Where She Walks, She Walks Alone
She watches from the crowd. Bright, blue eyes peer from within the dull brown and gray attire of a mob of miscreants. They jeer and shout curses. With fists raised to the heavens they call on their god for justice. A percussive chorus of hard soles on shattered brick resounds in her ears. Not so much justice, but violence. She’s seen this before. Many times. As it always will be, it’s Rosie alone. Rosie that cares.
The object of her grief kneels on a stage of rotting planks and rusty nails. His face is bruised, an eye beaten shut, his cheeks puffed and swollen. Blood drips from his mouth onto what was once a pristine, white collar, though now it belongs to a tattered article bereft dignity. It's her stare he finds in a canvass of angry faces. He pays no mind to the rage. Nor does he spare a moment for the guillotine that stands as a tower of fear beside him, its razor-sharp blade splattered with the rust-red of victims past. Rosie brings him the strength to keep silent, to keep his own eyes dry.
At the sound of the first step the crowd dulls to an eerie hush. A spur clicks and rings out as the owner ascends the rickety steps of the platform. Once, twice, the sound leaves the mob hushed, The figure takes her place behind the supplicant, her victim. She lays a gloved hand on his mop of sweat-matted hair, black leather cracking under the strain of her grip. Her visage is that of death itself. A wardrobe of black, her coat shines beneath the haze of dawn – its long tail wrapping about her legs, buttoned to a chin-high collar with long, tight sleeves and broad shoulders.
Thin lips curl into a wolfish grin. With such a sharp chin and thin cheeks there’s no warmth in that countenance. Predatory, she scans the assembled, waiting for their silence to grow weary. In her shadow another waits. A titanous man in bloody leathers. He assumes the reins of the execution, attention caught in anticipation of a single command.
When the woman speaks they devour her words with a ravenous hunger. Her tone catches the wind and soars overhead the weathered brick of haphazard constructions; buildings that line the single road of what serves as a town these days. From wooden balconies and porches and open shutters more eyes add to the audience, those curious enough to know, but too scared to approach. They too listen, unable to turn away.
“We are gathered here,” she begins. “To see that justice is done. For it is justice that keeps us, that keeps this community together. Are we not a people of laws? Of order? Are we not chosen by God to punish the wicked?”
The old man, his face a bed of wrinkles and sun-scorched flesh, that stands beside Rosie mutters his consent. A mother, babe held in her arms, nods along with every pause.
“And make no mistake, good people. This one is wicked. For out here in the desert that is the Garden of the Lord, resources are precious. Water is precious. Life is precious. You know this. I know this. He knows this.” With a quick jerk the woman grabs a fist full of hair and pulls, yanking her victims head up to the approving hollars of the mob. It's Rosie that keeps him from shaking. She never looks away, not once, and for that he is grateful. “And yet! Despite what we all know, despite the sacrilege that is to act so selfishlessly, this man steals these precious things. He steals from you!”
The anger rises. A dull surrus of malcontent takes the crowd in whispers of condemnation.
“To take more than your share. And to slay those that protect it.” The woman shakes her head, her tongue clicking against the roof of her mouth in a series of tsks. “This is not the will of God. And so it falls to me to see that justice is served. By the powers granted to me, by God himself, as your Arbiter, I hereby sentence this thief. This murderer, this heathen that calls himself a man, to an early grave.”
The command is given and the mob approves. They cheer. It is only Rosie that remains stoic. Though she clutches the frayed edges of her ochre dress, its exterior coated in dust and worn by time, though she digs the heel of her soft boots into the dirt beneath her feet, she does not break. She can not break now. Not when he needs her most.
“Stand.” The Arbiter speaks with the authority of her god. He does not will it, but nevertheless the supplicant stands. “Walk.” Again, he is hapless to disobey. Of what appears to be his own volition he approaches the guillotine. “Do you see? Do all of you see? His guilt is too great a burden. Lay.”
He does. Without complaint the supplicant lowers himself into the wooden bed and slips his head into the hole, where for the first time he can no longer see her. It is then he feels the fear. It threatens to overwhelm him, but it is too late. All that lays before him is the glint of light from the blade that is his fate.
“May God have mercy on your soul. Or not.” The Arbiter shrugs. She smiles, and this time the humor touches her eyes. Those narrow, lifeless eyes. With a wave she signals her shadow. Eager, and ready, The Titan unleashes the machine. It is over in moments.
Wild and drunk with violence the mob explodes in a cacophonous celebration. Those that watch from afar turn away. Shutters close. Children hold tight to their mothers’ aprons. Even the young man in front of Rosie looks away and grits his teeth. Caught by shame or joy, it is only Rosie that sheds a tear.
