The Story So Far
The coach of the Mytilan Militantes, Karsgaard Neuvil, hands the Sommer Sea Football League standings over to Jacyntha and asks her to read them out loud to the team before a training session. The task in their last regular season match against the first-place Imperials is clear: win or go home, and win by one more touchdown than the Mongrels, should the orcs also win, and if they don’t, hope the Skitteringi lose. Jacyntha rallies her teammates to get pumped for training.
Late upon a blustery, rainy night down a dark alleyway, Neuvil seeks something from a street dealer but gets told: “I don’t do favours.” Sent packing, he thinks to go see the owner of the Luffing Lateen, the Barrio tavern where owner Cassandra Thordwall is wont to take the Militantes. He arrives just as Sam Gosling is herding people out of his establishment. Between flocks of revellers being sent home, Neuvil slips inside whereupon he encounters Nytmir Curseweaver, star witch of the league’s all-star team, the Jesters. It becomes clear that Gosling isn’t just courting the Militantes but is also inviting a Jester each evening to meet footy fans. Curseweaver, rising to leave, says she knows what Neuvil seeks and offers to help him find it. He escorts her home whereupon she does, indeed, give him what he needs and he is able finally to weep for the death of Ocllo. Later, feeling no pain from his injured knee, he is able to sleep.
We now return to Guayamartí’s second footy stadium, the Eztadio Menor, in the company of the two fans we met in Episode 13, the stevedore Hansi and his cousin Nykal.
“Æthelstan the Angry!”
As the echoes of the stadium crier’s voice died down, half of the already rancorous crowd erupted in fury. Some lunged at the wooden palisades separating them from their rival fans, others pulled up the benches and flung them onto the pitch, yet others threw missiles consisting mostly of worm-eaten apples. Heavily armoured stewards, carrying tower shields and truncheons squeezed the Imperials’ fans into close-packed throngs and doused them with barrelfuls of cold water until they settled down.
The Hierarchs and the SSFL had wisely stepped up security for the game, which marked the inglorious return of a former Imperials coach at the head of a rival team. All the precautions were already bearing fruit, though tensions remained high. The stewards could do nothing about the thousands of Xonyxas chanting taunts at the angry ranks of rival fans:
How can you end the week?
There is no end in sight!
You can have the seven days,
but YOU HAVEN’T got a knight!
It was hardly the work of a skald, but to their credit, they’d thought it up on the spur of the moment. And it wasn’t accurate; there was one knight. Sir Gauthier le Dragon Rouge was in the line-up, but he had only been raised from squire and given his spurs a fortnight ago. For all he was supposedly a red dragon, he had plenty of green in him. Thus the stadium crier had unwittingly triggered the first trouble simply by calling out the team lists.
“It ain’t right!” Hansi roared as the teams finally came onto the pitch for the pre-match warm-up. His indignation was but a drop in a sea of even greater malcontent. He punched his fist in anger and yelled to his diminutive cousin Nykal, “Stéphane de Bellefleure ain’t dressed. He’s standing over there doing nothin’! And Anne d’Arc! She be, like, the only Chivalron woman raised to the knighthood in a generation or somethin’ … she’s down there in a dress of all things! – handing out favours to the nobles!”
“What about those rat things?” Nykal asked his cousin.
“The ’Ringi? What about ’em?” Hansi called back, clearly perplexed at the inexplicable change in subject.
“I thought they was your team. Why’ve you got your hackles up about no knights bein’ in the Imperials’ line-up? What’s it matter to you?”
Hansi punched Nykal’s bicep but not with any force. “I keep telling ya. Them rat thing’s dangerous, but the Imperials be honest folk. Noble, like.”
“And they’s in first place. I reckon you like winners.”
“I’ve news for ya, Nykal, lad, everbody like winners. ’Cept you of course. You’ve gone soft on those laaaadies.”
Nkyal blushed. “The word’s ‘everybody’ and I ain’t soft on no one! The Militantes play good footy, is all. I thought you liked good footy?”
“I do like good footy. The Imperials play great footy. As long as they actually field some knights. And as long as that bastard Neuvil isn’t coaching them.”
“Karsgaard the Crooked? The match-fixer?”
“That be the very villain. And there he is!” Hansi pointed down to the tunnel where the big Nordman came limping into the golden autumn sunlight. “Made us lose the last game two seasons ago to the Stonecarvers! The day ended with the Dwarves shunting both ’Martí teams out of the play-offs and him with more gold than he could blow on rat-root.”
The rest of the Imperials’ supporters spotted the infamous coach and the boos rang out, filling the cool air.
Umberto looked up and shrugged. “That’s what it says. Some lad called el Dragón Rojo and that’s it. There are no titles in front of any of the other players.”
