Beneath the Keep – Erika Johansen

Boy! Over here now!” Christian looked up from his meal, a well-picked-over rib of beef that had been left in the tunnel outside. There was still meat on the bone, and before he acknowledged the man who had entered the room, he was determined to gnaw away the last bits. “Boy!” Christian looked up again, resigned. There was no light here but a single candle, its thin illumination barely enough to reveal the shadowy figure in the doorway. But still, Christian knew the man: a portly figure whose muscle had long since run to fat, his thick jowls and bright red nose revealing an overfondness for drink. He would know Wigan anywhere. He would know him on his dying day. “Come on. It’s time.” Casting the stripped bone into the corner, Christian popped to his feet. Some days he got enough to eat, some days he didn’t, but either way, he always had his reflexes. They had spared him several beatings at Wigan’s hands when he was much younger. But Wigan rarely tried to hit him anymore. He was too valuable. He followed Wigan out into the corridor, their footfalls echoing off the stone walls of the tunnel.

From time to time they would pass open doorways, other entrances, and Christian could see people inside, could see everything they were doing. Most of the dens on this level were full of whores, their pimps, their customers. Even down here, most promoters had better accommodations, but two months before, Wigan had made a disastrous bet on a dogfight, and the two of them had been stuck in Whore’s Alley ever since. “I hope you’ve got your best game today, boy,” Wigan grunted. “Ellis brought that giant idiot of his, and he can swing a haymaker like no one’s business.” Christian said nothing, but he could already feel his blood warming up, drowning out his handler, thrumming with the pulse of the ring. Nothing mattered there, not Wigan, not the hunger, not the dark warren of the tunnels. The ring was clear, well-defined. The ring was easy. “Did you hear me, boy?” He nodded.

“Swear to Christ, half the time I think you’re a fucking idiot. Speak when you’re spoken to!” “I understand,” Christian replied tonelessly. “Well, why don’t you say so?” Christian shrugged. He was only eleven years old, but he had learned long before that every time he opened his mouth, he gave a piece of himself away. They climbed a poorly carved stone staircase, reaching the second level. Christian could hear the low roar now, and although it was muted, still several twists and turns away, that roar pulsed in his blood like alcohol, like morphia. He had been given morphia once, years before, when his injuries were so bad that he could not sleep or stay quiet, and he had never forgotten that night: a long, snaking dream in his head, an epic journey through a world filled with light. It was seductive, the scale of that mindlessness, and for that very reason Christian distrusted it. He had never tried morphia again, but there was no need; he already had his own narcotic. The ring resonated in his very bloodstream.

“Have you stretched your arms?” He nodded again, though he hadn’t. Wigan liked to brag that Christian was a physical marvel, and perhaps he was, for he never needed to stretch, never needed to condition, never needed to go through any of the hundred little routines that the other boys apparently did. He was always ready to fight. “By the way, I thought of a name for you.” I have a name, Christian nearly replied, but he remained silent. It didn’t matter what Wigan chose to call him in the ring. Creche babies generally knew nothing about their parentage; Christian had been sold to a handler when he was only a few days old. His name seemed an important thing to keep, since he’d been born with nothing else. “We’ll try it on tonight, see if it sticks.” The roar had grown now, filling the tunnel, echoing off the stone walls to thrum inside Christian’s head.

A good crowd; that would please Wigan, but Christian hardly cared anymore. Even the people, their yelling and screaming, the stench they brought with them—tobacco and body stink and cheap piss-watered ale—even they didn’t matter once he was inside the ring. They rounded the corner and entered a room that blazed like a bonfire, lit by dozens of torches on the walls and an array of lamps set into the ceiling. Men suddenly seemed to surround Christian, all kinds of men: nobles and beggars, merchants with the embroidered insignia of their guild visible on their shoulders . even a couple of frocks from the Arvath, their white robes conspicuous among the dark mass of the crowd, gold twinkling around their necks. The men shouted encouragement, pounding Christian on the shoulder, breathing ale in his face. Wigan bared his brown teeth and bathed in their approval, shouting greetings to those he knew, as one would to friends, but Christian knew that Wigan was nothing to them. Christian was the prize, the object of value, and the reason was simple: he never lost. “Crush him, boy!” “Kill that idiot!” Peering through the crowd, Christian saw that it was indeed Brendan Maartens standing in the ring, his face white in the torchlight. At age fourteen, Maartens was already approaching six feet and had arms like great slabs of stone.

But he was also slow, and not just in speed. Maartens barely knew how to talk. Like Christian, he had been in the ring since earliest childhood; years before, he had taken a bad blow to the head that had left its mark. Christian did not want to hurt Maartens, but he knew he would. Money was heavy in the air; mostly pounds, but he spotted Mort marks changing hands as well. Wigan pushed Christian forward, and he tried not to wince as men slapped and punched him in the back. “He’s so small!” a child’s voice piped up to his left. “How can he win?” Christian halted. Amid all the things in flux in this world, one fact held firm: he would win. It was the only thing he knew for certain, and it was enough to sustain him through the small wounds brought by each new day: Wigan’s drunks and his heavy hands; the knowledge that Maura, whom Christian thought he might love, was fucking men old enough to be her grandfather; and the blood of other boys, no older than himself, soaked into the skin of his knuckles.

