The Story So Far
Cassandra Thordwall’s new team of Xonyxas (women warriors from the jungle) play their first pre-season game against a Rodentien team that specializes in rapid ball movement and spreading contagions. Jacyntha – who we previously met in Episode 1 – represses her disgust as she executes the tactics of coach Karsgaard Neuvil. But while she can upend a rat-man thrower, she can’t prevent him from dumping off the ball, and the Skitteringi win 4-0 over the Mytilan Militantes.
After the match, Thordwall hauls Neuvil into her study to go over her team’s disastrous start. Neuvil assures Thordwall that losing happens, and that teams move on, learn from their mistakes, and win on another day. Escaping Thordwall, Neuvil returns to the Militantes’ training ground, where the players are practising manoeuvring past a block. The Xonyxas seem to be integrating the moves into their play, but just then Jacyntha sneezes, swoons, and keels over onto her face.
“this heat could kill!”
Sweating, Jacyntha crept low through the underbrush, spear in one hand, machete in the other. It was hot, hotter than the N’Itgat Jungle usually got. The light was strange … muted, diffuse, as opposed to refracted and verdant under the influence of the canopy high above. This part of the jungle was unfamiliar to her; it didn’t look anything like where her soldiers patrolled around Mytilan. Fronds, big as her torso, dangling off saplings hung at eye-level all around her, blocking her line-of-sight.
Something’s out there!
She hoped it was only a Geckoid … they were strange and quick in attack, but also small and usually afraid of large mammals. Indeed, it was the large mammals Jacyntha was principally afraid of, and she hoped none were stalking her.
Her head snapped around to the right. Was that a growl? Maybe a groan?
She spun her head to the left. There had definitely been a rustle and footfalls!
She crouched down. Had she stumbled onto more than one enemy? Was Mytilan under attack?
Again! A moan from the right! She turned her head to look, but the fronds throbbed, pulsated, growing larger and receding in time to her ragged breathing. So odd.
She heard the footfall again.
Humanoid? Was it an Orc slaver down from the blasted heights of Cuzo? Was it a Havoc Warrior come raiding out of Miranah on the accursed Bahía de las Lágrimas?
Her ears buzzed with more than just the chirping of cicadas or the droning of mosquitoes.
Temple of the Viper! Why is it so damned hot?
That thought made the spear held in her left hand go cold and she glanced at it before shrieking; it was a viper!
The thing twisted in her grasp. She flung it away but it came darting after her, it’s body contorting, driving it forward, its triangular head striking out with its maw agape, fangs glistening from the fatal toxins that would end her.
A spasm racked her body and her eyes snapped open.
“There, there,” a melodic voice cooed. “Do not fret, young one. You shall feel better on the nonce.”
A shape loomed over her. It wasn’t any of her sisters. Coach Karsgaard didn’t speak like that.
She asked who it was above her but only a moan escaped her. A cool, damp towel dropped onto her forehead and hands lifted her head up off the pillow. The figure put a waterskin to her lips and she drank greedily, a cool elixir running down her throat. “Yes, yes, drink, young one. It shall do you good. The Dew of Dreamvine is most efficacious in countering fever, even one brought on by a plaga … a plague.”
After a half-dozen swallows, she glanced up at the figure, still blurry, but taking on form … thin to the point of spindly, long golden tresses growing from the crown of his head while the sides seemed shorn of any hair, glowing tattoos? She had no idea if it was male or female.
Is it an Elf? Is that a rose tattooed on the face?
“We usually take a draft before confronting Rodentiens, but it can counter most of their maladies even if taken post-exposure.”
“Wh … who?”
A long, slender finger from a slim, elegant hand brushed hair away from her eyes and traced the line of her jaw. “Now, now, be careful not to exert yourself. You have been through a difficult few days, I understand. But now that I am here, you need not fear … unless you get between me and your end zone!”
That made her shake her head. End zone?
Oh yes, football. Footy, Coach Karsgaard called it.
She had seen one of his teams play once. The Imperials. In the Eztadio de Sanger during a visit to Guayamartí with Queen Beatriz. They didn’t play much footy in Mytilan; how can one play at proxy skirmishing on a pitch when there were real skirmishes aplenty needing spear and blade? Orcs, Havoc Warriors, Xotherms, Deadlings. But because they didn’t play much footy in her home, the spectacle of the sport in the Sanger had so impressed her as a child.
