Gathering Clouds, Chapter 18

  • Chapter 18

     

     

     

     

                           Arngrimur smiled down at his son, the gleam of his sword lighting up his blue eyes, bright as the sky.

     

                    ‘A gladius,’ Harrow noted. ‘Imperial Legion, standard issue. Did you carry that into battle during the Great War, Papa?’

     

                    ‘Aye. See this chip here? Your mother put it there. You can ask her all about it when she comes back. I’ve certainly never heard the end of it,’ Arn laughed, his voice booming throughout the training field. ‘Now draw your weapon and come at me! I want to see what those old cats been teaching you.’

     

                    Harrow bowed, then struck without warning, his katana flying out of its scabbard towards Arngrimur’s upper torso. The muscular Nord turned slightly to the side and raised his shield, stopping the blow. He didn’t even flinch.

     

                    ‘Akaviri draw-cut, eh,’ he grinned. ‘What do they call it… the “eyae” or something? Mokko teach you that?’

     

                    ‘The iai,’ Harrow corrected, pivoting to the right and slashing upwards. ‘And it was Master Unaka who taught me kenjutsu and iaijutsu. Master Mokko focuses on unarmed combat.’

     

                    ‘Kenches? She’s teaching you how to salt fish? Iai what now?’ Arn teased, deflecting the cut and throwing the boy off-balance with a flick of his blade.

     

                    Adjusting his footing, Harrow gripped the katana with both hands, thrusting it forwards. Arngrimur leant to the right, and the stab met empty air. ‘Kenjutsu, Papa. The techniques of the sword.’

     

                    ‘Some technique if you can’t even keep your balance.’ Arn swept low with his shield and bowled him over.

     

                    Harrow used the momentum of his fall to roll to the side and back up to his feet, his sword still raised. Arn nodded appreciatively. ‘Oh, nice move! Unaka or Mokko teach you that too?’

     

                    ‘No,’ his son replied, mirroring his grin. ‘That was a basic ukemi. Dejira-ko taught it to all of us when we were three.’

     

                    ‘These Akaviri words get more and more bizarre,’ Arn said, feinting to the right and twisting his sword left at the last moment. ‘I’m not even going to try to pronounce that.’

     

                    Harrow parried, then feinted twice himself – once upwards, once to the right, then a slash in earnest to the head.

     

                    Arngrimur’s eyes widened and his joking stopped briefly as he leant backwards. The katana took a few hairs off his beard.

     

                    ‘What kind of low Shadeclaw trick is that? You shinobi and your mind games,’ he complained. ‘And why is it always the beard?’

     

                    ‘If it’s any consolation, I was aiming for your temple. I’d advise you not to take me too lightly, Papa. You’d never hear the end of it from Mother if I were to-’

     

                    Arngrimur slapped the katana with his sword at an angle, sending a cascade of sparks into Harrow’s eyes. Wincing, he withdrew, just in time to see the edge of the heavy iron shield coming straight at his forehead. He ducked, alarmed, only to find the tip of his father’s blade inches from his throat. Arn’s jaunty grin was back on his face.

     

                    ‘I’ve got my own tricks too, you know. Are you alright? Old man Raeg did that to me all the time in training. Blink hard a few times, the spots will fade after a while.’

     

                    Harrow rubbed his eyes ruefully. When he opened them again, Arngrimur was dead, his face a hollow mask, impaled through the chest with a katana. His katana. A shadowy figure stood before him, a smoky, ghostly form. It turned, pulled the weapon free, and shuffled slowly over to Harrow with the blade dripping red.

     

                    He tried to cry out, to move, to summon lightning to his hand, but nothing would come out and his body was locked in place. Only his eyes worked as they should. And so all he could do was look as the shadowy figure slid the katana gently over his abdomen. There was no pain, even as the blade bit all the way inside. Only cold.

     

                    As the thick coils of his bowels fell out in loopy ropes, the shadowy figure leant close, staring straight at him.

     

                    It had silver eyes.

     

                    Harrow sat bolt upright with a strangled gasp, sweat beading on his back. He had twisted in his sleep and his stomach was bared. Steadying his breathing, he pulled his tunic back down to his waist. The night sky was cloudy and even the moons were hidden behind a curtain of black, with only two dark grey patches indicating their presence. A soft, snow-coated pine needle drifted onto his face as it fell off a nearby tree.

