|Playing the Game
|Written By: Heidi Henderson
|(2011 Commented on All Stories Prize) Newt has watched the others play treeball for nearly a turn of the seasons. When can he play?
|Posted: 01/03/12 [7 Comments]
The ball sped through the air with the seeming velocity of an arrow and landed in Willow's arms with a resounding smack that made both Newt and Fadestar wince. The pale-skinned boy gazed up into the trees above, watching the healer take the ball under one arm and shake the other to get the sting out of it.
“Good shot!” she hollered across the treeline from whence the ball had come. “That one's going to leave a bruise.” With that, Willow quickly planted her feet, wound up, and sent the ball careening again back across the canopy. Another smack and a muffled, “Ow!” from across the way indicated the missile had reached its target, but had been caught.
When the ball came speeding back across the clearing, Fadestar averted her eyes. “I don't think I can watch this any more. It always gets so rough when those two are the last left in the game.”
Newt, however, didn't avert his eyes. He keenly watched Willow make a catch and pitched the leather-wrapped object back across to where Notch was planted in the trees. Leaves in the forest canopy partially obscured his vision, but he could see the throw was short. Notch leaned forward to catch the ball — and did so just by the very tips of his fingers — and then began to topple forward off the tree branch. Notch quickly dug in his heels and leaned back, managing to right himself mere moments before both he and the ball would have fallen to the forest floor below.
Newt let out a pent-up breath. “I thought he was going to fall!” he near-whispered. He noticed Fadestar was wide-eyed, as well.
The ball sailed overhead again at high speed. Willow caught it, and it was evident that the shot would leave another mark. Colorful words were exchanged.
“If Notch doesn't try something besides throwing the ball hard enough to knock her out of the tree, Willow will win,” the pale-skinned elf continued, watching the ball sail back toward Notch again. “Unless....”
“What?” Fadestar asked of the discontinued thought.
“He's setting her up,” Newt finally said. “And Willow knows he is, too — but she has to judge when the 'real' shot is going to come — that, or get him to drop the ball first.”
“The 'real' shot?”
Newt nodded. “The one that doesn't come at her like a rock out of a sling.”
The pair watched as Notch wound up and stepped back on the branch as if to hurl the ball with all his might. However, just as Newt predicted, the follow-through was anything but fast. When Notch let the ball go, it almost seemed to float toward Willow's tree-perch, and it was going to hit far off to her right. Willow locked her eyes on the ball and began to sprint across the branch in that direction.
Newt grinned. “It's going to be short!”
And though Willow was far enough away not to hear that announcement, she stopped in her tracks and held her hands up over her head in clear sight. The ball bounced off the tree trunk with a dull thunk and rolled to the ground. There was no way she could have caught that ball.
“Short!” Willow hooted as she lowered her hands to the side. She'd won by default due to the bad throw. “Next time, try not to be so fancy, and you might stand a chance.”
Notch muttered something back that Newt couldn't make out over the distance.
Without warning, Newt took off in the direction of the fallen treeball, ignoring Fadestar's call to wait up or her steps after him. He scooped up the Preserver-silk-bound item. It fit perfectly into the crook of his arm.
Fadestar looked over his shoulder. “You know they won't let you play with them.” That thought appeared to frustrate her.
“I've been watching them for almost a turn of the seasons now. I know how each of them play. I know what they do to try and win. I could stand a chance against them.”
Fadestar nodded. “I know that, and you know that, but how do we convince them otherwise? Maybe I could help you practice?”
Newt started to say something when Willow landed on the ground nearby. The healer gestured to the treeball in Newt's hands. “You mind putting that back in the gathering den for us?”
Newt shook his head. He didn't mind at all. He watched as Willow, Notch, and the other hand of elves who had been playing the game headed back toward the Holt. And suddenly, more than anything, he wanted to be with them instead of being the one staying on the forest floor to watch.
But how could he convince them to let him play? Fadestar was right. They would never agree to his joining in, because they thought he was too young. Besides, there was never any room for him in a group. It always seemed like it was Notch and Rainpace on one team and Willow and Foxtail on the other; they always liked to partner up and it didn't seem possible to get them to consider choosing him instead of their usual partners. The prospect of joining seemed impossible. How could he show them that he thought he'd be good at the game, and that this was something he really wanted to do? There had to be some way to convince them. He just wasn't sure how quite yet.
It was nearly a moon's dance before anyone even touched the treeball again. Just as the sun was setting, he spied a hand of elves walking out of the Holt. Longshot was at the rear of the group and the treeball was tucked underneath his arm.
Newt glanced back inside his den. Both his fathers were still sleeping. He sent to them, briefly, that he was going to go with the others who were playing treeball. They acknowledged with muzzy-sounding, **All right, be safe,** sendings.
