The Story So Far
The Militantes attend the game between the Jesters, an all-star team formed by the league, and the Mongrels, a team of Orcs and Goblins. The Mongrels are two points ahead of the Militantes in the standings and must lose. The pre-match excitement gives way to an action-packed first half with monster toppling monster and star duelling star. The Mongrels see their first drive stall. Their strongest players have been stopped and the pocket around the ball-carrier is collapsing. But their Goblins slip through the Jesters’ defence and get open downfield, where star thrower Agony Muerevarg hits them with a perfect pass. The odds of the Militantes making the play-offs grow longer. At half-time, the Jesters are down 0-1.
Having missed the first half settling the Militantes’ conflict with the Referees’ Guild via negotiations with the Assassins’ Guild, head coach Karsgaard Neuvil and his Thane of Player Personnel, Umberto de la Calle, join the players in the stands. Jacyntha is shocked to learn they missed the first half because they were arranging favours that would play out, not in one of their own games, but in the game unfolding below. Tension builds. The Jesters equalize after the referee hands out two dubious red cards to the Mongrels. Neuvil realizes his stress is overwhelming him so he slips off to take a hit of rat-root. He doesn’t remember the end of the game, recalling only that Umberto had to pull him away from an impending riot in the stands as crazed fans celebrated the Jesters’ come-from-behind victory.
“You want how many tickets?”
Neuvil couldn’t help but snarl at the obtuse Dark Elf, “By the thirteen sweet hells, man, how did you come to run the Matadoras? Is it really so rare for a visiting team to buy tickets for their fans?”
The stadium direktorus grew angry. “Ah, the notorious politeness of foreigners. Perhaps now you understand why we pen you up in your own quarter instead of letting you run loose around our city.”
Umberto nudged Neuvil out of the way. “Honourable sir,” he said, “forgive Coach Neuvil. He’s not well.” The direktorus gnashed his teeth but didn’t send them packing, so Umberto continued, “Yeah, it’s an awful lot. But we want ’em, see, and we have the coin.” He untied a heavy pouch from the baldric lying under his coat and set it on the counter between the Dark Elf and himself.
The direktorus emptied its contents onto the countertop and slid precise groups of coins into a new pile, counting as he went. He quickly tallied the gold and said, “I shall say this for you, foreigner, you were brave to walk with so much gold through Halos. The sum is adequate. The puzzle for me is, why? To deny our locals entry? To weaken our witchcraft? You know that Dwarrig, the League Officer for Conduct, will not want a near-empty stadium. It does the league no good. It does my masters who own the stadium no good.”
“Your masters care not so long as they line their pockets!” Neuvil snapped over Umberto’s shoulder, prompting his Thane of Player Personnel to twist around and shove him out the kiosk’s doorway. Neuvil closed his eyes and breathed deeply but when Umberto finally joined him outside he still felt his heart pounding and his hands trembling. Umberto set his toque bonnet on his head and pulled his cloak around him before they left the shelter of the Eztadio Matadoras. The crisp autumn wind buffeted them as they walked down the Sxyat Uo, the wide avenue that ran from the stadium to the harbour in the Foreigners’ Quarter.
“What’s with you?” Umberto asked. “You’ve been yelling at the players these past two weeks …”
“For their own good!” He spat the words out like foul ale. “The Mongrels will murder them if they do not get better. They need more than your swim move.”
“They have more than the swim move. Most of them have figured out my grab.” It was true; Jacyntha had seen how Umberto had dealt with that foolish rookie assassin two weeks prior and she’d asked Thordwall’s bodyguard to show it to them. Umberto added, “They’ve gotten a lot better, Karsgaard. Have some faith in them.”
“Put your faith in the Gods but keep your blocking sharp,” he snarled. “It is what Iva Thorkellson always said and never were wiser words spoken. They can pray to Chico all they like, but they need to execute the game plan.”
