Sorry for the delay in getting this next chapter up online but I’ve been working towards a couple of other writing deadlines since the New Year so unfortunately Below Ground was temporarily placed lower on the priority list. Chapter 6 is finally here, however, and I hope it was worth waiting for! In it we will see how Ruth and Benjamin try to make their escape from the underground colony. This is the last chapter which I will be uploading from this novel for now but I hope to make it available in another form in the future!
Ruth was waiting for them all to fall asleep. Next to her on the mattress her mother was slumbering soundly and there was no sound from Hannah or Jemima, but on the other side of the cave Delilah still tossed and turned in grief-stricken wakefulness. Every now and then Ruth heard her muffle a sob. She sympathised with the woman’s loss – her husband was not yet a full day dead – but she yearned for Delilah to go to sleep. Until she did, Ruth could do nothing but lie still and wait, her body taut with tension.
She and Benjamin had had barely a few moments to discuss their escape before they were interrupted by the women returning from the spring, forcing them to scuttle back up the passage to the gathering cave. The only thing they had definitely decided was that they would meet in the passageway leading towards the vent before midnight. Ruth had taken pains to emphasise the time; it had to happen before the change of guardians on sentry duty above ground.
The rest of the day had been spent in prayer, which had given her ample time to think through everything even while she feigned sorrowful devoutness. As the hours passed, she tried to formulate a solid plan for escaping the colony, considering all the possible obstacles along the way. So much of it was going to swing on luck and chance.
She was in no doubt that it had to happen tonight. If they waited even one day more, Guardian Solomon would have her in his control and it would be truly impossible for her to get away. When a couple wedded below ground, an isolation cave was furnished with a mattress and blankets and turned temporarily into a marriage cave – the wooden door became a tool for discretion rather than isolation and the man and his wife shared the cave until she was with child. Ruth could not hope to sneak away with the door barring her path.
So it had to be tonight, that much was clear. However, that severely limited the kinds of preparations they could make, in particular preventing Ruth from returning to the secret cave to take anything that might assist in their escape. That cylinder which created light would certainly have been a great help to them but Ruth dared not go back for it, much as she longed to. They had only one chance to flee and they could not delay their departure at such risk of getting caught – she would have to pass the guardians’ sleeping quarters to reach the storage caves and all but two would be below ground. It was too dangerous to attempt.
Then there was their escape route. The underground colony had only one way out and that was through the vent. For the briefest time, Ruth had toyed with another idea – the spring had to emerge somewhere eventually, didn’t it? Perhaps she and Benjamin could climb in and follow the flow to wherever it came out above ground… But she dismissed this almost as soon as she thought of it. They had no inkling of how far the water flowed in the darkness and it was icy cold; they could not last for long immersed in such freezing temperatures. Furthermore, it was impossible to know what kind of underground tunnel the spring had carved out for itself over the centuries – what if it opened out into a much larger waterfall and they plunged downwards and broke their necks? Or, worse still, what if it narrowed to such a tiny gap that a full-sized human could not get through? They would be trapped, prevented from going forward, in all likelihood unable to climb back, and if they did not drown they would freeze to death and no one would ever find their blue, bloated bodies. No, she decided firmly, following the spring was not an option.
That just left the vent, which was patrolled day and night by two watchful guardians. The pretence was that they were there to protect the colony from outside harm, but Ruth realised now that their true purpose was to keep the inhabitants in their underground prison. Why else would they make it so hard for anyone to leave?
These two guardians presented the primary obstacle to Ruth and Benjamin’s imminent escape attempt but there was one thing in the runaways’ favour. Thanks to Ruth’s inadvertent eavesdropping earlier that day, she knew that it was Guardian Enoch and Lesser Guardian Ezra who would be up there until midnight tonight, she knew that they had stood on sentry duty for far longer than they ought to have on their previous shift, and she knew that they would be very, very tired. It was only a slim advantage but it was definitely better than facing whichever two guardians were due to take over after midnight, rested and at their full strength and vigilance. Unfortunately, the longer Ruth was trapped in the sleeping cave, the nearer time drew towards midnight and the more likely it became that this bright window of opportunity would close upon them.
That was when she noticed the silence. She listened very hard but could no longer hear any restless moving or stifled crying from the other side of the cave. Delilah had at last drifted off to sleep.
