Here is Chapter 2 of my new novel, Below Ground. Now you can find out what happens next…
The noise was increasing in intensity; whatever was producing it must surely be almost upon her. Screaming and groaning, it surrounded her, echoing around the clearing until she felt like it was inside her, expanding in her throat and choking her with dread. Too terrified to look, she scrunched up her eyes tightly and clung to the tree trunk beside her, as though it could offer her some sort of protection.
The terrible sound was so unlike anything she had ever heard and so threatening that she felt certain her life was at an end. There was nothing in this world, above or below, that could instil such fear and not be harmful. She was going to die mere days before she turned sixteen; she would never get the chance to marry Benjamin or kiss him or bear his children. The one thing in life worth living for and it was going to be snatched away from her just when it was within her reach. Sheer despair welled up in her, strangling her so that she could hardly breathe.
But was this the end? Maybe she was only imagining it but she thought that the horrific noise seemed to be lessening slightly as if it were moving further away. Ruth tentatively pulled her arms down from her head and listened intently, not daring to make a sound herself. Yes, it was definitely not as loud as it had been a few moments ago. The roar was fading from the clearing, getting quieter and more distant until Ruth was straining her ears to hear it. Then it was gone completely, leaving the clearing empty and serenely calm once more.
Ruth did not move. What if the thing came back? She remained huddled against the tree trunk, drenched in sweat and fear, her heart pounding. She listened as hard as she could but there was only silence now, punctuated here and there by intermittent birdsong and the rustle of a breeze in the tops of the pines.
After a while, it seemed apparent that the menacing noise was not going to return. Ruth let out a shuddering breath. She had no idea what had just happened but she knew that she was extremely lucky to be alive. Standing up on shaky legs, she peered all around, out into the clearing, back into the dark trees and up to the blue sky. All was utterly peaceful; there was no sign whatsoever of the horror that had just passed through. If she had opened her eyes, perhaps she might have seen something, but that would have called for a level of bravery that she did not possess.
She took a tentative step into the clearing and paused. Nothing swooped down upon her so she mustered her last tiny shred of courage and ran for the vent. Dropping to her knees, she scrabbled at the camouflaged net of twigs and grass but, before she could find the edges of it, it was dragged away from below and Lesser Guardian Gabriel’s face appeared in the hole.
He looked quite as furious as Guardian Solomon as he barked, “Get in!” and pulled her into the vent.
Still weak-kneed, she missed her footing on the ladder completely and felt herself falling down into the hole. She didn’t have time to brace herself but it did not matter because she never hit the ground. Instead, she landed safely in a pair of outstretched arms which grasped her tightly to a strong, muscular chest. Her momentary relief dissipated instantly when she inhaled the foul odour of a man who had not washed for weeks and stared up into the grim face of Guardian Solomon.
“Idiot girl,” he snarled and started striding up the passageway away from the vent with Ruth still in his clutches. She barely had a second to catch a glimpse of Benjamin’s terrified face before she was carried away into the darkness.
She struggled to free herself but Solomon’s grip was like iron. He marched forward, impressively sure-footed in the light-starved passage. As captain of the guardians, he probably knew the twists and turns of the colony better than anyone. He said nothing, but his heavy breathing conveyed his anger well enough and Ruth’s fear returned to her forcefully. Where was he taking her? Was she going to be punished very severely for what she had done? Mild transgressions below ground generally resulted in a period of revoked surface exposure. More serious offences could gain the lawbreaker a spell in an isolation cave. The isolation caves had doors, not for privacy, as in the case of Leader Isaac’s personal caves, but to cut the wrongdoer off from all human contact. Ruth shuddered violently.
After a minute or two, a faint glow came into sight ahead of them and they emerged into the gathering cave where Master Ezekiel was sitting cross-legged on the ground, giving his lessons by the light of an oil lamp. The children gathered around him gaped open-mouthed as Solomon strode by with Ruth in his arms but the captain ignored them. He slipped into the passageway behind the large wooden slab and, with a sinking feeling, Ruth knew where they were going.
He was taking her to Leader Isaac.
Guardian Solomon’s feet, bare like everyone else’s, slapped the earth as they re-entered darkness. He stamped up the short passage before coming to an abrupt stop and setting Ruth down roughly on her feet. Ruth could see nothing in the pitch black but she sensed the barrier in front of her that was the door leading into Isaac’s private quarters. Solomon rapped sharply on the wood and then stood waiting in dour silence. Ruth could feel her heart hammering again.
