03: Daggers Scythed the Air

The Story So Far

Karsgaard Neuvil had risen to prominence on the back of a brilliant play that had swung a must-win match from defeat to victory. With his player-of-the-match bonus, Neuvil bought his first-ever hit of rat-root.

Cassandra Thordwall, former pirate and hopeful footy team owner, discusses starting a team of Xonyxas, famed women warriors of the jungle, with the infamous, and banned, former head coach, Neuvil. When Neuvil points out the ban on his involvement in the local league, she assures him she has a plan to overcome all obstacles, which includes making sure Neuvil’s enemies knew where and when she’d be meeting him …

Daggers scythed the air.

One hit Umberto, another embedded itself into the snug’s door-frame. Neuvil jumped up and grabbed a stool. Thordwall dove under the table and another dagger thumped into the wood panelling right behind where her head had been a second earlier. Two men and two women surged from the throng that had crowded into the Luffing Lateen, though one clattered to the floor in front of Gosling, who had stuck out a leg and tripped the assailant.

Two assassins lunged for the snug while a third went to finish off Umberto. Neuvil used the stool like a shield to block the opening with his left hand and, although he had agreed to come to the meeting unarmed, with his right hand he snatched a knife from his boot. One attacker stabbed at him, sticking the weapon into the stool’s seat. The second made to clamber over the snug’s short wall. Through Neuvil’s legs, Thordwall saw Umberto’s attacker jab with a long dirk, but her bodyguard wasn’t as wounded as he let on and he leaned back, grabbing the assassin’s wrist as he did so.

Thordwall wasn’t under the table because she was scared; you don’t last long as a pirate if you don’t get stuck into a fight. No, her arrangements with Gosling hadn’t only included reserving the snug, they had included weaponry of various assortments, those that she and Umberto had verified were in place before the meeting. She grabbed the powder-filled package leaning against the wall and pulled a mask over her face. Then she slid her scimitar from its leather sheath that Gosling had tacked to the underside of the table. Feet thumped onto the tabletop above her but she ignored that attacker. Instead, lying on her back, she pushed off from the wall with her legs and shot out from underneath the table. She slid between Neuvil’s braced feet and stabbed upwards with her scimitar into the thigh of the first attacker. The sword cut deeply, fatally, and the assassin collapsed like a sail whose lines had been severed.

Neuvil spun around to face the assassin on the table, swinging his stool and forcing the attacker to hop over it. Luckily the assassin hadn’t accounted for being three feet off the ground already and her head thumped into the ceiling. She fell onto the table in a crumpled heap.

Umberto had subdued his assailant so Thordwall focussed on the fourth, a dirk-wielding blur who now darted into the fray. She spun to her knees, raised the palm of her hand to her lips and blew as the attacker lunged at her through an erupting cloud of grey-green powder. The assassin twisted into the stab, but Thordwall ducked and rolled away, calling out to Neuvil, “Don’t breathe the powder!”

The assassin stabbed again and again, but the third strike was clumsy and it didn’t come close to her. The woman wobbled and then Gosling clubbed her on the crown, bringing the assault to an end.

“Gosling! Back off!” she yelled, scrambling across to the tavern owner and pushing him back to safety. Neuvil, the front of his blouse pulled up to cover his face beneath his wide eyes, retreated as far as he could into the snug, recoiling from the lingering powder in the air, whereupon he thought to check that the assassin lying on the table was truly unconscious.

Thordwall pushed Gosling towards the strand-side wall of the tavern, saying, “Open the shutters.” The pub owner didn’t need to be told twice. His bouncer kept the throng of patrons well back as Gosling opened the shutters, letting a droplet-laden breeze into the room. Umberto stood, his mask already affixed to his face, and he calmly re-arranged his shirt to cover the chainmail lying next to his skin before crossing to the snug and scooping up the pouch of gold coins Thordwall had let fall onto the table prior to the attack.

“What in the thirteen sweet hells was in that dust?” Neuvil asked, his voice muffled from the shirt pulled up to cover his face.

Thordwall said, “Finely ground kazati mushrooms laced with boomslang venom. It’s fast, but settles quickly.” She took off her mask. “We should be okay now.”

He let the shirt drop, revealing an open mouth on an amazed face. “Holy shit. You do not mess around.”

She shrugged, grinning.

“Except you do,” Neuvil added, his face contorted into a snarl. “You messed around with my life!”

Thordwall felt her grin disappear. “Calm down! You’re no worse for wear.”

“Do not tell me to calm down!” His voice had risen to a bellow. He held up his forefinger and thumb a hair’s-breadth apart. “I WAS THIS CLOSE TO DYING!”

