Light shown through the blindfold. Harsh and rough words were spoken. The pain from his head told Arthen to go back to the abyss of sleep.
A bug crawled into his mouth. He choked and spat it out into the sand. His left eye opened as his right eye teared. A harsh light blared down through a grated ceiling onto the dark pit that they sat in.
“–least we’re here.”
“I can hear a crowd of people outside walking in the same direction.”
“Where do you reckon we are?”
“We’re not following the plan, that’s where we are!”
“Well, I suppose you’re right in that aspect.”
“The sand is coming from the grate above us. And sand in the mountains can only mean one thing.”
“...Alright, just go on and say whatever–”
“This is a fighting arena above us. And we’re soon-to-be combatants.”
Arthen found Booker and Frayne already awake, dried blood trails covering their faces. Booker seemed to have a large patch of blood staining his hair. Frayne’s flapped cap was now gone, giving Arthen his first view of Frayne’s whole head without it. His hair was cut into a mohawk of wavy brown that flopped to one side. On the left side of his head was a strange tattoo on his bare scalp. But what surprised Arthen the most was his ears–they were pointed. Cartilage piercings led up to a sharp point of his elongated earlobe.
“Yes, this is very peculiar,” Booker continued. “Of course we were in the Stahlgs territory, but it’s strange for them to be wandering around the outskirts of their realm, even stranger that they didn’t kill us.”
“Holy Mothers, this country is barbaric. You’re surprised they didn’t kill us?”
“Well, yes. Very strange. If we were trespassing in their land they would most certainly have killed us. But here we are, apparently awaiting for this death arena. Oakley said in his early letters that they usually killed strangers on sight out on the steppe.”
“Then how did Oakley manage to get in with his throat intact?”
“He said he displayed a sign of strength right away which they admired.”
“Dark hell. I don’t understand why we would ever need these people’s alliance if they’re such savages.”
“Yes, this doesn’t seem to be one of Oakley’s better judgements. You alright Gleim?”
Arthen nodded, too dazed to make a coherent sentence.
Frayne turned around suddenly and pressed the side of his head on the wall. “The walking has stopped. It’s silent outside.”
The iron door behind them blasted open and three stocky guards entered and immediately pulled Frayne, Booker, and Arthen up and out of the cell.
The three of them were pushed into a haphazard five person herd with two other prisoners from the cell adjacent to them, both extremely old and both branded with a foreign rune on their forehead. Arthen recognized the Stahlg rune as the word “outsider”. The guards dragged them through a dark and spiraling route up a flight of stairs and around many passages until all the prisoners were thrown by their respective guard out through a small doorway into the blaring white sunlight. Arthen felt himself fall into coarse sand on hard earth. As his eyes adjusted to the light of the area, the spectacle of this new environment came into focus.
A ring of dark gray and black rock fencing encircled the sand filled arena with giant wooden spikes protruding erratically from stone holes. On the opposite side of the circle from them was a colossal iron barred gate the top of which hugged the top of the entire stone wall. This line of sight led Arthen’s eyes to what was above the ring of rock. Three hundred Stahlg faces looked down on them from bleachers that rose thirty feet above the top of the fencing. They stared down on the five prisoners in an unsettling silence. Dirty and wrinkled faces they were. Arthen was sure the audience was explicitly adult as there were very few children amongst the old and hardened.
Arthen looked to Booker and Frayne who looked to have the same rattled demeanor as him. They seemed to try to keep their stance, not turning to look at the entire audience around them. Frayne looked focused on the stone wall and not any face above it, perhaps looking for weaknesses or escape routes. The two elderly men seemed to be enveloped in the whirlwind of their hushed audience, spinning around and entranced by the arena.
Then one Stahlg came to an elevated podium that was made of an uprising side of the fence. He wore an iron helmet that covered his eyes but left his mouth completely open. He shouted in Stahlg, “The scene is set. Rise for us our Hand of God!”
Arthen felt a severe shiver strike his spine.
Then the audience chanted, “Rise for us our Hand of God!” in a clear unison with their right hands lifted into the air in a sea of cold fists. They continued to chant this phrase over and over as the door behind Arthen opened again and a man trotted through it.
He was very tall and broad shouldered, clad in many shapes of bear skin with an out-of-place shirt that had a crest of a rose on it and was dirtied and torn. His head was shaved but his face bore a heavy beard and a thick mustache. The helmet he carried was beaten and grimy and the sheath strapped around his waist carried a wide broad saber. He jogged slowly in an athletic glory, in front of Arthen, Booker and Frayne into the center of the arena. Arthen saw that the man had gleeful eyes as he looked upon the crowd and danced around the arena to their chanting, his arms wide open to their calls. He laughed and bowed.
Then the man turned to face his neighbors on the ground with his mouth open in a cheerful smile. His eyes widened and his cheeks lowered slightly at the sight of Booker and Frayne. Arthen looked to Booker whose mouth was slightly open in confusion and Frayne who had his arms crossed in a frustrated expression.
“Hello,” the man’s deep voice protruded through the clamor of the audience.
“What are you doing?” Booker yelled.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Oh really? Basking in religious chanting!”
“They’re chanting for me, mate. You should be thanking me.”
“This is not the time for this,” Frayne said.
“Hey, glad you made it here, Frayne.” Oakley said. “Best not to continue conversing.” He pointed to Arthen. “He with you?”
But before any response, the chanting ceased and the helmeted Stahlg spoke again. “Your enemy is ready, friend. Become the one to save us.”
“Right!” Oakley yelled. He put on his dented helmet and held his saber in striking position. The chanting returned with no initial build up in volume, just an abrupt raucous as if it never paused. Someone above threw down five ancient axes that were cracked and rusty. The two old prisoners jumped to grab their own. Frayne reluctantly grabbed one as well.
“How many men will there be?” Booker asked Oakley.
“Never men. More entertaining than that,” he replied, muffled through his helmet.
Booker grabbed the two remaining axes and walked over to Arthen holding out one for him. Arthen took it clumsily.
“Fighting was definitely not part of this plan, Gleim, I hope you know that. I never meant for you to get into this situation. Because of that, I will protect you with my life.”
Arthen looked fearful at him. He looked over to Frayne who gave him a confident nod.
“Swing for knees, necks, or pits you can find.”
Arthen looked at the giant iron gate in front of them. “Ok–” he said in exasperated breath. He thought someone was pounding a drum above them, but it turned out to be only his own heartbeat ringing in his ears. A crescendo and a rise in tempo of the chanting built up the suspense and anxiety welling up in Arthen. He thought he stared at the gate for hours as only seconds passed by.
I’ve run away from wolves, he thought. But I have to fight–now?
His axe became slippery in his palms. It felt heavier after each second.
How many men would there be? Wait–that man said they weren’t men.
Then the chanting ceased.
Even though Arthen waited with bated breath for what was to come while watching the giant iron gate in front of them, the wrenching sound of it finally starting to open made him jump. The clacking of metal gears echoed in the hollow corridor behind the gate and rang out into the arena. But even through the noise of grinding iron, Arthen could hear air being puffed from the gaping darkness. Hot breath from giant lungs much bigger than that of a wolf’s came from an elevation higher than their heads. Then the beast walked out.