The door was answered by a man holding a candle aloft. By its weak light, Ruth recognised Retired Guardian Saul. Just shy of sixty, he was green-eyed and balding, with a pronounced stoop in his back which was attributed to a chronic pain in his spine that had plagued him for years. He had trained to be a doctor on the surface before he followed Isaac below ground and consequently the denizens of the colony went to him when they needed relief from various ailments or treatment for minor injuries. Often, he was ill-equipped to assist them but he had a soothing nature that helped a little nonetheless. He was Delilah’s husband and Gabriel’s father and he looked out at them now inquiringly.
“Yes? What is the matter?”
“We need to see Leader Isaac,” said Guardian Solomon gruffly. “Right away.”
At this, Ruth burst into tears. She could not help herself, it was all simply too much for her to cope with. She had just nearly died and now she was being treated like a criminal when she had not intended to do anything wrong.
Saul looked at her in shock. He glanced from Solomon’s scowling face back to Ruth and brought his candle closer to appraise her with a doctor’s eyes.
“She cannot go in like this,” he announced. “She is upset and dehydrated, she needs water. In any case, we are still in the middle of our morning prayers.”
“The colony’s security may have been compromised,” stated Solomon. “Leader Isaac needs to hear about it immediately.”
Saul was taken aback by this. He considered Solomon’s words for a moment. “Very well,” he said. “You may go in, Solomon. But I must first take Ruth to the spring. She needs to calm down before she can go before the leader.”
Ruth tried and failed to choke back the sob that burst from her throat. Solomon nodded curtly and stepped through the doorway without looking at her. Saul came out, still bearing his candle, and shut the door quietly behind him. He indicated to Ruth that she should follow him and started down the passage, his hunched shoulders casting a flickering shadow on the wall.
They returned to the gathering cave where Ruth was once again greeted with dumbfounded expressions. Little Simeon actually stood up, pointed and said loudly, “She’s crying!”
“Is everything all right, Saul?” Master Ezekiel asked uncertainly, also rising to his feet.
“Everything is fine, Ezekiel,” Retired Guardian Saul responded without stopping.
He and Ruth passed through the gathering cave and exited down a different passage. Four passageways in all led out of the cave: one to Isaac’s personal quarters, another to the women’s sleeping caves, the family sleeping caves and further on to the vent, a third to the men’s sleeping caves and beyond to the storage caves, and the last to the underground spring. It was down this one that Saul led Ruth.
The air grew chillier as they walked. Ruth was still crying miserably and her hands were shaking. Saul did not say anything to her but he was not glowering at her as Solomon had done; he merely looked contemplative by the light of his candle.
Gradually, their earthen surroundings disappeared as the walls, ground and roof of the passageway became hard and rocky. It got colder still and the rock glistened where little rivulets of water ran down it, while here and there the walls were dotted with green patches of lichen. The sound of running water came to them from further ahead, growing louder with every step they took.
They emerged into a rocky cave with a high ceiling and their eyes fell upon the greatest asset that the colony possessed. Against the opposite wall was a gushing underground spring which fell into view in the form of a small waterfall from the left and flowed out of sight through an opening in the rock on the right. A low rock shelf on the near side prevented it from flooding out onto the cave floor, though the ground was still damp under Ruth’s feet. The noise of the rushing water echoed around the space and goosebumps rose on Ruth’s skin in the cold air.
Without this essential natural resource, the colony would never have survived. The water was pure and clear and the inhabitants utilised it in every way possible: for drinking, cooking, washing themselves and scouring clothes. The lower end was used for tasks that would dirty the water while the clean gush of the waterfall was reserved for consumption only. It was always icy cold running down the throat but, most importantly, it was utterly free from contamination.
The spring was truly invaluable and had been the main factor in Leader Isaac’s choice of location for their underground home. The rest of the colony had been established around it, with Joseph, Moses, Omar and others excavating tunnels with their tools and fashioning wooden pillars from felled trees to create structural support. There were many items below ground which were in limited supply – candles, matches, oil for the lamps, fabric and thread for stitching clothes – but water was the one thing which the people had in endless abundance.
