Freedom and Glory: Part Four
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
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.