The crowd roared. The heavy ball looped around and under the goalkeeper, who dived desperately for it with arms outstretched. He missed and the ball crashed into the back of the netting. The observer behind the net raised his flag and the whistle blew.
Kevin had seldom seen huge crowds in the world of Lyndesfarne but this one was large enough to make him slightly nervous. It had something of the atmosphere of a football match in his own world, the same sense of competitive purpose at one remove, the same feeling of supporting us and deriding them. It all seemed fairly good-natured, nevertheless, and supporters were sporting the colours of the rival teams and waving flags and banners with considerable enthusiasm.
Tanji tried to explain the rules of the game, which seemed to Kevin to be some cross between netball and ice hockey, with the additional feature that the game was all played in mid-air. There were two teams of six players, each equipped with the flying devices Kevin thought of as Faerie Wings. A thin pack was attached to each player's back with strong straps, from whence emerged insubstantial wings flickering with the orange and green sprites of active magic.
Kevin could not tell how motion was controlled, but the players certainly seemed adept at it, flitting to and fro with astonishing rapidity. The team members darted about chasing the ball, seeming able to accelerate and stop almost instantaneously, as well as hover or even fly backwards. Kevin knew that some bugs, like Dragonflies, could perform these kinds of manoeuvres and could easily see how, in times past, someone from his world observing such a scene would easily be bemused into thinking that Faeries could indeed fly like insects.
The noisy supporters were arrayed in banked stands surrounding a large circle of dry sand. Mounted at opposite sides were two circular goals, known as "Dragon's mouths" according to Tanji's translation, each about ten feet across and held on poles around thirty feet from the ground. Each had a net of flexible wire or rope - Kevin was not sure which - that deformed in the breeze or when the ball hit it, but did not sag like football netting would have done.
The ball itself was quite solid and heavy, according to Tanji, and a lot of force was required to get it to speed up or change direction. It was magically enhanced so that it did not quite float; it would eventually fall to the ground but much more slowly that an object of its size and weight would normally do. In play, competitors were not allowed to catch or hold the ball in any way, but were required to strike it with palm or fist, in the same style as volleyball. The surface of the ball was padded and dimpled, giving it a quilted effect. This meant that it would curve dramatically because of air resistance if a degree of spin was imparted, much like the seam of a cricket ball allows movement in the air to confuse the opposing batsman.
The defeated goalkeeper had retrieved the ball from the net and tossed it casually to a team-mate positioned near the centre of the circular pitch. The players lined up on each site, or at least hung in formations which were no doubt the result of long and careful analysis in the changing rooms and endless pre-match practice. The whistle blew again and the leader of the team who had just ceded a goal pounded the ball in the direction of his team-mate who had darted forward as soon as play had resumed. An opposing player moved swiftly to intercept the pass, missing by inches on this occasion. All of the players made great displays of skill and athleticism and sportsmanship, passing the ball from one team member to another who was closer to the opposing goal while pressed by skilful interceptions and tackles from the other team.
The referee's whistle sounded and play stopped again. There had been a minor mid-air collision. Tanji had earlier explained that any kind of body contact was a foul - Kevin imagined this was to prevent any behaviour which was conceivably dangerous. To assist in the refereeing, the players' clothing would light up magically in the event of any contact. As punishment for such a foul, both team members were taken off for a period which depended on the force of the impact. Tanji explained that this prevented any argument as to who was at fault and meant that everyone strived to avoid collisions at all times.
The game itself was policed entirely from the sidelines. The official referee sat in an enclosed box and was assisted by a team of observers or linesmen deployed around the circumference and behind each of the goals. The referee's task was made easier by several magical aids. As well as the illuminated telltales for body contact, the ball was enhanced to hoot and flash if it was held for more than a fraction of a second when in play, but somehow this reaction was suppressed after the referee's whistle had been blown.
A dome of transparent and invisible magic covered the entire pitch, which prevented the ball from leaving the field of play. A clearance from the goal mouth would leave the ball in play, but it would rebound unpredictably from the enclosing magic, apparently to discourage deliberate attempts to bounce the ball when making a pass.
This afternoon's sporting event had been something of a surprise. Tanji had encouraged Kevin to accompany her to this particular match. He had acceded immediately, always keen to learn more about the Other World. She had revealed herself to be a fan of one team whose colours were pale blue and white - Tanji had trouble translating the team's name, finally plumping for "Team Blue Dragon" - while the opposing team in orange and black were apparently named something like "The Stinging Wasps." It was only after the game had been underway for half an hour, and Kevin had wondered aloud about the number and enthusiasm of the fans that Tanji told him that this was the final match of the season, the winners to become the year's champions.
Kevin found himself entering into the spirit of the occasion and cheering unrestrainedly for his team - having adopted Tanji's preference as his own, of course. Their team had just equalised with, if Kevin understood the time and score display correctly, just a few minutes of playing time left. The displays, which seemed to Kevin to be larger versions of the magical blackboards that he and Bret had used when they had been working on the design of the New Bridge, showed the score and the time left to place, as well as complex diagrams with arrows and movements which were supposed to clarify the play on the field - if this was the right word.
Despite Tanji's explanations, many of the activities remained opaque to Kevin. Even so, he had enjoyed it immensely. The atmosphere was electric, with every feint and move cheered or jeered from the terraces and every shot at goal was accompanied by a vast roar. Their team won in the end, with a last-minute goal where the ball curved and twisted so impressively unpredictably that no-one - neither players nor fans - could be sure it would enter the Dragon's Mouth. Kevin shouted and applauded along with the rest of the crowd in their part of the stadium, hugging Tanji who waved her pennant energetically and cheered as loudly as he did.
After the match, they made their way out of the stadium, moving slowly in a crush of people, and with Kevin holding Tanji's hand tightly, not wanting to get separated.
"What is this game called?" he asked, between being jostled by over-enthusiastic fans.
Tanji hesitated, as she often did when an idiomatic interpretation did not come to mind.
"I'm not sure how to translate it properly," she said finally, "But it literally means 'Flying Ball'."
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