Two women were already in the cave when Ruth and Saul entered it: Ruth’s mother, Judith, and Benjamin’s mother, Jemima. Jemima was Delilah’s daughter but Saul was not her father; Delilah had borne her out of wedlock a year before the colony went underground and had not married Saul until Year 2. Judith and Jemima had this much in common because Judith, too, had been brought below as a fatherless child, along with Ruth’s uncle, Enoch. However, Ruth’s grandmother, Tabitha, had never married within the colony. So neither Ruth nor Benjamin had ever known their maternal grandfathers. On occasion, Ruth wondered what had happened to her grandfather on the surface, whether he was dead or whether he had been able to survive the wars and diseases which had swept through the world, but long ago she had stopped asking for the truth for Tabitha was stubbornly tight-lipped on the subject.
Judith and Jemima were both leaning over the rock shelf at the lower end of the spring, hands submerged in the water as they scrubbed clothes. This was one task below ground which Ruth heartily hoped she would never have to take on. It was an unpleasant business working in the freezing cold water and the women who looked after the laundry constantly suffered from wrinkled, numb fingers which took a long time to warm up afterwards. Even now, Ruth’s mother winced as the spring coursed over her hands and up her arms.
She and Jemima looked around in surprise when Saul coughed to announce his and Ruth’s presence (the running water had masked the sound of their footsteps). They pulled their hands out of the water, withdrawing two sodden blouses as they did so.
“Ruth?” said Judith, staring in consternation at her daughter’s tear-stained face, then at the retired guardian beside her, and back again. “You are supposed to be on the surface right now. What has happened?”
“Sisters, can you please leave us for a few minutes?” Saul requested smoothly. “Ruth can explain everything to you later.”
They both looked taken aback but neither of them questioned the order. A guardian’s authority was absolute, even when the guardian was no longer in active service. They dropped the wet clothes into a wicker basket beside the spring, took up their own candle from a high ledge that was out of reach of spray from the waterfall, and exited the cave with just one backward glance at Ruth.
Saul motioned to Ruth and she sat down gingerly on the damp rock shelf. Her tears had abated but her nose was runny; she wiped it on the sleeve of her blouse and stared morosely up at the retired guardian. He still said nothing to her – he just picked up a wooden cup from a tidy stack in the corner of the cave, stuck it under the waterfall, filled it to the brim and handed it to her. She accepted it mutely and took a sip. The water was cool and crisp on her tongue, which was still fuzzy from sleep, and she felt it trickle down inside her all the way to her stomach. She drank again, a deeper gulp this time, welcoming its invigorating effects.
Turning away from her, Saul set his candle down on the high ledge that had just been vacated and rummaged in his pockets. When he turned back to Ruth, he held a square of folded cloth in his hands. He pulled back the folds of the cloth to reveal a few cut leaves of mint and Ruth took two when he offered them to her. She put them in her mouth and chewed gratefully. The mint was refreshing and served to revitalise her senses, which had been dulled by shock and fear. She chewed a little longer, swallowed and then looked back at Saul, feeling somewhat calmer.
He sat down beside her on the rock, grimacing and rubbing the small of his back. “Tell me what happened,” he said.
She took a deep breath. “I didn’t mean to do what I did,” she began earnestly. “I was just so scared. I panicked.”
“What scared you?”
“I – I don’t know what it was,” Ruth admitted. “We went above ground and everything was fine and then all of a sudden I heard it. A terrible noise, roaring and growling like a hellhound.” She shuddered as she recalled some of the more frightening passages from Leader Isaac’s bible. “I couldn’t see it but I thought it was going to kill me. I was too afraid to run across the clearing to the vent so I hid in the trees. Guardian Solomon was so angry…”
She trailed away, recalling the captain’s wrath vividly.
“Go on,” Saul prompted.
“He – they all – went below ground,” she whispered. “I was alone and the thing was coming for me. It sounded like it was right beside me or just above me…” She faltered, then continued, “I closed my eyes and prayed as hard as I could. And it went away. The noise faded almost as quickly as it had come. I waited and waited but it didn’t come back so I ran for the hole and then Guardian Solomon dragged me to Leader Isaac’s cave.”
