So this has been a while coming but I hope you’ll find the wait was worth it! Just to refresh your memory, Chapter 2 ended with Ruth being told that she would have to marry the detestable Guardian Solomon. Read on to see how she reacts. Oh yes, and someone dies in this chapter…
Ruth stared at Leader Isaac blankly. She could not possibly have heard him correctly.
“Guardian Solomon?” she repeated.
“Yes,” said Isaac. He was still smiling, exposing white, even teeth, but for the first time Ruth noticed that the smile did not touch his eyes which, normally kind, were now icy cold.
She shook her head. “I think there has been a mistake,” she said.
“Indeed, there has not,” said Isaac smoothly. “Guardian Solomon has made a genuine request to marry you, Ruth.”
Ruth struggled to comprehend this statement, so bizarre did it sound. “But I don’t want to marry him,” she said at last.
“Nevertheless, you shall,” said Leader Isaac. “It is the man’s wish, and not the woman’s, which counts in a marriage union.”
Ruth felt a dead weight fall into the pit of her stomach at these words. This was not a dream or a joke. The leader was being entirely serious – she knew it by his chilly eyes which gazed at her unblinkingly above that insincere smile. And, with a further crushing force, Ruth realised what was happening with sudden and absolute clarity.
This was to be her punishment.
Panic rose within her. “Please, no,” she begged. “Please don’t make me do this.”
“The decision has been made,” said Isaac without a trace of compunction.
Ruth looked frantically over her shoulder. “Mother, Father, please,” she entreated.
Judith’s face was troubled but Jonah’s was impassive as he said, “This is the leader’s command, Ruth. We shall not go against it.”
“But Guardian Solomon!” Ruth choked out. She had to make them understand how ghastly this idea was to her. “He’s awful.”
Retired Guardian Reuben tutted with disapproval and Leader Isaac’s smile disappeared at once.
“Don’t be disrespectful, Ruth. Guardian Solomon is an indispensable member of this colony, he works tirelessly every day to protect our existence. It is a great honour to be chosen by the captain of the guardians.”
“But he’s so old!” cried Ruth, becoming increasingly reckless in her distress. “And he has never wanted to take a wife before.”
“He deems the time is now right to do so.”
Ruth turned to Benjamin. He stared back at her wordlessly, too shocked to speak. Her alarm turned to anger at his silence. Why was he not supporting her? He ought to be making protestations in her defence but he was just gaping at her like a fish out of water. Behind him, Jemima and Ichabod stood just as dumb. No one was going to stand up for her – it was both appalling and infuriating.
She jumped to her feet. “I won’t do it,” she said fiercely.
“You will,” said Isaac, utterly calm in the face of her defiance. “Tomorrow you will return here with Guardian Solomon and I will bestow my official blessing upon you both. I would have been content to wait until your birthday but your presence here today tells me that you are willing to dispense with such formalities.”
The disingenuous smile was back. Ruth let out an inarticulate sob of anguish and resentment, turned and ran from the reception cave, disregarding her father’s reproachful call. She knew she should not leave the cave without the leader’s permission but she was past caring about manners now. She dashed down the dark passageway and nearly ran full tilt into the back of the giant wooden slab as she emerged into the gathering cave, which was just as black as the passage had been. Ezekiel, Zachariah and their pupils were nowhere to be seen; the children must have gone above ground with their mothers for their lengthy afternoon surface exposure. Ruth felt a sudden yearning to be that young again.
Breathing heavily, still reeling from shock, she quickly decided where she wanted to go next. It was rare to find the gathering cave in pitch darkness but she was familiar enough with its dimensions to step across the hard-packed earth with relative confidence. She stretched out her arms when she sensed that she was nearing the opposite side and, moving them through the air in front of her, felt her fingertips brush against something solid. She followed the line of the wall until she came to a gap which indicated another passageway – the one leading to the vent. She had decided that she needed fresh air.
Ruth entered the passage, her arms extended to touch the walls on either side. For the most part, she had to keep them at full stretch but here and there the passage narrowed and she could bend her elbows a little. Her hands passed through air a few times, marking the doorways into the female and family sleeping caves, but she ignored them, marching forward in anger. Black turned to darkest grey and then pale dusk until she no longer needed the walls to guide her. When she reached the very end of the passageway, she found it bright and empty; the vent was uncovered, the wooden ladder was propped against the wall and there was nobody in sight.
