Below Ground – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 of Below Ground is finally ready for viewing. Just to refresh your memory, Chapter 4 ended with Ruth discovering a secret cave underground – but now she is in danger of being discovered herself…

BELOW GROUND

Chapter 5

Ruth sighed inwardly as she stood motionless in the darkness. Lately, it seemed that she had no luck at all. She strained to listen to the two unwelcome individuals who had unknowingly cornered her in yet another act of wrongdoing. Their voices carried down the short tunnel to her, the clarity of their speech only partially impeded by the barrel of fabric blocking the other end, which was now faintly outlined by a glimmer of flickering candlelight. It was unquestionably two men.

“…can’t believe they just abandoned us up there,” the first voice was grumbling. “All night! Our shift should have ended at midnight but it seems it was acceptable to leave us there until noon.”

“It couldn’t be helped,” the second male answered, his voice so quiet that Ruth had to crouch down close to the mouth of the tunnel to hear him better. “There was a death in the colony, and the death of a guardian, no less. The proper customs had to be observed. Changing shifts on the surface was not a priority.”

From this snatch of conversation, Ruth was able to identify both men. The quiet voice was that of her rather reserved uncle, Guardian Enoch, and the grumbler could be no one but Lesser Guardian Ezra, who was dissatisfied with something as usual.

“And not a word of a reprieve for this evening,” Ezra continued to complain loudly. “We’ll be expected to report at dusk after barely a few hours to eat and rest.”

“Those are our orders,” Enoch said, and he sounded weary as though he had been listening to Ezra grouse about this for several hours. “You knew when you took up the guardianship that it would not be an easy life.”

“I thought it would be better than this,” Ezra muttered. “Ringing bells and sentry duty – I’m not particularly impressed so far. The guardianship is supposed to bring power and benefits.”

“You are still on probation. Be patient. All of the guardians’ privileges will be revealed to you in time.”

“Why can’t they be revealed to me now?” Ezra demanded like a petulant child.

“Because you must first be deemed wholly reliable before you can be entrusted with the colony’s secrets. And this kind of whining does not encourage me to recommend you to Guardian Solomon.”

That shut Ezra up at once. Enoch had chosen the right threat; the last thing Ezra would want would be to jeopardise his position in the guardianship. No man had ever failed his probation and returned to the life of an ordinary citizen – Ezra surely had no desire to be the first. Ruth heard a rattling sound as though some boxes of matches were being shifted around and then Ezra’s voice came again, low and meek.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean to sound ungrateful. I can be reliable, I swear it.”

“I know you can,” Enoch replied and Ruth thought she could detect relief in his voice; he had always been a non-confrontational sort of person. She wished he wasn’t so forgiving – she would relish the sight of Ezra being knocked off his high pedestal. “Lack of sleep has made us both tired and irritable. Let us get our fresh candles and go back to our sleeping quarters. A few hours’ rest will rejuvenate us.”

Ezra mumbled his assent and there were further noises which could be attributed to the two guardians rooting through a box of candles. Ruth began to hope that they had no intention of entering her hidden cave at all. It seemed that Ezra at any rate was unaware of it and Enoch was not apparently prepared to impart such a secret to the lesser guardian. But then her uncle spoke again and his voice was louder and nearer, so close that she realised he must be standing at the tower of candle boxes right next to the barrel of fabric.

“I suppose you have proven yourself to be reasonably responsible up to this point,” he said pensively. “Perhaps you ought to be rewarded with an increased level of trust.”

Panic rose in Ruth at these words. Enoch’s proximity to the hidden cave made her worry that this was bound to be the secret he would reveal to Ezra. If the two men came into the cave, she would be caught. There was no way to find a hiding place in the pitch darkness, and fumbling around in the unfamiliar cave would only alert them to her presence. There was also the mysterious light-producing object still clutched in her hand – the open box and missing item would be noticed immediately. She would be accused of spying, trespassing, stealing and who knew what else. It was certainly more than enough to earn her a long spell in an isolation cave. The only good thing that might come out of this situation was that her wedding would undoubtedly have to be postponed on account of the bride not being present to say her vows.

