“Bloody hell!” Oakley gasped.
A sparse patch of thin trees lay near a mile from the slopes of Barsteen where they slowed down to take a breather as the sun set. When Booker signaled to stop, Talon collapsed to the ground, sweating and gasping from the first real physical activity he had had in a long while.
“We need to keep moving,” Booker panted. “They’ll be sending out boars for us soon enough.”
Arthen slumped against a tree, also gasping for air. His head injury was making running feel like falling down a mountain, and even in this moment of chase, he felt no rush of energy he felt while being chased by the black wolf.
Oakley dropped himself to sit on the ground. “Nice going back there, boy,” he said with a dark look at Arthen.
Then Booker came by and gave a hard kick in Oakley’s shoulder. “This all happened because of you, you horse’s ass!”
“Oh, yeah! Yup. Me, aye?” He got back up to his feet quickly to stare down at Booker. Even though Oakley was at least a head taller than him, Booker stood his ground boldly–hands on his waist in a stance of a disappointed father.
“If you didn’t know, the only reason we’re out here is for you,” Frayne said. “But you seemed to be doing just fine without letting any of us know.”
“Yeah, I was. They loved me. They were going to initiate me in sooner or later, once I killed that Great Bear. Ah! Damn–I could’ve killed a Great Bear! I had a chance. You know a bear like that has to be at least a hundred years old from The Forest, ya hear? And they got it all the way to the mountains! I had a shot.”
“That bear was a part of their religious ceremony. And we kind of disrupted it,” Frayne said.
“They were going to chop off your arm for their Stone Gauntlet or whatever it was because they believe if you killed that Great Bear and your right arm was hurt in the fight, you were their savior and the rightly holder of their Hand of God.”
Oakley shook his head as if shaking off water. “Piss on that. Definitely not my cup of ale if that was what they were after. I like my hand. But damn, a Great Bear!”
“You’re angry about not getting your kill, of all things?” Booker said.
“Yeah! I worked hard to get to that fight. Killed a lot of other ugly creatures to get up to the king of bears.”
“Look,” Booker said. He was speaking in his trademark strong and low tone. “Your last message to us was three months ago. We thought you were dead, brother. We came to see if you needed our help or to pull out the stitches on the worry of your death. You understand?”
And miraculously, the giant man sighed softly. “Aye, brother. After about a week of meandering the north of the valley I got captured, just as you. And just as you, I was put into the arena. But Booker–I did very well in the arena.”
Booker and he both smiled. “I could tell.”
“Great,” Frayne said dryly. “We need to get going.”
Oakley turned his head back to the direction Barsteen and took a deep breath. “So long, my loves,” and he gave a courteous bow to the mountain peaks.
“So, where are we going?” Talon finally said.
“Who is this kid?” Oakley said with his hand out, not looking at Talon.
“I’m called Talon and–”
“Don’t care,” Oakley interrupted. He strode over to Arthen and bent down to glare at him with skeptical eyes close to his face. “Though, I am curious about you, boy. What’d you do back there?”
“The arena? I don’t know. I–talked–to the bear.”
Oakley took a moment to continue staring at him in silence. “You talked to the king of bears? Did you tell him to run to his death right into the wall of the arena?” He chuckled.
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that.”
“Wait–that’s what you did?” Talon said. “You talked to the Great Bear? That’s it?”
“That is very curious,” Frayne said.
“They boy speaks Stahlg and bear, Oakley,” Booker said slyly. “Gleim is a very good translator of languages as you saw.”
But Oakley did not seem satisfied. “Alright, but what about the Stahlg queen? I’m assuming from this ritual and the anvil they thought you were their–for the Mother’s sake–messiah. Because you killed the Great Bear. But what I don’t understand is, how were you able to talk your way out of getting your hand cut off and get us all out of prison?”
“I hear something.” Frayne said sharply. “Boar-riders. Come now, we must move on.”