Read Taking One for the Team Online

Authors: Vanessa Cardui

Taking One for the Team

Taking One for the Team

By Vanessa Cardui

Copyright 2015 Vanessa Cardui

Kindle Edition

The cover image is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
license.  It is based on photos by
Nick Gourlie
, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
license, and
Shawn Perez
, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Generic license.  The font is
Intramural JL
Ray Larabie
.  Some changes have been made to the original works.

Helmets on, vests on.

Raven paused for half a second to tuck her good-luck piece into the back of her helmet.  A curse-marker with her face on it—they’d printed those up in Miracle, after Raven had scored twenty-one goals against their team in the Harvest Games.  Final score, 84-80 Longacre, which had won Raven’s hometown three hides of disputed land and shared use of Miracle’s white spring.  No question, against locals, Raven was damned good.

Weren’t playing locals now, though.

She had to jog to catch up with the rest of the team; they all walked out onto the field together, and a cheer rose up from the bleachers.  Just about the whole town had turned out to watch the game.  It wasn’t often you saw stormers in a sleepy backwater like Longacre, and the stormers’d bet fifteen gallons of whisky and an automatic pistol against two sheep and three-fifty pounds of cornmeal that they'd be able to beat the home team by thirty goals.

Damned if they would.

When the team took the field, the coaches had just finished walking out the boundaries and checking the goals.  They shook hands.  Coach Langdon, best coach in the world, last of the Langdons of Longacre.  And the stormer coach, a slick-looking fellow not much older than Raven, with a metal arm and a metal leg.

Stormer team was already waiting.  The three towers stood on their stumps in front of the goal, heavy chains with prickle-catches wrapped around each arm, with the third chain coiled at their feet.  Right-side tower was a woman.  That was unusual.  Most women players were runners, light on their feet, nimble enough to duck under those swinging chains and dodge tackles from the wings, to get in close to the goal and score.

Women playing wing—like Raven—was pretty common too.  She was fast enough to grab a loose ball when she saw it, strong enough to pull down runners who were making a try.  And when she got a chance, from just about anywhere across the center line, she'd find the goal, three times out of ten, which was near the numbers the papers gave for pros.

Not that Longacre got papers, much—those were for the city-states and the Coast.  What they got were three months old, more, read ten times before they got there, and dragged the whole way through the mud.  But there were the scores and the names of the teams, and Raven knew them all.

But she’d never seen anything like the stormers’ center tower.  Next to him, the massive lady tower looked petite.  Could be he was genetouched; people didn't get that big without a few rads in their blood.  Fast, too, and accurate—the stormers had done an exhibition the day before, doing tricks, and the center tower had caught three runners with three chains—pow, pow, pow—and wound them so tight that they'd've been out for the duration.  Course, a tower who committed all three chains was also out for the duration, but that'd be worth it.  More to the point, those runners were exactly where he expected them to be.

The Longacre team took their places, towers on the stumps, runners and wings up against the center line.  Raven found herself almost nose-to-nose with the stormers’ blue wing.  She’d been watching him in the exhibition too, and he was good. He’d lined up fifteen balls on the line, then run along it, bobbing and weaving, and each time he picked one up, he tossed it at the goal.  They all hit, fifteen in a row.

Real good, better than Raven.  But it was easier to throw when there weren't any towers between you and the goal, no wings to pull you down or runners trying for an intercept.  And their gold wing didn't show any tricks like that.  Looked strong, but little slow, and he was favoring his right leg.

Gold wing was the point of weakness.

Stave, center tower, Longacre team captain, came down from his stump and up to the line, shook hands with the stormer captain, one of the runners.  Then he went back, and the ball went up in the air.

Game on.

First break went to the stormers.  Raven held back, watched the passing.  Third runner to first to third to blue wing to score, just like that.  They were well smooth, no doubt.  Longacre was going to lose?  Doubt.