But Enoch had continued on, his tone still contemplative. “A gesture of faith is what is needed, to show that we believe you capable and to allow you to prove that you are.”

“Like what?” asked Ezra eagerly, his bravado returning as his transgression seemed to be forgotten.

“I shall consult with Guardian Solomon first and, if he agrees, I shall let you carry the bag on our sentry duty this evening.”

There was a pause, during which Ruth reckoned she and Ezra were both thinking the same thing: carry the bag, big deal.

Then Enoch added, in a whisper so low that Ruth barely caught it, “And I shall show you what is inside it as well.”

Now that was an infinitely more interesting proposition. Ruth heard Ezra’s sharp intake of breath.

“Thank you, Guardian Enoch,” he said, his voice almost reverential. No doubt he would be on his best behaviour for the rest of the day with such a treat dangling before him.

“We shall see what Guardian Solomon says,” came Enoch’s mild reply. “For now, let us go pray and rest.”

There was a hiss and a brighter flare of light at the other end of the tunnel; Ruth could only assume that they had touched the wicks of their new candles to the nubs of their old ones. In the next moment, the light and their footfalls were receding and Ruth was left alone and undiscovered in the hidden cave. Blowing out her breath in relief, she waited for her heartbeat to return to normal; it had been a fortunate escape.

She thought about what she had overheard – that reference to ‘guardians’ privileges’ was particularly incriminating. What secrets were yet to be revealed to Ezra? This cave, of course – but what else? How many more things were the pious guardians concealing from the unwitting inhabitants of the colony?

Anger boiled up inside Ruth at the thought of being so deceived by the people they had believed to be their protectors. It was such a betrayal of trust and the guardians had taken such shameless advantage of the ordinary citizens’ innocence and ignorance that it made her feel physically sick. She wanted to ransack the cave from top to bottom and learn every truth there was to glean from it – but she had to go. She had been gone far too long for a simple visit to the waste bucket and Master Ezekiel was undoubtedly becoming suspicious by now.

She pressed the button on the cylindrical object to gain her bearings by its miraculous light, seized her candle from the ground and noted the position of the box she had opened, before taking the light away again. Then she had to return the cylinder to its place by feel alone, adjusting it inside the box until it was exactly in line with the others. Reluctantly, she replaced the lid of the box, promising herself that she would come back for a more thorough exploration as soon as she possibly could.

She crawled back through the small tunnel, squeezed out past the barrel of fabric and crept from the storage cave into the passage beyond. There was no sign of Ezra or Enoch and when she passed the guardians’ sleeping quarters she could hear a faint snore which indicated that they had already fallen asleep, exhausted as they were from their overlong sentry duty the previous night.

Master Ezekiel pounced on her at once as she entered the gathering cave.

“What took you so long?” he demanded, snatching his precious candle from her.

“I accidentally dropped the candle and the flame went out. Look, you can see where it burned me on my wrist. I had to feel my way along after that so it took a bit longer than it should have.”

“Careless,” he snapped. “You need to hurry. Leader Isaac and the other guardians have returned from burying Retired Guardian Saul and you are required in the reception cave.”

Ruth glanced around and saw her mother waiting anxiously nearby. On the other side of the cave, Benjamin caught her eye and then looked quickly away. It was easy to guess who was waiting for her in the reception cave. Evidently, deaths did not stall betrothals.

She thought about screaming her discovery out loud. They are hiding things from us! We are being fooled! That would certainly distract the inhabitants from their midday meal. But something stayed her tongue. Perhaps it was the fact that she didn’t yet have a full understanding of what she had stumbled upon – she couldn’t even put a name on the strange object she had found. She needed to find out more so that the people would believe her when she finally did tell them.

So instead she said to Master Ezekiel, in an attempt to delay the inevitable, “May I eat first? I’m so hungry.”

