The Story So Far
Whilst arriving at the city of Halos, home to the Dark Elven team, the Duskdaggers, the owner of the Mytilan Militantes, Cassandra Thordwall, confesses to her coach, Karsgaard Neuvil, that she has kidnapped Duc Tancred de Baston, owner of a rival team, the Guayamartí Imperials. When Neuvil gets frantic about this outlawry, she tells him that the duke will fetch a sizeable ransom, something that might well interest the officials who will administer the Militantes next match.
After animal hearts have been thrown into flaming braziers perched atop the Eztadio Matadoras, the game begins. The Militantes receive the ball. Quickly, famed witch Dred Curseweaver – Nytmir Curseweaver’s sister – scythes through the Xonyxa defensive line. The witch then heads cross-field for Jacyntha, the ball carrier. Jacyntha ducks beneath Curseweaver’s roundhouse kicks as her teammates spring their trap. Two Xonyxa strikers put the witch down. Jacyntha herself fouls the witch out of the game. The ref sees nothing. Neither does he see anything moments later when, as Ellpay scores the first touchdown distracting players and spectators alike, a Dark Elf pulls a dagger from his boot and stabs Ocllo in the gut.
“He’s got a knife!”
Jacyntha, trotting over to celebrate Ellpay’s touchdown with the catcher in the end-zone, turned around in shock upon hearing Qispi’s shout. Their back-up linewoman stormed past Coach Karsgaard, who lunged in futility to prevent her from invading the pitch. Qispi ran onto the field and leapt onto the back of a Duskdagger crouching above the crumpled form of Ocllo. A whistle shrilled and the ref went running off towards the sudden tussle but he and the other match officials were too late. The Duskdagger substitutes had already lunged from their bench and had also invaded the pitch. They tore Qispi off their teammate – who did, indeed, have a dagger in his hand – just as the rest of the Militantes’ arrived en masse, starters and substitutes all.
Players on the pitch suddenly did one of two things: if they weren’t near the fight, they paired off with a nearby opponent; if they were near the fight, they dove right into the central mêlée. Jacyntha and Ellpay lunged at the dagger-wielder who was finding his feet. Jacyntha stomped on the knife blade before he could use it again and drove her knee into the Dark Elf’s chin. He went flying backwards head-over-heels to the satisfying sound of a crunch of bone. Then another sound reached her ears. The shrill call of the witches and the responding chanting of the crowd; these sounds had changed to something more akin to what she heard in the Sanger back in Guayamartí: a wild egging on directed at modern-day gladiators.
Except a footy match was supposed to have replaced gladiatorial slaughter, a ball was supposed to have replaced weapons. She felt her rage rise inside her. Pierce FUCKING Rosethorn’s famous Pact was supposed to have ended such things.
Just as her fury became a living, writhing thing tinting her vision red, Jacyntha saw another knife slash through the air, leaving a comet’s tail of blood droplets and triggering a cry of agony from Pillcu. Jacyntha’s Queensguard training kicked-in. “Ell!” she yelled, ordering her teammate to guard her flank. She stepped forward and grabbed the wrist of the knife-wielder, the second Dark Elf witch. She ducked a roundhouse kick and stomped on the ankle of the witch’s pivoting foot. The ankle buckled and the witch crashed to the ground. Jacyntha wrenched free the knife and drove her knee into the Dark Elf’s stomach. The witch writhed like a boomslang in an eagle’s claws … but Jacyntha was the eagle. She pressed down on the witch’s jugular with the knife and snarled, “Lie still, you sow!”
The Dark Elf stopped resisting and glared up at Jacyntha. “I will cut your heart out, child,” the witch hissed, “and offer it to Nagra-Lath.”
Jacyntha laughed. “Empty threat! Now lose some hair.” She pressed down on the witch’s chest with a knee and used the dagger to hack off a handful of the Dark Elf’s silver locks.
Just then stadium stewards grabbed Jacyntha by each arm and hauled her off the witch. Kicking legs in knee-length back leather boots and executing a flawless spinning handstand, the witch was suddenly on her feet with the knife in her hand. The Dark Elf dove forward and stabbed Jacyntha in the chest, but Ellpay had grabbed the arm in mid-stab; the blow didn’t pierce Jacyntha’s scale mail armour. It took three stewards to subdue the witch, another two to get hold of Ell, and the three players got dragged-off together and thrown into separate cells in the stadium dungeon.
As she sat on the floor of the dark, dank cell, Jacyntha clutched that fistful of silver hair and imagined a suitable curse that would plague the witch for the rest of her days.
“Do you want to escape Halos alive?”
The referee had leaned in and was hissing at Karsgaard Neuvil under his breath so that no one else could hear. The army of match stewards was keeping all the players and the Duskdaggers’ Witch Elf coach out of hearing range.
