26: “You fear me, weak woe-men!”

The Story So Far

Karsgaard Neuvil and Umberto de la Calle buy a huge batch of tickets for the upcoming Militantes game. Returning from Halos’ Eztadio Matadoras, they get stopped by Dwarrig, league Officer for Conduct in the Dark Elf city. The Dwarf brandishes a document that will surely impose a penalty on the Militantes for allegedly kidnapping Duc Tancred de Baston, owner of the Imperials. Blaring horns interrupt him before he presents the document. Locals panic and Dark Elf troops dash to the harbour. Mytilan’s navy has arrived. Neuvil makes a formal protest of his own, deploring the conduct of league officials and rival teams, citing Ocllo’s murder as a violation of the ban on weapons. Queen Beatriz has deployed her navy in revenge and Neuvil says the Queen is prepared to break the Pact of Peace through Sport. Neuvil offers Dwarrig a way out of the calamity: justice. 

Dwarrig keeps his word: instead of disbanding the Militantes, he docks the Dark Elf team, the Duskdaggers, three points in the standings for breaking the ban on arms. The Mytilan navy, rather than disembark thousands of soldiers, disembarks thousands of fans for the Militantes game against the Mongrels. Neuvil gives his pre-match speech to his squad. He says three Mongrel stars are out for the game and have been replaced by rookie lineorcs. He also says his counterpart, Gorn N’hleg, won’t worry; after all, the Militantes are an entire team of rookies. But, Neuvil says, N’hleg’s wrong. The players have transformed; they are rookies no longer. Neuvil re-instates Jacyntha as captain and she leads the Militantes out before the twenty-two thousand cheering Xonyxa fans.

“You fear me, weak woe-men!”

The bellowing came from an Orc blocker lumbering forward. He had formed a fist with one hand and was punching the palm of the other, searching for foes and finding them in abundance.

Well, yeah!

Jacyntha hauled Qispi out of the path of the Orc and pushed her teammate towards the right flank. She herself had to dodge and roll away from the blocker, but then Pillcu and the other linewomen closed ranks, forming a protective screen. She caught up to Qispi, the Xonyxa so nearly sent home by Coach Karsgaard but who he subsequently trained up as the Militantes’ best tackler.

“There! See him?”

Qispi nodded, keeping her eyes on Konvisse Yeux and waiting for the diminutive Goblin to expose himself. So far Coach Karsgaard’s strategy was working. The linewomen were holding the Mongrels’ at arm’s-length, and although the big Orc blockers were getting hits on her sisters, the Xonyxas were anticipating the blocks and dodging clear.

On the right, Belyna and her fellow strikers sparred with their Mongrel counterparts, but with Mik Mangenain injured, one of the rookie lineorcs had to face Laylalla. She surprised him with Umberto’s grab move and hauled him into the Militantes’ backfield, where the Xonyxas could swarm him. Jacyntha grappled the Orc and threw him to the ground. Anahuark came dashing in and fouled the prone player. There was an audible crack as a bone gave way in the lineorc’s leg. Medical staff quickly hauled him off the pitch.

The balance had now shifted and the Xonyxa strikers pushed forward against their outnumbered opponents, opening a gap in the Mongrel flank. Qispi accelerated into the hole, bursting into the Orcs’ backfield and bearing down on Yeux. Jacyntha followed. She saw the Goblin’s eyes go wide in surprise and then flick left and right, seeking safety. Yeux let them get close before side-stepping and dodging, but for the past weeks Qispi had worked hard on her tackling. She zigged as the Goblin zagged and slammed into him. Before he knew it, she had wrapped him in a bear hug and had pulled him off the ground. She slammed him down head-first onto the pitch. Yeux wailed and rolled back and forth clutching his neck.

The apothecaries are busy!

Leaving Yeux to the medical staff, Jacyntha and Qispi circled around behind the Mongrel line. The Orcs had advanced, but not far, just like Coach Karsgaard had planned. Jacyntha saw their next target, Greenok Hork, the remaining Goblin on the opposing squad on the far sideline. But just then that same big bellowing Orc blocker from earlier dropped out of the ruck and cut them off, throwing a block. The brute upended Qispi, leaving her stunned, and then he surged towards Jacyntha.

“No fleeing now, weak woe-man!”

Like Konvisse Yeux moments earlier, there was nowhere for Jacyntha to go. 

Unlike the Goblin, she didn’t care.

The blocker swept a ham-sized fist. Her training kicked-in; she ducked, spun, and ducked again as the other fist came swinging at her. She snagged the Orc’s wrist and heaved, using his momentum against him and pushing him further along the line. He came charging back, enraged. Again Jacyntha ducked his swinging fists, but she was looking for an opening, a vulnerability. She was determined to give better than she got.

Have some of this!