“You can eat afterwards. The leader should not be kept waiting.”

Resignedly, Ruth shuffled towards the giant wooden slab and the passageway behind it, her mother following her. When she knocked on the door to Leader Isaac’s private caves, it was opened almost immediately.

Inside the reception cave, which was lit by a single oil lamp resting in an alcove, she found Leader Isaac sitting in calm composure on the chair in the centre; there was no grief on his face for the death of a man he had known for thirty-five years. In front of him stood, as she had expected, Guardian Solomon. His back was to her but she knew him by his bushy black hair and his pungent smell. Also present were Solomon’s parents, Retired Guardian Malachi and his wife, Leah, and Ruth’s father, Jonah. It was time for the blessing.

“Welcome, Ruth,” said Leader Isaac, his smile cold beneath those icy-blue eyes. How could she ever have believed them to be kind? “Please take your place.”

Feeling as though her feet were made of heavy wood, Ruth stepped forward to stand beside Guardian Solomon. He did not so much as glance sideways at her to acknowledge her presence. Malachi, Leah, Jonah and Judith moved to stand behind their respective children. Ruth felt Judith touch her shoulder briefly; maybe it was intended as a sign of support or encouragement but to Ruth it was an empty gesture. Her mother had done nothing to prevent this from happening, despite the fact that she knew how unhappy it would make Ruth. She had never seemed less like a mother.

“Kneel,” said Leader Isaac and Ruth and Solomon dropped to their knees before him. She kept her lips pressed tightly together while the captain of the guardians spoke.

“Leader Isaac,” he began, his gruff voice barely above a mumble. “We come before you with a request.”

He talked of marriage and duty and devotion to God, never love, and not once did he speak Ruth’s name. She felt inanimate and worthless, something to be possessed but not cherished.

“Will you grant us your blessing for our betrothal?”

“Gladly,” responded Leader Isaac. “Hold out your hands.”

Solomon extended his right hand and, very unwillingly, Ruth did the same. Isaac took their hands and rested Solomon’s over Ruth’s. The guardian’s palm was sweaty and, to Ruth’s surprise, he was trembling. She looked up at him but he was staring intently at Isaac and did not meet her eyes.

Leader Isaac prayed over their joined hands. “Lord, I give my blessing for this betrothal in your holy name. May these two who have chosen to commit to one another always remember that their first commitment is to you, the Lord Almighty, and may they continue to be your faithful servants in our humble colony here under the earth.”

Oh, the hypocrisy. Ruth gritted her teeth.

Isaac made the sign of the cross at them and said, “You may rise.”

Ruth dropped her hand from Solomon’s quickly and stood up. He got to his feet more slowly, his fists clenched. He still would not look at her. The thought of sharing the rest of her life with this surly man filled her with a deep, aching dread. If she could only uncover the guardians’ secrets and lies before their actual marriage took place, then…what? What would happen? Would Guardian Solomon discard her? Or would he marry her anyway?

Feeling bone-weary from fear and doubt, Ruth asked, “Do I have permission to go? I have not yet eaten today.”

“Yes,” said Leader Isaac. “We shall convene here again tomorrow.”

That halted Ruth, who had already turned to leave. “For what?”

“For the wedding, of course.”

Why was she so shocked? Of course they would not want to waste any time – the sooner Solomon had control over her, the better.

“Tomorrow?” she croaked, her throat dry as dust. “That is so – so soon. Could we not wait a little longer? I am only just about to turn sixteen.”

Isaac raised his eyebrows. “At your first request for betrothal, you seemed more than eager to marry once you came of age. It shall be a joint celebration, your birthday and your wedding in one day. Can you imagine any happier occasion?”

Play obedience, warned her instincts. He knows what you’re thinking, don’t give him the satisfaction of rising to his jibe.

“No, I cannot,” she said quietly while her insides churned with rage. She left the reception cave before her face could betray her true feelings.

