The Story So Far
In revenge for having paid star freebooters to play for the Stonecarvers against the Mytilan Militantes, owner and former pirate Cassandra Thordwall hatches a plan with her brother (and as yet active pirate) to raid the villa of Eguardo Giamucci, owner of the Wharf Rats. They break into Giamucci’s home and ransack it, beating up most of the spice merchant’s minions.
The raid was timed to coincide with a team party meant to unveil the Militantes to the masses just ahead of the footy season. There, coach Karsgaard Neuvil reflects on how building a fan base is critical for turning the Eztadio de Sanger from a hostile cauldron of intimidation into something inspiring. Into the party crashes a gang led by Neuvil’s nemesis, Rennigan Slythe. Slythe informs Neuvil he has just come from helping throw Cassandra Thordwall into gaol.
“You’ve got a friend on the pitch. The hat’s the signal.”
Neuvil nodded, took the scrap of paper back from Jacyntha, and crumpled it up. “Thanks.”
She smiled. “I could teach you how to read.”
“I could teach you how to hold your ale. Don’t think I didn’t notice how awful you were in training yesterday.”
She flushed, sheepish. He softened the blow with a smile. He hadn’t smiled much since that gutter-turd Slythe had barged into the Luffing Lateen. And thinking of turd, it had been one steaming pile of bad news after another: Thordwall in a dungeon, Slythe the new league Officer for Conduct – whatever in the thirteen sweet hells that was – a league investigation into Militante off-field conduct, the panic of a deadly snake escaping its basket at the temple during pre-game worship (the viper was later discovered and returned to its basket without anyone getting bitten, but the whole thing had shaken Neuvil more than he cared to admit), an attack by Wharf Rat hooligans on the carriages that brought the team to the Sanger and all the frayed nerves such a thing entailed, and finally news of a poor turn-out of Militantes’ fans.
But then an anxious young lass had knocked on the door of the changing room had hand him a folded up scrap of paper. She had then bolted as though the women in the room were vipers like the one the players had let escape earlier in the temple.
Maybe the winds are changing?
“Listen here!” he yelled, bringing the room to sudden silence. “You have been here to the Sanger before so I need not tell you how the ground you enter today is holy. The gods listen to us in temples but here … here they cheer for us.
“But only if we please them.
“When you walk out the tunnel, it matters not how full the stands are or who the opponents are. All that matters is that you are under the eyes of the Viper and the Jaguar, the Val-Kyrries and the Norns, the Primactor and the Spiritbinder. They’re all here, even the Dark Elves’s most foul Nagra-Lath. The cheering of the fans … even the ones cheering for the Wharf Rats … is the breath of the gods, the trill of the ref’s whistle their call to battle, the clash of armour on armour their pounding heartbeat.
“Shall you cower before your gods? Hah! That Viper of yours would strike you down! … not actually, Belyna, keep that thing where it is. So, you shall not cower. How then shall you meet your gods? When I took to the pitch, I met them poised on the balls of my feet, a spark in my eye, and a snarl upon my lips. Now get out there and make the Jaguar proud of you. Make him …”
“Her!” twelve voices sounded in unison.
“… make her shower her blessing upon you because you are brave. Go … and enjoy yourselves.”
The women cheered and stormed out of the changing room. Neuvil heard the roar from the stands as the first Militantes emerged from the tunnel into the sunlight.
Neuvil gave a last look around the almost empty changing room. Only Umberto was there, looking worried, no doubt fretting that his boss would miss such a portentous event in the life of the new team. The bodyguard said, “I hope the boss gets to see the match.”
“So do I, my vinr,” he replied, using the Norseman term for friend. “Come. Let us go coach.”
Umberto snatched up his tricorn and handed it to Neuvil. “You’re going to need my hat.”
Neuvil stared Umberto in the eye for a long moment, then he took the hat. He might not know how to read, but he knew how to read people, and he also knew how to signal a vinr.
“Yes m’lords, she was at the party.”
Good ’ol Gosling. You’ve just earned yourself another post-match celebration in the Lateen.
Cassandra Thordwall stilled her features as the Inquestor pressed the owner of the dockside pubic house. “Why, then, did no one else swear to seeing her there?” The woman looked furious that a witness had come forward to provide the suspect a crossbow bolt-proof alibi.
Gosling shrugged. “Can’t speak for anyone else, m’lords. I saw her plenty.”
