Chapter 27: Courtball: Fallers versus Wellers
"What's with the crowd?"
"They're a coming to see the game."
"But it's only a scrimmage."
"They want entertainment. Need some uplifting after the attack."
"Don't remind me."
Umbra had pulled me aside yesterday evening, after Prayner drilled me to death in running practice. She had a somber look on her face. I had asked her what the cause of it was.
"Thirty-six dead, including two village elders," she had responded.
So, even if the crowd was large, it also seemed to be not very raucous. The attitude around the court was somber, reserved. There were maybe five or six hundred people present; more than a few of them must have lost someone. There were those not paying attention to the field but hugging each other and crying, others that stared blankly at their feet. A woman leaned over and comforted one such fellow. I had heard Hyrule was like this, using its sports and tournaments to bring the community together after a tragedy. Holodrum wasn't in the habit, and I never stayed still long enough to empathize with other lands, so this was new to me. I did spot Umbra, near the top of the stands. She was gazing at the crowd too, contemplating faces and who knows what else. Her hair glistened silver in the sunlight, her bangs falling across her eyes. Her delicate-seeming hand reached up to brush the offending hairs away.
"I wonder," I said aloud.
I gestured towards Umbra. "Umbra."
"I mean Amber."
"Who? Oh, Ilian." Prayner squinted before spotting her as well.
"Well that's what she told my town to call her."
"Where are you from?"
"Town on the eastern rim, Clockpatch."
"I moved here for work," he explained. "So, Ilian, to us. Annoying, isn't it? Girl could stick with one name."
"Yeah," I nodded. "Do you like her?"
"Like? Yeah, of course. Everyone does. Hutch is a huge fan of hers."
"Hey," I motioned for him to lean in close.
"I mean, does anyone like her? Does she have a special someone?"
"Oh, you got your eye on her?"
"No!" I gestured defensively. He eyed me, and grinned. "She's cute, I admit, but she's too… too much for me. I was just wondering if she had anyone."
"Well, the most I heard, she was in a bad relationship, but that was a long time ago. I haven't heard anything yay or nay since, um, five years ago."
I love her, you should know.
Her word floated back to me. Did she have an unrequited crush on the Cloud Walker or something?
Come to think of it, that would be pretty weird. By all accounts, the Cloud Walker is a maverick, careless god with half a brain and no memories. I couldn't see how that relationship would work out.
"Don't space out, we're up."
"Alright yeh lambs, we're in for the scrimmage, but let's not be a too wee lax! Set the tone for next-come season, show em what they're in for after the weepin matches go over! You think they'll be a weepin for another reason then AYE-AYE?" Hutch raised his fist for us.
"OO-RA-HA!" We shouted back in unison.
"Then out'n we go!"
We rushed onto the court, and the crowd finally broke its vigil. The cheers were loud and celebratory. A small corner of the stands featured a cadre of sky-blue-cloaked fans. These were currently rooting wildly and breaking into chants and yells. I waved them on with the rest of my temporary team mates. I even noticed Umbra walk down to join them. They laughed and sang for her, and she obliged them by conjuring a sky-blue cardigan and putting it on herself. Whatever had been bothering her vanished, and she quickly became the very picture of our team mascot.
"Thiel you'd better do it, you braggart!" she shouted. I gave her an angry glare and a fist pump in return.
"And my fellows Solaceans, from the upstream courtyard, the Solacean Wellers!" A troupe of evergreen-clad fellows marched onto the field.
I was under the impression these guys would be bigger, meaner, more evil than us. What I got was a team to match our line-up man for man. On the surface, they were even more enthused and their fans even more wild than ours. A closer looked revealed they were putting up a brave front, though. As soon as one fellow turned to the court, away from fans, his eyes went downcast and turned gloomy.
"Ayoo. I know they're a hurtin from losin Mayoway, but that doesn't mean we're letting them a go. You know Solacean League's motto," Hutch advised us.
"Never less than one's best," the men chanted.
"Alright, get in the box, get suited, and let's get it on."
The thirteen of us shoved ourselves into the team box. A door and a short flight of steps led to an elevated suite, lined with benches and sporting a good view of the arena.
"Hattil, Prayner's taking your place on tending today."
"Aye," said one of the mid-sized men.
"I want you to go Runner for five minutes, then Thiel here will pick up your spot." Huttil eyed me indifferently, nodded, and that was settled. Hutch continued assigning positions and explaining today's tactics.
He laid his bear-paw of a hand on my shoulder. "We'll give you a look first, before we throw you in. Don't go getting queasy on us."
A referee hoisted the ball into the air, and the match began.
"Makko!" "Lott!" "Here! Here here here!" CRUNCH! "Get outa the way!" "Hutch!" "Hutch! Hutch!" CRACK!
