“Soup, soup, delicious soup!” said the hunchback, limping into view, a large pot held underneath one over-sized misshapen arm.
Aethelstan glanced at his brother. “Do you think the slop is going to be any more appetizing than the thing carrying it?” The Graharz remained silent, merely looking over the crowd of slaves huddled in the dark corners of the tunnel. Aethelstan gave a snort. “Ahh. So that’s how it’s going to be, eh? You look all gloomy, and pensive, while I babble on?”
“Isn’t that how it’s always been?” said the Graharz, quietly.
Aethelstan seemed about to comment on that, but then just began to laugh. “Well, I’ll say this, brother--we will keep each other amused through all this.”
“However long it lasts,” replied the Graharz.
A loud cough came from their right. The two Milesians turned to see a tall, pale Erl standing there, wearing the simple clothing and chains of a slave. “Hello, friends,” he said, raising one well-muscled arm.
Aethelstan and his brother stared at the Erl with suspicion. “We were unaware that we even knew you, much less that we were friends,” said the Graharz.
A smile spread on the Erl’s handsome face, as he sat down next to them. “I like to consider all who toil with me here friends, until they prove otherwise.” He looked at them levelly. “And friends can be very, very useful here. The Cthonique mines are a dangerous place. And not all the dangers are obvious.”
“And what do you get from helping us?” asked Aethelstan.
“The satisfaction of spitting in the eye of the masters who keep me here,” said the Erl. He shrugged. “A small enough thing, but here, every little victory is worth more than one might think…”
The Graharz and Aethelstan looked at each other, and then nodded. “Very well,” said the Graharz. “We will take up your offer…”
The Erl frowned. “Those of us born into slavery are not granted names,” he said softly. “We are simply… called things. But most call me ‘Striker’, for the crime that sent me here.” The Milesians stared at him, clearly puzzled. “I was a slave on a Magnate’s farm, but I struck my master after he struck me. That’s usually death, but… my master likes to mix profit with punishment. And so he sent me here.”
“You sound regretful,” noted Athelstan.
“This is still death,” said Striker. “It is simply slower. And more painful.”
The Graharz smiled despite himself. “Death for some, perhaps.”
Striker sighed. “Be careful when you say such things. The masters have ways to hear them here.” Aethelstan gestured across the way to the hunchback, busy ladling some soup into a bit of bread and serving it to some slaves. Striker shook his head. “Oh, Crookback’s harmless, with wits as misshapen as the rest of him. The greatest thing to fear is that if you said something before him he might say it before a guard not realizing he was doing you ill. And even then, he’d have to remember it.”
“Crookback?” asked Aethelstan.
“Kinder than what the masters call him,” said Striker. “They have quite a few names, all unpleasant.”