Now was his chance. He followed the group into the forest and ended up right on their heels. They knew he was there and said nothing of it, save for their usual greetings — Longshot greeted Newt warmly, as did Moss and Nightstorm. Willow gave him her same-old silent, yet not unwelcoming, hello, and Goldspice smiled widely at him. Newt had followed them to whatever playfield they had chosen for their game countless times now as a spectator. It was almost as if they expected him to do so now.
But this time, something was different. When they reached the small clearing that was ringed conveniently by high trees, the game didn't begin immediately as it usually did. No one took to their places up in the branches; instead, they all milled about in the center of the little grove, waiting.
'Of course,' Newt realized. 'They're missing someone.'
“When is Notch going to get his sorry tail over here?” Moss impatiently asked, and turned to Willow as though she would know the answer.
The healer shrugged. “He said he'd be here. I'll see.” She paused then, obviously sending, and moments later, she must have received an answer. Whatever she had been told made her roll her eyes and groan. “Evidently he has more important things to do than play a match.” She open-sent the glimpses of images she'd just received to the group of a surprise visit from a familiar red-haired chief's daughter. “Count on Notch to lay aside well-made plans for a roll in the furs.”
The news brought both groans and chuckles to the group's lips, but it was obvious that the excuse had irritated the healer. “We might as well head back since we're short one.”
“Why don't we just play anyway?” Nightstorm countered. “Do we really need to have Notch here?”
Willow shook her head. “We need even teams for it to be fair.”
Longshot sided with his mother. “We could at least have a practice run. Everyone for himself.”
However, Moss disagreed. “That might end up taking us all night, and I plan on going on Blacksnake's hunt that's leaving close to dawn.”
Newt listened to the elves argue the merits of playing short-handed or going home. His heart began to pound in his chest. He almost couldn't believe his luck, but this was the chance he had been waiting for. He drew in a deep breath to speak, and then quietly said, “I can play.”
At first, the others didn't hear him; they were arguing and their raised voices drowned out Newt's meek offering. So he repeated himself, this time more loudly. “I can play. I can take Notch's place.”
That got the others' attention. Moss shook his head. “No. I don't think that's wise. Your fathers would probably skin us alive if you got hurt.”
“You've never played before,” Longshot added, looking unconvinced as well. “What good is your filling in if you're just going to get knocked out of the tree first thing?”
That comment raised Newt's ire. “I know how to play. I've been watching you all for a long time. I know the rules, and I know more about how to play than you all think!”
“Cub's got swagger,” Willow grinned, obviously impressed by the challenge in Newt's tone. “But talk is nothing. Watching others play doesn't make you good at the game.”
“And how can he get good at the game if he never gets the opportunity to play?” It was Nightstorm's turn to argue. “We all have to start somewhere, and if we let him in then we haven't come out here for nothing.”
“He's too young,” the healer quickly countered.
Goldspice wasn't convinced, either. “What if he gets hurt?”
“I'm tired of everyone watching over me like I might break any moment,” Newt answered. “I'm not in wrapstuff, and I'm healthy and whole. Let me play!”
The others still seemed uncertain — save for Nightstorm, of course, and Newt was almost sure that they would refuse his request and the treeball match would be called off. But suddenly, Willow's countenance changed, and she spoke.
“He's right. Let him play. Let us see what he's made of. If he gets hurt, I'm here to fix him up.”
“I won't get hurt!” Newt grabbed onto the thread of opportunity that presented itself and vowed inwardly that he would not let go.
Moss looked at Willow and then back at Newt. He thought for long moments, and his brow crinkled as he did so. Finally, he took a deep breath. “Fine. I vote to let him have a go, provided he's careful.”
“I will be careful.” Newt repeated.
It seemed that Moss' decision was the turning point for the others, as well. One by one they gave their consent to let him play.
Newt was in! He felt his heart pounding in anticipation, and the smile on his face was so wide, it almost hurt.
Longshot tossed the Preserver-silk and leather-wrapped ball to him. “You're on the team with Goldspice and me. Your shot first, and that tree is yours.” He tilted his head toward the maple with the lowest-hanging branches.
Newt didn't care that it was the lowest and that the others were trying to give him the safest perch possible. He was going to play this game and show the others he had what it took to play!
The game got off to a good start, at least from Newt's perspective. He sent an arching toss over to Nightstorm, and she had to shuffle over to the trunk-end of her branch in order to catch it. She caught it with ease, of course; Newt knew it hadn't been that difficult a toss. Nightstorm then fired the ball back at him; a lob as straight and true as an arrow that fell effortlessly into his outstretched arms.
His next toss was to Willow. He tried to throw a fast shot over the healer's head, but she had a good eye. She jumped up and caught the ball mid-air and without wasting any energy, and retaliated with a fast toss to Longshot that smacked against his upper arms as it landed.
