The Story So Far
In a fevered dream brought on by the Red Plague, Jacyntha hunts enemies in the jungle near her home, Mytilan. Or, is she the hunted? Could Orc slavers be out there? Havoc Warriors? Exotherms? When her spear transforms into a viper, she shrieks herself awake …
… only to find she is in the care of a haughty Sylvan Elf, Pierce Rosethorn. Rosethorn assures her she’ll recover but that the disease she caught from the Rodentiens nearly killed her. When she realizes Rosethorn is also a footy player, she asks why he helped her, to which he replies he wanted to make sure she didn’t die before he could defeat her on the pitch. So confident is he that he says the moment she lays a finger on him during a game will be the moment he retires.
Later, speaking to Karsgaard Neuvil, Rosethorn learns how former pirate and newly minted owner of a footy team Cassandra Thordwall sailed into Gecko Bay, a jungle port, and recruited Xonyxas (women warriors) denied entry into Queen Beatriz’ Queensguard. Before departing, Rosethorn quips that he’s happy Neuvil didn’t ask him for rat-root, leaving Neuvil unsettled.
“I could put an arrow in his eye.”
Cassandra Thordwall shook her head to let Jacyntha know exactly what she thought of that idea. Then she added, “Here in Guayamartí, that’s called murder.” She looked out between the columns lining the Militantes’ training ground towards the aqueduct. Then her gaze shifted to the citadel atop its cliff before straying to the City Port beneath the Bridge of a Hundred Arches. In fact, her gaze strayed anywhere and everywhere except up slum built climbing the hill overlooking the packed-dirt pitch. Supposedly there was a spy up there in the favela observing the Militantes’ training session. Or, at least, trying to observe the training session … it wouldn’t be easy with the columns lining the sunken dirt pitch and the roof overhead.
“And besides,” Thordwall added, “I’m not sure you’ve regained enough strength to pull a bow so far back.”
“I have!” Jacyntha’s retort bordered on petulant, childish, reminding Thordwall that her Xonyxas were all young … barely adults. “I’d be scorned back home if I missed that shot.”
“I’m not saying you couldn’t do it if you were well, but have you come across a looking glass recently? You’re weak and bedraggled.” Thordwall ventured the quickest of glances up the slope before standing and making a point of looking out across the bay to the rounded shape of the Eztadio de Sanger standing on the hill above the Barrio. “You sure someone’s up there?”
“Behind the acacia.”
As Thordwall turned to sit back down on the bench beside Jacyntha, a lightning-quick look spotted the tree. “They’d scorn you for missing that shot? You Xonyxas are better archers than anyone gives you credit for.”
“Not all of us. Just those of us training for the Call.”
“The Call to the Queensguard?”
Thordwall huffed. “You’re better off here with us.” She waved her own bodyguard, Umberto, over to them. The big man strode along the sideline like a caged-up panther; he liked helping Neuvil with the Militantes’ training but she could see he wanted to be in the action, not just guiding it. Well, if he wanted action, she’d give it to him.
“Don’t look, but there’s an acacia up in the favela behind my back. Umberto! I said don’t look!”
“Jacyntha tells me there’s a spy in that slum up there. I want you to find out who they’re working for.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“Yeah, don’t let them get wise to you.”
“Hmm … no capture and torture, then. Got it.” He trotted off to the groundskeeper’s cottage, from which she knew there was a back door out of sight from the watcher on the hill.
Thordwall got to her feet and gave Jacyntha a pat on the shoulder. “You did well letting me know. Now go get yourself healthy for the next match. It’s only the day after tomorrow.”
Cassandra Thordwall walked out from the shade into the bright, hot sun and set her tricorn on her head. She took a mateo back across the Bridge of a Hundred Arches to the Kingfisher. All the while she pondered who might have sent the spy. She had a hunch about what Umberto would dig up. But if her hunch proved to be accurate, there wasn’t much she could do about it for the moment.
Except borrow some pirates from her brother.
No you won’t, you long-bearded shorty!
Jacyntha did the spin move Umberto had drilled into them. There was no way in the Viper’s Temple that the little bugger was going to put her down. Except, as she slipped clear, an armoured boot clipped her ankle and sent her spilling to the turf.
She hardly had the time to shake her head clear of cobwebs before the Stonecarvers marched past her. They had formed up around the ball-carrier and were marching through the gap that her entanglement had created. She now understood why it was her sisters were struggling to stay on their feet; these shorties could really tackle! It was all very well to move through a block as long as you stayed on your feet. On the ground, she wasn’t putting them down, she wasn’t slowing them down, and she certainly wasn’t forcing them down the channel Neuvil had told them to.
They sing! Well … if you call that singing.
The droning of their chants didn’t drown out the stamping of their boots as they marched into the Militantes’ half. She rolled away from the formation and she got to her feet. Her sisters had prevented the Dwarves from getting many players downfield, but it would only be a matter of time until the shorties got within scoring distance.