This was it. Ruth waited a few more long moments to be sure and then she carefully extricated herself from the blanket she shared with her mother and stood up. She would have to step across Judith to reach the doorway to the cave. Heart in her mouth, she balanced herself with one hand against the wall and extended her foot tentatively over her mother’s body. Hoping desperately that her mother was in deep enough sleep that she would not register the absence of pressure and warmth next to her, she transferred her weight from her back foot to her front foot, stepping off the mattress and onto the cool earth of the cave floor. Judith did not stir.
Afraid to feel relief just yet, Ruth held her breath and took one slow step at a time to the doorway. Only when she was fully in the passageway did she deem it safe to release the air in her lungs. It came out in a shaky quiver. The first phase of the escape was complete – she could only hope that Benjamin would also be able to get out of his sleeping cave unobserved.
She decided to wait for him a little further up the passage, past the last of the family caves and closer to the vent. There they would be able to carry out a whispered conversation undetected and hopefully settle on a practical plan for escaping. She had gone about thirty steps in that direction, counting in her head and feeling her way along the wall, when she heard a noise behind her. A chill ran down her spine as she realised it was more than one set of footsteps and more than one voice. Were they already too late? Had midnight arrived and were these the two replacement guardians heading for the surface? Or – and the chill reached her heart at the thought – had Benjamin been caught and forced to tell all, and were these guardians sent to apprehend her too?
When she turned around and saw the flicker of candlelight behind her in the passageway, all doubt was removed from her mind. There was no way Benjamin could have laid his hands on a candle and matches. Unless…he had hardly sneaked them out of the storage caves, had he? If so, it had been a foolish and risky move. But that still did not explain who the second person was.
She stood in panic and indecision. What should she do? She was too far beyond the sleeping caves to duck into any of those. Should she run for the vent? Right into the arms of two waiting guardians – not at all advisable. She was trapped, surrounded on all sides by men who wanted to keep her imprisoned underground.
Then she heard Benjamin’s whisper. “Ruth? Are you there?”
She gaped. The candlelight drew nearer until she could see Benjamin’s scared face illuminated by its glow. And next to him was…
“Levi?” she said disbelievingly.
Benjamin’s simple, one-armed brother was close beside him, holding onto his shirt sleeve and mumbling a stream of nonsense words. When he saw Ruth, his face lit up and he reached out to pat her cheek, the only way he knew how to express greeting and affection. She made a conscious effort not to step back from the intimate gesture, but she could not have been less happy to see him.
“Benjamin,” she started, her voice coming out in an exasperated hiss, but he cut her off, the fear in his face now mingled with determination.
“I’m not leaving him behind, Ruth. I had plenty of time to think about this during prayer today and God gave me the answer – he’s my brother and I’m the only person who looks out for him. What do you think will happen to him without me here? They’ll ignore him or they’ll forget to feed him – he will be totally neglected. He needs me so he’s coming with us.”
“Benjamin, are you crazy?” Ruth snapped as quietly as she could. “It was going to be hard enough for two of us to escape, but three? We don’t have a hope!”
“I’m not changing my mind on this,” said Benjamin stubbornly.
Ruth pressed her hands to her forehead in a wild gesture of desperation. “But he’s not capable of understanding the simplest of instructions! We don’t know what kind of dangers are out there – what will happen when we tell him to run or hide or be quiet? He’ll give us away and we’ll be lost!”
“He understands me,” Benjamin insisted, putting an arm around his brother’s shoulders. Levi stared up at him, looking bemused and still muttering under his breath. “We don’t need words, mostly he just copies exactly what I do anyway. He won’t give us away.”
“You can’t – !” Ruth stopped when she realised how loud her voice was becoming. She tried to take a calming breath but there was no calming her nerves when she felt such certainty that their escape was now doomed. “You can’t be serious,” she whispered pleadingly. “Benjamin, this will never work. Please, you have to leave him behind.”
In response, Benjamin handed the candle to her and turned to face Levi. He put his finger to his lips and crouched down. Levi immediately mirrored his actions, touching his finger to his mouth and hunkering down on the passage floor, but he kept up his inarticulate flow of words. Benjamin tapped his finger insistently on his lips until Levi took the hint and his mumbling trailed away into silence. Benjamin looked up at Ruth in triumph.
