Darkness spread everywhere around me, and it was freezing cold. Hungry and on the verge of being defeated by weakness, I lay there as dozens of angry men threatened they would hurt me if I didn’t do what they wanted. Although I couldn’t see them, I sensed their malevolent presence. I was all alone and so utterly frightened. In the midst of those angry screams, I discerned a soft voice calling my name. At first it so faint I thought it wasn’t there, but suddenly it became clearer...soothing...familiar. I used the last atoms of my strength to follow its direction, and soon, the light penetrated the walls of blackness.
I knew at once I was somewhere else; somewhere far away from those evil men.
I couldn’t move, but it didn’t matter.
The sun warmed my skin, and the damp grass rustled between my fingers. The scents of my childhood—sweet and earthy—invaded my senses. and I became aware my head rested on someone’s lap. Gently, that person ran their weightless fingers through my hair. In that moment, there wasn’t a single trace of ugliness in the world. For the first time in ages, I felt safe.
“Open your eyes, sweetheart.” I heard that soft voice, and warmth erupted in my chest.
Disbelieving, I opened my eyes, and she was right there, gazing at me with a wide smile on her face. All I could think about was that she was even more beautiful than I remembered. Dressed in blazing whiteness, she resembled an angel. Hesitantly, I leaned my hand against her face. The feeling of her smooth skin reminded me how much I had missed her closeness, and it was impossible to fathom life without her again.
“Mama, please don’t leave me,” I whispered, hoping she would stay.
A reassuring smile twisted her lips, and she squeezed my palm between her warm hands.
“Don’t worry, Elena,” she said softly. “I am here. Everything will be okay."
The sound of her kind and calming voice filled me with peace. I wanted to thank her and say something loving in return. But before I could manage to get the words out, her image became blurry, and I woke up in that other world; the one filled with darkness and endless cruelty.
At first, I was drowsy and disoriented. I couldn’t explain why the hand Mama had squeezed in my dream still felt warm as though she had actually touched it. A small part of me chose to believe she had truly come to visit me while I slept. The thought gave me a sense of comfort, and for a long time, I didn’t move. I stared into the blank space, breathing in silence. Memories of happier times, so similar to the one I had dreamt about, started creeping up on me until I gave in and allowed them to flood my mind. I remembered a life filled with love and laughter, despite the hardships that were forced upon us. I remembered the feeling of awe and infinite pride when I watched Mama paint for hours on end. I remembered how Mina and I used to lie in the garden, fantasizing about a brighter future. Someday soon, we had said, we would go places, chase our dreams and make something of ourselves. Mama had told us we could do it all—not in spite of Nyrman demeaning labels, but because of them. God is on our side, she would always say. And I believed her...then, but too much ugliness had infiltrated our world, and my faith was hanging by a thread.
Nyrmans, however, were not a religious nation. They had no God or any other deity that demanded their fear and respect. The Sariyan church teachings we lived by were one of the many reasons they hated us so immensely, and they enjoyed taunting us with our most sacred beliefs. They would ask us where our God was now when we needed deliverance. And we had no answer. Even He seemed to have abandoned us, and left us at the mercy of Nyrman tyranny.
The massive door swung open and disrupted the thoughts that did nothing but fill me with bitterness. Soldiers strode in to escort us to the construction site, and I turned toward Mina to wake her up before they got a chance to do it themselves. The moment my eyes rested on her slender form, I froze in shock. In contrast to her unusually pale skin, her cheeks were crimson red and droplets of sweat spread along her forehead. Her breathing was slow and heavy. I didn’t have to lean my hand against her face to know she was burning with fever.
“Mina.” I shook her lightly, but she didn’t react.
I called her one more time, raising my voice just above a whisper. Slowly—as though the simple action caused her pain—she managed to open her eyes halfway, only to glance at me for a second and close them again. I kept shaking her, and the only reaction I managed to entice was an attack of deep forceful coughing. Mina was very ill, and I knew I had to do something before the soldiers found her in such a fragile state.
“Mina,” I caught her face between my hands, and pleaded desperately. “Mina, they are here. We have to go. You need to wake up. Mina, please!"
A huge sense of relief washed over me when she finally opened her eyes. Emptiness and resignation glistened in her wide stare, as if she had already come to terms with the end.