     

                    Diia was on watch. Her pot hung over a pit of Ambarro’s flames. She glanced over at him, concerned. ‘Harrow-to?’

     

                    Harrow shook his head and rose from the log he’d been sleeping on. ‘It’s nothing. I’ll take watch.’

     

                    She wanted to argue, but it was the small hours of the morning and a bit of fatigue had begun to set in. The kits were back in the forests between the Jerall Mountains and Bruma. Diia missed Tsukikage, so she had driven the team faster than she probably should have. They were all quite tired now, but she could tell that, with Harrow, it was something else.

     

                    Asking him about it now will only make it worse, she thought.

     

                    ‘All right. I do need some rest. I’ll leave the rest of the night to you, then. I boiled some Guan leaves in water while you were asleep. I can’t brew first-rate tea like you do, Harrow-to, but it should help keep you awake.’

     

                    Harrow nodded, then took a seat by the fire and a small sip from the pot. The orange light sent eerie shadows flickering across his face. Diia could almost mistake him for a clay statue. He looked just as dead.

     

                    Troubled, she curled up a short distance from a snoring Ambarro and closed her eyes.

     

                    When she woke, the sun was rising and he was still sitting there, his posture unchanged, gazing off into the distance as the dying embers began to lose their glow.


     

                    ‘I’m worried about Harrow-to,’ Diia confided in Ambarro as she took careful aim at a sparrow perched on a branch twenty feet away.

     

                    ‘Eh? Why?’ Ambarro spun the shuriken in his hand, squinting at another bird, then scowled as it flew away.

     

                    Diia concentrated and flicked a senbon straight into the sparrow’s chest. It fluttered to the ground, twitching.

     

                    ‘Haven’t you noticed? He’s hardly spoken at all this last week, barely touches his food, mumbles and groans during his sleep…’

     

                    ‘Ach, he’s just being moody and brooding as usual,’ Ambarro snorted, picking up the sparrow and walking back to their camp. ‘Just watch.’

     

                    He sauntered over to the fire, where Harrow was still sitting, and dropped the dead bird at his feet.

     

                    ‘Fifth morning now and you still haven’t bagged anything to eat,’ Ambarro taunted. ‘I guess you really are as useless as you look.’

     

                    Harrow let out a noncommittal grunt without even looking up. Ambarro faltered, then tried again.

     

                    ‘What, “mm”? Is that it? I’ve never heard such a pathetic response in my-’

     

                    Harrow picked up the sparrow and, without another word, began to skin it. Disturbed, Ambarro fell silent as well.

     

                    Breakfast was a very quiet affair. Harrow gnawed briefly on a leg, then went back to staring at the fire. Diia tried to break the ice.

     

                    ‘Did you know Aetius-to very well, Harrow-to?’ She winced immediately after she said that. Harrow’s lips tightened, and he drew his knees up to his chin.

     

                    ‘No,’ he answered after five long minutes. ‘He liked weapons and the fights in the Arena. That’s all I know, really. I only met him twice.’

     

                    He turned to Diia and she shivered at his blank, haunted eyes. ‘He was crying for his papa when he died. Cut him straight across the abdomen. Intestines fell out. The smell…’

     

                    Harrow hugged his legs closer. ‘I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to… but there was nothing else I could do. A stab into the sagittal. That’s all it took. It was quick at the end. It was quick… skull sutures don’t fully fuse together until maturation…’

     

                    They left him there muttering to himself and went off to a spot of dirt to bury the bones.

     

                    ‘What should we do?’ Diia was looking more and more anxious by the second. ‘It’s as if Harrow-to has become someone else overnight.’

     

                    ‘I don’t get it. He’s killed people before, and this Aetius was swinging a sword at him too. Really, from what I hear of it, he more or less just killed himself. Harrow didn’t even do anything.’

     

                    ‘Maybe it’s because the Adder was his father? You know how Harrow-to’s own father…’ Diia trailed off as she remembered that Ambarro too had lost his parents soon after he was born. He was always so cheerful and lively that it almost never came to mind that he was an orphan. ‘Sorry.’

     

                    ‘What’re you sorry for?’ Ambarro looked at her, confused.

