Disclaimer: While these characters belong to another and I use them here only to tell this brief but sad tale. The story is mine more than I realized. Consider it a warning or perhaps a request. Please be careful in all you say to those who might seem less than human in this world. Even the dull and ignorant have their stories. There are those who believe those little amenities we use in our day to day speech when what we say does not become what we do there are those who are crushed beneath our failures. Please be careful what you say. Please be careful what you promise.
Xena rode slowly into the small village. Gabrielle followed a few steps behind, walking next to the litter that they had attached to Argo's saddle. A still form lay on that bit of birch branch and pine nettle wrapped in one of the few blankets the pair had in their possession. They stopped in the center of the town and exchanged concerned glances, as not one person seemed to notice their arrival.
"Excuse me " Gabrielle began as a well-dressed merchant walked toward her. The girl's attempt was futile as the man passed with less than a nod in her direction. She looked to the warrior and shrugged her shoulders. Xena rolled her eyes. "Pardon " Gabrielle tried again as a woman dragging two scruffy looking young boys passed going in the opposite direction. The portly matron nearly knocked the girl over as she barged past. The young bard let out a long sigh and shook her head.
The warrior slid from her saddle, landing soundlessly on the gravel below. She reached casually for the young man that walked toward them, snatching either side of his collar and pulling him close to her face. She smiled sweetly and kept a congenial tone in her voice. "Hello there," she began as the man froze in her grasp, "perhaps you can help my friend and I?" She loosened her grip and allowed the young man's feet to touch the ground. She brushed off his coat gently and continued to smile. He shook his head rapidly before she was able to continue. Once again the warrior reached for the man bringing him back to her eye level. Her smile turned to a snarl as she barely whispered again. "I did ask nicely. I only do that once." She warned him. He stared into her eyes for a moment then blinked a few times, but remained silent. She dropped him in disgust and landed a well-placed boot on his backside as he scrambled away.
Gabrielle had watched silently from the opposite side of the horse. She walked to the warrior's side and rested on her staff. "What's the matter with this place? Could the entire town be mute? A curse maybe?" She rambled to herself more than to her companion, whom she knew would not provide an answer.
Both women turned in a full circle taking in the entire town-square. It really didn't appear any different than any other town square. A market, a tavern, a stable, an inn, a temple all the usual landmarks. A well and a fountain, children running and squealing in play, merchants hawking their wares, woman chattering, men grumbling, dinars exchanging hands, all the makings of a run of the mill village in an average part of the country on a routine summer day. Everyone involved in their own lives while spinning in circles around every other life.
A small woman with a cane hobbled toward them slowly. She was covered from head to foot with pale blue veils. Only her dark clouded eyes peeked through her covering. She stopped at the foot of the litter as if she were trying to make some sort of sense of what lay upon it.
Gabrielle approached cautiously as Xena held the horse's reins. "Do you know her?" She asked quietly. For a moment she expected the woman would just walk away, but she detected the slightest movement as the crone shook her head from side to side. "Is she from around here?" Gabrielle hoped she had found a source of information. "My friend and I found her just outside of town." The woman nodded slowly then began to dodder away. Gabrielle let out a small sigh and started to turn back toward Xena when the woman arched a crooked finger motioning for her to follow. She looked once over her shoulder at the tall warrior who narrowed her eyes but nodded in agreement. The girl stepped carefully around the litter and followed the woman. Xena eased Argo in a half turn and did the same.
At the end of a dusty street the woman turned into a dark doorway. Gabrielle hesitated, peering into the gloom. Xena dropped the horse's reins and stepped around her companion to duck through the portal first. She blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She sensed Gabrielle's presence behind her. The old woman lit a lamp and brought it to a rough wooden table. She motioned for her guests to be seated. They complied. In the privacy of her home the woman eased the hood from her head revealing her aged countenance. She pushed three earthen mugs across the table and brought a pitcher from the cooler stone bowels of the small hovel. The woman set the container in front of Gabrielle in a silent message for her to pour, then she sat opposite the travelers and folded her wizened hands on the table in front of her.
"I don't know her name," she began in a crackly voice, "but I have seen her in the market on occasion."
