Gathering Clouds, Chapter 13

  • Chapter 13





                            After crossing a large bridge, the carriage came to a slow stop.


                    ‘Well, here we are, ladies and gentlemen,’ the driver pulled in the reins. ‘The Imperial City Arena is a short walk from here. Do enjoy your visit, and stick around if you have time – the Grand Champion himself will be fighting in the ring tonight.’


                    Harrow made a mental note of that as he hopped off his wooden seat. Such a large event would attract a great many people. Perhaps even the Adder himself would be among the crowd.


                    It’s unlikely that he would be so careless, but you never know.


                    He turned his attention back to the Khajiit skooma addict he was following. His condition had worsened during the carriage ride. His unfocused eyes had begun to dart around rapidly, and there were growing sweat patches on his armpits and back. He was breathing in quick gasps. In another hour or so the hallucinations would start. He was staggering towards the Arena.


                    Someone so deeply mired in skooma withdrawal is most definitely not visiting for the fights, Harrow reasoned. There’s a supplier around here.


                    The Arena itself was enormous, an exemplar of Imperial architecture. The walls were a dozen stories high, with marble pillars set around the circumference. The loud roaring of an engaged audience reached Harrow even from a distance of two hundred feet. Judging from the overlaps and the loudness, there’s around five thousand to ten thousand people seated within right now, he estimated. It’s certainly crowded, but the Imperial City Arena was designed to accommodate over sixty thousand. Hardly a full house yet.


                    Be that as it may, it would still be hard to track the target if he entered the amphitheatre. Harrow found himself wishing for Ambarro and Diia’s sense of hearing and smell. His training could only do so much.


                    The Khajiit disappeared behind a gaggle of teenage girls, and he scowled. There were a few lone pillars in the grassy field off the road, but scaling them in broad daylight was far too obvious. He weaved his way through a particularly thick section of the crowd, and to his relief, the addict was right in front of him.


                    He might also be experiencing paranoia from his withdrawal symptoms. I should be doubly careful. Harrow slowed his footsteps and allowed the addict to shuffle ahead.


                    The iron gates of the Arena were open, with people milling in and out of the entrance. Betting stands were erected to the side, offering yellow and blue slips. There was a brawl going on at one of those stands. Apparently a spectator wasn’t happy with the results.


                    Noisy and violent. Not the best place for a nervous skooma addict.


                    Sure enough, the Khajiit almost jumped clean out of his pelt as the announcer’s voice boomed throughout the Arena.




                    Wincing, Harrow rubbed his ears, remembering how Terse’s enchanted carpet alarm almost cost Diia her life. Tamriellians are fond of being loud, it seems.


                    The addict walked out of the throng and into a series of dark corridors. Harrow waited for him to turn a corner, then followed him into the maze of passages under the stadium’s seats, always making sure there was a corridor’s length between them.


                    He caught the faint stench of blood as they went deeper into the Arena’s stonework. Where is he going?


                    The smell filled Harrow’s nostrils as the Khajiit stopped after turning right. There was a wet sound, a slap of skin on skin. Curious, he peered around the corner.


                    The Khajiit was talking with a bulky Orc, who had a broken tusk. They were standing in front of a ledge that led out to a large pit filled with bodies clad in yellow and blue. Fighters that fell in the Arena. Frowning, Harrow listened.


                    ‘I’m being followed,’ the addict was saying. ‘It’s not safe here.’


                    Drat, Harrow fumed. How did he-


                    ‘Oh, please, enough of your delusions, Q’zar,’ the Orc snorted, dangling a bottle of skooma from his thumb and forefinger. ‘I’ve got your juice right here. Pay up.’


                    ‘I’m serious,’ Q’zar babbled. ‘I see them around every corner, little winged shapes curling around the shadows... they’re coming for me!’


                    ‘Stop shrieking like a maiden and hand over the septims already. I have a game to catch.’


                    ‘Ah… ah, I’m sorry, you’re right. Just need my fix. My fix…’


                    Just hallucinations. And here he had me worried.


                    ‘Oh, by the way, kitty,’ the dealer leered unpleasantly. ‘Sorry about this, but the price just went up around these parts. It’s going to be four hundred septims this time.’


                    ‘W-what? You… how…’ the Khajiit sputtered. ‘But I only have two hundred. It was always two hundred…’


                    ‘Well, Adder’s orders. Can’t say no, you see.’


                    Harrow’s expression sharpened as the Orc uttered the word ‘Adder’.




                    ‘Look, do you want the stuff or not? It might cost you twice as much, but let me tell you, it’s also twice as pure…’


                    ‘I… I… I…’


                    Q’zar’s eyes grew wide in desperation. Then he screamed, ‘I need my fix!’ and dove forwards, clawing at the bottle.