“He’s lying,” said Rennigan Slythe. Even if she dodged this trouble, that he was now the league’s Officer for Conduct would be bad news moving forward.
Thordwall’s advocate cut in, speaking directly to the Inquestor’s boss, the Procurator, “Your woman doesn’t have a shred of corroboration to back up Giamucci’s slander. It’s clear what the motive is here; the owner of a rival club is undermining an opponent before a big contest. I’m leaving this dungeon and taking Mistress Thordwall with me. Should anyone impede me, the Hierarchs themselves will know you’ve acted unlawfully.”
The Procurator gave a curt nod and waved his hand as though swatting away a fly. The Inquestor looked ready to rip the head off someone. She snarled, “This isn’t over. I’ll be digging up every possible witness to your robbery of Don Giamucci’s residence.”
“Good luck with that,” Thordwall snapped. They left the bowels of the Forteresa Almenara and emerged into the sun. Thordwall gave a shiver as though her body was shrugging off the bone-gnawing dank of the dungeon where she had passed the last day and a half. It was hot and humid … typical for port cities on the Sommer Sea at this time of year … but neither too hot nor too humid for footy.
And she might just get to the Sanger in time for the kick-off.
A Club thumping into an Exotherm’s skull.
That was what the kick-off sounded like to Jacyntha; the skulls of those damned big lizards were hard and had hollow chambers running through them, making an echoing thump when they got brained in battle.
She saw the ball sail high into the azure sky, arcing above the far curve of the Eztadio de Sanger with its ranks of roaring fans. The noise faded from her consciousness as she tracked the ball’s flight. It made top-over-bottom revolutions, the Wharf Rat kicker having added a back-spin; she couldn’t let it bounce. She backtracked, keeping her eyes locked on the boarskin and sensing her friend Ocllo taking up formation in front of her.
Use the hands not the chest.
Coach Karsgaard’s advice was sound and she made the catch just in front of the Militantes’ end-zone not five paces from the left sideline. She took her first look upfield; her sisters had pushed up the right flank, just like Coach wanted them to, and those on the left gave way in the face of some fierce blocking.
She headed forward, angling to the space on the right, Ocllo covering her left flank. There was lots of movement ahead of her but the only shape she could identify was that of Yupanki, the Wharf Rats’ Ogre, who had barged into middle of the scrum, sending Belyna flying. Ocllo gave a wave and Jacyntha suddenly saw why; the thrust along the line-of-scrimmage had bogged down … she’d gain nothing by moving too close now. On the left, the line gave way and piebald grey-and-white-clad players swept around the edge of the line.
Look for the gap and hit it.
But no gap was opening up. The Wharf Rat centre was holding, anchored by Yupanki swinging his fists left and right. The sisters on the right had put down a few opponents but the opposition reserves had moved in, which was no bad thing and was in-line with Coach’s game plan. He had told her, “You’re a thrower, so throw if you have to.”
Brave now. Brave like that stinking Rodentien who conned me.
The Militantes’ line gave way on the right and Yupanki surged forward up the middle. A trio of Wharf Rats came at her cross-field from the gap in the left. The smallest hung back, waiting for the ball to pop loose. Ocllo marked the middle one and Jacyntha dodged clear of the third.
Now or never.
Jacyntha darted to the ruck and threw the boarskin in a lob so as to get it over Yupanki. So busy was he thrashing around that he didn’t see the pass. Jacyntha couldn’t see whether Karolyse got under the ball but she had confidence in her cousin and she had a more pressing matter to attend to; Yupanki surged free of the ruck and swatted at her.
The Ogre’s big hand smacked her shoulder pad but she dodged clear of the worst, spun around using the hit’s momentum to full advantage, and landed on her feet, just like the Queensguard recruiters had claimed she couldn’t do. Well, she’d done it, hadn’t she?
The hue and cry went up from the Wharf Rat bench, “Screen! Screen!”
Now was the time for these men to learn what a woman could do. A diminutive catcher was sprinting back around the flank to help track down Karolyse. He was keeping well away from danger by hugging the sideline. Jacyntha targeted him. She dodged away from Yupanki and shoulder charged the catcher right into the ranks of fans. A roar went up from those stands. She hadn’t carried along far upfield when the crowd noise again flooded over her … mostly a sonorous groan sprinkled with some isolated cheering.
Play to the whistle.
