“Come here with you,” Boden calls, as he retrieves his son, Tallow, from amongst the crowd’s rushing legs. He lifts the boy onto his shoulders, but the weight makes him gasp, makes his lower back twinge, and Tal’s mucky brown boots smear the front of his tunic. He can hardly tell him off for that, though, can he? Not when he only sees him for the odd day here and there. It’s one of those things that he’s just got to take.
Same for the way the boy bounces as they move on through the masses—jarring those vertebrae again and again. And the way he waves his doll down in front of Boden’s face, obscuring the view of the coliseum ahead.
That doll’s only a few chunks of spruce held together by string, wrapped up in leather, with a bit of red woolen hair, but he carries it everywhere, like a soul-guide or a pet. It’s a likeness of the reigning four-time Champion: the man from Pankezi, Arturez Branco. He is Tal’s favorite fighter, because he’s Boden’s favorite too. But the boy’s never seen him or any of the others in action, never had chance to, not till today.
And there’s nothing at all like your first trip to the fights.
Walls of song rise around them, and Tallow joins in, making his own lyrics to go with the tune. Boden recalls his own earliest visit; his dad had taught him the chants and they’d sung them whilst Merrik the Dread won his fiftieth fight.
“You alright up there?” He laughs, and the boy leans over and looks into his eyes.
“Yeeeeahhh!” Tal shouts, with that huge, lovely grin; the one that Boden used to see from Tal’s mother, the few times he’d ever done anything right.
“Branco! Branco! Brancoooo!” Tal screams.
Others join in, kids and adults alike.
Between these fans, Boden catches sight of the merchandise kiosks and spins away, hoping that Tal hasn’t seen the new range of dolls, much better than this one Boden fashioned for the boy himself. But in front of them is a stall selling replica outfits and a range of wooden swords and axes, the blades painted white and looking like bones.
Tal bounces again and shouts as he sees them, and Boden’s back almost gives out with repetitive strain. As he jolts to a stop, the doll’s jagged feet clatter into his forehead, only just missing his blinking left eye.
He sets the boy down.
“Youallrightdad?” Tal garbles.
“Aye, never better.” He looks at the ground so the boy can’t see him wince. “What is it you want now?”
“Brancosuits! Overthere!” He windmills the doll overhead like a mace, nearly smashing another kid square in the teeth.
“Ok, ok. Just breathe, alright. You’re getting to be as bad as your mam.” As soon as he’s said it, he knows he was wrong. Tal’s face drops, just like that, shaken back into the world where his parents aren’t talking. Aren’t loving.
Boden moves in to hug him, but Tal only reluctantly lets him take hold.
“I’m sorry,” Boden says, “but you’ve already got a Branco suit. I mean, what’s this?” He taps the ornate leather tunic he’d bought a year or so back, which the boy’s only just growing into.
“Yeah,” Tal says. “But that new one’s got more gold trim. Look! And more gold tassels.” The tassels mark victories in ranking events.
“I know, lad. But then he’ll get another one today, won’t he?”
“Well, yeah!” Tal grins.
“Tell you what, if we’ve got time on the way home, we’ll stop by the tailors on Crow Lane and pick up some gold thread. Then we can stitch you some. How’s that sound?”
Tal nods and jumps and twirls the doll overhead.
Boden takes his free hand and leads him on through the gates, feeling like yellow thread would probably be cheaper. But he can’t skimp on his son, can he? It’s another of those things that he’s just got to take.
Boden walks Tal to one of the Pankezi date palms they set around the gambling hall whenever Branco’s fighting. Children aren’t allowed in the betting queue.
“Wait here,” he says, “and don’t talk to any strangers.”
“Where are you going?” Tal says. “Can’t I come with you?”
Fighting isn’t the only part of this experience that Tal’s never seen before. Boden doesn’t quite know how to explain the process, let alone why he’s got to do it. “It’s just a bit of work I’ve got to take care of,” he says. “I’ll be right back, before you know it.”
He leaves Tal playing with his doll in the dirt, stamping the feet on scurrying bugs.
He’ll have to rush back, though. He comes here by himself about once a month but always forgets just how vile and disorderly the punters can be. The fighters, the best ones at any rate, might be lauded as demi-gods, but their supporters often tend towards the other side of the spectrum. And the greater their devotion, the further away they usually are.
