My name is Tabitha Croft and I'm addicted to illegal fighting. I first found my obsession when I accompanied my father, Duke Croft, to a business meeting of somewhat questionable legality in the London underground. I was caught, in a sweep of golden skirts, hair tacked masterfully in a curly pile atop my head, black shawl and bonnet tied carefully in place, staring through the bars of a dirty window as two men continually threw themselves at each other in a clashing of fist and sweat-drenched skin.
It was love at first sight.
When we left that night, the images of blood flying and red swollen flesh kept me company, even when father visited and I had to bite my pillow to keep from crying. He didn't like tears. Finally I had found something that was more startling than what he did to me, and when he put a notch on my thigh—he preferred it to the bed post—I didn't even flinch.
Things had been bad ever since mother died. Father drank and gambled our money away, dismissed the servants, and turned to less reputable ways of earning wages. I found myself grateful that mother had taken the baby with her in child birth so I wouldn't have to protect an infant on top of everything else. My thoughts have been darkening like this at a rapidly increasing rate. Soon, I'm sure, my whole body will turn black with filth and I will turn to stone. Perhaps being stone would be easier.
A week later I bribed father's driver to take me back to the fighting club. I sat crouched by the window, scraping my fingers against it to clear it of dust, peering through the iron bars so that my eyes could alight on the fighting ring. There were two men facing off, bodies coated in sweat and hands wrapped in bloody white cloth, fists pounding and thumping with hollow slapping noises that were only just audible through the thin glass. I must have been sitting there for quite a while, because soon the driver was tapping my shoulder.
"The sun'll be up soon, miss. Best we be getting back." I nodded sullenly and followed him back to the car. "Not a word of this to my father. Or anyone else for that matter. You understand?"
He nodded and we made our way back to the house. I went upstairs to my room and sat on the down-filled blankets, eyes sweeping the rich décor my father had yet to sell for alcohol. I knew it was wrong. I knew I did not belong there. I belonged with the dirt and grime and blood of those men, adrenaline racing, heart pounding. I wanted to fight. I would fight.
I made the driver take me back almost every night for a week, and things didn't truly change until one Tuesday evening when I saw him. He was unlike anything I had ever seen. Feral, catlike, crouching low, snarling. His hair was long and dark like stained leather, rippling and free as he uttered inhuman cries that sent shivers down my tethered spine. His skin was darker, and I wondered why that was. His cheek bones were higher than most men, eyes more slanted and much fiercer.
"He's one 'o them Cherokee." The driver startled me with his words and I jumped, eyes torn off the foreign beauty and onto his rather gnarled form.
"One o' them Indians. Y'know, red skins from the Americas." He stood up, eyes raising to the sky. "Time to go."
My eyes swiveled back towards the window, looking back at the man I'm sure would haunt my dreams. He seemed like perfection to me. Wild and graceful…strong. Definitely strong. He had the other man pinned to the ground, fist driving into the man's face until the skin split. In the last moment of the fight, his eyes shot straight up, and I swear on all that is good in this world, he was looking straight at me.
I made the driver take me every day for two weeks after that, but I never once saw the dark-skinned man again. I had, however, taken to making the driver teach me to fight. He seemed most disgruntled at the idea of teaching a girl such things, and he was no expert to be sure, but he knew how to punch. He taught me how to hold my fist, how to distribute my weight in order to present the most force. I practiced in my room some days, hiking up my skirts and hitting pillows I'd tied to my best post with corset strings.
I'd started lifting weights as well, heavy stones from the garden that I would raise over my head and count as high as I could without dropping them. I could feel myself getting stronger, tiny lines of muscles forming in the hollow sweeps of my arms and bruises appearing across my knuckles. I loved it, though—every moment. I knew I had finally found something that made me happy. I was like a goldfish escaped from my tiny bowl and into the vast ocean. There were so many new things for me to explore about this new world, that I hardly knew where to begin.
Sometimes I compare myself to odd things. For instance, on the day I ran away, I compare myself to a kettle. If left alone it boils and boils and boils, until at last it is tired of boiling low and spills over the top in a mess of scorching foam. Yes, on the day I left, I was definitely scorching foam. Father had just left my room. My whole core was throbbing with pain, especially the twenty-third cut on my thigh, and I simply grabbed a bag and threw in some clothes leaving my hair loose. I scrambled down the stairs and out the door. I don't know if he even heard me leave, but I doubt he would have done anything anyway.
The sky was the murky color of lake water as I hitched my bag higher up on my shoulder and made my way down the street. I held my skirts free from my feet with one hand, curling the soft black fabric between my fingers and trying to stop the trembling in my limbs as the shock of what I'd done and the cold settled into my bones. There weren't any people in sight, only the odd critter scampering across my path and into the faceless depths of the alley ways. I knew exactly where I was headed before my mind caught up, and before I realized it I was standing at the heavy scratched door of the fighting club.