Yupanki looked around, his gaze washing over her; he looked confused, always a risk with those thick-headed brutes. Jacyntha’s and Ocllo’s eyes met. They had been friends so long they could read each other’s thoughts and they couldn’t help but grin. They lunged at the Ogre, getting unexpected help from Belyna, who had recovered after Yupanki’s earlier stunning blow. They went for his knees. The Ogre toppled backwards and slammed into the ground. Belyna, obviously angered at Yupanki’s earlier treatment of her, lifted her boot.
Not a foul?!
The ref was right there! Jacyntha yelled, “No!” but it was too late. Belyna’s boot came down on the Ogre’s hand to an audible crunch of broken bones and an even more audible wail of agony.
“Ref! Foul!” the Wharf Rats’ coach screamed from the sideline, waving his arms and pointing at Belyna.
The ref raised his whistle to his lips, glanced to the Militantes’ bench where Coach Karsgaard was waving the team upfield with Umberto’s tricorn hat.
He blew the whistle but didn’t call a foul; rather, he signalled that a touchdown had been scored.
Jacyntha looked from the bench to the end-zone; Anahuark stood, every bit the mighty Xonyxa warrior, on the far side of the goal line, one fist planted on her hip, the other raised to the braying fans, the ball set on the ground in front of her.
The Wharf Rats stormed the referee; the match officials came in to support their colleague on the pitch, and a shoving match broke out between them all. The opposition medical team carried Yupanki off to the infirmary; the poor brute’s ear-piercing wailing made Jacyntha feel suddenly sad.
On their way back to kick-off formation, she put an arm around Belyna’s shoulders and pulled her sister close. “I’m not sure what happened there,” she said, “the ref was looking right at you. But keep control now. Cold as ice, remember, just like in Queensguard training. We can’t have you red-carded.”
Belyna, though still angry, flushed and nodded. “Yes, Highness.”
“Hey! Cut that out, unless you want me shipped home.”
Belyna nodded. “Sorry.”
As the teams lined up along the line-of-scrimmage, Jacyntha looked around her, an idle gaze turning to awe as she realized that although the Militantes’ supporters’ sections weren’t full, there were thousands of people cheering on their Xonyxas. Cuxi-Mikay kicked the ball high and far, and those stands roared again, louder by far than the jam-packed Wharf Rats’ side of the Sanger.
The Militantes made it to half-time 1-0 up.
“Did you lot think a mere dungeon could keep me away?”
The half-time team talk had brought them an unexpected and welcome surprise. “Nothing would keep me from witnessing my team’s first game,” Mistress Cassandra Thordwall said. She looked no worse the wear to Jacyntha.
“You all keep playing hard and we’ll have a hell of a celebration tonight in the Lateen. What’s in the basket?” Oddly, Mistress Thordwall didn’t recoil about hearing the answer. She simply had Belyna lift the lid, had a look and said, “It’s called Chico? I wouldn’t want to meet Gordo.”
Cuxi-Mikay kicked off the second half, knocking the ball deep. Too deep. It sailed out of bounds and the match officials handed the ball to the Wharf Rats’ thrower before blowing the whistle to recommence play. That mistake hurt them; the thrower lined up behind that pair of strong veterans and the Wharf Rat strikers took it in turn streaking forward to hurt the defenders one after another. Ocllo was the first to get injured, then Cuxi-Mikay and Anahuark. Belyna and Karolyse got their heads rung and needed treatment. Only Cuxi-Mikay took anyone down with her, injuring an opposition thrower. With three of the four Militantes’ strikers out, it was only a matter of time before the Wharf Rats scored. Luckily they were pushing for the win not a draw, so they didn’t waste time using their superiority in numbers to beat the Militantes to a pulp.
The touchdown transformed the Eztadio de Sanger into a living, writhing thing. The Wharf Rats’ supporters’ sections roiled with aggression and noise, but even the Militantes’ fans stepped up their cheering.
Pillcu came on to bolster the numbers, but the Militantes were still only seven against eleven. Things got worse when Jacyntha bobbled the ensuing kick-off. It had been a short kick and she’d had to sprint forward to get under it. When the ball came down, she let it hit her chest and it bounced straight forward a dozen paces. She dashed after it but so did a pair of men, all three of them diving on it at the same time and none of them gaining possession. It bounced up into the arms of a Wharf Rat catcher. In the blink of an eye, the Militantes were down 2-1.