Neuvil snatched the team sheet away from his Thane of Player Personnel and looked at it. Jacyntha wondered why he bothered; everyone knew he couldn’t read. “No Sir Stéphane? No Anne d’Arc? Bruce the Robert? Sir Serge le Grand?”
“Not a single one.”
“Oh, my vnir,” Coach Karsgaard said, using his tongue’s word for friend, “by the thirteen sweet hells, this smells worse than the fishers’ wharves.”
“So what?” Umberto said. “They just don’t want to take any injuries, see.”
“They can wrap up first place!” Coach Karsgaard raged.
“Maybe they’d rather a game against the Quarrels or the Skitteringi ahead of a showdown against the Je…” Umberto halted himself.
Jacyntha clenched her teeth. She stormed over, yanked the team sheet out of Coach Karsgaard’s shaking hands and tore it apart before turning on Umberto. “Ahead of a game against us!” she snarled, correcting him. “Not the Jesters. Not the Mongrels. Ahead of another game against us! For shame, Thane de la Calle! You showed us grab moves and how to swim through a block. You showed us how to find the weak points in body armour! Have you no faith in us? Well, maybe it’s our turn to show you something? We’ll show you why they don’t want to finish first! We’ll tear them apart!” She ended on a furious bellow.
Despite the background roar of opposing fans taunting each other and the boos that greeted the match officials coming onto the pitch, a silence fell on the Militantes’ bench. All was still, except for the lid of Chico’s basket that quivered as the viper investigated whether he was firmly locked away.
Coach Karsgaard visibly rolled his tongue around the inside of his mouth, bulging out his cheeks. Umberto flushed red, clearly embarrassed. Jacyntha could see her sisters hanging on the next words.
Their coach provided them.
“Nice team talk, captain. I could not have said it better. Every one of you is ready for this game. I just want you to do two things: secure the lid on Chico’s basket, and go tear them apart.”
The women cheered and ran onto the pitch. Only Jacyntha, who had taken it upon herself to secure the stays holding the lid of Chico’s basket in place, heard Coach Karsgaard say to Umberto, “This still stinks to the roots of Yggdrasill, Bertie. Mark my words, my vinr; whatever happens, Rennigan Slythe will pin this on me.”
“This ain’t no game of footy! It be a training session!”
Nykal glanced away from the action and decided to needle his cousin. “They’s playing great footy, hey Hansi? They’re dancing around those peasants …”
“Commoners!” Hansi interrupted with a snarl.
“I heard they was called peasants back there in Chivalria or whatever the place be called.”
“Well, we isn’t in Chivalria are we? And it ain’t them what’s not playing good footy! Them yeomen’re doing nothing to stop those damned Xonyxas!”
It was true enough. Despite having kicked-off, the Militantes were swarming all over the Imperials. The stadium stewards had emptied another dozen barrels of cold water onto the fans to douse their fury. Their team was already down one-nil and the first half wasn’t over yet.
Nykal pointed. “I like that Ellpay one. She’s really good.”
Wait for it!
Jacyntha had confidence in her teammates; they’d crack open a gap in the line soon enough. She had to keep her cool and keep her eyes open for the opportunity once it presented itself. Jacyntha hung back, holding onto the ball. Meanwhile, her sisters had tied the yeomanry up on the line of scrimmage. The blasted commoners were hard to shift but showed little initiative. Then Ellpay feinted left and slipped right around a yeoman, who lunged at her but only knocked her sideways. The Militantes’ catcher stayed on her feet, tip-toeing down the touchline, just a hair’s breadth from going out-of-bounds.
Jacyntha grimaced. She was tempted to make the throw, but then she saw the Imperials’ sole knight, the young Sir Gauthier le Dragon Rouge, race across the pitch. He had been in the Guayamartí team’s backfield, acting as a sweeper, lending a hand where necessary. He recognized the danger of a Militante catcher getting behind his team’s line. He went barreling at Ell, bending into the tackle.
And Ellpay took to the air. She hurdled the oncoming knight, and actually timed her lump so as to step on his helmeted head as he hurtled past, springing higher.
Jacyntha took it as the sign from the Protecting Gods she was waiting for and she threw despite the distance. The ball arched high into the cool autumn air.
“By the thirteen sweet hells …” she caught herself cursing, using Coach Karsgaard’s expression.
She’d thrown the pass too high, too far.
But Ell seemed to find a quicker speed. Like one of Jacyntha’s mother’s trimarans setting a final topsail, the catcher seemed hardly to touch the ground as she sprinted under the ball.
Jacyntha took off downfield. Ell was never going to catch that ball and the Militantes would need to swarm whoever managed to get control of the boarskin.
Just then, on the line of scrimmage, a yeoman hauled down Belyna, both collapsing together to the turf. Through the sudden gap in the line, Jacyntha saw Ellpay lay out, diving horizontally, one arm shooting out like the tongue of some giant chameleon.
