The (W)rites of Rob Knipe

Comic Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novelist, geek, painter, doodler, Riverside Raiders #69

A Game of Two Halves – The Torso and Legs

Below is the first three chapters for the comic fantasy novel A Game of Two Halves – the Torso and Legs which I’m currently seeking representation for.
The story follows an amateur team who gain sponsorship into a professional league for the violent sport of fistball. While they bask in their initial success, they soon find that their deal wasn’t what it originally seemed.

Prologue

Faran opened his sallet visor and wiped sweat from his face with a filthy, padded glove. His jaw ached from an earlier blow, and he’d have another tooth for the bowl when the final whistle blew. The leather helmet straps were soaked with sweat and splattered with dirt, gritty and cold when they rubbed against his skin.

‘Take your positions,’ yelled the dwarf referee.

The Allstars formed up on the line. This far in he knew they were out-muscled, and they were being easily out-played. The Brogar Bone Crunchers were the stuff of nightmares. His mind was groggy from too many powerful hits, and his blue and white armour was dented and scuffed. He was splattered in blood, sweat and tears, and the painted Allstars logo on his chest plate was scuffed. It now read ‘ars’.

The crowd were chanting. He couldn’t tell what, but it was rhythmic.

He slapped his visor shut and braced.

The whistle blew.

The teams crashed together, fists flying and shoulders slamming.

Grimble roared from the centre of the line, the sound of his mighty blows rang out above the deafening noise of the crowd. Pain and Hurt would be leaving their mark.

Faran moved side to side across the pitch, looking for an opening. A cry of pain to his left, and Skorngberg hit the turf in a clatter of armour plates.

The Allstars line was faltering, men were being forced backwards.

Tanner dropped from the wing and slammed into the central melee, forcing a gap in the greenskin’s line.

The crowd roared.

An opening.

Faran made his move, sprinting at the gap. With every second, it was shrinking. Allstars’ braced and muscles strained as blue and white tried to hold the red and green tide.

He leapt between the Bone Crunchers.

Armoured hands reached for him.

Thick green fingers swiped, knocking him off balance and he stumbled, touching the ground with one hand to right himself before moving off at speed.

His heartbeat thudded in his ears as he put everything into clearing the melee.

A guttural bellow carried across the greenskin half.

He’d been spotted.

Faran’s armour rattled, his strides were fast. The spikes on his boots gripped the soft ground. He was aware of the rip, rip, rip of the grass being torn up with every stride pace.

An ork charged, throwing in a spiked pauldron at the last minute.

He reached out a hand, pushing off from the ork’s filthy, red armour a split-second before the spikes would have pierced his gut. Faran circled the greenskin, and bounded up the pitch, his feet tearing up what remained of the lush green turf.

The crowd roared again. Cheers and jeers.

‘Groper!’

The spiked and studded leather fistball spun through the air.

An ork slid in towards him.

Faran hurdled the Bone Cruncher, catching the tan ball and clasping it tight as he landed without breaking his stride. His palms stung from the studs, and the spikes scratched at his breastplate.

His legs ached from the effort, pain was starting to build up in his thighs.

Halfway through the opposition half, and only a scrawny goblin stood between him and the equaliser.

Faran’s eyes narrowed, he had every intention of laying his shoulder in.

After what Little Dirty Bastard had done to Schiester, he was determined to return the favour.

The cacophony of the scrum and the din of the crowd became distant as he focussed on scoring.

His heartbeat grew louder.

Twenty metres.

Breathing hard; loud, deep breaths. Armour clattering, feet pounding.

Ten metres.

Heavy footsteps slamming onto the pitch; they weren’t his own.

Five metres.

He checked right as a knuckle-duster struck home, ringing through his helmet and turning his legs to jelly.

His vision dimmed as he stumbled, his steps wild and uncoordinated.

Outstretched green hands grabbed at him.

The goblin’s expression turned to terror as Faran plummeted into him.

A crash of armour rang out across the pitch and the crowd went silent.

They hit the floor, plates buckled and bones snapped.

