Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
Valentine returns home, exhausted, only to find the household in an uproar. A letter has arrived from Valykria’s grandmother. Her family is still pressing her to return, promising that all will be forgiven. Even Sieia’s equanimity has been shattered. “Good God, Valentine, where have you been? She’s holed up in her room — refuses to see me or Xardic. Go to her and make your apologies, and decide what’s to be done.”
Valentine knocks softly on the guest room door. “Valykria, honey, it’s me. What’s going on?”
There’s a long silence, then a rustling. Finally Valykria unlocks the door, grudgingly lets him into her suite. She’s obviously been crying. The door to the bedroom is closed; she leads him to a chair by the fireplace, sits down herself. “Where were you?”
“I had urgent business out of town. I was detained overnight.”
She looks at him with weary disgust. “What business do you have that Sieia and Xardic don’t know about?”
Valentine is silent.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” she said. “At least you’re a shitty liar.”
He buries his face in his hands for a moment, tries to collect his thoughts.
“No secrets, right?” Her voice is quiet and flat, but she’s taunting him.
“Look, can we set that aside? What happened? Sieia said you got a letter from your grandmother.”
She nods. “You might as well read it.” She fetches it from the other room, hands it over. It’s several pages, closely written. Valentine starts reading.
My dearest granddaughter, Valykria:
I hope this letter finds you safe and well. I am writing because you have taken a step that I believe to be not only scandalous, but dangerous. Your father tells me that you have eloped with a young man, Valentine Shelawn. He has begged you to return, and you refuse to listen to his arguments or pleas. He asked me to write to you, hoping that my word may carry some weight.
Though the scandal is very real, I will leave it aside. Believe it or not, that aspect of the case worries me the least. The simplest remedy for scandal would be for you to marry your abductor with as little delay as possible. If necessary, your father or brother could act to ensure that a marriage takes place. Your father and I care deeply for our good name, and for your reputation, but the consequences of such a marriage far outweigh considerations of propriety and convention. I beg you to return to the safety and protection of your family immediately; I can assure you that all will be forgiven. I do not know what threats or promises were used to remove you; all I can do is relate my own fears, and beg you to give them weight appropriate to my age, experience and concern for your safety. Valykria, it frightens me very much to think that you have put yourself in the power of that family, and that man.
The Shelawns will tell you that they are an old, respected family, and that they have produced generations of generals, diplomats and high government officials. This is true as far as it goes. Mere longevity says nothing about a family’s true breeding and virtue; many a criminal has been able to point to a long, profitable tradition of crime. The Shelawns are prominent and wealthy, but there is significant scandal attached to the Shelawn name, and there always has been. They are at least as famous for cruelty, debauchery and violence as they are for public service. General Field Marshal Tereus Shelawn was forced out of the army for conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman. The truth is, he exploited his influence and position to imprison and rape a female prisoner of war. You know that General Shelawn’s grandson, Aramil, was forced to leave Liamelia. You may not be aware that he committed multiple, violent armed robberies, apparently out of depravity rather than financial need. I know nothing against Marcus Shelawn, the current head of the family; I do know that Valentine is from a junior branch, and his cousin Aramil stands before him in the succession.
I have heard disturbing reports about Valentine himself, from people who might be expected to take his part. He has enjoyed a certain notoriety, and is treated as a hero in some quarters. However, I beg you to consider the consequences of his early life and upbringing. He was raised as a slave in the Underdark, and enlisted as a common soldier in the Drow army. The conditions of his captivity are bound to have had a brutalizing effect on his character. The Drow are a highly militaristic culture, and Valentine was affiliated with a clan, the Xyrec, whose soldiers are notorious even in the Underdark for their brutality. During his enlistment, he was inducted into a raiding party. You will have seen their insignia, the Ace of Spades. I believe he makes no secret of it. That symbol has been used for hundreds of years on battlefields and massacre sites. It is associated with unspeakable war crimes, including mutilation of enemy corpses and collection of battlefield trophies such as fingers, ears and scalps. It is also used to threaten rape, because the Ace of Spades is thought to resemble female genitalia seen from behind.
It pains me deeply to tell you this. No decent lady should have to think of such matters. It is distressing to commit them to paper. However, I would infinitely rather speak and write of this than to have you suffer because of my silence. If you doubt me, then I encourage you to satisfy yourself by questioning Valentine, and, if necessary, by looking for evidence of the practices I have described. Does he keep battlefield trophies, or tallies of enemy dead and the manner of their deaths? Can he demonstrate to your satisfaction that he has renounced atrocities that are common, even expected, among the Drow? Once an individual has developed a taste for violence, that craving is not easily satisfied.
You may feel tempted to take his part. You may feel compassion for him because he has had traumatic experiences on the battlefield or elsewhere. He may argue that his enemies deserved their fates, or that atrocities are a common or even necessary part of battle. This is simply untrue, and is a slander against those who fight nobly in gray elf armies and militias, obeying the laws of war, and conducting themselves with honor, restraint and discretion in the face of chaos and temptation. Remember, too, that there are certainly things that he is not telling you. He may have confided some uncomfortable incidents as a way of seeming honest or demonstrating remorse. Know that there are always worse acts that remain hidden, that will come to light only after you are married.
You may tell yourself that he has been violent towards his enemies, but that he would never hurt you. It is comforting to believe this. My dear, you are still very young. I have seen a good deal of the world — more than I could wish — and I can assure you that if a man is violent in one area of his life, eventually his brutality will taint even his most sacred, intimate relations with his wife and children. You may feel pity or compassion for Valentine. I have no doubt that he is charming. Again, I do not know your thinking in these matters — I can only give you the benefit of my experience, and ask your forgiveness if I have misjudged you. I knew Tereus Shelawn at the height of his fame, and he was breathtakingly handsome and charismatic. His physical beauty concealed an almost demonic cruelty, which he exercised mercilessly against his wife and children. Evidence shows that the same is true of all Shelawn men, including your Valentine.
Our worst fears were confirmed when your brother traveled to Liamelia and sought an interview with Valentine. Eralon was acting on behalf of the family, trying to determine whether your flight was voluntary, and what steps would be necessary to secure your return. Your fiancee met him at an inn, bringing a half-elven thug as a second. He maintained that you had agreed to marry him against the wishes of your family, and refused to reply to inquiries about your location and safety. When questioned, he became agitated and attacked your brother savagely and without warning. Valykria, I know you are not fond of Eralon, but the injuries he sustained would have aroused pity and horror in you, if only because they demonstrate the violence of which Valentine is capable. Eralon’s face was severely cut and bruised, he lost a tooth, and his nose and jaw were broken. Valentine was restrained by his second with difficulty, and only because criminal assault charges were threatened. I cannot believe that you know of his actions and endorse them. Now that you know, I hope and pray that you will consider what they portend for your married life. You propose to tie yourself to a man who has shown no regard for your family’s very proper concerns, and who responded to your brother’s just inquiries with reckless, lawless violence.
I will close with a personal plea. Valykria, you are very dear to my heart. I have often wished I could offer you a home, because I know your situation is not comfortable in Amakir. Your father and brother have their weaknesses. I am sure you have had much to bear. Marriage lasts a lifetime, however. Many a young woman has looked to a man for rescue, only to discover that she has traded one captivity for another. If you return to your family, I will do everything in my power to secure your independence and dignity, and to protect you from the consequences of your actions.
I remain, as always, your loving grandmother,