She dug inside herself for every measure of strength she could muster, she drew yet more strength from the cheering Xonyxa fans, and then she tapped into a final reservoir hidden away behind her grief for Ocllo. She attacked. Her fist drove up under the blocker’s chin, thrust with all the power in her shoulder and all the torque her core could give. A massive cheer echoed around the Matadoras as the Mongrel toppled backwards, clearly knocked-out.

Belyna whooped as she stormed past, chasing the ball-carrier.

Jacyntha grinned and pumped her fist.

The fans roared their approval.

Although playing to the crowd hadn’t been her intention, she fed off their cheering. She felt more than triumphant: she felt imperious. She pulled Qispi off the ground and together they went hunting for Hork.

And then all of a sudden the Militantes’ line gave way. Just as they were closing in on Hork, an Orc striker put Cuxi-Mikay onto the turf and the Mongrels flooded through the gap, Hork included. The Goblin took a hand-off from the Orc ball-carrier and raced downfield as his teammates fanned out to prevent any of the Xonyxas catching up to him. Anahuark made a valiant effort to prevent the score, dodging past an Orc flanker and leaping at the Goblin as he dashed for the end-zone, but she only clipped his heels and he stumbled across the goal line.

Despite all their good work, the Militantes were suddenly down 1-0.

As things stood, they weren’t going to make the play-offs.

“There’s still time!”

Jacyntha had pulled her sisters into a quick pre-restart huddle. She was pumped, still in the thrall of the roaring crowd despite the Militantes’ set-back, so she knew it was ironic she spoke calmly. 

Is this what confidence feels like?

“Only the Quarrels kept us off the scoresheet, and these savages are way more beat-up than the Sylvans were. They’re down a blocker and a Goblin and can only field ten players. We can do this. We stick to the game plan. Qispi, that means your job number one is taking out Greenok Hork. He won’t score again because you’ll have sent him packing, okay?”

Wide-eyed and worried-looking, Qispi nevertheless nodded. Jacyntha remembered the Militantes’ designated tackler was the Xonyxa with the least playing time under her belt. Without thinking, she placed a reassuring hand on her sister’s shoulder.

“Ell,” she continued, “we’ve plenty of time before the half’s out. I’m not going to look for you until we’re deep in their zone. When you get within scoring range, I don’t want to see a single Mongrel close to you, got it?”

Ellpay gave a crisp reply, “Aye, ready.”

Jacyntha couldn’t help herself and asked, “Aye? Are you gone so soft on Coach Karsgaard you’re mimicking him now?” Ell blushed and the huddle erupted in laughter. They clapped and broke apart, jogging to their starting positions. The humour had worked, releasing tension within her teammates. Even Qispi looked more confident. As Jacyntha took up her place deep in the Militantes’ half, she looked over to the bench to see if the object of Ellpay’s infatuation had any instructions for the team.

Coach Karsgaard seemed different. 

He stood at the edge of the technical area, hands clasped behind his back, the picture of serenity. There was none of the usual bluster, barked instructions, and wild gestures: no pointing at opposing players that posed them the greatest threat, no directing redeployments, no punching the air in anger.

Although he had been acting odd lately, aggressive and twitchy in equal measures, he now looked strangely at ease, calm. Something in his posture gave her a further shot of confidence. 

“Now! Throw it now!”

Jacyntha’s eyes surveyed the pitch in front of her. The Xonyxas were swarming the Mongrel defence. The Orc strikers were good and they stayed on their feet, but they had been shunted off to the left, leaving the blockers in the centre isolated, and a single lineorc struck a lonely figure on the right. Belyna and Laylalla took down a blocker, Karolyse and Cux had the other stumbling backwards. Ell had gotten open and Anahuark marked the solitary lineorc. She could throw the pass …

Except the voice yelling from the sidelines was Umberto’s, not Coach Karsgaard’s. She jogged forward but she didn’t throw. There was something … something … needed.

There!

Qispi cleared the ruck and was making towards the Mongrel end-zone. Jacyntha’s eyes shifted downfield and she spotted Hork lingering in the backfield. He presented no complication to her pass. She could step forward and throw a strike to Ell. Her instincts told her to hang back.

She hung back.

Just then the Orcs on the left surged, their strikers gaining the initiative. One made for Qispi, the other two slipped containment on the line and came thundering downfield, closing in on Jacyntha herself. Having hung back gave her time and space. She yelled to Pillcu and pointed to Qispi, receiving a nod.

She let the strikers come.

Belyna and Laylalla were chasing after them but too far behind to help.

She felt no panic, no fear.

Ell was waving frantically. She was wide open and Anahuark had tripped up the lineorc on the right flank. She could throw now but …

Where’s Qispi? Has she taken down Hork?

She let the first striker, Ad’ag Bigkill, get close. He threw a block at her but she ducked it without thought, stepping backwards, making any throw a longer one. Then Bigkill’s partner came in to corral her, which meant Bigkill’s next strike would be all the more dangerous. She couldn’t pivot left or even backwards without spinning into the fists of the second Orc. Instead, she swam past the Bigkill’s next block, spun on her heels like Nytmir Curseweaver, and kicked the striker in the back, sending him stumbling off. His partner leapt at her but she shoulder charged him mid-flight, driving her shoulder-pad into his guts and folding him over like a broadsheet.

