Strong hands effortlessly halted my movement and held me by my arms so I didn’t crumble to the ground.
The time stopped.
Even though it was dark, I could make out the lines of his face. I was confronted with an interrogating pair of cold black eyes that blazed in the darkness. He wore a black uniform that was somehow different and more elegant than any I had ever seen before.
The guard’s rifle leaned against the back of my head, and I held my breath, staring at the tall man hovering above me. Slowly, my vision blurred, and he appeared to be melting into blackness. I thought he would be the last sight I would ever see and, in the grip of fear, I kept looking at him pleadingly; like a victim facing her executioner.
Seconds went by and he observed my reaction with strange interest, but didn’t make a move to hand me over to the soldier. Instead, he made a lazy movement with his head, and to my surprise, the rifle instantly slid down my back. Without another word, as though he was awe-struck by the man in front of me, the guard retreated. Just like that.
The man focused his piercing, dark and unfathomable gaze on me, and I sensed I found myself in a much greater danger than the one I had faced in that room. Disbelieving, I started thinking I was caught in a dream, and urged myself to wake up. I closed my eyes and opened them again, expecting everything around me would dissolve into nothingness. But the ground beneath my feet remained hard and solid, and the stranger with those black demon eyes still stood before me like the devil incarnate.
After ogling me for a few moments, he exhaled and asked, “Going somewhere?”
The voice was deep, and it held an undertone of inescapable demand. I parted my lips, contemplating how I would defend myself when I heard the echoes of the loud steps, increasing the already unbearable tension. Dismayed, I broke the gaze with the stranger and glanced behind my shoulder.
The soldier I had kicked marched toward us—the guard must have told him what had happened. When he spotted me, he stopped as if he was completely taken aback by the scene. It took him a moment to regain his composure that emanated nothing but cruel intent. He murmured something incomprehensible, then started approaching us again.
In sheer panic, I turned toward the man in the opulent black uniform and finally said, “I-I was attacked.”
An ebony eyebrow arched in lazy interrogation. “Attacked?”
Before I got a chance to explain, the soldier managed to reach us and cut me off.
“Sir, she tried to escape! If I may—”
“You may not,” the tall man snapped and once again, I was astonished because the soldier seemed to have listened. “This...prisoner claims she was running from an attack. Would you care to explain, private?”
The way he addressed the soldier emanated entitlement and arrogance. He acted as though he was putting him in his place. Who was this man?
“She refused to take off her clothes. The bitch thinks she’s better than everyone else. But there is no need to worry, Sir. She will serve as an excellent example of the way we treat disobedience.” I flinched at the words and could take no more. “After I’m finished with her—”
“I was only defending myself!” I cried out in frustration.
The man’s attention shifted to me instantly, and I realized speaking had been a terrible mistake. Every cell of my body slowly filled with an eerie awareness, and I was terrified of him like I had never been terrified of anyone else. He breathed power and danger.
“And how exactly were you defending yourself?” His eyes narrowed. “By disobeying an order? By attempting to escape?” he asked with threatening softness that held an undertone of accusation. After I remained silent, he spoke in a cold and detached manner, as though he was giving out a sentence. “I am sure you understand the extent of your offense.”
Pure detest and insolent boredom seethed in his dark eyes. Something snapped inside me, and I became aware I was a dead woman walking. I had nothing to lose, so I decided to speak up.
“I am not the one who caused offense. As a matter of fact—”
“Are you stupid? Do you not know who you are talking to? You filthy Sariyan...” the soldier behind me yelled, and raised his heavy arm with an intention to hit me. I flinched, awaiting the blow...only it never came. I watched in astonishment as the tall man caught the arm set out to strike me. His eyes never left mine, not even for a fracture of a second.
“Let her speak,” he murmured in that rich, refined voice, still not looking away. “You were saying? As a matter of fact...?”
Suddenly, his dark eyes were blazing, taunting and encouraging me to dig myself even deeper into the hole of oblivion. The way he looked at me sent chills down my spine, and I was sure of one thing—people never talked back to this man.
My eyes darted toward the gun on his waist, and all the courage drained out of me. But I refused to back down and give him the satisfaction of seeing me defeated. The only life I had to risk was my own.
“As a matter of f-fact...I am the one who is being offended and...degraded.”