She climbed the ladder swiftly but her progress was impeded as soon as she raised her head out of the hole. A shadow fell across her and she saw Lesser Guardian Gabriel crouching over the vent, blocking her way.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded, looking affronted. “Your surface exposure has been revoked for a full day.”
“I need to use the waste trough,” Ruth replied, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice. Even putrid air would be better than nothing. She just had to get out of the suffocating blackness below, if only for a few minutes.
But Gabriel was shaking his head. “You know that’s not allowed, Ruth, not when your open air access has been withdrawn. One of the guardians below will provide you with a bucket.”
Ruth was about to plead with him further but stopped abruptly when she heard the squeal of childish laughter in the clearing beyond and a gruff voice telling the children to be quiet. Recalling with revulsion who was partnering Gabriel in supervising duties today, she suddenly had no desire whatsoever to go above ground.
Immaturely, she stuck her tongue out at Gabriel and then clambered down the ladder without pausing to see the guardian’s reaction. She re-entered the gloom of the passage feeling, if possible, even more incensed than before.
Where could she go? Knowing how difficult it was to get a moment of uninterrupted solitude at the spring, she chose to retreat to the only source of refuge left to her – her sleeping cave. Sometimes the women with whom she shared it went there during the day to pray but she knew that it was currently unoccupied because she had passed it mere minutes ago and it had been dark and silent.
She felt her way back to the sleeping cave, found it deserted as she had expected and flung herself onto the thin mattress that belonged to herself and her mother. The air smelled of fresh mint but she hardly noticed. She huddled in the corner, pulling her knees up to her chin and wrapping a blanket around her shoulders, even though she was not cold.
This could not be happening to her. When she had woken up this morning, she had been looking forward to her future with so much optimism and excitement. Now, the very thought of it filled her with dread.
Could she really be forced to marry Guardian Solomon against her will? Arranged marriages were not commonplace within the colony; most of the couples had made their choices for themselves. The only union which Leader Isaac had contrived had been the one between Reuben and Hannah which, Ruth had heard, had come about after Hannah’s parents, Abigail and Joseph, had requested that Isaac choose the husband who would please God most. There were thirteen years between Reuben and Hannah but, as far as Ruth was aware, both had consented to the arrangement without objection. So that did not set a precedent for the horrible situation in which Ruth now found herself.
A marriage with Guardian Solomon. It was abhorrent. Physically, he was a repulsive man; he made no effort to keep himself clean and the stench that wafted off him was truly repugnant. If she became his wife and – her skin crawled – was compelled to lie with him, would she reek like him too? She felt nauseated as she imagined having to press her lips to that mouth of foul, yellow teeth.
Then there was his age. The wooden slab in the gathering cave proclaimed that Solomon had been an eleven-year-old boy when the colony had gone underground. That put him at – ugh – forty-five now. There were almost three decades between him and Ruth. That was disgusting, why could nobody see that?
But worst of all was his nature. Throughout her whole life, Ruth had only ever known Solomon to be cold and indifferent, as hard as a block of stone. What kind of marriage would they have if she could not turn to her husband in times of trial for tender words of comfort and support? The only emotion she had ever seen him express was his fury towards her earlier today and that certainly did not inspire confidence – would he be a brute to her when they were alone? The colony did not interfere in private affairs between husbands and wives so there would be no one who would listen to her pleas. Even her mother had proven today that she was not willing to take Ruth’s side when it really mattered.
Recalling the scene that had taken place in the reception cave, Ruth felt tears sting her eyes. Neither Benjamin’s parents nor her own had made any attempt to dissuade Leader Isaac from this dreadful betrothal to Guardian Solomon and their reluctance to intervene filled Ruth with bitter disappointment. It was perhaps no more than she could have expected from Jonah and Ichabod, both guardians and answerable to their captain, but Judith and Jemima ought to have spoken up on behalf of their children, whom they knew full well were in love.
