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Dugout Thrones: A Song of Grounders and Flies

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Prologue, I. Kolten, II. Matheny

artwork by Tom Steele
Prologue

"We should head back," Adym Dunn implored as a cold, biting wind rustled the nearby ivy. "We shouldn't even be here. It's not normal for members of the Night's Sox to be beyond the Ivy Wall, especially on a night like tonight."

"Does fielding your position scare you, Dunn?" sneered Ser Cristofer Sale. "Can it be that you are afraid of the National League?  The Lord Commander would not be pleased to learn of your cowardice." Dunn, a grizzled veteran well beyond the age of seventy, refused to rise to the young knight's bait.  The old man exhaled, his breath dancing in the wind, and silence overtook them.  Finally, the ancient Dunn spoke in a hushed whisper.

"There be naught but ghosts here.  Young Scott said he saw it himself.  This team is dead." Scott Downs felt a lump forming in his throat.  He had been dreading the moment the two would drag him into their argument.

"He's right, they're all dead.  My mother used to tell me ‘dead teams score no runs'," Scott breathed quietly, as if speaking too loudly would cause the ivy walls around them to crumble.

"Believe not in lessons learned at a woman's teat," Ser Cristofer scoffed, "Lead on, Scott.  Show me these dead men." Scott's heart began to race at the command, and as he led his comrades carefully through the outfield grass, his thoughts turned back to the last pair of breasts he had seen. They had been affixed to a lady from Oak Lawn, perky, round, soft, and supple. Gently caressing them had given him comfort on many a cold Chicago night.

The three men reached the infield at long last, and were taken aback at the sight that greeted them. Several corpses were strewn around the diamond, many concentrated around the short stop position.

"Who are they?" Ser Cristofer demanded. The young lord's sneer had been replaced with a scowl. Dunn knelt down next to the nearest one and turned the body over to see it's face.

"Prospects, milord," Dunn barked gruffly. "You can tell from their helmets. Ear flaps on both sides, not custom made." The wintry silence that had held the three men in the outfield swarmed around them once again. Dunn turned back to meet Scott's gaze, shaking his head solemnly.

Suddenly, the prospect's eyelids flew open, revealing a pair of bright blue eyes. Scott cried out in fear, but it was too late to save the old man. The prospect grabbed Dunn by the throat and tore, severing the two time All-Star's head from his shoulders.  Scott staggered backwards toward the outfield grass as the other corpses stirred to life. Ser Cristofer drew a baseball from his garments and held it threateningly toward the prospects and they slowly inched towards him.

"Stand and fight, Scott! Show yourself to be a true man of the Night's Sox!" Ser Cristofer pleaded as the dead surrounded him, but Scott was already sprinting toward the ivy wall. No one voluntarily joined the Night's Sox. To do so would be madness, and Scott felt no need to hold to his vows now. He stopped momentarily when he reached the wall to glance back toward the infield. Ser Cristofer was throwing ball after ball to fend off the undead prospects, but each one was crushed by the prospects swinging their own ghostly bats.  Up the middle, into the corners, and even up against and over the wall Scott stood at, the balls flew. Suddenly, Ser Cristofer's UCL snapped, and his forearm flew off, detached from his arm at the elbow. The young lord fell to his knees.

It was only a matter of time with those mechanics, Scott thought as he turned his back. Ser Cristofer's shrill screams rang throughout the stadium as Scott vaulted the wall and sprinted away from the slaughter. Finally, silence enveloped him once more.

Kolten

The morning was hot, and the moist air hung heavily over the party. The summer was young Kolten Saint Card's first afield, and he was finally old enough to accompany his manager and Card brethren to see the skipper's justice done. Kolten's cherubic smile concealed neither his excitement nor his nervousness.

As the party descended into the Buschfell dugouts, Kolten's half-brother Jhon Ball--Ball was the surname given to all in the Saint Card family whose past prevented them from ever being accepted as "true" Saint Cards--pulled him aside and whispered "don't look away. Your manager will know if you do."

The assembly filed past the dugout and into the bowels of Buschfell, winding through a dizzying set of hallways until reaching a door that opened into a small office, bare except a table and two chairs. Hanging from the rafters were flags bearing the Saint Card insignia and house arms: The Red Eagle with a Greatbat gripped in its ferocious claws, Wrigley Winter is Coming scripted beneath.

The man seated at the table was younger than Kolten expected, but there was a look in his eyes that chilled the Saint Card boy deep to his core. The man, Kolten knew him to be called Scott Downs, had deserted the Night's Sox and was found wandering aimlessly in the waivers woods. Kolten's manager, Matheny Saint Card, had ordered his guards to pull in anyone found in the waivers woods if they had a sufficient sense of grizzled grit about them, and Downs certainly had that. But when it was found he had deserted the Night's Sox, the group of brigands set with guarding the Wrigley Wall, the skipper's justice was not negotiable. It was not the Saint Card way.