I hated how my voice quivered and the look in his eyes told me he knew it. A mocking smile curled his lips and he leaned closer, wrapping his long smooth fingers around my sensitive skin as he tilted my chin. My heartbeat pulsated against the palm of his hand.
“If you think this is degradation, you haven’t seen anything yet, little Sariyan.” His voice, although eerily calm, screamed with menace. He gazed into my eyes for what seemed like eternity, intensifying the pressure of his hold on me. In an abrupt movement, he bent his head over mine, invading my space in an unapologetic manner. Aware of this man’s supernatural strength, I held my breath, convinced I was spending my last seconds on Earth. Taking their time, those calculating eyes calmly roamed the shadowed contours of my face. The knowledge that only one word from his lips was enough to end my pitiful existence made me tremble in dismay.
Long seconds filled with tension stretched between us. Then, without the slightest warning or change of expression, his tight grip on me loosened and all the tension poured itself into a barely audible, bone-chilling whisper.
“A person in your circumstances can’t afford to have pride. I suggest you to get rid of that redundant trait if you have any intention to survive.”
He pushed me away abruptly, as though he couldn’t handle another second of my presence. Then, he spoke to the soldier. “Let her keep her clothes and put her in the first group together with the rest of the women.” He already turned to leave, then stopped and added, “I want no punishment to be given out at the moment—”
“But, Sir...” The man was already on his way out when the soldier called him.
“Do I need to repeat myself?” He turned around and spoke without looking at me. His voice rang with annoyance. “I said no punishment...” Slowly, he brought his chilling stare straight to my eyes. “Unless, of course, she causes more trouble or decides to defy you with that insolent bravado. Then I will have the pleasure of shooting her myself.”
His eyes held mine for several moments longer, and then he disappeared from our line of sight without giving me another glance. The echoing sounds of his boots and the residue of his overpowering sharp scent still lingered around me even after he had left.
I remained alone with that soldier whose demeanor screamed he was filled with rage. I was prepared for his retaliation. But instead of punishing me, he grabbed my arm and led me out of the building without adding another word.
Confused, I wondered why he hadn’t killed me in the secluded darkness of that hallway. After all, I didn’t harbor any hope the stranger’s words held the power to stop that soldier from hurting me. I was aware there was no point in defying him, but I didn’t understand why he hadn’t hurt me regardless of my decision. As he dragged me toward a small, secluded building, it finally dawned on me that might be the place where he preferred to have his vengeance.
“Get in!” he barked and shoved me in another dark hallway that was a lot narrower and smaller than the last one.
It was freezing cold. Already from the entrance, the sharp scent of dampness invaded my nostrils. Triggered by my hesitation, the soldier’s meaty hand closed around my upper arm, and I was forced to follow his lead. As we passed by the numerous doors, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of a strange, eerie presence. It felt as though those cold moldy walls were about to swallow me alive and make me face an eternity in their scary impenetrable confinement.
Every step that led me further into the darkness was made with immense effort, as though there were invisible concrete shackles around my ankles. All my instincts were alerted, and the silence itself seemed to have whispered about the menace that was waiting for me right around the corner. I couldn’t help but think of Mama’s lessons, and I remembered she had once talked about Dante Alighieri—the man who had visited hell and came back to tell us about it. Abandon all hope, you who enter here...I felt exactly the same about that place.
Suddenly, all thoughts were disrupted when we stopped in front of a huge white metal door. The pounding of my heart became unbearable. I closed my eyes in the struggle to dampen my fears as he opened the door, and ordered me to walk inside.
Learning my lesson when he made me enter the building, I didn’t wait for him to repeat the command. Resigned, I stepped inside, like a lamb walking to the slaughter. There was a commotion everywhere around me as I found myself in some sort of a huge space, but I didn’t pay it any attention. All I could focus on was the soldier that still stood behind me, breathing in deep anger. I expected him to follow after me, and finally extract his violent retribution. But, for whatever reason, he stayed exactly where he was, unmoving as a statue.
“Don’t think for a moment that I’ll forget what you’ve done. There will come a time when I’ll catch you alone and then, the devil himself will not save you from my wrath,” he threatened in a low tone, then raised his voice. ”This isn’t over. Not by a long shot!”
