They were pushed down a corridor, then made to go up a flight of stairs, and then down another corridor, turned, down another corridor, and then up another flight of steps that seemed to go up to heaven. Then a brisk chill tore at his skin and he could tell they were somewhere outside. The bag flapped violently around his face. They stopped. The creaking of heavy wood and metal churned in front of them and warm air kissed them. When the creaking stopped, Arthen was pushed forward to walk several more feet. Then someone pulled off the potato sack on his head.
A spectacular site reached Arthen’s eyes. The sounds and smells of at least twenty bears enveloped the room. Bears of all shades of brown and black made a sea of hair and girth but all were the usual prairie and mountain size of bear. There were cooing noises and grunts let out, and hills of moving fur meandered around the room as they pleased. Stahlg guards in armor lined against the walls holding spears. In the center of the room sat a woman on a high-back chair made of dark oak. She wore a massive crown of what seemed to be a metal ring with real buck antlers mounted upon it. Her hair was solid in dark gray, not a hair of white, and her eyes were golden like honey. Around the woman and amongst the bears were several older men in dirty gray robes, all with great long white beards and ornamental silver jewelry looking solemnly at Arthen.
The guard pushed Arthen toward the center of the room and kicked the back of his legs to kneel in front of the queen of the Stahlgs. Not knowing where to look, Arthen wondered if it was still worth being courteous to the queen being her prisoner and having survived a death arena by forced participation. But nevertheless, Arthen lowered his head and shoulders in a bow, not looking at the queen.
“Uns crot?” the queen said to him in a gravelly voice. Arthen looked up to her.
“Uh–” Arthen uttered, giving a bewildered look.
“Uns crot?” the queen reiterated slower and louder.
Hearing it a second time stirred up Arthen’s second mind in Stahlg. His expression slowly went from confused to vacant. He almost gave a sign of affirmation to understanding the queen, but his instincts held him back. Instead, he simply didn’t reply. His mind raced through possible outcomes of this situation but led him to conclude that acting ignorant was the safest choice. He knew this would give him an advantage. So Arthen, ready to play this through, gave the queen a smile trying to make it look as if he was nervous even if that was still close to the truth.
The queen nodded subtly.
Then the queen started to speak very fast in her native tongue to her apparent council of old men in dirty gray robes, ignoring Arthen kneeling in front of him. It seemed to be a very zealous speech because the inflection and vibrose in the queen’s voice was energized and boisterous. Silver chains and ornaments clinked every so often as the old councilmen nodded their approvals to the queen’s rattling speech.
Still, Arthen’s Stahlg was somewhat rusty and he was not catching every word she said, but he was able to fill in the gaps through context. He caught words and phrases like, “stone and earth,” “food and crop,” and “damnation,” words he heard very often from the Farmer.
And through it all Arthen stayed quiet and listened in secret, keeping a confused look on his face. The longer the queen talked, the more Arthen was able to string phrases and put together full sentences translated into his mind as his fluency returned.
The queen rose from her throne and started to pace around the room and Arthen heard the clunking of the queen’s right foot upon the stone floor. He saw that her leg was a wooden peg made out of the same kind of oak as her throne. As Arthen gave another glance over the room again, he noticed more people with similar amputated limbs, metal arms and legs hidden under sleeves and robes.
“Our kin suffer from this plague,” Arthen now understood from the queen. “It eats our flesh and breaks our bones. Our blood grows thinner and more brittle with every new son and daughter. But our hope has been found. In him!”
The queen made toward Arthen, grabbed his right arm and held it in the air showing his unbandaged palm. There was a cheer from the council and guards and unsettled bellows came from the bears.
“The Gauntlet shall have a new wielder to save us and bring us out of this darkness!”
Another uproarious cheer came from the crowd.
Then from the edge of the room came two strongmen carrying a great anvil, black with ragged edges as if made in the bowels of the earth at the dawn of time. They set it down in the center of the room in front of the queen’s throne and it gave a clean ring when it hit the stone floor. A third guard from the edge of the room took Arthen’s right arm from the queen’s grasp and pinned it down on top of the anvil.
“Hey! What–what’s going–”
The first two guards then tied down Arthen’s wrist and elbow with rope to the anvil, securing his arm with a tight knot on the underside. His skin became pink, matching the color of the scars that wrapped around his flesh. He could hear the throbbing blood from his arm pounding into his ears–a beating drum faster than his own heart if it was even possible at that moment.
Arthen whipped his head back and forth again to search the room for anyone who saw his distress. But none seemed concerned. All the old men started to stand up and come closer to the center of the room, their eyes full of excitement, awaiting what was to come.
“Thank you to Groff and Tond for your sacrifice in the arena,” the queen said aloud over Arthen’s heavy panting.
“Praise to Groff and Tond,” everyone chanted, from councilmen to guards now heads down in prayer.
“Thank you to Giving Jorg for bringing our people the Mighty Oak to our land. Our most sacred gift from the hell-lands.”
“Praise to Giving Jorg.”
“And thank you to Abnu for your most sacred gift: your own hand to save us and cast all wickedness from the children you protect and shelter.”
“Praise to Abnu, the mightiest of the Four.”
“The Hand of God!” the queen proclaimed.
“The Hand of God!” the crowd shouted back.
The queen then looked down to Arthen and circled around him. Then she said, “His arm has become mangled. He has slain a Great Beast from the hell-lands. He is the one! Cleanse his burden and succeed it with the holy Hand of God!”
“The Hand of God!” the crowd cried again.
“No!” Arthen pleaded. “I don’t–You don’t! You don’t know what you’re doing!”
They didn’t. Arthen was not only afraid of losing his arm, but what could happen if they cut his right arm. Even though he had contemplated doing it himself just days ago, Arthen still felt insane for his genuine fear that if his arm were chopped, something would come out of it that wasn’t blood.