The Annual Spoonpole Tournament
In all the hustle and bustle of everything else, the spoonpole tournament had completely slipped Anya’s mind. She jumped from the bed, ignoring the bowl as it fell to the floor and splattered porridge to every corner of the house. She threw her shirt on inside out and backwards, and donned her breakfast dotted calves with mismatched socks. Finally she grabbed her sticks, threw her hair into a lumpy, lopsided ponytail, slipped on the porridge as she tried to leave, and ran to the field. The door to her house was left to its own demise.
She reached the tournament looking like a wadded up dirty sheet. After several minutes of scanning the crowds, she finally found Taika and Gevin. They stood on the edge of the vast field normally reserved for exercising the horses. Due to its normal use, what grass remained stood very short. Several people must have spent most of the morning shoveling remnants of the horsey visits off of the ground, for there were no deposits to be found now. Surrounding the field crowded nearly every living Cupolian, and some would argue the unliving as well.
Anya pushed her way through the boisterous crowds of players and supporters to her friends. One group had painted their faces with charred wood and ash to show their enthusiasm for East. She ducked under their broad flags and banners made of darkened material with “East Side” painted in tar. Other groups had buttermilk paint with lime and ground eggshells on their faces and arms for West with similar flags and banners of the lighter persuasion.
As she came around a small group of striped dual supporters, she saw Taika waving excitedly and calling out for her, “Anya!” She ran over to them and rapidly nodded to everyone in greeting.
They all gave her curious stares and glances, but it was Terrence who asked, “Whoa, Sis. What happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“Uh, well your shirt’s wrongside out for starters.”
“Huh?” Anya looked down and blushed with embarrassment.
Taika’s eyes aimed at her hair. “You do look pretty rough. Are you OK?”
She reached up to touch her hair. Feeling the giant mess, she grunted in exasperation. She took it down and tried to make it more presentable. “I didn’t get up until just a few minutes ago.” Her fingers combed through the tangles, making her wince from the pain.
Gevin asked, “What are you doing here anyway? We figured you couldn’t make it to this either.”
“We switch shifts after Ball week. My shift has this week off.”
Gevin raised his eyebrows. “Well, at least that’s one surprise that was pleasant.”
“It would’ve been even nicer if I had known about it last night.”
After fixing her hair, she looked around for anything new this year. Tents of all shapes and sizes encircled the crowd providing a variety of services and wares such as good luck charms; uniforms, spoon sticks, and other sporting equipment; and drinks and snacks. The healers’ tent everyone hoped never to see used sat where anyone within it could view the entire playing field easily. A few fire pits for later use were in the distance, past all the tents on the other side. Nothing new so far.
Her gaze searched out the royal tent until she found it in its usual spot, center field and opposite the healers’ tent. Its decorations differed every year. This time, hanging sheets of thick, red velvet covered the raised, wooden structure. Anya thought they were too dark for this weather, and not near as nice as the pale blue from last year. Fine, pink silks draped from the overhang to provide the royal family shade and privacy. Those were white last year, and decorated with lace. Well, at least they match.
Gevin interrupted her judgment. “Looks like they’re about ready. You coming?”
Anya nodded and turned towards the field. It had been divided into two sides, east and west. A pole twelve feet tall and one foot in diameter stood at each end. The West team, of course, guarded the west side.
The participants formed two long lines down the center of the field, from pole to pole, and faced each other. As many people as they wanted on each team could play, as long as the teams stayed equal in number. Terrence joined Taika’s siblings as they marched to the West team’s line. Gevin and Anya followed.
“Anya, wait!” Taika called out. “You forgot your number.”
“Ugh! Seriously? I guess when I was putting my shirt on backwards I forgot that as well.” She started to trudge back to the sidelines.
“Anya, wait.” Gevin and Taika both tried to stop her at the same time.
“Here.” Gevin started to remove his shirt.
“No, Gev. I know what this means to you.”
Taika beat him to it. She held out her hand with her numbered outer shirt for Anya to take. “Here, Anya. I’d rather just watch anyway.”
Anya hesitated but then saw the look of resolve on Taika’s face. She took the numbered shirt with reluctance and followed Gevin out onto the field. Taika shouted after her, “Don’t let us down! Go West side! Woo!” She clapped and waved her hands in the air. Taika’s attempts at being cheerleader were paltry, but Anya appreciated them all the same. They met up with everyone else and presented their sticks.
