The soup landed cleanly into the Graharz’s cup. “There is turnip in that,” said Marduk quietly.
The Graharz gave a rueful nod. “Thank you, I suppose.”
“Better turnip then rat,” noted Marduke.
“You sure about that?” asked Aethelstan. “There’s meat on rats.”
Even Marduk’s deformed face couldn’t hide its amusement. “You really don’t know our rats very well, do you?” he said quietly.
Aethelstan sighed and offered his bowl. “Give me my turnip.” As Marduk ladled out the stew, he eyed the brownish goo suspiciously. “What’s in it besides turnips?” he asked.
Marduk considered things for a moment. “Nothing that will kill you,” he said at last.
“That’s a hideously broad range of things,” said Aethelstan.
“And that’s an apt description of the stew you’ve just produced,” said Marduk. “But your other choice is starving.” He looked the Milesian in the eye. “Pick the stew. It is the better option.”
Aethelstan sighed and began to eat. “Oy, Creeper!” cried the cross-eyed Goblin guard, passing by. “Move along, scum! You’ve a job to do.”
The Milesians watched the subtle change come over the hunchback’s features, as he turned to face the guard. “Of course, sir, of course. I will do it, sir, I will.” Marduk began to hobble along. “On it, sir, on it…”
The Goblin gave a dull, satisfied nod and then moved on. Marduk stopped, having move a miniscule distance during all this.
“How can you let them treat you like that?” asked the Graharz quietly.
“Easily,” said Marduk. “I’m a slave, and have been one all my life. A man learns to do what he must to live, when the lash is his teacher.” He gave a shrug with his deformed shoulders. “I am not a proud man. I cannot afford to be. I take care of the small scrap that is mine, and occasionally help others do the same.” He chuckled quietly. “Never let it be said that Marduk of Cthonique doesn’t know his destiny.”
“And what if you could be free?” asked the Graharz.
Marduk gestured to his clubfoot. “For how long? No, no, my life may be a poor thing, but I’ve no wish to shorten it too much. At least one other would mourn its passing beside myself. That’s enough to make it too precious to lose for an hour.”
The Graharz shook his head. “I think you underestimate the value of freedom,” he said.
“That is likely so,” answered Marduk. “Having never known it, I have nothing to compare it to.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” said the Graharz, smiling. “I think you can sense it, just a wildflower growing in a shadowed wood can sense the sun. And long for it.”
“Then, sir, you are the first man to compare me to a flower, a bit of flattery that I shall treasure for my remaining days,” said Marduk with a crude bow. “Now--I’ve tarried long enough. One bit of sharp words they forget. Two, and they start noting things.”
“What if…?” began the Graharz.
“Speak no more,” said Marduk quickly. “The mouth cannot betray what the ears do not hear.” He began to hobble away, then paused. “A word of warning,” he said. “Your… friend. Striker. He came here two years ago. Since he has come… slaves have arrived, and they have gone to the place from which they go no more. But Striker--Striker remains. Even as others who speak of freedom and ill will towards the masters go.” He turned, and hobbled off.
Aethelstan watched him go, then turned towards his brother. “Well, what do you think?”
“He’s told me nothing that you and my heart have not,” answered the Graharz, smiling. “But unlike Marduk of Cthonique, I value my freedom more than my life. Even if they kill me here, they will not say the Graharz died toiling in these mines. I will make sure of that.”
“They probably wouldn’t say it if you did,” noted Aethelstan. “I rather doubt they care.”
“I’ll do what I can to change that,” said the Graharz, with a sad smile.