The world you’re about to enter is quite unlike the world of the twenty-first century. It is still England, but a very different England from the one you knew then. The catastrophes that environmentalists had long predicted have happened. Populations throughout the world have plummeted. Technology has gone into irreversible decline. Ideas of right and wrong have changed. Most people who aim to marry do so in their teens, some as young as fourteen. Remember that Romeo’s Juliet was still only thirteen at the beginning of the play when her mother urged her to consider marriage to Paris, telling her that, in Verona, respectable ladies were mothers at her age. “I was your mother,” she says, “much upon these years that you’re now a maid.” In mediaeval times, as in the world you’re about to enter, marriage had to be early if people were to survive long enough to rear their children before they died of disease, war or, if they were lucky, of old age in their forties. Don’t be shocked at the attitudes and behaviour of Talon, Lara, Kim and others. They are the outcome of more than two centuries of environmental disaster, political upheaval and catastrophic social change.
Welcome to a dysfunctional society where most people just have to do the best they can. And the rest can go hang.
The badger’s squeal rose high above the yells of the watchers as the terrier gripped its ear with its teeth. But it was not defeated, and it flung its head from side to side so violently that the dog was lifted from the floor and its paws scrabbled for a grip on the sawdust in the pit. The watching men and women, soldiers mostly, some in the uniform of the Wall Guard, yelled encouragement to whichever animal they had bets on.
Talon’s companion grinned raggedly and slapped him on the back. He shouted over the noise in the pit-room. “The terrier’s got him now.”
“Don’t you believe it. It’ll just encourage brock,” Talon yelled back.
“You’ve not put money on the badger?”
“Sure. Look at its shoulders. There’s strength there, Justin.”
“But not much agility. The terrier’s sorting him out.”
But Talon had stopped listening and was concentrating on the fight.
The tavern was lit by the flames of torches supported on brackets on the walls. The smoke from the poor quality oil with which the rags had been coated was a stinking black miasma much of which didn’t manage to escape through the ventilation slots and it hung heavily in the air. A blackboard showed the odds on the outcome of the contest and, still, bets were being taken as the fight went on, the odds changing as first the badger and then the terrier seemed to be getting the upper hand. The frenetically active bookie was a little, mild-looking man but, in the heat of the room, his face gleamed with sweat and his hair was awry. His assistant, a lad of maybe fourteen, was hard-pressed to keep the odds marked up on the board as the contest swung first one way and another.
It was a ‘checked’ fight so each animal had a hind leg tethered to a ring set in the side of the pit. The animal’s owner would be able to drag it away from the eye of the pit should it appear to be in serious danger of being killed, but this would take some nerve at all the losing punters could then be expected to take out their disappointment on the luckless owner who would have to choose between losing his beast or face the wrath of the crowd. Only a week ago, an owner that the crowd judged had ‘pulled’ his terrier too soon had been killed by the furious punters. That had been unusual, even in these boisterous times, but pulling your animal too soon was judged worse than the cowardice of an animal that retreated beyond the reach of its tethered adversary.
Now, both animals in the pit appeared to be seeking respite and had drawn back but neither had passed beyond the ‘skulking’ line which was painted on the floor and beyond which its adversary couldn’t reach. Suddenly, as if on a signal, both animals darted forward simultaneously, muzzles gaping, and making to grab their opponent. Both succeeded and the two animals locked jaws. The terrier had its upper jaw above that of the badger and Talon could see the teeth, red with blood, embedded in the badger’s muzzle which was bleeding freely. The badger’s tongue was trapped above the terrier’s lower jaw. Now both animals were screaming but neither was prepared to let go and even Talon, something of an expert in baiting, and watching from the front row, was uncertain whether the screams were from pain or anger. Badgers were usually silent fighters but a terrier was prone to ‘voicing’ as it was called. Voicing was supposed to be a sign of an animal about to ‘skulk’ but, if this was so, the terrier couldn’t do so now as it was held tightly in the formidable jaws of the badger, the animal’s strength giving it an advantage over the dog despite the latter’s agility.