                    The Orc shoved him back, then slipped a knife from his belt and plunged it into his stomach. He stabbed him several more times, the Khajiit’s delirious moans of ‘I need it’ and ‘My fix’ slowly fading.


                    ‘Malacath’s knuckles, that’s the second time this month,’ the Orc swore, rummaging about Q’zar’s pockets. With a satisfied grunt, he pulled out a bag of gold. Standing up, he tipped the corpse over the ledge and into the larger pile. There was another squish as it landed. ‘Can’t be helped, I guess.’


                    Harrow followed the dealer back to the main corridors, wondering how long he planned to stay. Probably until after the Grand Champion’s bout had ended.


                    The afternoon sunlight blinded him momentarily as they emerged into the amphitheatre. The Orc stopped at a food stall for a skewer of meat and a bottle of mead, then found a seat in the front rows, pushing the previous occupant out of the way.


                    ‘What a charming fellow,’ Harrow muttered, sitting down a few rows behind him.


                    ‘Woah,’ a voice came from his right. ‘Is that an actual Akaviri katana?’


                    He blinked and turned to see a pudgy Imperial boy staring at him excitedly. He was wearing a bright, short-sleeved yellow shirt and looked around thirteen.


                    ‘I’m sorry?’


                    ‘Your sword,’ the boy pointed. ‘The sheath is fashioned for the curved blade style of the Akaviri samurai, and the hilt too – a collared tsuka wrapped in same-kawa. It’s real sharkskin, isn’t it?’


                    ‘I… the wrapping is stingray skin, actually.’


                    ‘Wow! Where did you buy it? I’ve been pestering my father for a katana for months!’


                    ‘As I understand it, katana are quite expensive. Your father must be a man of some stature if you can even think of having him buy it,’ Harrow said, deflecting the question.


                    ‘Oh, he’s a businessman who works around the Palace District. But anyway, aren’t you supposed to say “katanas”?’


                    ‘The Akaviri language does not make use of plural forms, but since the word has been adopted into the Tamrielic vernacular as well, both singular and plural forms are acceptable.’


                    ‘And here I thought I knew a lot about weapons,’ the boy laughed. ‘Colour me ashamed. I never thought a girl would be so interested in swords. Your accent is a bit strange. Where are you from?’


                    ‘The Summerset Isles,’ he lied. Faking accents was one of the basic skills taught in Tsukikage, and his slanted eyes, angular cheekbones and pointed ears completed the picture. Oh, and also, Harrow smiled lightly and added, I'm not a girl.


                    ‘I see… are you here on a study trip or-’ Aetius stopped and stared at him wildly. ‘Youre a boy?! Thats- You're cuter than all of the girls in my neighbourhood!


                    ‘Now youre just trying to be mean,’ Harrow pouted, then laughed as Aetius stammered an apology. ‘Dont worry about it. Im on my free period right now, so I decided to check out the Imperial Arena.’


                    ‘Well, my friend, I promise you will not be disappointed,’ the boy draped a flabby arm over Harrow’s shoulder. ‘The fights going on here are brutal! If you hear some of the fightmasters tell it, it used to be absolutely insane back in the Third Era – they used to replace Grand Champions every week! It’s still incredibly fun to watch these days, of course, but I wish I could have been alive back then…’


                    ‘I see,’ Harrow nodded, some of the boy’s enthusiasm seeping into him as well. ‘The fighters back then must have been impressive indeed. Some sections of the Arena are closed off, though, and I see some scaffolding around. Why is that?’


                    ‘Ah, that. It’s a real pity, but those parts of the amphitheatre were heavily damaged during the… Great War…’


                    The boy shifted uncomfortably and withdrew his arm.


                    ‘Oh.’ Maybe I ought to make up a different cover next time, especially when I’m in the heart of the Empire.


                    The awkward silence didn’t last long, however. The boy’s face brightened as the announcer’s voice rang out again, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets.




                    Cheers and boos filled the stands as the audience rose to greet the fighters. The boy jumped up and down and pumped his fists in the air for the yellow team, then hissed and spat at the blue team. Harrow shot him a look from the corner of his eye, amused.


                    He spared a glance at the skooma dealer. The Orc had finished his skewer and was guzzling the bottle, and certainly didn’t seem like leaving any time soon. Sighing, he settled into his seat and watched the fight.


                    The blue team Myrmidons had spears, while the yellow team Gladiators were equipped with double-handed axes. Both teams were dressed in mailed tunics of their own colours. ‘It seems rather unfair,’ Harrow remarked. ‘The blue team has the advantage of both numbers and reach.’


