3.10 An Era of Freedom

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Excitement exploded around Kessa. Slaves told each other of monsters battling each other, and a giant prisoner who killed Red Ranks. All jumbled together, it made no sense.

"Alex would never hurt anyone." Lynn stared at Nethroko, as if unsure whether she was dreaming or not.

One did not insinuate that a guard was a liar, no matter how friendly he seemed. "Please, good Nethroko," Kessa said. "We beg to know what happened. Will you tell us?"

Nethroko puffed himself up, an uncomfortable feat in the tunnel. "It is quite a tale. Let me start with Hithiniesel. Have you heard of her?"

The name sounded nussian. "I have not had that honor," Kessa said.

"She was a prison guard. A hard worker." As Nethroko spoke, slaves settled down to listen. A few climbed onto other's shoulders for a better view. "And focused," Nethroko continued. "Strong. The sort of nussian who might live for a hundred blinks of Morja. Her mate was Lelnolaiso, and he was the same way."

Kessa struggled to conceal her impatience. Nussians tended to ramble.

"Lelnolaiso vanished about five wake periods ago," Nethroko said. "We suspect that Torth killed him."

"To make Hithiniesel angry," Weptolyso put in.

Kessa figured that was wrong. Torth didn't need to be sneaky.

"This is my news." Nethroko gave a threatening snort, then turned back to the crowd. "The Torth told Hithiniesel that the only way she would see her mate again was to kill the giant."

Lynn made a horrified sound.

"Hithiniesel doubted their words," Nethroko told her in a kind tone. "She was not a fool. But the Torth did something to her. They made her act like an animal. Maybe they tortured her. I don't know how they convinced her, but they did."

Lynn looked fully awake, eyes wide.

"There is an arena." Nethroko spread his arms, constrained by tunnel walls.

As Nethroko detailed the battle between Hithiniesel and the giant prisoner, Kessa imagined each blow, heard the bestial grunts and screams. It all seemed like something from a legend, not recent news told by an eyewitness. And a Torth audience? Nussians liked to exaggerate, but if this was true, it was solid proof that Torth enjoyed entertainment. The idea made her shudder.

"They fought until both were exhausted," Nethroko said. "Then the madness wore off. Hithiniesel huddled on the ground and grieved for her lost mate. The prisoner just stood there. Like this." He made a reluctant posture. "And he spoke words that sounded like comfort in his language." He snorted. "I don't need to explain how the Torth reacted. Hithiniesel was doomed the minute she entered that arena, but she went well. Seven Torth fired at her. Seven blaster gloves blew her apart! She was dead before she hit the ground."

Kessa hoped Nethroko would have the sense to stop talking. Alex had failed to murder the nussian victim, and he'd spoken aloud within earshot of a Torth audience. They would not allow such a defiant prisoner to live.

"What happened to Alex?" Margo asked in a small, scared voice.

"We chained him up, as usual," Nethroko said. "Eight of us led him out of the enclosure. When we were halfway through the aisle ..." Nethroko paused for effect. "He snapped. Like this." His sudden, violent reenactment scared a few slaves backwards. "It pulled me off my feet. Me. Understand? I fell flat on my face. And three other guards also fell."

"Ahga." One of the slaves looked disbelieving. "No one has that kind of strength."

"Are you calling me a liar?" Nethroko bent to face the challenger, who shrank back. "Yes, he got away from us, and although he was still chained up, he moved like a spirit. Fast!" Nethroko flexed the spikes on his arms, making serrated blades. "He stepped on a Red Rank before any of us could react, and snapped another's head off. Like that." He made a twisting motion. "It took all eight of us to restrain him. He was like Lissanyovo after he was forced to murder his sister."

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