His presence lingered everywhere around me even after he was gone. An inexplicable feeling of panic settled deep inside my being, and I couldn’t hide my fear from the prying eyes that stared at me from every direction. It seemed as though both prisoners and soldiers wondered what had just happened between the Commander and the girl in the forbidden clothes. The meaning of their curious stares was unmistakable. Every single one of them counted their blessing because they were not in my position. I couldn’t blame them. I was unprotected, singled out, and had managed to anger the very man who was in charge of Obsidian. In their eyes, I was probably as good as dead.
The soldiers urged us to hurry back to the heart of the camp. None of them appeared to be affected by the gruesome act of violence we had been forced to witness. But the image of the girl’s wounded back and her white clothes—ripped and covered in blood—wouldn’t leave my mind. I knew our crime had been the same. We had both defied their orders and attempted to escape. The thought of ending up like that poor innocent girl—punished and brutally beaten just so I could serve as an example for the others—filled me with despair.
I couldn’t stop myself from imagining how it would feel like to face her predicament. I envisioned the coldness and the cruelty of the Commander’s merciless glare as he ordered that menacing giant to whip my bared back. I imagined the burning sting of the whip against my frail skin, the searing pain, pouring blood, humiliation and agony. Then, I saw myself being dragged away like an animal, left in a cold dark corner to die alone without a living soul to soothe the unbearable suffering.
More than ever, I needed guidance and craved protection. I longed for my mother’s warmth and reassurance. She would know what to do. She would know how to comfort me and ease my fears. Tears filled my eyes, but the sudden memory of her soft voice forced me to push them back. She called my name and told me to stay strong. I knew it wasn’t real—it was only my mind playing tricks on me so I wouldn’t lose my sanity. But I didn’t care if it was make believe. If she were alive, she would have wanted me to keep hoping. She would have wanted me to survive. I knew that in my heart. After all, she had given her life to save mine.
We were forced into a big messy hall filled with long white tables, and they told us to sit down and remain quiet. Like the rest of the base, the space was stripped of light. It was monotonous, colorless and depressing. When Mina took a risk and came to sit next to me, I wondered if everything was truly as lifeless as it seemed to have been or if our minds became crippled and unable to find beauty in things. It had to have been the latter because no place could have been as ugly as Obsidian and be real.
Strong smell that reminded me of rotten food invaded our senses, and I couldn’t place its source until I glimpsed the two women pushing a cart filled with small bowls. The women were dressed in white. They kept their heads bowed, and didn’t speak or make eye contact as they placed the bowls of awful looking porridge in front of us. There was no doubt they were Sariyan prisoners.
The smell that evaporated from the steaming bowls was so intense I didn’t dare to wonder what the grey porridge was made of. Mina slowly turned her head toward me as though she wondered if they really expected us to eat that reeking swill. The soldiers around us observed with amusement as some of the girls started to eat. It was another way to humiliate us, to strip us of any sense of human dignity. Our last meals had been hours, even days ago, so we had no choice in the matter. It was either eat their food or die.
I took some of the porridge and held my breath as I brought the spoon to my mouth. Bile rose in my throat when the sour taste, mixed with strange spices, invaded my taste buds. But despite the strongest need to frown in disgust, I forced myself to swallow and keep an indifferent expression on my face. Mina gasped in a sort of wonder. I squeezed her hand, and offered one small nod of my head, warning her she should eat. She forced a bite of food down her throat, and whimpered so softly I was sure no one else had heard her.
One of the soldiers strolled to the girl who had yet to taste her food.
“What are you looking at?” he asked with startling harshness.
When she remained silent, he pushed the bowl closer to her and yelled, “Eat!”
At the sound of that angry voice, everyone started eating faster, desperate to please the madman. Trembling so hard she shook the table with it, the girl took hold of her spoon and lifted it to her mouth. Then, she hesitated.
Eat! Eat! I screamed on the inside, begging she would somehow hear me. But instead of listening to the voice of reason, she lowered her trembling hand and peered up at the soldier.
“I-I c-can’t,” she stuttered, consuming terror dripping from her voice.
“You can’t!?” he asked with unexpected calmness.
The memory of the soldier who had killed my mother crept into my mind, and I vividly recalled the games he had played with me only moments after he had taken her innocent life. This soldier was no different.
The girl nodded with uncertain hope and a hint of relief, still looking at the soldier with her dove-like eyes. A hint of a light smile twisted his lips as he took a strand of her hair between his fingers.
“Very well,” he said in a voice so soft and unbearably light, like velvet. “If you cannot eat, I will give you something else to do.”