I smiled at her and took hold of her hand, doing my best to contain my worries and hide my distress.
“Let me help you get up,” I said in a mild voice.
She smiled weakly, and a rough cough erupted from her raspy throat. “I wish to sleep, Elena,” she murmured and closed her eyes again, whispering, “I am so tired.”
The commotion at the front of the gym meant the soldiers were getting restless, and we had little time left. Seconds passed by, and apart from coughing and moaning from the high temperature, Mina showed no intent to listen to their impatient orders. In a state of sudden frenzy, I realized there was only one sane choice to make, but I couldn’t leave her to her fate. She was the last loved one I had left, and there wasn’t a single thing I wouldn’t do to save her.
Determined to make her join the others before it was too late, I had given up on persuading her to wake up. Instead, I caught both of her wrists and pulled her up with me quickly, using all my strength. The unexpected action shocked her into consciousness. The second her feet touched the ground, she wobbled as though she was about to fall, but I held her close and allowed her to lean her weight on me. With slow, measured steps, we managed to advance toward the exit and join the massive crowd without drawing attention to ourselves. Mina’s body burned like a hot furnace, and that deep raspy cough constantly interrupted her already heavy breathing. A few of the girls around us noticed Mina was sick, and every now and then they sent glances of pity our way. A couple of times she begged me to stop so she could catch a break, but I mercilessly urged her to walk further. As much as I knew she needed to rest, I had to do everything within my power to avoid drawing the attention of the soldiers.
Once we were outside, the fresh air seemed to have done her well. She regained some of her strength, but not nearly enough to sustain a day of hard labor. But dwelling on it had been useless, and so was asking for their compassion and help. After practically dragging her to our work station, I remained as close as I could and did my best to keep Mina safe. We were assigned to a group that was to stack a large pile of stone bricks on wooden pallets. In an effort to help her, I worked twice as hard than usual despite my own growing weakness. No matter how many times she stumbled, I steadied her, and took away the burden from her hands. Somehow, we had succeeded in keeping up the pretense for a while, but then we caught the watchful eye of a soldier.
At first, he did nothing except watch as I looked after Mina. Then, he yelled at me for breaking the rules, and forbade me to help her again. Contrary to my expectations, he didn’t pounce on her immediately. All he did was observe as she struggled to lift a heavy stone. A quick glance passed between me and that soldier. Both of us knew Mina was too weak to lift that kind of weight, but he let her torture herself for his own sick amusement. Anxiety was eating me alive, and I wanted to scream as I carried those damned bricks, waiting for that hideous man to hurt her. To my great concern, Mina’s wobbly legs gave out on her and she fell to the ground with a loud thump. Finally, the soldier got what he wanted, and he glared at her with an expression of naked, cruel satisfaction. With the speed of light, he reached for his whip, and struck it just an inch away from her shaking body.
“Get up!” he shouted.
She lifted her head for a split second, and then buried it back into the muddy sand as though it was too much trouble to acknowledge the madman. Every fiber of my being was alerted because I knew all too well what was about to happen. I knew he would kill her if he swung that whip at her again. When his arm flexed in preparation for another attack, I didn’t stop to think. As I dropped the stone I was holding, instinct defeated all reason, and I lifted both of my arms in Mina’s direction.
Searing pain exploded on my palms, and I heard echoes of someone screaming as though they were being murdered. It took me a long moment to realize I was the one who had cried out in agony. Trembling from shock of seeing my own torn flesh and blood that kept trickling down my hands, I dropped to my knees, right next to my sick friend. I waited for that soldier to finish what he had started. But to my surprise, he lowered the whip and stared at me with eyes wide open, as if he had yet to realize what had happened. I didn’t know why it would make a difference to him which one of us was at the receiving end of his strikes, but for some reason it seemed to have mattered.
“Both of you—back to work.” His voice carried a lot less malice and determination than I expected.
He didn’t even wait for us to obey. He simply left while other soldiers stared at us like hawks, waiting for the slightest sign of provocation.
Mina opened her eyes slightly, and peered up at me through a mist of tears. “Are we dead?”
The rough cough returned and made her struggle for breath. The last thing I wanted was to alarm her, so I quickly hid my own tears and pretended the damage the whip had left wasn’t that bad.