A referee went down between the two lines, insuring the sticks were acceptable, and the teams equal in numbers. West wore adapted clothing made from pillow cases, burlap sacks, or anything else they could find of the light variety. East wore shirts as dark as they could, ranging from deep blues and greens to, although rare, true black. Each player had a number painted or sewn onto their backs. Several players on each team were thrown out for bad sticks. Most returned later with better ones.
After scrutinizing the teams, 98 on each side, the inspecting ref backed away and sounded a cow’s horn. All players raced to spread out on the field. Each team had a goalie that stood with their backs against their team’s pole, raising their spoons straight over their heads, in order to block the other side from scoring.
Anya and Kaya, Taika’s sister, took up defensive positions a few yards from their goal post. Gevin and Terrence hung out in the middle of the West’s half of the field. And Taika’s twin brothers, Ciqala and Mingan, were two of the tallest on their team; so they waited attentively near the center.
Play started, and so did the injuries. The starting ref threw the ball into the middle of the field and backed away in a run. A mad scramble to be the first to grab it trampled two players. Anya noticed the healers on the sidelines, readying for action. Their wide, red tent sheltered several beds and volunteers. Four of those volunteers carried two stretchers in a run to collect the unconscious players before they were crushed completely. After rolling the victims onto the stretchers, they returned to their tents in haste, narrowly missing the throng of players running back through the center of the field.
East player #3 caught the ball, then ran backwards from the other participants. His teammates made a wall of protection between him and the opposing team members. He threw the ball as far as he could over his head, covering over fifty yards.
East player #68 jumped up and caught it in both spoons. She kept her sticks in the air as she landed and ran towards Gevin and Terrence’s spot. Terrence was about to run out to her, but his teammate got there first and tripped her. She tossed the ball to her ally near the West team’s post. The ball hit the ground before it could reach its target. Her ally hastened to scoop it from the ground, but West player #23 headed her off. He threw it to the other side of the field where West player #98 ran it to the East side team’s post. She threw it, hitting the top of the post.
Cheers erupted from the side lines. Gevin and Terrence thrust their fists into the air whooping. Ciqala and Mingan grinned and patted the scoring player on the back as she went by. The teams took up their starting positions again.
The closest referee picked up the ball and ran it to the center of the field. He tossed it up. It flew nine feet into the air. This time the ball ricocheted off Ciqala’s spoons. Mingan had his sticks reached between the group’s legs, deftly catching the ball as it fell. He sprinted to the East side’s pole.
Taika could be heard screaming herself hoarse as she jumped up and down whooping, “Go Mingan! Go Mingan!”
Gevin and Terrence joined their teammates in infiltrating the East side of the field. East team members piled onto Mingan forcing him to pass the ball to West #13. He caught it and ran to the pole. When he got close enough, he jumped as high as he could and struck it just above the goalie’s reach. Gevin and Terrence ran in to congratulate Mingan among the swarm of other West team players.
However, the running streak for West was not to be continuous. Part of that was Anya’s fault. She played her best, but the other team’s offensive overpowered her repeatedly. One rammed her so hard she flew ten feet back before colliding with Kaya and landing on top of her. The impact bruised them both but thankfully didn’t break anything.
By the time the first four hours were up, West’s score was 21, whereas East had 26. The starting players left the field, allowing a fresh wave of competitors to beat each other senseless over the glory of hitting a stick with a ball between two spoons.
“Man! I am beat!” said Gevin as he and Terrence left the field. Their clothes were soaked with sweat, and they walked all wobbly like, but they were still elated from the afternoon’s game.
Gevin queued up at a concessions tent. Terrence left his side and raced over to a different line where Kaya was. “Hey.” His smile displayed every tooth.
A smiling shy one replaced Kaya’s game face. “Hi.”
“Hey, um …” He reached into his pocket. “Would you like me to buy you some uh … something?”
She chuckled slightly. “Sure. That would be nice, thank you.”
Gevin stood agape as Anya walked up to him. He asked, “What the dragon dung was that?”
Anya scolded his cursing. “Gevin!”
He held his hand up is bewilderment. “Did you see that?”
Anya looked over at Terrence. “Kaya? Kaya is his girlfriend?”
“I thought you liked Kaya.”
“I do. I’ll have to ask Taika later what’s wrong with her.”
Gevin snorted and turned back to face the front of the line. Anya’s gaze wandered over to the royal tent. Peering all the way to the back of it, she recognized the giggling girls that became the Royal Maids on Selection Day. They stood in the back of the booth, cooling the royal family with quick movements of small fans on little wooden sticks. They didn’t act as haughty as they did on Selection Day.