The door slammed shut with a loud bang, and my eyes opened in the culmination of the dreadful shock. I was confronted with an unexpected sight. In semi darkness, there were dozens of girls, all dressed in white outfits like the ones I had seen on the prisoners outside. They lay on mattresses scattered all around the ground of what probably used to be a sports gym.
The last of the clamor had died out, and every single pair of eyes in that room focused their attention solely on me. I watched as their pupils slowly widened in a sort of wonder. It took me a moment to realize why they stared at me as though I was an apparition. Unlike them, I still had my own clothes on. A pair of washed out jeans and an old black sweater made me stand out in the crowd of sheer whiteness, and suddenly I resented the fact I was different.
As I moved along with reluctance, trying to find an unoccupied corner where I could have a moment of peace, nobody spoke a word to me. They didn’t acknowledge me, but I felt their eyes on my back, still vigilantly following my every movement. I was frustrated by the fact that wherever I glanced, there didn’t seem to be a single free spot in that crowded space. I thought I had heard someone call my name, but when I looked around, everything was quiet. I convinced myself I had invented the sound out of complete exhaustion. Then, it happened again—this time louder and more determined.
“Elena!” The voice was clear, and I recognized it in an instant. “Elena! Over here!”
My heart pounded in a fast, excited rhythm. I turned toward the direction the voice was coming from.
“Mina?!” I cried out with inexplicable relief when I finally spotted her on the other side of the gym.
I hurried toward her with haste, fearing she was just a hallucination that might disappear by the time I reached her. I didn’t think I would bear it.
“Mina...” I whispered her name, relieved it was really her, and she was alive. “Mina, thank God!”
We stared at each other with the same expression, as though we couldn’t believe we had managed to reunite in the midst of chaos.
“I was looking for you everywhere,” she said quietly, tears of joy glimmering in her eyes as she confessed, “I was worried sick.”
She gave me the tightest hug, and it took us a few moments to get a hold of ourselves. Then, she took a long hard look at me, and her eyes widened.
“Elena...your clothes...” I watched as realization built in her narrowed eyes. “You’re that girl!” she exclaimed in a disbelieving whisper.
“What girl?” I asked, truly confused.
“That girl...the girl who fought the soldiers.” Her words left me breathless. “Everyone though...they said...they said they would kill you.” She shook her head, watching me with complete bewilderment. “Elena...how...?”
I winced at her unfinished question because I knew what she wanted to ask. It was the baffling reality I had yet to grasp myself. How was it possible I was still alive after what I had done?
A haunting image of that dark commanding glare flashed before my eyes, and I was hit with a frightening realization. The man who had spared me the humiliation had to have been an important figure—so powerful and with such authority that even the vicious soldier hadn’t dared to disregard his commands. The more I replayed the memory of our encounter, the more I became convinced there was something about him that made him different, and somehow even more dangerous than the rest. It made it all the more confusing. Why didn’t he demand punishment?
I peered up at my friend, offering a vague reply. “I don’t know how, Mina,” I lied, refusing to tell her about the incident with that man. “I don’t understand it myself.” That part, at least, was true.
For a moment, she seemed lost in thought, but then smiled.
“It doesn’t matter.” She hugged me again, and whispered in my ear, “Elena, I’m so happy you’re alive.”
After the initial joy wore off, Mina lifted her head. “Where is Aunt Rebecca?” she asked with hesitant fear.
Avoiding her expectant stare, I shook my head in slow motion, choking back the tears. When Mina burst out crying, I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I broke down as well. For a long time, we cried in each other’s arms, mourning the loss of the woman who had been a mother to both of us.
Long past weeping, we lay peacefully in semi-darkness when Mina started talking.
“They beat him.” Her voice was distant, devoid of emotion. “They kept accusing him of treason and collaboration with The Resistance. He told them...he told them he had nothing to do with the rebels...but they didn’t believe him. They beat him some more and...” She swallowed. “And they made me watch.”
A heavy lump constricted my throat because I knew how the story would end. After all, her father had been murdered right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t find the words to convey how much I felt for her, so I squeezed her hand, offering my silent comfort.
Tears shimmered in her bleak eyes. “I begged them to leave him alone, but they were inexorable.” She exhaled a shuddering breath and continued. “He couldn’t even walk when they ordered him to leave the house so the beasts carried him outside. There was blood and bruises all over his face and he turned to me and said...” A single tear rolled down her cheek, and her lips twisted in a weak smile. “He smiled and said; Daddy loves you, Mina. I wanted to run after him, but they held me back and laughed at my useless struggle to set myself free. It was the last time I saw him.”