     

                    ‘I… just thought it’d be a sensitive topic for you, Ambarro-to.’

     

                    ‘What’s a sensitive topic?’ Ambarro scratched his head, a vacant smile on his face.

     

                    Diia allowed herself a small smile as well. ‘Always so upbeat. I suppose the Grandmaster would know what to do… but I do hate seeing Harrow-to like this. Let’s hurry back.’

     

                    It took them another week to reach Tsukikage, during which the kits could count the times Harrow spoke with their fingers.

     

                    The snow was coming down heavily the morning they reached the village, almost obscuring the ‘Moon’ and ‘Shadow’ glyphs on the moonstone gates as they opened noiselessly. Diia breathed in the crisp, cold mountain air, content. They were home.


     

                    ‘Is that all?’ Takarro peered at the three young shinobi.

     

                    ‘For the mission, yes, Grandmaster,’ Diia bowed, then started to say, ‘There is something else, however-’

     

                    ‘Harrow’s acting weird, Grandpa,’ Ambarro cut in.

     

                    ‘…well, I suppose Ambarro-to has said it more clearly than I could have. Forgive us, Harrow-to, but you’ve not been yourself since the end of the mission.’

     

                    ‘Interrupting your captain is stopping just short of insubordination, Ambarro,’ Bengakhi growled, rising from Takarro’s side. Diia found herself withdrawing slightly from him. The Grandmaster’s advisor seemed perpetually hostile. It couldn’t be helped, though. Jorra had drawn scout duty for the day, and at least one Council member had to be present for mission reports.

     

                    ‘It’s obvious what’s happening here, though,’ the orange-furred Po’ Tun continued, pointing at Harrow, who still wasn’t talking. ‘The elf is too sensitive. He’s developing a guilt complex. I’ve seen it happen before. We may have to suspend him from operations and assign him some less trying tasks. Farming duty, maybe.’

     

                    There was no concern in Bengakhi’s voice, only a hint of derision. Diia had to stop herself from glaring at him.

     

                    ‘Bengakhi,’ Takarro snapped, uncharacteristically angry. ‘That’s enough.’

     

                    ‘Of course,’ the advisor turned and walked to the door. ‘At any rate, I’ve noted down the main points of the report. I won’t mince my words, kits. You have much to improve on. You were detected on no fewer than five occasions, allowed one of your own to be captured, decided to eliminate a warlord that we have tracked for almost a month without consulting your superiors and ruined weeks of planning… the list of your shortcomings go on, but I’ll hear the rest of it from your evaluation team.’

     

                    With that, he left the Grandmaster’s office, his footfalls completely inaudible despite his large frame.

     

                    Ambarro hissed and his claws popped out. ‘What a complete-’

     

                    Diia slapped a hand over his mouth before he could finish. Grandfather or not, she wasn’t sure Takarro would tolerate Ambarro’s language in his mood.

     

                    The Grandmaster sighed, looking weary. ‘It seems like his bitterness only grew with age.’

     

                    ‘Bitterness?’ Ambarro cocked his head, curious.

     

                    ‘A long, sad, story. Suffice it to say that Bengakhi hasn’t been the same since his wife’s passing. He did want children so badly…’ Takarro’s eyes misted over in remembrance, then he shook himself back to the present. ‘There I go again. I must be growing senile in my dotage, heh heh.’

     

                    The old, white-furred shinobi turned to Harrow, his gaze soft but level. ‘The Adder was not Arngrimur-do, Harrow. And you are not Aetius-to either. There’s no need to torture yourself so…’

     

                    ‘Grandmaster,’ Harrow said dully. ‘May I take my leave?’

     

                    Takarro studied him for a while longer, then closed his eyes and sighed. ‘Very well. Dismissed.’

     

                    Diia and Harrow both left. Ambarro stayed, shifting his weight from one foot to another. Takarro let him stew for a minute or two, then chuckled lightly despite himself. ‘All right, what is it?’

     

                    ‘You’re not really going to suspend Harrow, are you, Grandpa?’ Ambarro blurted out. ‘He hasn’t done anything wrong!’

     

                    ‘Well now. Don’t tell me you’re starting to take a liking to him?’

     

                    ‘What? No! It just wouldn’t be right to punish someone for something… something like this!’

