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Freedom and Glory: Part Four

by laurelinden


The shining glint of Raife's grinning teeth sparkled even from where Jairen stood, wringing his hands, waiting with a mixture of impatience and anxiety for the gait to open. /Easy for you to sit there and smile,/ he thought to himself as he waited. You are not competing. But then, Raife had already won a silver. He'd proven himself well.

      Any minute now, the Shoyru thought to himself, staring through the bars. The crowd was far louder than he'd expected it to be, and it only added to his nerves. But if I win… Then he'd never have to feel insufficient again. If he won this, he'd have a silver, just like Raife. And if he should somehow win the one after, he'd bring home a gold, and top his friend!

     Palms moist with sweat, Jairen inhaled sharply as the doors swung open, and almost gagged with the swirl of dust whooshing into his lungs. The stadium stood out stark and empty before him, and he could only think of how he longed to be anywhere else. Running through the green fields of Meridell, perhaps; or exploring the icy tundra of Terror Mountain. But not here… not beneath the gaze of thousands to fight. His musings faded away, however, when the door opened. Jairen held his breath as the dust motes slowed, revealing-

     A Uni, just as Raife had said. But the Shoyru had thought it would be a strong, sturdy one with corded muscles and heavily brushed fur. Instead stood a pathetic little creature; a young blue finny who looked both terrified and exhausted. Her scrawny legs trembled and her knobby knees seemed ready to buckle. She hadn't even had proper time to rest from her last battle, he realized with dismay.

     Eyes wide with mixed fear and desperation, she eyed him for a moment, then charged without warning. Instinctively Jairen took flight, pumping his leathery wings sharply downward and climbing just high enough so that the young Uni passed below him. With a few strokes she followed, and he darted away, spinning to avoid her.

     The audience began to laugh and jeer, thinking that he was afraid of the scrawny creature. He heard Raife tell them to shut up, then call out, "Jay, what are you doing?"

     He didn't know what he was doing, in truth. The Shoyru landed, but the Uni was already galloping toward him, head lowered. He flung his arm out to protect himself and turned her horn, sending her speeding into the dust with surprisingly little effort. Wheezing, she pulled herself up, and prepared to come at him again.

     "Why don't you withdraw?" he called, worried. "You'll hurt yourself, surely!"

     "I can't," she replied through gritted teeth. "I need to win. I need to show them that I am worth owning."

     "What do you-"

     But she heaved her feather-light body at him again before he could finish the sentence. He dodged quickly, feeling the needle-sharp point of her horn brush past him.

     "This is madness," he persisted as she pawed her hooves into the dust. "Please, stop now!"

     In answer, she hurled herself at him again. The audience gasped as he did not leap out of the way, but reached out and grabbed her horn in his fist, holding her fast. "I will ask you once more," he warned. "Withdraw, and stop this foolishness. You are not a battler."

     Terror filled her wide eyes and she began to tremble, but still the little Uni shook her head. "I can't give up," she said softly. "I need to win..."

     Jairen raised his hand, and Aloriel winced, expecting him to end the battle quickly. But the Shoyru only waved toward the watching referee. "Sir, I forfeit. She wins the match."

     A roar went up in the audience, mixed cheers and jeers and yowling. Jairen didn't hear them, though; all he heard was the soft voice whisper, "Thank you, sir. So much."

     The Shoyru watched silently as the Uni trotted off to the back to prepare to compete for the gold, his gold, his proof that he was as good as Raife in something. Presently he heard the Lupe's paws hitting the dust behind him, and turned, expecting to see the usual joking grin on his mouth, to hear the usual witty jape.

     His friend was strangely sober, though, and there was a solemn look in his amber eyes. "You won the bronze," he said, "but I think it means more than my silver, or even a gold, had I won it."

     Jairen smiled, and patted the Lupe on the shoulder. Maybe he was right.


     The sweat on Aloriel's brow had seemed refreshing while battling with the Shoyru, but now it clung to her like a frigid mist, clammy on her fur. She tried to concentrate; Terou had said that she needed to think clearly, but her thoughts kept flickering back to the odd behavior of her opponent. Why had he let her win? She should have lost, back there. She should be heading back to the forest, to resume her life as a nobody.