Ruth stopped talking abruptly for Saul knew exactly what had happened next. There was silence in the cave apart from the ceaseless gushing of the waterfall. Ruth took another sip from her cup, noting that her hand was shaking only very slightly now. When she glanced up at the retired guardian, his face was inscrutable.
“Do you know what it was?” she asked in a very small voice, afraid to hear the awful answer.
However, she could tell at once that Saul was not going to reply. His mouth pressed into a thin line and he frowned. It was entirely possible that he knew exactly what horrific creature had just terrorised Ruth in the clearing, or at least that he could make a well-educated guess, but the older members of the colony were forbidden by Isaac to breathe even a single word to the younger members about the unspeakable terrors that haunted the world above. He maintained that this was for their own safety and for the protection of their souls. The people who first went below ground had witnessed monstrous atrocities before they had found salvation under the earth, and must necessarily labour every day for the rest of their lives in God’s service to rid themselves of that taint of evil. Those children born underground had never been exposed to such wickedness and consequently must never be told of it so that they could present themselves to the Lord with unsullied souls, innocent and pure. Of course, every child had gone through a phase growing up where they had tormented the older inhabitants with continual questions about what living on the surface had been like, but they had all eventually given up when they were met with stony silence. Saul and the others were unerringly faithful in upholding Isaac’s law.
And yet, Ruth noticed now that Saul’s frown was more troubled than disapproving. He pressed a hand wearily to his forehead and sighed. When he looked at her again, his green eyes were rueful but it was clear that he was not going to say anything.
Ruth switched to what she thought was a safer question. “Did God save me? Because I prayed?”
But Saul did not seem to like this one much either. “Sometimes our prayers are answered, sometimes they are not,” he said enigmatically.
Slightly puzzled, Ruth turned her gaze back to the spring. She felt droplets land on her face as the water hurried by. The merry sound of the waterfall was familiar and soothing and gave her the courage to finally ask the thing she truly dreaded to know.
“Am I going to be very severely punished?”
“No,” Retired Guardian Saul responded immediately and Ruth looked back at him hopefully. “Ignorance breeds fear and you cannot be blamed for what you do not understand. I will make sure that you are not treated harshly. You look reasonably well revived, shall we go back now?”
Ruth nodded and got to her feet. Saul rose too, picked up his candle and led the way out of the cave. As she followed him, Ruth mused that Saul did not quite have old Tobiah’s gentle, tender-hearted nature but there was something comforting about his presence nonetheless.
The noise of the spring died away as they walked back up the passage and the air began to get a little warmer. It was not long before a tiny flicker of flame loomed out of the gloom and revealed Judith and Jemima waiting patiently where the rocky surroundings merged back into earth. They were whispering together but they stopped as soon as they saw Saul and Ruth approaching.
“Sisters, I thank you,” said Saul. “You may now return to your duties.”
He swept forward and Ruth was obliged to keep up with him, leaving her mother unenlightened once again. They returned to the gathering cave where Ruth averted her eyes from the probing stares that followed her until she disappeared behind the wooden slab. When she and Saul stood once more at the closed door that led into Leader Isaac’s private quarters, she felt a twinge of fear again, despite Saul’s promise that she would not be punished. His shoulders appeared even more hunched as he pushed open the door and they entered.
She had only ever been here once before, when she had received that stern rebuke from Leader Isaac for lighting the illicit candle. No one other than the guardians came past this door, except in instances where Isaac’s authority was required to castigate wrongdoers or his blessing was needed for betrothals or for the very sick. Ruth’s little brother Noah had been taken here when he was in the final throes of his illness. Ruth had been barely five years old but she could distinctly recall her father returning with Noah in his arms, weeping after Isaac had told him there was nothing more that could be done. It was the only time she had ever seen her father cry.
The reception cave was much as she remembered it, completely bare apart from a wooden chair in the centre, which was the sole piece of furniture that existed below ground. Leader Isaac sat on it on those occasions when members of the colony came to have an audience with him. Behind the chair was another closed door which led to the rest of Isaac’s chambers, but Ruth did not know what was beyond it besides a sleeping cave. Supposedly, even the guardians had more limited access there and Isaac and his retired guardians normally knelt here in the reception cave for their morning prayers.
There was no one to be seen so Guardian Solomon must have been successful in halting the prayers in order to inform the leader about Ruth’s disgraceful behaviour. Ruth bit her lip nervously; Isaac must have considered it a very serious transgression if he and Solomon had gone deeper into the caves to discuss it.
