thank you. I shouldn’t have — we weren’t expecting company — father was very angry.”

“Why? Because you were wearing breeches?”

She nods, mute with shame.

Valentine smiles, shakes his head ruefully. “I forgot about that. Where I come from, women train all the time, and naturally they do it in breeches. Shirtless, sometimes, for that matter. It seems odd to me that women here don’t train.”

“Where are you from?”

“I was raised among the Drow, fought in their army. It’s fully integrated. Women take combat and command roles routinely.”

“Really? Women are allowed to fight there?” An expression of intense longing crosses her face.

“They’re required to. Military service is mandatory for both sexes. I trained with dozens of women. I’ve always found it curious that women don’t fight here. Who trained you? You’re very good. I’m sorry — that’s a patronizing thing to say. I don’t usually meet gray elves who have any idea of technique.”

“My brother has a sword master. I train with him when my brother is home from school. He’s away now, and it’s so dull.” She catches herself, bites her lip. Her dark lashes flutter, and her deep violet gaze drops to her hands.

“You fight longsword, right?”

“Yes. I’m teaching myself to parry and strike with a dagger in my off-hand. It’s slow going — I’m having to work a lot on endurance.” The last of her reluctance is overcome, and soon they’re chatting away about training and technique. She’s naturally opinionated and curious, and much of her diffidence falls away as they talk. They eventually pass on to other topics, but Valentine remains curious about her situation, so he steers the conversation back.

“Valykria, I don’t understand why women don’t learn to fight aboveground. It seems like such a waste of talent. Why don’t they?”

Before he asked, she was looking up at him, flushed and smiling. They were sitting side-by-side, heads inclined towards each other. As soon as the question is out, her face darkens, she pulls back. Because he’s waiting for an answer, she finally replies. “I don’t know. It’s unquestioned. It’s simply not done. It was improper for me to wear breeches, and to be seen doing it.”

Valentine replies quietly, “I’m so sorry. That’s terrible. You’re so good at it — I can’t believe you’re not allowed to do it freely. That’s incredible to me.”

She says fiercely, “I hate it. Fighting is the only thing I’m good at. It’s the only thing I want to do. It makes them so angry, but I have to do it. It’s the only thing that makes me happy — the only time I understand anything or know what I’m supposed to do.”

“I know. I feel the same way. I missed combat terribly when I was among the gray — hardly knew what to do with myself. It’s why I left.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m escorting my cousin to the city — he has business there. After that, I’m going to the Underdark to try to find a relative of mine who’s half-Drow. It’s a long story — kind of a quest.”

She laughs, “It sounds wonderful — I wish I could go with you.”

“No, it’s risky and foolish. I’ll probably be killed or taken prisoner.”

“You’re going alone?”

“I’m trying to get Aramil to come with me, but I don’t think he will. He has his own path. So, yeah — I’ll probably go rattle around the Underdark until I get poisoned, shot, or taken prisoner, or run into my cousin Inglorion. God, it sounds monumentally stupid when I say it out loud. It really is a terrible idea.”

“But you’re still going?”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I don’t see any alternative. There’s a blood feud. I have to settle it somehow.”

She gives a pure, clear trill of laughter. “And no one can tell you not to go? Your parents? A wife? Who’s the head of your family?”

He shakes his head. “I’m an orphan. Believe me, that has its uses. The Drow killed my fiancée, so she has nothing to say about it, poor honey. The head of the family, Marcus Shelawn, has no idea what conditions are in the Underdark. He trusts me to manage my own business. Aramil’s his son, and senior to me, but he has no sense at all — makes me look like a model of sober good judgment.”

“Oh, how I envy you!” she exclaims.

And now it’s Valentine’s turn to laugh. “Aramil’s always saying that, too, but I think if my parents were alive I would just defy them. If I want to risk my life doing something stupid, I genuinely don’t see how they could stop me. My father was a younger son, so I don’t have a huge house or an inheritance like Aramil does, but my life and my body are my own. All those things — wealth, land, status — in the end, they keep you from truly living.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“It’s a convenient belief, given that I don’t have any of those things. But I think so, yes. I’m happier when I live that way.”

She says abruptly, “None of this is mine. My mother didn’t have any fortune. My brother will inherit everything.”

“So you’d have to marry to have a home of your own?” She nods. “Oh, fuck that. That’s awful.” She laughs, and Valentine groans, “I’m sorry, that was a terrible thing to say.”

“No, it’s true!” Valykria looks past him. “My father is signaling that it’s time to retire. What are your plans? Will you be here tomorrow?”

“We need to rest the horses, so I imagine we’ll stay another day.”

Once he retires to his bedchamber, Valentine struggles to fall into trance. He keeps remembering the slight flush on Valykria’s cheeks, the way the breeches fit her hips, the stray curl — but most of all, her expression of longing, her pure desire to fight and go adventuring.

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