I straightened my hair, letting my bag drop to my feet and rearranging my skirts before I raised a hand and banged hard on the door. In a matter of moments a small slit in the door opened, making me jump back a step I looked into the alcoholed-yellow eyes that greeted me.
"Wots yer bizness."
The truth is, I had absolutely no business. I'd left my father in the dead of night and gone on some sort of half-sleep walk to the last place any young lady should be. And why? I didn't have much of an idea.
"I…" I mentally gathered myself, straightening my back and putting on my most official upper-class accent, I finally answered. "I'm here to see the manager."
"Oh, one o' dem, are ya?" His heavy eye lid winked at me with an almost audible finality and then the door slid open. "You 'ent got the look…" He stepped aside and ushered me in. "'Der usually more…" He waved a hand over his face, examining me closely. I was sure he must be crazy. "Ah, it 'ent no matter."
I had no idea what exactly he thought I was, but I gathered my bag and followed him down the hall to the door he indicated.
"Mr. Levy, sir. Ya've got a girl 'ere." He knocked on the door and when a calmly cool voice from within answered, "Let her in.", He twisted open the doorknob and nudged me forward, one scraggly hand pushing my bottom. I let out a small noise of surprise, giving him an aghast look over my shoulder. He mistook it for pleasure and let out a low chuckle, rubbing his hands together and whistling off-tune as he wandered back towards the door.
I edged into the office, suddenly all too aware of the click of my shoes on the wood of the floor. I shut the door behind me, eyes moving slowly across the room to the man sitting behind the desk. He was a thin man with keen slit-like eyes and perfectly combed hair. His face was clean shaven and his clothes fine. If I hadn't known any better, I would say he was a man of my father's class, although surely he couldn't have been.
As he stood up, straightening the navy velvet of his coat, he moved around his desk and looked me up and down with knowing eyes. Did he know why I was here? He couldn't have had many girls in here with the same requests as me.
"I didn't order a girl for this late." He lifted a strand of my hair and let it drop again, circling me slowly, fingers brushing lightly against my waist. "But you are quite…appealing." He leaned in to kiss at my neck and I stepped quickly out of the way, a feeling of dread slowly sinking into the pit of my stomach. Now I understood.
"That's not why I'm here." I said in a rush, clutching my bag to my chest as if it could defend me.
"Why exactly, then, is a girl of your age in an establishment like this in the dead of night?" A subtle hint of anger seeped into his voices and I backed up another step until I was against the wall.
"I want to fight." I said, trying to keep the shake out of my voice. I clutched my fists tightly, fingers cramping painfully with the tension I was putting them under.
"You want to fight?" He crossed his arms, eyes looking me over for a long second. There was a horrible moment of silence, his cold eyes boring into me before he burst into a series of deep chuckles. My mouth slipped open in shock.
"Do you mock me, sir?"
"Mock you?" This seemed to increase his laughing as he walked to the door. I thought maybe he was going to show me out, but instead he pulled it opened and yelled out. "Sky, Nikolai! Get in here." He left the door ajar, stepping back and continuing his laughter.
I heard footsteps down the hall and then the door creaked open. A tall, thickly built man walked in, no shirt on, blood still dripping from a cut on his head. I had seen him fight before, he had a funny curled mustache and pointed beard. Father's driver told me he was German. He inched inside, looking between me and Levy in confusion.
"Jah, boss?" His accent was, indeed, thickly German. He stared at me and then moved out of the way so that the other man could get in as well. My breath caught in my throat as I saw who it was. The American Indian. He was even more attractive in person. He wore a white tunic and the front was open. Around his neck sat a colorfully beaded necklace with what looked like some kind of claw in the middle. His hair was tied back into a braid, it trailed over his shoulder, gleaming in the light. I was aware quite suddenly of my staring and looked instead towards Levy as he spoke again.
"This girl wants to be a fighter." He could barely finish his sentence without bursting into outrageous laughter again, and soon the German—who I assumed was Nikolai—had joined in. Sky merely stared at me without much of an expression on his face.
I felt my cheeks burn with shame and I glared at Levy and Nikolai, furious that they were mocking me so openly. I hated them. I wanted to bash their heads together and use everything that the driver had taught me on them.
"She must be 'ze only girl in all of London." Nikolai said, pounding his fist against Sky's back. The dark-skinned man cracked a smirk at this, lips twisting upwards sharply, a look of bemused arrogance on his face. Maybe I hated him, too.
"Look, I have nowhere to go. I need to make money, and I won't do it like a whore on the street." I spoke with as much strength as I could; letting my arms relax to my sides I squared my shoulders and looked each one of them in the eye.
"But can you fight? Would you even know how?" Levy had stopped laughing and now looked me over again with a seriousness I found threatening.