“Wait here,” said Saul, taking the candle with him as he disappeared through the opposite door.
Ruth was left in total darkness but it did not bother her. Living her whole life underground meant she had learned very early on that there was nothing to fear from the dark. As she had done when she had woken up, she exerted her other senses and found that there was nothing to smell but the earth and nothing at all to hear for the two doors blocked out every sound.
The wooden chair was just in front of her although, of course, she could not see it. Ruth had never sat on a chair. If she had not been in such trouble, she might have taken this unusual opportunity to dart forward and sit on it for a brief moment. However, considering the events that had taken place this morning, she decided that she did not dare and remained standing while she waited.
Presently, the door opposite her opened again and Saul and the light returned, along with Leader Isaac himself. Guardian Solomon, Ruth noted thankfully, was not with him. She looked anxiously at Isaac and saw, to her surprise, that he was smiling genially.
“Well, Ruth,” he said, “you have caused quite a stir this morning, haven’t you?”
He sat down on the chair, still gazing pleasantly at her, and Saul moved to stand at his side. Ruth was nonplussed. She had expected fury or, at the very least, solemn displeasure, but she had not anticipated this cheerful reaction. She ought to have greeted him with deference but she was so taken aback that she just goggled at him in silence.
Isaac raised an eyebrow. “Did you expect me to be very angry?” he asked discerningly.
Ruth hesitated, then nodded.
“I think Solomon has produced enough anger today for the both of us and I have no inclination to shout at you,” said Leader Isaac gently. “You made a grave mistake but you are fully aware of it and I see no reason to berate you further.”
“It wasn’t deliberate!” Ruth burst out, feeling she should try to explain herself. “I never meant to – ”
Isaac raised a hand to quieten her. “Don’t distress yourself, Ruth. Saul has explained to me what you told him and I perfectly understand. You were frightened and in your confusion you made a bad choice. It is quite justifiable.”
Ruth felt encouraged by these words but then Leader Isaac’s expression became sober as he continued, “Having said that, your actions did put the colony at great risk – if you had been seen, the consequence could have been the total destruction of our haven here under the earth. Fortunately, Guardian Solomon believes that you were not detected, and therefore no real harm has been done. However, I must exact some measure of punishment to ensure that you do not let something like this happen again.”
Ruth looked at Saul in alarm and he gazed back calmly.
“You are prohibited from one morning exposure,” Isaac went on. “I was going to make it two but I did not think it would be very fair to prevent you from breathing fresh air on your birthday.”
He was smiling again. Ruth felt relief flooding through her. She could not believe it – after all her anxiety, she was only going to miss one morning above ground. Admittedly, tomorrow was going to feel unbearably long without any access to the open air, but she would gladly accept it to avoid her worst fear: a period in an isolation cave.
“Thank you, Leader Isaac,” she mumbled.
He nodded kindly and said, “You are a sweet girl, Ruth. I know you will be much more careful from now on.”
“I will, I promise,” she said swiftly.
“You may go now.”
Ruth thanked the leader once more and left the reception cave feeling somewhat dazed. Her emotions had been wrung so intensely from one extreme to the other in such a short space of time that she was almost out of breath. Her initial thrill about her upcoming birthday had been wholly eradicated by the bone-chilling fear she had experienced in the clearing, which had been followed by deep-seated dread of what punishment she would receive and then overwhelming relief as a result of Leader Isaac’s leniency. She had never had such a tumultuous morning in her life.
She would have liked to have found Benjamin and her mother to explain everything to them but that would have to wait until they were gathered for the midday meal. The colony was very strict about citizens always being in their appointed places and Ruth was already exceptionally late for her lessons, so she hurriedly made her way in darkness back to the gathering cave.
The first thing she noticed when her eyes adjusted to the light of the oil lamp was that Master Ezekiel had been joined by Zachariah, a cousin of Benjamin’s in his early twenties who had elected not to join the guardianship in favour of following Ezekiel on the path of learning. He would eventually take over whenever Ezekiel retired or died and acted in the meantime as his teaching assistant. Ezra was Zachariah’s younger brother and Ruth had heard him taunt Zachariah only a day or two ago for choosing the soft option. This had made Ruth like Ezra even less for Zachariah was shy and well-meaning and did not deserve such mockery from someone who had been a guardian for scarcely one month and was still on probation until his captain decided for certain that he was suitable for the role.