Benjamin. Dear, sweet Benjamin. Yes, she had been a little angry at his reticence but that feeling had been fleeting – he was not to blame for what had happened. And now, if Leader Isaac was to have his way, she and Benjamin were to be parted forever. She had already imagined how awful that might feel when she had believed her life to be over in the clearing that morning, but this was so much worse than being separated by death. If she married Solomon, she would still see Benjamin every single day at prayers and at mealtimes and they would each serve as a constant reminder to the other that the future they had once so innocently envisaged together would never come to pass. To endure that for fifty years or more – it would be unbearable.
Would he marry someone else? She realised with a jolt that that was impossible, at least with the colony’s current population. After Ruth, there were only three unmarried girls: eight-year-old Naomi and her twin sisters, Dinah and Rebekah, who were six. The three girls were Benjamin’s cousins on his father’s side so, unless Leader Isaac changed the laws on incest, there was no one left whom Benjamin could wed. There would undoubtedly be more births in the future but Benjamin would have to wait a minimum of sixteen long years for any girl born to come of age. With a grimace, Ruth reflected upon the most imminent marriage proposed – it was grotesque to even picture Benjamin marrying a daughter of hers.
Everything about this situation was revolting and unfair. And it all stemmed from her transgression in the forest clearing, she knew this with absolute certainty. Before her foolish flight into the trees, Guardian Solomon had never looked twice at her, had never given the slightest indication that he wanted to marry her or any woman in the colony. There had been opportunities for him in the past – the last two girls to turn sixteen had been Sheba and Esther in Years 26 and 27 but Solomon had evidently shown no interest in them for they had married two ordinary boys who had only subsequently become lesser guardians. Solomon had been captain even then, he would have had the authority to take either one of them if he had so desired. But he had not; it seemed his sole purpose was to protect the colony and nothing would distract him from that sacred duty.
And yet, out of the blue, he had asked Leader Isaac for Ruth’s hand. Surely the only possible cause for this abrupt turnaround was Ruth’s panicked reaction to the horrifying noise which had terrorised the group enjoying their early morning surface exposure. She had supposedly put the underground community in very grave danger – was he afraid that she might do something like that again? As her husband, he would exert great control over her; maybe this was an attempt to keep her permanently in check so that she could not jeopardise the colony again. If so, it was a terribly cruel punishment and highly disproportional to the misdemeanour which she had committed so unknowingly.
Her immediate fear had been that she would be confined to an isolation cave because of what she had done. Now she vehemently wished that that had indeed been her sentence; at least it would have been over in a few hours or days. This alternative was far worse because it would be lifelong.
For the second time that day, Ruth began to cry. The tears which had been threatening to fall now rolled down her cheeks unrestrained. Her shoulders shook and she covered her mouth with the blanket to muffle her sobs. She was overwhelmed by despair – it truly felt as though all her happiness was at an end.
She had not been crying for very long when she noticed a faint glow at the edge of her blurred vision. Wiping her eyes to see more clearly, she realised that the light was glimmering through the doorway of the cave. It was only then that she became aware of soft footfalls coming up the passage – someone was approaching. Was the person making their way towards the vent or searching for her? Perhaps it was her father seeking to drag her back to Leader Isaac to apologise for her rudeness. With a curious blend of hope and misery, she wondered if it was Benjamin coming to try and comfort her.
But it was not anyone who had been in the reception cave. Ruth saw the candle first, set in a holder and held aloft by a thin, wizened arm. It illuminated the face of an old woman with pale blue eyes and fine, white hair which fell past her shoulders. The sleeves of her faded blouse were rolled up to the elbows and a pair of wrinkled feet peeked out from beneath the hem of her long skirt.
“Grandmother!” said Ruth in surprise.
Tabitha shuffled into the cave, knelt down on Ruth’s mattress and carefully placed the candle holder on the ground beside them. Then she clasped her hands in her lap and looked at Ruth with Ruth’s eyes. There was awareness in her gaze.
“You heard?” said Ruth with a sniff.
Tabitha nodded. “Judith came to tell me.” Her voice was raw and husky. She had told Ruth once that it was because she used to smoke a lot but there was no such thing as smoking below ground. “I told her I would talk to you.”
