The sun was slipping, slowly, slowly, over the horizon of that last great age, the time before the War. While the leaders of the peoples of Aisorbmii and of the Kingdom made preparations for peace, others in high circles took the initiative, preparing forces for the defences of their respective countries.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in a large town north-east of the King's Castle, where a thriving sporting atmosphere was torn apart by the hostilities...
The following account is reconstructed from historical records.
Episode Eight: Rough Play
At half-time the score was four-all, a fact which was barely pacifying the watching crowds in the stadium. It hadn't helped, coach Dutozabitiya considered, that both teams had
changed colours for this match, although he could understand the reasons why.
His own Aisorbmian team, the Iron Jamtins, wore jerseys of pale blue, forest green and peach yellow. Statistically they ought to win, since they hadn't lost a home game in at least four years, and had won or drawn almost all of their away matches. Striker Milosarituva's
record as a goal-scorer was approaching a position in the top ten of all time, although since neither country wished to compare their best players to those of the other country and come out inferior, accurate statistics were hard to come by. Defender Legodatiperi led their
stalwart defences, which also had a growing reputation about becoming impenetrable.
Not today, it seemed. The Kingdom team, the Fireballs, clad in jerseys of bright red, had managed to break through four times. Dutozabitiya had been professionally impressed at this ability, but like any Aisorbmian, angered whenever they fouled his players. Winger
Darolinisuta had already been carted off with a hurt leg, and his substitute Belopenicora had spent his first fifteen minutes on the field shaking.
For over a week, while the Jamtins had played against Aisorbmian teams, Dutozabitiya had heard about the various attacks. Goalkeeper Sazorenigita had lost a sister in the Anilomes raid. The team had sent well-wishing messages to the Prime Minister after hearing of the assassination attempt against his life, and of the attack he'd faced only a few days travel north of this stadium. There had also been news of attacks in the south.
So it was natural that both sides wanted to see a victory in this stadium, now more than ever before. For the first time ever Dutozabitiya had wished his team was a little less prestigious, that they weren't facing the best team Lord Samfr de Samfr owned. The death
of his son, Tarek ir Teriss, had also reached Dutozabitiya's ears, and although there had been no proof of Aisorbmian involvement, the Fireballs were playing to avenge.
The half started, and Jamtin Captain Genokefirica won the first strike, scooping the ball up into his stick and tossing it forwards to Milosarituva. A Fireball winger intercepted and crossed it to defenders on the other side of the pitch. The Fireballs moved as a group down
Belopenicora's wing, and Dutozabitiya was pleased to see the young player stand up to them. He tricked the ball from one and flicked it over towards his Captain, but didn't escape the barrage of two red-shirted shoulders slamming into him.
Dutozabitiya's servant, Sandresk, approached the coach and whispered to him. 'There's a Paladin downstairs, sir, wishing to speak to you.'
'Now?' grumbled Dutozabitiya. Sandresk nodded. The coach heaved himself from the chair and followed the thin servant to a staircase behind the seating, which they both descended. At the bottom was a Paladin, although Dutozabitiya could see he was more than that.
He was clad in the full outfit of a Paladin: a chain-mail thigh-length jerkin, with elbow-length sleeves; leather boots, gloves and belt, polished, with steel gauntlets covering the gloves and steel toecaps fronting the boots; a leather scabbard by his left side, the
clean sword hilt protruding; a shield on his left arm, and a shining steel helmet under his right. And a dark red cloak worn round his back. Dutozabitiya recognised the points on the helmet, the shade of the cloak and some of the symbols on the shield: this was a Minister.
'I am Minister Setovarinesa,' he said. 'Where's yer team?'
'On't field, sir,' said Dutozabitiya. 'Playin' fer their country.'
'I see. I think we're a bit too close t'the field, at the minute. I've gotta tell you summat, and we'll need a bit o' privacy.'
Intrigued but reverent, Dutozabitiya nodded his head. 'There's a quiet supply room not far from 'ere,' he said. 'This way. Sandresk, get the Minister a glass of orange juice.'
The coach led the way, and opened the door for the Minister, who stepped in close to the coach in order to enter. His sword hilt glowed. 'Magic sword?' asked Dotuzabitiya.
'Blessed at Rene Ponit, by the priests,' said Setovarinesa. 'How'd yer know?'
'Little gift I've got,' said Dutozabitiya. 'I can sense any spell cast on any object that's within a few feet of me.' The Minister nodded, impressed.
The servant returned with two beverages shortly afterwards, then left the room. Dutozabitiya moved a rope aside, and sat down on a sticks crate; the Minister remained standing.
'I have bad news, Dutozab' said Setovarinesa. 'I must recruit six men from your team, today. It is likely they will not return for the rest of this season, and possible that some will not return at all.'
'Six?' spluttered the coach. 'We only have fifteen players, and we need ten to make a team! Besides which we've got four more matches against Kingdom sides in the next month, and if they're 'owt like Samfr's Fireballs we'll need substitutes too! What game d'yer think
yer playin' at?'
'I'm sorry, Dutozab, I really am, but the Minister Cadre 'ave made their orders crystal clear, no defyin' them. Every Paladin is being recalled into armour, to defend their country, and you have the honour of 'avin' six on yer team.'
Dutozabitiya's heart sank, and he gaped. He was thirty-seven, he'd been old enough to
know the responsibilities of the Paladins in wartime. In peacetime lacrosse had grown on the borders as a competitive sport, and when Aisorbmian players had played very well, in the presence of the Ministry, he'd been proud when the title of Paladin had been bestowed. It was a new tradition, maybe a dozen years old. He hadn't thought anyone would've believed such players were skilled enough with the sword or lance to fight in battle.