"I was taught a little." I half-lied. All I knew how to do was lift rocks and throw a punch.
"Show us." Nikolai said, pushing Sky forwards. "Punch 'ze red-skin."
I swallowed hard, looking at Sky as he moved closer, eyes openly daring me to hit him.
"Do it, or we'll throw you out of here with the rest of the filth." Levy crossed his arms, leaning back against the wall and observing.
I bit my lip, dropping my bag to the floor I slipped off my jacket and threw that aside as well. I raised my fists into the position that I had been shown, and took a step forwards. I threw a punch, aiming for the side of his face. In a lightning fast movement his wrist came up and blocked the punch. I tried again, striking, but he kept blocking me. I felt frustrated and my hits started to become poorly-aimed and enraged. Sky seemed to understand this, and he stopped me altogether by closing his fingers around my neck.
"Be patient." He whispered so quietly I almost couldn't hear him. I felt my body crying out for air, and my hands came up to grasp at his. "Calm down. Again." I clawed at his fist until I could push it away and he shook his shoulders to loosen them up. "Calm." He said again. Nikolai and Levy hadn't heard him. They were smirking and chuckling again.
I threw two more punches at Sky, but he backed up a step and shook his head. "Focus." He murmured, circling back closer. I took a deep breath, centering myself and digging deep into everything I had been taught. I arched myself forwards, aiming carefully at the sharp jaw, fist connecting with a painful crack against the dark skin. The hit had surprised us both and Sky stumbled back a step. He rubbed at his chin and nodded at me, approving. I winced, pain shooting through my arm. It had never hurt this much to punch a pillow.
"You haven't had training, and that was luck." Levy shook his head and opened the door. "Get out. You're a waste of time."
I closed my eyes for a moment, dread sinking through me as I bent to pick up my jacket and bag.
"I'll do it." Sky spoke up suddenly, his voice louder this time so I could hear his accent. It was earthy, natural.
"Sky?" Levy turned to him, looking about as confused as I was.
"Are you crazy?" He asked, shaking his head. "She's a girl. She can't fight."
"Men'll pay good money to see her try." He answered, lowering his eyes.
Levy seemed to consider this, fingers raising to scratch at his chin. "Perhaps." He looked at Nikolai who shrugged in response to the silent question. "Her food going to come out of your wages, is it?"
Sky looked at me for a minute and then nodded. "She will fight. I will teach her."
Levy was hesitant, but finally he threw his arms up in submission. "Two weeks, then we'll see how she does. Now get her out of my office. She stays with you."
Sky nodded and grabbed my arm roughly, dragging me out of the room. I didn't even have a chance to speak before the door closed behind me, Levy's laughter ringing in my ears.
"Where are we going?" I asked, shaking my arm free from his grasp.
"To sleep." He didn't stop, but kept walking down the hall.
I hurried to catch up, almost tripping over my skirts as he turned the corner sharply and opened the door to a small room. Inside, I peeked past him to see a mattress on the floor and a little shelf with a couple of books and other insignificant items. There was a small table in the corner with a chair and a wooden chest sitting beside it. I stayed in the door way as he walked in and opened the chest, getting out two extra quilts. He spread one on the floor and laid the other on top.
"You sleep here." He gestured to it.
I moved inside slowly, setting my bag in the corner and looking around at everything more closely. I imagined that sleeping on the floor would be uncomfortable, but what right did I have to complain? I closed the door behind me, watching as he sat on his mattress, legs crossed, carefully untying the braid of his hair.
I sat on the blankets he had laid out for me, silently watching him. "Your name is Sky?" I asked softly, not sure of how to handle myself. He didn't look much older than me. Nineteen, maybe twenty. His calmness was unsettling. I smoothed my skirts around me, slipping my shoes off and setting them aside.
"Yes." He took a wooden hair brush from underneath his pillow and set to work brushing the wavy length of his hair. I examined his face, finding many scars that shone with paleness in the dim light coming from the lamp on his table.
"I'm Tabitha." I offered my hand for him to shake, eyes on his hair brush. He looked at me solemnly, setting the brush aside and reaching out to take my hand. Instead of shaking it, however, he turned it to examine my knuckles. They were red and swollen from the punches.
"Next time we will need to wrap your hands." He dropped my hand and went back to brushing his hair. I folded my hands back into my lap, the sting of his almost rough touch still clinging to my skin.
"Yes." I agreed.
Sky set his brush back, standing up he walked over to the light and shut it off, leaving us in darkness. Through a small window a path of moonlight lit him up. He took his shirt off, smooth yet flawed skin exposed as he nestled himself into his bed and closed his eyes. I shifted, loosening the back of my dress. I don't know why I was so calm, other than I was exhausted. I should have been asking him a million questions and panicking about my father possibly finding me. Instead, I crawled under the first quilt and fell asleep to the sound of Sky breathing.