An idea occurred to Ruth. Her grandmother was the most senior person in the colony apart from Leader Isaac himself. Perhaps she could say something to the leader on Ruth’s behalf, convince him to change his mind.
“Grandmother,” she started hopefully. “Could you – ”
“I know what you are going to ask me, Ruth,” Tabitha interrupted hoarsely, “but I will not do it.”
Fresh disappointment filled Ruth and a few more tears squeezed out of her eyes. She turned her face away, aggrieved.
“I won’t say what you want to hear,” said Tabitha, “because that will do you no good. I am here to say the things that you need to hear.”
Ruth did not respond. Her grandmother’s refusal to help was as much a betrayal as her parents’ silence.
Tabitha sighed. “The first thing I must point out to you, Ruth, is how badly you have sinned against God through your own poor behaviour. You were impertinent to Leader Isaac, insulting towards Guardian Solomon and now you sit here sulking in a most ungrateful manner. Do I have to remind you how much we owe the leader for bringing us to this safe haven? If he had not accepted me and your mother and uncle into the colony, then you might never have existed at all.”
Ruth felt a pinprick of guilt in the depths of her desolation. It was true that Isaac had saved them from a terrible world above and she was, of course, thankful to him for that. But why had he ruined everything by creating a terrible world for her below?
“And I am shocked to hear what you said about Guardian Solomon. Have you no respect? He is fiercely loyal to this colony and his commitment to our survival is boundless.”
Ruth looked back at her grandmother, amazed that the old woman could not see what was so glaringly wrong.
“He is nearly thirty years older than me,” she said bitterly. “And he smells! And I know he does not love me. He doesn’t show affection towards anyone or anything.”
Tabitha clucked her tongue. “Did you not hear what I said?” she rasped. “Solomon is fiercely loyal. Yes, he has some bad habits and would certainly benefit from a woman’s touch, so why not reach out to him with kindness and thaw that well-guarded heart of his? If you can gain his loyalty, then there is nothing that he will not do for you.”
Ruth considered these words with scepticism. What Tabitha proposed seemed to be an unattainable task. How could she act kindly towards a man who so repulsed her? How would she prevent herself from shuddering every time he touched her? He would know how much she loathed him and then there would never be a possibility of winning his devotion.
“I am in love with Benjamin,” she said stubbornly.
“You think you are, but you are too young to really know that. In any case, it is irrelevant. You must put the boy out of your head now, you will not be marrying him.”
“How do you expect me to put him out of my head?” Ruth demanded. “I’ll still see him at least three or four times a day, there will be no way to avoid him!”
“You turn sixteen the day after tomorrow, Ruth. You have longed to become an adult – here is your first taste of adulthood. Sometimes you have to do very hard things. Forgetting Benjamin will be only one of many. I’m sorry but you will have to learn to regard him as simply another brother of the colony and not as the husband you might once have had.”
As a child, Ruth had always found comfort in her grandmother’s husky voice; it had been familiar and reassuring in its hoarseness. Now it seemed harsh to her ears and her words were merciless and unwelcome.
“I’ll never be able to forget him,” she said plaintively.
Tabitha reached out a wrinkled and mottled hand to clasp Ruth’s youthful and unblemished one. “You don’t understand. You are young and have been sheltered your whole life. Down here you are so well-protected, it is a blessing that you cannot fully appreciate. If you lived above ground, you would have to suffer far worse than this. Trust me when I say that you are very fortunate.”
There was a deep sadness in her voice and Ruth realised that her grandmother was making a rare, veiled reference to her own experiences on the surface. What horrors had befallen her there? Again, Ruth felt a tiny stab of shame. Was she just acting like a petulant child? But it was so hard to be grateful when the horrors of the world above were unnamed and vague while her own reality was facing her in all its unpleasantness.
Her grandmother squeezed her hand. “You just need time to adjust to the idea,” she said encouragingly. “This is God’s plan for you, Ruth. You must embrace it.”
Ruth said nothing. She did not think God was being very kind to her.
Tabitha seemed to know what was in her mind. “You must pray for forgiveness,” she said. “For the things you have said, the things you have done and the things you have thought. I will leave you now so that you may cleanse your soul before God but then that is the end of your solitude. You will be expected in the gathering cave as usual for the evening meal.” She got shakily to her feet. “Would you like me to leave the candle with you?”