     By a fluke she remained, now to compete against the other victor, the pet who had won all of his rounds. Her only hope was that he felt as exhausted as she did.

     The gates swung open, and the audience squealed, already frenzied from watching the last two dramatic matches. Aloriel cantered out, trying to hold her head high, but felt just as she did when being led home by the Pound Lupes. Her stomach was queasy with nervousness and strain, but she fought to suppress the sickening roils and allow the chance of winning to steady her racing heart.

     When her opponent's gates parted, her faint hope of winning dissipated. He was a terrifying and surly Darigan Skeith. A cruel grin twisted his thin lips, and his eyes glinted with malice. The look he gave her said one thing: /fresh meat./

     He did not wait for her to attack first, but lunged at her with deadly speed. She tried to leap away, but this enemy was much faster than any she had yet encountered. Catching up to her easily, he batted her to the dust with one great slap of his clawed paw, his dark laugh ringing in her ears.

     She jumped to her feet, stretching out her wings to try to fly up and escape, but he swatted her down again, bruising her sides against the unyielding, hard-packed ground. The audience, which had chuckled and hooted at first, grew quiet as she struggled up again, only to be whacked down by the monstrous Skeith.

     It seemed hours that the torture continued. She would hit the ground, lying motionless and defeated, but determination would force her to rise again. Each time her body slammed into the dirt, she could hear the Shoyru's voice. /Stop this foolishness. You are not a battler./ But she knew that if she did not get up, she would never win, and never find a home.

     Every muscle screamed in protest as she forced herself upward, standing on legs numb and feeble. The Skeith's ugly purple face was flushed with laughter as he raised a great paw again. As it sailed into her, the audience cried out against him, and she thought she heard Terou calling her name.

     The dust rose around her as she struggled to breathe from where she lay upon the ground, but even her breaths were painful in the taking. The referee began to count, but it seemed that his words were in a different world. "Five." She had to get up. If he reached one, it would mean she lost.


     Up, she told her unresponsive legs. I need to get up.


     She heaved herself upward, but stumbled back down, hot tears rising in her eyes, throat thick with frustration.


     A deep breath. Another. Up, up, up... Why wouldn't her legs obey?


     With a sudden burst of strength that she didn't know she had, the young Uni stood and held her ground. The world spun, and the leering form of the Skeith was blurred and distorted. Was that thundering her own heart beating? Or was it the screaming of a thousand throats?

     "Oh, Uni. You make this too easy." The giant purple form lifted a paw. Aloriel closed her eyes hard, knowing that this time she would not get up; this would be the end. She was almost past caring.


     The audience watched, confused, as a single form pushed her way though the stands, landing in the stadium. It was a young woman in a blue cotton dress and an expression on her face that seemed uncharacteristically stern. "Stop this at once!" she cried to the referee, scowling, and made her way over to Aloriel. "Who is your owner?" she asked. "I would like a word with the one who would put their pet through such horror with such little training."

     The tears that had been building up ran down the Uni's cheek. "I have no owner," she admitted softly.

     For a moment the lady looked astonished, but she mastered herself quickly. "You do now," she replied. "Poor thing! Would you like to come home with me?"

     "I... I don't understand," replied Aloriel, utterly baffled. "Why would you want me? I didn't even win the gold."

     At this, the lady smiled, revealing the kind light in her eyes. "It's not saying much for a musclehead like this Skeith here to enter, knowing he would win. But for someone like you to enter, it means you must be quite courageous indeed. It would be nothing less than an honor to adopt one such as you."

     Grinning in disbelief and relief, the Uni glanced up to the stands, where Terou gave her a thumbs-up. Behind him Raife and Jairen clapped hands, cheering loudly. And many miles away, beneath the same glowing sun, a single Lupe smiled to himself, wondering at the sudden wave of joy.

The End

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Other Episodes

» Freedom and Glory: Part One
» Freedom and Glory: Part Two
» Freedom and Glory: Part Three

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