I bowed. “Yes, Sister.”
She nodded curtly. “I must go to the altar. I shall return within the hour to bring you to your wedding. Be ready.”
With that she exited my room.
Sinking to the floor once more, I resumed my staring at the long white gown. Trepidation swelled in my stomach as I thought of the task I must endure. I had no idea why I was deemed worthy, but then I would not wish this duty on anyone else.
I dressed quickly in my gown after pouring anointing vanilla oil on my naked skin. Letting my long hair down from my wrap, I placed my flower garland upon my head and crept to the door, searching for a disciple guard. The hallway was deserted, so I quietly ran along the corridor and out into the courtyard. The entire house was empty and silent and I needed to breathe fresh air.
“Salome!” A loud whisper sounded from the west side of the building. Turning my head in search, I spotted Delilah. Picking up the bottom of my gown, I ran forward, ushering her behind the tall brick wall, out of sight.
“What are you doing here? You will be punished if you are found!” Checking over my shoulder, I failed to immediately notice Lilah’s red eyes and flushed skin.
“Mae…” Lilah whispered, softer this time, her quiet tone sending chills down my spine.
“What? What is it?”
Reaching out, Lilah’s hand encased mine and squeezed. I knew in an instant what was wrong.
“What has happened to her?” I asked quietly.
“She… she… Maddie and I just found out where she is being kept…”
Jerking my best friend forward, I prompted, “Where? Where do they have her?”
Sucking in a shaky breath, Lilah revealed, “Imprisoned… but…”
“Mae, she did not look well. She met my eyes, but her expression was not right. I fear… I fear she is fading. I think she has been there for a long time. We were ordered to deliver dinner to the guards at a new location and… and we… saw her, Mae. My goodness…” She failed to finish her sentence, her pale hand covering her mouth.
Feeling as though my heart had just been ripped in two, I set off at a run.
I glanced behind me and spotted Lilah chasing after me. Thrusting out my hand, I grabbed hers and asked, “Where is she? Show me!”
A long moment passed before she said, “I shall lead.”
We headed down a tree-lined path and over two gardens. My heart raced, my pulse throbbed, my stomach churned, and a light sheen of sweat spread across my forehead.
Turning in the direction of the altar, we passed through the forest rather than risk the exposed path that would lead to the ceremony and the waiting congregation. As we neared the forest edge, I spotted a stone building: a stone building with a small black-barred gate. And just through the iron bars of that gate was a body, the slight frame of a young female lying face down, unmoving on the hard floor.
A sob clawed its way from my throat as I burst from the trees, my legs moving of their own accord.
Approaching the rear of the building, I was about to break the tree line when I was knocked down and roughly pulled back under the cover of the trees. I scrambled to be free, clawing at the skin of the person who held me back.
“Salome, it is Delilah. Stop!” she whispered gently but firmly.
I froze, tears streaming down my cheeks. “What have they done to her? She is not moving!”
Delilah held her hand to her mouth, lips trembling, shaking her head in sorrow. “I do not know. I do not know what has been done.”
As I scanned the area, I could not see a guard. I ran to the bars of the gate. Clutching the thick steel rods, I whispered, “Bella?”
My sister lay on the floor, dirtied and bloodied, her body too thin and her black hair matted in clumps. The twitch of her finger signaled that she had heard my voice. With painfully slow movements and great effort, Bella managed to raise her head just an inch off the stone floor and then I noticed scripture painted along on the ceiling of the cell.
“Revelation 2:20,” I whispered out loud.
“Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols,” Lilah recited from memory and my stomach churned.
My hand automatically went to my mouth. What had they done to her? She was so thin.
“M-Ma—” Bella tried to say my name, but her voice was almost non-existent. She tried to open her eyes, but they were bruised and swollen shut, her crusty lashes covered in a mass of dried blood.
“I am here, Bella. Lord! I am here!” I said, slamming myself farther against the iron bars, reaching through as far as I could to grip her boney finger with my hand.
Bella exhaled and her lips curved into a broken smile. “I am glad.” She coughed and moaned in pain, struggling to move an inch. “I am glad you found me before it was too late.”
“What have they done to you?” I hissed as I gazed at her battered body. Huge pools of dried blood covered the stone floor, her dress was ripped at the back, and her skin was marked with deep gashes from the leather lash. But the bottom of her dress… the blood… Oh no… they… I… could not even think it, let alone ask her if she had been taken against her will. Handprint bruises covered every inch of her thighs. There were discarded whips leaning against the wall at the back of the cell.