“No, you can take it away.” Darkness was preferable to light right now.
Her grandmother picked up the candle holder and stepped over to the doorway, but then stopped and turned back to Ruth.
“I was going to wait until your birthday to tell you this,” she rasped, “but perhaps now is the appropriate time. When you turn sixteen, you will be assigned an occupation in service to the colony. I am going to request that you become an assistant to me. How do you feel about that?”
Tabitha was the seamstress for the underground community. She mended torn or worn clothing and fashioned new garments from rolls of material which had been brought down in the very beginning. As with most items below ground, thread and fabric were in limited supply so clothes were not replaced until they were entirely threadbare. Tabitha had laboured alone for thirty-five years but, at seventy-three, her time was growing shorter and Ruth supposed it had occurred to her that she should train an assistant to carry on her work, just as Master Ezekiel was doing with Zachariah. The possibility of Ruth becoming a cook as she most desired was slim and in the distant future, and the more immediate likelihood was that she would be expected to take on the detestable task of washing clothes, so she understood her grandmother’s kindness and knew that she ought to show her gratitude.
“Thank you, Grandmother,” she said tonelessly. “That is very generous of you.”
Tabitha frowned at her, probably doubting her sincerity, but she just nodded and left the sleeping cave.
Returned to the enveloping darkness, Ruth considered her grandmother’s gesture. A day ago, she would have been highly delighted at the proposition but now it seemed empty of pleasure. What did she care for stitching blouses when the surly captain of the guardians awaited her in her sleeping cave afterwards?
She didn’t try to pray. She didn’t feel much like talking to God after he had allowed this to happen to her. God knew she loved Benjamin, everyone in the colony knew it. They had been close their whole lives and it would have been the most natural step for them to marry – but that joy had been taken away from them. She blamed them all: Isaac, Solomon and God. She wanted to rail against them and it seemed that refusing to pray was to be her only form of defiance. So she just wrapped her blanket more tightly around her shoulders and gave herself up to her misery.
After some time had passed – she could not say how much – she heard more footsteps and voices in the passage outside her cave. The carefree patter and breathless chatter told her that it was the children returning after their spell above ground. A woman’s voice called to one lagging child to hurry up – it was either Sheba or Esther because they were the only mothers of the six youngest members of the colony, four belonging to the former and two to the latter. Ruth stayed very still and they passed by, heedless of her presence.
When the last sounds of them had faded away, Ruth let out a heavy sigh. The end of the children’s surface exposure meant that dusk was nearing and it was nearly time for the evening meal. She would have to rouse herself soon or someone would be sent to fetch her. Morosely, she stood up and let the blanket fall to the mattress. The one good thing about the meal was that the guardians would not be in attendance so at least she could postpone the moment when she would have to come face to face with – she scowled – her future husband. Benjamin, however, would be there and that was going to be a heartbreaking meeting.
She felt her lip tremble and bit down on it to stop her tears from spilling over again. Steeling herself, she groped for the doorway and stepped out into the passage.
She had barely walked ten paces when she saw a flicker of light floating towards her in the darkness, growing larger as it approached. For an instant, she thought her grandmother was just being impatient, but then the person holding the light materialised out of the gloom and the small flare of the candle flame glinted in the green eyes of Retired Guardian Saul. He appeared more stooped than ever as he came to a halt in front of her.
“Hello, Ruth,” he greeted her; he looked uncomfortable, as well he should. He had promised her that she would not be treated harshly, and look how things had turned out.
She glared at him coldly and did not reply. To behave so discourteously to a guardian, retired or otherwise, was disgraceful but her misfortune had left her feeling rash – it was not as though she could be punished any worse than she already had been.
He did not look offended – rather, he nodded with understanding and not a little remorse.
“I know how you must be feeling,” he began.
“I don’t think you do,” she cut in tersely.
He acknowledged this with a bow of his head. “True. But I can imagine. And I want you to know that I had no part in the decision that was made today. I think Leader Isaac and Guardian Solomon must have colluded while you and I were at the spring.”