I gasped at the thought that Mina probably didn’t know what had happened to Jonathan. The very idea she might have harbored any hope he was alive, and I would have to be the one to tell her, left me deeply disturbed.
Once again, I squeezed her hand and demanded her attention.
“Mina...” I started, but couldn’t finish. “Jonathan—”
She pressed her finger against my lips. “I know, Elena,” she whispered, and the reassurance stripped me of the heavy burden. “The neighbors in the truck...they t-told me... I know what the soldiers did to my father.”
She choked on the last words, and just when I was about to comfort her, the door swung open with a heavy sound.
More than a dozen of Nyrman soldiers strode inside the gym. Both Mina and I froze when they pointed in our direction, blinding us with their flashlights. Like wild beasts, they screamed at the entire group to stand up. Slowly, every single girl got up on her feet while the soldiers walked around, inspecting them like they were a piece of merchandise.
Drowning in fear and tension, I didn’t understand what was happening until they started picking out girls and taking them outside, all the while reassuring them nothing bad would happen. Some of them resisted, but it cost them little to no effort to silence their protests.
When a soldier approached us, I still held Mina’s hand as a sign of sisterly support. No matter what awaited us, we would face it together. But the soldier in front of us had no regard for our wishes. His eyes roamed the length of my body and he snickered, amused by my unexpected attire. Then, he diverted his gaze to Mina. Before I could react, he violently snatched her from my grip and led her outside. I didn’t even get a chance to call after her. She was already gone.
It was over as quickly as it began. Only a few of the girls were left. Nobody was talking or making any sense of what had just happened. The unbearable silence was interrupted solely by the loud thumping of our hearts. Every single one of us wondered where those girls had been taken.
“Maybe they are being interrogated or allowed to take a bath,” one girl concluded quietly, as though she herself had difficulty believing in the truth of her words.
I remained quiet, rocking back and forth, and wondering what was about to happen to my friend. Suddenly, like the cruelest confirmation of my doubts, the muffled screams and the cries of the girls began spreading through the darkness. Their misery seemed to have gone on forever. I pressed my hands against my ears to block out the screams, but I heard them all the same. They engraved into my soul. They became a part of me. They tortured me, until once again, everything melted into deafening silence.
The door opened and, one by one, girls were being thrown inside like cattle. Soldiers didn’t spare them or showed them even a fracture of mercy. I searched for Mina in every face, and the sight of them made my heart ache. None of those girls resembled themselves. They were bruised, their hair was disheveled and they were bleeding.
Mina was the last one to be returned. She was shoved with such violence that made her stumble and fall. The soldier who had abused her laughed, and showered her with insults before closing the door.
I quickly hurried to her side, helping her on her feet and letting her lean on me while we walked back. It was apparent she was in deep shock. She didn’t say a word or pay any attention to her surroundings. I wasn’t sure she even acknowledged I was beside her. As I lowered her body onto the mattress with extreme caution, I noticed her clothes had been torn apart, and there was blood between her thighs.
I tried to talk to her and shake her into awareness...but nothing helped. It was as if she wasn’t the same person who had left. One girl nearby who had also been taken was sobbing, and Mina turned to look at her.
Moments passed by. Then, an almost inhuman cry tore out of Mina’s throat, and she began shaking and pulling at her hair. I swallowed my own tears as I tried to reach her and hug her to myself. I ran my hands down her back, rocking her in my arms without a word. There was nothing to be said. At last, Mina broke down and started sobbing on my shoulder.
The heartbreaking sounds of her suffering made my eyes water, but I refused to cry. It would only make it worse for her.
“They’ll pay,” I whispered to her instead as she wept in my arms. “They’ll pay for what they’ve done.”
I looked around the gym, and noticed one of the mattresses was empty. One girl didn’t come back. There was so much sadness, resentment and anger buried inside me. My soul was being split in half.
I didn’t sleep that night. Neither did Mina. Her short dreams were constantly interrupted by gasps for help and prayers for deliverance.
Powerless, I kept repeating they would pay for the misery they had caused. I said it again and again, wanting to assure both Mina and myself that no such crime could ever go unpunished.