And we, they, are back. Again. With the fantasy and the football together at last in the only way that really makes sense to me.
Plex jumped to his feet, adrenaline coursing through him and pain forgotten. His instincts and reflexes, finely honed with the extra training he’d been doing in recent weeks, burned and he nearly gave in to them but he managed to hold off before swinging at the dwarf. Instead, he turned and began to walk away.
“Don’t turn your back on me, elf,” Kalant growled.
Plex tensed, expecting another attack and not wanting to get hit a second time without being ready for the impact. Nothing happened, though, so he turned to face Kalant. The dwarf looked ready to strike again. He was crouched down, preparing to spring forward and use his mass to take down Plex as he had before.
Plex wasn’t sure what he should do to diffuse the situation but was certain that if he turned away again the dwarf would attack. So, instead, he said, “We shouldn’t be fighting each other. Hurting ourselves just benefits the other teams and will make it harder for us to win the prize at the end of all of this.”
“I don’t care about that.”
Confused, Plex asked, “You don’t care? Why are you here then?”
The dwarf didn’t answer and Plex sensed that if he pressed Kalant would attack him just to not have to answer. Changing tactics slightly, Plex said, “I don’t think the dragon will appreciate you sabotaging his game.”
Kalant blanched. Regardless of why he had joined and why he had taken being beaten on the field so hard, the dwarf did not want to get on the bad side of Lavalandinarial. Plex didn’t like using the dragon as a threat but he needed to do something to keep the dwarf from hurting him or, more likely, from having to hurt the dwarf to defend himself.
“Don’t you dare,” the dwarf’s voice quivered slightly as he spoke, “mention that beast to me.”
Plex realized that it wasn’t fear causing the tremor. There was an immense amount of anger radiating from Kalant. The elf wondered if that had something to do with Kalant’s reasons for joining a team, for taking part in the dragon’s games. He would need to bring it up with Coach Sprout. If Kalant had his own motives that could make him a liability and the coach would need to take that into account when picking teams and working through game day strategy.
To try and keep the peace in their current standoff, Plex raised his hands and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you today. I’m not sure why you are here but the plays today had nothing to do with you and everything to do with making sure we can win this thing.”
Kalant growled something under his breath. Plex tensed again, expecting the dwarf to launch into another attack but then Kalant spun on his heel and walked away.
Plex watched him leave the field and then went to find Coach Sprout. He felt bad, like a snitch, for running to the coach. But he was thinking of the whole team. The team came before any one individual. As he searched, he sort of laughed at himself. He had gone from not even wanting to play to now caring about winning in a very short time and he wasn’t quite sure why that was.
“That looked like it hurt,” a high pitched voice said from his side.
The proclamation was immediately followed by the sound of someone kicking the ball. Plex had a little trouble following the ball’s path as it fell in front of the now setting sun. It hadn’t gone very high, he noticed, but it landed at the five yard line along the left sideline. After a short bounce, it rolled out of bounds at the two yard line. If that had been during a game, whoever just punted the ball would have pinned the opposing team back deep in their territory.
Plex turned towards the punter and was a little surprised when he saw a gnome standing there. The gnome held another ball in his hands. It looked ridiculously large in the small humanoid’s hands. “Physical strength isn’t everything,” the gnome huffed as if he was reading Plex’s thoughts. “If your technique is good enough, it can help make up for some of that deficiency.”
The gnome exploded into motion. He dropped the ball down, taking a couple steps forward. His right foot shot upward. It hit the ball when it was halfway between the height of gnome’s waist and knee. The ball went into the air. It didn’t reach the height that his old elven teammate was able to punt it, but the gnome had placed it in the exact same spot he did the first time. The ball bounced slightly differently, going out at the one yard line.
Plex was sure his jaw had dropped when he watched it. Elves were known for their grace and fluidity of motion. The gnome’s kicking technique was as graceful as anything he had ever seen performed by his kinsman. It was almost like the gnome was dancing.
“Impressive,” Plex said honestly. “Your kicks are almost as accurate as my throws, if not more so.”
The gnome acknowledged the compliment with a nod of his head. “What’s the deal with you and the dwarf?”
Absentmindedly rubbing his chest, Plex answered, “He’s upset because he thinks I purposefully embarrassed him at practice.”
“Of course not! All I did was throw it to the open receiver, just like I would do in a real game.”
The gnome considered that for a moment. “I get that, but I think you should take it easy on him.”
“I can’t! If I practice differently than I would play in the games, it will disrupt any cohesion I might build with the rest of the offense, and that might cost us the game.”
“No, you misunderstand. I don’t think you should take it easy on him in practice. What I meant was that I think you should take it easy on him as far as him tackling you just now.”
“Why should I?”
“For one, Lavalandinarial has already had some players from other teams killed for fighting with their teammates. Whose to say he won’t kill both of you just for the fun of it? Plus, if you knew what that dwarf had had to go through lately, you’d know why he’s acting like that.”
“How do you know either of those things?”
“One of the few advantages of my size is that I’m constantly overlooked, so I hear a lot of secrets because people don’t know I’m there. My name is Vinyard, by the way.”
Plex offered his hand and said, “I’m Plex.”
“I know,” the gnome said dryly, but shook the offered hand all the same.
Plex turned back the direction he had been headed and frowned. After a moment of thought, he asked, “Can you tell me if Kalant’s problems will impact our chances of winning?”
Vinyard replied, “From what I’ve heard, it shouldn’t.”
Plex studied Vinyard and decided that the gnome had no reason to lie. It seemed unlikely that he would be in league with whatever Kalant had going on behind the scenes. And, perhaps it would be wiser to wait and see before potentially upending the team by running to the coach. The dragon was notoriously fickle. Vinyard was right that if the beast caught wind of any dissent in the team it might just remove all involved.
“Thank you,” Plex said.
Vinyard shrugged, “We’re all just trying to win here. Some of us have more reasons than the offered prize. Some of us fight for pride, for the honor of battle, for the riches of course, and some of us volunteered to play this game for reasons all our own.”
That made sense to Plex. He had joined because his queen had asked him too. Others had volunteered and it was fitting that each person who did that would have very personal reasons for doing so. “Thank you,” Plex said again. “I’m going to get some rest.”
“Good idea,” Vinyard replied dryly again.
Plex started to walk away but then stopped and turned back to the kicker. Vinyard had taken out another ball from a bag of them nearby. He dropped the ball and swung his leg into it. Just as before, his movements were graceful, poetic even, and, as before, the ball carried down the field to land where the first two had.
Shaking his head, Plex quietly mused to himself, “Vinyard is a better kicker than the elven team had,” as he left the field.
The whole experience had proved very enlightening so far. When the dragon had first announced his ideas and demanded that each race provide a team, he had been skeptical and had wanted no part. As each day progressed he seemed to learn more about his fellow races, though. He was getting a better understanding of his world and that was fascinating at his age. He had already thought himself very learned. He had been wrong and rather than be upset by how little he had known, he was enjoying the broadening of his knowledge.
He decided he would sit with different groups for each meal in the coming days and try to learn more about each of them. Not only would that help him get to have better chemistry with his teammates on the field it would also enrich his own mind.
The smell of food reached him and he smiled. Whatever the cooks had thrown together smelled amazing. He headed towards the food tent with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. He was curious who he would sit with and what he would learn.