This certainty, the knowledge of his own abilities in the ring, was all he had. Whirling to his left, Christian found a dark-haired child, perhaps two or three years younger than Christian himself, a thin, sickly boy with a narrow, pointed face. He was well-dressed, in thick wool and a black cloak—from topside, clearly—but it was his eyes that stayed Christian’s hand. They were bright green and hungry, and although this wellfed child couldn’t be more than eight years old, Christian sensed that the boy was fundamentally unsatisfied, constantly seeking something he did not find. Christian had never seen his own reflection, but somehow he knew just what his own eyes would look like: neither hungry nor content, but filled with a vast distance of nothing. “Back away, Tommy, or he’ll have you too!” a man shouted over the child’s head. The man was well-dressed also, with manicured hands. A rich man, Christian thought, bringing his son down to the Creche for a taste of the wild side. Losing interest, Christian turned away, but as he did so, the well-dressed man stroked a hand along his bottom. Christian stiffened, but then an iron grip descended on his shoulder.

“Do nothing!” Wigan hissed in his ear. “It’s the Prince and his handler. This is a fight you can’t win, boy. Get a move on.” A fight he couldn’t win. Wigan might think so, but Christian had already marked the handler, engraving the man’s face on his memory. He might never see the man again, but then again, he might run into him, find him all alone in one of these dark tunnels. “Go on, boy,” Wigan growled. “Don’t go getting too big for yourself. They’re all waiting.

Go on.” Christian went, rolling his shoulders, leaving the Prince and the rest of the world behind. He was in the ring now, and in the ring there was only the opponent across from him, who would present no challenge at all. Christian could smell weakness, even wellhidden weakness, and he perceived that the huge boy-man in front of him was frightened, too frightened to make full use of his enormous biceps, hopelessly cowed by the reputation of a small, quick boy who did not lose. “Christian! Christian!” Turning, he saw Maura on the far side of the ring, leaning over the gates. She wore a low-cut green dress that sat absurdly on her child’s body. Mrs. Evans often let a few of her girls out on fight nights, so that they could go trawling through the crowd for johns. But Maura had not been at one of Christian’s fights in months, and he suddenly found that he did not want her here, did not want her to see what was about to happen. But he waved to her, smiling, ignoring the men who crowded around her, hemming her in.

“Christian! Here!” She was holding something out to him. Reluctantly—for he knew that many eyes watched and marked such things—he moved toward her, crossing the ring. “What is it?” “I made it for you. For luck.” She dropped something into his open palm, and Christian stared at it stupidly for a moment before he realized that it was a bracelet of some kind, woven of many differentcolored threads. The design showed a bright orange circle that Christian recognized as the sun, sitting over a blue line: water. “Thank you,” he told her. “It’s a pretty thing.” “Do you want me to help you tie it on?” “No. I can’t wear it in the ring.

” Maura’s smile dimmed for a moment. She was older than Christian, by perhaps a year, but he often felt that he topped her by five years, or ten. She retained a strange innocence that this place had barely touched, and he hated to puncture it, to watch her smile fade. But after a moment, she cheered. “Well, put it in your pocket, then. For luck.” Christian tucked the bracelet deep into the pocket of the short trousers he wore in the ring. It would likely get ruined in there, stained with blood and sweat, but somehow he could not ask Maura to take it back, or even to hold it for him until the fight was done. Either request, he knew, would hurt her. He put a light hand on her shoulder.

“Let’s go, boy!” Wigan shouted behind him. “Time enough for that later!” Christian turned and saw the promoter waiting on the sidelines. Someone offered Wigan a shot of whiskey, and he downed it, then gave Christian a quick grin, a comradely grin, as though they were partners. Christian closed his eyes, feeling a wintry chill descend upon him. He took his hand from Maura’s shoulder and moved back toward his corner. “A perfect fighter!” Wigan cried over the din, nodding this way and that, his face gleaming with drink. “He cannot be bested!” He waited a beat, until the crowd quieted down, and Christian felt an unwilling twinge of admiration; drunk or sober, Wigan was a solid showman. He always knew how to play a crowd. “I give you . LAZARUS!” Ignoring their howls, Christian waded in.

A circle, quiet and cool, seemed to close around him, sealing him off from the world. Only when the opponent lay dead would there be anything else. Christian lashed out with his right fist and broke Maartens’s nose, sending him toppling backward against the ropes. He had already forgotten everything: Maura, Wigan, even the well-dressed Prince and his leering guardian. But Christian never forgot anything, not really, and years later, when he saw Thomas Raleigh again, he would recognize those hungry green eyes with no trouble at all. The Prince had aged, yes, but that was only chronology. Whatever he sought, it still eluded him. But now there was only the ring, another fight that was over before really beginning. Brendan Maartens had begun to sob now, but Christian was beyond caring. Deep cold had descended upon him, for he already knew that there would be nothing for him but this ring.

There was a different life elsewhere, he knew, high above the stinking tunnels of the Creche, but that life was not for him, and as Christian lunged forward and began to kick his opponent to death, he never thought of the world above, not even once.

.

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