His arms clutched the ball, he couldn’t let go.

Rolling over and over with the goblin, he could smell sickly, sweet sweat, the reek of the goblins breath, the taste his own blood.

They came to a stop.

His vision faded in and out. The goblin writhed in front of the goal, legs facing the wrong way, and one arm bent so that appeared to have three elbows.

It was glorious, and Faran smiled.

His heartbeat filled his ears, fast and loud. Sweat ran from his face, cooled by the breeze across the pitch, bringing the smell of fistball; sweat, blood and misery. He raised his visor, giving alternates of dazzling sunlight and blackness. His other arm fell to his side and the ball rolled free.

Something smashed into Faran’s leg, and the plate buckled, putting pressure on his shin. He let out a quiet, breathless cry.

An ork toppled onto the goblin with a crunch, turning wails of pain into fatal silence.

As Faran’s vision faded, the ball rolled slowly across the line.

The crowd went wild.

 

Chapter 1

Rule #1 – Only officially sponsored teams may play in a Fistball league.

He lay on his damp, rotted wooden bed, reading the letter for the umpteenth time.

Someone hammered on the door again, this time a lot harder. ‘Get out of bed, Groper, Tanner’s going off his head. You should have been on the strip at dawn.’ It was Sven.

Lord Tanner could go off his head all he wanted, by the end of the day he could shove the strip farm up his arse. Faran read the line again; Your team has been selected.

The shack door wobbled drunkenly on its single working hinge, and shuffled inwards, creating a small heap of dirt where it stopped.

‘You know what Tanner sa- Dear Gryke, what’s that smell?’ Sven stood in the opening, hands covering his mouth and nose.

‘Sorry pal, the weather was terrible last night, so I moved the bucket indside.’ Faran pointed behind the door.

‘You’re lucky I didn’t open it all the way.’ Sven’s stepped outside and took a deep breath of fresh air before coming back inside. His look of disgust spoke volumes. ‘Come on, he’ll bat your arse if he comes down here and you’re not working.’

Faran swung his legs off the bed, slipping his dirty feet into a pair of worn and filthy leather shoes. He waved the letter in front of him. ‘This means we don’t have to work the strip farm anymore, Sven. We’ve finally got it.’

Sven ran a hand through his shaggy black hair, then scratched at his goatee. ‘Got what? Hurry up, I’ll be for the chop if he sees I’m goen for too long.’

The bed creaked as Faran stood up. He plucked a parchment from between the crudely drawn nudes and charcoal lovelies pinned to the wall, and showed Sven the scarred and well-beaten face. ‘Do you know who this is?’

‘Talhauser,’ said Sven, ‘you’ve been going on about that picture since you got it off the Crier.’

Faran admired the once-handsome features, the chiselled jaw, perfect hair, the scar running from his chin to his forehead and the empty spaces where his teeth should have been. ‘And what do I have in common with him?’

‘You both look like you’ve been hit in the face with a shovel.’

‘Not that. He played professional fistball, and thanks to this,’ he waved the letter again, ‘so will I. You too, Sven. We’ve got the one-shot sponsorship from the Fistball Central Administration.’

Sven snorted. ‘Bugger off, Groper. It’ll be someone taking the piss again.’

‘I think this is genuine,’ said Faran, holding it the letter. Light streamed in through a large, vertical gap in the wooden wall, it made the watermark as clear as day, or a gloomy day at the very least. ‘It could be our chance to stand in Talhauser’s shoes. We don’t have to spend our days looking forward to the Vruntsday afternoon kick about. We can play full-time and get paid for it. We won’t be skint anymore.’

Sven took the letter from him, turned it this way and that, held it up to the same gap, and nodded slowly. ‘It looks real enough. They’ve even got a feint picture in the paper when you hold it up to the light. Looks like a pair of bollocks.’

Faran snatched it from him. ‘It’s meant to be a fistball and a helmet.’

Sven squeezed his nostrils with his fingers. ‘Well it looks like bollocks to me. Gryke, I can taste the smell. You need to open a window.’