He’s only a casual fan, he tells himself, and almost believes it.
At one of the stalls, the numbers man gestures at the odds that are chalked out behind him, and Boden’s disappointed it isn’t a little higher than five-to-one on. Of course, Branco’s the reigning Champion, and the sport-sheets say he’s been in great form of late. As usual. But his opponent today is a promising newcomer, been racking up a few good wins of his own. He beat Chandral ‘The Cleaver’ last time out, which had been starting to look nigh on impossible. Boden puts his wager down for Branco anyway, the safer choice, the better chance of getting money he needs. He taps the table impatiently as the numbers man scrawls out the slip.
As soon as he turns, he feels a cold sweat. He cannot see Tal, and there’s a man by the palm tree with his back to the crowd. Closer in, pushing through, he spots the boy on the ground, still holding his doll, and also recognizes the man from the hunch of his shoulders, the shape of his skull.
It’s Corda, an old acquaintance. A former accomplice, of sorts.
“Long time no see,” he says, and Corda spins quickly, hand shooting to his belt where Boden knows he keeps a knife.
“Aye, fancy running into you two here,” Corda replies, bringing his hand down to his side again, empty.
Tal has stopped playing; is watching them both.
“Where’s your little ‘un, then?” Boden asks, ruffling his son’s hair.
“Just gone for another slash.” Corda shrugs. “Bladder the size of his brain, more’s the pity.”
Tallow laughs. Boden forces a smile.
“You put your money down, then?” Corda says.
“On the Champ?”
“Aye. We reckon he’s the best there is, don’t we Tal?”
Tal nods and grins.
“I dunno, mate,” says Corda. “Think Wharrey’ll run him close. He’s a local, you know. Good to see ‘em matching it with the ruddy exotics for a change, innit? And did you see them odds—twenty-to-one!”
Tal looks shocked.
“Oh, not that I really think he’ll get the best of Branco, lad,” Corda says, after Boden gives him a nudge in his well-padded ribs. “Think I’m just gonna go take a leak myself, actually. Watch out for my boy now, won’t you?”
“Don’t worry about him and his notions,” says Boden, mussing Tal’s hair again. “It’s like son, like father in that case. Brain as small as his bladder.”
If the atmosphere outside the coliseum and in the gambling hall was riotous, then inside the arena it feels like war. There are thousands of people, all singing full-throated, beating at wood blocks, blowing up-tempo marches on battered brass horns. Continuous waves roil around in competing directions, threatening tempests wherever they meet. Kids and grandparents alike hold the banners they’ve made from bits of old bedlinen, trousers, and sacks. The green flags of Pankezi flutter in and amongst.
Boden still can’t believe he was able to get tickets for this, Arturez Branco’s eighth semi-final. Much less that they’ve hustled their way to the front, all the way down by the thin wooden barrier.
That’s partly why he’s so out of pocket, but he was desperate for Tal’s first trip to be special. Extra-special. Unforgettable. It’s just one of those things, and undeniably worth it as he watches his son watch the spectacle, goggle-eyed and gawping and his little heart pounding fast.
And then faster again, as the Lord of High Revels addresses the crowd, on the Imperial balcony two tiers above. He strides nobly up to the speaking-horn and appeals for quiet, but quiet doesn’t come. If anything, it gets louder. It’s a ten thousand-seat stadium, but it seems more like a hundred thousand—the way Boden’s always imagined a battle might sound. It’s nearly impossible to hear the introductions as the contenders appear, the challenger first and the Champion after.
Dom ‘The Drum’ Wharrey has only just turned twenty-one but is already among the heftiest competitors Boden’s yet seen, broad as an outhouse and tall along with it. From the sport-sheets, Boden knows Wharrey’s been praised for his speed and range on the counter, and for his nimble maneuvering of his two-handed axe. “Expect him to play a beat or two today,” shouts the announcer, just about audible before the volume of cheering rises again. Wharrey draws quite a reaction from a large group of townsfolk in the far left corner. They’re singing a local drinking song and waving their yellow local flags.
But the most deafening levels, as always, are reserved for El Branco. The name echoes out around the arena, and Tal screams along, raising his doll with its red woolen hair like a beacon.
