23: Hand him over or die!
The Story So Far
Karsgaard Neuvil, the head coach of the Mytilan Militantes, speaks to his players, telling them there’s hardly a proper footy player amongst them. Reflecting on Occlo’s death, he asks: “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!” He speaks about the qualities of a proper footy player: able to overcome the challenges of having a teammate and friend die; prepared for the next match; sad but moving on. He runs down the roster, pointing out the behaviours each woman demonstrates that prevents a proper footy player from developing. Then he tells them owner Cassandra Thordwall will embark on her brother’s pirate ship, the Menace, to recruit some real footy players from Mytilan. He invites anyone who doesn’t want to become a proper player to depart. Despite his hectoring, each woman elects to stay and put in the work needed to transform herself into an effective player.
“Hand him over or die!”
Shocked, Neuvil instinctively stepped back, away from the caped and hooded person who had just dropped from the stars and landed on the cobblestones in front of him. Umberto grabbed his arm and pulled him back, stepping between Neuvil and the assassin.
“Coach,” Jacyntha said. “Behind us.” Her voice was calm: calmer than his would have been. A glance confirmed that two more caped and hooded assassins had dropped into the lane at their back. He knew there were likely more on the roofs above.
“Hand who …” he said before Umberto cut him off.
“You know, that’s an impressive dagger. Very much like the one that killed our striker.” Umberto tilted his head and made a show of looking at the assassin more closely. “But hang on! You’re too tall to be a Dwarf. You’re too thin to be a human. Too daft to be an Elf, or at least not the proper sort of Elf. Karsgaard, I think we’ve got ourselves a Dark Elf where a Dark Elf oughtn’t be.”
Umberto wagged his index finger at the assassin. “You’ve revealed yourselves in public. Poor form, that. You see, there could be half a dozen foreigners looking on right now. The Dwarves who run this quarter wouldn’t like that one bit.”
“You shut up and hand over the duke,” the assassin hissed into the cool night air.
Umberto ignored him, “I’ll hand you some advice, son. You see, from how you set this up, I reckon your guild masters haven’t risked sending the good assassins into the Foreigners’ Quarter. Naw, they’ve sent the rookies. That way, see, if you run into trouble, they can deny you’re guild members and leave you to rot.”
“We are are not jesting. I shall stab you and feel joy!”
“Joy, is it? That’s nice. Thanks for sharing. Now let me share two somethings with you. One; it gives me joy handing rookie assassins their asses. Two; I’m trouble, and you’ve just run into it.
“But today’s your lucky day, son,” he continued in a less menacing voice. “There’s a way out for you and your mates, see. You disappear into the black night right now and no one’s the wiser.” He tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger and winked.
“Tell your guild masters’ clients that if they come on down to the inn – I’m sure you know which inn – we’ll buy them a flagon of ale and forget about this whole unfortunate incident. We can talk about handing him over, all civilized like.”
Then Umberto stretched himself to his full, impressive height. “There’s also a way deeper into trouble, son, but I don’t suggest going down that path. Now, you’re in our way.” He walked forward, his left hand reaching out and brushing the figure aside.
The assassin stabbed and his two fellows lunged in. Jacyntha pushed Neuvil ahead and then did the swim-move to slip between the attackers, elbowing one in the ribs and driving her knee into the small of the other’s back. Umberto snagged the first assassin’s wrist and twisted. The figure leapt and spun to come down on the other side of Umberto’s arm, escaping the arm-breaking torque on the wrist. But Thordwall’s bodyguard kicked out the assassin’s feet as they touched down. The Dark Elf crashed to the cobblestones. Then he spun around and drove the ball of his hand into the face of the assassin Jacyntha had elbowed. A female’s voice wailed from beneath the darkened cowl and she pitched backwards clutching her head. Jacyntha danced with the third for a few moments before Neuvil drove his fist into the back of the figure’s head. No other assassins dropped down from the heights to help the three now lying prone on the cobblestones.
Umberto went over to the one who had spoken to them and actually helped the Dark Elf sit up. He held up the assassin’s dagger and said, “That’s very nice of you. I’ve always wanted a Dark Elf dagger.” Then he leaned in to the assassin’s face and said, “Here’s a final piece of advice, son. When you’re up against a veteran, see, don’t let him get within grappling distance.” He pulled the assassin upright and clapped the Dark Elf on the back, “Now, bugger off.”
