Hector the gladiator finds a friend.
|I waited in the shadows until the guards bustled away, dark heads still swinging in their search. They had no reason to be looking for me, but they would undoubtedly have questions about what I carried: bandages, ginseng, valerian root, and fresh, juicy aloe. I darted into the basement room of a chemist’s shop. Mostly, I had stolen from the shop’s storeroom—Cassandra would let me pay her back later—but I had needed fresh aloe. I had legitimately purchased that in the market a few hours before.
I just hoped he was still here.
Something massive moved in the dimness, then opened piercing green eyes that glittered through shaggy black hair. Recognizing me, he rolled to present his scarred and muscled back to the room. The bear of a man had turned up last night in the alley outside Cassandra’s, dripping blood and shaking with fatigue. His wrists wept with infection, and a dense scar around his neck spoke of a gladiator’s iron collar. Scars of the arena gleamed from his dark skin, pale and bare of the coarse hair that otherwise covered him. He hadn’t needed to speak for me to recognize him: Hector. Duke Von Rutherford’s favorite fighter.
When I crouched to touch him, Hector flinched away but didn’t growl and snarl like he had last night. I drew back the heavy fur gauntlets that covered his arms and bathed the wounds with water and aloe. I stuck valerian root and ginseng in my mouth and chewed them to a pulp before spreading it over the weeping sores. I bound a gauze wrap loosely around his wrist to hold the concoction in place. Hector looked up at me, emerald eyes hooded against pain and exhaustion. He lifted one hand as if he held a cup and tilted it toward his mouth. I nodded and reached for the ceramic mug of water I had brought with me. As I handed it to him, Hector reached for it with one hand and used the other to touch his bottom lip, gesturing out and away from his chin.
I blinked. I knew that sign. I watched his eyes until he looked at me, then brought one hand to my mouth, index finger out and held in line with my lips and looped it away from my mouth, raising my eyebrows in question. His face flushed, and he looked away immediately.
I hadn’t seen that coming: the Duke’s pet gladiator was deaf. It might explain the scars that crisscrossed his back, but not how he had survived the wounds that made them. A fighter without the ability to hear would be felled swiftly in battle. Hector was renowned for his skill. I sighed and tapped Hector lightly on the shoulder. He shivered without looking at me. I poked him again, and he reluctantly turned his head to meet my eyes. I smiled at him, and his cheeks darkened. I made fists of my hands, crossed them at my breast, and swept them down and away from each other. I waited for the understanding in his eyes. He knew these signs. He recognized the safety I offered. Slowly, he lifted his left hand and drew it away from his chin in the same thankful gesture. He didn’t smile, but there was relief in his eyes.
I raised my hands, palms toward my cheeks, and smiled as I mimed wiping in a quick circle, then pointed to him, then myself, and raised my eyebrows. His face flamed a dark maroon, and he reached for the cloth and bucket that sat beside me. I slid them over to him as he formed both hands into fists and lowered them firmly toward the ground, then tapped his chest. I tried not to laugh at the sarcastic flourish of his following “thanks.” Of course, he could do it himself.
When he had bathed the grime from his face, he looked up at me again, still wary. I repeated the sign for safety, emphatic, and calm. I may never know what had brought him here or how he had survived to escape the arena, but it didn’t matter. I was good with secrets. Mutes often are.
Word Count: 697