The defending Champion is thirty-three, pretty old for a fighter, and he has developed humility through his years at the top. He waves to all sides as he enters the ring, a coy deferential smile on his face. Branco is the Fighting League’s real golden goose, and he obviously knows it—but he knows as well that he wouldn’t be without the fans on his side.
He unwraps his broadsword, over half the height of an average man, and swings it overhead with a menacing beauty before planting the tip in the well-flattened dirt. A breeze flutters down and across the arena, sweeping his long fiery hair away from his face; exposing a new and unexpected beard. It’s like the flame’s spilling out of him; like it can’t be contained. There are three little plaits in it, by the chin, and Boden doesn’t doubt for a second that half of the townsmen will be styled likewise before the week’s through.
He can already anticipate Tal asking for more red wool if they do stop off in Crow Lane, so as his mother can crochet one, to be hooked round his ears. With a few strands left over to stick on the doll.
Tal holds that doll steady on top of the barrier, and Boden smiles down at him, both of them ready for the fight to begin.
“Long time no see.”
Corda’s found them again, more’s the pity, but at least he’s brought beer. Boden nods and takes the clay goblet proffered to him as Corda’s son, Parrus, dodges under his arm to go stand beside Tal.
“How’s our lad doing?” Corda asks, taking a swig, drawing his top lip over yellowing teeth.
“Aye, young ‘un from round here. The Drum.”
“Not too well, being honest.” Boden gestures to the ring.
Out near the center, Branco drops into a leg-sweep, upending the challenger for the third time already. It’s one of his signature moves, and yet few ever seem prepared when it comes. His blade whistles down in a quick arc to follow, only narrowly blocked by the challenger’s axe.
Branco steps back, shimmies, raising his arms for more noise from the crowd.
As if that were possible.
The green flags of his homeland color the air.
The Drum doesn’t try to make any more of this reprieve than it is, simply using the time to get back to his feet and shake off the dust. He slaps at his cheeks, first one then the other; perhaps a sign that he’s wrestling some early fatigue. Or self-doubt.
“Ahhh shit,” says Corda. “He’s not got the blasted legs for this, has he? I knew I should have put my money on Branco, and bugger the odds. I mean, look at the state of him out there, prancing around like he’s a girl half his age. Fuckin’ exotics. How’s he bloody do it?”
Boden doesn’t know. The Champion’s only a year older than he is, but he’s pretty sure he couldn’t move like that even if somebody offered him a kingdom to try. Not with his back like it is. He swills down some more beer.
Branco leaps high to the Drum’s left then feints right in mid-air before somersaulting at the last moment and bringing the flat of his sword into the challenger’s side. The challenger drops to his knees again but scrambles up quickly, shaking his head—probably trying to block out the crowd’s calls for Branco to take it clean off.
But Branco isn’t ready to finish just yet. Doesn’t want to short-change these ten thousand supporters. He wants them to feel like they’ve been entertained.
Tal watches, enraptured, and Boden watches him. The boy chants along with the bulk of the crowd, grins along with them, dancing his doll across the top of the barrier, moving it in time with his hero’s steps.
The Drum finally looks to be showing some promise, producing quick footwork to dodge Branco’s attack, but such are the reactions of the Champion that he still makes a good thrust with only a minor adjustment. He strikes the challenger’s back, just behind the left shoulder. It doesn’t look deep, but it is still first blood.
As it drips down to the sand, another wave starts in the crowd, the green flags all flapping, and there’s another round of chanting the Champion’s name.
The fans like seeing blood.
They absolutely adore it.
These aren’t necessarily fights to the death. But it does tend to happen, more often than not.
The doll pirouettes, kicks, swings its stick of a sword. It jumps then lands then rolls on the barrier. It stands then blocks then counter-attacks. It parries and thrusts and slashes and stabs. Pirouettes again. Slices.
Tal moves it more frantically as the fighters draw nearer to this side of the ring. The crowd all around are screaming and reaching out with their banners and flags. Nearer. Nearer. Then they’re only a body-length from the barrier, the thudding of their boots on the sand even louder than the chanting, the clash of their weapons even shriller than the horns.
It’s the Drum now who’s started to exert the most pressure, finding his rhythm, really making the four-time Champion dance. His heavy yet speedy axe blows are giving his supporters, maybe a couple of thousand, something to cheer, but it’s also what Branco’s fans want to see.
