Neira to My Heart – Part 3
By Vicky Morgan-Keith
“Get ready, arnt! We’ll see if you prove your worth today.”
Mrrowl dipped a massive paw into the stone watering trough of the staging paddock. He lapped bright droplets from his fur several moments before glancing at the Neiran looming before the barred gate. “You say that to every gladiator before every bout, Handler Fodrun,” he replied. Flicking his ears, he dipped his paw back into the water, more concerned with quenching his thirst than rising to Fodrun’s taunts.
The Neiran’s eyes gleamed. He chuckled softly as he drew a lanky aqua-hued arm across his face and chest in a gesture of reverence. “By the Firstmother Aoth, today, arnt, it is true! This will be no ordinary battle–even for the Arena Eviscorita!”
Even though he was a ranked representative of the grandest arena of all Neira, like most Neiran, Fodrun wore very little. A loincloth of simple cloth bearing the emblem of the Arena Eviscorita was belted across his slim hips. From loops on the belt hung both a stout baton and coiled whip Fodrun could put to use with great skill on any arnts who displeased him. A silken sash encircled his long narrow chest. A silver epaulet adorned the sash where it draped his right shoulder, signifying him Chief Handler of the Arena Eviscorita. Nevertheless, he gestured respectfully to the female guards before opening the gate to the holding paddock and stepping inside. Flicking his fingers dismissively at the slaves who approached to lay the gladiator’s equipment on a nearby bench, Fodrun helped Mrrowl don his armor with his own hand.
“This will be the ninth bout for you, will it not?” the Neiran asked, checking the tightness of the straps of Mrrowl’s breastplate and giving them a firm tug. “You have done well in your time here! Druzh-Shaad is within your reach! If you survive, of course. Perhaps Aoth will smile on even you, an arnt, and freedom will be yours!”
“Perhaps,” Mrrowl growled, wishing Fodrun would be silent. A wave of superstition swept through him, causing the fur along his spine to bristle. It was not wise to bat at the tail of Fate. She often laid a heavy paw on those foolish enough to tempt Her. “I know only that I fight to the death as I have been taught. I will view the path beyond when that is done.”
He pulled the lacings of his metal battle claws tighter with his teeth, flexing his own claws as he did so. The weapons fit snuggly over both his front paws. Called Shre’ro’quo by his own people, the metal claws were forged from a special ultonium alloy known only to Shrinaar smiths. The claws were extremely sharp and almost impossible to break. Fodrun had gone to great trouble and expense to acquire them for Mrrowl, but the gladiator knew better than to entertain the notion the Chief Handler favored him. While the Shrinaar might cherish the weapons as a part of his heritage, Mrrowl knew to Fodrun the weapons were merely for show, nothing more.
The Neiran made a last adjustment before he stepped back, nodding in satisfaction. “You are ready,” he said. “Come.” He waved Mrrowl toward the gate and walked beside him down the long tunnel leading to the far gate that would release the gladiator into the arena. The cheering of the crowd grew louder as they approached, swelling to a thunderous roar.
When the gate to the arena slammed open. Fodrun caught Mrrowl’s arm before he stepped through. He leaned close and spoke quickly into the felinoid’s tufted ear. “This will be an interesting spectacle, regardless of the outcome. Yet, succeed here, and with one more battle, freedom is yours. Remember that, arnt, and fight well.”
Mrrowl met the Chief Handler’s eyes, thinking how easy it would be to open the vein in Fudron’s neck with the barest swipe of his Shre’ro’quo and spill the Neiran’s life blood on the ground. He buried the thought, instead giving the Chief Handler a curt nod. Mrrowl wasn’t ready to throw his life away. Not yet. Not with his freedom so very, very close.
“Nine,” he muttered under his breath and stepped into the arena.