And we’re gonna need a montage.
The next few days passed in a blur of activity. Miska slowly continued healing, feeling her body knit itself back together after the punishment that she’d put it through. Her success in the ring became popular knowledge amongst her few friends, and soon she was getting the same sort of friendly ribbing from other stevedores that she’d seen other young bravos receive over the years. It felt strange to her; it wasn’t something that she’d expected.
She still wasn’t getting as much good hauling work as she usually did, but her customers at The First Blood were enthusiastic fans. She hoped that she’d be able to make up the lost wages in tips and winnings. As long as she didn’t lose a match, she thought, she’d still be coming out a little bit ahead of where she’d be otherwise.
Haubert, true to his word, had started teaching her after they closed the bar. It was hard and painful work, especially while she was still recovering from her previous bout, but he was adamant that she learn how to fight well while still in pain. His reasoning made a sort of grim sense to her.
Aware that she’d be stuck facing opponents who were usually taller and heavier than she was, they decided to capitalize on her strengths. Even as she learned some of the basic forms that other people would probably be using, the better to know how to counter them, she focused on lifts and throws and grappling, or on kicks that would let her make the most of her powerful legs. More than that, however, she worked on defense, and knowing how to read someone else’s attack. Haubert even began working with her with training weapons, telling her that he’d be remiss in not covering such basics from the very beginning.
The first week of this left her aching and tired, wondering why it was that she, someone who’d been doing manual labor all her life, could feel so beaten after doing such simple exercises. Haubert, as usual, had an answer that was depressingly simple. She’d never really used her muscles in this particular way, and now she had to train and develop them.
Miska didn’t tell her mother that she was learning how to fight from Haubert, but from her mother’s uncomfortable silence on the topic Miska was certain that she already knew.
More than anything else, Haubert drilled Miska over and over again on her movement. Ways to step in close to a foe, ways to disengage from them, how to circle them… everything was quick, well balanced, and precise. Every so often, as she was stepping around people on the street, Miska found herself moving in the patterns Haubert had forced her to memorize. Each step felt like success.
Her next fight approached faster than she’d thought was possible. The night of the fight, Miska was still sore from her practice the night before. Her ribs no longer ached and her hands were healed, but her whole body felt as though it were thrumming with nervous tension. As she began warming up, she could feel her body responding as she’d been training it to; she felt more limber, more ready, than she had before.
The twin proprietors of The Golden Cage opened the night’s activities with several rounds of boxing between different local competitors. Miska watched their footwork with a critical eye, noting the way in which one fighter left his front foot planted and immobile while making a big show of moving his shoulders. He lost his match.
She could feel the nervous energy rising in her chest as she looked out at the ring. She knew that after last time’s upset, she’d have a bigger part of the show for the evening. But she wasn’t sure that she was ready. She twitched as she heard her name called out, and moved towards the ring.
“And competing against Miska, our standing champion, we have Sibelle from Manosque!” Miska stepped up into the ring, a raised circular platform with no dividers around the edge. She could feel the light grit of rough sand that had been laid down on the wood to give her feet a better grip. The crowd, which she’d barely been able so see before now from her walled in spot next to the ring, was shouting and cheering. Nowhere near all of them were cheering for her.
Her opponent stepped onto the ring from the opposite side, a tall woman with arms that looked like they were made from wrapped leather cords. She wasn’t smiling; in fact, her angular face looked sour and uncomfortable. She strode to her starting spot in the ring, then settled in guard position with fists out, one high and one low.
Miska moved cautiously to her starting point, trying to take deep breaths and pull her focus off of her fear. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, the sound of her pulse loud in her ears, a veritable pressure in her head. The leather-lunged man who’d been announcing things so far stepped up between them, looking back and forth for a moment.
“No biting, no gouging. You win by knock out, submission, or ring out. Any questions?”
Miska shook her head, her eyes still on her opponent. Sibelle did the same.
“All right then.” The announcer stepped back, retreating out of range of the two fighters and moving to the edge of the ring. “Begin!”
Sibelle was fast. Miska hadn’t expected her to begin moving so quickly. She barely got her hands in the way in time to cushion the blows from Sibelle’s first three punches. Then she tightened her stomach just in time to start taking blows there as well. She stepped backwards slowly, surrendering ground to Sibelle. Seconds ago she could have said exactly where she was in the ring, and exactly where the ring ended. Now, keeping her arms up and being battered by Sibelle, she had no idea where she was.
Her abdomen was starting to ache, sore from being repeatedly slammed by Sibelle’s tight bony fists, and then she felt the edge of the ring under the ball of her right foot. She had no more room to retreat. Pulling her arms apart just far enough to see Sibelle’s torso more clearly, Miska took a risk. She twisted, leaning into Sibelle’s blows and wincing as she felt them land home on her ribs. Her arms flashed up and out, one hand wrapping around the back of Sibelle’s neck, the other wrapped around the back of her head. With a convulsive motion, she pulled Sibelle towards her and thrust her own head forward. There was a crunch as she felt Sibelle’s nose break.
Sibelle staggered backwards. Miska slid sideways, circled out and around. She needed more room. Sibelle turned to face her, blood streaming over her mouth. Miska gulped for air; breathing hurt, but the pain felt distant and diffuse. It was something she’d deal with later. She forced herself to move towards Sibelle again.
Sibelle surged towards her, this time releasing a kick that slammed into Miska’s thigh and left her leg numb and tingly. Miska halted her advance, pivoting closer to Sibelle and hoping that her leg would respond. She caught Sibelle’s next punch, ducking below it to shift herself inside Sibelle’s center. A lift, twist, and throw sent Sibelle sprawling across the ring. Miska hustled to catch her and then stumbled, her leg not moving fast enough.
Sibelle had already started to stand by the time Miska reached her, and Miska gave up on trying anything fancy. She threw herself on the other woman, dragging her down again. She grazed Sibelle’s forehead with her elbow, then she was wriggling to find a pin. Sibelle wrapped one leg around Miska’s shoulder, her bloody fingers slipping against Miska’s arm as she tried to lock Miska’s elbow. Miska brought up her heel, then hammered it down on Sibelle’s chest. As the other woman gasped and her fingers slid on Miska’s skin, Miska did it again. Grabbing Sibelle’s wrist, she struggled to her feet and pulled. She shifted her grip to Sibelle’s shirt and pants, then swung the other woman up and over the edge of the ring, dropping her to the dirt below.
Miska stood, gasping and panting, and stared down at Sibelle. The other woman looked up at her from the dirt, something unreadable in her face, then her head slumped back down and she wheezed with her eyes tightly shut.
“And we have a winner!”