“Can you persuade them to change their minds?” Ruth asked without much hope.
“No, I am afraid not,” Saul said, looking genuinely regretful. “I have already tried but Isaac will not listen to me. I have no power against him – he is our leader and must be obeyed.”
Ruth noticed that Saul’s expression was troubled again, just as it had been when he had spoken to her at the spring. She realised at the same time with profound dejection that her future was sealed – if neither her grandmother nor a respected guardian had any influence over Leader Isaac, then her marriage to Guardian Solomon was inevitable.
“I feel like my life is over,” she said dully and moved to pass by Saul.
That was when Saul did something very strange and frightening. He blew out the candle he was holding, plunging them into instantaneous blackness, and reached out to grab Ruth by the wrist. For a man not far off sixty, he was surprisingly strong.
“What are you doing?” Ruth yelped, straining to free herself.
“Be quiet and listen to me,” Saul hissed, not breaking his hold. “The things I am about to say are utterly prohibited, we must ensure we are not overheard.”
At this, Ruth stopped struggling out of sheer bewilderment.
Saul’s voice spoke to her in the dark, quick and urgent. “I think what they are doing to you is unnecessarily cruel. It tells me that they enjoy exerting power over others more than they value humane conduct and that goes against everything this community is meant to stand for. We came down here to escape such brutality.”
He tightened his grip, pulling her closer to him so that she could smell the mint on his breath. “The first of us, we went below ground willingly, we knew what we were forsaking above. But you, and the other children born here, you are ignorant of what lies on the surface. We have kept the truth hidden from you, but perhaps if you knew it you might choose differently from us. You have the right to know, especially when the life that has been given to you down here has been spoiled so callously.”
“I don’t – understand,” stuttered Ruth. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you and Benjamin don’t have to accept this. You could – ”
Saul broke off suddenly as another voice cut into the impenetrable gloom.
“Who’s there?” it demanded roughly.
Ruth’s heart plummeted; she knew that gruff voice. Saul let go of her wrist at once. She sensed him fumbling in his pockets and then there was the strike of a match and his little candle glowed once more. Its light fell on the bushy black head of Guardian Solomon, who was looking at them with suspicion. Ruth wondered how they had not heard him approaching before she remembered how sure-footed the guardian was in the murky passageways of the colony. He did not need to shuffle cautiously like the rest of them. The next question that came to her mind was how had they not smelled him coming.
Ruth began breathing through her mouth as Saul feigned nonchalance, saying quite composedly, “Solomon, good evening. I had just bumped into Ruth in the passage when my candle unexpectedly blew out. Are you returning from the surface?”
Solomon nodded curtly. “Gabriel is still up there. I’ve come down to get Enoch and Ezra – they’re on the first night shift but I want them to start a little earlier so that Gabriel and Matthias can go hunting.”
Lesser Guardian Matthias was Saul’s other surviving son. He was widely known to be the best hunter in the colony and was evidently passing the skill on to his younger brother.
Saul looked proud. “I hope my two boys are serving you well.”
Solomon only grunted; he did not hand out compliments lightly. He looked down at Ruth. “Shouldn’t you be in the gathering cave?”
Ruth stared up at his impassive face. He gave not the slightest indication that he was aware of their forthcoming betrothal – he just looked at her like she was any other member of the colony.
Feeling depressed but too scared of him to be impolite, she muttered, “Yes.”
“I shall escort her there now,” interjected Saul quickly. “You go on, Solomon, we don’t want to delay you any further.”
Solomon grunted again, strode past them and was swallowed immediately by the shadows. Saul and Ruth followed at a slower pace.
“That was close,” Saul breathed once the captain was out of earshot. “I thought we would be alerted to the approach of any eavesdropper in sufficient time but I forgot how accustomed he is to walking these passages in the darkness. We should say no more here. I will come find you tomorrow and I promise I will tell you everything then.”
“Everything about what?” Ruth asked, mystified by the whole encounter.
“Things which may give you hope,” answered the retired guardian enigmatically.
