I gingerly turned the meat on the skewer, ensuring the bake reached a perfect seared brown on each side. The Square was packed, but not with people. Lines of wood burning fires brightened the middle of our dusty village as the darkness began to give way to sunlight. Normally, I would settle myself on the perch I’d built on the roof of my hut to watch the sun rise. It was my one vice – once the sun escalated to heights greater than the dome of fog, its healing rays would be lost to us, providing light but no companionship. I was committed to taking advantage of the few moments of sunshine I could glean in the mornings. But not this morning. All of us were rushing here and there, making preparations and ensuring not an item was out of place. We had discussed our plans: no one would die today. We would be vigilant. We would be meek and mild. We would lead the Thirteenth Quorum to believe we ached to serve them.
The meats adequately settled for several hours of cooking, I took my leave to the edge of the village, walking the perimeter to find the place where Durga was setting the tables and chairs. I found her on the South side with seven or eight other women, rushing to match the tables from their homes end-to-end. All our tables were constructed by hand so it was difficult to line them up to make one long table of similar height. I joined the throng of anxious women, turning and rearranging the platforms to complete the most perfect puzzle.
“Is the meat being prepared to perfection?” Durga asked nervously.
I nodded my head. “It will be another hour before I need to turn them. What do we have for decorations?”
Durga gestured to a wooden box sitting in the dust by the barbed wire fence. “We pulled together every extra dress we had available and tore them into pieces. We can string them on rope and hang them between the huts and the fence.” I looked at her with concern. “It will be enough. It will have to be,” she reassured.
It was difficult not to reflect on the swollen body of Priya from Vivaaha, the Bridal Day. Today’s honorary luncheon for the Thirteenth Quorum was not typically violent, but we didn’t want to take any chances. We all had to do exactly as requested and I had to keep my mouth shut; no easy task.
Durga walked back to the Square with me, passing by the front gate on our way. I glanced up at the metal ladder that reached the raised platform suspended 15 feet above our camp. The raised metal footpath led over the gate and out towards the desert where it continued into a maze of rusty scaffolding stretched upward and outward across the landscape in all directions.
“Don’t,” Durga warned.
I took offense. “I’m not dreaming; everyone knows escape is futile, most of all by way of the Thirteenth Quorum’s designated pathway. I just wonder…”
Durga stopped and looked at me impatiently. “It does us no good to wonder. People die when we wonder.”
I huffed, ignoring her counsel. “It just baffles me that they can all travel this way without concern for the consequences if they were to fall.”
Durga snorted, much to my delight. “You know how they are – they believe that if they fell, Holy Axel would save their holy feet from touching the putrid ground. And anyways,” she patted the cold steel that anchored the ladder, “that’s not near as baffling as the fact that they actually believe they are so holy that the ground is undeserving of their touch.”
I giggled. I hadn’t laughed in months; it felt good. “Perhaps it is the ground that is too holy.”
A small smile crept across Durga’s lips, but it was quickly chastised by her serious demeanor. “They are busy today.” She glanced up at the dome. “But they may still watch from time to time. We have no time for levity. There is still work to be done.”
I sighed and followed her back to the Square. I missed the days of smiling, storytelling, and jokes. It felt physically painful to be so serious all the time. That’s what the Quorum wanted, of course. The more control they had over our happiness, the more satisfied they were. I glanced up again at the colorful smoke expanding across the sky, fighting the desire to raise my pinkie finger in the symbol of insult. I cast my eyes to the ground again, remembering quickly the rules: they watched us, but we weren’t to dwell on them. I straightened my stance and returned to my spot by the fire.
The banging and clanging sound of the men on the scaffolding could be heard while they were still a fair distance away. The table had been set, the luscious meal prepared for serving, and all the women were gathered by the gate to greet our esteemed visitors.
As the rumble of metal boots on the platform grew closer, we fell to our knees, our heads bowed. My body began to tremble with the anxiety of the impending event. I was terrified. It had been years since I’d seen him. I allowed myself a moment of reflection to picture his brown eyes. He’d only been 8, and I 12 when I was torn from the City Center to join the women in this isolated wasteland. I pulled him close, hugging him tight and assured him that someday we would escape this hellhole. He promised to come rescue me and I pretended to believe he could. With our parents murdered and his initiation just six years out, he was unaware that he would also be in need of rescuing.
But there was nothing to be done. The smoke of the dome was everywhere. It penetrated every crack of the City Center including our homes. It expanded out across the metal stairways, winding through the desert, and across every pathway that led to our camp. We could always be heard except for the tiniest and smallest of whispers. We could always be seen; mistakes could be deadly.
I coughed as the breeze blew the dust from the ground into our faces. We held our place and I imagined the elation of meeting the eyes of my long-lost brother again. We wouldn’t be able to talk; we would hardly be allowed to touch, but we’d always had a connection. I only needed catch his eye one time to reignite the comfort of our relationship. It would be all I would need to know for sure that he was okay; that he was surviving. It would allow me to live another day.