“Come on, Willow!” Longshot complained, clearly irritated, “do you have to start throwing them so hard so soon?”
The response was a taunt: “The day I become predictable is the day you can finally best me!” Newt took note of this. He knew Willow always played to win, and she was good at masking what type of throw she'd be sending next.
Newt glanced over at Longshot and saw the black-haired elf roll his eyes. He wound up and tossed the ball at Moss' perch. Moss took a step backward as the ball bounced off the branch and managed to scoop it up before it started its downward dip toward the ground.
“Think fast!” the elder hollered, and sent the treeball hurtling to Goldspice's far right.
The goldsmith scrambled to make the catch, and just barely grabbed the ball by leaning forward and snagging it with the tips of her fingers. She began to topple over and leaned backward to try and right herself. After frantic moments of foot-scrambling, she finally regained her balance. With a relieved sigh followed by a gleeful laugh, she called out, “Almost got me! But almost doesn't count!”
Goldspice tossed an easy shot to Nightstorm, who quickly lobbed the ball toward Longshot's tree.
The shot was aimed to the archer's left, toward the tree's trunk. Newt knew it was intended to make Longshot dash to make the catch.
The archer wasted no time in hurrying toward where he thought the ball was going to land. Halfway there, however, he realized there was no way he was going to make the catch. Quickly, he stopped in his tracks and held his arms up over his head. He wanted there to be no mistaking that he did not touch the ball.
“Short!” he called out, mere moments before the projectile thunked flat against the trunk of the tree — well wide of his branch — and fell unceremoniously to the ground. “You're out, Mother!” Longshot cheered jovially from his perch across the small clearing.
Willow defiantly countered, “Doesn't mean anything!” She looked over at her last remaining teammate in the tree across from her. “We still have this!”
Moss confidently nodded his agreement.
Newt cheered as Nightstorm scrambled, a bit sullenly, down from her tree and walked across the clearing to retrieve the fallen ball. She apologized with a “Sorry, you two!” before she pitched the ball upward to Longshot. Since he'd managed to get Nightstorm out, it was his turn to throw next.
Newt watched as the black-haired archer looked at his two remaining opponents and tried to decide which one would be the recipient of his next toss. Willow was eyeing Longshot expectantly. She seemed to be alert and ready for anything. Moss, on the other hand, was taking a more casual approach to the game, but it was hard to tell f it was part of the elder's gameplay or not.
Longshot made his decision. He looked toward Willow's tree and wound up. However, as he pitched the ball, he switched his stance and threw a tricky lob straight at Moss. The last-minute switch-up didn't work, much to Newt's disappointment. It smacked against the elder's chest as he made the catch.
“Nice fake!” Moss called.
Moss sized up his opponents and lobbed the treeball toward Longshot. It was a straight toss, though aimed far to the archer's left, toward the end of the branch. Longshot scrambled to reach the point where the ball would land, arms outstretched for the catch. However, he went long by one step. Instead of landing in his arms, the ball smacked soundly against the archer's right ear and Longshot fell to his knees to keep from toppling from the tree.
“You all right, son?” There was concern in Moss' voice, and it was clear he wasn't the only one worried. All eyes were on the branch where Longshot knelt.
Longshot held a hand to his ear and was silent for a few moments. He finally stood. “I'm fine. I took one step too far. Stings like a hornet got to me, but I'll be all right.” He shook his head, and Newt figured it was to stop the hurt.
“I'll look at it later if it still stings,” Willow called over to him. Longshot nodded back at her.
Newt watched as Longshot carefully climbed down from the tree. The archer looked a little unsteady on his feet as he walked to retrieve the treeball.
Once Longshot had tossed the dropped ball back to his father, Moss sent it careening over in Newt's direction.
It was a similar shot as Moss' last one, save that the ball was arching far to Newt's right. He wasn't sure he was going to be able to make the catch in time! He scrambled across the branch, arms held out wide, and closed his eyes just a moment before the ball would (or wouldn't!) hit. He felt, rather than saw, the ball land squarely in his arms and come to rest against his chest.
“Close!” someone called from across the clearing. It sounded like Goldspice, but it could have been Nightstorm.
With a sigh of relief, Newt opened his eyes, gripped the treeball, and without much hesitation, launched it in an arc toward Willow's tree. It was short, and potentially could have been called as such, but the healer made a diving leap to catch it. She hurled it right back at him then, and it crashed into his arms with a sting and the familiar smack he had come to recognize as a signature of Willow's fast pitches over the last few seasons.
“That's gonna bruise!” Willow called out, gloating. She was looking directly at Newt, all but daring him to throw the ball back at her. Newt knew the healer thought he would never stand a chance at outing her from the game, and the thought irritated him.