The Queen sat in her preordained spot upon a grand chair that looked ridiculously out of place. Its wooden sides were painted with gold and had small jewels embedded in them. Her husband the King sat next to her in a smaller seat. Although also painted gold, his chair carried no jewels. And despite sitting upon several pillows, the King’s head still did not reach those of his wife and their two daughters. If Anya hadn’t seen him at the stables that one day, she would have never guessed that’s who he was.
Anya took a step forward as their concession’s line moved. Her eyes shifted down and spied the two princesses leaning over the edge of their box. They had their chins in their hands and flicked at the railing, completely ignoring the comings and goings of the crowd beneath them.
“Anya!” shouted Gevin. Anya and Gevin were next in line. They got a couple of meat pies and joined Taika at one of the recently kindled fire pits.
Gevin held Anya’s food while she took off Taika’s numbered shirt and offered it back. “Thank you so much, Taika!” The shirt was practically dripping in dirt, sweat, and grass stains.
Taika held it between two fingers at arm’s length and said, “Thanks.”
Anya winced. “Sorry. Do you want me to run home and get you mine so you can play?”
“No, that’s OK.”
But Anya knew better. “Are you sure? I feel bad you not getting to play.”
Taika reassured her, “Anya, it’s OK. All my friends and family are off the field now, and I’d rather be with them.”
Anya felt doubly guilty now. She sadly took her pie and sat on one of the surrounding logs. Ciqala and Mingan joined Gevin and discussed the highlights of the game on a different log.
A few minutes later, an anxious Basil approached her. Anya paused her eating. “Hey, Basil. What’s wrong?”
Basil twisted her fingers into knots. Her red eyes threatened to overflow with fresh tears. “Jeremiah didn’t come by for our date this morning, and no one has seen him anywhere at all today!”
Anya stood up from her log. “What happened?”
“I don’t know! When he didn’t show up, I went to his house to see what was wrong. But … no one had seen him since yesterday. Oh Anya, he’s disappeared!” Her eyes made good on their threat.
Taika stood up too, but stayed at a safe distance. Anya said, “Oh Basil, I’m sure he’ll turn up. Where could he have gone to?”
She sniffed and wiped her face. “That’s just it. No one knows! Someone said they saw him go off into the woods.” She started to falter again. “What if … what if he’s gone, like all the other men around here? What if he’s gone, Anya? What if—” She broke down completely at this point.
Taika’s eyes darted around nervously, and she fumbled her fingers uncomfortably.
“Shhh, shhh.” Anya held Basil and stroked her hair. “You don’t know that. He could have … um …”
“I don’t know, all sorts of things, but—”
Basil wailed loudly.
Anya continued to comfort her friend. “I’m sorry, Basil. I was only trying to help.”
Basil made herself stop crying after a while and took several deep breaths. “I know.” Sniff! “I know. Thank you, Anya.”
“Did I hear the wedding’s off?” Canis sauntered over to the pit slowly and methodically.
Taika’s eyes narrowed.
Anya asked her, “How did you—”
She barked out a laugh. “The same way I know what happened to him last night.”
“You do?” Basil asked in desperation.
“Hmm-hmm.” Canis dipped her finger into her ale and licked it. “He went over to Jennifer’s house.”
“What?” Basil’s face screwed up in confusion and like she was about to cry again.
Anya shouted, “Don’t be ridiculous, Canis! Jeremiah would never do that to Basil!”
“Watch it, Elf. You wouldn’t want to lose another week’s pay, now would you?”
Basil looked at Anya in desperation. “Do you think it’s possible, Anya? Jennifer’s? Jeremiah?”
“No of course not! He wouldn’t—”
“Yeah. Jennifer’s.” Canis pouted her lips. “So sorry, Basil. Looks like you’re still stuck in the kitchen after all.”
Basil exploded into tears again and ran off crying. Taika’s eyes doubled in size. By now, Gevin, Ciqala, and Mingan had risen and stood opposite Taika, ready to interfere if need be.
Anya balled up her fists and faced Canis. “You horrible … evil … lying … TROLL!”
Gevin jumped to hold Anya back as she dove towards Canis. “Easy, Ahnny!” He had to strain to hold her. The twins helped him. Gevin continued, “We don’t want any trouble. Not with everything else going on.”
Canis crossed her arms and looked angrily at Anya. “Goodbye, Elf. Good luck finding another job.” And with that, she turned on her heel and left.
“I despise … that … heinous … vile—”
They gripped her more tightly, forcing her to stand still. Gevin said, “Hey, Ahnny. Calm down, OK? Look I know what I said about revenge, but beating her up isn’t going to change anything.”