‘Wouldn’t make a difference, there’s no wind today. Usually the gaps in the walls keep the worst of the smell away.’

Shaking his head, Sven stepped back outside and took another deep breath. ‘We need to get out on the strip, mate.’

Faran re-pinned the picture to the wall and tested the weight of his coin purse. There were a few coppers in there, maybe enough for a celebratory flagon.

He followed Sven outside, lifting the door closed behind him. They crossed the track and hopped the wooden fence that surrounded the strips. The strip farms ran the length of the village, and at the far end, the tall oak trees that lined the drive to Tanner Hall could be seen. This time of year, there wasn’t much in the way of crops on these strips, the soil was being turned ready for planting.

They trudged across the uneven ground to Bod, who was hoeing the soil.

‘Bod.’

Bod shook his head. ‘You’re late.’

‘That doesn’t matter, I have some great news.’

‘If you make me sniff your fingers again I’ll cut you in two,’ said Bod, raising the hoe defensively.

‘We’ve got it.’

‘You might have mate, but some of us aren’t as proboscis,’ Bod glanced at the letter as he lowered the hoe. ‘Is that off Schlachthaus? What’ve you picked up?’

‘It’s not a sick note, it’s the sponsorship. From the FCA.’

‘The sponsorchip? Really?’ Bod took the letter from him. Faran knew he couldn’t read, but he always pretended to. ‘You sure it’s official?’

‘It’s got the bollocks on it,’ said Sven.

‘It’s a helmet and fistball,’ sighed Faran.

Bod shrugged and handed the letter to him. ‘If it’s real, I’m in.’

‘I think it is. They’ll be here tonight with four guards and ten grand to set up our team. We won’t have to scrape by on the pittance of a wage that tit Tanner pays us.’

‘Language, Groper.’

Faran recognised the well-spoken tones. He turned and flashed his most genuine smile. ‘Morning, sire,’ he tipped a hat he wasn’t wearing, ‘lovely day.’

Alvin Tanner, son of the lord of Brindledorf, stood with his hands on his hips. If he hadn’t of been aloof, he would have appeared so by the way he tilted his head backwards, so he was always looking down his nose. Dressed entirely in white, he was immaculate, with the exception of his soiled shoes. As the sun caught his gleaming white tunic and breeches, he appeared to glow. ‘Groper, are you attempting to turn the farmhands against their Lord?’

‘Not at all, sire, but I am informing you of my decision to tell your father to ram his strip of farmland where the sun don’t shine and set fire to it. If this letter is genuine. Sire, I’m holding off my resignation until you’ve confirmed that this is a real letter from the FCA.’ He held the letter out toward Tanner.

Tanner snatched the letter from his hand and held it up to the sun. His baggy dress shirt dangled freely. With his golden hair and gleaming clothes, it was what Faran imagined the gods looked like. ‘Well it has a watermark, true enough, but it does appear to be a pair of taters?’

‘Taters, sire?’

‘You know, Groper, a pair of apricots.’

Faran shook his head. ‘Sorry, sire, I don’t follow.’

‘Giggle berries, Faran,’ hushed Tanner, ‘You know, the family jewels.’

Faran sighed. ‘Oh, you mean testicles.’

‘Told you, it’s got the bollocks on,’ said Sven.

‘Language, Skornberg,’ said Tanner. His eyes didn’t leave the letter.

‘That’s a helmet and a fistball, sire,’ said Faran.

‘It shows that it is not another tired effort from ‘Sucker punch’ Draker,’ said Sven.

‘We won’t be seeing any more of those, he was killed last year.’ Faran smiled to himself. Barry had been Brindledorf’s best player, but had left to play for the Loudhail Launchers. In the three years since, he had always sent a fake letter to get their hopes up, only to dash them later in the day.

‘Good riddance,’ said Bod. He attempted to spit on the floor. Instead, the spewtum managed to remain attached and looped back to his chin.