Talon was yelling with the rest. He had his money on the badger, an animal which had won more than one handicap event. He reckoned that its owner judged it too valuable to risk in an unchecked bout, when the losing animal was inevitably killed. Talon, and most others preferred to bet on unchecked contests because then you didn’t have to consider the possibility of the owner pulling his animal. So, although he had a bet on the badger, he had saved his real money for the later bouts which would go ‘to closure’.
In any fight, the wining animal had to survive ten minutes or a ‘no-fight’ was declared and all bets were off. In an unchecked bout, the winning animal was often so badly injured that the ten minute survival rule was crucial to the decision on winnings. If you had managed not to lose your betting slip, the bookies were supposed to pay your money back if both animals died – if they hadn’t scarpered beforehand.
Across from where he was standing, Talon could see Lara, a soldier in his squad, who was shouting with the rest. For reasons he didn’t have time to consider, or even fully recognise as his own thoughts, Talon was sorry to see her at the contest. Somehow, he didn’t like to think of her enjoying herself in such raucous surroundings. He wanted to think of her as better than this. He turned back to the contest feeling somehow baffled.
Neither animal had let go and it began to look as if closure would come in a checked contest, not unheard of but certainly unusual. The bedlam was deafening. Half a hundred men and girls were shouting and yelling in the confined space of the pit-room. Now, the two animals were standing stock still, just the heads swaying slightly to and fro as each tried to extricate itself from the grip of the other without itself letting go and providing its antagonist with a chance to move in and kill. The squealing had stopped but the uproar from the crowd continued unabated.
The owner of the terrier was endeavouring to pull his animal but with the badger’s teeth firmly embedded in the muzzle of his beast, he couldn’t do so. The crowd saw what he was doing and the roar changed to a tone more of anger than of encouragement to the terrier. They wanted the fight to go to closure – it would be a topic of conversation for days if that were to happen. The girl next to Talon started to hit the man with the pommel of her dagger to prevent him pulling the terrier. Then she turned it point forward. Talon moved a bit closer: it would be his duty as an NCO in the Wall Guard to prevent her from killing the man should this seem likely. The girl couldn’t have been more than thirteen but she looked well able to kill if she had the mind – not something Talon would have minded much, but, if the man were killed, the umpire would declare the bout no-contest whereas, if he pulled his terrier, Talon would win his bet. He reached across the girl and grabbed her arm to restrain her, feeling the swell of her small breast as she tried to drag herself away from his grasp. She turned on him and, for a moment, he though he would have to disarm her but she quickly forgot him and turned back to the fight. Perhaps his restraint had worked because she sheathed her weapon and concentrated on yelling.
The two animals hadn’t moved for several minutes. The terrier’s legs were quivering and Talon saw that its jaws had opened fully, but it wasn’t able to skulk as its lower jaw was still firmly held by the badger which was slowly shaking its head from side to side. If you had just come into the pit-room, Talon thought, you might have been excused for wondering what manner of animal it was as all the white of its head was covered in the bright red of its own and the terrier's blood. But it was obviously winning and Talon was doubly glad he’d stopped the girl attacking the terrier’s owner.
He started to yell encouragement now to the man to pull his dog but, although he seemed to be trying to do so, the badger wouldn’t let go and it was dragged towards the terrier’s skulk line. At the limit of its own tether, it sat back on one haunch, its other leg stretched out behind on the length of rope and Talon could almost imagine its neck stretching as it refused to let go of the terrier. Its lower jaw was at the terrier’s throat, it sharp incisors, scarlet with blood, seeking its opponent’s jugular vein. Suddenly, the terrier’s legs buckled completely and it was lying on its side, blood streaming from its mouth but not from its throat. It would survive if the badger let it. The badger sensed its victory and gave one last shake of its head before opening its mouth and almost ambling back to its owner. As it crossed its skulk line, there was a moment’s silence than bedlam erupted once more as the punters realised what had happened. The terrier’s owner, alert to the changed situation, ceased his efforts to pull the animal. In the very moment of victory, the badger had crossed the skulk line and the nearly dead terrier had won. A cry of triumph from the winners didn’t drown out the yells of ‘ten minutes’ from those who had backed the badger. The umpire leapt into the pit and held up both arms, fingers spread wide to indicate his agreement – maybe, he, too, had his money on the badger, Talon thought hopefully. But the terrier’s owner was in the pit, too, collecting his comatose animal, presumably with the intention of nursing it back to health. A winning animal was valuable and this one, after such a fight would be notorious if not famous.