Setovarinesa drank from his cup, and looked at Dutozabitiya's eyes. 'I'm sorry, Dutozab, I really am. I support yer team, and I know what it means to 'ave all them names on yer side. But that is what the orders say,' he said. He put his shield down and pulled a chair nearer to the coach. 'It's not just your men, neither. Everyone who's been given Paladin status, who's still young enough to fight, is being recalled. I even know a few Rangers who have to get armoured up.'
''Ow soon must they go?' asked Dutozabitiya, sipping his orange juice. He heard a loud cheering. It irked him a little not knowing which side had scored.
'I wouldn't pull them out in't middle of a match, 'specially not this'un. Too much chance of riot. But soon. A few days, maybe.'
The Minister stood to leave, opening the door. 'Come, Dutozab. Game's not over yet. Let's go watch the Jamtins win, and we'll drink to the success of yer men.'
'Aye,' said the coach, and he downed the rest of the orange juice. Then he spat it out. 'Sandresk can't make orange juice very well, I think you noticed that. It has juice, pips, peel and all other kinds of gunk in it.'
'Coach Dutozabitiya?' asked a voice, and the Minister and the coach turned around. There were two men just outside the room, one old, one young.
'Who are yer?' asked Dutozabitiya.
'Me name's Remolorirati,' said the old man. 'This is me son, Sunoremidera. We were just passing through, havin' places to be, and we hoped we could get an autograph from yer, sir, while we had time.'
The son held out a parchment and a quill. A sword-shaped scar glowed on the young man's arm, just above the elbow, but there was no hidden magic in the parchment or quill, so Dutozabitiya signed his name.
'Thank yer kindly, sir,' said Remolorirati. 'Say thank yer, Sun,' he said, and the youth sullenly repeated his father's words.
Dutozabitiya nodded uncertainly. 'Yer welcome,' he said. The two men departed, the older man obviously more excited than his son about the signing. He turned back to the Minister. 'Let's go,' he said.
Sandresk met them at the staircase. 'A word, sir?' he asked Dutozabitiya. The coach nodded, and waved to the Minister to ascend the stairs and watch the game. Setovarinesa nodded, and clambered.
'What now?' asked Dutozabitiya.
'I must leave you, sir. I have just received a message from my brother, in the west. He needs my assistance.'
'Yer my servant, Sandresk,' said Dutozabitiya. 'Yer've got a weekend off coming soon. Can it not wait?'
Sandresk's face darkened. 'No, sir,' he said. Then he struck Dutozabitiya.
Dutozabitiya fell to the ground, and found himself unable to climb back to his feet. Sandresk moved to the coach's shoulders and pulled him back to the quiet room. 'What have yer done to me?' asked Dutozabitiya.
'Paralysis potion in the orange juice, sir,' said Sandresk. 'It's an old favourite of the Kingdom nobility. Incapacitates very quickly, but makes death long and slow. The maker of the potion can even choose whether the victim can speak or not after ingestion.' Sandresk took the large rope from the floor and moved to a rafter, tying the rope around it. He then formed a noose from the rope which remained.
'You see, sir, Winger Darolinisuta died from his injuries a few minutes ago. His back was broken.'
The news stunned Dutozabitiya, though it didn't sound right... 'His leg was hurt...' Sandresk gave him a cold look, and Dutozabitiya knew his servant was the killer.
Sandresk hauled the coach's body onto a pile of high crates, and continued his speech. 'You, of course, are heartbroken by the news, especially as six others from your team are about to leave forever. Your team will never play another game.'
The servant struggled to pull Dutozabitiya higher. Then he placed the noose around the coach's neck. 'Some will believe you hanged yourself in despair, particularly those of Kingdom patronage. Others, particularly the Aisorbmii, will believe you were murdered.'
Sandresk clambered down again, reaching into his pockets and placing an opened, empty tin of rice pudding on the sticks crate Dutozabitiya had sat on earlier. He placed a dirty spoon and a note beside it.
'No-one will know what to believe, and the Aisorbmii may be convinced, eventually, that it was simply a tragic affair. But the Kingdom will have considered it an insult, especially after the Aisorbmian victory today.'
'The game's not finished yet,' said Dutozabitiya.
'Oh, you are very slow, Dutozabitiya. Some of your team have promise, others are appalling. But you shall win because I have made it so. Your team relies on magic to be victorious.'
'At last some proper thought. I have worked so very hard to get your team into this position, coach Dutozabitiya, where the two countries can feel so justified in abandoning the peace they have enjoyed these last decades. But it was a respite, no more than that.' Sandresk climbed back up to the rafters, and began to push Dutozabitiya's body off.
'Goodbye, coach Dutozabitiya. I grant you the mercy of dying before it all starts.'
Dutozabitiya felt himself moving swiftly for a moment, but did not hear the crack.
The Iron Jamtins won 8-4 in the end. Only after the match did they hear of their two dead friends. News spread quickly through the crowds, and it was only through the efforts of the Minister and the six recalled Paladins that the Aisorbmian crowds were prevented from rioting. But all hopes of co-operation, in trade or sport, were dashed in this town.
The surviving Iron Jamtins insisted on staying together, and the six Paladins recruited their team-mates as Squires. With Setovarinesa, they travelled north.
And what of Sandresk? Only further research can find the answers.