Tanner rolled his eyes. ‘Gentlemen, I’m sure that old Mrs Draker wouldn’t be happy to hear you two gleefully discussing her son’s death. A little more consideration please.’ He read through the letter a final time. ‘Groper, I believe this is the genuine article, and that we have indeed been invited to play in the Starling Victory League, as the underdog team.’

Faran wanted to burst with joy.

‘Tonight we should be welcoming representatives of the Fistball Central Administration to our fair village,’ continued Tanner, ‘and they in turn, will welcome us to their league.’

‘In that case, can you tell your father to ram his strip?’

Tanner gave him that look. ‘If anything comes of this letter you can inform him yourself. Much as it would amuse me to see you come a cropper, I would not wish you a beggar. You would make the streets look untidy. No, if we do not have the team confirmed by…’ he checked the page, ‘whatever time they will arrive, it will all be for nought. Very inconsiderate to not provide a time of arrival. How do they expect us to adequately prepare? Round up the other players and take them to the Child. We need to discuss this as a matter of urgency.’

‘You’re the boss, sire,’ said Bod, giving Faran a less than perfect smile.

Tanner marched off across the field, stumbling on the loose soil in his expensive white shoes. The sun caught him, light radiating from his brilliant white clothes, until he stumbled and dropped to his hands and knees. They turned away, stifling laughs as Tanner picked himself up, his clothes now streaked with brown.

‘He’s a piece of work isn’t he?’ Faran nodded towards Tanner. ‘He’s almost one of the lads, but one of the lads who talks funny and spits his dummy when things don’t go his way.’

‘Certainly is. I thought it was incrocodile the way he’s gone from hearing about the letter to assuming charge over it,’ said Bod.

‘Yeah, I was impressed by that too,’ said Faran, ‘No question about it, if he wants to be in charge, he’ll take charge without a second thought.’

‘Well, it’s his birthright, isn’t it?’ said Sven.

‘He certainly thinks so,’ said Bod.

‘It’s good that he plays though, even if nobody ever tackles him hard because he could get them strung up,’ said Bod.

Tanner disappeared from view. ‘That’s a point, he’s going to get a shock and a half when some bastard piles into him,’ said Faran.

‘He’s always telling us he’s of noble blood, and nobles are made of sterner stuff than the common oik,’ said Sven with a laugh. ‘Time will tell.’

‘I hope he is,’ said Faran, stepping away from the fence and walking towards the main road, ‘or we’ll be leading him off the pitch in tears again.’

 

 

Chapter 2

Rule #17 – Each team must have at minimum twelve players at the start of the season.

The Scolded Child Inn stood on the main track running through the centre of Brindledorf. Its walls were a dirty beige colour, Mister Bigglage only cleaning the outside every few years when the dirt made the windows opaque. Thick black timber criss-crossed the walls, giving it an air of quaintness until you realised none of them were straight. Two beige and black storeys were topped by a sloped roof covered in rough grey slate, moss and lichen growing here and there, while the stone chimneys at either end gently puffed smoke skyward.

Bod paused by the door. ‘You look nervous.’

‘I am. Everything is riding on what happens here.’ Trickles of sweat ran down Faran’s back. ‘It could end before it’s started.’

‘It’ll be fine, Faran, we’ve got nothing to worry about. This time next year the whole of Torbea will know your name.’ Bod pushed the door open. It was almost silent in the gloom beyond. ‘Do you think they’re here yet?’

Faran walked into the Scolded Child to face his friends and teammates. The floorboards creaked beneath his feat. His stomach in knots. Faces stared at him over tarnished metal flagons. Tal, one of the strongest players sat with his arms folded across his chest, glaring with serious eyes. He always had the edge of someone in a foul mood, even when he was laughing and smiling.

Tanner leaned on the bar, a thick piece of folded cloth underneath his elbow to stop any would-be soiling of his immaculate white sleeve. He held a silver goblet in a manicured hand, and a servant hovered nearby with a silver carafe to top him up when necessary.