The soldier raised the bowl from the table and—before any of us got a chance to react—he mercilessly spilled the hot porridge on the girl’s head, pulling her from the chair while she screamed and cried from the shocking pain. She begged him to release her, repeating over and over she was sorry and she would eat, but nothing helped. He dragged her outside, all the while laughing at her weak attempts to fight him. Mina squeezed my hand and didn’t let go until they were out of our sight.
We were told to look down and focus on our food. I didn’t have to peer up to see the sad and catatonic look on everyone’s faces. I knew there was no light in our eyes—only hopelessness.
The numb feeling only grew stronger when they led us straight to the construction site and simply ordered us to join the crowd of prisoners in white. Confusion settled onto our faces as we observed the tired, exhausted Sariyans who were exploited to death. Their behavior hadn’t changed. They still avoided our eyes, and responded only to soldiers’ threats.
And now we were to become one of them.
There was no time to waste. The ones who didn’t follow through with the order got acquainted with the sharpness of Nyrman whips. Some of the girls turned against each other, and fought for any tool they could get their hands on. Nyrmans did nothing to stop the madness. To them, it was a game. The ones who were not strong enough to secure their place ended up being beaten for the sole purpose of the soldiers’ amusement.
And so, it began...
One after the other, our days were filled with heavy work, terror and exhaustion. The end of our misery was nowhere in sight, and little by little, we were fading away like shadows that hung onto existence. The tasks they made us perform on a daily basis were excruciatingly hard on everyone, especially women like us who had never been accustomed to the hardships of physical labor. Apart from fear and pain, the one thing that was the hardest to bear was constant hunger and therefore—weakness. The meals we were given always tasted of something rotten and vile, and they were so meager, few and far between it was barely enough to keep us alive, let alone allow us to replenish at least some of our energy. It didn’t take long for our skin to cling to our bones, and it made us even more fragile in the moments we were exposed to the ruthless violence carried out by the Nyrman soldiers. Many had succumbed to the consequences of such harsh life, and found comfort in death. But I couldn’t follow their example even though it would make it so much easier. Giving into despair would provide me with relief that I yearned for, but Mina and I depended on each other, and I was determined not to betray her with my weakness.
Talking, as well as any other form of communication, was strictly prohibited. My heart ached every time somebody got hurt, and we had to pretend like nothing had happened. Night was the only time we were allowed to come closer. Even that rare opportunity was often interrupted by the soldiers who repeated the same gruesome attack every night over and over again. Mina was always taken by the same man, and I could do nothing to protect her. She was always terrified, and the smallest sound would make her shiver and cry out from the fear that consumed her fragile mind. Every night, without a fail, he would came for her. And just like that first time, he would toss her inside like trash after he was finished. The very second time that soldier had wanted to take Mina away, I tried to persuade him to let me take her place, but the bastard merely scoffed at me and dragged her with him into the darkness. Guilt tore me apart because I had to watch Mina being systematically broken while I was one of the few— if not the only girl— that was yet to be chosen. It was a mystery I couldn’t understand, but while the others were suffering unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the Nyrman soldiers, somehow they left me in peace. I satisfied myself with the explanation they didn’t hurt me because of my clothes. It was a ridiculous thought, and it probably didn’t matter to them, but my clothes was the only thing that set me apart from the others. As it was, I chose not to dwell on my good fortune, and focus all my strength into tending for my friend.
In the dark, I offered her the only thing I had to offer—comfort. There was a small water pipe in the corner of the gym, and I would use it to soak a piece of cloth I had torn from my sweater. I would clean the blood and scratches on Mina’s body as gently as I could. Then, I would hug her tightly and let her cry on my shoulder for as long as she wanted. Throughout her whole ordeal, I always repeated the same promise. They would pay. But as time went on, I wondered if Nyrmans would ever own up to their mistakes and pay for their brutal treatment of Sariyans. It wasn’t just about the war. For years, we had put up with their hatred and suppression, and there was no hope things would ever change for the better. Those thoughts would end up reminding me of Mama, and it was hard to breathe.
Patiently, I always waited for Mina to fall asleep before giving way to my own tears and pain. Our sleep was restless and filled with nightmares and painful memories. In the mornings, we would wake up even more exhausted, but we knew we would be forced to work, and the day would repeat itself again.
Nyrmans did nothing to ease our suffering. Their cruelty was so deep and perverted it made them come up with such gruesome and sadistic ideas that surpassed our wildest imagination. And that cruelty only increased every time he was around. When the sun was high on the horizon, everyone knew the Commander would ride among us with his black, wild stallion that seemed to be so headstrong he would listen to no one else but his owner.
