“Abi,” a girl’s voice whispered with the sound of excitement.
Realizing she had forgotten to breathe, Abi released a sigh as she unlatched the door. She cracked it only enough to look out. The young women she’d danced with the previous evening stood huddled in the corridor.
“We’re going out to the mound.”
“Ahh.” Abi sheathed her knife.
“Come with us,” Leah, who had replaced Abi as the natural leader of the group of young soldiers in training, said. “This will be your last time.”
Barefoot, Abi sprang into the middle of the senior group of thirty-six soldiers in training. Making no more commotion than a wave of a shadow passing in the night, the student archers glided down the hall to a back entrance.
Rigid as a stone pillar, the guard stood next to the door. In a single file, the young women passed him.
Within a few moments, they left the Candace’s dwelling. Having paused to pull their garments through their belts, the barefoot archers stepped along the walkway of stones arranged along a path behind the Candace’s compound and to the north gate of Meroe.
What could be better than the opportunity to celebrate the end of the rainy season with her former comrades? She wasn’t tired anymore.
The guard blocked their exit from the gate. “Go back where you belong.”
“We go to worship.”
Without another word, he stepped back.
The girls snickered. No doubt the warrior maidens could defend themselves against anything, including the guard.
Holding hands in groups of threes and fours, they followed the path, now nothing more than a muddy rut, to the open field, where a plateau-like embankment the size of the space occupied by the Candace’s mansion stood in the center. Tall as a man, the mound had slanted sides reinforced by stones.
One at a time they climbed the steps on the south side and formed a line near the edge until every girl was on the mound.
“Listen,” Leah said.
With their weapons and skill, they could fight off anything that dared come near. The Nubian archers didn’t fret about the wild creatures of the night, but as intelligent warriors, they practiced discretion.
After lingering several moments in the night with no sounds except those of peaceful birds, insects, and frogs, each girl called out her own name.
“Thirty-seven.” Esther, who had counted, announced.
“Thirty-seven,” the others said.
The pomegranate moon, which was the fourth full moon to pass over the island of Meroe since the commencement of the rainy season, filled the sky on the clear night. Soon they were dancing in a circle and weaving among themselves.
“Defy the rabbi!” Leah shouted.
“Thanks be to Adonai,” they chanted.
On and on and on the night wore as the moon spread above them. Abi immersed herself in the building euphoria. “Thanks for bringing us through another season of rain. Please keep your eyes upon us in the dry time ahead.”
Praises chanted without reservation swelled through the night.
Abi lost all her apprehension about her future, forgot her struggles with her father, quit caring about whether she could attract a wealthy man. Spinning and weaving through the group, she felt lighter each time she made a circle along the edge of the mound. The exhilaration of praise to the Lord of Hosts filled her being.
The musk of unidentified beasts of the darkness blended with the sweat-challenged incense of the Nubian girls. The dancers led Abi toward the center of the mound. When she reached the middle, they released their grip and locked their arms together. Staggering now that she was disconnected from them, she took a moment to regain her balance.
Dazed, she watched the archers whirl in a circle around her. They released their grip on each other and stretched to the edge of the mound. In rhythm, they returned to her.
“We know you will leave us soon, dear sister, but we don’t know how far you will go.” Leah spoke for the group. “Wherever you go, our prayers will go with you.”
Esther said, “You are not supposed to—”
“Hush, Esther,” Leah scolded. “The Rabbi isn’t God.”
What felt like minutes to Abi passed, as the young women spoke, sang, and danced dedicating her to Adonai’s care. They threw themselves into joyous praise for the end of the rain and finally offered a song of boundless joy to Adonai.
The moon slid away from the top of the mound. Esther said, “We need to go back.”
They returned to the back courtyard, where urns full of water awaited them. Quiet with light motions, they rinsed away the mud.
“Come to our sleeping hall,” Leah said.
Abi followed them.
They closed the door. Each girl came to her with a whisper and a hug.
“You’re going to marry the handsome prince who came here yesterday. I just know.”
“After tomorrow we may never see you again. Go with God.”
Streams of tears flowing softly down her cheeks, Abi crept back to her tiny chamber.