Umberto walked on, turning onto the Sxyat Uo, Halos’ principal avenue. He never bothered looking back. His own heart pounding, Neuvil took Jacyntha’s hand – more to calm his own wits than hers – and followed the bodyguard, slipping past the stunned one still swaying on his feet. The other assassins didn’t suddenly spring to their feet and slip blades into either his back or Jacyntha’s. They got to the Mason’s Rest and found Umberto waiting for them in the entranceway. When Neuvil said nothing, electing instead to lean against the doorframe and pant, Jacyntha asked, “What just happened?”
Umberto spun the dagger end over end in the air, catching it by its hilt each time, and said with a faint smile, “Preliminary negotiations. Neuvil, the refs’ll be along soon. Want to sit in?”
He glanced over at Thordwall’s man, suddenly glad Umberto had decided to remain in Halos, thinking that Cassandra was safe with her brother aboard the Menace and, thus, didn’t need protection. Neuvil replied, “If my life is part of the bargaining, yes.”
“What about my life?” Jacyntha asked, snatching the spinning dagger out of the air – by the hilt, he noticed.
Umberto’s eyebrows arched up in response to the dagger-snatch. Then he shook his head. “Nah, those clumsy rookies achieved what they were supposed to, see, so they won’t come for you.”
“Achieved what they were supposed to?” Jacyntha asked, confused. “We just took them out.”
Umberto nodded. “Yeah, but we got the message, didn’t we? They’ll bump up the pressure if we dig in our heels. Just like I said, preliminary negotiations.”
“Those were assassins, not negotiators!”
Umberto nodded. “Well, see, the Referees’ Guild is closely aligned to the Assassins’ Guild both here and in Guayamartí, for obvious reasons.”
“Em, no,” Jacyntha corrected him. “I see no obvious reasons …”
Neuvil answered, “The referees are supposed to be impartial. They cannot be seen dealing in payments for favours and they often either need protection from teams’ vengeance or to persuade teams to pay up for services rendered. They use their allies to handle such matters.”
Jacyntha looked shocked. “You mean … the refs just sent assassins after us?”
Umberto nodded. “Yeah, but don’t worry about it. We didn’t renege on payment, we just didn’t pay them what they thought they’d receive, see? They haven’t come to fully appreciate the boss’ view that we never received the full level of service they promised us before last game.”
Jacyntha went deadly serious. “Occlo.”
Umberto nodded. “Coach Karsgaard might want you focussed on the next game,” he said, “but Mistress Thordwall, see, is still vexed at that last one. She can’t abide a well-compensated ref turning a blind eye to the murdering of one of her players.”
“What did the assassin mean by ‘the duke’ ?”
Umberto smiled again. “We’ve still got him held hostage.”
Jacyntha’s jaw dropped. “Duc Tancred de Baston?”
“Yup. Though by now Mistress Thordwall might have handed him over to your ma. He is, after all, the uncle to the pretender to the Chivalron throne.”
Ellpay pointed to the figures emerging from the tunnel onto the pitch and then hopped up and down, clapping. Sure enough, Jacyntha saw one of the players emerging into the golden autumn daylight had the long, flowing silver locks so common to Dark Elf witches. She couldn’t help but clutch the entwined locks of silver hair she had cut off the head of one of the Duskdagger witches during their disastrous last match, the locks upon which she had willed curse after curse. Then she recalled that Nytmir’s last name was Curseweaver and she wondered how she herself might weave plagues of curses and have them rain down upon her enemies.
Then she remembered the key to the curse-weaving: blood.
Dark Elf witches practice blood magic.
All she said to Ellpay was, “I’ll have to take your word for it that it’s her. I didn’t get a good look at sweet Nytmir as she came in from behind and kicked me in the head.”
Nytmir Curseweaver played to her former, but still adoring, home crowd. During the off-season she had been released from the Duskdaggers, reportedly for a lack of savagery, but likely because her wages had grown as large as her popularity. The Jesters could pay large wages, however, and Nytmir looked pleased with her current circumstances. The witch sauntered around the perimeter of the playing field, arms held high and waving to the fans, occasionally pointing to a specific fan and blowing them a sultry kiss.