“Don’t speak,” I whispered to her, and even tried to joke despite the pain. “No, we are not dead, Mina. You will not get rid of me that easily.”
Traces of faint laughter appeared on her lips, and then she coughed again.
“We have to get up,” I muttered, and after a moment of deliberation, she nodded.
Although we were surrounded by other prisoners, not one of them acknowledged us or offered their help. Their selfishness was understandable because nobody in their right minds would risk attracting the soldiers’ attention on themselves. Either way, they were powerless in the matter. Holding onto each other, we got back on our feet. When I let go of her arm, Mina noticed the blood that was smeared on her white shirt, and gave me a look of worry and deep guilt.
“Don’t,” I interrupted, and bit my tongue to stop myself from wincing. “I’ll be fine.”
She was dying to say something else, but the pleading look on my face kept her silent.
There was no other option but to continue where we had left off.
For what seemed like hours, we worked until complete exhaustion, and I prayed for us to make it through the day safely and without further troubles. As much as I wanted to ignore the burning agony and continue helping Mina, it took me minutes to lift and carry a single brick. The urge to scream and break down in tears every time I held the heavy burden in my injured hands was so strong I had to bite my lips bloody to stop myself from losing control and give in to pain. Mina rested more than she worked, but the soldiers didn’t bother her again. That, at least, helped me relax to some extent.
There were only a few more stones left for me to carry to the neatly built stack, and I comforted myself with the knowledge it was almost over. Then, as I laid one of those last bricks on the line, its sharp edge cut into the raw flesh of my palm. I jumped from the blinding pain, crushing the pile I had stacked for so long in the process. I heard Mina’s soft and concerned voice, but she was too weak and too absentminded to offer assistance. This time, I couldn’t control the flood of burning tears that gathered in my eyes. Hurt beyond the limit of endurance, I stood up in an effort to start rebuilding the pallet, but my hands wouldn’t listen to me. Everything I touched remained lying on the ground, and all I did was cause more damage. My whole body trembled while I willed myself to lift the stone I stared at. A whimper escaped my throat when I finally took hold of it, but in an instance, it fell right back into the messy pile. With the last ounces of strength, I reached for it again...
“Leave it!” A reprimanding voice stopped me dead in my tracks.
Even if I had failed to hear the horse moving behind me, I would have known to whom the voice belonged. Misery enveloped my heart as I looked up at the sky and saw the sun—high and round on the horizon. Cold sweat beaded my forehead when I realized it was that time of the day. Up until that moment, I had always been prepared for his arrival because the soldiers would gang up on me minutes before he appeared, but none of their usual abuse had taken place that day.
He cleared his throat, and I shivered at the sound of his subtle warning. He waited for me to obey. At the verge of an anxiety attack, I stepped away from the pile of mess I had created, wiped away the tears of frustration and swallowed a lump of genuine dread. Hands clenched into painful fists, I turned around with awkward slowness to face him.
Grasping onto the last sense of escape, I stared at the ground as the Commander surveyed the scene as though he had all the time in the world to do so if it pleased him. His stare wandered around, pausing on a half-conscious Mina, then on the crumbled pile of bricks and, at last, on me. For a few moments, we just stood there in silence. He didn’t attempt to come closer, but he also wouldn’t divert his ominous gaze.
“Look at me, Sariyan,” he said softly, but with the right amount of arrogant demand for me to know it wasn’t a request, but an order.
After stalling for one breathless second, I lifted my head, and forced myself to do as he told me. Uneasiness swept over me in a crushing wave when I saw his face. His perfect features created an image of a man surrounded by the aura of menacing coldness and utter detachment. Only his dark fathomless eyes burned with unbearable intensity, and I...I felt so small, so helpless; completely at his mercy and trapped. Aware the chaotic scenery he had encountered spoke volumes to our disadvantage, I gathered the courage to offer an explanation that could mean the very difference between life and death.
“The...The soldier...” I swallowed and urged myself to forget how much this man frightened me. I took in a deep breath, and motioned toward Mina. His glance followed my movement without interest, and then his hard eyes focused on me again. I could feel the pulse rising in my throat, and it made it all the more difficult to speak. “He wanted—”
“Did I ask you to speak?” He dismissed me with such authoritarian tone that made it crystal clear he had no intention of listening to what I had to say. I stilled, and the domineering voice lowered an octave. “Show me your hands!”