The Wrigley Wall had long loomed large in Kolten's imagination. His brethren laughed at him for it, but Kolten was fascinated by the old stories he heard about the Wrigley Walkers. Weeks earlier, when Kolten had injured his shoulder and was forced into bed, learning to overcome adversity, Old Vin had visited.

Nobody knew where Old Vin came from, but it was said he was the last of the great story tellers who knew the true histories of the lands. His voice was as smooth as silk pajamas with the rich patina of a man who had seen great joy and great suffering. "Let me tell you the story of Babe the Builder," began Old Vin, but Kolten cut him off. "I'm tired of your stories, Old Vin. Let me be." Vin gently replied,"Oh, my dear, these are not my stories. They are the stories that belong to all of baseball. They were here before me and they will be here after me, and after you too."

"I don't care whose stories they are," Kolten muttered, "I hate them." Kolten's aching shoulder and frustration that he could not play in the fields with his brothers left the boy furious at everyone. Vin continued,"Well then, I will tell you the story of Rajah, that's your favorite." Rajah Saint Card was Kolten's legendary forebearer. He built the Saint Card Keystone into what it was, and Kolten was set to inherit its legacy.

"That's not my favorite story," retorted Kolten. "My favorites are the scary ones." Old Vin sighed and gazed out the window, deep into the night. He began, "Oh, my sweet summer child, what do you know of fear? Fear is for the Wrigley winter, the nights that last a generation. You've seen nothing of fear. The Saint Cards and the league of free men haven't known fear since long before you appeared to us from the Rainbow Isles." Here, Vin's corduroy voice hushed to little more than a whisper, "But once there was a winter when the Wrigley Walkers came. They swept across the lands slaying all who opposed them, snuffing out joy from the world, for they hated joy. The deadball era, they called it, for before Babe the builder came, the Wrigley Walkers roamed, dead-eyed demons who left behind them a trail of hopeless legions, recognized by the ‘C' of catastrophe emblazoned upon their foreheads. For years, they terrorized all, children would live and die knowing only the horrible nursery rhyme ‘Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble / Tinker to Evers to Chance'. What do you know of this, young man?"

"Stop filling his head with nonsense," grumbled Yadier St Card, who had shuffled into the room unannounced. "Next you'll tell him the Bartman incident and the Sandberg affair involved actual Wrigley Walkers, and not cowardly wildlings dressed in the tattered blue pinstripes the Walkers wore in legend. Don't frighten the lad." Kolten was with those who believed these raids were wrought by supernaturally evil forces, but he would not say so now to his house's standard bearer. Old Vin smiled kindly at Yadier and at Kolten, and said goodnight.

In the weeks since, there had been rumors of an unspeakable terror marauding through the Western mountains. The mountain dwellers had streamed out of their dwellings with wild looks in their eyes repeating the gibberish word "Baez." Corpses had turned up in the uninhabited wild lands of Iowa and Tennessee, and shell shocked survivors murmured in strange languages about terrors in the night named Bryant, Soler, Russell, and Almora. They could not describe what these words meant, and they could not be consoled.

Kolten wanted nothing more than to discuss these stories that came on the wind from afar, but of all his house, only his Uncle Pierzynski, who spent years on the Night's Sox, and Jhon Ball would humor the lad's questions, and they knew little more than he of this fresh gossip.

Kolten looked at the ragged man sitting across the table from Matheny Saint Card.  There was a wildness in his eyes and desolation in his mien, but he showed no fear of Lord Matheny. The room shuffled anxiously as Matheny cleared his throat, and his voice rang out clearly, "In the name of William of the House DeWitt, the Second of his Name, Ruler of the Realm, by the word of Matheny of House Saint Card, Lord of Buschfell, I do hearby designate you for assignment." Gasps were audible in the room as Lord Matheny's pen stroked audibly on the papers, but Kolten did not look away.

Matheny

Matheny Saint Card had always liked the batting yard. As a young man, he had reveled in the sweaty, intimate act of looking deeply into the eyes of the man behind the protective screen, searching for his soul. He would wrench his hands hard upon his greatbat, feeling the pine splinter into his fingertips and swing with all his might, fouling off ball after ball into the ancient net. Many men would strive to center the bat on the ball, to send a ball rocketing swiftly back past he who had thrown it. Great man after great man had fallen in pursuit of glory, but Matheny knew the true meaning was in the struggle, in the grit. And so he would continue to slash at each pitch, and no matter how weak the contact might be he knew that to just stay alive was to be truly victorious.

