You experience every second of violence. The polite lie Hollywood tells is that fights happen in jump cuts, going from initial clash to high spot, plucky hero to villainous cheat. You get beaten down and you pick yourself up, spit blood onto the ground and dare the other guy to try it again. He does, only this time you’re ready, this time you take the best he can throw at you and you hurt him, scare him, make him bleed, choke him out and absolutely do not stop until you are the only one left standing. The music swells, the girl plasters herself to your side, the adoptive father figure smiles in approval and the man you just beat, in both senses of the word, becomes your new best friend.
Lies. Every word.
A fight is long, dull and frequently decided by nothing more heroic, nothing more romantic, than cardiovascular fitness. If you have more breath, if you can keep your pulse rate lower, then you will fight smarter, and harder, and longer, than your opponent. The more you breath the more oxygen you get, the more oxygen you get the calmer you are, the calmer you are the more you can think and the more you can think the more you can work. Adrenalin is a cold glass of water to the face and it has exactly the same effect; over 170 beats per minutes your fine motor control disappears and if that happens you can’t move, can’t block, can’t punch or kick or knee or headbutt or choke or dive headlong into the red pool that lies at the heart of us all. You will get hit. You will bleed. You will lose the fight. He will beat you and you will feel every second of it. Your opponent’s breath on your skin, the dull, sand thump of punches hitting flesh, the audible crack as your nose breaks, blood in your mouth and on your face and him looking at you the whole time, his eyes locked on yours as the pair of you meet to deliver each other catastrophe.
There are two ways around this. The first is the easy one; you train. You run and you lift and you punch and you stretch and you sculpt your body into a weapon. It takes dedication, discipline and, worst of all, patience.
The other way is much worse, and much easier; you remove your capacity to be polite. Make no mistake, violence can be polite and frequently is. Even when you meet in the random, frantic, alcohol soaked combat of a Saturday night neither of you is particularly interested in killing the other or crippling them. There’s courtesy in brutality but there is none in savagery. That can make the difference, if you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.
Once more into the fray,
into the last good fight I’ll ever know,
Live and die on this day,
Live and die on this day
Ottway’s father paid that price, a lover of poetry and violence in equal measure. Four lines, an apology and an epitaph all in one, written on his wall, framed, contained and that simple action proving that even his father, a man as big as the world, couldn’t beat everyone. Every fighter loses. Every fighter gets to choose when they leave the ring forever. None of them ever choose well.
That thought haunts Ottway, as does one other. Her face, her smile, the feel of her skin, paper thin and stretched tight but still somehow her, somehow warm and filled with life. She smiles at him and he reaches out and-
Cold gun metal in his mouth.
Not pulling the trigger. A wolf howls out, past the fences.
Ottway knows the drill; Keep them moving, keep them warm and keep them angry because God help him the anger is still something he can default to even after all this time. Anger is a rock solid foundation, one that you can stand up on, push against, bludgeon with. Anger is a shield from your enemies and from your realisation, just for a while. Because he knows, and they know and that’s the other lie they’re all telling one another; hope. You can survive, you can make it out of the snow, the GPS watch will trigger.
No more of you will die.
The wolves come early and fast, almost apathetic in their effortless demolition of Ottway’s survivors, his pack. The irony of that isn’t lost on him or the other men, and again, it’s not something that’s talked about. Because if they’re a pack he’s the Alpha, and if he’s the Alpha then they are all subordinate to him and these are not men that like being subordinate to anyone. So they curse and they yell and they fight and they die and John Ottway watches, mitigates the damage, does what he can even as the weather beats them senseless and the wolves just wait.
The last good fight he’ll ever know. His father standing above him, red on his knuckles. His wife, so pale she almost isn’t there, wrapped in bedsheets of ice. Snow and blood, the Scylla and Charybdis of what he knows is going to be the last stage of his life. None of them will live, but all of them will try, at least whilst he’s Alpha. Playing chess with men’s lives against an opponent who is as inhuman as he is invisible.
They keep moving.
The structure of his pack begins to present itself. The quiet, faithful Doctor, the older Parent, the scrappy youngster and the wild eyed Omega, looking for a fight with anyone who makes eye contact. The Omega is a problem, he knows, so when the time comes he puts him down, hard and fast. He’s his father’s son and even as he does it, even as he feels the clenched fist in his soul slam forward, his opponent, out in the woods, makes his only mistake. The Alpha sends his own Omega in, and the wolf never comes back out. Hope flares brighter than the fire and his Omega cuts his fallen enemy’s head off and hurls it out into the snow.
The Alpha appears and Ottway’s pack falls silent. Ottway feels something in his chest settle, a perverse comfort, a homecoming; this is his equal, his intimate, this is his opponent. His last good fight.
The next deaths come harder and faster. The Parent goes well, and he knows the man was with his daughter when he died, but it’s the Omega that surprises him. Injured in a fall, he hobbles through the snow with them for hours before finally, at the bend of a river, he does the one thing no fighter ever does; he chooses when to stop. The man he leaves, the man who is at best minutes away from a hideous death is a soul at rest, one less for him to worry about, one saved if only for now. He smiles as they leave, is still smiling as the wolves break from the tree line. His end, when it comes, is cruel, awful. But the moments before it give him the one thing the Omega has never experienced; peace
The Doctor is next, taken by the river, trapped beneath its surface as they run from the wolves that chose not tohelp kill the Omega. Ottway wants to think it’s a mercy, wants to think the Doctor is at peace, knows he felt his soul leave, just like he has before. Like his father. Like his wife, a woman for whom his ultimate act of love was a tiny act of violence, flicking a switch, ending a life. Like his pack. His poor, ragged doomed pack.
Ottway pleads, he begs to be saved, for the miracle that each drop of blood has paid for and that he knows will never arrive. So in the end, as always, he does it himself. He buries his pack, he readies himself to survive and it’s as he does that that he sees the animal bones, smells the rotten meat, knows where he is even before the other Alpha steps into view.
The wolve’s den.
A ring. An arena. A fight.
Bloody knuckles and paper skin, his father’s eyes and his wife’s smile. A knife in his hand and glass in his fists.
Once more into the fray,
Into the only good fight I’ll ever know,
Live and die on this day,
Live and die-