She grabbed it off the bound, passed, crossed the line, took a pass, scored.  Then went in after their third runner—the team captain—hit her with a low tackle, just on the clean side of a bad hit, took the ball up, launched a try.  Missed, because one of the tower's chains clipped her side on the follow-through.

First half, Raven made ten goals on forty-one tries, which was damn good against the team the stormers were showing.  They'd scored on tries that seemed impossible—there was a muddy footprint on the side of Stave's helmet where one of the runners had gone right up over him to score.  And every single time one of the stormers made an error, another one was there covering.

Blue wing was better than Raven.  He was taller, and had an arm like a pulse rifle.  Gold wing was stronger and smarter, but he was off his game; when Raven crossed the line, she doubled up on gold side, took tries sooner than she would've, because the stormer towers were murder.

Score was twenty-eight to forty at the half.  They were coming close to winning the bet, but that wasn't what Raven cared about, not after that half.

"We can win it," she told Stave and the rest of them as they cleaned the mud out of their cleats, and wiped off as much blood as they could.  "Lure the gold wing in between towers, pin him with a chain.  He's slow, and you could—"

"We're going to play things safe," said Stave.  "Bet's looking winnable, and damn if I don't want to win it.  That'd settle Hold-Your-Cards' hash, anyway—nobody takes bets off stormers, not more than one time in twenty."

That was true, and fair, and it rankled.  Making a bet like that with stormers was to show how rich they were—how much they could afford to lose.  Winning whisky and an automatic was just a dream.  But dammit, it was close enough.  They could take it.

When the second half started, Raven went all out.  Four scores on fifteen tries, three intercepts, and she hit one of their runners hard enough that he staggered getting up.  And because she was going all out like that, there were more holes for Longacre's runners to get through.  Score was thirty-eight to forty-four when their center tower caught Raven with a chain.

Sterrn, at Longacre's gold wing, had missed on his try, so Raven went for the pick-up, rolled over a stormer runner, but as her hand went up for a try, the chain wrapped up around her chest, pulling her forward.

She'd been out of range of the tower.  She'd been sure she was out of range.  No time to think.  She turned and twisted as their center tower turned and pulled.  Bang-thump of Sterrn getting the loose ball and scoring, and she tried to undo the prickle-catch of the chain as she also dug in and tried to keep from being pulled in.

Didn't manage either.  Their center tower wasn't just huge; he pulled like a gasoline tractor.  And the prickle-catch had caught the other end of the chain behind Raven's back, up on the shoulder.  He pulled her in as she tried to find purchase in the mud.   Another bang-thump of a Longacre score, and then he whipped a second chain at her.

That close, it wrapped around three times before the prickle catch caught.  Both legs pinned, and her right arm pinned to her body.  The tower let both chains go, and turned his attention back to the game.

A pin.  It had been almost twenty games since Raven had been pinned, and damned if it was going to be a pin in this one, not with them within ten points of the stormers at the end of the second half.

Chains were tight, but tight wasn't perfect.  And her left hand was free.  She started rubbing her ankles together, closing and opening her right hand, pulling for any slack she could find, anywhere.

Mud was wet enough that it loosened things up a bit, and it wasn't too long before she got the skin on her wrist pinched between two links of the chain, and started bleeding.  Good—help her slip out, if there was any looseness at all.

Breathe in, and then breathe all the way out, and then—

And the right-side tower hit her with a chain.

No way that she'd been in range of both of them.  Not possible.  Not after the center tower had dragged her in close like that.

Coach had checked the chains, so they weren't cheating.  Prickle-catch on left side's chain had caught the chain on Raven's ankles.  She pulled her backwards through the field, and while Raven twisted and clawed with her free hand, all she did was earn herself a few extra bumps and bruises.

The tower brought her in close enough to lift her up, like she was a fish she'd just caught.  Raven looked at her, upside-down, bloodied and bruised, and spat in her eye.  The tower grinned back, and went for her second chain.

