Chapter Seventeen: … Of Guile and Force
Once Valan left the others did so as well. Valerian didn’t care. At least, he tried not to. He just knelt there, head down. He was filled with so much anger at the unfairness of the situation, he could cry. Before that could happen, a long tongue licked his face. He tried to ignore the forked appendage and concentrate on his brooding but it kept licking him.
“Stop that Sela! I’m not in the mood!” he protested.
He was ignored. Pushing it away didn’t help either. It tickled. Eventually he had to give in. Laughing, he wrapped his arms around the head of the giant viper. The snake rejoiced in her triumph, transmitting feelings of smugness and warmth to him as she licked him, drawing him out his melancholy.
Sela was one of his grandmother’s battle beasts. She was a daemon. A Winged Cloudviper to be exact. She had large keeled scales coloured a mismatch of greys, blues and white patches and four large, scaly horns that protruded from over her dark, elliptic pupiled eyes. However, the most distinctive things about the daemon were her large bat-like wings and the crackling sound made when her scales rubbed each other.
The snake was incredibly large. Her large head was a full seventy centimetres across at its widest part and she was nineteen meters long from head to tail. Even Valerian, a rather large eight year old could not encircle her girth properly with his arms. Also, he knew for a fact that her fangs were actually about ninety centimetres long and could deliver a poison that could dissolve him into pus with barely a tea cup’s worth.
Sela was very proud of her fangs, horns and wings and she had reason to be. She was beautiful. At least in Valerian’s eyes, though some of the servants would disagree. She was also cruel and playful. There was a reason she was the one he wanted to torment his enemies.
Strangely, despite being a dangerous, venomous daemon of swift, winged death with an acknowledged penchant for malice Valerian had never felt even the slightest twinge of fear towards Sela.
Of all his grandmother’s battle beasts she was the one he was closest too. Not Gulsalma her right hand or Fuooh who spent all her time perched on his grandmother’s shoulder, or Pan who had twice wrestled Uncle Richard in his transformed state and lost marginally, but the malicious serpent who in turn liked no one else in the household — besides her mistress that is.
A mistress who knelt down beside her grandson to pat him on the head.
Valerian’s grandmother Clara was a beautiful woman. She was sixty years old but her grey hair notwithstanding she did not look it one bit. She had the body of a thirty year old and the mannerisms of duchess. Lithe and powerful she was the greatest grandmother he could ever hope for.
“Your grandfather was only worried about you, you know! We all are. Do you know how close you came to being seriously hurt or killed today? For something to happen to you in our own home with us around but unable to prevent it would have been devastating. That is why he was so harsh. You must remember that you actions have consequences for others as well”, she said softly.
And now Valerian felt bad. He hadn’t thought about it that way. Guilt flooded his gut. He knew how badly his family had handled the disappearance of his parents. Even now it was a sore topic for his grandparents. To think that he had nearly put them through something even worse than that. It made him feel like a horrible person.
“That is what he meant by asking you to think about the consequences of your actions. Can you imagine what would have happened if your uncle Richard was not stronger than those knights? He would have still done his best to protect you but he would definitely have failed and all because you rushed into a situation without thinking and brought trouble to the whole family”, she added.
Valerian thought he felt bad before but now he felt even worse. His self-righteousness had already fled in the face of the fact that he nearly caused an incident that his family could not recover from. All because some disgruntled soldier insulted him.
“Attacking that soldier right in front of his comrades when you had no way to win was foolish. And yes, you shouldn’t resort to violence as an end all. You cannot act mindlessly and on emotion like you did before. It is a poor judgement that almost always leads to bad decisions. When you encounter a situation you cannot handle you have to seek help and not charge straight in. However, your grandfather was not completely right.”
Valerian’s head shot up in confusion. He thought the whole reason she was here was to show him the error of his ways and let him see things from his grandfather’s point of view. Why then was she contradicting him?
The feared beast tamer known to all as Clara Steelborn merely run her fingers through her grandson’s hair and elaborated.
“You have to understand that your grandfather was meant to be a great cultivator. He had the lineage, the legacies, the resources, the teachers. Everything was available and at his disposal. Unfortunately thanks to his special condition his cultivation stalled at the energy gathering stage and he has never been able to advance past that. This caused great disappointment not only in the clan but in himself. It is why he so earnestly pursued his scholastic pursuits.
“Sadly, this was not enough. Not for him, not for the clan and not for those who saw the Steelborns to be the pinnacle of strength in Cragsveil. Bear in mind that your clan was merely a small nomadic family of mercenaries and smiths from the Wildlands until they stopped at DaleGuard one day and your great grandfather joined the viscount’s army.
