05: Temple of the Viper!

Author’s note: I wrote this episode in early January, long before the rise of the Virus Whose Name Shall Not Be Uttered Here. The episode refers to disease vectors (“plague-bearing claws” & “pox-ridden things”). It was never our intention for this element of our vision of our world to get unveiled during a global pandemic and we do not wish to belittle the suffering anyone has suffered because of infectious disease. We sincerely wish that all our readers and their families remain safe (and at home!) and that humanity can collectively overcome the challenge currently facing us.

The Story So Far

After an assassination attempt on infamous footy coach Karsgaard Neuvil, former pirate Cassandra Thordwall confronts Eguardo Giamucci, owner of the Guayamartí Wharf Rats and the man who contracted the hit. They reach an agreement. She’ll change her testimony to authorities investigating the attack and get her brother to stop harassing Giamucci’s merchant ships. He’ll vote in favour of her new team joining the league in the upcoming board of governors meeting and he’ll push to have Neuvil cleared of match fixing allegations. Speaking of match fixing … Thordwall lets dangle a suggestion that prior to their two teams playing each other, she’d be open to discussing the magnitude of her team’s defeat.

Her meetings with three other league governors over the following week produce the results she was seeking; she has her team, the Mytilan Militantes, and Neuvil will be her coach. Now she just has to find players and ready them for the upcoming footy season.

Temple of the Viper! He’s got a dagger!

Jacyntha ducked and felt the blade trim her hair. She dodged to the left and scrambled around the side of Rodentien line. The sewer-slipper spat green phlegm after her.

Protecting Gods, these things are disgusting!

Pre-season training, all two sessions of it, hadn’t prepared her for this. Hidden weapons, plague-bearing claws, matted and mangy fur, gangrenous, scabby skin between the islands of fur, and worst of all, unnatural mutations weeping pus. It all sent shivers down her spine.

But more worryingly, it all distracted her. She had no idea where the accursed ball was. Her sisters were retreating down the pitch, slowly, just like Coach Karsgaard wanted, but the bend-don’t-break strategy depended on flanking the rat things, hemming them in, and sacking the ball-carrier. All well and good, until you couldn’t figure out where the ball was!

A streak of brown fur in a black cloak zipped past her, then another.

More snakebitten sewer-slippers!

Her sisters behind her would have to take care of the pox-ridden things. They were as quick as lightning but not very strong, so the two women in the backfield should be able to handle them … or so she hoped. She helped Ocllo put a lineman …linerat?… to the turf, and then slipped around the back of the Rodentien formation.

There you are, you accursed demon-worshipper!

Way back, on the edge of the Skitteringi end-zone, stood a mangy thrower, drooling onto the ball that it clutched in its claws. None of the ghastly beasts had pulled out of the ruck to mark her, so she sprinted downfield, hoping to put the thing out of its – and her’s – misery. As she dashed forward, somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered the call of a familiar voice yelling. The thrower glanced up, took note of her, and then sneezed a wad of snot onto the ball.

She almost retched there and then.

Girding herself for the mêlée to come, she shook her head clear of any queasiness, bent into her block, and sprang. The ball, trailing droplets of … something… arched over her head as she lunged. The disgusting creature tried to evade the block but her technique was sound and she upended it. It hit the turf in a spray of saliva, blood, and spume, squeaking in agony, or triumph. It was hard to tell.

“Point! Point!” she thought she heard it wheeze. She sneered at it in contempt; it was either concussed or stupid for there was no way on this earth that …

The whistle sounded and the crowd of the Eztadio de Sanger erupted in boos and hisses.

“Stoopit wooman,” the thrower cackled as it got to its feet. “Stoopit, stoopit.”

She looked back up the length of the pitch. Sure enough, two of the damned sewer-slippers were dancing around the Militante end-zone, playing to the tiny, segregated (very segregated) contingent of Rodentien fans who had braved the light of day to take in the match. The mostly human crowd was hurling rotten fruits and vegetables over the palisades separating the opposing supporters, not realizing that the rat-things were happily gobbling much of it up.

As she walked back to the line of scrimmage, she finally recognized the voice she had heard yelling at her; Coach Karsgaard. She recognized it now because he’d come stomping onto the pitch as was bellowing at her from a yard away. “It was a screen!”

She shrugged her shoulders and flung up her arms, “What?”

“He drew you in so he could get you to lose containment! All it took was a quick pass to the sewer-slipper and the thing could zip around the line, THAT YOU WERE NO LONGER ANCHORING! – and hand it off to the other one that was waiting there!”

She was going to hit him, but then she recalled what Cassandra Thordwall had told her when she put ink to papyrus, signing the contract that made her a footy player.

“Pay attention to Neuvil. He actually knows what he’s doing.”

“We got slaughtered!”

“It was just a pre-season match and it was against the defending champions,” Neuvil replied to his employer. “It served its purpose. The girls …”

“Women.”

“… women … now have an idea of what the task is that is in front of them.”

Cassandra Thordwall drummed her fingers on her desk. She didn’t look at all pleased. It was the day after having lost 4-0 to the Ebolicorum Skitteringi and Thordwall had hauled him into her makeshift office, the study of the Kingfisher Inn, where she had been staying.

