The Story So Far
Mytilan Militantes’s owner Cassandra Thordwall doesn’t understand why her coach, Karsgaard Neuvil is so worried about the team’s next match, against the Jesters. Neuvil explains the Jesters aren’t a joke; they’re a team of mercenaries hired by the league to play the other teams for the pure amusement of the fans. When Umberto asks why they aren’t in the standings (the Militantes are in 4th after one game played), Neuvil explains that the Jesters are so popular, they automatically make the play-offs, playing the 4th place team in a wild-card game for the right to face the 1st place team in the semi-finals. He also tells them that in the event of a tie in the standings, the league uses results against the Jesters to break the tie. Finally, he informs them the Jesters are created by the league to present the most deadly challenge possible.
Neuvil watches on with a scowl on his face as the Jesters arrive in Guayamartí to a veritable victors’ parade. As predicted, this year’s version have been designed to be heavily armoured heavy hitters. Led by the infamous Minotaur Goriada, the team also features two of the nastiest Havoc Warriors to have ever played footy, a pair of Centaurs from a former championship team, and witch Elf Nytmir Curseweaver. As the parade carries on past the Luffing Lateen, league Officer for Conduct and Neuvil’s arch-nemesis, Rennigan Slythe, sits down and confirms the Jesters have been hired for inflicting maximum casualties. Then, handing Neuvil something “to calm your nerves”, he leaves. Neuvil doesn’t need to open Slythe’s packet to know what it contains: rat-root.
“You Viper-bitten double-crossing weasel!”
Anahuark leapt at Karolyse, who ducked but didn’t succeed in stopping Anahuark from driving a knee into the face. Karolyse flew backwards and slammed into the groundkeeper’s stone veranda. Karsgaard Neuvil’s old footy reflexes kicked-in and he pounced onto Anahuark, grabbing her in a bear hug. Unfortunately this had the unintended consequence of immobilizing the woman so that Cuxi-Mikay could lay into her. Cux got three or four good punches into Anahuark’s gut before Ocllo could restrain her.
Neuvil hollered, “Stop this now!”
Umberto put himself between the combatants, though from what Neuvil could see Karolyse wasn’t going to trouble anyone anytime soon. Pillcu had propped the striker up against the cottage wall and held a cloth to her teammate’s face. Neuvil felt his anger rising and he snarled into Anahuark’s ear, “You keep thrashing and it shall be me you will have to worry about, not those other two. Stop it! Now!”
It seemed to be a day for unintended consequences because Anahuark, instead of going limp, squirmed and drove her heel into his damaged knee. He howled in pain and pitched over, but he didn’t let the Xonyxa go. Jacyntha and Belyna grabbed Cuxi-Mikay and pulled her backwards. Cassandra Thordwall stormed out of the cottage and into the middle of the fray. She had a whip in her hand and she cracked it, putting a quick end to the brawl. Silence suddenly reigned. Neuvil, gritting his teeth from the pain shooting through his bad knee, let Anahuark free, scooted on his backside over to the cottage wall and propped himself against it.
“I’m glad I’ve got your attention,” Thordwall hissed to the sullen throng. “First things first: how’s Karolyse?”
Pillcu said, “It looks like she’s got a broken nose, mistress. Maybe even a broken cheek bone.”
“Get her to a physician. Use the waiting mateo.” Pillcu and Ellpay pulled the stricken striker to her feet and helped her shuffle off to the carriage. Thordwall turned to the remaining pair of combatants, she snarled, “Now you two. Give me a reason I shouldn’t fire you here and now.”
Anahuark did not appear intimidated by the former pirate, proof positive that the young Xonyxa had a lot of maturing to do. She yelled so that the retreating Karolyse could hear, “That traitorous capybara sow has been sneaking around with my man!”
Thordwall peered daggers into Anahuark. “Your man … I take it you mean the dark-haired one who made you late for practice this week?” In a flash, Anahuark’s expression shifted from angry to troubled. “I have some news for you about him.” Then she turned to Cuxi-Mikay, “And you? Why shouldn’t I pitch you overboard?”
Cuxi-Mikay clamped her teeth together and offered no reply.
It was Jacyntha who replied. “We Xonyxas don’t force each other to reveal anything about themselves. Such things are up to the individual to reveal when they choose.”
Thordwall narrowed her eyes and looked ready to use the whip on Cux. “Is that so? Well, perhaps that tacks close enough to the truth for me to figure out what’s going on here. Next time you decide you want to act on … feelings … you’re hiding from the world, maybe think about it twice before doing anything stupid in front of your boss.”
Thordwall continued, “Don’t we have a priceless love quadrangle here? Here’s what you don’t know about your man, Anahuark. He was hired by Eguardo Giamucci to seduce both you and Karolyse. Looks like the pair of you fell right into the trap.” Thordwall’s hand holding the whip twitched and the coil of leather shuddered in anticipation of a lightning-quick attack. “You’re stupid, thick girls. And I don’t employ stupid, thick girls. Only grown-ups who can think work for me. Pack your gear. You’re done here.”