They walked in silence for a while, only once getting stopped to show Vijilanci agents their league laissez-passer papers. Once they crossed back into the Foreigners’ Quarter, Umberto broke the silence with a sharp, “Brrrr! The only good thing about these winds is that they’ll blow the boss back all the quicker.”
“They should have made port yesterday,” Neuvil grumbled.
“You’ve been avoiding me!” a deep voice boomed as they neared the Mason’s Rest, the inn where they were passing their stay in the Dark Elf city.
Another accursed problem!
Neuvil clenched his teeth and did his best to smile before turning to face Dwarrig, the league’s top representative in Halos. In truth, the Dwarf was right. They had been avoiding him ever since they had seen a cutter arrive in port that they learned carried dispatches from Guayamartí. Dwarrig stamped over, a wax-sealed scroll in one hand that he tapped into the palm of his other hand as though playing a drum.
“Master Neuvil, as the Sommer Sea Football League’s Officer for Conduct in Halos, charged with the full functioning and good order of the league, I draw on the power invested in my office to …”
A horn blasted a droning dirge across the city. They looked around them, searching the air. All was silent for several heartbeats until another, closer dirge echoed off Halos’ towers. Before the call died, the first horn sounded again, and suddenly another even louder one wailed from the Torre de la Luna, the seat of government. Back beyond the Foreigners’ Quarter gate, Neuvil saw the folk of Halos running to and fro. Then a troop of soldiers dashed past, heading towards the harbour. His heart sped up as he turned and looked down the Sxyat Uo and out to sea. A cluster of pennants fluttered atop a forest of masts and a bank of topsails jutted above Cape Ligatos. They didn’t have to wait long to see the full shapes of the ships emerge from beyond the cape and gybe for the approach into Halos Bay. Emblazoned on the many, many sails was a long, red macaw feather, the symbol of Mytilan, surmounted by a crown.
Neuvil held out a hand to Umberto and turned to Dwarrig, declaring over the braying of the horns, “The Mytilan Militantes hereby protest their treatment by the Sommer Sea Football League and associated persons and entities. We cite the unpunished violation of the ban on weapons that resulted in the death of team captain Ocllo, the collusion between league officers, including and not limited to League Officer for Conduct Rennigan Slythe, with the owner of the Guayamartí Wharf Rats, Eguardo Giamucci, as well as the owner of the Guayamartí Imperials, Duc Tancred de Baston, for the purposes of discrediting the team and framing our owner Cassandra Thordwall for crimes she did not commit.” During this practised recital, Umberto handed over an envelope that Neuvil now presented to the Dwarf.
Dwarrig’s eyes flicked from the fleet entering the bay to the proffered envelope. “What’s the meaning of this? First the league wants me to have your Mistress Thordwall arrested by the local authorities and to cancel your game tomorrow, and now you get all official and hand me a protest! God in Rock, Karsgaard! Rennigan says you kidnapped the duke! His nephew, the King over the Water, has made an official protest to the Hierarchs, demanding they secure the duke’s liberty. We once were friends, Karsgaard; help me understand.”
Neuvil wiped the sweat from his brow and replied, “Giamucci’s hatred for my patron has led him to do whatever he can to crush my team. He has colluded with Slythe to have us lose games, fall victim to crimes, and get expelled from the league. That scroll in your hand there, that is their latest, most serious effort to send us packing and keep hold of the fees we paid.”
The horns had fallen into a synchronous rhythm of blasts ordering the city to prepare for battle. Outside the Foreigner’s Quarter, more and more heavily armed platoons dashed towards the harbour. The alarm played havoc on Neuvil’s nerves and he had to yell above the racket. “You hand me that scroll and Mytilan will consider it a violation of the Pact. Halos will be first to feel Xonyxa wrath over a murder, committed here in Halos by a Dark Elf upon one of Queen Beatriz’ subjects.”
He let that sink in then added, “You can set things right though, Dwarrig, by giving us justice! Instead of cancelling our game tomorrow, cancel the Duskdaggers’ as punishment for murdering Ocllo.”