“Now! By the Temple of the Python or whatever it is, throw the ball now!”

Umberto, again. But this time, Umberto happened to be right. 

A quick glance confirmed Qispi had upended Hork and the half was coming to an end. She didn’t have the time to sprint forward but she knew, she now somehow knew, she didn’t need to get so close to Ell before making the throw.

It wasn’t exactly like the sixty-pace tosses Agony Muerevarg so liked, but it was a long pass by anybody’s calculation and it was thrown with precision.

Ellpay bobbled the catch and Jacyntha felt her heart leap into her throat. But then Ell managed to bring the ball under control and race off into the end-zone.

The ref’s whistle blew to finish the half. The Militantes went back to the changing room tied 1-1.

“Up-and-under.”

Cuxi-Mikay, the team’s designated kicker, nodded in response to Coach Karsgaard’s half-time directive.

“Even down to nine players, Orcs are dangerous. If they shift their big blockers to a single point of attack in our line, it shall be like their first drive; they will open a gap and the strikers will sprint through. That is what Gorn N’hleg is telling them now. So we shall surprise them with our special tactic.

“Karolyse, Belyna, you are our best dodgers. I want you in front of the blockers. Roll with their blocks but make sure you do your rolling on the ground. Going to ground is always a risk, but your teammates will be there to help.”

The two strikers nodded. If they felt any nervousness about the plan, they didn’t show it.

Coach Karsgaard continued, “Jacyntha.” She looked up. “Nice first-half heroics but leave them for the next Mongrel drive. I want you to get the kick-off and hand the ball to Cuxi-Mikay, or if the kick-off goes her way, let her take it and protect her from the strikers. It is not unheard-of for Orcs to go after a ball-handler rather than the ball.”

She nodded.

“Anahuark, Ellpay.” The two catchers looked up, Ell with gleaming eyes and an excited smile, all happy at having Coach Karsgaard’s attention turned on her. “When the strikers head downfield, that is your signal to go deep into their backfield. If you cannot get under Cuxi-Mikay’s kick, get on the loose ball as quickly as you can. Closest to the ball takes it, the other flanks.”

They nodded. Ell, being Ell, gushed, “Shall do, Coach Karsgaard! Anything else?”

“Yes,” he snapped, furrowing his brow and showing the first emotion he had all day. “Score.”

“I’ll be happy to!” Ell said, doing a little dance on the bench.

“To be clear; I want those bastards running three-quarters of the way downfield to hit Cuxi-Mikay only for them to see the ball sail over their heads and then have to run the full length of the pitch back again. Got it?”

They all nodded. “Once they do, they shall be winded. Laylalla, you and the other strikers take down as many of the brutes as you can.” Coach Karsgaard turned to Qispi. “You, go in behind our strikers and stomp on anyone who goes down.”

“Isn’t that my job, Coach?” Anahuark asked.

“Not today,” he replied. “Qispi does it.”

Jacyntha asked the question on all their minds. “What of the referee?”

“The Mongrels will have bribed him. Qispi, you are likely to get a red card. That is a chance we can take seeing as we have reserves for the following drive. I want us to make sure that when they field our kick-off, when we are up 2-1, I want them to have eight players left. Or better yet, seven. They will be where we want them if they have seven to our eleven.”

Jacyntha nodded. Coach Karsgaard went to the centre of the room and folded his arms in front of his chest, tucking his hands under the opposite arm’s biceps.

Were his hands trembling?

“I have not mentioned one thing,” he said, interrupting Jacyntha’s thoughts. “Belief. Any of you know why?”

Jacyntha thought she did. She took a risk and stood, answering. “No need.”

He glanced at her.

“We don’t need belief,” she declared. “We have certainty. C’mon sisters! We’ve got this.”

They bounded back onto the pitch.

In the event, they executed the up-and-under to perfection and scored just after Qispi got sent off. But their designated tackler had put a lineorc out of the game. It was child’s play to hem in the remaining seven Mongrels after the ensuing kick-off and score again. 

The Militantes won 3-1 and were back in the hunt for a play-off spot.

As you might remember from Episode 9, the Monumento a los Aspirantes portrayed above is one manner the Sommer Sea Football League displays the league standings to largely illiterate fans of “footy.” Such fans can look upon the statue and know how well, or poorly, their team is doing.

We see from the image above that the Guayamartí Imperials, the Gloriana Quarrels, the Duskdaggers occupy first, second, and third positions respectively. Currently sitting in the wild-card place are the Ebolicorum Skitteringi. The Mongrels, the Mytilan Militantes, the Stonecarvers, and the Guayamartí Wharf Rats occupy fifth through eighth place.

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