At last the first pair of boots arrived above us and the Quorum Chief began his descent into our humble camp. As his hallowed feet touched the ground, his dull brown cape flapping in the wind, we all raised one hand above our heads and mumbled “Odin, Chief of the Quorum”. He stepped forward, the rings of his chain-linked slacks shaking like a tambourine. From the corner of my eye, I caught him pulling his cloak across his bare chest to shelter himself from the sand pummeling with the wind. The next man descended, adorned in similar manner but with smaller rusty chains wrapping his legs, a torn and faded cape round his neck, and a floppy cloth hat clinging to his head. We collectively repeated the gesture for each following member.
“Garth, the First Regent and Guardian of the Grounds.”
“Klaes, the Second Regent and Leader of Warriors.”
“Willem the Protector of the Quorum.”
“Jeroen the Holy Servant of Aditi.”
“Pieter, the Ruler of Obedience.”
“Dag, the Great Facilitator.”
“Ulf, the Almighty Hunter.”
“Balder, the Blessed Firstborn of Odin.”
“Erlend, Negotiator of Foreign Lands.”
“Leif, the Advocate of Peace.”
“Kennet, Sergeant of Breeding.”
The last name was spoken more solemnly than the rest; we had all been at the mercy of Kennet since the day we turned 12 and were dragged to this village to prepare for marriage. He was the instigator of Warrior Training, the journey designated men were to take following Bridal Day to earn the respect of their future wife by ruling over her. He ensured the rules were followed and that dominance and submission ruled every relationship in the Sphere. He was most hated of us, but required the most respect and reverence. It was a painful contradiction.
At last, the ten boys who had come of age for initiation descended the ladder. I dared not look up – not yet. It was too risky. I would have my fleeting moment with my brother when we lead the men to the tables.
As the feet of the last boy touched the ground, Odin spoke.
“Women of Olaug, you are most respected and reverenced by the Thirteenth Quorum and all members of the Sphere that serve Aditi. You must know that your role in the eternal circle of life and death is of utmost importance; your sacrifices and dedication are not unnoticed. It is because you are holier and greater than men that your cross is so heavy.” He gestured toward the village. “You may rise and lead us to the meal you have prepared for the Coming of Age Ceremony. Do not insult Axel and Aditi by raising your eyes; Aditi of all Goddesses understands the beauty and power of submission before your ruler. It is the path to Deity for all of you.”
Durga stood first, signaling the rest of us to follow suit. I kept my eyes down, but glanced around at the other 40 or so women in our group. Half took their role quite seriously, respecting the Quorum and seeking to achieve their potential of humility and servitude. Sometimes I wondered if they had the right idea; they certainly seemed happier than the rest of us, accepting the death and carnage around us as the will of Aditi. They didn’t suffer the temptation to get themselves killed like Nalini, Priya and I. Durga and I were of the other half that found our lot in life unbearable. Most of the devoted women were unaware of our inner rebellion – speaking of it was blasphemy. We only knew of each other through shared facial expressions and moments of hushed whispers we prayed would never reach the smokey ear of the dome. The divide was at times potent, but always nonexistent in the wake of death. Today we would all pretend to be devoted. Today we would play the part as if the Thirteenth Quorum carried our hearts and our souls eternally in their grasp.
As we trudged through the village, my eyes wandered to a tall boy in the company with sandy brown hair, slightly hunched over as he walked. He was much taller, his brooder shoulders and confident demeanor evidence of his maturity. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking to see him grown – I had missed so many years with him. I quickened my pace to meet his, careful to keep my eyes to the ground as I felt my dear brother’s presence for the first time in years. We reached the dining area and I pulled his chair out. He sat along with the others and I dived at the opportunity to look into those warm eyes I knew so well.
They were still the same deep brown color I remembered, full of sorrow and struggle. They slowly adjusted to meet mine. But the warmth was gone; the connection nonexistent. The moment our gazes met, his mouth curled into a sneer.
“Eyes down,” he commanded. The other men immediately turned their attention to me. It was a death sentence, but I couldn’t avert my eyes. I couldn’t do it. It was simply too impossible: this was not my baby brother glaring up at me. This was not the boy I knew. An overwhelming determination to draw the warmth and love back into his eyes took over and I disobeyed, staring deep and longingly into his eyes.
He stood and towered over me. “Eyes down or you’ll meet your exile.”
My face flushed and my heart pounded as I realized what I’d done. I immediately bowed my head, concentrating on the dust on my toes to keep the tears from falling.
“It’s too late,” I heard Kennet growl, “Take her to the cave. Now. You’re lucky she’s your sister.”
My brother grabbed my arm and roughly dragged me towards the gate. Much to everyone’s shock, Leif stood and spoke. “Hugo is too close to her. Until his initiation is complete, he poses a threat. I’ll take her.” Leif ambled his lean frame towards me, pulling me from my brother’s grasp. From the corner of my eye, I saw a disapproving – even menacing – look shadow Chief Odin’s face. It made my skin crawl to imagine what interpersonal conflict I’d managed to wedge myself between. I could feel Hugo’s and Leif’s eyes boring into my head in the most disconcerting manner. My brother didn’t argue, but returned to his seat at the table as Leif continued his quest.
I wanted to protest, to scream, to run. But I didn’t. This scene had played out too many times in my mind. The torture of two days in the cave with no food or water was bearable in comparison to the terror of seeing that iron pole soaring towards my heart. I couldn’t let my brother see me die that way. No matter what evil they’d brainwashed him with, I would do as I was told as long as he was here to witness it.