These weren't kids playing a game of kick-a-ball. They were in a constant state of controlled chaos. I hadn't readily gotten the impression from practice, but now the "full-contact" nature of the sport was impressed upon me. Even the guys who weren't touching the ball were bumping, blocking, pushing and shoving each other. It took one of our guys knocking a defender onto his back for the ref to call a "mere" fowl. Fowl's were only worth a free, unmolested throw from the ball's current position, not even a shot on the goal. To say nothing of the poor blokes who actually held the ball…
"Oooh!" I joined the audience in wincing as one of ours was flipped over mid-air, landing badly on his torso. I was worried, but the thick-chested plugger got up, shook it off, and play went on without pausing.
Clay, our lead striker, went in tandem with Huttil. He got off two goals in rapid succession by volleying the ball towards a waiting Huttil, who proceeded to dodge their tender and leap into the net. From the green-colored corner, I took it this was a nasty piece of work: two goals within four minutes was considered rather lopsided.
Clay attempted a third such strike, but the defenders got wise and covered Huttil. A deflection sent the ball high and out of the arena.
"Alright, you're up." I was pushed out into the arena. Huttil jogged back.
"Good luck," he huffed as he passed me.
Then everything became fast. Really fast. Apparently the other team decided Clay was too dangerous to give a shot at the ball.
"Woah!" I barely dodged sideways as a huge green center stumbled backwards rapidly. The ball whizzed by my head a split-second later, and I found myself leaping in the other direction to avoid Hutch.
Hutch had explained this situation to me. Strikers most often get shots at the ball when it's pried loose from a center or plugger. If the opponent wanted to keep the strikers off-balanced, their own centers would spend time nailing the ball as hard as they could, sending it ping-ponging around the arena. That's what was happening now, and I felt the thing was like a living bullet aimed at random.
"Here!" I saw the ball lofted in an arc. I ran for a jump; caught the ball mid-air with my palm, and sent it flying towards the enemy net.
Their tender easily caught it and handed it off to their center.
"What are yeh doin!" Hutch shouted at me.
"Fuck, it was there!"
The big bastard made an ugly face and gesture and ran off to tackle a runner. Politeness and civility get left on the sidelines, I guess.
I ran about our backcourt, looking for the green runner who was tripping over dozens of tackles, never getting a path to our net but inexplicably managing to elude our defenders. Suddenly he was in front of me. He juked, cut to my left, and I matched. He juked again, but this time bounced the ball to his team-mate.
My reflexes kicked in. This is the kind of moment-to-moment situation I've seen on any number of capers. The balance of their foot, the shifting of the weight on their hips and calves, the focus in their eyes- I could sense the runner egging away to a spot, slightly open, and I could see our men collapsing on the team-mate. I just knew what was about to happen.
"Hiyah!" I slapped the ball, hard, as the green team-mate attempted to pass it back to the runner. The ball went flying into the air, straight into Clay's hands. He took three steps, fired it, and the ball went stinging into the corner of the net.
"Good job Clay!" Several team-mates rushed to congratulate him. Prayner jogged to my side and patted me on the back, the lone sign of appreciation. I smirked.
Yeah, it was great for Clay, and our team. Hell, I wasn't that vested in making myself look good anyways. But, unless Umbra counted assists, I needed three goals of my own, and this wasn't helping.
The green runner was given the ball.
"Thiel get back up front!" Hutch yelled. That one moment caught him turned wrong, and the runner blitzed his way through an open lane. Two dodged tackles and three seconds later and he ran into our net.
Our side was cowed, the green corner celebrated.
"Sorry!" I apologized.
"Forget it, front, now!" Hutch emphatically ordered.
Five minutes and they scored again. Three minutes later they tied. That runner was obviously the best person on their team. His third goal came compliments of a flying wedge ramming a lane down the center of the court. They figured that, so long as the runner could keep dodging Hutch and company and keep his hands on the ball, Clay's striking ability was irrelevant.
I was getting frustrated, and the flags indicating the time showed that we were almost at halftime. I was getting sore again from being elbowed and pushed around. Not to mention, the wear of catapulting back and forth across the court was running my stamina down.
I saw the ball bouncing across the ground, dislodged by a lucky tackle. I didn't have time to even lean down; I trapped it with my foot, looking for an opening. The goal was clear, only their tender! I launched it with my foot, drawing a gasp from the crowd. Just as I let it loose, their striker clipped my shoulders, pulling off just in time to avoid a full-on tackle. I spun round, dropped to my knees and clutched my shoulder.
"Close!" The tender had to dive and swat the ball away. Our men took it and put the pressure on, making three good runs on the goal before the ball was sent ping-ponging again.
Damn it. I'm this sore and I haven't made one goal! An official dropped the fifth. We had five more minutes till the half.
I began lurching around, looking for an opportunity, any opportunity, to get my hand or foot on the ball.
"Thiel, stop being selfish!" yelled Prayner. I ignored him.