Temple of the Viper I could never keep my hands held so high for so long right now.
Coach Karsgaard had been drilling them to within an inch of their lives during the past two weeks and many of the drills had involved upper body strengthening … as in executing blocking moves with heavy weights strapped to the arms, or push-ups with heavy weights sitting on their backs, or hauling on hawsers attached to crates of heavy weights. Whatever they did, it had always involved heavy weights. He had warned them the Militantes would hate it. He had been right.
“Yeah,” Ellpay gushed, as was her wont, “she’s goooood. The kick that dropped you … it came around, like, at … at, well, like head height. She jumped up so hiiiigh.”
Jacyntha sighed. “You know, Ell, I’m really not here for a recounting of my worst moments in footy. You’ll be talking about my failed vendetta against Pierce Rosethorn next.”
“Oh yeah! That was sooooo gooooood!”
“You just put more O’s into that last ‘good’ didn’t you?”
All the Militantes, escorted by a special detachment of Foreigners’ Quarter Dwarven Guard, had secured entry to the Jesters’ game against the Mongrels. They were crammed together in a corner section of the Eztadio Matadoras, surrounded by folk of many different races. The section was fenced off from the locals by towering wooden palisades. Several hundred people, it seemed, were happy to make the voyage by ship to Halos on Oscurisla to see the Jesters. The only races Jacyntha couldn’t see in this section of foreigners were the other elven races, whose long history of internecine conflict against their radical cousins prevented them from attending.
Then the Mongrels jogged out onto the pitch to the screech of the witches atop the stadium: “Woe! Ja na Ork gat!”
The crowd responded with one loud reply: “Woe Ork Hoo!”
The foreigners’ section added their hollered “boos” to the local chant.
The visiting team didn’t seem to care one bit. Jacyntha saw four big, lumbering orcs heaving themselves into position for the kick-off. They were heavily armoured and ferocious. Orcish strikers practised their reflexes, swatting at the ears of the three diminutive goblins on the pitch, who themselves rolled, swayed, and darted this way and that, escaping the attentions of their larger cousins. As a fellow ball-handler, Jacyntha watched a long-fanged thrower toss warm-up passes to a lineman, throwing the ball easily sixty paces with as much ease as she’d toss a coin to a bartender.
The match officials came out to even louder boos from the foreigners’ section, while the rest of the stadium fell into absolute silence, evidently the ultimate insult Dark Elves could bestow on anyone.
This was the first time that Jacyntha had attended a footy match as a spectator since becoming a player. Despite herself, despite all her recent experience, she felt her excitement bubbling.
The Mongrels won the toss and elected to receive. The local fans, clearly displeased, responded when the witches threw animal hearts into the fires burning in the giant bronze braziers built into the upper lip of the stadium at the four cardinal points.
“Ha! Bka wynath!”
Star Minotaur Goriada, her horns dripping with freshly slathered blood, stamped at the pitch and blew vaporous breaths out her nostrils. The infamous pairing of Havoc Warriors, Daurig Doomgiver and Kwalgi Merdir’Huarg, thumped their chests and took up their places on the line of scrimmage beside Goriada. Back from the line and on each flank, Bull Centaurs Bryce Bushtramplla and Rory Ropethrorra kicked at the air like bucking broncos. Nytmir Curseweaver herself lined-up to kick-off, but only after playing to the crowd, running her tongue across her beaming teeth. The ref’s whistle blew and Nytmir sprang forward, the thump of her boot impacting the ball echoing around the stadium. The ball sailed high into the air and suddenly the Jesters’ Dark Elf Striker, Oscuro Estab, sprang into the Mongrels’ backfield, flanked by a pair of ravening goatyrs.
Jacyntha, alongside the rest of the fans packed into the foreigners’ section, jumped to her feet and cheered as the ball arced through the air, landing deep downfield near the Mongrels’ end-zone …
… where star striker Mik Mangenain scooped it up and jogged forward, his right hand forming a fist and his face cracking into a broad grin. He and his fellows were grinning because they were out to make all the lands around the wide Sommer Sea finally laugh at some Jesters …