Closing in on the last material I have…
Miska’s next match took a little longer to arrive than the previous ones had. She felt fortunate that it had been so delayed, since that had given her a chance to train with the Northmen. At the same time, she felt there was a special sense of urgency to this match, a renewed sense of nervousness that she hadn’t felt with her last match. It was as though she had to start over from the very beginning again.
She could feel a whirl of emotions around the idea of going into the ring; excitement at knowing that she’d been practicing and training so much, preparing herself for this day… but also a deep and growing sense of fear that she had a hard time pinning down. The idea that her sister had, Mirabelle’s suggestion that Mistress Mariselle might be the one behind the attempted mugging, or whatever that had been, stuck with her. What else might she try, if she was willing to pay people to attack her on the street?
Of course, the idea that Mistress Mariselle had hired those attackers was simply that, an idea. Miska told herself that repeatedly. She had no proof of any sort that Mistress Mariselle had been the one to offer them a job to attack her. But she couldn’t come up with anyone else who might have done the same. Her thoughts swirled around, chasing themselves like a dog with its tail.
It didn’t help, of course, that the winnings from this match could make the difference between continuing to pay down the loan and falling further behind. Her parents weren’t willing to come and watch her fight, but Mirabelle and Leonora had come out to the ring and Miska knew that they were up in the bleachers, waiting, watching, hoping to cheer her on. Haubert had wished her luck, but he was still working.
The match opened with the announcer stalking out into the ring. He must have been a fighter too, back in his day. Miska could see that now in the way that he walked. It was so obvious that she wondered how she hadn’t noticed it before. The idea that she could have won the last two fights without noticing something like that made her more than a little bit worried. If she was going to face someone tougher, what would that look like?
“Good evening!” The announcer held up his hands, and the crowd’s noise slowly died down. “For the first fight of the evening…” Miska tuned him out. She started doing her exercises, breathing carefully as she shifted through her stances. She wasn’t going to be up until several matches later. She’d made enough of a reputation for herself at this point that they wanted to make sure that she was a bigger feature attraction.
She didn’t even watch the first fight, except for glimpses she caught from the corner of her eye. Two big men slugged at each other over and over, their fists making hard meaty noises as they pummeled and slapped each other. They were ungraceful, simple. She knew that she’d have a hard time standing up to one of their blows, but she also felt a quiet core of certainty that now, after having trained and practiced, she should be able to beat either of them without too much difficulty.
The next fight saw more varied opponents, but Miska’s attention was still on her own practice. She knew that she had to find a calm core, a place where she could fight without thinking and without fear, but it was difficult to reach it this evening. She knew why, but it didn’t really help.
Finally, the other rounds out of the way, Miska heard her name called and strode up to the edge of the ring. The announcer beckoned her up. As she clambered into the ring, she heard names that sounded familiar; both of the large men she’d watched beat on each other earlier were getting back into the ring. Neither of them seemed especially injured. A shiver of tension ran down Miska’s spine. Had they been faking their injuries earlier? Was this just another test arranged for her by Mistress Mariselle? Or worse yet, not a test but an attack?
“Tonight our reigning champion will face down both of the Larmer brothers at once, a true test of skill!”
The two large men who, yes, looked similar enough to be brothers underneath the bruises, looked at each other and touched fists. Miska could feel her guts clenching. She let herself fall into her ready stance, but her mind was spinning, trying to imagine all the ways in which she’d have to modify her exercises to deal with two much larger opponents. She had yet to see how well they fought together, but she was afraid that she wouldn’t like it when she found out.
“Begin!” She’d lost track of the rest of what the announcer said, but his shout came through loud and clear.
The crowd was shouting, cheering. Their voices settled into the background, melding together into an unimportant roar. Far more important was the sound of her own heart, thumping in time with her fear. She could feel the whole world becoming clearer as she and the Larmer brothers circled each other.
They began with testing jabs, venturing closer and closer. They were trying her reactions, testing her defenses, and she knew as she watched them approach that they had been acting slower and worse when they fought each other earlier.
They punched, and Miska dodged, weaving her way around them, around the ring. She tried several times to line them up and keep them from being able to assist each other, but they were too well aware of that tactic to fall for it. Every time she tried, they shifted and spread out enough to keep her covered. And then they started advancing on her with a purpose, forcing her towards the edge of the ring. Miska knew that she’d run out of time.
She charged the one on her left. A quick bounce on her feet, a kick: he didn’t quite block in time and staggered back. The other brother pivoted, closing with Miska. His hands reached out, grasping, and she ducked. Her fist hit his gut, just missing his solar plexus, and bounced off the clenched muscle. She scowled and moved past him. Both brothers recovered and turned to face her again.
Breathing deeply, Miska eyed them as they approached. They moved more cautiously now. She wouldn’t get away with that again. The worst part, she thought as they sidled towards her, was that it hadn’t even been that effective. She wished desperately that she had a spear.
The brother she’d hit in the belly suddenly lurched forward, one hand forward in guard, the other held back for a hard blow. His brother covered one of his sides, the edge of the ring covered the other. Miska dropped beneath his hand, grabbing and pulling it as she stepped around the edge of the ring. Her toes and the balls of her feet were the only things in contact with the ground; her heels hovered over empty space.
Her tug sent the brother sprawling, barely stopping himself from sliding over the edge of the ring and out of the fight. Miska dashed past his flopping legs to kick his brother only to find a fist waiting for her. It sent her rolling backwards across the boards, coming back to her feet with blood running from her nose. He’d advanced while she rolled back, but she got her hands in contact with his next blow and guided it past herself in time. Inside his guard, she slammed her elbow into his throat. As he choked, she wrapped her hands around one side of his head and brought her knee up to slam the other side. He staggered and she dropped off of him to give him a push. He stumbled off the platform. Miska felt soaring hope. She only had one more of them to beat. The crowd was screaming, cheering, pointing.
Then something slammed into the back of her head and she hit the boards with a crack. The crowd yelled, shouted at her to get back up, but all of their noise slowly drifted away into darkness.