The Story So Far
The Militantes hold a funeral for their captain, Ocllo. Jacyntha reflects on her last words to her friend: “How could you let him?” It was an unfair accusation she had levelled for not refusing the advances of Pierce Rosethorn, captain of a rival team and then-lover to Jacyntha. She hates herself for not being able to take back the words. She prays for the chance to exact revenge upon Rosethorn and curses the Duskdaggers, Quarrels, Mongrels, and everyone else standing between her and her future, herself included.
Militantes’ owner Cassandra Thordwall holds her coach Karsgaard Neuvil to account for losing two games in a row and falling out of the play-off places. She says their players are weak and accuses him of having made them so. Neuvil admits she’s right. The players are “so young” and not mentally strong. He wonders how Thordwall recruited so many young cast-offs from the Xonyxa Queensguard training, hinting he has a theory. He says recent setbacks have given him an insight: Referring to the Pact of Peace through Sport, the reform that Pierce Rosethorn negotiated a century earlier prohibiting nations at war from participating in footy leagues, he says teams don’t contest games, nations do. The Militantes are having the pitch pulled out from under them because they don’t have the backing of a nation ready to go to war. He tells Thordwall it’s time for her to contact the silent partners in the “consortium” she originally told him supported her. It’s time to threaten the Pact and he suspects her partners have the navy they’ll need.
“There is nary a footy player amongst you.”
Thordwall had ordered him early on – after the first pre-season match – never to yell at the women. Unlike the thick male brutes drawn to footy, she had said, women were smart enough to have other options in life and thus could easily walk away from the team if they didn’t like how they were being treated. So Neuvil didn’t bellow out his declaration. He said it as though he were commenting on the size of a longship or the height of a fjord: dry and factual.
Teams visiting Halos for a run of matches had access to a small training ground in the Foreigners’ Quarter down by the docks. The brisk early autumn breeze blowing in off the Primactor Strait put a chill in the air, but not like his words just did. The Militantes were all gathered around him at the centre of the pitch, a sullen mob if he’d ever seen one, and, he had to admit, his words didn’t improve their spirits.
Good. Time to grow up.
“In the Sommer Sea league,” he continued, “teams play an eight-game season. Most of you have played eight games if we count the pre-season. And yet, who plays like they are no longer a rookie? Who has the mental toughness to put aside thoughts of Ocllo and relish the challenge of overcoming four heavily armoured Orc blockers, an equal number of vicious strikers, Goblins willing to stomp on your throat when those others have knocked you down?”
He walked around the arc of pouting players, limping as ever from his damaged knee. “No one?”
“Ocllo was my a friend,” Pillcu said, getting angry. “She’s dead! I’m grieving. Curse you, Coach, but I don’t want to put aside my thoughts of her!”
Neuvil stopped in front of her. He looked long into her eyes. At first, she glared back at him but then her eyes broke away, glanced further down the line of players. He nodded. “Honesty. That is good, Pillcu. Thank you.” Then he turned away and carried on around the arc. “If we can all be as honest as Pillcu, we will get somewhere. So, in that light, I have a question for everyone:
“What in the thirteen sweet hells brought you to the Militantes?
“Did you think these were pillow fights in fancy dress? You wear scale mail, not silken robes! Footy is a savage thing and you know it.
“You, Belyna, you stomped on Yupanki’s hand! Remember him? The Wharf Rat’s Ogre … you fouled him, you broke the laws of the game to hit a fellow player when he was down on the ground. You broke his hand, causing him to miss two matches and when he got back it hurt him too much to block. The Wharf Rats cut him. He ended up in a wharf-side gang, did you know that? Three weeks ago the Hierarch Guard caught them beating up a warehouse nightwatchman. They hanged Yupanki last week for theft. Did you know that?”
Belyna blinked and shook her head. He jabbed his finger into her shoulder. “All because you fouled him. You control your temper and he still has not only a livelihood but a life to boot.”
He let the stunned silence take hold.
“I do not like those thrice-damned Rodentiens,” he said, “but the Skitteringi thrower that led them to the title last year, he … or she … hard to tell with those accursed things, was a damned fine footy player. Ocllo injured it on our ‘up-and-under’ play. She drove its head into the ground, broke its skull. It lost its place on the team because it could no longer see straight.”
He walked back along the arc of players. “It had a name: Snisneek Griffeciel. Named player-of-the-match in last year’s final. Who in the thirteen sweet hells knows what Rodentiens do to footy players who cannot play any longer? I certainly do not. I do know I thought Ocllo had executed our up-and-under well. I was proud of her. That was the play that convinced me she was a footy player … a real footy player.”
He stood at the centre of the arc and faced his team. “Who is here because they were refused entry to the Queensguard and thought this was a way of proving themselves?” Eyes shifted left and right, looking at their Xonyxa sisters, thinking, assessing. “Well … who?”