As majestic to watch as he is on attack, it feels a bit repetitive if it gets too one-sided. This is an opportunity for the Champion to show his defensive abilities, and even, perhaps, to find a quick and spectacular counter-attack, a finishing blow. Something for the fans to savor, to talk of all week.
They’re so close to the fence now that Boden can smell them, the musk of a fight: iron and salt. He strives to remember the most vivid details, for when he relives it later with Tal.
Branco feints then shimmies away from the axe, which bites into the sand a good yard from his feet. He kicks out at the Drum and sends him rolling, then turns to gesture more noise from the crowd. Leans forward to slap a few of their hands.
Tal’s doll does likewise.
But this time the challenger isn’t wasting his chance. He springs up far faster than most watchers expected and swings a huge overhead, more than enough to split a man to his core.
The Champion sidesteps the contact, warned by shouts from the stands, but the axe carries on and slams into the barrier, only missing the doll by the slightest gap. Splinters fly up at Tal. He screams and stumbles, and as Boden darts to save him there’s a twinge in his back; he spills half his beer on the man to his left.
“What the hell are you playing at?” the man shouts, a big six-foot hulk, already raising a fist in revenge. Boden steps in front of Tal, to shield him—but before he can do anything, a sword-pommel crunches into the side of the man’s jaw, sending teeth flying, dropping him cold.
The sword is Branco’s.
He poses there, smiling, milking the adoration and respect of the fans.
As if he needed any more of it.
Boden was all ready to defend himself, bad back or not. Ready to defend Tal. His son. But now Tal seems perfectly all right again, much better than all right, staring up at Arturez Branco with that grin that he has, the one he gets from his mother. The one that’s reserved for only the most special of things. The one Boden sees nowadays only too rarely.
For a four-time Champion, he thinks, Branco doesn’t look so impressive, close up. He’s above average build, but then you’d expect that from someone who can spend his days in the training yard. Someone who doesn’t have to clerk in a moneylender’s or travel long miles to markets with a clothier’s mule. Yeah, he’s got brilliant technique, that can’t be denied. But is he really good enough to deserve all that money, just for swinging a sword?
He isn’t even that handsome. That beard seems to have been grown mainly to hide all his scars, and his nose is still bent from where it was broken last year. As he smiles, Boden notices it isn’t even level.
That smile disappears, though, as Tal shouts a warning.
Branco reels from the barrier, snaps his head back to evade another wide vicious swing. Jinks this way and that, wheeling his sword around, searching for balance.
“Bloody hell! That was close!” says Corda, rematerializing now that the trouble has gone. “Lucky escape for your lad, there.”
It’s not clear whether he means Tal, or Arturez, or both.
It’s not even clear if it was all that lucky.
Half of Branco’s hair has been lopped down one side, and his new beard seems redder. Seems wet. Jagged. They realize there’s a gash—and, are those teeth showing through it?
“Bloody hell,” Corda says.
Boden gulps back what remains of his beer.
The contest is getting scrappier, looser, harsher. Branco attacks but without much of his usual grace or control. Which is understandable, Boden thinks, given that a flap of his cheek’s hanging off.
The Pankezi fans are no less noisy, though somehow at the same time a lot more subdued. Their green flags still flutter, but they’re no longer held so high nor waved quite so wildly as the yellow ones that are scattered in and amongst them. Most of their shouts are for a quick kill now, and damn the entertainment—they want him to dispatch this upstart and get himself fixed. Women nearby in the crowd are appalled. Men as well. Some are holding their betting slips nervously, twisting them, cursing when they see they’ve smudged the ink with their sweat.
Boden knows how they’re feeling.
Corda beside him is still sipping his beer, looking a little more comfortable, a little more smug. Parrus doesn’t look well, though. And Tallow looks worse.
The boy’s turned paper-white, ghost-white, and Boden can tell right away what he’s thinking. That if he hadn’t have screamed when the axe came down, that if Boden hadn’t grabbed him and spilt the beer, then Branco wouldn’t have been caught off-guard. He’s thinking how his hero was only trying to help them, and now his hero’s the one who’s been badly hurt.