She wiped the blade of her scimitar clean using the sleeve of a dead assassin. “We were ready for them, and frankly, if you can’t defend yourself in a tight space anymore, then you’re not the man you were, and certainly not the man I need. But, good news! You did well, though the one on the table did your work for you. The job’s yours if you want it.”

Neuvil’s jaw hung open. She knew she had to act quickly. “Gosling, we need more of that Pintó Macía.” The owner nodded and scurried off. She called out to him, “Oh, and get the procurator to send an inquestor down here immediately to question the surviving assassins.”

She took Neuvil by the arm and pulled him over to one of the empty tables near the shutters, Umberto following closely. The squall had passed and the sun was coming out again. Neuvil’s eyes took in all the activity in the street, obviously looking for new threats. She sat him down and put a hand on each of his shoulders. Leaning down and peering into his eyes she said, “Karsgaard, see that man over there by the palm tree? He’s one of mine. See that one over there beside the cantina? He’s another. The situation is under control. No one’s going to kill you. However, someone is going to authorize your return to the league and that someone is Eguardo Giamucci, owner of the Wharf Rats.”

Gosling returned with the flagon of wine and poured them brimming goblets. “That’ll be two post-match celebrations, Miss Thordwall.”

She nodded and, despite herself, smiled at his temerity. Neuvil downed half the wine in two quick gulps and then asked, “Why would Giamucci clear the way for my return? He hates me.”

“Aye, he does. So much so that he took my bait and now we’ve got him over a barrel. He sent the assassins … and before you do any more yelling, I knew we could take them because I only gave him since mid-morning to contract them; he didn’t have time to get anyone good. Look at them! They didn’t even wear hoods to cover their identity. Trust Giamucci to slap together an assassination attempt using stevedores and not professionals.”

Neuvil settled down, though she could see he was still angry. She nodded to Umberto, who fished inside his vest and pulled out another pouch. She passed him this smaller purse and said, “Here. This is your first month’s pay and a signing bonus. Find us a place to work, train, and lodge players. I’m staying at the Kingfisher. Come ’round tomorrow morning and we’ll talk players.”

He opened the pouch and peered inside. He looked ready to throw it back at her, so she said, “And don’t think I didn’t notice how you evaded my question. If you show up hungover or strung out on rat-root, I’ll move on. I’ve a meeting tomorrow afternoon with …”

“Rennigan Slythe,” he finished for her. “So I am informed.” He glanced up at her and chuckled upon seeing the look on her face. She stilled her features and waited. “Your information is good, I will grant you that, Thordwall. If there is one man in this world I never want to see get ahead in life, it is that self-centred, brute who sees himself as the hero of every story going. Oh, he would love to coach a team of women, he who thinks all women worship him.”

“I shall accept your offer, Mistress Thordwall,” he concluded. “If not just to keep your Xonyxas safe from Slythe.”

THERE ARE THINGS THAT AREN’T DONE.

In a sport that prides itself on its brutality, foot had written laws as well as an unwritten code of honour.

Cynics would say the code of honour was unwritten because the players couldn’t read, and they wouldn’t be far from the truth. Even so, the players largely knew the laws and, equally, knew how the laws could be bent. Only a fool would trust the referees to protect them, so the code of honour kicked in when the odd player was tempted to bend the laws too far.

Hence, hitting a prone player was a foul and a breach of the laws of the game. But in the middle of a ruck, a referee couldn’t spot everything that happened. Fouling occurred ofttimes. Players understood each other; if a heavily armoured orc blocker fell beside you and if you could easily kick him, well, fouling was almost self-defence because if you didn’t keep him down, that guy would get up and clobber you. No player wanted to fall victim to a foul, but they generally wanted to fall victim to an orc blocker even less. Putting the boot in, as it was known, levelled the playing field.

But what if you were one of the big guys? They generally eschewed fouling; why bother stomping on some prone weakling when there were ample upright weaklings to be attacked, all within the laws of the game? There was the odd player, though, who let his fellows take and receive hits, while he circled the ruck looking for those most vulnerable of victims, the prone ones. Such a player was hated by everyone except, perhaps, his teammates. A brute like that could easily end your career, and for most footy players, that would usually lead to a life of penury, begging for a living in temple doorways. Such a player, who spat in the face of the code of honour, became a target for other players.

One such brute, a freak of nature so strong he could take on a troll, had terrorized the Frozen Seas Football League a generation prior and had made a name for himself as the dirtiest player ever to have befouled the sport. Only one referee had ever spotted him breaking the laws of the game despite the scores of opponents he maimed. No fellow player had ever managed to exact revenge for his many, many transgressions; he was too quick, too cunning, too strong.

His name was Rennigan Slythe and he had ended Karsgaard Neuvil’s playing career.

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