‘Ah, finally, you’ve arrived.’ Tanner smiled and turned to the others raising his hands to silence the already silent room. ‘Gentlemen, thanks to Groper we’ve received some excellent news. I shall let him elucidate it all, but it is very exciting. I give you our team mate, Faran Groper.’

Faran raised the letter in his clammy hand and waved it at them. ‘Guys, we’ve made it.’

‘Made what? Get on with it Groper. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m losing money here, my stall won’t sell its own goods.’ Tal took a sip from his flagon and visibly shuddered.

Tanner pushed a flagon towards Faran. ‘I bought a drink for each of you.’

Faran took a sip, choking down the vile, watered down ale. It was Crudsters Frothy Grain, the cheapest available. Tanner nodded encouragingly, his eyes wide with glee, his smooth face showing nothing but good intentions. A piss poor drink for the piss poor peasants.

‘Guys, it’s a letter from the Fistball people. They’re going to sponsor us to enter the Starling Victory League. We’ve finally got our shot at the big-time.’ The letter was passed around as Faran waited expectantly. ‘Well?’

After a silence Tal answered. ‘Well, what?’

‘Are we going to play in the Victory League or shall I tell them not to bother? It could be our chance to stop eking out a living, our chance for fortune and glory.’

Tanner put an arm around Faran and patted him on the shoulder. ‘It could be very good for the village, bringing in trade and visitors. It would certainly put Brindledorf on the map. I think it is a wonderful idea, and I for one support it.’

The temple bell ringer, Cervil raised a hand. When he spoke, his voice trembled. ‘It’s dangerous isn’t it?’

‘It certainly can be, but think how exciting it will be. Travelling to other towns and cities to play.’ Faran took another sip of the foul tasting ale. ‘You know what they say – no guts, no glory.’

‘No guts is disembowelling isn’t it?’ said Leopold, a strip farmers from the other side of the village, shifting on his seat.

‘Didn’t that happen to someone last season?’ said Oswin, the candle maker’s son.

‘Yes, yes it did,’ exclaimed Jurgen, another strip farmer who permanently looked in two different directions. ‘I remember the Crier shouting about it.’

‘I did,’ said Reinhardt. He frowned at Jurgen. ‘I am here you know. It was a bloody horrible mess according to the scrolls.’

The murmurings grew louder until everyone was discussing the worst fistball injuries they’d heard of. Missing teeth, a missing jaw, and legs that bent the wrong way, or legs that bent the right way that were the wrong way round, even one whose limbs had been tied in knots.

Faran was sweating again. ‘Guys, guys, wait. Listen. Think of the greats, the heroes. Deitrich Von Talhauser, the only human to win player of the year three times. He’s still alive, living on his winnings. Or Lance Drivener? Fifth highest scorer two years ago. He came from Kartonburg, that’s almost as small as Brindledorf – he’s playing for the S’Villains even now.’

For all Tal’s bluster, the disappointment on his face was evident. Swigging the last of his flagon, he belched, stood up and shook his head slowly. ‘Part of me would love to, Groper. Honestly, it would, but I have to think of Marina and the girls if I died. Who’d look after them? No disrespect, sire, but you wouldn’t pay for them and I couldn’t bear to think of them struggling. It’s hard enough to get by as it is.’ He stood up, walked over to Faran and shook his hand. ‘I think you’ll do great though.’

‘Unfortunately we would be unable to support them for you,’ said Tanner. ‘I respect your decision though, thank you for your time.’

‘You have to think of your family first.’ Faran watched him leave. Tal was always first to sign up for the kick about, that was almost a guaranteed yes in Faran’s eyes. There were sixteen people left in the bar, and he only needed eight. ‘What about the rest of you?’

‘I really enjoy the Vruntsday kick about, but I can’t leave my family, it’s just too risky,’ said Cervil. ‘It’s the same as Tal, for me I’m sorry guys, sire.’

Another four got left with muttered apologies and downturned eyes.

‘Come on guys, think of the journey we’d have. Think of the fun, the pain, the glory. It’ll be the best thing that’s ever happened to us.’