Without a spectacle it takes only minutes for the crowd to disperse. The Titan collects the corpse – why waste a feast? – and disappears, leaving behind the head. When the last observer departs Rosie stays behind. Until this moment she does not permit herself a glimpse at The Arbiter. She faces the woman with an impassive expression and it begins. The assault. All at once Rosie feels The Arbiter in her mind. Poking, prodding. They dance, one will against another. Neither moves, neither gives so much as an inch. A stiff breeze blows the frills of Rosie’s dress in its grasp and scatters locks of auburn hair in a wild foray of motion. The same wind buffets the woman upon the stage and breaks against her form. Immovable, The Arbiter explores for a weakness. She finds none.
“Tsk.” The scoff precedes the landing of boots on packed earth as The Arbiter hops from the platform. “My dear Rosie. Why do you resist me here in the gutter, when you could be wrapped in silks?” She approaches, the chime of her spurs punctuating her steps. When she stops she stands a full head above the target of her admiration. Too close, too familiar.
And Rosie shows no fear.
“You damn well know why.” Her voice is fire. A sultry alto that holds all the rage of a people too scared to speak. “Mind listin’ those crimes ‘gain? But try tellin’ the truth this time.”
“Ah.” The Arbiter rolls her eyes. A step brings her beside Rosie where she lays a gloved hand on the smaller woman’s exposed shoulder. The touch is cold. Always cold. “I warned you, sweet. Any that earn your favor will suffer until you embrace me.”
Rosie’s brow tightens. She rolls her shoulder and slaps the unwanted contact from her skin, her own calloused hands capable enough. The Arbiter smiles. She takes a step back and raises her arms and spreads out her open palms, penitent.
“They don’t know what you are, but I do. Touch me ‘gain, see how it goes.”
The Arbiter’s hands curl into fists. She draws them into her chest and her smile widens, displaying the sharp canines of that wolfish face.
“You’re right. They don’t know. And they never will. You may be able to resist, sweet rose, but how many of them must bleed from those thorns of yours? How many more will you lead to their deaths?”
The slap draws more than one gaze. Those nearby feel their hearts catch in their throats as Rosie’s fingers leave a red welt on The Arbiter’s cheek. Perhaps not so wise. In that moment of contact Rosie sees the truth. As if there, she watches as The Arbiter gives the order and the Titan wrangles the life from her own guards. Their necks snap like twigs. She hears the name of the supplicant as if she said it herself. Sins fill her mind; envy, wrath.
Back in her own thoughts Rosie shutters. Bile wells up in her throat. How soon she forgets what such evil does to her.
The Arbiter only smiles.
“Spread your truth, girl. Find someone that believes you and watch them die. Again. In time, you’ll see it my way. Until then?” Finished, the Arbiter blows her a kiss and turns on a heel, stalking off in a rattle of metal.
Once the blackened husk of her pursuer vanishes into the town proper Rosie allows herself a moment. Upright, deliberate, she paces to the side of the street and dips into the gap between concrete homes. There, she vomits. Her chest heaves as she straightens her back and leans against the warm exterior of the wall. From around the corner, beneath the shade of a cloth awning, the creak of an old rocking chair soothes her weary mind.
“Okay there, Rosie?”
A raspy, strained voice speaks from aside. Its source, an elder gentleman, fleece and overalls, chews on a length of straw, his neck craned to give his one good eye a better look.
“Mhm.” She manages and shakes the venom from her body. “I’m fine, Tom. You well? How’s Mary?
“Eh? Old girl’s still kickin’. Fer now. Couldn’t git’er to punch out if I wanted. Heh.”
“Always a pleasure, Tom.”
“Take care there, Rosie. Maybe see the Doc if yer sick.”
Sick. If only. With no solace to be had here, Rosie departs, her steps bringings her back to the road. She wanders, desperate to avoid the chatter of company, past the gaggles of gossiping peers and through the patched, weathered vehicles of ancient design, toward the gate that should be her salvation. A gate to nowhere. Though its doors remained open, no one bothered to leave – after all, only the blasted lands lay beyond, who would be foolish enough to squander the promise of water?
Instead, she climbs. The ladder leads up beyond the amalgamated wall of stacked junk steel that circles the town, high enough to rid herself of the muttered musings of those below. She ascends the watchtower, its nest unmanned. She thanks the heavens for such luck. There, she spins to glimpse her home, but only one feature draws her attention.
From the top of the stone church she stands. Four stories from the ground, soaring over the town as a beacon, Lady Justice makes her perch, mangled, where instead of a scale she holds a torch of lit flame, her blindfold lowered so that she might see better to judge those unworthy. Yet Rosie knows no better. This is the only idol of her life. While her soul tells her such things are wrong those around her declare these things have always been thus. And will always be.
The thought of it makes her want to wretch again. Maybe she’s had enough for one day. She turns away, watering eyes cast to the emptiness of the desert. In her dreams she stalks those distant mountain peaks, those rolling hills where there’s a chance the sun is kinder. In those wistful looks she spots him. The lone figure on foot. He moves slow, wounded, exhausted. It is the first time Rosie catches sight of The Stranger.