     

                    ‘Suspension from duty is not always a punishment, Ambarro,’ Takarro reminded him. ‘Sometimes shinobi need to get away from blood and death for a while.’

     

                    ‘But it’s just Harrow’s first mission-’

     

                    ‘It often takes the simplest of things to break a person. You may not know this, but Harrow is fascinated with his parents. Most shinobi here have met Kodi and Verra, so you grew up with quite a full picture of what they were like. Harrow, though… he doesn’t even know his father’s face, and all he has of his mother is a portrait and a pair of gloves. Jorra tells him stories of their adventures sometimes, and his imagination does the rest. He loves them, Ambarro, in a way no child could love their living parents.’

     

                    ‘Sounds like he’s just obsessing over fairy tales.’

     

                    ‘Oh, my boy,’ Takarro shook his head sadly. ‘If you only knew how lonely Harrow is.’

     

                    ‘Lonely?’ Ambarro snorted. ‘He’s got classmates just like me, and the instructors all fawn over him.’

     

                    ‘Yes, lonely! Do you know how isolated you feel when every face other than yours is covered in fur, and every fingertip other than yours ends in claws and not nails? You and I both know that some of the kits – including you, I would add – did not exactly welcome him with open arms. Can you blame him for pining after his parents’ legends?’

     

                    Ambarro stared at the floor sullenly.

     

                    ‘And now he kills a father right in front of his son. Don’t you see how that might-’

     

                    ‘Okay, okay!’ Ambarro scowled. ‘So what should we do about it?’

     

                    ‘I might have to set Harrow back a year, maybe have Jorra work on his emotions. He does know him best, after all. In his frail mental state-’

     

                    ‘Stop treating him like a glass window!’

     

                    Takarro stopped midsentence, taken aback by how upset Ambarro was.

     

                    ‘He’s tougher than you know! Just because he’s quiet all the time and doesn’t like talking doesn’t mean he’s a depressed wimp who needs to stay in bed all the time and have Uncle Jorra read him bedtime stories! Why can’t any of you see that?’

     

                    Before Takarro could answer, Ambarro had thrown the door open and stormed out of the office.


     

                    ‘So,’ Harrow said, his voice still dead. ‘Why did you call me out here? It’s past sundown.’

     

                    ‘To have us a good match, of course,’ Ambarro said, cracking his knuckles. The sound bounced off the walls of the training room. ‘We haven’t fought in a while, right?’

     

                    ‘This is pointless,’ Harrow headed for the door. ‘I’m going-’

     

                    ‘Running away so quickly?’ Ambarro grabbed him by the back of his tunic and threw him over his shoulder. He landed with a solid thump.

     

                    ‘Come on, get back up! Remember what Master Mokko said about staying down… eh… what was it that he said again?’

     

                    ‘I’m not in the mood,’ Harrow said tiredly, pushing himself to his feet and making for the door again.

     

                    ‘Fine,’ Ambarro lunged, annoyed. ‘I guess I’ll just beat you up some more, then!’

     

                    He turned him around by the shoulder and punched him in the stomach, then spun around and kicked him off his feet. Harrow didn’t even bother to cushion his fall.

     

                    ‘Fight back,’ Ambarro lifted him by the neck and hit him again across the cheek. Harrow lifted an arm belatedly to stop another blow.

     

                    Ambarro batted his arm away, then lashed out at his ribs. ‘Fight back,’ he repeated. A chop to the forearm. A palm strike to the chin. ‘Come on, fight back!’

     

                    Harrow brushed Ambarro’s hands away, shook his head, then turned to leave. ‘Grow up.’

     

                    ‘Don’t you walk away from me!’ Ambarro shouted. His heel whipped through the air and powered into the side of Harrow’s head, felling him like a tree.

     

                    Ambarro kicked again at his sprawled form. ‘Pitiful. Just pitiful! You call yourself a shinobi? You call yourself a Shadeclaw? I don’t care how lonely other people think you get, I don’t care who you kill by accident, I don’t care about any of that! I’ve seen you smile at Uncle Jorra’s stories, I’ve heard you sneer at all my failures, I’ve smelled that stupid tea you make in the morning, I’ve felt the force of your blows time after time after time! Now stop sulking, get up, and come at me!’