The crowd roared.
Ellpay snagged the ball one-handed and rolled, springing to her feet, and dancing backwards.
Right into the end zone.
“She got lucky.”
“Lucky? How’s that? Up-ending Sir Dragon before catching a long-bomb one-handed while diving, and then dancing backwards into the end zone? I call that good footy?”
Hansi grumbled. “The pass was good. And hurdling the knight, I s’pose.”
“Is that it?”
It was all over but the waiting. But Ellpay’s shout, her jumping up and down, and her pointing out to sea perhaps had brought the waiting to an end.
Jacyntha watched the wealthy financiers and league officials, who had been cheerily mingling, as they fell silent and looked in the direction of Ell’s extended arm, her index finger pointing at something in the air. A great multitude had gathered and was now searching the sky for the flutter of wings. They had gathered, along with the owners, coaching staff, and players of the four teams that had seen action today in Guayamartí. Servers had slipped amongst the invitees, offering strange concoctions to drink and exotic hors d’oeuvres to nibble. The attendees had been invited by the league to this reception held on the broad terraza of the very same restaurant where Pierce Rosethorn had once taken her to dine in the summer sun. The patio rimmed Isla Ísquita’s citadel, and its views made it an apt venue to take in the unveiling of the regular season’s final standings. Normally people would come to this place to appreciate the vista of the vast Sommer Sea, but today, it was the proximity to the citadel and the terraza’s view of its flagpole that was important.
Of course, the Hierarchs would let no one inside their seat of power, but Decision Day was evidently the one day of the year they allowed the league to use Guayamartí’s tallest flagpole, perched atop the citadel’s tallest tower, itself built on the highest hill of the Guayamartí Archipelago. A once-a-year rarity, no flag snapped in the wind of that flagpole. Most importantly, there was a pigeon coop up there that would soon receive news of the two games that had been played across the Procura Strait in Halos.
Ellpay had good eyesight, so if she had yelled so enthusiastically, then something other than a seagull was flying towards the land’s uppermost pigeon coop. There was a brief ruckus as people yelled, confirming that yes! – the bird flying closer and closer was indeed a pigeon!
They all followed its flight to the tall tower.
The throng hushed again. The Imperials stood nearby, looking angry after their two-nil defeat. Anne d’Arc looked the angriest and she made a point of making sure the Militantes saw her glaring at them. Their owner, Duc Tancred de Baston, however, looked jolly and whispered something to Mistress Thordwall before toasting everyone’s good health.
Everyone’s good health except that of his commoners.
The Militantes had indeed torn up the Imperials but the penny-a-dozen commoners had born the brunt of the Xonyxas’ determination to win. Four had left the game, two on crutches. The duke didn’t seem to care. Even if Gauthier the Dragon Rouge had suffered a broken finger, he’d probably make the bench in two weeks’ time when the semi-finals would occur. Commoners could be replaced and trained up to a minimum level of competence, or incompetence, in no time. Meanwhile his star knights hadn’t taken a block and, however angry they were, they were all healthy.
“There! Look!” Ellpay yelled again.
Ropes were moving on the flagpole. The bird that had landed had indeed been one of the pigeons bearing news from Halos. A building murmur washed through the throng before an expectant silence fell on the terraza.
A first flag crested the citadel’s merlons, dancing in the strong autumn wind. A loud, baleful moan went up from the crowd and Jacyntha felt her heart sink. The top of the rising flag was not silver, the colour of the Guayamartí Imperials, it was green, the colour of the Ebolicorum Skitteringi. A moment later the full pennant jerked into view and indeed, it showed the smouldering volcano that was the Rodentien sigil.
“They’ve beaten the Quarrels,” Coach Karsgaard said, referring to one of two matches that had been played on the last day of the season across the water in the Eztadio Matadoras. Had the Rodentiens lost, the Militantes would have made the play-offs irrespective of the outcome of the Mongrels’ match. Now they needed to find out if the Orcs had won, and if so, whether they’d won by more than one touchdown. The next two flags wouldn’t tell them: with the Quarrels having lost, the next flag would be …
The silver pennant showing the crowned polar bear was next to rise above the merlons. Muted applause greeted the sight, with only Duc Tancred and Mistress Thordwall looking pleased. Then the gold and green of the Gloriana Quarrels was next to crest the battlements, though that, too, was no longer a surprise. The Imperials would face the Sylvans in one semi-final.
But who would play the Jesters for the right to play the Skitteringi?
Had the Mongrels beaten the Stonecarvers by more than one touchdown to claim fourth place?
Had they stumbled, allowing the Militantes to nip them at the post?
Jacyntha saw the next flag jerk into view and couldn’t help but weep.