Sleep did not return to Asa that night. He could feel Zainab’s fingers in his hair, her breath on his neck as he drew comfort from her warmth. Around them the beds remained empty, none wanting to be closer than they had to. Two neat rows of wooden frames lined the room, supporting mattresses stuffed with straw, foam and whatever else could be found. Asa did not mind the rustle the leaves made as he tossed and turned on bad nights, it was a small reminder of the outside world. A slight sound caught his ear. Not all the beds around them were empty.
Straining, he sought to see through the inky darkness. The four walls of the room shared by 13 odd number let in no light, windows noticeably absent. The thought of lighting a candle came and went, survival was either through brain or brawn; Asa lacked brawn. Retreating into himself he began to recite, it calmed him as he waited for dawn.
Bells went of in a soulful tone, deep, haunting, lonely.
“They Paint my sorrows in sound.”
Asa mouthed silently, listening, the tones embracing him as they did every morning. This was his dawn, their sunrise. Deeper he sunk into the rhythm of the bells, oblivious to the doors spilling in light as they opened. Double doors, faces carved into them from the base to the top, their expressions mirrored. Zainab slept peacefully by his side, it had been a long night for her. She had seen what Asa had not.
Heavy footfalls on wooden floor made its way with purpose. Each step passed a bed. Each occupant, rising swiftly, pressed their back against the wall with heads pointed down hiding their dread. Warnings do not come. Asa, weak from the lack of sleep felt his body leave the bed, feet dangling in the air as his head slammed against the wall.
Wind knocked out of him, his fingers grasped the meaty arm in a futile effort to gain freedom. Eyes stared back at Asa, they lacked emotion. A deep brown iris almost indistinguishable from the black pupil that bore down into him.
“Your punishment awaits you!”
No one moved to help Asa, no one dared.
He gasped, struggling for air as her hand kept him up by the neck.
“I… alone… am….. guilty.”
Each word an agony, his eyelids wanting to shut away the image before him. She turned to where Zainab should be. Shame came over him as he felt relief flood in when those hungry eyes were no longer directed at him.
Asa thought in a panic, his shame deepening as a small corner of his mind whispered,
“Better her, she can handle it.”
Tears fell down his cheeks, from the pain, the shame, the unfairness of it all. Each drop splashed down on the arm of mother superior, disappearing into the black cloth. Brought to tears twice within the span of a few hours. Her hand slackened, and he crumbled into a heap on the floor, his only solace, the sight of Zainab, back against the wall, head held high.
“When the bell tolls the evening meal.”
Silence continued to reign in that four walled room, interrupted by footfalls telling him she was leaving, the soft creak of the door evidence they were free of her, at least for a time. Still Asa did not raise his head.
“We have to go.”
Zainab said softly, a candle held in her hand banishing the darkness that had creep back into the room once the doors closed. Candles, they were the life blood of their little world. Asa longed to remain where he lay, nursing the pains that racked his mind and body but he could not say no to her. With effort he did her bidding, taking her outstretched hand.
Together they raced out the door, Asa letting himself be pulled along at her pace. Zainab’s candle rested safely in her pocket, the torches in the hall giving just enough light to guide their way. Never did they quite banish the gloom. Being late was not an option, it was their one joy in the darkness that ruled their lives. Unknown to them, fate had a different plan. What awaited them, if they knew, they would not have left the room.
Closer they drew to their goal, just at the end of the hall. Their minds filled with the simple joy that would soon be theirs. Neither Zainab nor Asa saw the cudgels bludgeon their heads knocking them out cold.
Intense pain batted him, as Asa came out of unconsciousness. The world spun when he opened his eyes so he closed them, focusing on the sounds around him. He could hear two others breathing.
“Zainab are you alright.”
No answer came.
Fearing the worst he let his ears guide him as he dragged himself to where the breaths were coming from. Once again he tried opening his eyes. No longer did the world spin, but he could see nothing.
“Talk to me Zainab.”
Shouting now, hoping to drag her to consciousness. Nothing happened. Still, he was almost there. Slowly he stood up, worried the spinning would come back. As Asa took a step, a bell chimed a single long note. It reverberated in the room forcing Asa to cover his ears with his hand, falling to the ground. Once he thought he could take it no longer, it stopped.
Above him floated a candle he had not seen before, illuminating the four white walls of the room. A door slid open above him.
“Help us, someone help us!”
Asa shouted out to no avail. He watched as something fell from a gloved hand, the candle causing it to gleam for a moment before it clattered unto the floor. A knife. Two others tracked the progress of the knife as Asa did. Turning to each of them he noticed, none were Zainab.
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