Then I saw it. A space. And Clay, if he knew what was good for me and good for us, if only he'd see it too…
I wrestled my way into the opponents corner. Clay was playing runner, taking it down the opposite sideline, but having a hard time of it. The guy who covering me got drawn in. I waved my hand.
He was gang-tackled, but heaved it in my direction at the last instant. It was a fraction out of reach, I couldn't get a decent shot on it, but… just enough to send it skyward a few feet. It came down. I had a single second to gage the trajectory and ready my body.
Their tender had been covering low, he had no chance of stopping a ball ricocheting off the upper cross bar and into the net. He pounded both fists into the ground.
I didn't see that though. I was three yard from where I should have landed, buried beneath their largest center. I felt all the wind going out of me. The center got off, fuming over my goal. He looked down at me, wheezing and cringing, and his face changed to concern. He offered me a hand up, but I couldn't even take it. Pain, this time encompassing my rib cage, hit my being in blunt waves. The center backed off, allowing my team mates to surround me.
"Are you okay?"
"Get him out, get him out!" They heaved me between them and took me to the team box. One of the rag-covered beings, this one in full bandages like a gibdos, rushed to my side.
"Nekay? Nekay? Ney, still, sit. Here. Hurt? Ne? Nenai?"
These things and their accents! He carefully prodded my chest. After a few minutes examination, he hefted off my padding and applied some cold salve to my chest.
"Done. Today, no more. Skin, bruised. Bones, bruised, lungs, bruised. Lucky, nothing broken."
"Yesne, out, quite out."
I clenched my fist.
Prayner and Hutch came to my side as the game went on.
"It's okay, chap."
"You did good. That was some goal."
"I need two more," I spoke, clumsily.
Hutch shook his head. "Sorry. I'm so sorry."
"Taking hard hits doesn't come overnight," Prayner explained in a sort of apologetic, compassionate manner. "Takes years to toughen the body up to take hard blows like that."
"I guess. Guess," I said.
"Geez, the fact that you even took that and still scored? Pretty damn amazing for a first-timer. How'd you not die?" How indeed? I'll give the credit to the numerous cripplings I've taken in the previous weeks.
They patted my shoulder and went back to the game. As half-time was announced, the rest of team gathered round to give their condolences and congratulate me on my first goal.
I watched, avidly, the rest of the game. I knew in the back of my mind I would have to face Umbra and her overblown expectations. Technically, I still had two games left to try to reach her goal. Yet… I don't think I could take another pounding like that. I might get legitimately injured next time, then where would my combat prowess be?
"Bother," I mumbled. I put it in the back of my mind by concentrating on the game.
With Huttil back in the tender, we were scored on twice in the first five minutes of the second half. That runner was devilish. However, Prayner moving up front proved to be more than the Wellers could handle. The man could do everything: dodging, tackling the smaller guys, stripping balls, punting, smacking, passing, tripping, I mean everything. I wondered that he wasn't team captain; if not our leader, he was certainly our ace. He put three into the goal himself, and helped Clay with a fourth as time ran out.
The final score- Fallers: 8 Wellers: 6. The sky-blue section roared into cheers. I looked up to the stands, searching for Umbra. She gave a hollering right alongside the craziest of fans. She spotted me staring at her, gave me a thumbs-down and a wicked grin. I responded in kind. The imminent "told-ya-so" was going to be embarrassing.
"Ooo-Ra-Ha!" Ooo-Ra-Ha! Ooo-Ra-Ha!" The team and crowd roared their war cry. As the celebration died down, Hutch, Prayner, and Clay joined the other side and took a few minutes to talk quietly with them. They all bowed their heads for a moment, then parted with somber expressions.
The team paraded down the streets of Solace, followed by a half-hundred adoring fans.
Link and Zelda smiled at me.
"You looked so excited there for a minute."
"It's.. kind of special a memory for me," I said, sheepishly.
"It was my first goal. I mean, I was stuck in that land for three years, by my reckoning. There was almost a whole year there, where I played for the Solacean Fallers. By the end of it I was pretty damn good at the sport; basically the second best striker in Solacean history. It's really quite fun, if you don't get snapped in half. Want to know more?"
"It's not necessary, right now," Link said, a little bemused.
"Damn, I could go on for days," I said with a minor laugh. A pity too, because I wasn't kidding, and it would put off the emotional bits for that much longer.
"So I take it Umbra took you training," the big knight asked.
"And was it the usual ho hum? Training tends to be a boring story."
"Oh, well, yeah, the training itself was boring and tedious. I wouldn't put myself through the telling of it, either. But, well, it's worth explaining the circumstances, since I got to meet the skarrow."
"The skarrow," I nodded, and sighed. If there were parts of my story I didn't want to tell because they were painful and emotionally scarring, and parts that were too boring and uneventful to relate, well… here's the part it hurts to narrate because it was so blatantly weird.
"Prepare you minds," I warned.