41. Throat Hit

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

Valentine is able to complete a brief trance before Inglorion shows up for the last time. He leads them past a series of guard posts to a narrow tunnel that slants towards the surface. “If you follow this corridor for a quarter mile, you’ll reach the egress point. Don’t discuss anything you saw here. Never volunteer that you’ve been to the Underdark. If someone asks directly, say that a random patrol captured you, and I recognized Valentine and released you.” He turns to Valentine, says in Drow, “You’ll hear from me soon.”

“What did he say?” asks Valykria as they walk along the passage.

“He wished me good luck in Drow.”

They walk out, emerge blinking from a crack between two limestone slabs on a hillside. It’s mid-afternoon, a crisp, sunny fall day. They look around, orient themselves.

“What the hell?” says Valentine. He’s spotted the roan horse about 50 feet away, grazing in an irritable fashion. It looks up, spots Valentine, lets out an angry whicker, folds back its ears, tosses its head. “You came back!” He starts towards it. When they get closer, Valentine says, “Hey, buddy! Thanks for waiting.” Then, in Drow, “Come here, you cocksucker.” The roan sidles up, tossing its head. Valentine captures its bridle and trailing lead, holds its head steady, strokes its soft, red nose. “You just didn’t want me to find a horse with smoother paces, huh?” He examines its legs and hooves. Miraculously, it’s unhurt — just irritable and underfed, which is its default state even when groomed and cared for.

Once he’s settled the horse, they lead it down the hillside to their campsite. Valentine’s hoping to find the roan’s tack. “I don’t fancy riding bareback all the way to Liamelia,” he tells Valykria, “My horse is kind of a shit. He’ll probably throw us if we try.”

The Drow stole the bulk of their money and provisions, and Valentine’s spare quiver and arrows, but they discarded the saddles, bridles and bits, and one of the two saddlebags. Valentine rifles through, finding the cooking utensils and spices, a few loose silver pieces, and, to his triumph, his cloak and pin.  It’s getting chilly so he unfurls the cloak, settles it around his shoulders. Valykria is standing several feet away, looking down the hillside towards the highway and the stream that runs alongside it. “Can you pin this for me?” he asks.

She fastens it, steps back to be sure it’s straight. “It does suit you.”

“The roan can carry us both. He bites, so I’ll bridle him, then hold him while you get the saddle on.” Once she’s done, Valentine tightens the girths, then mounts up. Valykria settles herself behind him, and the roan starts to pick its way down to the highway below.

“I’m glad to have my cloak back,” says Valentine naively. “It belonged to Inglorion, and to my uncle before that. In Aramil’s townhouse there’s a portrait of Tereus Shelawn with this cloak billowing around him, his hair powdered, looking like he ruled the world.”

“That was Inglorion’s father?”

“Yeah, and Sieia’s, too, of course. He was a rough diamond, I think — battle-crazy, a womanizer. He died at Xialo with the others. Inglorion looks just like him, except for the eyes.”

“You and Inglorion are a lot alike. Not your features, but your mannerisms and voice.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry, you can say it. I look like Inglorion, but not nearly as handsome.”

“Fishing for compliments?” He can hear the laughter in her voice.

“Not at all. I’m a candle to his sun, but I’ll take it — his sun is so very bright! Anyway, Aramil says I inherited classy gray elf coloring and a smoldering male model gaze, so that consoles me.”

She gives a loud crack of laughter. “It’s true!”

“Well, that’s mortifying. At least I don’t do the male model thing on purpose.”

At dusk, Valentine manages to shoot a rabbit from horseback using his short bow. He crows, “Ha! I’ve still got the touch. That’s not easy to do, I’ll have you know. You’re pretty much traveling with a Great Plains Indian.”

“You should teach me.”

“You’d pick it up easily — it’s a knack, a certain precision of eye.” Once they make camp, he skins and cleans it, commenting, “This is a bad use for a good Drow throwing dagger. And Inglorion’s troops didn’t leave me a lot to cook it with, either — salt, pepper, a few dried herbs.”

“I’ll do it. My dad taught me how to cook over a camp fire.”

“Is there a trick to it? No one ever showed me. Everything I cook in the open tastes bland and kind of metallic. Except coffee.”

