Home > Beneath the Keep

Beneath the Keep
Author: Erika Johansen

Prologue

   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.

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