02: It Was a Hell of a Play

The Story So Far

With the score tied, Star Sylvan Pierce Rosethorn ran towards the end-zone in the final moments of the cup final, with only Jacyntha of the Mytilan Militantes in pursuit. She lunged for the last-ditch tackle; he dodged …

Cassandra Thordwall, notorious pirate and avid footy fan, sold her half of her ship to her brother and came ashore in Guayamartí to start up a footy team of her own. Accompanied by her bodyguard, Umberto, she met the disgraced former coach Karsgaard Neuvil in a local tavern. When Neuvil heard she wanted him to coach her new team, he explained he’d been banned by the local league for match-fixing and that a team cost a lot of gold. She produced a pouch of gold but said she wanted an answer to a question; “Are you clean?”

It was a hell of a play.

Whatever one’s thoughts on hell, Karsgaard Neuvil’s detractors certainly called it “devilish,” implying that some foul power had aided him.

His Hammarskjöld Nordhammers had been drawing 1-1 heading into the final moments of their last game of the season against the Karthini Royalists. Their task was simple: win and they’d qualify for the knock-out round of the Frozen Seas Cup and stay in Risrilda at least one week longer: Lose or draw and the Nordhammers would row home for Val-Hallá the next day. The problem was the Nordmen’s inferior armour had meant they were playing eight against ten. The other problem was the Dark Elves had penetrated deep into the Nordhammer half and the ruck had been advancing towards the goal line.

Neuvil had seen his team lose containment and he had raced to plug the gap in the line. Then he had heard Iva Thorkellson call out. The Hall of Honour coach was waving him upfield, yelling that the team needed an outlet. The chances of causing a turn-over and gaining possession of the ball weren’t good, but Neuvil turned away from the ruck and drifted into the Royalists’ half. You don’t need to teach Dark Elves about the threat of a deep pass, so a Royalist striker had dropped back to help a lineman mark the then-rookie. Being up two players meant being extra-careful wouldn’t cost them their numerical advantage at the point of attack.

Lief Guthrumson had lost his cool and lunged into the ruck in a frenzied whirl, putting pressure on the ball-carrier. The Dark Elf obviously hadn’t known that Guthrumson couldn’t tackle worth shit and had dumped-off the ball to a teammate instead of dodging clear of the block … the only problem being that the teammate in question had a berserker on top of her. She had dropped the ball and it had bounced between the legs of all the of the players in the ruck and come out in front of thrower Snorri Larsson. Larsson had snatched up the ball and had sprinted around the right side of the ruck, looking downfield … and seeing only a rookie marked closely by two opponents.

Snorri had later told Neuvil that the only reason he had thrown the long bomb was because he had seen the ref raising the whistle to her lips. Counting on there being a bit of injury time (there was always injury time in footy, largely because there were always injuries aplenty), Snorri had put every ounce of his renowned strength into the ball, hurling it in a tight spiral.

Perhaps because they hadn’t expected a turn-over, Neuvil’s markers had delayed a split second, allowing him to get up in the air before they had jumped. He had gotten above them and, despite being hemmed in, had come down with the ball. The early jump meant he had also landed a split second before the elves. He had dodged clear of the lineman before they could react. Instead of trying to slip past the striker, his blood lust had taken hold of him; he had attacked the striker and had not only upended his opponent, but had split the Dark Elf’s skull. Then it had been a question of outlasting the lineman as he had dashed towards the end-zone. The lineman had grabbed a handful of shirt and was dragging Neuvil down to the turf. He had slogged on, punching the Dark Elf in the head as he ran. One last slug had broken the elf’s neck and he had sprinted clear, lunging into the end-zone to the trill of the final whistle.

The Dark Elf striker subsequently succumbed to his split skull, meaning Karsgaard Neuvil became the only non-monster to get two kills in one match during the entire season. The fact that they had both came on the same play, with a brilliant catch in double-coverage and the winning touchdown thrown in, meant the Nordman rookie got the player-of-the-match award and an immediate promotion to a suddenly vacant runner position following the maiming of Karlsefni Sveinson.

The Nordhammers had drained dry more than a single barrel of ale during the post-match celebrations that night. And, drawing on the player-of-the-match bonus, Neuvil had tried his first hit of rat-root.

“Are you clean?”

Cassandra Thordwall, who rumour had it was a pirate, asked him over two decades later in the Luffing Lateen, a public house just off the Guayamartí strand.