Ruth shook her head in frustration. This exhibit of obedience was very commendable when it was just the three of them in a place Levi knew well. But what would happen when he found himself in an unfamiliar location, possibly face to face with complete strangers? He would lose the small scrap of reason he possessed and she and Benjamin would have a liability on their hands which they would be unable to control. This could only end badly.
But it would all end right here if Ruth did not agree to this. Benjamin was not going to abandon his brother; he would come with Levi or not at all. This was the first time he had ever really stood up to her and she respected him for it – after all, they were a team, not a leader and a submissive follower.
And Ruth did not want to go alone.
“All right,” she said heavily.
Looking relieved, Benjamin stood up, and after a moment Levi followed suit, his finger still pressed to his mouth.
“Thank you,” said Benjamin. “I promise he won’t get us into trouble.”
They had no inkling of what kind of harm Levi could cause, but Ruth didn’t bother saying this out loud. Instead, she asked, “Where did you get the candle?”
“Master Ezekiel gave it to me.”
Ruth nearly dropped it in shock. “You were seen leaving?”
“Yes. I knew the master wasn’t asleep but we were running out of time so I made up the excuse that Levi needed to be taken to the waste trough. It was fine, he didn’t look suspicious.”
Ruth couldn’t believe her ears; she could practically see the flimsy structure of their escape plan disintegrating around them.
“But Benjamin!” she protested, her voice high-pitched. “Don’t you see? Now Master Ezekiel will be expecting you both to return and when you don’t he will raise the alarm. We won’t have enough time to get away!”
“What about the two guardians up on the surface?” Benjamin countered. “Do you think we’ll be able to slip past them without drawing attention? The alarm is going to be raised, no matter what. Our best hope is that we will lose ourselves in the forest and they won’t be able to find us.”
She had already come to the same conclusion that the forest’s concealment was the strongest part of their escape, but she had not counted on so many people knowing that they were gone. Still, Ezekiel was not aware that Ruth was with Benjamin and Levi; so far, to him it was just an innocuous trip to the surface to seek bodily relief. They had no time to waste, however – whatever Benjamin said, Ezekiel was a suspicious man by nature. He would not wait long to wonder at the two brothers’ whereabouts.
“We have to hurry,” said Ruth, spinning on her heel and heading quickly for the vent, Benjamin and Levi right behind her. Admittedly, the candle was a fortunate addition to the plan – it allowed them to make haste without tripping over their feet. They reached the end of the passageway and found the ladder propped up as usual, its top rung stretching out of the hole that was their exit to freedom. When her gaze alighted on the ladder, Ruth had an idea. She turned eagerly to the others but mainly addressed Benjamin because Levi seemed to be fully absorbed in digging his little finger into the wax in one of his ears. At least he was not talking.
“All right, this is what we’re going to do,” Ruth told Benjamin in an urgent whisper. “You and Levi will go first – using the waste trough is actually the perfect excuse to get you both up there together. I’ll give you a minute and then I’ll climb up myself. When I get to the top, I’ll try and knock the ladder away if I can – that should slow them down if they go to get help. After that, just wait for my signal. When you hear me shout, start running. I’ll be right behind you.”
Benjamin’s eyes were wide. He nodded nervously. Ruth blew out the candle and slipped it into her pocket. There was enough moonlight filtering down through the vent that they did not need the small flame anymore, but it could certainly come in useful again later. She gave Benjamin’s hand a quick squeeze and then he turned to help his brother up the ladder. Levi was remarkably steady, despite his missing arm, and Ruth allowed herself to hope that he would not prove too detrimental to this perilous venture.
The two brothers climbed out of the vent and Ruth heard the distant voice of one of the guardians questioning their appearance. She waited with bated breath but neither of them returned so she had to assume they were given permission to go about their business. Ordinarily, only one person at a time was allowed to use the waste trough but Benjamin and Levi were the exception because Levi needed his younger brother’s assistance, as he did in every other part of his life. Ruth could see why Benjamin was so reluctant to abandon Levi here – the other inhabitants of the colony would never take such loving care of the simple boy.
Ruth remained in the passageway for a few moments longer and then began to climb the ladder herself. She paused a couple of rungs from the top so she could get a clear view of the guardians’ positions. Lesser Guardian Ezra was over at the edge of the clearing, facing towards the forest, plainly keeping a watchful eye in the direction of the waste trough. Ruth saw that Guardian Enoch had followed through on his promise when she glimpsed the cloth bag slung over Ezra’s shoulder. Had he been shown what was inside it too?
