Copyright © 1999 by Michael O’Brien
From the “Lonely Lozenge Guide to Nochet”, by Beardless Beornie Oban (Rough Guide Scrolls, Mirin’s Cross 7/48)
The Hippodrome is, to perhaps even a greater degree than the Great Temple of the Earth, the focal point of Nochet society. It evolved from the contests of the Year Sons cult, in which males would strive among themselves to be selected as annual consort for the Harvest Queen, (much like the competitions which still take place in certain primitive Orlanth/Ernalda worshipping cultures today). Each competitor undertook a series of tests to prove their martial prowess and their physical potency.
What with the Pharaoh’s debasement of the Corn King cult, these events are now almost completely secular in nature, much to the chagrin of the city’s conservatives. Most of the tests have long since been forgotten, although the tremendously-endowed herm statue at the southern corner of the track is a reminder of the days when the males of the city strove vigorously to prove their virility before the Earth Queens. So too are the ludicrously priapic codpieces worn by chariot racers as make their grand entrance into the arena: souvenir replicas can bought at many of the concession stands, and make an amusing gift to take home.
Although chariot racing is the only contest left, over the centuries it has evolved into the complex extravaganzas of the present. It has become a passion, for male and female alike, and a visit to the arena on one of the many race days is a highlight of one’s stay in Nochet.
The Nochet Hippodrome is built on what was originally a broad expanse of open ground just beyond the city’s bounds, although the Eastern stand is now incorporated into the city’s defenses and its walls are manned by militia from the current leading faction. It has been built and rebuilt several times; the present-day structure was erected late last century, after the old Hippodrome was severely damaged in what the official histories call an “earthquake”. In fact, the whole hippodrome structure was undermined by subsidence. A complicated series of tunnels, chambers and galleries were found under the rubble, and all the evidence pointed to the insidious Krarsht cult. Indeed, there had always been whispers and rumours of the Underdrome in the catacombs beneath the arena, where all manner of depraved delights and vicious entertainments were available for the right price. Rough Guide Scrolls has been unable to verify these rumours.
Before construction began anew, the tunnels were either blocked off or flooded, though those involved in this operation recognized its essential futility. Some even protested that they were forced to finish their work before all the openings had even been detected, raising questions about Krarshti infiltration in the highest levels of government. The Matriarch posts guards at some of the more obvious openings now. Uroxi, Orlanthi and other fame seekers occasionally enter the tunnels to slay the chaos they say is there, and sometimes they don’t come back.
The Hippodrome seats nearly 40,000, and, prior to the recent strife, there were even plans to increase the seating capacity by another 8,000. In the old Hippodrome there were clearly defined sections for male and female patrons, but when it was rebuilt the seating was largely desegregated. No male, however, has yet tried to seat himself in the Mistresses Tier, unless invited as a guest of a noblewoman.
Custom demands that only males be allowed to perform or compete on the Hippodrome floor; because of the ancient connections with the Year Sons cult, it would be considered irreligious (not to mention demeaning!) for a woman to even walk on it. Nevertheless, this law has been circumvented for some time, because this ruling technically applies only to females of the city. So, foreigner women have taken part in spectacles and performances here for decades, and only recently even some less-than-reputable women of Nochet proper have appeared on the Hippodrome floor.
There are five factions at the Hippodrome, which were originally named for each of the seasons. Each faction also corresponds to a specific Husband-Protector of Ernalda, although these connections are no longer considered relevant. Of the five factions, two – the Blues and the Greens – are predominant. The Reds and the Yellows are less so, and the White faction is almost defunct.
The factional ties to their traditional cults are fairly tenuous. For example, the Green faction is one of the strongest, yet is by custom connected to the god Flamal, a deity which is barely worshipped by the common citizen. Perhaps this is a secret to its strength: Greens have no theological axes to grind, as they see their relationship to Flamal as irrelevant. The Blues, who count Magasta as their patron deity include among their numbers plenty of the fisher-folk it is true, but then, so do the Greens, the Yellows and the Reds.
In contrast, the White faction, related to the air god Orlanth, is barely active, and has not fielded a racing team in a decade. Unlike the others, the Whites were fanatically loyal to their traditional deity and this was the key to their downfall. A generation ago, the Whites were the predominant faction in the city, particularly amongst the male folk. Perceiving them as a threat to the social order, the Matriarch took offence at their presumptuous manner and began a campaign of active persecution. Its leaders were imprisoned for a variety of offenses (many of them genuine) and its funds and assets seized. The resentment of the Whites boiled over, culminating in the terrible Machismo Riots of 1599, which almost cost the Matriarch her reign and which were suppressed with considerable savagery by her loyal Axe Maidens.
After the excitement died down, many Whites prudently switched allegiance to some other faction: it was no longer safe to call oneself a White. The stigma has lessened somewhat over the years, and today there are old White stalwarts who talk about getting the faction going again. Ten years ago, everyone was truly surprised (and some were genuinely delighted) when a young stableboy decked his chariot and team in white, joined the other colours at the starting post, and, racing without the reins around his waist, came a creditable second. This boy was, of course, Suirasileb, and that day he earned the name “the White Prince”.
The Red faction was recently taken over by foreign interests, in fact merchants from Peloria who set aside the faction’s Darkness origins, claiming the colour instead for our glorious Red Goddess! While this regrettably caused a few defections, the Reds are gaining a growing number of new supporters, lured by the superior charioteers and horses Lunar money has been able to buy. Some of these drivers and teams have come all the way from distant Pent and the Redlands, by way of Tarsh! While some disgruntled Zorak Zoran aficionados are said to be talking about establishing a new faction, the Blacks, now that their Red faction has seemingly ‘sold out’ to the Lunars, we urge any visitor from the Empire to “cheer on the Reds” when they visit the Hippodrome (avoid sitting in Bays 11 – 14 and especially Bay 13, where most of the malcontented ex-Reds congregate).
Most of the charioteers at the Hippodrome are slaves, owned by individual members of the various factions, or by racing syndicates (that sometimes spread across the factions). A charioteer may earn his freedom over time, and many charioteers are freedmen or free citizens. Males of noble rank are forbidden to compete, except on certain prescribed race days.
The best charioteers are the idols of the crowd, even though the most famous among them are often slaves. Statues are erected depicting them, songs and poems are composed in their honour and children are often named after them. Naturally, the more conservative of the matriarchs consider the idea of otherwise decent women swooning over such men disgusting. Despite this, the stands at the Hippodrome reserved for the Earth Priestesses are always full to capacity on race days, and among their number are the sport’s most vociferous supporters.