Coach Karsgaard yelled to pressure the corners of the formation, so she circled and dove in at the Dwarf on the rear right flank. She fought to get a grip on him – she was better used to stabbing in close combat – but the little bugger was too tough to push and too skilled to allow her to grab him. However, as they wrestled she saw she’d slowed him down; there was now space between him and the ball-carrier at the centre of the formation. Suddenly Belyna slipped into the space and lunged …
She smacked off the ball-carrier’s armour with an audible clang. Belyna didn’t knock him down or push him clear of his teammates, but the little bastard did stop marching. He brought a mailed fist down on his would-be tackler’s head, dropping Belyna with practised efficiency. But as he turned away, Anahuark slipped in, grabbed the ball-carrier by the collar of his breastplate, and yanked him off-balance.
“Bring him down! Drop the bugger!” Coach Karsgaard hollered.
Anahuark heaved, but the Dwarf’s low centre of gravity played in his favour. He shrugged off the woman and stepped forward … only he had been slowed and his protectors had marched beyond him.
The damned shorty wrestling with Jacyntha caught his foot on Belyna and he pitched over. Jacyntha pounced on the ball-carrier like a jaguar. She went for the Dwarf’s arms seeing as Anahuark had tangled his legs. The accursed little guy wouldn’t go down and his hands were locked like a vice around the ball. A Stonecarver striker dove into the fray knocking Anahuark aside.
“Bring him down!” Coach bellowed.
The ball-carrier, freed of Anahuark, shirked Jacyntha off his arms and slammed a shoulder pad against her, turning to escape.
“Don’t let him go!”
Giving one last lunge, Jacyntha struck … but not at the Dwarf, at the ball. She punched and felt it shift. Shorty reached for the ball, but his arms suddenly had Belyna hanging off them. The ball sprang free, spinning towards the Militantes’ sideline. Karolyse stretched for it but only knocked it further sideways.
And right into the arms of a Stonecarver runner.
Shorty took off. Close as they were to the goal line, and with so many Militantes coming around the back of the formation, there was only Occlo preventing him from barging past. And the runner had help; a shorty striker came in from the flank to block Occlo off. But she swam past the block and reached out an arm to snag the runner.
And Jacyntha learned that one-armed tackles don’t work on Dwarves. The runner swatted aside the outstretched arm and trundled into the end-zone just as the referee blew an end to the first half.
Jacyntha and her sisters trudged to the sideline to the jaunts of the numerous Dwarf fans. She looked around her. They weren’t in the Sanger. They were in the Eztadio Menor that dominated the presqu’île dockside. There weren’t towering rows upon rows of seating here. No, between the component stands she caught a glimpse of the Bridge of a Hundred Arches in one direction and Forteresa Almenara standing tall in the other. There was a smattering of non-Dwarven fans, nothing like the contingent the Stonecarvers had brought.
She felt sore. And she wasn’t the only one. In fact, the head-count came up two short. Across the pitch, the Dwarves had cracked open a keg of ale and were cheering as they took turns chugging down tankards of the stuff. None of them looked tired.
Coach Karsgaard clapped as they dropped onto their backsides, some onto the team bench, more than a few just onto the ground. “Good work,” he said. “You almost stopped the bastards. Listen up, they kick to us this half. Keep your distance and get the ball to Belyna like we practised. Get numbers at the point of attack and blow past them. Flood through the gap and spread out to protect Belyna. But if we score, we shall need to kick off to them. You have to remember what I told you; they know how to tackle. We cannot go at them everywhere all at once. We have to swarm the edges of their cage.”
“We can’t get at them without the others coming in to help,” Occlo said.
And so it proved. The Militantes quickly scored their first-ever touchdown, Belyna strolling into the Stonecarvers’ end-zone flanked by Jacyntha and Anahuark. But the rest of the second half was a reprise of the first. The Militantes finished with six players on the pitch and lost 2-1.
The big boss, Cassandra Thordwall spoke to them afterwards, a furious-looking Coach Karsgaard looking on but biting his tongue. “We’re going to give you two days off to rest up,” Thordwall said.
“Heal up,” Belyna corrected.
Thordwall nodded. “That too. But then we’ll have twelve days ’til the regular season starts.” She paused. “You all see that Neuvil here is furious. Well, don’t think it’s ’cause you played bad. I’m proud of you. No, the Stonecarvers have good players. Indeed, they had a couple of too-good players.” She let that sink in.
Jacyntha furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”
“They had two players who’re too expensive for them to hire. Umberto checked and sure enough, they were hired just for this game. One of them was that runner who scored their touchdowns. The field was tilted against us.”
“Can’t they hire who they like?” Jacyntha asked.
“If they had the coin, sure. But the match fees those two charge are beyond the means of the Stonecarvers, though not beyond the means of a certain spice merchant. That’s right, they were hired by none other than Eguardo Giamucci.”
“The owner of the Wharf Rats?” Belyna asked.
Thordwall nodded. “Aye, and the man whose team we play to open the regular season. He wanted you softened up.” She looked every player in the eye. “But I know you aren’t soft, and I have a plan for dear old Eguardo.”