When she got back to the gathering cave, she found that the people had finished their meal and were preparing to return to mournful prayer. All the bowls of vegetables had disappeared. Needing to release her anger in some way, she marched up to Master Ezekiel and said accusingly, “The food is gone! You knew I had not eaten – am I supposed to wait now until the evening meal? I’m already famished!”

Ezekiel looked displeased by her tone but also somewhat guilty. Even by his contrary standards, he could not condone the starvation of another and still consider himself a godly man.

“The women have just taken the bowls away to wash them. If you follow them to the spring, they will give you something to eat.”

Ruth said, “Thank you,” stiffly and stalked across the cave. As she passed Benjamin, she widened her eyes at him, hoping to communicate her fear. She saw his own widen in return and then she was in the passageway leading towards the spring.

Master Ezekiel had not given her a candle this time, so she guided herself by running her hand along the wall, feeling where the cool soil gradually merged into damp rock and unintentionally knocking off bits of lichen with her fingers. Her pulse hammered in her ears, competing with the escalating sound of rushing water ahead. Many thoughts were clamouring for attention in her mind but there was one overriding all the others – the marriage was going to take place tomorrow. That gave her almost no time at all. After that, Guardian Solomon would be watching her every move and, as her husband, would have the ability and the unlimited authority to punish her most severely if he caught her in any wrongdoing. She was now very afraid.

She found Abigail, Rachel and Hannah in the cold, rocky cave, washing the vegetable bowls in the gushing spring. Trying to keep her voice steady, Ruth explained to them why she was there.

“Yes, we had a bowl left over,” said Hannah, handing it to Ruth. “We did wonder had we brought down one too many. Best eat it here and then you can go back, Ruth.”

There was nowhere to sit in the cave without getting her skirt damp, so Ruth stood while she ate her chopped celery and carrots. She had a pain in her stomach because she was so ravenous, or perhaps because her insides were so knotted with fear, but she ate anyway. She was about halfway through when another person entered the cave – it was Benjamin and he was coughing and clutching at his throat. Ruth choked on her vegetables in alarm. What was wrong with him?

“Need water,” he wheezed at the frowning women and Hannah hastily filled a cup from the waterfall and gave it to him. He drank deeply, coughed once more and then said, “Thanks. I just had the most awful coughing fit in the gathering cave but I feel better now. I ought to get back right away.”

He glanced swiftly at Ruth and then ducked out of the cave. Ruth stuffed her remaining vegetables into the pocket of her skirt, left her empty bowl on the rock shelf next to the other unwashed ones and said to the women, “I ought to get back too,” before darting after Benjamin. It was a bit obvious but that couldn’t be helped; hopefully the women would see their actions as innocuous rather than suspicious.

She found Benjamin waiting for her a short way inside the passage and together they hurried on a little further, Ruth clutching the back of Benjamin’s shirt in the darkness. The noise of the spring meant that the women would not be able to overhear them, although it also meant they were unlikely to hear anyone approaching. They would have to take that risk.

She felt Benjamin stop in front of her and turn around.

“I pretended to have the coughing fit,” he told her. “I thought I got the message from you that you wanted to talk?”

“Yes,” she breathed and seized both of his hands with her own. “Oh, Benjamin! Oh, they’re such liars, and they’re being so cruel!”

“Tell me, what is it? It can’t be worse than everything that’s already happened, can it?”

“It is, it’s all worse. We just had the blessing for the betrothal and – I feel sick just saying it – Solomon and I are to be married tomorrow!”

When he replied, she could tell that the shock was not so great for him as it had been for her. “I was afraid they might do that. It makes sense from their point of view, doesn’t it? Better to get it done as quickly as possible before you have the opportunity to break any more rules.”

“Well, they’re too late for that,” said Ruth grimly. “I’m breaking them every chance I get and I’ve just made the most appalling discovery. Benjamin, there’s a secret cave underground!”

“A secret cave?” he repeated blankly.