She found her tongue. “I can’t make you out? Who are you?”
“Ah yes, your eyes are as yet recovering from the Plaga roja, the Red Plague. You were bleeding from the eyes when I first came to see you yesterday. You were perched on a knife edge at that point. Perhaps even a moment longer and you would have been beyond the help of my medicine. But the Dew of Dreamvine helps greatly with the haemorrhaging, and my Song of the Sky and the Spice of Pi’ichu Madrin combat the spread of buboes throughout the body.”
“But … who … who are you? Why are you here?”
The figure seemed to smile. Perhaps male? “Why, I am here to make sure you don’t expire before I can defeat you on the football pitch! And you do not know who I am? What manner of football player does not know of me?”
She shook her head.
“I am Pierce Rosethorn and I am the most brilliant of the stars in the night sky, the glorious breeze that passes through all defences, the Dancer in the Promised Land.”
“You … you are a footy player?”
“Hmmm … your wits remain befuddled, I see. Yes, that is what I tell you now. I am an Elf of the woods, a Sylvan. And not only do my healing arts grace this part of the world, but my exploits on the pitch go unrivalled.” He smiled again, a brilliant thing that shone as brightly as his tattoos. “The moment you lay a finger on me on the pitch is the moment I hang up my boots.”
“You have my thanks,” Neuvil said to Rosethorn.
Rosethorn beamed one of his toothy smiles. He brushed aside a lock of his golden hair that had fallen in front of his eye. “It gladdens me to have been of assistance. If she is as promising as you say she is, then she will rise high indeed. It would be a shame for football to lose her before she could play a game … and no, that disaster against the Skitteringi does not count. Not yet. But the season starts in three weeks. I hope she recovers her strength in time to make the line-up.”
They were in the kitchen of the groundskeeper’s cottage beside the training ground and the sounds of Umberto taking the other women through the drills leaked in past the closed door. A nursemaid tended to Jacyntha down the hallway and beyond another closed door. Rosethorn paused in the action of packing his healing gear into a rainbow-hued satchel. “She is from Mytilan, you say? I thought Queen Beatriz discouraged her folk from the playing of our fine sport.”
Neuvil shrugged. “I cannot speak to that. I can speak to what I know. My boss sailed us into Gecko Bay, where twenty enthusiastic women awaited us. We held a session for them to show me what they could do. Most of them had strong martial skills, which is always promising, and some few displayed good ball control. Now, Thordwall did not tell me everything but I think Queen Beatriz had refused the inclusion of all of them in the Queensguard. These girls … women … are not the sort to take disappointment lying down. Maybe they think success on the footy pitch is a way to gain the Queen’s confidence.”
Rosethorn frowned, clearly pondering that, then he smiled again. “It is of no nevermind. You did well, bringing her here, away from your other players. Isolation is critical in defeating infectious disease. But I would never have thought to advise you that it is more important to keep your players away from the Rodentien.”
“As I said, the players are enthusiastic,” Neuvil replied. “And, believe me, they already know the basics of dodging clear of threats.”
Rosethorn nodded. “Females after my own heart.” He closed the clasp on his satchel and exited the cottage. He paused to watch the practice but Neuvil put a quick end to that, guiding the WoodDancer over to the tall ceiba tree that provided shade for Rosethorn’s magnificent white stallion. The Sylvan sprang up onto the horse’s bare back and gave two clicking sounds. The horse tossed back its head, white mane flashing, and side stepped in an arc around Neuvil.
“Go and wash now, Karsgaard. Burn your clothes.” Rosethorn’s look changed, became more thoughtful. “And let me say, I am pleased you did not ask me for any medicinal rat-root. There may be hope for you after all.” The Sylvan trotted off, casting an appraising eye back across the training ground.
Neuvil swallowed, not having anticipated Rosethorn’s parting comment. The Elf’s visit had cost a great deal, not just in gold, but in resolve.
Only one thing to do. Drill the women. There was a move he wanted them to test.
But first he washed. And then he burnt his clothes.