But Ruth did not have time to wonder about that because her uncle Enoch was standing right beside the vent, staring down at her.
“What are you doing here, Ruth?” he asked in mild surprise. There were dark circles under his eyes and his shoulders were slumped with tiredness but he held her gaze steadily.
That knocked her optimism a little but she replied brightly, “I need to use the waste trough, uncle. May I?”
He must have chalked this down to coincidence because he answered, “There is someone already using it, you will have to wait your turn,” and he offered her his hand to help her out of the vent. As she stepped up onto the grass, she tried to knock the ladder with her foot, hoping to dislodge it from its place – it only wobbled, however, and then fell back into position. Well, that phase of the plan wasn’t going to work so they would have to rely on the dense forest growth all the more.
Ezra glanced over his shoulder as she emerged from the vent. He was looking worse than Enoch, bleary-eyed and exhausted, and he pulled at the strap of the cloth bag as though it were an immense weight.
“She should wait down below until these two are done,” he told Enoch, but even his voice lacked its usual tinge of sneering arrogance.
“She’s fine where she is,” Enoch replied and gave Ruth a kind look. She supposed he was feeling compassionate towards her for all that she was going through but even this demonstration of sensitivity could not instil any guilt or doubt in her. He was still a guardian.
Ezra shrugged and turned back towards the forest. Ruth stood next to her uncle by the vent and tried to smother her panic as she wondered what to do. Time was trickling away; the longer she dithered, the more suspicious Benjamin and Levi’s delay at the waste trough would become.
Eventually, it was her uncle who inadvertently gave her the signal to act. He opened his mouth in a jaw-cracking yawn and in that moment when he was off his guard Ruth reached out and pushed him into the vent. Had he been more vigilant, he might have been able to catch his balance, but he was so surprised that he fell right into the gap at his feet. Ruth heard the satisfying snap of wood that told her Enoch had crashed into the ladder, and then there was a thump as he hit the floor of the passageway. It appeared that that phase of the plan would work after all.
She turned quickly to see Ezra gaping at her. He evidently had not been prepared for this turn of events either because he was rooted to the spot in disbelief. However, he was too far from the vent to pull the same trick so she just screamed “Run!” and dashed for the forest. To her surprise, he did not try to grab her as she ran past him; he was dropping to the ground and fumbling with the opening of the bag. Not sparing a second thought for this piece of good luck, she tore into the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing.
Her momentary elation was cut short at the sight of Benjamin standing next to the waste trough and tugging ineffectually at his brother’s arm. Levi seemed to be made of stone, still and immobile as he stared up through the trees and made frantic noises in his throat.
“Why isn’t he moving?” Ruth shrieked.
“I think your scream frightened him. Come on, Levi!” Benjamin begged desperately.
There was no time to say ‘I told you so’. Ruth joined in the effort and pushed at Levi’s back to make him go forward. He stumbled a little and looked wonderingly around him, as though only just realising where he was. Then he finally started to move of his own accord and Ruth nearly sobbed with relief. The three of them hastened away from the waste trough just as a shout came to their ears.
“Stop or I’ll shoot!”
It was Ezra’s voice. Ruth didn’t know what he meant but she wasn’t going to turn around to find out. She darted ahead of the two brothers, searching for the best path through the trees. She was just leading them between two thick trunks, silver in the moonlight, when she heard the bang.
It was so loud and alien that she stopped at once and clapped her hands to her ears. It reverberated through her head and left it ringing. What could have made such a fearsome sound? Terrified, she looked behind her.
Benjamin was kneeling over Levi who was lying spread-eagled on the pine needles that covered the forest floor. His eyes looked like Retired Guardian Saul’s had when he had been laid in the gathering cave: blank, lifeless, unseeing. Across Levi’s chest, a red pool was blossoming, staining the front of his shirt. Ruth had never seen so much blood.
She lowered her hands to her mouth and pressed them there to prevent herself from screaming or vomiting, she did not know which. How could this have happened? She did not understand it. Vaguely, she was aware of Benjamin calling his brother’s name.
Then a sudden movement caught the corner of her eye. Ezra was emerging from the trees behind Benjamin and Levi, walking slowly like he was in a dream. His hands were by his sides and in one he clutched something limply: a thin black object. Seeing it brought to Ruth’s mind the cylindrical thing she had found in the secret cave, and all at once she was very afraid. Ezra’s object must come from that cave too but it was not a harmless producer of light; Ezra carried death in his hand.