“It was his accomplishments and power that allowed him to seize the peerage when the old viscount was deposed following the Battle of the Guarded Pass. After all, it is power that determines leaders among both men and beasts. However, there were many who weren’t happy with this decision. They felt that that the new lord should have come from the one of the clans or tribes native to these lands and not from an outside clan.
“It was here that your family showed their true power. Your great-grandfather was powerful but he was only one man. It was his clan who acted as his rock and it was the might of the clan and the famed Steelborn StormHawk that allowed him to retain the position and for a long time the might of the clan was unquestioned. Your grandfather changed that.
“His condition created a sore spot that the rivals of the Steelborns could attack, further worsening his relationship with the clan and becoming more of a black sheep in the eyes of all. It was his shrewdness which saved him here. He made no clamour, kept his head low and weathered all aggressors.
“Back then, he was still the son of a viscount but he did not throw the clan’s might or wealth at his opponents. Rather, he distanced himself to prevent his stigma from further affecting them. They did not protest his decision. Thus, he had no vast amounts of wealth and he had no strength, but he was not suppressed by family’s enemies. Granted, he was not of as high value a target as his brothers but that was also in part to his own efforts.
“He became not a fearsome steel monolith but a chameleon. Diminishing himself in the eyes of others and working in the shadows till he gained what influence he needed to live on his own. He did not act brashly nor did he ever confront anyone physically the entire time. He was strong without being strong. It was this aspect of him that attracted me to him in the first place. Sadly, this same aspect is the reason he does not understand”.
Valerian looked at his grandmother with his eyes wide open. As the story unfolded, he could picture in his mind a young Valan Steelborn winning his battles with nothing but guile and ingenuity. He never knew any of this about his grandfather. He’d had some suspicions but his guesses where both on the mark and far off.
“He is someone with no strength or pride. Having never truly received any respect for his person he does not understand what it means for us. Non-cultivators are mortals. Their main concerns are making a living and providing for their families. Their lives are fundamentally different from ours. We are different”, his grandmother was saying.
“Making a living is easy for us. Any half decent cultivator could gain public office. We have long lifespans and as for wealth? Dealing with daemons is both our duty and a business that pays incredibly well. But all that is besides our true purpose. To protect and advance our people”.
Something occurred to her making her pause. “You know about wolves, don’t you Valerian? I saw you reading a book on them the other time”.
He nodded sharply wondering where this was going. His grandmother only smiled and continued. “What happens when a wolf pack grows stronger? Or to be more precise, what happens to the other animals, wolves et al when a particular pack grows dominant?”
Valerian thought about it carefully before answering. “Wolf packs grow stronger when they gain more members, stronger members or both. Once they do they expand their territories and hunting grounds driving out other predators like foxes, bears, jackals, hyenas, other packs and even lions that would otherwise compete with them over prey, territory and resources”.
“Good answer! That is the problem isn’t it. The land cannot support everyone. For the wolves to feed themselves and grow even stronger and more numerous they must seize the territory they need and drive their rivals away, killing them if they must. That is the true story concerning the battle for life and survival. It is the reason why men and beasts are always at war with each other and themselves. They are in competition.
“The role of power in this competition for life is pivotal. Without it the wolves would not be able to drive their rivals away nor would they be able to hold on to the territory they require. Even among the wolves themselves, the alpha may be wise and experienced but the moment it becomes clear that his strength is failing, he will be replaced. The reason is simple. It is strength that determines who leads, who lives and who dominates.
“It is the same where ever you go. The reason Bathar is under the rule of the imperial family of Newhaven is because we are not powerful enough to rule them instead. And there is no place where this principle is more evident than among cultivators. There is an old saying, ‘When force does not suffice it’s because you are not using enough of it’. It is true.
“It is our power that determines whether we are the rulers or the ruled. Those who lack it have no choice but to be ruled, to give up their lands and resources to the powerful. And that is the situation that we must avoid. It is why we cultivators exist, why we have the powers we do. This way we can safeguard the survival of ourselves and our own in this harsh world.
“Heaven and Earth are not humane. They grant us our power, provide us with our resources and engender conflict so that only the most deserving of the children of Verre, that only those with the greatest will and strength can rise to top. Not just to become deities, but that we and ours might inherit their true bounty.
“If power was not necessary then there would be no need for cultivators. We are the favoured of Verre, the carriers of the blessings of Heaven and Earth. We live in their true domain, experiencing their harsh trials. We are not the meek but the strong.
“Mortals do not see this side of the world. They revere us but they are not like us. They live alongside us but they are not with us, not truly. Your grandfather is the same.
