Sheer white fabric covers me from neck to toe. I keep my eyes on the dirt path ahead of me as I move through the dark, my thin shift a beacon in the night calling every sort of predator to me. I try not to shiver. Keeping my steps even becomes my world, my only focus. One step, then the next.
I can’t think about the crackling branches, the footfalls through the crisp leaves, the low chant floating through the chilly air, or the women ahead or behind me. No. Only my own steps. Right, then left. The frozen earth beneath my bare feet. The momentum that carries me deeper and deeper into the woods.
Firelight casts a faint glow as we continue moving forward, each of us rushing toward the cage, desire in our hearts, and fervor in our souls. We want to be shackled, owned, moved only by the spirit of our God. And our God has anointed one on earth to embody His good will. The Prophet Leon Monroe.
The deep chant thrums through my veins as I approach the firelight, the orange glimmer flickering over my dirty feet and up to play against the soft fabric of my nightgown. Though clothed, I am bare. I enter the circle of men, each one of them dressed in white pants and shirts—holy men, handpicked by the Prophet himself.
I follow the girl ahead of me until all of us form an inner circle, pressed between the fire and the men along the outside. It’s a new circle of hell, promising an agonizing burn no matter which way I move.
A woman in all black walks along the line of women, handing each of us a small pitcher of water. My head bowed, I don’t look her in the eye as she approaches. But I already know who she is—Rachel—first wife of the Prophet. Her limp gives her away. I take my pitcher, the weight of the cold water steadying the shake in my hands.
A strong voice silences the chanting. “We thank God for this bounty.”
“Amen,” the men chorus.
“We remember His commandment to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number.’ As a sign of our obedience to His will, we take these girls under our care, our protection. We also take them into our hearts, to cherish as if they were of our own blood.”
His voice grows louder as he walks around the circle. “Just as Rebekah was called by the Lord to marry a son of Abraham, so have these girls been called to serve the godly men gathered here tonight.”
A pair of heavy boots stops in front of me. A light touch under my chin pulls my gaze upward until I’m met by a pair of dark eyes. The Prophet peers into my soul.
“Do you remember the tale of Rebekah, Sister?”
“I’m sure a child of God like you knows all the stories in the Bible.” He smiles, his white teeth bleached like a skeleton’s.
“‘The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.’ And then what happened to Rebekah?”
“She was taken by Abraham’s servant.”
“That’s correct.” He leans closer, his gaze boring into mine.
A shiver courses through me. He glances down at my chest, a smirk twisting the side of his lips as he sees my hard nipples through the gauzy fabric.
He releases my chin and steps back, continuing his circuit as he speaks of Rebekah’s destiny. I steal a look at the man standing opposite me. Blond hair, blue eyes, a placid expression—the Prophet’s youngest son. Something akin to relief washes over me. Being Cloister Maiden to Noah Monroe wouldn’t be so bad. He was rumored to be kind, gentle even. I let my gaze slide to the man standing at his left. Dark hair, even darker eyes, and a smirk like his father’s on his lips as he stares at me—Adam Monroe. I drop my gaze and silently pity the Maiden to my right.
“We will keep you safe. Away from the monsters of this world who would seek to use you, to destroy the innocent perfection that each one of you possess. Remember the story of Dinah: ‘When Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her.’ And so it is with any man who is not within this circle. They would take you, hurt you, and cast you aside once they’ve spoiled your body and heart. Only in the Cloister can you lead peaceful lives without fear.”
I wonder if Georgia heard the same speech. She must have. How long did they let her live after this ritual? The thought churns inside me, surprisingly strong, and hate begins to override my meek persona. Breaking character for a split second, I glance back up at Adam Monroe. Had he been the one to slit her throat? Had his large hands done untold violence to Georgia while she was still alive?