It were those times when he would slowly circle around the construction site, observing us with such immaculate precision, that were the most difficult to bear. The numbing fear he evoked in me didn’t recede over time. If anything, it grew inside me like cancer that would end up eating me alive. Whenever he was near, I felt his reprimanding stare lingering on my skin as actual as a touch and the giant space around me would slowly shrink into a claustrophobic cubicle that left me breathless with anticipation. Every time he paused to look in my direction from slight distance, I turned into a shivering mess that expected the harsh delivery of that long-overdue and severe punishment for disobedience.
But he always remained silent.
The soldiers enjoyed torturing me in those moments of complete emotional meltdown. With mocking words filled with detest, they laughed at me, pushed me so I would lose my balance, and even turned over the wheelbarrow filled with sand just so they could make me do it all over again. More often than not, I was unable to handle the harassment and follow through with the orders because I knew he was watching. It could take moments for me to get up and compose myself enough to refill the wheelbarrow with sand just so it could be turned over again. Nevertheless, I always got up on my feet, just as I fought to swallow the lump of frustration and dread, while I performed for them like a circus freak. They kept attacking me with their mockery, but to my surprise, no matter how clumsy or frightened I became, their whips never once touched me. Not like the rest.
Only when the stallion rode away, did they ease their torment. And only then, did I dare to lift my eyes and look in his direction. It was almost as though the soldiers put on a show for his benefit. Although my skin should have been thicker, the fact still made me drown in humiliation every single time I stared at his retreating form through a blur of unshed tears.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t accuse him of taking pleasure from my pain.
For unlike the soldiers’, the traces of sadistic amusement were lacking in the Commander’s expression. His stance and behavior emanated nothing but immaculate grace and exercised self-control. The mystery and emotionlessness that surrounded the beautiful man who held the highest form of power in Obsidian scared us even more than the soldiers’ opened hatred because we never knew what to expect. On more than one occasion, we were convinced his detachment hid not the smallest trace of mercy, but quite the opposite. It was the omnipresent air of refined laziness and well-hidden animosity that was responsible for his lack of direct violence. Indeed, kindness was the last thing that inspired his indifference. He simply preferred not to do the dirty work himself, but all it took was a discrete glance, or a single word to his army of subjects, and they would do it for him. One glance, one word spoken softly from his gracious lips, and it was enough to wipe away a life—to end someone’s existence in an instant.
Once, for example, during his inspection, he had ordered something to a man who didn’t react immediately because he was partially deaf. Acting as though this unintended sign of disrespect didn’t faze him, the Commander moved away from the man without uttering a single word. Unaware of his shortfall, the soldiers spun the man around and asked him with vicious excitement which one of his ears he preferred for them to cut off. The man tried to explain. In his misery, he even reached for the Commander’s leg to get his attention and beg for mercy, but he wouldn’t listen.
Without sparing as much as a glance in his direction, he roughly shoved the man to the ground, condemning him with his silence. The sound of the man’s piercing screams as he fell right back into the soldiers’ arms hit me with such force that the breath remained frozen in my throat, and I began suffocating with the overpowering feeling of grief and helplessness. As heart-wrenching memories flooded my mind, I closed my arms around my middle and kept blaming myself for being so useless. I couldn’t help this poor man, just like I was unable to help Mina; just like I was unable to help Mama. The man was in a lot of agony, and it tore me apart. A heavy sigh filled with pain escaped my throat, and it was only then that I became aware he stared at me while my body shivered from coldness, desperation and sickening fear. With each second, I became more alarmed, but didn’t muster the courage to meet those dark, condemning eyes. I waited, but he didn’t speak. Instead, after gazing at me for those agonizing few moments, he mumbled something in a voice that dripped with anger. It sounded as though he swore, but the words were utterly incomprehensible, and before I got a chance to make sense of them, he swiftly spun around his horse to face his soldiers. The action was enough for them to momentarily stop the brutal attack on that helpless man and look up at their leader. Their eyes blazed with savage anticipation, and I was shocked with the Commander’s reaction.
“Not here,” he ordered in a startlingly soft voice that still rang with superior precision and finality.
Then, he was gone as quickly as he had appeared.
Acting as though they wouldn’t even dream of disobeying him, the soldiers took the man away. As I stared into the empty space, I already knew that—just like that girl who couldn’t force herself to eat that awful porridge—that man would never come back. Only moments later, a single gunshot was fired. As his cries dispersed into silence, I relived the pain and that familiar feeling of losing something so very precious and immanently valuable. I became aware of this huge gaping void inside me that could never be filled again.
Of their own volition, my eyes closed, and I let the tears fall down my numb face.