Dwarrig hadn’t taken the envelope, so Neuvil jammed it between the Dwarf’s breastplate and tunic, just underneath the plaited beard. “You do that and yon ships do nothing worse than let a few thousand Militantes’ fans disembark.”
The league’s Officer for Conduct plucked the envelope from underneath his breastplate and glared up at Neuvil. “A few thousand? How many thousand?”
Neuvil, his teeth chattering and his throat constricting, blurted out the reply. “Twenty-two. One way or the other, Dwarrig, they disembark. But if you act on our petition, they shall not be carrying weapons.”
“Mangenain’s not on the team sheet!”
Umberto read further down the list while Neuvil studied each and every Militante in the dressing room, weighing their readiness against what he knew a good Orc squad could do to lightly armoured foes. Except for Umberto’s voice, the room was silent as the women contemplated their last two weeks of rigorous two-a-day training sessions.
“Neither’s Agony. Doesn’t surprise me. He and Mik both got roughed up pretty bad.” He finished his inspection of the document and handed it down to Jacyntha, who looked it over before passing it in turn to Belyna. “Grik’Ngog isn’t on the list either,” Umberto said. “Looks like your friend Dwarrig has held up his end of the bargain.”
Neuvil nodded slowly. It did indeed. The city wasn’t happy about it because although the game of their beloved Duskdaggers would go ahead on the morrow, the league had docked them three points in the standings for having violated the ban on weapons, meaning the Dark Elves now needed the Militantes to slip up in order to make the play-offs.
Neuvil didn’t intend for his team to slip up. “Who have they brought in?” he asked.
Umberto said, “A pair of rookies from their practice squad.”
“So they are down to twelve players,” Neuvil said. A spasm wracked his body and he dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands, forming clenched fists. He swallowed and tried to control his breathing. He almost succeeded. Clearly, the flagons of ale he had downed that morning back at Masons’ Rest hadn’t helped calm his nerves.
“They are down three savage killers,” he said to his team, “and they have brought in two rookies. Does that comfort you?” They held their tongues, knowing it was a question he didn’t need answered. “It comforts me not one whit. You see, I know Gorn N’hleg, the Mongrels’ coach. He has had someone read out our team sheet to him and he has surely grinned in the knowledge that each and every one of you is in your rookie season. What matter is bringing in two rookies to face a team that is full of them?”
He walked around the dressing room in silence, his fists quivering so badly he held them behind his back as he walked. “There is one thing that comforts me, though. At some point a rookie stops being a rookie. Their vision expands, the game slows down, they do not need to think before acting because the memory locked into their muscles guides them to the right place at the right moment to do the right thing. And in the nick of time, just as we face our first must-win match of the season …” He pulled out his right hand and snapped his fingers. “Bang! Just like that, you have transformed, each and every one of you. You all worked hard this past month. Some of you now hate me … that is fine, hate me if you must, but when you go out on that pitch today, know that you go out there as proper footy players. You have faced too much and overcome too much to be called rookies any longer. You only need one more thing before you become a complete team.”
There was a moment of silence before Ellpay – of course it was Ellpay – asked, “What, Coach Karsgaard? What do we need?”
Re-clenching his shaking hand into a fist again, he looked around the room one last time. “A captain.” He didn’t allow the silence that followed to linger for more than his thumping heart could handle. “With Ocllo now lost to us, we need another. Luckily there are several amongst you who are fit for the job.”
He turned back to the doorway, where Umberto leaned against the dressing room wall, hovering right above Jacyntha. “Cyntha, you will lead the team down the tunnel, lead it on the field, and lead it into the play-offs.”
She looked up at him with sad eyes but she set her jaw and nodded. “You heard him, ‘Nyxas!” she hollered. “Let’s go!”
She led the Mytilan Militantes out into the Eztadio Matadoras, where twenty-two thousand Xonyxas roared in approval, filling fully two-thirds of the stadium and overwhelming anything the screeching witches and the Dark Elf fans could manage.