Chapter One- London 1884
I dance with death in a dark room.
“Fight!” chants the crowd.
Death explodes at me like a bull, eyes full of rage, driven by sheer madness.
Without a momentary thought, my body glides aside, watching as he rams into the barrier wall. Two people live inside my body and I don’t know how to keep them both sane. Lacking hesitation, I unload punch after punch into his lower back. I’m aiming for the soft tissue in his kidneys, but he proves too intelligent for my advance. A man so agile on his feet, yet he shares the pitiful of all men, a bad temperament. He will fatigue soon like all of my prior opponents, and I will have my chance.
The arena submerges into the earth resembling a shallow grave. In the shape of a rectangle, the walls are caulked in fresh blood from others before me. Others, also, fighting for their lives. I spot the fragment of a tooth poking through the soil. Another reminder that people have died fighting here and possibly, I could be one of them.
“Kill him!” The crowd echoes.
The night’s match pinned me against an Italian man known as Cardillo. He was twice my size and still two widths wider than I. The odds were twenty-to-one according to one of the bystanders. Certainly not ones in my favor, but then they were never in my favor. I think I relished the divide.
Whispers of the Italian’s southpaw traveled all throughout Whitechapel. And I followed him, studying his every move and observed his tendencies. He’d a habit of making wealthy men richer and turning the slumlords in the East into vultures looking for caresses to pick clean for profit. When the Irish immigrants stormed London, it seemed the only way to make a living was to use ones’ hands and fight for it. This part of the city was basking in crime and the pits were established to counteract it, into a profit that was.
“Is that all you got?” he says, wiping the imaginary sweat from his balding brow and advancing forward guard up.
“I’m just getting started.”
I spring to my opponent, sensing the temper swell within me. It will take over soon— a wolf at the obedience of the full moon, with a stomach of fire. My rage needs to be purged periodically in order to keep sane. Stretching from my youth, I’d found opportunity against the boys oppressing my brother, Casper. He was five years older than I and could hardly defend himself. However wrath, like all other violent tendencies, deserved no allowance in a modern society, especially in my home.
Naturally, I took matters to conceal the devil inside.
I’d punch my pillows until the feathers went flat or release fury in the inside of my wardrobe. I smashed holes in my walls— my lady’s maid began to notice. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the night of my mother’s murder that I lost all self-control and found myself unable to turn back. My brother had been shipped to France without explanation and I was left alone to grieve in isolation.
Anger bred hatred, malice birthed vengeance.
For many years I tried to bury this quality, but within the last couple years it was becoming impossible to do. Streets came alive at night, beasts hunted in the dark, and I searched for salvation. And in the process, I found the pits. In some sadistic kind of way, horror found purpose— I found deliverance.
I had no other choice.
It would consume me if I did not.
His fist tears across my face in slow motion.
I, unbeknownst to anyone’s knowledge, am a woman.
I return the favor knocking the wind from his gut.
I’d drawn up my silver hair and smeared a handful of coal across my pale feminine complexion, leaving the only color on my face, the turquoise in my eyes. My chest was bound tight restricting my lungs of oxygen. And the garb I dressed resembled a character dwelling in the darkest places, a fighter— a warrior. I was a nobody here.
I envied that.
Cardillo steps forward, lowering his guard in mockery. “Shalt I even try?” he sneers in broken English.
It was a challenge.
“Fight!” They ring out again.
Cigar smoke bellows in my face.
My hand collides with his abdomen, yet stops short as it encounters coiled muscle.
He grins reaching for my wrapped fist and yanks it towards him. A punch contacts my ribs with a deafening crack. Great, I’ve broken one.
He hits like rod iron.
That will leave a nasty bruise.
The crowd roars in ecstasy as I return a fist clean over his jaw, a trail of blood spews from his mouth covering their faces.
I grin maliciously knowing all the men who would lose their inheritances tonight. With twenty-to-one odds, I will make a pretty penny. Rightfully so, gambling on another man’s fist was a daft way to squander a lavish lifestyle. Even I recognized that.
Shaking his embarrassment, Cardillo jabs with his left.
There it was.
His stronger hand.
He was a southpaw.
I spin around gracefully, quick and agile on my feet, striking him again in his abdominal region. Adrenaline pulses through my veins. I can hear him wincing in pain with each strike, the rage taking over more of me until I see black.
Time slows down.
The faces behind the bleached curtain go dark.
A man spits at Cardillo, “Knob-head!”
Necks like corded wires. They want something to happen, fast.
And I’ll give it to them.
“You come to regret that,” he says, shaking his head with broken English.
Cardillo broods, leaping with his arms around my chest, squeezing the air from my lungs. His muscles flex like a boa constrictor. I can see it in his eyes. Submission isn’t his target, he wants death. A vein in his neck throbs as his blood-stained teeth bar at me.
“Die!” he confirms. “You will die for this.”
There’s an instance where I think I might, but this situation is not one I’m unfamiliar with. Adrenaline is keeping me alive. How do I win? If I knee him in the groin, it would further enrage him. No. Instead, I need to give in the very force driving him. It is calculated. My breaths shorten to preserve oxygen whilst I ram the temple of my skull through his Italian smug nose. A fountain of blood gushes from his oval-sized nostrils. I broke it. A sliver of ivory protrudes from his torn skin. Disorientated, he releases me.
Now is my chance to turn the tides— to strike.
I meet with Cardillo’s nose again with the palm of my hand, over and over again—blood splatters everywhere coating my face. And when my palm can no longer take the force, I ball up my fist to finish the job. The last punch I recall, someone pulls me from his unconscious body and both of my knuckles are leaking.
There’s an eruption of outrage as the pit’s laborers drag what remains of Cardillo from the dirt.
He’ll awake in a few days not knowing what took him.
I smile as they announce my victory.
“They’s done it again!” the man yells into the crammed room. “The Silver-Haired Devil triumphs again!”
Now to collect my winnings.
I weave through the crowd towards the bookie’s booth.
“How in hell’s name have ya done that?” the pit’s bookie says. “I could have tripled tonight if I would have known you’d beat him bloody.”
“Then who would I fight, Arthur?”
Arthur shrugs. “Rightfully so.”
“How’d I do tonight?”
I pocket it.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure, as always,” I say, relieving the man of my cut.
Another night in hell, another triumphant moment escaping from it. “Until next time.”
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