She roasts it, and though the steps and timing don’t seem much different, it’s better than any game Valentine has ever prepared. It’s a perfect little meal for two, once Valykria adds some greens she finds growing by the river bank.

Afterwards they kick back by the camp fire, feet propped up on a tree trunk, heads pillowed on the saddlebag, Valentine’s faithful cloak spread over a patch of ferns. As Valentine is relaxing and watching the flames, an erotic memory of Ariadne wells up. He smiles, dismisses it. It seems so long ago already.

Suddenly Valykria says, “Oh! I think I have something! It would be so cool — hang on…” She digs through the saddlebag, finds a little box that Valentine missed somehow. Now it’s her turn to give a crow of triumph. “I put it in here because it wouldn’t fit easily in my pocket.”

“What is it?”

“Tobacco. I don’t suppose the Drow smoke?”

“Not at all. I’ve never seen anyone do it in Liamelia, either.” He watches with a fascinated eye as  she takes out a small leather packet of tobacco and a package of rolling papers, and rolls a cigarette. She lights it, takes a couple of puffs, and hands it over to Valentine.

“You’re supposed to inhale, unlike with a cigar. It’s a mild stimulant. Very nice after a rabbit dinner.”

He inspects the cigarette, takes a tentative drag. A startled look crosses his face, but he doesn’t cough. “It burns.”

“That’s called throat hit. You get used to it. It’s even kind of pleasant after awhile.”

He takes a couple more drags, hands it back. Valykria rolls and lights another and gives it to him. Presently Valentine says, “That’s delightful. I might like it more than coffee.”

She nods. “Coffee drinkers usually take to cigarettes. Don’t smoke too many if you don’t want a habit. Though I imagine tobacco is easy to get in Liamelia, since it’s a port city.”

They lie back and watch the cigarette and campfire smoke mingle and rise into the night sky. Valentine says, “I never get tired of the moon and stars. It’s so beautiful aboveground.”

She darts an amused glance at him, blows a series of smoke rings. “It is, isn’t it?”

“How do you do that?”

“I’m not sure I could teach you — I thought I’d forgotten the trick.” She blows a couple more. She’s raffishly beautiful, lying there in her breeches and man’s shirt. She leans forward to tap the ash into the fire, and he’s mesmerized by how she’s so slim, and yet unmistakably feminine. It’s something about the inward curve of her waist, the way her top shirt button strains across her breasts as she leans forward. He averts his eyes, exhales a cloud of smoke. At least we’re not bound together hand and foot, he thinks.

“There’s something I should tell you,” she says.

“Yeah?”

“If we do have to get married — and I think we will…” she glances over at him. “I wouldn’t want it to be a sham. I would want to be your wife, really and truly.” Her color mounts as she says this. “I just don’t know if I can.”

“Why do you want it?”

“I don’t want them to win. I don’t want to give up on that part of life. It’s not just that, though. I know it would hurt you if we couldn’t. I want to be close to you. I don’t want to be afraid any more.”

“I’m glad,” he says simply. “We’ll have our whole lives to figure it out.” He reaches over, touches a curl that’s fallen across her forehead. He tucks it back behind her ear. Her eyes widen. She looks startled, but also excited. “Can I kiss you?” he asks.

She nods. He does so, slowly, tenderly, savoring the taste of smoke and a scent that’s especially her own — cloves, perhaps, or cinnamon. Then he places it: carnation, a peppery, sweet, creamy flower. He slides his fingers into her curls, cups her head in the palm of his hand. She’s kissing him back delicately. He pulls back for a moment. “Valykria, you really are beautiful.”

As their eyes meet, she chuckles and says, “You’re doing it now!”

“What?”

“The smoldering male model look!”

“Oh, no!” He cracks up, gives an undignified snort of laughter. “Well, did it work? Is it sexy?”

She nods. “Totally sexy.”

“That’s a relief.” He starts to kiss along her jaw.

She says, “Wait! When did Aramil see that look?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.” His voice is muffled. He’s kissing her throat. When he reaches the hollow between her collarbones he says, “We’ll stop there.”

She looks surprised. “Really?”

“I know how to leave an audience wanting more.” He kisses her once more, softly, on the lips.

“Oh, Valentine.” Her dark lashes flutter against her flushed cheeks. They settle back, finish their cigarettes, throw the butts into the fire.

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