                    ‘Ah, but you have to remember, the Gladiators are more skilled. They’ve got the edge in experience and power. See how heavy the axes are? A single blow from those will down a man without fail.’




                    The first death came quickly, right as the fighters met in the middle of the blood-soaked sand. A blue Myrmidon fell with a wretched scream, his leg hewn off at the thigh. Half of the audience groaned, while the other half jeered and laughed.


                    ‘HA-HA! Take that you blue mongrels!’ The boy whooped.


                    Retaliation came quickly, however. Three blue team fighters cornered a Gladiator who’d strayed just a little too far to the left, running him through with their spears.


                    ‘COWARDS! FIGHT FAIR!’ The boy shouted, apparently having already forgotten about the Gladiators edge in experience and power.


                    Harrow studied the frenzied spectators as they moved and roared as one, like some freakishly large beast. He felt a small thorn of contempt and disgust rise in his gut. Celebrating wholesale slaughter, even making it into a sport… these men and women are drunk. Hopelessly drunk on blood and death. And yet I should like to see how well they fare if they themselves were tossed into the pit.


                    The end came as quickly as the beginning. One Gladiator and one Myrmidon remained, staring at each other. Their comrades lay around them, staining what little white sand remained cherry red. Then a man rose from the pile, his right arm gone from the elbow, clutching a broken spear shaft in his left hand. The Gladiator turned, shocked, and the sharp end of the shaft punched up his chin. Gagging, he fell over alongside his assailant. They both bled out.




                    ‘BOOOOO,’ the boy yelled angrily along with most of the audience. Even the blue team supporters didn’t seem happy about the results.


                    ‘Can you believe it? That was just dumb luck,’ he turned incredulously towards Harrow. ‘That last Myrmidon didn’t even do anything.’


                    ‘He survived until the end, luck or not,’ Harrow shrugged. ‘A victory is a victory, as I see it.’


                    ‘And cowardice is cowardice,’ the boy pouted.


                    ‘Perhaps you’d feel differently if you were in the ring.’


                    ‘Well, I’m not!’


                    ‘Just so.’


                    ‘All Arena fighters are volunteers, anyway, so they knew what was coming,’ the boy huffed. Then his mood swung around again as the sun began to set. ‘Ooh, ooh, the Grand Champion fight is up next!’


                    ‘Is that so,’ Harrow said absentmindedly, peering at the skooma dealer. He looked furious, and was tearing a yellow betting slip to pieces. Then he rose and stomped over to the exit.


                    ‘It’s about time for me to get back to my class, though. Sorry, but it looks like I’ll be missing the fight.’


                    ‘Aw... are you absolutely sure you can’t stay any longer? The Grand Champion himself is going to be coming any minute.’


                    ‘Yes, I’m already running late. Sorry.’


                    ‘Ah well! It was nice chatting with you anyways,’ the boy extended a hand, a friendly smile on his rotund face. ‘It just occurred to me that I don’t even know your name. I’m Aetius. Pleasure to meet you.’


                    ‘My name is Valessar,’ Harrow shook his hand. ‘The pleasure is mine. Now if you’ll excuse me…’


                    ‘Oh, right. See you around, Valessar!’


                    Aetius waved as Harrow ran down the rows and to the exit, the greenish skin on the back of the Orc’s bald head catching his eye just as he left the iron gates. Lucky that he’s not in a rush.


                    The skooma dealer was swearing under his breath. Apparently he’d lost all two hundred of the gold he looted off Q’zar. Night fell, and shadows came to life as torches flickered aflame around the Arena District.


                    Valessar, Harrow thought as he trailed his mark. Masculine variation of Valesse. I had to use that, of all names...


                    He shook his head and decided not to linger on it.














4 Comments   |   The Wolf Of Atmora and 5 others like this.
  • Caladran
    Caladran   ·  August 31, 2018
    Ooh, I find the arena scenes fun to read, and it seems Harrow made a new friend. :)
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  October 24, 2016
    How old is Harrow now?
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      How old is Harrow now?
        ·  October 24, 2016
      The Po' Tun of Tsukikage are considered adults at nineteen, though all shinobi begin operating from the age of eleven, which is how old Harrow is right now. He might seem a little young, but keep in mind he has already received nearly a decade of training.
      • The Long-Chapper
        The Long-Chapper
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Po' Tun of Tsukikage are considered adults at nineteen, though all shinobi begin operating from the age of eleven, which is how old Harrow is right now. He might seem a little young, but keep in mind he has already received nearly a decade of training.
          ·  October 24, 2016
        Thanks, that explains a lot.