They had reached the gathering cave. Saul gave Ruth an encouraging pat on the arm and departed towards the male sleeping caves. Without having time to digest this extraordinary statement, Ruth found herself among the milling denizens of the colony, all waiting hungrily for their evening meal. It took less than three seconds for her to espy Benjamin, sitting slumped against a wall, his curly head drooping miserably as he stared down at the ground.
Taking a deep breath, Ruth walked over and sat down beside him. His head jerked upwards and she saw that his eyes were puffy; he had been crying too. Neither of them said anything for a long time. Ruth noticed both of their mothers glancing repeatedly at them from across the cave but she ignored them – she and Benjamin were not breaking any rules by simply sitting next to each other.
At last, Benjamin mustered the energy to speak. “Can you believe this is happening?” he said listlessly.
Ruth shook her head. There was something stuck in her throat that prevented her from uttering a word.
Benjamin heaved a sigh. “Do you want to know what Leader Isaac said to me after you ran away?”
“What?” she whispered.
“He said that I should be ashamed of myself for letting a female speak for me and that the colony could not hope to be protected by a man with such weakness in him. He as good as told me that I would never become a guardian.”
“Oh, Benjamin!” Could this day get any worse?
Benjamin looked directly at her, his eyes grey and dispirited. “Why couldn’t you have just run for the vent like everyone else, Ruth?”
All she could do was gape as he stood up and walked slowly away from her.
The evening meal – squirrel again with chunks of cooked turnips and carrots – was tasteless to Ruth. She made eye contact with no one. She did not know how many people were already aware of her arranged marriage to Guardian Solomon and she didn’t care to find out. It would be common knowledge tomorrow anyway once she and Solomon went to Leader Isaac for his blessing.
The meal was followed by a long evening of prayer. Leader Isaac gazed around at them all, as benign as ever, but Ruth now knew the cruelty that existed beneath that kind façade. Retired Guardian Saul did not look at her, betraying no hint that he had communicated anything illicit to her. Benjamin kept his head resolutely lowered, seemingly in fervent prayer. And Guardian Solomon held up an oil lamp at the side of the cave, as expressionless as the earth they all knelt on.
It was with a heavy heart that Ruth went to her bed that night. Judith tried to wish her goodnight but Ruth turned her back on her to face the wall. The rest of the women lay down on their mattresses and Delilah blew out the candle. Ruth’s last consoling thought before she fell asleep was that Saul’s words, though thoroughly perplexing, had indeed sparked a glimmer of hope.
She woke to the sound of the bell ringing through the passageways of the colony. Several disorientating moments passed before she understood why she was feeling so alarmed. What she could hear was not the normal clanging and clamouring of the bell which called the inhabitants to morning prayer. The bell was being sounded with slow, deliberate strokes, an ominous gap between each doleful toll. This meant calamity, tragedy for the colony. The last time it had been heard was six weeks ago when old Tobiah had passed away.
There were murmurs of anxiety and fear as the other women in the cave woke too and registered the meaning of the bell. They rose and hurried to the doorway, still clad in their nightdresses. Ruth followed just behind her mother. There were figures in the passageway, jostling and bumping into each other; nobody had thought to bring a light. Delilah came back past Ruth, groped around on the floor and lit her candle. Then she led the way up the passage towards the gathering cave, the natural assembly point in this moment of uncertainty.
Delilah was the first to enter the cave. Ruth was several steps behind and there were two or three women in between so she could not see clearly what happened next – she just heard Delilah’s horrified gasp, and then the light of her candle guttered out, as though she had dropped it. Ruth and the others crowded forward apprehensively.
The gathering cave was dimly lit by two oil lamps. Ruth could make out Leader Isaac and his guardians (apart from Ruth’s uncle, Enoch, and Lesser Guardian Ezra who must still be above ground on sentry duty) standing at the far end by the wooden slab, heads uniformly bowed in grief. There was something laid out on the earth in front of them and Delilah was kneeling beside it, weeping uncontrollably.
Ruth crept closer for a better look and cried out in an exclamation of shock. A body lay at the feet of the leader. Its green eyes stared unseeingly upwards to the wooden rafters and its shoulders, always so hunched with pain, now lay lifeless without tension.
Horror-struck, Ruth looked up wildly and her gaze locked with Guardian Solomon’s. He looked back at her unflinchingly.
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