Warnings: lack of editing warning, mentions of torture
It takes little time here to learn to swiftly stand to attention at the slightest squeak of the main door, to stand straight and bow your head submissively. Though there are dozens of us here, we move as one. If the demons are disappointed that they have not caught us unaware, we cannot tell. None of us are fool enough to look beyond the floor.
The floor is black, cracked and buckled from the heat of the place. If we do not cobble together shoes, it cuts through flesh like a knife’s blade. Some of the demons even use it in their trade, preferring it to the gleaming steal humanity has moved to.
The sound of something hitting the ground, something capable of making a soft, pained whimper, echoes through the silent chamber. We do not dare look, though we know what it is. Another bloodied wreck of tattered cloth and rendered flesh, left to rot with us.
The demons linger. The gaze of the more dominant of the pair slides from human to human, daring us to do something beyond meekly submitting. It burns.
Life here is a game, if you are callous enough to admit it. What one side wants, the other denies them, over and over until somebody falters. This particular game is meant for me, I know. I have asked my family, and I am the only one who thinks reckless thoughts of meeting the creature’s gaze, knowing the consequences. He called me a willful, foolish child. Perhaps He was right. The pride that never fully fled me rebels at the thought of feigning subservience to such paltry beings when I know- as do they- that I did not bow to their maker, nor his. I did not break for them, and there is no chance I could be broken by such inconsequential beings as these.
Still, waiting is its own kind of torture. The new arrival is crying softly, in too much pain for silence but too scared to let themselves openly weep. There is an ache, utterly physical, in standing unmoving when every instinct demands I run and offer help. The demons linger, but with no one daring to challenge them, it takes little time for them to tire of the game and leave.
The moment the door slams shut, I run.
The body is small, as though not quite upon adulthood. It is worse when they are young- not just because of the adult human’s bent towards parental concern, but because young ones struggle to survive in a way the adults never seem to. Younglings are thankfully rare.
“It’s a girl,” Maria whispers, already running her hands over the girl, checking for breaks and fractures in the way she has done since the war.
So many wars, and yet each is spoken of but it’s inhabitants as though it is the first and the last of its kind. Humans are odd creatures.
The elders help Maria move the girl to the table furthest from the door. Others rush to gather water and cloths to clean the child before tending to her wounds. For the majority, this is not a new experience, and we are practised enough not to get in the way.
The girl’s arm is dark beneath the dirt and the blood. Anna takes her hand the moment I have finished cleaning her. Ezekiel takes her other hand, bowing his head in silent prayer. They pray over her as they tend to her hands and arms, sing the songs that were killed off long before the girl’s grandmother arrived screaming into the world. They will sit a vigil until she wakes, will do all they can to help her adjust.
Perhaps, if we are lucky, it will be enough. Given where we are, I rather doubt it.
She wakes screaming, clawing at her face and neck as though trying to escape herself. I am the first to her hands, and it is simple enough to snatch them away.
“Open your eyes, little one. You are safe here. You are not on the rack. See how your arms and legs move? Try for me, little one. Move your arms and your legs.” Anna and Ezekiel have moved forward, hands clasped together as though the contact can stop the instinctive pain at the girl’s fear.
It takes an age for her to move, but then, we have all of eternity here. What does time matter? Slowly, timid as a mouse, she twitches her hands and feet, jerks of motion that gradually become braver. Another age, and brown eyes regard the room warily, taking in the ragged bodies around her fearfully.
It is Maria, though, who breaks the silence. “You can’t go back to the life you had. None of us can. But you’re safe here. There are rules to follow, can’t escape that even here it seems, but you’ve got a safe place to rest, and people who’ll care for you.” The girl watches her with broken-soulled eyes as Maria talks about the healing process.
I feel the fledgling, a brush of warm wings against my back.
There will be time for stories later. The girl will survive this. The fledgling would not be here if he doubted.
I will not doubt.