Anya tried to calm herself, huffing in and out quickly. “No. But it sure will make me feel better!” The boys released her cautiously. Her eyes drilled holes into the back of Canis’s head as it bobbled atop her strutting body. “She’s going to get me fired now, isn’t she?”
Taika said, “You don’t know that. You’ve got the whole week off. Please don’t let her ruin if for you.”
Anya closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. “You wanna know the worst part? That ogre was on the East side, and I forgot all about it.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry,” said Mingan
“Thanks, guys.” She forced what could almost be called a smile and joined her friends to go watch the second part of the tournament.
The tournament lasted well into the evening. Torches and fire pits provided the only light, making it difficult to play well. Both teams suffered several injuries, requiring replacements. Ciqala and Mingan joined in to substitute for two of the hurt West players. Anya ran back to get her clean shirt for Taika to wear, and at the next West side injury, she ran out to play with her brothers.
It finally got late enough Anya and Gevin went to sit on a log next to one of the pits in the cooling night. Gevin played with a long stick, poking it into the flames. Anya stayed mesmerized by the ashes that floated into the air and the embers that changed colors in their dwelling beneath the burning wood.
Their heads rose when they heard Kaya’s giggling nearby. She and Terrence rested on a neighboring log, sitting close to each other and acting all weird. Gevin scoffed and snorted, poking the fire with more force. Anya ignored everyone. She allowed herself to be consumed with thoughts of Canis and Avaline.
One last wave of cheers came from the crowd. Everyone looked up from what they were doing. The teams came off of the field, faces bloodied, hair dripping with sweat, laughing with their arms draped on one another.
Gevin and Anya stood to find their friends and family. The Wolf’s were exuberant. The West side had won, 50-42. Fists in the air and whooping to the night, they all joined together for a celebration.
As they were enjoying the festivities, Anya’s gaze drifted over to the healers still working away in their tents. There hadn’t been any serious injuries, thankfully, but there were still a few minor ones to attend to. She nudged Taika and nodded in their direction. “I wonder what they used to do when they had magic.”
Taika craned her neck to look. “I thought about that. I keep meaning to research the healers’ books again.” She watched with interest, her mind calculating silently. “I don’t want to raise suspicion by borrowing them too much, but I imagine they had magical creatures to help them, or ingredients and potions we can only imagine.”
This reminded Anya of their other predicament. “So what do we do now that our letter didn’t work?”
“Oh it did work! We now know that Queen Pernicity has known all this time and obviously has no plans to do anything.”
“I thought the plan was to get her to do something about it, not prove that she wouldn’t.”
“Actually, if you’ll recall, the original thoughts of the plan were to simply warn her, as our responsibility dictated. We did not know at that time whether she knew of or simply suspected a threat.”
Anya really didn’t think that mattered all that much now. “So what do we do? We can’t just let Avaline loose in Cupola.” Gasp! “Methuselah!”
“While I hold great respect for him, Methuselah cannot—”
“No! The dogs!”
“I don’t understand.”
Anya explained, “He said there were many people there, and that they were all knights.”
“My dad. He was a knight, and he disappeared, just like the others. What if she has my dad?”
“Anya, calm down. We don’t have any proof that that’s definitely what happened.”
“Well, what if it did happen? The only people left to save him is us! We have to do something!”
Taika thought for a moment. “I’ve got some plans made out. If you and Gevin can come by the library tomorrow, I’ll show you what I have.”
Filled with the heat of adrenaline, Anya went to recruit Gevin. He was off by himself and looking glum. Drat! She managed to control herself and approached him gently. “Hey, Gevin. You OK?”
He hesitated. “I miss Clay.” He shrugged. “We practiced spoonpole together every year. I was looking forward to playing it with him in the tournament.”
“I’m sorry.” She shouldn’t bother him with her problems. But she needed him tomorrow. No, she was just being selfish. But he would feel left out if she didn’t tell him. Would he? Would he truly feel left out? She scrunched up her face in frustration. Why was it so hard to think!?
Gevin asked, “What happened to him, Ahnny?”
Oh dear. She approached him tentatively. “Um, Gevin? Clay died.”
He shook his head. “No. They proclaimed him dead. But they never found him. It’s like he just … disappeared.”
Anya’s eyes swelled to way past their normal size. Disappeared! She stifled a gasp. “Gevin, Taika has a plan about Avaline. She wants us to meet with her after you get off of work tomorrow.”