Jacyntha put up her hand. He limped over to her and stared down into her eyes. “Yes, you who told me not so long ago that you held no more Queensguard ambitions and instead thought of winning the league.”
“It’s true,” she replied. “I want to win the league.”
“More than you want to exact revenge on Pierce Rosethorn?”
She blushed, appeared to grow angry, but she nodded.
“Good. You could become a very good footy player.”
Then he limped around the arc again. “And footy players understand the laws of the game get broken, they realize their teammates might die because of it, and they know the game goes on! You grieve after the game: AFTER! Not when it happens, not at half-time, not before the final whistle blows! And footy players bury their dead one day and move forward the next. Do you think Xonyxa the Strong set down her famous sword when the first of her warriors died in battle?”
He let that sink in. He limped back down the line of players, “Cuxi-Mikay: you are too driven by your feelings! You are still angry at Anahuark for having a fling with a Guayamartí bravo, so angry you deliberately poison the team spirit. Karolyse: you are too immature to control your impulses not to go after Anahuark’s beau, leading to a broken nose, putting you out of a game for which I needed you but could not select you. We lost that game by the way and might not make the play-offs because we lost so badly. We are currently in fifth place and out of the play-off positions instead of in fourth place and in the play-off positions. We are outside looking in because the Duskdaggers have a better touchdown plus-minus than we do by one sole touchdown. That weighs on me and it should weigh on you.
“Belyna: for a striker, you have not done much striking … the only player you sent off the pitch was through that foul on poor Yupanki. Qispi: you are an undisciplined hothead. Your theatrics cost us this last game. Anahuark: the hardest you have hit anyone was hitting Karolyse in training for having taken your beau while you were cheating on Cux.
“Need I go on?”
Everyone seemed relieved he had stopped calling people out.
“Listen up! The Menace hauls anchor at the turning of the tide. It is taking Mistress Thordwall across Bestedar Bay and into the Wind Passage. Yes, I have asked her to go get us some real footy players from Mytilan. Qispi, you will be on-board when the Menace sails.” Gasps greeted that news. “Any of you who want to be in the Queensguard had better go with Qispi.”
He looked around at the stunned faces. “Who wants to be in the Queensguard? Hands up!”
Three arms moved … but they didn’t move far before Jacyntha yelled, “I don’t! I want to win the league!” The arms hesitated and then fell to the sides of the women who had wavered.
He nodded. “Good. That makes one.”
“I also want to win the league,” Pillcu murmured.
“Then you mourn your friend in private, you honour her memory in public. You do that and you might just lift the trophy someday.” She swallowed but nodded forcefully.
“I shall put it another way,” he called. “Who wants to lift the trophy?”
Arms shot up around the arc … even Qispi’s. Being young, proud, and still stinging from his blunt words, personalities asserted themselves: Cuxi-Mikay tossed a ball in the air and grabbed it with her raised arm; Karolyse draped her right arm over her cousin Jacyntha’s shoulder and pulled in her raised left arm, forming a protruding minotaur horn with her index finger; Anahuark dropped her arm, formed a V for victory with index and middle fingers and planted the symbol on her defiant chin.
He stared at them, fighting the urge to smile. Anahuark and Jacyntha met his stare, so determined were they. He sometimes forgot his players had trained as soldiers: these two, along with Karolyse of the minotaur horn, had likely been slated to become officers. Finally, he gave in and allowed himself a smile.
“Good. You all probably have heard of my tale. It involves redemption. This is your moment for redemption. But first another dollop of truth: you are not footy players … not yet. Running around and having a swim move is not enough.” He tapped his temple with his forefinger. “Here is where we make you footy players. We have a bye this round of games, so we have nearly a full month of training until we face the Mongrels. You are going to hate this coming month.
“But by the thirteen sweet hells, when you walk out onto the Matadoras’ pitch, you are going to be footy players.”
Qispi, tears threatening to flood from her eyes, put on a puzzled expression.
“Perhaps another try at the Queensguard is really what you want. If so, the Menace should sail with you aboard. But if you want to stay … well, everyone can be redeemed, even those who start bench-clearing brawls and lose us matches.”
She dragged the sleeve of her tunic across her eyes. “Really?”
He nodded. “Just as long as you find your mind and keep it locked up inside your head. I cannot have you lose it again.”
The shadow of a smile touched her face. “Thank you, Coach Karsgaard.” Before he could react, she had lunged in, clamped her arms around him, and hugged him tightly. It took him a while to realize he should hug her back but eventually he did. Then he broke the embrace and held her at arm’s length.
“You did that really well.”
“Tackled me with your bear hug.”
“Could you do it to a Goblin?” She cocked her head, not understanding. “Because the Mongrels have a pair of dodging Goblins just crying out for tackling.”
When he got back to his room, he was so wound up from confronting his team that his hands shook. They trembled so much he had a hard time taking his calming hit of rat-root.