A Harvest of Broken Stars

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Chapter 21: Bets

At midday, the two sparsely dressed women walked through the main street of Sha’ton. There were no guards, no patrols, nothing indicating the presence of law enforcement in the city. What had once been a city wall had long since collapsed. Ramshackle wooden houses and bridges had been built on top of and between the old stone buildings. Now, they were all leaning against each other, giving the impression of a tunnel that might collapse any time.

Despite their best efforts at covering as much skin as possible with their tattered clothes, the rider’s warning about the town’s predators seemed accurate. Hungry eyes measured them up and down as they passed.

‘We need new clothes,’ Ada said.

‘And food,’ Rayn added.

‘Yes, of course,’ Ada said, not revealing her suspicion that they would probably not survive long enough for lack of food to be a concern. ‘And then we go home.’

‘Which home? My home burned to the ground.’

‘You can’t be certain.’

‘Yes, I am.’

Ada sighed. ‘We stand a better chance in the streets of Sandcastle, or even in the woods, than in this place.’

‘But how do we find food and clothes here?’

‘I don’t know yet, but I’ll find a way.’

They kept to the streets and open places, fearing what might befall them if they were cornered in a deserted alley. Other women walked the streets. Most plain, dressed in unflattering threadbare tunics, who failed to draw anyone’s attention. There were also the beauties: the nobleman’s daughter, or rich man’s escort, wearing silk dresses that barely covered the bottom third of their breasts. They attracted plenty of stares as they moved as gracefully as was possible in the muddy streets, but nobody seemed to approach them or utter a single unsavoury remark.

A dozen dwarves, a handful of gnomes and a pair of elves added to the mostly human population in the streets. As well as a couple of humanoids Ada had never seen or heard of before. Children played in the streets like in any other city. But their games were different from the games most children play.

The children of Sha’ton were fighting.

Whenever they encountered a group of kids, usually boys, at least two of them would be fighting while the others cheered. As they passed one of those groups, a subtle sensation of familiarity made Ada stop. She gently pulled Rayn’s arm to get her attention. ‘Come, I want to see this.’

They approached the makeshift arena. A stone ring, ten or twelve steps wide, surrounded the broken remains of a fountain. An audience of twenty, children and adults alike, cheered as two boys tangled on the stone. The larger of the two had the smaller boy’s head locked under his right arm, and used his left to tighten the vice even harder.

Ada had seen enough fighting to know that the contest was all but over at that point.

‘Choke him! Squeeze his head off!’ the man beside her shouted.

When Ada turned to establish what kind of person would encourage children to kill each other, she noticed the source of their enthusiasm. The audience made bets on the outcome of the fight, and the blood-thirsty man who had called for the end of the smaller boy’s life opened a leather pouch to increase his stake.

A loud collective groan went up as the smaller boy drove his elbow into his opponent’s groin. As usual, a brief pause ensued until the unfortunate boy felt the full effect of the punch. But then, his grip around his opponent’s head loosened, and his victim managed to break free.

In the excitement, Ada stepped on a loose stone, tripped and fell against the brutal man next to her. He unceremoniously brushed her aside, causing her to land in the ring. Someone grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled her out, and Ada scrambled to her feet and found her place in the crowd. The hard fall gave her another couple of scrapes and bruises, to go with the dozens she got the day before. More importantly, it had provided her with the opportunity to pilfer some coins from the oblivious brute next to hear.

Biting back the pain, she found a young man taking bets on the fight. He had shaved the sides of his head, leaving a stripe of inch-long, blond hair in the middle. His chin displayed a pathetic parody of a beard.

‘Two bits on the little one,’ Ada said and produced two triangular metal pieces from her closed hand.

The bookmaker could not hide a smile as he accepted her bits and handed her two green-dyed strips of leather that confirmed the bet.

As she returned to her spot next to Rayn, she couldn’t help but notice that everybody else was waving red strips of leather as they cheered their chosen fighter in the arena.

‘That’s the boy from last night,’ Rayn said.

‘Sure is,’ Ada confirmed, looking at the smaller boy who was savouring the opportunity to breathe after he had broken free from the headlock. There was a desperation in his eyes, an urge to win that was stronger than any fear of taking on someone two or three years older than himself.

The boy made no attempt at attacking his prone opponent, who was still trying to recover from the blow to his most sensitives. Instead, he put his hands on his knees and breathed deeply, preparing for what was to come.

When the larger boy got to his feet and charged, the scrawny kid was ready.

He grabbed his opponent’s right arm and shoulder and turned his hip and back to meet the impact. Using the momentum of the reckless charge, he sent the body in a vertical arc over his shoulder. There was a soft thud as the elder boy landed flat on his back, forcing the air out of his lungs.

The smaller boy still kept hold of his unfortunate opponent’s right arm, and now he twisted it slowly for additional effect. Shouting insults, the audience threw their red leather strips in the ring. The fight was over.

As the crowd dispersed, Ada exchanged her two green strips for eight bits of silver.

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