What in the thirteen sweet hells does that mean?

For all he pondered the question, deep down he knew. Karsgaard Neuvil had fallen from heights he had never imagined attaining when he was a bairn growing up in Nordhaven and it wasn’t for taking clean footy matches and making dirty, noisome things of them. He had fallen low for making a dirty, noisome thing of himself. Drink and rat-root; the fonts of all evil.

“We are in Guayamartí,” he said by way of explanation to the woman sitting across from him. He tugged at the breast of his blouse and continued, “I am sweating in this tropical heat. I walked through the entire Barrio to get here and likely picked up a new herd of fleas doing so. I am consorting with pirates. Of course I am not clean.”

Thordwall was striking, but not in the way men usually described women as striking; she looked like she was used to striking people. In response to what he said, she narrowed her dark eyebrows and her lips drew a thin line across her face. She suddenly looked on the verge of striking him. “I am no longer a … mariner,” she said. “As of today, I am an owner of a football team, one I expect to make the finals on a regular basis.”

He couldn’t help but smile. “You do not own a team. Listen, a team is built over years, not cobbled together on a whim. Now, I grant you that pouch there will secure the services of some thick-skulled men willing to put on a uniform, bask in the glory of walking out onto the pitch under the shadow of the stands, but I guarantee you, they will not be basking in glory walking off the pitch. They shall be lucky if they can still walk at all.”

Thordwall smiled. “Who said I wanted you to hire men?”

It was Neuvil’s turn to narrow his eyes. He didn’t reply immediately, instead thinking of where they were in the world. “Geckoids? Exotherms are all strange creatures, particularly Geckoids, and they notoriously only play well for their own. Even I could not coach them.”

She shook her head. “No, not Geckoids.”

“Orcs would tear you to shreds. None of the elven races would work for you …” He leaned forward, “Some of your pirate mates? Aye, they might do.”

“I was a mariner and I thank you to remember it. And no, my former crew is still gainfully employed by my brother, a successful trader.”

“Hmmm … did you pick up a shipload of my countrymen, by chance? Nordmen make great footy players.”

She sighed. “No, I did not sail to Val-Hallá.”

“You are not thinking of Halflings?”

“No, not Halflings,” she said.

“Good, because you would never reach a final with them. What do you have in mind?”

“I don’t want men, I said. Did you not think that perhaps I’d want women?”

“Oh.”

She arched a black eyebrow at him, making him think he should say something more.

“Are you thinking about those women warriors from that queendom in the NitGat Jungle? What are they called?”

Thordwall nodded. “Xonyxas.”

“Aye, them. Well, I suspect Xonyxas would work for you, though I hope you know some you can reach out to. But I can tell you, I have come up against some nasty ‘Nyxas teams, but they usually do not do so well once they come up against armour, especially Dwarves.”

“That’s where you come in,” Thordwall said. “I’m not hiring one of the best coaches in the business for nothing. You’ll make them better, more resilient.”

“Ah, there you err,” Neuvil countered. “I could make them more resilient, but I remind you, I am not in the business. Not anymore.”

“Didn’t you say the Hierarchs had cleared you of match-fixing?”

“Aye, I did. But I also said that some others had not … the League Governors, for some.”

“I have a plan for that,” the striking woman said as though commenting on the monsoon rain that had swept in to engulf Guayamartí. She paused while the public house owner, Sam Gosling, went about closing the shutters and lighting tapers in the ensuing darkness. The denizens of the Barrio flooded into the tavern, escaping the torrent, but Umberto directed them to tables on the opposite side of the room. If Gosling didn’t appreciate having half his business closed off, he wisely kept his mouth shut.

Thordwall only explained further after her bodyguard gave her a nod. She leaned forward and said, “I will not be the sole owner of the club. A … consortium … of interested partners in my former trade are willing to guarantee certain … trade concessions … that should sway three of the governors.”

“That will not be enough. You will need one more to overcome the two local clubs; they swore I would never coach again on this side of the Sommer Sea.”

“I have a plan for them,” Thordwall said.

Neuvil noticed Umberto had grown twitchier, as though expecting something. He turned his eyes back to the woman. “And what is your plan?”

“I made sure Eguardo Giamucci would know we were meeting here this afternoon.”

“You what?”

That was when the assassins struck.

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