Belyna and Karolyse were still in no shape to go back onto the pitch so Coach Karsgaard beckoned Jacyntha over as the referees herded the Wharf Rats from their end-zone celebrations towards their half of the field. Before he said anything, she yelled over the omnipotent din, “I know coach, use the hands not the chest. I’m sorry.”
“OK, well, I need you to use your head now too,” he said, his face stern. “Hang back. Look for Ell to come open on the right touchline. Not before. You shall see the moment.” She didn’t have the chance to ask him how she’d know because he pulled over their catcher, Ellpay, and seemed to have a heated argument with her. All she heard was the end as Ell came stomping onto the pitch in a huff, Coach Karsgaard yelled, “It comes from the boss. Take it up with her!”
“What was that all about?” she called out to Ell as they got into place to receive the kick-off but there was no time for a reply because play recommenced. This kick-off went deep; now they were in the lead, the Wharf Rats were looking to kill the game. Two of their strikers, each escorted by a catcher, flooded around the edges of the much-reduced, five-woman line. Ell fielded the kick-off and handed Jacyntha the ball before heading upfield. Jacyntha held back as instructed, watching the strikers close in on her, her hearth thumping in her chest as the pair on the right veered around Ell and came on full tilt towards the Militantes’ ball-carrier.
Four! Four of them!
But four coming towards her meant the odds were better on the line; seven on five, with Ell floating free. But Ell tacked left, not right, meaning Jacyntha needed to keep her pursuers busy for a while. She shifted left, looking for as much space as possible. The catcher on that flank held close to the sideline to prevent her breaking around the Wharf Rat containment. As they closed, she saw that her sisters were holding up on the line.
The striker came at her but she dodged away, curling left and then spinning back towards her own end-zone. She relied on her speed, leaning into her sprint, spinning clear of another diving lunge. Suddenly the second striker was on her, with that second catcher also keeping containment. She took a hit, dodged aside, and slipped under a block from the first striker. She squirmed free using Umberto’s swim move, which the strikers hadn’t anticipated. A catcher came in from the right … and looking at him, she saw Ell running to the right sideline waving her arms.
Then Jacyntha did something neither she nor the catcher expected. So outnumbered, the man never imagined she’d throw a block, but she did, putting him to the ground. She dashed forward, readying her throw as the other catcher moved to intercept her and as the strikers sprinted in pursuit. Ell was open, but the line ahead of her had collapsed and the Wharf Rats were moving to block her path upfield. A pass to Ell now would be foolish, but just as she was going to pull back the ball and take on the catcher, she heard Coach Karsgaard yelling, “Now! Now!”
She sprang into the air, twisted her body, and put every ounce of strength into the throw. It shot out low and hard, giving only Ell the chance to catch it, but making it a harder catch. Ell reached out her left hand to grab the ball but only deflected it. She kept running and got under it as it came down again, hauling it in as she dashed up the sideline towards three Wharf Rats looking to take her down near the Militante bench.
That was when Cassandra Thordwall kicked over Chico’s basket, spilling the viper onto the sideline. Even over the roar of the crowd, Jacyntha heard the terrified shrieks of the Wharf Rats as they recoiled in horror. Ell sprinted into the gap, putting a reasonable space between herself and Chico, but she knew, as did all the Militantes, that Chico was a lazy, well-fed thing (he usually dined on the non-Human sort of wharf rats, as fate would have it). The snake, likely afraid, slithered back into its basket after Ell had proven herself no threat to him. The defence never recovered.
There was an argument, of course, and it nearly turned violent, but as Chico hadn’t actually crossed the sideline and onto the pitch, Coach Karsgaard insisted the ref’s hands were tied. In the end and thinking back to that non-call on Belyna for her foul on the ogre Yupanki, Jacyntha wondered if the referee hadn’t wanted to claim his hands were tied.
With only six Militantes left on the pitch and facing a full-strength eleven, Jacyntha herself kicked off, but they only needed to hold off the Wharf Rats for mere moments before the whistle sounded, bringing an end to the game.
The Sanger erupted like a volcano on one of those Fire Islands across the Strait of Ash from Guayamartí. Against all expectations, the Mytilan Militantes had come from behind against the heavily favoured Wharf Rats to draw their first regular season game 2-2.
Despite the sacrilege exploiting Chico in such a way represented, the Militantes celebrated in front of their enthusiastic fans. And during all the celebrations, Jacyntha noticed that Cassandra Thordwall wore the smuggest smile one could imagine as she clapped, looking in the direction of the Wharf Rats’ owners’ box.