‘Outlivers’ chapter one – Spark and Stone
THEIA RAN HER fingers through cropped hair as she took measure of the man, his bulk and ferocity. Twice her age, double her size, the prize-fighter taunted the crowd, beating his chest in defiance. The man strutted across the ring inside the metal fight cage, a wall of brawn and muscle, sluggish and predictable.
She pushed through the crush of bodies, jostling with her elbows, wrestling her way to the front. Brenan’s hand on her shoulder tugged her back, shouting above the uproar. “He’ll kill you. Back off.”
“From a fight? Never.”
“He’s a savage.”
“That’s why I’ll win.”
Forget the mind – that’s why she’d win. Ignore the fear, the fire in his eyes, his fakes and feints and the bar-room roar. The flicker of lights from the TV screens. See it through and don’t give ground, that’s who she was and nothing would change her.
From inside the metal cage the prize-fighter jeered at the crowd, daring a challenger to step forward. The purse had been growing, month by month – two hundred crowns, enough to fix the gym roof and mend the door, kicked down by enforcers during the last search. Medicine for Leta’s ear. Money for food, for training, for Brenan’s tech kit.
Theia surged towards the door of the cage. She lied, told the fight-master she was eighteen, his eyes glaring at her, wild with booze and unbelieving. But when she thrust the entrance money into his hands, he nodded and grimaced, two gold teeth glittering in the half-light of the bar, his face covered in tattoos.
The prize-fighter prowled the ring bare-chested, with tight-fitting sports pants down to his knees. He put both hands on his belly and leant backwards in mock laughter as he watched her getting ready. He had no idea. The men in the bar, howling at the cage, putting down hard-earned wages on a sure thing, they couldn’t know. They’d never heard of Soho’s gym, or dreamt of girls like Theia.
She clambered into the ring. Leta shouted something about bruises and the workfair but who cared about that? Theia turned to yell back above the noise. “I won’t get hurt.” Then a foot swung round at head height and smashed into her face.
The room was in uproar, people gripping the metal bars of the fight cage, the stink of sweat mixing with the booze.
“Get out the ring,” the fighter shouted, standing over her. “Save your pretty face for some old man.”
She lay on her front, braced, waiting for the moment. Forget the mind, focus on the the moves, the opponent. On a breath of air.
“I’ll take a bit of this.” His hand slapped her butt as he laughed, encouraging the crowd, playing the clown and the bully for his audience, loving the power.
Now he was weak.
She flipped onto her back and kicked upwards, hard and accurate into the man’s groin. He doubled over, staggered back and Theia sprang upwards. She side-kicked him in the head and blood splattered in an arc towards the crowd.
She stepped back against the ropes. This fight wasn’t over. Not by a long way.
The prize-fighter came at her. He was built like a bull but how old? Thirty years or more, all of them spent fighting. He charged, his face contorted with anger, fired with strength and muscle, brawn and rage. He’d kill her now if he got the chance, he’d show no mercy. But fury tied him in knots.
She slipped aside, let him charge against the ropes, tripped his trailing foot, span around and kicked him in the head as he tumbled. She pranced across the ring, hands above her head celebrating, a jaunty grin on her face. She waved to the crowd, pressed against the ropes, sure the man would take time to recover.
She was wrong. He was on her before she knew what was happening, his thick arms gripped around her waist and they fell together. His skin stank and his breath reeked, a cauldron of stale garlic and beer and meat and onions and rotten teeth. She slammed into the canvas, his chest pinning her, face close to hers, hands on her wrists, holding her helpless. His tongue licked her cheek, as his body pumped up and down on her, the crowd yelling in rage and excitement.
The prize-fighter held on, intent on crushing her. He spat in her face then brought his lips close to her ear, whispered a promise, offered to let her go, in return for favours.
She looked him in the eye, let him think it was a deal. When his grip relaxed she slammed her knee into his groin, twisting her right wrist free and gouging at the man’s eye, then grabbing his balls with her left hand. His body buckled in panic and she wriggled from under him. Time to strike, get to her feet and finish him off, but he sensed the danger and struck out at her in rage, a fist landing in her back, sending her sprawling towards the ropes.
Get balanced. This was dull-witted fighting, ugly, fuelled by hate. Kill the emotion. “It’s not about the moves,” Soho would say, “but the mind.” Sure it was. But it helped to land the first punch. Besides, there was no time to catch a breath never mind dwell on it.
The bookies bellowed new bets across the bar, changing the odds.
The prize-fighter had done gulping in air. He’d got his swagger back, with a hard menace to his eyes, fixed on Theia’s face.
She glanced towards the fight-master, standing impassive at the side of the ring. There were no rules, no interventions. A win by submission, or knock-out, or death. No weapons, but everything else was allowed.
The fighter circled, ready to finish her off. If he got hold of her again there’d be no more threats or showmanship. It’d be over. He understood how to end a fight, she’d seen him do it, watched him night after night, learning his moves, waiting for this moment.
She let him attack, hurling his force towards her with a blow that could break her neck. She swayed out of reach, tipping him off-balance, using the man’s power against him as he crashed forward, his punches striking air, his legs wheeling. Theia danced around him, taunting, drawing him in, making him pant in fury, fighting a ghost, a wisp of a shadow.
He caught her with a flailing elbow on the side of the skull but she span away and tripped him. As he fell into the ropes she struck, a leaping kick that came down with both feet on the man’s knee.
His scream hung in the air. The crowd watched in dazed silence.
Theia picked herself up and backed away. The man tried to stand but sank to the floor clutching his leg. He turned his head to glare at her, death in his eyes, but he was gone. The fight was fair, by the rules in here, and he’d done worse to his opponents, scores of them, most of them drunk on moonshine or bravado or desperation.
The man looked at the fight-master and shook his head. Theia raised her arms in triumph, paused for a moment to let the crowd hail her, then cartwheeled out of the ring, landing on her feet next to the table where the money waited.
The man counted out her winnings, poured them into a canvas sack and thrust it into her hands. “Watch yourself out there.” He nodded towards the crowd.
He was right, plenty in that bar-room would kill for this much money. Theia glanced towards her friends. “Back exit?”
The fight-master guided her towards a metal door near the bar and gestured for Brenan and Leta to follow. He led them down a corridor and into a narrow passageway. “Get gone,” he said, “before they come looking.”
Theia set off at a sprint heading for the gym with Leta and Brenan close behind. She carried the sack pressed against her chest, the money jangling as she ran, more crowns than she’d ever seen. She’d fought for money and won but Soho would forgive her, one day. It was for a good cause. This time. Something that mattered. He’d see. He’d understand – she’d had to do this one thing, for him, before the end.
She’d leave the money in Soho’s office. He wouldn’t see it until the morning, and she’d be gone. Gone to the workfair. Gone forever if it all went wrong.
Because she couldn’t fight enforcers, the power of the city, the elders and outlivers, the machinery of malice. If they took her away, she’d struggle to her dying breath. Resist. It’s what she knew. She’d punch and scream and kick and kill. She’d do what it took and take the pain. But that was more than a brawl. It was rebellion. And she was sure to lose.