“This also the reason why I am so proud of you. You stood up to defend yourself and defend this family. It was a bit daft and foolhardy but you rightly realised the facts of life. Those who lack the power to defend themselves are doomed to be at the mercy of others. That you have to fight to get what you want”.
As she said this, she brushed dirt off the armour of her kneeling grandson with her hands. Sela coiled around them both and then rested her head lightly on Valerian’s shoulder. She communicated the same feelings to him. Pride. Warmth. Concern.
“Reasoning and negotiation are powerful tools but like violence they are not the solution to all problems. They require at least two sides. What do you do when your opponents refuse to back down or listen to reason? Do you sit still and die? Absolutely not.
“Also there are many situations where violence is necessary. Take what happened today. When Richard came and met you under attack, was he to wait and attempt reason when you were so clearly in danger?”
All of a sudden his grandmother stopped and sighed looking drained. It had occurred to her that she was giving an ideological lecture to an eight year old. That was the problem with talking to Valerian. He acted so smart and mature that you often forgot that he was still just a child.
“I have spoken so much that I am sounding like your grandfather but these are things you should know and be aware of. These are issues that are you will encounter when you grow older, things you might understand then. Just know that no single way is right. Your grandfather was right but he was not completely so.
“You should never rely on violence when there are more peaceful alternatives nor should you be guided by rash emotion. However you should not forget that force is a legitimate method. At times, perhaps more often than not, it is the route you should go. Never, ever present yourself as weak!
“That is your grandfather’s single greatest problem. He has allowed his weakness to define him. Do not do the same. Be strong but be wise as well. Only both will get you what you want and allow you to keep it. Do you understand?” she asked, serious once more.
Valerian nodded so fast that Sela hissed and shifted in annoyance. “I understand grandmother. I will endeavour to be wise and powerful at the same time. I will try to know when to apply force and when not to so that I can be both strong without being strong and powerful enough to be dominant”, he said in a solemn tone.
Clara listened to her grandson and laughed before ruffling his hair. In truth, she could not help but wonder and not for the first time how much Valerian really understood and how much of him was just an emulation of Valan’s overly formal, exaggerated form of speech. Despite this, she was truly proud of her grandson.
He had his grandfather’s intellect and her viscous decisiveness. It was like seeing a perfect blend of their traits. looking at him, she smiled and took out a very sharp dagger. It was about thirty centimetres long, made from steel and had a handle of bone.
“Today you touched on the primary skill of a metal attributed arcanist — metal manipulation. You say you want to be powerful. Start with mastering that. I will give you this dagger. Once you can get it to follow your whims I will also begin to teach you my skills”, she paused here as if considering something.
Coming to a decision she uttered, “In fact, I will even take you hunting with me”.
“Really grandmother?” Valerian asked excitedly.
He’d wanted to accompany her since he could walk. He couldn’t believe she remembered. This was before he even begun going to Fang’s Grammar School. The appeal came not with thought of trekking through the grasslands searching for some beast to kill but rather the fact that he would get to leave the city. Back then, he never left the manor estate and so the dream of seeing the things spoken off in his books was very compelling.
“Of course! You are a big boy now and once you learn to control that dagger you’ll have some protection in the wild. However, that is only if you learn to control the dagger on command. So, you better work hard”, she said with a smile.
“Don’t worry grandmother! I’ll have this mastered in three days tops!” he declared.
“Good! Now I cannot lift your grandfather’s punishment but he should have calmed down enough by now that I can convince him to do so himself. You get started while I go talk to him”, she said.
She left him there, kneeling in the courtyard, the dagger placed half a meter in front of him. Valerian stared at the sharp implement knowing that it was key to him not only gaining more power but also getting his grandmother, the most powerful person he knew to begin training him.
In addition to this, it was this skill that saved him that very morning. Even if she hadn’t brought it up he would still work to master it just so he would not be as helpless as before.
He stretched out a hand towards it then channelling arcane energy down his arm he tried to establish a connection with the dagger. The same kind that allowed him to control those other implements in the morning. His grandfather always said to start small when learning something new. So he poured all his will towards getting it to rise.
‘Come on, come on’, he repeated in his mind but it stayed still.
Annoyed he yelled, “Rise!”
Nothing happened. Feelings of amusement came at him. Sela was laughing. Choosing to ignore the viper he focused instead on the dagger. He would get this down no matter how long it took.
“Rise!” he commanded again.
And now we have another opinion in the debate. Force and reason, which is the answer? Even if the answer is both, when is it either? When do you use one and not the other? These are questions we struggle with even in our world. They might crop up again somewhere down the line.
More importantly, if certain things in the chapter went over your head don’t worry. It was intentional. The same happened to Valerian. It will all become clear as the story progresses.