He knew he had never been one of the great warriors of his age. He remembered the great tournaments in which he had sought to preserve the honor of his house. He had battled beside many prodigious warriors: Jym son of Edmund, Ser Scott Rolenbroke, and of course the now exiled Lord Albert, perhaps the greatest of those who danced the great dance in Matheny's lifetime. Matheny himself had never wielded the pine with particular merit, but he was proud of the legacy he had constructed for himself as a savvy tactician and a capable defender. Not once since he had become Lord of Buschfell had the keep fallen on his watch.

On this particular morning, he was engaging in bat drill with Ser Matthew the Strong, the Master of Arms at Buschfell. The knight was one of three of his name serving under Matheny, the other two being Ser Matthew the Patient, and Matthew Adammere, a bullish young man who had not yet gained the status of a knight. Most lords did not engage in batplay with their subordinates, but Matheny relished the simulated combat. He would send a ball buzzing toward Ser Matthew, and the thick, muscled knight would swing his weapon and rifle the ball back toward the Lord of Buschfell. After one exceptionally violent thrust by Ser Matthew, Matheny ordered his page to fetch the pair refreshment. He sat on the cold earth and motioned for Matthew to join him.

"Your might has not been lessened, despite your recent travels, Ser Matthew," Matheny stated. "What news from the Steel Islands?"

"Sorrow, my Lord, and despair," Ser Matthew spat through a mouthful of chilled milk of the gator. "They mourn for their heir."

"Yes, I was saddened to hear of Prince McCutchen's fate." A cloud of silence fell over the knight and his liege. Finally, Ser Matthew spoke, his voice dripping with bitterness.

"Those cowardly heathens in the desert will pay for what they've done. May the Seven wipe them from the Earth and scorch the land where their people dwell." Ser Matthew was a fierce yet chivalrous warrior, and the slaying of a valiant knight like Prince McCutcheon added heat to the fire of hatred that already burned in his heart toward the nomadic people of the Ariz'ona desert. Matheny let the silence take hold once more, sipping his cup carefully.

"There is other news, my Lord, from Milwaukeros. I learned of it on my travels," said Ser Matthew. "They say that the mercenary Garza has fallen on his own sword. They say that he -" Suddenly, a nearby iron door flew open, its rusty hinges screeching like a hawk. Mo Zelak, the Maester of Buschfell, slid quickly into the room like one of the collared lizards Matheny remembered from his time spent in the wild lands as a youth.

"Leave us," Matheny gruffly ordered. Ser Matthew sprang to his feet and exited through the door Mo had just entered. As the door clanged shut behind him, Matheny stood up and faced the Maester. Before he could speak, Mo interrupted.

"I have no time for pleasantries, Matheny." The Lord of Buschfell found the Maester's lack of respect infuriating. Word had already spread about their icy relationship, and he had heard many a thinly disguised reference to their disagreements in the songs of the minstrels at dinner. Still, he remained silent while Mo spoke.

"The King in Boston grows fat, and slow. His actions are confusing and unpredictable. Already he has sent several envoys throughout the kingdom; Ser Jon the Lesser to the people of the Oak Land, and they say Ser John the Lackey is on his way to Buschfell as we speak. We must discover his motives," the Maester hissed. Matheny's shoulders sagged as if a great weight had been laid upon them. He had little interest in political intrigue. Instead of responding, he studied the Maester. Mo wore several bowties around his neck, accoutrements that only a Maester could wear. Each one represented a different skill learned at the prestigious but mysterious Maester's school on the other end of the continent. The purple tie represented advanced statistics. The green tie showed a mastery of the art of understanding sample size. The blood red tie implied that Mo had perfected negotiation.

"What would you have me do, Maester?" Matheny asked.

"We must send spies to the court in Boston. Men we can trust. I have notified the two I feel are most qualified. Ser Joseph Kelly and Ser Allyn of the Crag are already riding eastwards." Matheny felt the warmth of rage boiling inside him.

"Damn you, you squirrely man!" he shouted. "How dare you give orders to my men without my consent!" Matheny was clenching his fists so tightly that his knuckles were turning the pure white of a freshly fallen snow. He could understand that Ser Joseph, known as "the Limpfish", would be valuable as a spy, but the loss of Ser Allyn enraged him. Mo remained silent, his eyes averted from Matheny's manic gaze.

"We need Ser Allyn here in Buschfell. He is leading the patrols against the wildlings," Matheny seethed, his violent shout turning to a furious growl.

"I see great promise in young Ser Oscar. Perhaps he will succeed in actually finding these bandits, something Allyn has so far failed to -"

"We are not in the development business!" Matheny grumbled. "We have a realm to protect. I will not stand idly by while -"

"Do not make the mistake of presuming you have power over me, Matheny," Mo Zelak crowed. "I know things, things about your past. I know that you know that I know these things. You are mine, my Lord, and you would do well to remember that." The Maester swept out of the room like a cyclone, leaving Matheny to smolder in his wake.

*****

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