"Then you do know her!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Hush!" The woman commanded as if insulted by the accusation. Gabrielle nodded quickly and brought the mug to her lips.
"She was an odd one. Kept to herself, quiet, a bit withdrawn."
"Hmph, like that would be any different than everyone else " Gabrielle mumbled under her breath. Xena delivered a quick elbow to the girl's ribs silencing her. The woman glared at the girl again. "Sorry," Gabrielle whispered. The woman nodded and began again.
"Where was I? Oh yes," the woman mused, "she kept to herself, rarely spoke to anyone at all. I heard she lost her family a while back and came here after. Oh the folks in town were polite, said all the right things. Everyone offered their condolences and made it clear they would be more than happy to help her in anyway they could. Why the widow Murcie even told her she could come by any time just to talk. We knew how she must have been hurting and how alone she felt so we told her she could lean on us whenever things got to be too much for her. We went out of our way to make that girl feel welcome, but she chose to stay out there at the edge of the village away from us all." She paused and took a long drink. "Oh now I did see her over at the inn one afternoon, she was weeping a bit. I do believe I saw her approach Agnes, the innkeeper, but it was so very busy that day and I'm darn sure Agnes had no time for that girl's blithering. And now that I think of it she was sulking around the stable one afternoon as well, needed someone to help her with some such something or other, but Micah had been working all day and night to repair the mayor's wagon and he needed his rest. In fact just last week she was in the market place, looked horrible that day as I recall. All pale with dark circles under her eyes. That girl just never wore a smile, always as miserable as a harpy in heat." She shook her head and tsked a few times.
"Who could blame her?" Gabrielle whispered out of the corner of her mouth as she leaned toward her taller friend. Xena raised her eyebrows and cast a sidelong glance at the girl.
"You could wait outside, missy," the woman admonished for the third time and waited a few moments allowing the girl to squirm under her gaze. Gabrielle shook her head. "Then let me finish and then you can both go on your way." She paused again as if remembering what it was she was telling them. "In the market place she approached widow Murcie who had her arms full of packages for the cooking she was about to do for the festival this week. I saw the girl grasp Murcie's arm and then Murcie nodded toward the healer's hut. I think I saw her making her way toward it but then later she was on her way out of town again. Haven't seen her since. Figures she'd end up like that." She nodded toward the door where Argo stood waiting patiently.
Xena stood slowly. She motioned for Gabrielle to do the same. "Did she have a name?" She asked without emotion.
"I'm sure she did," the woman replied snidely, "everyone does, but it doesn't matter much now does it?"
The warrior shook her head and snatched her companion's hand leading her out of the door before she could comment again.
Once outside Gabrielle protested, "Xena! She told us nothing!"
"She told us enough, Gabrielle." Xena replied as she walked the horse and its cargo out of the alley. "This was a young woman who reached out for help from the people who offered it, only to find they were certainly not worth their words. "
"So they lied?" the girl crinkled her brow, trying to understand how something so horrible could happen.
"Not on purpose, Gabrielle, they just said something to make her feel better. What they said they said out of amenities, because they never really thought they'd have to follow through on what they said. But words without deeds are hollow. I suppose she could have turned into someone like Callisto or or like me instead she just withered away like a fire without fuel." The warrior tried to keep the disgust out of her tone, for the girl's sake.
Gabrielle stopped and watched as the litter passed her. A tear ran over her cheek. How could a whole town just not notice someone dying right in front of them? How could that woman see her misery with such disgust but never ever ask or see why she felt that way? How could they just
"Gabrielle " Xena's voice seemed far away calling her from her thoughts. The warrior had moved close and put an arm around the girl's shoulders. "Come on, we'll find a place for her to rest."
They moved through the square unnoticed, dragging the remains of an unnamed pitiful lost soul behind them. They passed the edge of the village and headed for the hills beyond without looking back.
In those hills beyond the edge of that apathetic village warrior and bard buried the body of the young woman they had found that morning. They placed stones on top of the grave to protect it from the scavenging animals that might come this way. On one large flat stone Gabrielle etched a grim epitaph
Seek not name nor deed here in
For Empty Promises filled this grave
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