But Talon knew the terrier would survive – unless an angry punter killed it – and he and Justin wandered off, Justin jubilantly, Talon morosely and nursing a grievance, to where a group of their mates were celebrating their winnings on the terrier’s victory.
Justin sneered at him. “I told you the terrier would win.”
“It was just bad luck. The badger won but hadn’t the brains to stay put.”
“Dogs have more sense than bloody badgers.”
“It hadn’t even got the strength to give in. It just buckled. It’s owner was trying to pull it.”
But the atmosphere of excitement in the pit-room was too good to allow a quarrel to develop and the two friends joined the group of Wall Guards. Those in uniform were due on duty at ten and were drinking only moderately but the rest were downing their half litres with gusto. Talon was glad that Lara didn’t join them but had wandered off towards the door. He watched her go and wished he could have gone with her but, dissatisfied as he had suddenly become, he wanted to stay with the other NCOs and junior officers.
The group of young men and women was good-humoured, the winners keen to share their good fortune, the others and Talon were equally keen to accept the ale that was pressed on them. No-one but Justin seemed aware that Talon had lost his bet and Talon didn’t enlighten them – he had his reputation as a good judge of dogs and badgers to uphold. Even if, he told himself, his had been the moral victory, no-one would be prepared to concede that in their euphoria at the terrier’s win. Of course, at first, all the talk was of the bout and the surprising outcome but it soon moved on to the other topics of any barracks, the girls joining in with as much gusto and as many obscenities as the men.
After the excitement of the first bout, those that followed, even though between unchecked animals, seemed almost tame and Talon found himself losing interest.
Now, death was certain, the skulk line was ignored, and a raised fence prevented the animals escaping from the pit. It was an opportunity for the owners to go for the big prizes – the winner could expect to take home a substantial purse in addition to anything he won by placing a bet on his animal. The money was compensation for the training the animals had undergone when tethered either in the fighting pit or in one of the training pits that many men had. Whilst no one could retire on the proceeds of baiting, some men, and women too, earned good money from the sport. One of the best trainers was a fourteen year old girl who everyone said had a way with animals and a particular affinity with badgers that she trained for the pit. Talon knew she gave them dog blood to boost their ‘ambition’. The beast that had lost in the first bout was one of hers and her reputation was likely to take a knock but she would, he had no doubt, work on it for the future.
Talon, as an NCO in the Wall Guard didn’t have the opportunity of owning animals himself although he had once had a half share in a wining terrier. After he had joined the syndicate it had suddenly stopped being a wining terrier and he had lost his money. To be honest with himself, he didn’t much like the training bouts when a terrier and a badger were put to fight but were not allowed to do serious injury. It lacked the excitement of the real thing and animals injuring themselves for no purpose seemed oddly cruel – and you had the palaver of treating and caring for injuries and for looking after the animals themselves. Much better to let others have the hard work and enjoy the fights and, perhaps, win a bit of money.
By ten o’clock, he was almost choking with the black smoke and the smell of blood, urine, shit and animals in the the pit-room. Those on duty had headed for the walls, and Talon, with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, headed for the old bowling green with the rest of his cronies. The Duke had arranged fireworks to celebrate his conquest six years before and there would be free drinks, and where there were free drinks, he hoped to find free girls as well.
But the feeling of dissatisfaction grew. There had to be more to life than badger baiting and booze but he couldn’t think what it might be. He shrugged and continued on his way.