“Just listen.” She told him about her illicit detour into the second storage cave, the hidden cave beyond and the mystifying object she had found there. “It made light, without any match or oil, and it was so bright. It was like I was holding the sun in my hands. I could see around the whole cave and there were boxes and boxes of things – who knows what else was in them? Well, the guardians do, the sneaking pack of liars. I hate them! I hate every one of them for making such fools of us!”

This passionate exclamation was greeted with a profound silence broken only by the sound of the distant waterfall. Benjamin didn’t say a word and Ruth could not see his expression to guess what he might be thinking. Did he believe her? Maybe he thought she was the one who was lying. A wave of nausea washed over her; if Benjamin was not on her side, she was lost.

“Benjamin?” she choked, clutching his hands all the harder. “You do believe me, don’t you?”

There was a pause and then he whispered, “Yes, of course I do.”

Relief flooded through her.

“It’s just so frightening,” he continued in a weak voice. “I mean, we knew the guardians kept secrets from us about life above ground but the fact that they’re hiding things from us below ground… What can it mean? Is there anyone we can trust?”

Ruth thought of Leader Isaac, Guardian Solomon, Ezra, Master Ezekiel, her mother, her father, her grandmother.

“No,” she said. “There is no one we can trust, no one it would be safe to tell. If Saul was alive, we could have confided in him…” But with that thought came the uncomfortable realisation that surely Saul must have already known about the cave – he had been a guardian, after all. He had deceived the citizens just as much as the other guardians, and yet he had also tried to help Ruth before he died… Oh, that was just too confusing to think about. She shook her head. “We are alone, Benjamin.”

“What are we going to do?” he asked fearfully. “If they find out that we know…”

Ruth took a deep breath and stared up to where she knew Benjamin’s face to be, shrouded though he was in the pitch black darkness.

“Do you remember what I said to you in the gathering cave before my mother interrupted us?”

She heard him swallow audibly. “That was only a joke, Ruth. You weren’t being serious – ”

“Yes, I was, I meant every word I said. What is stopping us?”

“Everything! We don’t have a notion of what it is like up there, how in God’s name would we survive even one day? What’s more, we’d never get permission to leave and it would be impossible to escape – ”

“Not impossible,” Ruth counteracted. “I’m sure we could find a way.”

She could feel Benjamin’s hands getting sweaty in her own. “Ruth,” he said hoarsely. “Think about what you’re saying. To leave the safety of the colony, our families…”

“The colony is not safe,” she retorted. “Leader Isaac is a tyrant in disguise and tomorrow he is going to chain me forever to a man I utterly detest. And my family! What love is there between my parents and I? They are more interested in obeying Isaac than in protecting me. I will not miss them.”

“How can you say – ”

“The only thing I care about is you, Benjamin!” she interjected once again, her voice growing louder in her desperation for him to understand. “If we stay, they will tear us apart. If we go, they can never hurt us again. It’s a simple choice, which do you want?”

“That’s not fair,” he said defensively. “There’s more to consider than that. I have my own family too, I have my brother.”

“Yesterday, you were prepared to marry me tomorrow! Has anything changed or do you still love me that much?”

“I do, of course I do! For so long, there’s been nothing I’ve wanted more than to marry you.”

“Then is that not your answer right there?”

There was silence between them, a silence full of longing as they stood so close to each other. Ruth imagined she could hear both of their hearts beating very fast.

Then Benjamin said at last, “Yes.” He was helpless in the face of her fierce conviction. Running away, fraught though it would be with danger, was the only way.

She put her arms around his neck and they embraced tightly in the unlit passageway. There was now something else pumping through her veins, something other than fear that made her pulse thump so wildly: there was hope.

When they pulled apart, Benjamin asked shakily, “When will we go?”

She answered without hesitation. “Tonight.”

Will Ruth and Benjamin succeed in their attempt to escape? Make sure you subscribe to my website (www.susiegmurphy.com) or like my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SusieG.writer) to find out!

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