Neuvil said, “At least we only took one injury.”

“Thank the rotten stars! Bringing on a replacement burned through all our earnings, every single crown!”

Neuvil sighed. He pulled up a stool and sat down.

“Who invited you to sit?” she snapped.

“Hiring a new coach will burn through more than just the earnings from one pre-season match, I can tell you that.” Though there was real menace in his words, he smiled to soften the blow. “You were a pirate, right?”

“Mariner.”

“Mariner, aye. I keep forgetting, what with all these rumours flying around about Pillaging Peggy having come ashore and started up a footy team, right here in Guayamartí would it please you to know?” She glared at him, again warning him that this was a different kind of striking woman. “Let me tell you a story, madame mariner. Before I signed on with the Nordhammers, I was a typical Nordman. As a mariner you would know that our longboats are excellent vessels: quick, resilient, manoeuvrable. You might never have done any pirating, but I certainly did. We would fall on fat barques lying low in the water from all their trade goods and take them for all they were worth. But every now and then, the damned Dark Elves from across the sea would get one of these barques out of Yorvby or Ragganham and load them up with their marines. It was all to suppress us pirates, as you might imagine.

“Well, we jumped one of those bitches one night.” He shook his head, deep in reverie. “We got beaten bloody. In fact, we were lucky we had actually surprised them; it was misty, they were changing shifts, they were looking beyond their prow, not to their wake. We stormed over the rails, took the poop deck … we had their rudder under our control! … but then the marines came swarming out from beneath decks. In the thirteen sweet hells those guys can fight! Between volleys of crossbow bolts, whirling warriors with these long, slender swords, and even fiery bursts of lightning, we took it hard. Svein Bearbeard sent the berserkers forward and then pulled the rest of us back on board Sea Spike. I thought to lock the rudder before jumping ship. By the time they brought the barque around to come after us, we had melted away like snow on a sunny day.

“We lost that day. Afterwards, we did not have any of those crazed warriors touched by the gods, half of us had a wound, the other half had two, or three! As we limped back to Nordhaven, we came across another fat, low-lying barque.”

Thordwall held up her hand. “Don’t tell me; I can guess. You went over her rails, overwhelmed an incompetent crew, and sailed home rich.”

He frowned. “Actually no. They landed a globe of wildfire on us. Sea Spike burned to the waterline and sank.” He took in her look of incredulity and he shrugged. “I got rich on my next sailing. I just had to get ransomed back to my kin first. Those thrice-damned Chivalrons demand a high price, you know, but it gave me half a year working with a pick digging a moat around a castle. Builds muscle, that. Aye, I was a perfect pirate by the time I got home: lean, strong, angry. Like I said, on my next sailing, I got rich off booty. Then I took passage to Hammarskjöld and joined the Nordhammers. Those same moat-crafted muscles made me a damned good footy player.”

“This is the bit where you tell me the moral of the story …”

“So let me tell you the moral of the story.”

“You don’t give up after the first loss.”

“No, you do not. You pull the innards from it, examine them, learn the how and the why. Figure out what you could have done differently. Develop new techniques. Practice those new techniques until they become second nature. When you do not have to think about doing a thing, you are more confident and you will enjoy more success.”

Thordwall kept drumming the table with her fingers.

“Is this going to drive me into poverty?”

He shook his head. “Something tells me you are like Svein Bearbeard; you know when to pull back. No, footy will not drive you into poverty. But, aye, it might drive you mad.”

He rose and left her study, pausing in the threshold to look back at her and say, “There shall be plenty of good days. You found us some promising girls …” he held up his hand to beg her pardon even before she could open her mouth, “… women, and you have me.”

She nodded. “Speaking of that … you’re all well-and-good being the experienced footy coach who’s won four cups in three different leagues including a Twin Seas Super Cup, but you’ve never coached females. Here’s something for you to pull the innards out of and study; don’t yell at the players. Unlike the thick-headed brutes you’ve coached before, these ones use their heads for more than knocking their opponents senseless. They’ve got lots of other options in life. Shouting at them just turns them off the game and makes them want to explore those other options.”

He directed a highly raised eyebrow at her. “I must coddle them?”

“Call it ‘developing new techniques’. I’ll expect to see you practising them until they become … what did you say? … second nature.”

He sighed. “Okay. I shall coddle them.”

She pointed a finger at him. “That better not be meant literally.”

“What does literally mean?”

“Don’t go groping them.”

“I have gotten into trouble enough in my life, Thordwall, but never for that. Women are to be respected.”

She nodded and waved him away.

Neuvil took a mateo from the Kingfisher to the training ground and found Umberto putting the Xonyxas through side-stepping exercises. Neuvil was happy with himself for having thought to ask the bodyguard whether he had any skills to share with the players. They were already pretty damned good at laying down a block and dodging clear of a foe, but Umberto said he also knew a thing or two about manoeuvring past an attack. If the Xonyxas could integrate a swim move or a sideways slide, that would make them more formidable.

He moved over to the packed dirt pitch and watched. Belyna and Karolyse seemed to have grasped the idea and looked fluid in their motions. The others all appeared to be working hard on the basic movements. Umberto called out, “Good, good!”

That was when Jacyntha sneezed, swooned, and keeled over onto her face.

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