Without a word, he wound up and launched the ball back at her. It was a straight shot – a fast shot. It hit Willow squarely in the chest with an audible smack and then bounced off. She scrambled to catch it at is arched downward, but she wasn't fast enough. She toppled forward, then reached up to grab her branch to keep from falling. She used her forward momentum to flip over the branch, and she lowered herself to the ground just seconds after the ball landed.
“Lucky shot,” she called to him as she scooped up the ball and threw it up to his branch. However, she was cursing under her breath as she went to sit down with the other two who were out of the game.
Goldspice cheered at Newt, “One more left! We have this!”
“You haven't won yet!” Moss turned to Newt. “Give me your best shot!”
And Newt did — or, at least he tried his best. He wound up and threw the treeball over at his competitor, trying to angle it so it was wide left of where Moss was standing. The elder, however, caught the toss easily and quickly lobbed the ball toward Goldspice.
After that, Moss continued to hold his own against shots from both Goldspice and Newt quite well, the pale-skinned elf noted. Newt found it interesting how Moss eventually chose to keep control of the game, even though the odds were turned against him. Moss chose to keep throwing the ball back at one target — his lovemate — to tire her out. Two hands of tosses must have passed between the two before Goldspice slipped and dropped the ball.
“Got you!” Moss grinned down to his lovemate as he returned the ball to him from the forest floor.
“Barely,” she teased back, and then looked up at Newt. “You can do this – win this for us!”
The elves from the other side didn't share Goldspice's confidence, however.
“You've only got the sprout left, Moss! Knock him from the tree!” Willow called. Nightstorm hooted a wordless agreement. Moss couldn't help but grin confidently. The other team was pretty sure, Newt knew, that they had this game all wrapped up now that he was the only one left standing from his side.
“But Moss has tired himself out,” Newt observed. He was sure of this when he saw the elder wind up quickly and send a straight and sure shot Newt's way, but it lacked both the speed and the force that earlier throws had possessed.
Newt suppressed a grin of his own. He might not be as skilled a player as some of the others out here today — but he could certainly try to outlast them!
Newt made sure the next shot to Moss was very wide to the right – but not so wide that it could be counted as short. Moss rushed toward the ball and, panting, made the next catch. He fired back with another straight shot that wasn't hard to catch at all.
Newt's next throw was a lazy lob to Moss' far left. He was going to make sure Moss had to run for it. Again, the elder made the catch, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that Moss was tiring out.
Moss clearly knew this, too. His throws were beginning to seem more desperate and less coordinated. The elder, it seemed, was trying to make Newt fumble a catch in the hopes for the game's finale, but Newt was determined that wasn't going to happen. Moss made him run toward the ball many times, but he had barely begun to tire. Newt was determined to keep Moss running.
Moss caught yet another of Newt's deliberately wide throws and remarked, “Don't you know how to throw straight, son?” As if to illustrate what he was talking about, the elder sent a high-arching underhand shot in Newt's direction. It looked as if it were going to hit toward the end of the branch, and Newt dashed in that direction...
...but when he was halfway there, he stopped in his tracks. A wide grin spread over his face. He held up his hands and called out, “Short!”
Seconds later, the ball arched lazily a couple of arm-lengths in front of Newt's branch. He couldn't have caught that ball if he'd tried. It fell to the ground with a satisfying plop.
Newt had won!
|Illustration by Laura M.
“You did it, Newt! You did it!” Longshot and Goldspice sprung up from their seats off to the side and headed toward the Newt's tree to greet him as he began to climb down.
“I knew you could do it!” Goldspice cheered and clapped Newt on the back as he reached the forest floor.
Someone else countered, “Beginner's luck!” Newt knew that was Willow speaking, but also noted that the words were bluster. There was something about her tone that told him she was impressed by his win; she just wouldn't openly admit it.
Moss also came over and congratulated the youngest player. “Good playing there, Newt. Next time, I say he's on our team.”
“You wish, father!” Longshot hollered. “Nope, Newt stays with us. No switching.”
“But what about Notch?” Newt suddenly asked. The others had seemed to forget that Newt had been a replacement when the older elf hadn't shown up for the game today.
Willow replied, “When he learns not to leave us all hanging while he's off playing with Foxtail, someone might pick him for a team again.” She smirked as she added, “Maybe.” That made the others laugh.
Newt felt a smile stretch across his face from ear to ear. He not only won the game, but he had tribemates who wanted him on a team again! It felt good! Playing treeball was just as fun and exciting as he knew it could be!
He fell into step with his tribemates as they began to walk back to the Holt. He couldn't wait to tell Fadestar how he'd played his first treeball game and had beaten some of the best!
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