“Because, while I can balance out the penalties, it’ll put our lives in danger, yours as well as mine.”
Neuvil gnashed his teeth in frustration, but the ref was right. Strange in-match decisions could be bought – usually – but there were limits to what the crowd could accept if such decisions were to go against the home team. There could be no escaping Qispi’s red card; the first player to cross the sideline always got a red when it generated a bench-clearing brawl.
Neuvil turned to the approaching Dwarf who had landed the job that Rennigan Slythe had in Guayamartí – league Officer for Conduct. He knew Dwarrig son of Dwarran, and he also knew the Dwarf to be honourable, reasonable, and as fair as could be expected in anyone in the footy business. Dwarrig pushed through the ring of stewards and joined the conversation with the referee and Neuvil. He said, “Well met, Karsgaard.”
Neuvil knew enough to honour the Dwarf’s lineage. “Hail to the son of the valiant Dwarran.”
Before Dwarrig could say anything, Neuvil pointed his thumb at the ref and said, “This man and his officials searched the players before they went onto the pitch. Does the league expect me to believe they just happened to miss two daggers brought into play? Look!” He pointed to where the team apothecary, Huaco-chic’ya, was desperately tending to Ocllo. Anahuark stood nearby, clutching a blood-soaked bandage to her left biceps. “Bringing deadly weapons onto the pitch is a serious breach of conduct.”
The Dwarf, chosen for the Halos job because of his hatred of Dark Elves, replied, “Aye, and I’ll look into it and issue a judgement in due course. I’ll also threaten the Duskdaggers with a two-match suspension if anywhat happens to you, but that doesn’t mean Cassdan here is wrong … do you and yours want to escape the city alive or nay?”
“I saw no daggers,” the ref, Cassdan, said.
“Oh in the thirteen sweet hells, come on!” Neuvil shouted. “They are both lying on the ground over there, and guess what? – they are Dark Elf in design!”
The ref shook his head. “The only knife I saw was the one wielded by your thrower, the one that the witch only picked up after having it held to her throat.”
Neuvil narrowed his eyes and hissed through his teeth. “You would risk a duke’s ransom?”
“What is that supposed to mean, Neuvil?” the Dwarf asked, ignorant to anything that happened so recently across the Procura Strait, anything such as the kidnapping of a duke.
“Nothing,” Cassdan said. “It’s a figure of speech and Master Neuvil’s got it all muddled. The saying is ‘king’s ransom’ Neuvil, and it would take more than that to suborn my match officials.” Then he stood erect and brandished a red card thrice to Neuvil. “One for your substitute who was first onto the pitch, one for your thrower, and one for violence between drives.” Then he turned and jogged across the pitch to speak to the coach of the Duskdaggers. Only two red cards were forthcoming.
A shrill cry went up from the witches atop the Eztadio Matadoras: Ha! Karma wynath!
The crowd responded as one loud voice: Karma Hoo!
“Dwarrig,” Neuvil said to the Dwarf as the Officer for Conduct made to follow the ref. “Your counterpart in Guayamartí actively participated in a plot to get this team to fold. Now I come here and find the player who stabbed my captain will not face punishment. You know what that might do to the Pact of Peace through Sport?”
“Calm down, Karsgaard,” Dwarrig snapped. “No war’s gonna break out because of this.”
“You think so? That witch tried to drive a dagger into the heart of Queen Beatriz’ daughter. You do not think that might shatter the Pact?”
The Dwarf huffed. “I’ll include my thoughts on the weapons in the report to the league. And don’t! Don’t for one wee minute, try to imply I’m akin to Slythe. It’s nay true.” The Dwarf stamped off to collect the daggers.
Neuvil stomped over to the treatment table behind the Militantes’ bench. “How is she?” Neuvil asked Huaco-chic’ya. The apothecary hadn’t yet had to face such a challenge on the footy pitch but she was used to battlefield wounds. The Xonyxa looked up into Neuvil’s eyes and gave an ever-so-slight shake of the head. He swallowed. “Then get one of the others back into match shape.”
She couldn’t, in the event, get anyone back into match readiness in time for the re-start. The injuries from the mêlée and the penalties meant that he could only put eight Militantes onto the pitch for the kick-off. The Duskdaggers drew from their bench to field a full eleven.
At least the witches are gone.
At half-time, with the game even at one apiece, Huaco-chic’ya managed to get Anahuark and Laylalla back into the reserves, but a more severe blow then hit the Militantes.
Ocllo had succumbed to her wound.
The Militantes, with their captain dead and their other natural leader in the stadium dungeon, couldn’t overcome the grief that gripped the team. The Duskdaggers ended up winning 2-1.