The Xonyxas all looked shocked. Jacyntha stepped forward and bowed. “Mistress Thordwall,” she said. “Thank you for ending the fight and reminding us all about the conduct we need to uphold. I beg you, let us Xonyxas sort this out. You’ll be glad of it, I promise you. All of us will be the utmost professionals.”
Neuvil sensed danger and lumbered to his feet. He wasn’t quick enough to forestall Thordwall’s response, “I’ve already sorted it out.”
Jacyntha blinked and said, “There were twelve of us, mistress. If you cut three, how are we to beat the Jesters?”
“The match’ll serve as a reminder of why you’re here, and the reason isn’t to snog with any man – or woman – who smiles at you. Now get your gear on and put in a good practice or maybe this whip will be put to good use.”
All the Xonyxas surged forward to flank Jacyntha and even Umberto suddenly looked worried, interposing himself between they players and his boss.
“Cassandra,” Neuvil gasped out between spasms of agony. “You promised me that Umberto here would be my Thane of Player Personnel. Surely he and I should take the decisions in the interests of the team? Now, can I speak to you inside about pre-game preparations?”
Thordwall glared at the nine players arrayed as though poised for battle but she finally nodded. Once inside she demanded of Neuvil, “What was going on there?”
Neuvil nodded. “Ah, that. I think we have an added complication to confront.” He took a deep breath. “The women were all ready to step in to protect Jacyntha there.”
“Tell me something I don’t know! Why would they protect her and not Karolyse?”
Neuvil grimaced from the pain but managed to reply, “Because Anahuark took us all by surprise … and because Karolyse is not royalty.” He took note of Thordwall’s surprise and added, “I think we might have one of Queen Beatriz’ daughters on our team.”
Give your fear a name, make it something real, then make yourself dominate it.
Jacyntha took a deep breath. “I name you … Maximus. And I am going to dominate you.”
One of the Militantes’ freebooters booted. Hired on at the last minute by Umberto, the woman had proven herself near useless in the one practice session they had managed to hold before the big game against the Jesters. At least she could kick a ball. The other two freebooters were on the line, induced by a purse-full of silver and the promise of a proper try-out should they acquit themselves well. Karolyse was still recovering from a broken nose and a shattered cheekbone whereas Anahuark and Cuxi-Mikay had been suspended by the club for the game, though they were still in Mistress Cassandra Thordwall’s employ.
Looking up at the lowing Minotaur Goriada flanked by her Havoc Warrior escorts, Jacyntha wished she had leapt into the fight at practice so she wouldn’t have to face today’s opponents. The Eztadio de Sanger was jam-packed and she could feel the pulsating energy of the fans through the vibrating turf. They chanted gory songs and taunted the Militantes for being so stupid as to show up to contest the match.
But it wasn’t Goriada who struck first. Witch Elf Nytmir Curseweaver came flying down the left flank, leapt, and kicked Belyna in the head. Jacyntha’s sister stayed on her feet, staggering backwards but Curseweaver came on again, this time her leg sweeping the Xonyxa’s feet out from under her. Then the Minotaur raged and attacked one of the nearby freebooters. With a toss of the head, the beast’s horns gored the woman and tossed her back five paces. Havoc Warriors Daurig Doomgiver and Kwalgi Merdir’Huarg moved in to protect the beast from any flanking attacks.
Jacyntha’s sisters dodged clear of the Havoc Warriors but the Dark Elf strikers came in and provoked a wild cheer as one of them, Oscuro Estab, took down Ellpay. An even louder cheer went up as a Goatyr stomped on Ell as it ran past. Coach Karsgaard’s appeal to the ref went unheeded and the Goatyr carried on downfield.
“Make that mutant pay!” Jacyntha yelled. She felt the burden of leadership; the Xonyxas’ morale was teetering. She needed to shore it up.
She ran laterally to mark the Goatyr while Ocllo came in from the right and struck the beast from behind. It went down in a tangle of limbs and the Militantes’ supporters – those few who had declared for the Xonyxa team – dared cheer the strike. But the creature rolled over and sprang to its feet. It roared at Jacyntha as Centaurs Bryce Bushtramplla and Rory Ropethrorra came stampeding over to provide support, all of which probably explained why she didn’t see Curseweaver coming.
A boot collided with the back of her skull and she blacked out.
She had recovered enough to take in the very end of the match. The Militantes were down to five players and were just trying to escape further harm. The Jesters hadn’t even bothered running up the score while Jacyntha was knocked unconscious, preferring to give the crowd the brutality it so craved. To her great surprise, at some point Laylalla had scored, preventing a shut-out.
And through the groggy haze of her double vision, Jacyntha had the impression that Coach Karsgaard wasn’t quite right, not quite there. He certainly didn’t seem to feel the pain in his knee that had been troubling him so much. He swayed on his feet and kept muttering to himself, “You bastard. You bastard. You bloody bastard.”
The roar that rose from the stadium as the ref brought the game to an end was deafening, but Jacyntha thought it was less for the trill of the whistle as it was for the kisses Nytmir Curseweaver blew to the audience.
The Jesters won 2-1.