Both Ezekiel and Zachariah stared at Ruth as she took her place on the ground next to the other children; Ezekiel looked distrustful but Zachariah seemed merely curious. The boys and girls all had their mouths open as they gazed up at Ruth in something close to awe. Life below ground was decidedly uneventful as a rule, particularly for children, so the commotion that Ruth had caused that morning had filled them with fierce excitement, even though they had no idea what it was about.
“Eyes to me,” said Master Ezekiel irritably. He was probably annoyed because Saul had not stopped to explain the situation to him and he was therefore in the dark just as much as the children were.
Everyone faced Ezekiel obediently. There were three boys and three girls apart from Ruth and she felt a little silly sitting next to them, considering she was eight years older than the nearest child. The colony had some contradictory rules about children: once a child turned twelve, they were no longer entitled to extra surface exposure (children got three times as much open air access as adults did) and they were required to move out of the family caves and into the adult male or female sleeping caves. However, it was only at sixteen that a person was actually deemed to be an adult and allowed to marry and, until that time, they were still regarded as a child and obliged to receive an education from Master Ezekiel.
Ruth found this very frustrating, especially since Benjamin had turned sixteen and she had become the only teenager left with the small ones. She had pleaded to finish her learning at the same time as him but this idea had not been entertained at all and so she was forced to continue to sit docilely on the ground though, mercifully, it was only for two more days now.
Sometimes Zachariah took her aside and worked with her separately – this was usually when Ezekiel was teaching letters and numbers, subjects in which Ruth was at a significantly more advanced stage than the younger children. Pencils and paper being in short supply, however, most of the teaching was done orally and Ruth was consistently compelled to listen to the master droning on to the whole group about things she had already learned.
Ezekiel lectured from the bible a lot, of course, preaching God’s message with almost alarming zeal. He taught a good deal of nature – all the wonderful trees and rivers and animals that God had created and mankind had so barbarously destroyed – as well as some history, though nothing from recent times as that was too brutal for children’s ears to hear.
This morning, he was educating the children on the ancient flood that had drowned everyone except the believers on the ark. Ezekiel was fond of hypothesising that a second flood was a certainty in the near future and that they alone underground would be saved, but Ruth had heard it all before and did not bother to listen very carefully.
She had more important things on her mind. Her meeting with Isaac had ended so well and he had spoken to her with such positivity that an idea had occurred to her that made her hug herself with glee. She could not wait for midday to come.
The signal for the end of morning lessons was the arrival of the oldest women with food for the midday meal. Everyone except the guardians and Leader Isaac came to the gathering cave to eat twice a day, at midday and after dusk – anything more than that was gluttony, according to Isaac. The guardians and the leader ate elsewhere at other times; Ruth supposed that if Benjamin eventually became a guardian he would be able to tell her these well-kept secrets – her father, Jonah, never had.
Ruth saw Delilah, Abigail and Hannah carrying wooden bowls of raw vegetables (the colony only ate cooked food at the evening meal) along with two other women: Leah, who was Guardian Solomon’s mother – and a poor job she had done there, thought Ruth spitefully – and Rachel, who was Ruth’s grandmother on her father’s side. Ruth found her to be as uncommunicative as Jonah and was much closer with her other grandmother, who was far more affectionate towards her.
Other people started trailing into the cave. With a surge of joy, Ruth saw Benjamin arrive with Levi, Moses and Omar. After their briefer-than-usual trip to the surface this morning, they would have returned below ground to continue excavating a new cave in the men’s tunnel. Benjamin did not want to be a builder but it was all he could do until he turned eighteen and was able to apply for the guardianship. Levi was not particularly suited to building work either – he just followed Benjamin wherever he went and was given easy tasks to keep him occupied.
Benjamin started towards Ruth looking anxious, but Levi got to her first. Making distressed noises in his throat, he used his one hand to pat her on the shoulders and face, as though verifying that she was still real. Ruth was touched by his concern, even though he could not possibly understand what had happened, and patted him in return.
“I’m all right,” she said. “Don’t fret, Levi, I’m all right.”