Tried to twist, tried to get her hand out, didn't help.  It wrapped around her, over and over and over, and wherever the prickle-catch hit, there wasn't any way that Raven was going to be able to get at it.  Tower dropped her, and shifted her attention back to the game.

Four chains for a pin—that wasn't a bad trade for a wing, really.  Towers would use two chains at once a lot of the time, so Raven had left two of the towers at half-strength.  And they couldn't threaten any of the runners with pins, not without having to drop out themselves.

The lady tower had dropped her face-down, and too tightly pinned to even turn over.  So Raven lay there and breathed in mud, and waited for the match to end.   Final score announced was 97-60, stormers.

Tradition was that someone pinned was left pinned until they got out themselves or the opposing coach let them loose, usually a few hours after the game.  And she'd been damn well pinned, so Raven lay there and waited, not even trying to wriggle loose.  Vests were hard, but that last chain had been laid on harder than that—good chance she'd cracked a rib or two.  Lying still hurt less than struggling, and was just as likely to get her loose.

Only when the stormer coach showed up, Coach Langdon was with him.

The stormer coach got his cane in the knots of chain, flipped Raven over onto her back.

"She's good," he said.

Coach Langdon nodded.

"Looking to trade?" asked the stormer.  He was still wearing the same gray suit, creases sharp as knives.

"Looking what's best for her," said Coach.

"How old is she—twenty, twenty-two?"

"Nineteen next month."

"Getting old," said the stormer, shaking his head.  "If she's going to make the coastal league, she's almost past it."

Coach shrugged.  "So she'll pick up a few more wins, few more scars, maybe a cup from the team when she's done playing.  Lot of kids like that."

"Not a lot with that potential.  Damn few, in fact."

"Better off letting it go," said Coach.

Nobody'd said anything to her.  They'd barely even looked at her the whole time they were talking.

"Coastal league?" she asked.

Coach sighed.  "Yeah, maybe.  Not worth it, though.  Play like that, they’d flay you on the coast, Raven."

"Wouldn't play like that when we were through with you," said the stormer.

"Which is the other thing," said Coach.  "We've got laws here.  Laws against beatings, laws against rape.  Stormers don't.  They have traditions."

"Traditions like, stormers take a match and a pin, they can trade for the pin," said the stormer.

"Traditions like, wing don't score her target, wing gets fucked by the team," said Coach.

Raven stilled.  Coastal league, though.  Face in papers everywhere, victory parades.  Matches that meant more than access to springs or a head of cattle.

"Traditions like, players get traded without their say-so," said the stormer.

"Don't be a damn fool, Alvas," said Coach.  "That was for days when losing a match by more'n twenty meant that you didn't have enough food for the team.  For days when the pin would wind up being a meal for the stormers, more likely than not.  Things aren't so bleak—hell, half the kids Raven's age are fertile, this year, and rads are down everywhere."

"Not her, though?"

Coach Langdon gave a shake of his head.  "Damn healthy otherwise, though.  And she should stay that way.  This one's your call, Raven."

"I'm in," she said.  "If he offers enough."

Turned out that Raven's value to Longacre was thirty gallons of corn-whisky and a repeating rifle, which was a damn sight more than she'd thought she was worth.

Turned out that the stormer coach thought Raven should be scoring at least three times on five tries.

"Nobody scores sixty percent!" said Raven, as he started unlocking the chains on her.

"Runners score," said the stormer coach.  Stormers had won, so they got the field for the next day—their wagons were drawn up near the home goal, and since Coach Langdon was heading back to town, it seemed that Raven was going to be there that night too.

"Wings score," said Raven.

"When they have a clean shot.  Maybe we'll switch to a run and go, but for now, your target is three out of five.  And since you got less than that, you're going to get used tonight."

Raven growled, but bowed her head.  She'd known what she was signing up for, more or less.

Once he'd gotten the chains off of her, the coach put them back on, wrapped carefully, pulled tight, prickle-catch set where he wanted it, so she was on her hands and knees, tied to the center tower's stump.

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