They had to get out of here right now. Levi was very clearly beyond help but she and Benjamin might still be able to break free. She ran over to Benjamin and pulled him to his feet. He tried to resist but he was no match for her, especially when she slapped him across the face and screamed, “Follow me or the same thing will happen to both of us!”
Was Ezra raising his hand? Did she see him starting to point the horrid thing in their direction? She did not wait around to find out. She crashed through the trees, dragging Benjamin along behind her. She heard no bang and she could not tell if Ezra was pursuing them or not, but she did not slow down. Fallen twigs and jagged stones cut the bottoms of her bare feet but she ignored the pain. All she wanted was to put as much distance between them and Ezra as possible.
They ran, they stumbled, they tripped and fell and got up again. Their breaths came in harsh, ragged gasps, never enough to fill their lungs satisfactorily. Ruth’s chest felt like there was a band wrapped around it and it was being twisted tighter and tighter. Still, she pushed onwards, fear driving her where otherwise exhaustion would have won out. When Benjamin looked close to collapse, she cajoled and bullied him into continuing on, slapping him once more when she thought he was going to black out. The trees of the forest grew close together and conspired to scrape at their clothes and skin until their arms and feet and faces were covered with tiny, painful cuts. But they kept going as if hellhounds were chasing them. And maybe they were.
Ruth’s one comfort in all the maddening terror and agony was that she could tell they were going down a very gradual slope. So long as they did not find themselves going uphill, there was no chance that they might accidentally circle back on themselves and end up at the clearing again.
She did not allow them to stop until they came upon a stream trickling directly across their path. Then they both fell to their knees and scooped up the water greedily, soothing their burning throats and cooling their sweaty foreheads. Wondering whether this was the same stream which ran through the underground colony, Ruth looked over at Benjamin just in time to see him retching into the dirt beside it. When he raised his eyes to hers, they were full of anguish.
“Is – is Levi dead?”
She hesitated but the answer was obvious and he knew it. “Yes, he is.”
Benjamin dug the heels of his hands into his eyes but the tears came anyway. Ruth crawled over to him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. His body shook in her embrace.
“It’s my fault!” he wept. “He’s dead because of me.”
Ruth could not refute this, much as she wished to. If Benjamin had not brought his brother with them, Levi would not be dead. That was the simple, heart-wrenching truth. Although it was entirely possible that she or Benjamin might be dead instead.
“We should never have left,” Benjamin moaned behind his hands.
“I don’t agree,” said Ruth softly.
He disentangled himself from her so he could stare at her incredulously.
“Levi shouldn’t have come but you and I were still right to leave. Look at what Ezra did, look at what they are able to do to people. We could never have stayed knowing what they are capable of.”
He didn’t answer.
“We can’t change what has happened,” she said, her tone gentle. “And now that it has happened, there is only one thing we can do now and that is keep going forward. We can never go back.”
She reached out and tentatively took his hand. He didn’t push her away. They huddled like that for a long time. Ruth was afraid that any second they would hear guardians pursuing them but the forest remained quiet. And Benjamin’s energy was spent; he could go no further until he had worked through some of his mourning and guilt.
Gradually, the light began to brighten around them. As the darkness receded, the shapes in the forest became more distinct – there were trees and trees and more trees, but did they seem to be thinning out? The ones Ruth could see certainly were not growing as close together as the ones they had dashed through immediately after their escape from the colony. Her heart simultaneously lifted and constricted.
“Benjamin,” she whispered. “I think we’re near the edge of the forest. Look.”
Wearily, he raised his head and gazed at the trees. “I think you’re right,” he said, and Ruth was relieved to detect the barest hint of optimism in his voice. He stood up. “Let’s go and see what’s out there.”
He offered her his hand and she too climbed to her feet. They walked forward in trepidation, unsure what to expect ahead of them. What lay beyond the tree line? A barren wasteland, as they had always been told, or perhaps a paradise like the Garden of Eden? They were about to discover whether their flight from the colony had been wisdom or utter folly.
Hand in hand, they approached the boundary of the forest. Ruth’s heart was hammering and she could hear Benjamin’s shallow breathing. Then they stepped out from the last of the trees and had a full view in the breaking dawn light.
That’s all I’m uploading from this story for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – thanks for reading!