Flabbergasted by his unexpected demand, I gaped at him and stuttered, “M-My han—”
“Are you deaf?” The refined voice dripped with impatience.
I remembered his warning; obedience or...punishment.
The memory of that poor girl who had been whipped at his cruel order returned to haunt me, and I knew what would happen if I disobeyed him in front of his soldiers. The extent of my cowardice shamed me, but the fear of enduring more strikes—or even worse—was so great I didn’t want to take my chances.
Slowly, I unclenched my fists, and by indulging his request, found that I could no longer resist the incessant need to see it for myself. The alarming sight of my swollen, bloody palms made me want to weep all over again, but I bit my lip and held down the persistent flood of tears. I wouldn’t cry in front of him. I wouldn’t let him see me broken.
The word was spoken with such poignant arrogance, and just enough hint of a threat for me to lift my eyes back to his. At the very least, I had expected to see a look of disgust in them, but it wasn’t there. Instead, something raw, omnipotent and fierce flickered in his stare as he observed my ruined hands. His murky eyes narrowed in a calculating manner and held mine for several long, torturous moments.
This chilling, undivided attention I received from the last man I wanted to notice me, only increased the awareness of the pulsating agony on my palms, and it became more difficult to keep up with the act of impassivity. The skin on my face twisted into a grimace of pain, but I still refused to cry in front of him.
A brief mocking smirk twisted his lips, leaving the impression he was aware of my inner torture. It appeared the fact filled him with the kind of heartless amusement that was beyond my realm of comprehension. The next instant, his stallion went into sudden motion, and I was startled by the telling sharpness with which the Commander had broken the gaze between us. The amusement was replaced by icy coldness.
“Stay here,” he bit out harshly, and turned away.
Legs paralyzed like they were buried in concrete, I stood there and watched as the stallion that held an almost equal amount of his owner’s grace strode imperiously to the nearest soldier. I observed the slow, sophisticated movements of the Commander’s lips, and wished I could make sense of the words and my upcoming predicament. All I could gather was that he ordered something in a manner already recognizable and characteristic of him. His body language screamed with self-entitlement and confidence while his posture said: I am law here—my word is your command. It was more than his words could have accounted for.
The soldier nodded repeatedly, and said very little. His every action seemed to have been well calculated and inspired by the undeniable respect he had for his highest superior. I couldn’t help but notice that even his soldiers cowered before him. The moment the soldier saluted, he glanced my way, and his stare cut me dead with its determination to execute whatever orders he had been given. It was then—as I felt the blood drain from my face— that I became aware of the danger, and the rifle that hung over his shoulder.
The soldier walked toward me with large decisive steps and the Commander ushered his horse into a quick gallop without giving me another glance. That behavior, too, had been familiar. Instinctively, I already knew what awaited me. Dismayed by the quick development of events, I started stepping back, but the soldier reached me and caught my arm before I had succeeded in creating any distance between us.
“Come with me,” he demanded, and at once pulled me in the direction that led away from the construction site.
I turned toward Mina, and caught the helpless look in her eyes.
“I cannot...I cannot leave her...” I pleaded in earnest, but it had been in vain.
The only thing my act of protest had achieved was angering that soldier to such extent he suddenly stopped and squeezed my shoulders in a menacing grip.
“No talking!” He gestured toward Mina and gritted through his teeth, “If you don’t come with me, I will get rid of the problem.”
The threat was all it took for me to surrender and follow the soldier’s quick pace. Not another word had been exchanged between us—we understood each other well. One more transgression and Mina was dead. I risked a last quick glance at her and uttered a silent goodbye, convinced that I would never see her again. Not one prisoner who had been taken away had ever returned to tell us of their fate, but we knew it all the same.
And I was no exception. The Commander′s survey of the wounds that caused my clumsiness ended with the only possible outcome. I had witnessed it so many times. Nyrmans had no use for an incapacitated Sariyan. What they couldn’t exploit, got destroyed.
There was no point in fighting the inevitable, but I had no clue where I was being taken, and the uncertainty made me restless. The fear of the unknown held me tight in its grip, and the only thing that kept me sane and pliant was the prayer for Mina’s survival.