CW: fighting, animal death
I stamp my feet, feeling the gritty dust of the ground warm the bits of my bare feet that remained uncalloused.
My armour is freshly cleaned and oiled, the smell of leather and linseed filling my nose as everything but my bare head began to sweat under the heat.
I don’t wear headgear. No loss of vision or bucket to ruin my speed, my reactions, my dexterity. Those are the things that keep me alive.
I reach out my right arm to one side, close my eyes, reach into the Weave for my half-length spear, and bring out. I don’t need to open my eyes to see the wood, smooth from my hand, a tinge of blood-red beneath the oil, the polished shine of the barbed tip as it winks in the sun.
I reach out my left hand, into the Weave, and bring out a dagger, long and curved, with a twisted metal guard that covers my hand and wrist.
My head, shorn close to my skull, makes people assume my gender from any sort of distance. I always enjoy the surprise in the eyes of someone seeing me more closely for the first time. The lack of beard stubble. The slight curve of my armour on my chest. The lilt in my voice.
Before me they said women couldn’t do this. So I showed them we could if we wanted to, and I won fight aftr fight against everything they threw at me, making me a crowd favourite n the process. I choose my own battles now, and today I’m here to put down creatures that have hurt people.
And outside of this? Outside of the leather and the wood and the oil and the dirt and the blood and the death? I don’t even know what to do with the riches I’ve earned, so I leave it, each time, to my wife and children, taking comfort in knowing that that they have enough if I don’t return home.
Finally, the GamesMaster stands, and the crown goes quiet.
He catches my eyes, checking, and I nod my readiness.
A bell tolls, deep and resonant, vibrating in my chest.
Deep within the walls, chains clank and an iron door opens.
There is only one way for the beasts contained within to go.
Most people would be alarmed at the sight of a single roaring lioness charging towards them, let alone three.
And these lionesses? Over the course of the last month the vulnerable have been killed and dragged off to their lair for food. These are the three caught alive. Unsurprisingly, they are highly pissed off about it, and looking to take that out on whoever they can find.
But that’s alright. Because me? This is what I live for.
Three female lionesss charge into the battleground and I smile. However this goes, the women will come out on top—if they defeat me, they’ll be showered in praise, given a place in the enormous animal habitats, and their first meal will be whatever was left of me when the darts hit their hides, knocking them unconscious for the move.
But they don’t know any of that. They know their space was invaded by humans who hunted their food, taking more than they returned. They know they found food the only way they could, and in return they were stolen from their home, their pride beaten and killed, more victims in the war between humankind and beastkind.
They deserve a fast death. We encroached on them, not the other way around. Our city grew and grew, and their home, and food, disappeared beneath our feet, our roads, our brick. They attack us because they’re desperate, starving, needing to feed their cubs.
I know all of this. And I know I can’t stop them from killing us by asking nicely. I;m here to give them the most merciful death I can.
But them? They just know I’m standing in front of them, beating my chest with my spear hand, screaming my own battlecry as they roar their own.
The noise of the crowd drops as their charge focuses on me. One comes direct, the others each take a side. This is good. They’re used to working together to take down prey.
But they’re not used to prey that thinks and moves like I do.
The first lioness, in the centre, is also the largest. Hatred in her eyes. She is looking forward to making me a meal.
The second, coming in on the right, is more cautious. Though still in step, she is sizing me up for weaknesses. She’s the clever one, then. The others will take their cues from her. Smart. Never let anyone tell you that beasts cannot be as clever and strategic as humans.
The third lioness lags slightly behind the others, almost imperceptibly limping. Back right leg. Minor injury, but it’s enough. A place to start.
As the other two begin their pounce, I drop, roll, and come up at the side of the third lioness. For a split second she continues her run to where I was, and with a sideways twist, I draw my dagger across the tendons in her back left leg.
Her roar changes as she drops, her haunches giving way. She cries out pain now, as well as anger.
I’m sorry, I murmur to her, taking advantage of the shocked pause from the others to dig my spear deeply into her heart, rest well.
I sense movement behind me, pulling back just in time to avoid a swipe from a large paw, its claws wickedly sharp and looking for a killing blow.
I kick myself away from the dead lioness, using her to launch into a backflip, unsure of where I’ll land, just hoping it’s not in the teeth of the one closest behind me.
I land awkwardly, half on her back, half off, and tumble to the ground before I can plan anything more graceful. The packed dirt is painful to land on. My right shoulder takes the brunt, and my spear skitters away from my hand.
There’s no time to do anything about this. The lionesses are on me, and I have to roll quickly away to avoid teeth and claws.
When I get to my feet, I’m faced with the first lioness, and I do what instinct demands. I duck the first snap of her jaws, dirt scraping my bare legs, bringing my blood out in tiny beads as I slide underneath her and thrust my dagger upwards, feeling it penetrate. With a roar of effort I drag it sideways.
Hot blood pours over me, and she drops like a stone. I’m barely out of the way in time to not get crushed. Goodnight lady, is the only thing I have the time to say.
One left. But it’s the smart one. She’s not about to come charging in again.
We circle each other from a distance, wary, looking for a moment, a way in.
Carefully, I move over to my spear and kneel, my eyes never leaving hers. My hand finds the familiar wooden haft on the ground and grasps it, fixing my grip until I’m happy.
I breathe deeply. Time to take a chance. I know they like things to be drawn out, for the audience, but not today. I respect these ladies too much to toy with them. I’m too sad about their reason for being here. It’s why I took this fight.
I stand, spear hoisted to my shoulder—which complains, but not too much—ready to throw, and deliberately turn my back on the lionessess.
I’m hardly turned away before I hear the roar renew itself.
Just beneath this is the sound of claws taking purchase on the ground, beginning a charge.
I close my eyes, count to five, and turn to face her, my spear drawn back.
In one smooth movement, it leaves my hand. A sharp, speeding object, colliding with a large, speeding lioness. It enters her mouth, the blade pushing up into her brain, and she drops to the floor, twitching.
I run over. She lives. Not for long. I’m sorry it came to this. Rest with your sisters and find the rest of your family, wherever you go, I tell her as I finish what I began.
Once she falls limp, dead, I allow the crowd of watchers back into my consciousness. They cheer. They call my name. They stamp their feet and throw flowers into the battleground.
I look up at the Gamesmaster and he nods. A door is opened for me and I go through, sighing in pleasure at the cool of the corridor.
In my changing room I strip, shower, tend to my weapons and replace them in the Weave.
I put on my street clothes, collect my payment, and go home to my wife and children.
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