Benjamin pushed Levi gently aside and then, in an uncharacteristically forward gesture, hugged Ruth tightly. Over his shoulder, she saw Judith and Jemima enter from the passageway leading to the spring and beamed at them. They stared back in considerable surprise for her eyes had been red from tears the last time they had seen her and such displays of affection were not common among the inhabitants underground.
Benjamin pulled back and looked at her closely. “Ruth – ” he began with worry in his voice but she interrupted him.
“I’m fine,” she reiterated, still grinning. “Let’s get some food and I’ll tell you everything.”
They each accepted a bowl of chopped carrots and celery from Hannah and then went to join their mothers, who had just received their own portions from Leah.
“Ruth,” said Judith, as anxiously as Benjamin. “What in God’s name happened this morning? Why were you crying? Are you in trouble?”
“No, I’m not,” Ruth replied and related the full sequence of events to them all, from the terrifying roar in the forest, to Solomon’s equally frightening anger, to Saul’s compassion, to Isaac’s clemency. “And he was so genuinely kind to me,” she finished, looking at Benjamin, “that I thought – I thought we might ask him today, instead of waiting until my birthday.”
“Today!” Benjamin repeated, his grey eyes shining. He turned to Jemima. “What do you think, Mother?”
Jemima contemplated him for a moment. She had the same curly, brown hair as her son, though his eyes were his father’s. “I don’t see why not,” she said slowly. “Obviously, you will still not be able to marry until Ruth officially turns sixteen, but I see no harm in asking for Leader Isaac’s blessing ahead of time. Do you agree, Judith?”
Ruth looked hopefully at her mother, who smiled back. “If their fathers are happy to do it today, then so am I.”
After their meal, which Ruth hardly tasted because her stomach was so full of excited butterflies, they went in search of Guardian Jonah and Benjamin’s father, Guardian Ichabod. They found Jonah counting supplies in one of the storage caves and Ichabod asleep in the guardians’ designated quarters, for he had been one of the sentries on duty the previous night. The fathers were a little more reluctant to consent than the mothers, especially Jonah who was very particular about following rules to the letter, but at length they too agreed that this was a mere formality and that there was no significant reason to delay.
So it was that Ruth and Benjamin, accompanied by their parents, approached Leader Isaac’s caves that afternoon to seek his approval for their betrothal. Nervous and elated, Ruth herself knocked firmly on the door. It was not Saul who answered this time but Retired Guardian Reuben, husband to Hannah and father to Zachariah and Ezra. He looked doubtful when he heard their request and made them wait many minutes before telling them that Leader Isaac had assented to see them.
Ruth waited with the others in the reception cave, thinking about how differently she had felt on her last visit. When Leader Isaac entered, she smiled brightly at him and he smiled back.
“Twice in one day, Ruth,” he said affably as he sat down on the wooden chair, Reuben at his side. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Ordinarily, it was the male who did the speaking in these situations but Ruth decided to take charge as this had been her idea and Benjamin seemed happy to let her.
“Leader Isaac,” she said clearly. “We come before you with a request.”
She and Benjamin knelt side by side before Isaac and their parents stood at their backs, Jonah and Judith behind Ruth and Ichabod and Jemima behind Benjamin.
Eyes cast respectfully downward, Ruth continued in the words that her mother had advised her to say, “Benjamin and I are in love and wish to be married. We know that this is an important step in our lives and we do not undertake it lightly. We promise that our devotion to each other will go hand in hand with our devotion to God and everything we do as husband and wife will be in his holy name. We have sought our parents’ permission and they have granted it. Now we ask for your blessing on our betrothal and on our marriage once I have come of age.”
Ruth waited expectantly.
“I am afraid I cannot give my blessing,” said Isaac’s voice into the silence.
Ruth’s head snapped up as she heard Benjamin’s intake of breath beside her.
“What?” she cried, aghast. “Why not?”
Isaac’s face was calm and composed as he answered, “Another man has already asked me for your hand in marriage, Ruth. He made a prior claim and he far outranks Benjamin for he is a guardian. I could not refuse him.”
“Who is it?” Ruth demanded in shock. The face of Lesser Guardian Ezra came into her mind – was he going to take advantage of his new position so quickly? Surely not snide, arrogant Ezra…
“It is Guardian Solomon,” Leader Isaac replied with a smile.
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