You Win Or You Die, Chapters 1 & 2

[You Win or You Die is a never-ending novel that recaps the week in sports as chapters in a fantasy epic. It is meant to be taken very seriously, every Thursday.]

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CHAPTER ONE:

MARK

He watched from the sidelines as the battle continued to unfold. He didn’t understand why he wasn’t out there with his men. The other inactive soldiers were being tended for fractures and head wounds. Mark was ready to get back to the front of the vanguard and march against the troops from the kingdom of Arizona, when Maester Ryan told to “sit his creampuff ass down.”

{I took the snap.}

Ryan had put another in his place instead, a young boy from house McElroy, in the south. A green boy, and a foreigner, Mark thought with spite. I’d seen two championship games before he’d flagged his first cabbie, I’d wager.

{I looked to hand to a runner. He should have been there, I swear it to be true. Yet he was not.}

Yet inexplicably, there were the patrons of the arena, a hundred thousand strong,  roaring their approval for this unproven stranger. It was a familiar sound to Mark, and a warm sound, though he couldn’t recall the last time he’d heard it.

{Panic overtaking me, I took off for the goal line.}

Out the corner of his eye he saw Santonio, sipping away from his glass of mead and cracking wise with the third-stringers. Mark took him for a fool, a brigand whose injuries were most likely his own creations. He’s the reason I’m not out there, Mark decided. He must be. Everything that goes wrong, he’s always behind it. Laughing at me. Teasing me. Big meanie. Mark had to remind himself that death would find Santonio, as it finds all men, and the thought calmed him.

He considered pleading his case to Maester Ryan — yes, he had thrown three interceptions in less than twenty minutes, but it could have easily been four or five- before another roar from the faithful brought his attention back to the battle. The damnable green boy was moving them downfield.

{But I didn’t make it to the goal line. A sharp blow struck me on the head. I was impeded at the line of scrimmage… by… some gargantuan enemy defensive mechanism. It… it was… buttocks.  That’s right. The buttocks of the enemy.}

The Holy One approached Mark and knelt beside him. He was out of the battle as well, a rib splintered, like Adam. Mark used to fear the Holy Man, but now he felt a kindred bond had grown between them, as though they shared a mutual loathing for the McElroy boy.

“Can you remember yet?” The Holy One asked him.

{No. That’s not it. No, he was one of mine. A New York man. I crashed into the buttocks of one of my own.}

“Not quite,” Mark conceded. “Though I believe it will come soon.”

The Holy One nodded. “Bingo night at my place Tuesday night. My niece is coming. Is that cool?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

{And the ball… it came lose…}

Mark winced and stumbled forth. The Holy One grabbed hold of his shoulder pad to steady him.

“Easy. Easy.” He looked him in the eye. “Are you remembering now?”

{The enemy ran it back.}

“The New England Massacre?”

Around the two fallen warriors, the stands exploded in triumph. The boy had just reached the endzone for the first time that day, essentially insuring a victory. Their home camp had been defended, albeit by the slimmest of margins. Mark watched, eyes glossed, as his former coaches and friends ran to embrace their new leader. It all made sense to him now.

“Yes. Yes, Tim. I remember.”

As he looked across the field, his eyes met with those of the other camp’s leader, Ryan of House Lindley. Lindley was bruised, bloodied, and essentially awful. For a brief moment, it seemed as though a common question was passing through the minds of both men — that although the battle had been won, had it been worth the carnage?

Mark looked up the scoreboard, and he was dismayed to admit that he did not know the answer.

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CHAPTER TWO:

DUNCAN

Duncan sat facing his locker, a large number 21 jersey gazing down at him like a cruel god. He was trying desperately to remember if the day before had been as terrible as the day before that, and if the morrow could somehow redeem this current, miserable day. He took a large chunk off a leg of lamb in a single bite and let the juice ooze down his chin. This was his private time, where the world couldn’t see how much of a careless slob he truly was.

“The children,” he muttered. “I do it for the children, day in, day out, the beautiful children. Watching me, idolizing me, my fundamentals. It’s for them, all for them.”

A door opened behind him. Duncan quickly wiped his face and tossed the over-sized leg of meat into his locker. The hulking frame of Kawhi Leonard cast a shadow from his doorway.

“Maester Popovich wishes to speak to you in his chambers,” Leonard said.

Duncan nodded and dismissed Leonard with the flick of a wrist. He stood, straightened his necktie, and once again prepared his façade.

Maester Popovich was hunched over a pile of game scrolls when Duncan entered. Duncan knocked twice before letting himself in.

“It’s true then,” said Duncan.

Popovich looked up. The man’s eyes were bloodshot, bags beneath them like canyons from the deserts of Phoenix. It pained Duncan to see the old man looking so frail, yet he couldn’t let that weakness show. He could never let that weakness show.

“Word just came down,” Popovich told him, voice gruff and to the point as always. “Grand Maester Stern has fined us five-hundred-thousand gold pieces. I mean dollars.”

Duncan blinked. “Can we afford such a thing?”

“We haven’t a choice.” Popovich stood. “We shan’t be appealing.”

“But even with our strongest soldiers sitting out, the battle was almost won. It isn’t fair, how can he-?”

“The Grand Maester’s word is law, and we’ll abide by it, Timmofy.” Popovich picked up a scroll and disregarded it to the waste bucket. “You’re going to have to accept fewer days off from now on.”

Duncan felt his heart plummet. Popovich looked at him.

“Anything else to add?”

Tell him, a voice deep inside Duncan said. Just say it. You think about retirement every day of your life. You haven’t genuinely enjoyed the game of basketball since 1998. You’d give anything to get out, right now, go on Timmofy, tell him!

Instead, he merely bowed. “With your leave, sir.”

As he left Popovich’s chambers, he found Ginobli the Trickster leaning on a wall, waiting for him. Ginobli grinned and raised an eyebrow.

“Told you I was right, didn’t I?”

duncan

He proceeded to skip in a circle around Duncan as the distinguished veteran walked back towards the San Antonio locker room, chattering his nonsense with the speed of a Claxton. “I said it, I told you from the start, we’ll look weak if we miss this game. They take us for old fools as it is. And now here we are today, older and poorer, all because you didn’t listen to old Manu.”

Ginobli was a rambunctious character, as most men from over the sea tended to be. Rumors from the other men said that he would mince about the castles of San Antonio after-hours, swatting bats off their perches for his own pleasure. Duncan didn’t trust the man in the slightest, yet he couldn’t help but admire his skill on the court.

“You sound almost happier for it, Manu,” Duncan noted. “Is there something you’re seeing that I’m not?”

Ginobli giggled. “Is there ever not?”

He leaned over to whisper in Duncan’s ear. Curiosity winning out, Duncan halted and listened.

“Think of how much sweeter it will be, when the Grand Maester himself is presenting us the trophy at the end of the year,” he whispered. “The look on the fool’s face… when we have him on stage with us… can you picture it? World champions, alone with the departing Grand Maester, for all the world to see… why, I think that might be the perfect time to strike, don’t you?”

Duncan pulled away from the Trickster, suddenly wide-eyed. Manu giggled again.

“I’m being silly!” Ginobli squealed. “Silly silly silly Manu! Be calm now, Timmofy. You shouldn’t take things so seriously!”

Duncan turned his back on the foreigner, jaw clenching. “Round up Parker and the boys. We have work to do.”

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