‘I’ll level with you, Groper,’ said Joachim, a large, strong labourer, ‘I only play for fun on a Vruntsday to keep the missus off my back about putting on weight. Truth be known, I wouldn’t lose sleep over the spiteful cow being left with nothing if I died. It’d serve her right, but… well, I just don’t really enjoy it.’

‘That’s a shame, Joa,’ said Faran, ‘I suppose everyone has their path to follow. Let’s make this easier. I don’t want to try and pressure anyone into it. If your hearts not in it just leave, I won’t hold it against you.’

The majority left, leaving only labourers Judas and Wolfgang sitting in the bar alongside his shattering dreams. They were always the last to be picked.

Wolfgang clapped his hands together and his stool wobbled beneath him. ‘Count me in, Groper. It’s got to be better than working on the strips. No offence, sire.’

‘None taken,’ said Tanner, scribbling quickly onto a piece of parchment.

Judas stood up. ‘I can’t turn this down.’

‘Me neither,’ Sven took a sip from his flagon and joined them at the bar. ‘We have six at least.’

‘Seven. I spoke with Muller before I sent him on an errand – he is simply delighted that we might be able to play professionally,’ said Tanner

‘Still five short then.’ Faran mentally checked off the Scolded Child as another place of disappointment.

‘We are closer than we were, Groper, that’s something,’ said Bod. ‘Worst comes to worst we can invite the fellas from Ifferingsburg.’

‘We shall not fail, Groper. We will have a team by nightfall.’ Tanner pointed at his goblet nonchalantly. The servant poured more wine from the carafe and he continue to drink.

‘Something will turn up, I c-.’ Laughter erupted behind Faran, and he turned, trying to look intimidating. The shaven headed Basher Baer and Dave Eberhart sat at the end of the bar, watching with delight. ‘Something funny?’

‘Just seems you’re good with words.’ Basher, in his off white vest, took a sip from his flagon, and rested it on his gut with a smile. ‘You got them all going there. I loved the bit where the bunch of faggots walked out and left you stood there like a tit.’

‘I’m glad you enjoyed it,’ said Faran, turning to Tanner.

‘I’m still talking to you,’ said Basher, quaffing the last of his flagon and slamming it onto his table.

‘Pleased to hear it, I’d hate to be ignored,’ said Faran. He let out a brief laugh, stopping the instant Basher stood up.

‘Don’t get funny with me, Groper, you runt. You don’t ever want to get funny with me.’ Basher advanced on him with Eberhart a few paces behind. Even with everyone behind him, they weren’t a match. Eberhart and Baer had more muscle each than they did between them.

‘Come now gentlemen, there really is no need to be obtuse,’ Tanner mediated from a safe distance behind Faran. ‘Let me purchase a weak foaming beverage for you both, and we can settle this like gentlemen.’

Baer grabbed Faran by the throat and lifted him a off the floor with a thick hand. ‘I think you should say sorry.’

Faran made a quiet wheezing sound.

‘Gentlemen, I must insist you stop this at once or I will call the guard.’

‘A grass, eh?’ said Eberhart, moving forwards.

‘I am the son of Lord Tanner, and as such, I think you should desist.’ Apparently without moving, Tanner managed to position Bod and Sven between him and Eberhart.

‘Or what? You go and get your old man, and I’ll sort him out too,’ Eberhart snarled.

‘You clearly enjoy inhumanity to your fellow men, am I correct?’

‘You might be.’

Eberhart placed a hand on Sven and Bod’s shoulders and moved them apart.

‘Would you be willing to be remunerated for giving people… Faran, what is the word you people use?’

‘A licking, Sire,’ Faran rasped. His face felt like it was bulging. Black spots started appearing in his vision.

‘A licking?’ Tanner shook his head and raised a hand palm first to Eberhart. ‘Would you be willing to be remunerated for giving people a licking?’

Baer lowered Faran to the floor. ‘You what?’

Tanner let out a sigh. ‘Beating people, how would you like to get paid for it?’

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