Boden reaches for the shoulder of his son’s replica tunic, but Tal shrugs him away, and the few little tassels slip through his grasp.
The Drum pushes back again, blocking the Champion’s sharp jabs, hammering down blow after blow of his own. One is deflected, but only as far as Branco’s left forearm, gouging the muscle, leaving him no choice but to fight on one-handed. He drips a bloody trail as he stumbles back to regroup.
Tal holds the doll like a flickering candle, steadies it, keeping the faith. “Comeoncomeoncomeon,” he says, audible to Boden even under the deafening roar. “Comeoncomeoncomeoncomeon.”
Boden feels wretched. He knows that what his son wants, what’ll make him happy, is all that should matter. But he’s thinking of the slip in his pocket too, and the gold he can win. The gold that he’s got to win, for a whole lot of reasons. He’s sick at himself. He knows he should be making the most of this time with Tal, this chance, but he’s all too aware of what else is at stake.
He can’t take his eyes off his son, but he can’t take his eyes off the action either.
“Comeoncomeoncomeon,” Tal breathes, as Branco makes a leap and launches another attack.
“Come on!” Boden shouts, as Branco’s sword evades the block and strikes the Drum’s chest.
The challenger topples backwards, a deep groove in his torso, blood welling out of it, spraying the Champion’s sandals as he moves in for the kill.
But he moves in too slowly.
The challenger’s already back on his knees.
The crowd bay for a beheading, but through a neck that thick it’d usually be a two-handed maneuver, and Branco is struggling to lift even one. That last jump seems to have sapped whatever strength he had left; the mid-air feint, the unpredictable thrust. His knees almost buckle.
“Comeoncomeoncomeon,” Tal whispers, as he holds the doll upright, willing the same for the man.
Boden’s own legs feel weak. He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, both to steady himself and to reassure Tal. The boy’s knuckles are white as well. Boden wants the chance to lift him up in celebration, the way his own father did the first time they came here; to sing the chants together in victory. That’s why he’d brought the boy, isn’t it, to share that experience. If he’d just wanted the money, he could have shown up alone.
“Come on, Branco,” he pleads. “Come on...”
The Pankezi fans take up a chorus of the Champion’s name.
They beat on their wood blocks and blow on their horns.
They shake their green flags, and they cry for a win.
Branco looks up at them, through them, beyond them, as the challenger’s battle-axe smashes into his gut.
For a moment, Boden can only stare dumbly as his son vaults the barrier and sprints out across the sand, through the footprints and blood-spatter, the doll limp in his hand as he homes in on the corpse.
Dom ‘The Drum’ Wharrey is clear of the scene, saluting his fans in the far left corner. One of them hands him a banner, another a yellow flag with the local sigil; he ties them both round his chest to try staunch his own wound.
Oblivious to his triumph, two guards bustle past him and race towards Tal, raising their pikes.
Boden kicks into action. He jumps at the barrier but crashes through where the axe hit and slams face-down in the sand. He gets up, not pausing to brush himself off, even more dust and dirt on his clothes. His nose feels broken, but there’s no time to check. He doesn’t even stop when he feels his back seize.
He just about gets there at the same time as the soldiers, but they’ve already realized his son hasn’t come out to steal. He’s actually put something down, like a burial gift. It’s his doll, laid beside Branco, carefully beyond the puddle of gore soaking into the sand.
Tal is just staring. Just trying get the picture right in his mind, so that he never forgets.
And he won’t, Boden thinks. Because there’s nothing at all like your first trip to the fights.
“Come here with you,” he says, and lifts Tal into his arms. There’s a look on the boy’s face that Boden’s never seen before, not once, and hopes he never sees again, even as he knows that he will. Then Tal throws his arms around Boden’s neck and presses that face into the filthy tunic and weeps.
The guards look around awkwardly and then down at the body, which they suppose they should move before others approach.
Boden turns and sets off for the gap in the fence; sees Corda grinning at the betting slip that flaps in one hand, reaching out with the other to muss his crying son’s hair.
Boden might have torn his own slip up by now, if his arms weren’t full with carrying Tal. As it is, his other worries will have to wait. The pressure on his lower back gets worse with every step, and his nose hurts like hell, but he can hardly blame the boy for that now, can he? It’s one of those things that he’s just got to take.