     

                    ‘Leave me alone,’ Harrow groaned, his tone one of utter defeat.

     

                    Ambarro’s temper boiled over. He lifted the elf bodily and slammed him into the wooden wall, a string of profanities streaming from his mouth.

     

                    ‘…dried pus on your breeches you muck-legged manure-stirring maggot-infested mule,’ he stopped for breath. ‘Grandpa should never have let you in, he should have let you freeze in the Jeralls, at least your corpse will be useful…’

     

                    Harrow hung his head without responding. He looked almost asleep. Furious, Ambarro drew in a deep breath and continued ranting. He was always more eloquent when swearing.

     

                    ‘Coward, that’s what you are, a yellow-bellied coward drenched in piss. What would your parents say if they saw you like this, moping all the time? They’d disown you in an instant, wipe you clean from the family tree if they had any shame at all. They’re rotting in the earth right now, though, with you as their one greatest mistake, probably took that regret straight to the grave, the poor sods. Now that I think of it, they were probably pathetic weaklings like you, dying to a couple of priests-’

     

                    His jaw almost shattered. Ambarro reeled back from the punch, his vision blurring, then grunted as Harrow slipped from his grip and launched a savage chop at the back of his knee. His leg gave and he crumpled to the ground. Harrow elbowed him between the shoulder blades, then flipped him over and planted another elbow into the middle of his torso. Ambarro raised a fist, dazed, then dropped it as Harrow began to pepper his face, his hands a blur. He felt his nose break and his brow crunch. After what felt like a thousand strikes, he stopped.

     

                    ‘Ambarro,’ Harrow said, leaning in close. His eyes were two pools of silvery flame. ‘If you ever speak ill of my father and mother again, I will crush every bone in your body one by one.’

     

                    Ambarro’s features were a ruin. His nostrils were crooked, his right eye was swollen shut, his cheek was bloated to one side, and his forehead ran with gashes. And for some reason, he had an enormous, lopsided grin running from ear to ear.

     

                    ‘That’s the Harrow I know,’ he croaked.

     

                    Harrow’s breathing began to slow as he sat down heavily. He felt drained, but also somehow renewed.

     

                    ‘Damn,’ Ambarro was still grinning. ‘That hurt.’

     

                    Harrow stared at him. For almost half an hour they stayed there, silent. Then Harrow draped one of Ambarro’s arms over his shoulder and began to help him out of the room.

     

                    ‘What… where are we going?’ Ambarro muttered.

     

                    ‘To the infirmary, of course. Unless you want me to heal your nose. I can try, you know. Give you a snout to match your brain.’

     

                    ‘Hah! Be honest, you just don’t want to waste Magicka on me.’

     

                    ‘Shut up, dunce.’

     

                    The two figures hobbled out of the dojo and into the streets. A couple of shinobi glanced at them as they passed by, but training injuries were commonplace in Tsukikage, so they paid them no mind.

     

                    Takarro looked down at the two boys, smiling to himself as he stood perched on a nearby lamppost.

     

                    ‘Well, I suppose it all turned out fine.’

     

                    And then he was gone, the lantern hanging from the post not even swaying as his weight left the pole.

     

     

     

     

     

       

     

     

     

     

     

Comments

6 Comments   |   The Wolf Of Atmora and 6 others like this.
  • Caladran
    Caladran   ·  November 7, 2018
    Yikes! At least Ambarro got him talking although by some beating. x_o
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  January 30, 2017
    Sparrows are very small birds. How many did these kits eat? And agree with Karves. Nothing like a good beating to set you right. 
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  January 1, 2017
    Oh, no, now even Karver-jo has caught up. And I've still got 7 chapters left over from NaNo that are complete unedited messes!

    ...must...summon...willpower...
    • Karver the Lorc
      Karver the Lorc
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Oh, no, now even Karver-jo has caught up. And I've still got 7 chapters left over from NaNo that are complete unedited messes!

      ...must...summon...willpower...
        ·  January 1, 2017
      We┬┤re all going to die in here... :D
  • Karver the Lorc
    Karver the Lorc   ·  January 1, 2017
    Finally caught up. Now this was quite intense moment. Nothing like good taking a good beating to get someone out of their lethargy. :)
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  December 31, 2016
    'Shut up, dunce'    haha....


    Sorry it took so long to read.