Maatangi, that is what she remembered her name as for the past forty years, looked out from the palanquin, inspecting the new location. It was a river bank that boasted of woods and pastures. The terrain was plain save a few hills and one big mountain in the horizon. She then ordered the ones carrying her palanquin to come to a halt.As it was lowered, Maatangi stepped out to inspect her followers, the four horse riders from Varanasi. They dismounted and one of them came forward.
“Where is the temple of the mother?” Maatangi questioned.
“On the other side of the river, Your Ladyship. Towards dusk, there might be a couple of young women coming to offer worship.” The man answered.
Maatangi smiled. “So, are we prepared?”
“Yes, your ladyship.”
A couple of hours later, the temple of Ambika opened for the evening worship. Abhaya accompanied by the younger gopikas Viraja and Vrinda made their way to the temple, carrying flowers pucked from the creepers that grew around.
“Welcome, jewels among maidens. “ The priest welcomes them with a smile and a blessing.
“Saluations, best of brahmans” Abhaya replied with folded palms, the younger girls following the suit.
“May the Universal Mother take you to the highest of heights.”
“What happened to the usual priest?” Vrinda asked. She found this brahman new.
“Well, my cousin had to go to Avanthi to fulfill a commitment. Well, the usual worship?”
“Best of Brahmanas, a special worship too, for my nephew.” Abhaya handed over the flower strings the younger girls had made in the afternoon to him. The girls offered prayers of their choice and worshipped Mother Ambika.
“Today is relatively more peaceful.” Abhaya remarked as they came out of the temple.
“Yes, usually the birs raise cush a hue and cry at this time that we would have to shout at each other to be heard.” Vrinda laughed.
The statement made Abhaya a little uneasy. She could not find a reason for the sudden disturbance in her mind. Her thoughts went to her father and Anagha. “Mother Anagheshwari. Protect my Father.” She turned back to see Goddess Ambika and saw the priest coming out having concluded his worship.
“The Mother shall see that you are blessed with all pleasures. Are you of royal birth, child?”
Abhaya reverentially received the sweet preparation which he offered as the Prasad and nodded.
“Today is Ashtami. A very special day for those who worship the mother. You must partake this blassed food.” He explained, proceeding to give the Prasad to the two girls.
Abhaya planned to share it with Jayanthi, Radha and Yashoda while the girls partook it immediately.
“You should eat it, child. I shall give you more to take home.”
Abhaya looked up, uncomfortable at the coaxing. She had not come across a priest who was so persistent. His smile made her even more uncomfortable.
“I shall eat it. I don’t intend to insult Mother by ignoring her worship or her Prasad.” She spoke with some sternness.
The priest smiled wider. “Child, I know. Nobility glows on your radiant face. You seem like the image of Mother herself. Let me explain you the importance of this Prasad.”
Viraja and Vrinda appeared interested at the prospect of hearing a new story. Abhaya’s discomfort increased.
“Forgive me, revered Brahman. We would need to get back home. It is sunset.” Abhaya made an attempt to get up.
“Why cant we hear to the story? Elder sister, don’t worry we are not getting very late.” Viraja mildly protested.
Abhaya hesitated still wondering what the thing was which was keeping her defences high.
“Something is worrying you, princess. Trust and put your faith on the Mother. She would never forsake you.” The priest assured Abhaya.
Abhaya’s ears picked up a moaning sound which seemed to come from behind the temple.
“What is that?” She asked pushing Viraja behind her and caaling Vrinda closer to her.
To her shock, the priest advanced menacingly with the same smile. “Surrender your worries to the Mother, maiden.”
“Stop there!” thundered Abhaya, feeling frantically for the pitchfork she carried under her shawl.
“Some thing is wrong.” Vrinda’s feeble voice was heard from behind. Alarmed, Abhaya turned to see Vrinda fallen unconscious to the ground. Viraja seemed to struggle to remain conscious.
At the sudden realization, Abhaya threw away the Prasad that the priest had given her. Vrinda’s words about this priest being new struck her.
“Hold one Viraja! Vrinda!” She swiftly drew her pitchfork in defence and looked back at the false priest. “Who are you? Imposter!!?”
“Don’t resist, maiden. You would regret it later.” The man replied removing the garb of the priest he had sported.
Abhaya was dismayed to see Viraja too fall unconscious. “What did you give them? They were innocent and harmless children! You are a demon!”
“They are not poisoned, maiden. No need to fear the worst.” A woman’s voice was heard from the left.
Abhaya turned and found a woman of hefty built accompanied by three men looking like trained soldiers. “Mahadeva! Narayana! Who are these?” She swallowed hard trying to recover from the shock. “Who are you all? And what do you want?” she asked calming down. There was not much of a chance against 4 men and a burly woman especially with two unconscious and helpless children to care for.
The woman’s face turned kinder. “Young maiden, do not fear.” She smiled affably approaching her. “I assure you, no harm shall befall you.”
“So you poisoned the harmless children just for fun?” Abhaya shot back.
“Well, they are children, yes. But they are not poisoned, Devi, they are just drugged. You were clever enough to sense something wrong.” The lady replied throwing an angry glare at the man who had posed as the priest.
She then turned to Abhaya flashing a charming smile. “We would never dream of harming maidens. They are the embodiments of Mother herself. We worship them.”
“Shakti worshippers?” Abhaya blurted out. “Of the Vamachara order?”
“I am Maatangi” The woman introduced herself. “And yes, we worship Adi Shakti, the primordial energy, the Mother of this universe. Maiden, Vamachara is just a name given to us by your Aryas to show us in the wrong light.
“Maatangi, what do you want?” Abhaya asked trying to sound unperturbed. She remembered her previous encounter with the Vamachara ShAktas. These looked a lot more civilized than those rustics. They looked very much like Aryas.
“Mother has been gracious in sending you today, princess. You come with us.” Maatangi gently tugged at Abhaya’s hand as the latter withdrew furiously.
“Don’t resist! You might regret it later!” The man behind spoke in a fierce whisper. His accent was purely Aryan, unlike Maatangi’s which seemed to have a mix of a region Abhaya could not comprehend.
“Come where?” Abhaya stood her ground inching towards the two girls lying senseless. They had been completely unsuspecting. She should not have agreed to come with them. No, what if they had gone by themselves?
Maatangi looked into her eye, “Come to the place of our worship, princess. The mother would give you the rest. You shall never regret.”
“Why couldn’t you call us this way? What did you try to feed us drugged food?”
“The maidens of your kind often do not know the truth and needlessly resist us. We only wanted to save you that trouble.” Maatangi continued her patient explanation.
“Listen, I am not coming anywhere with you. And you shall leave this place immediately.” Abhaya spoke conclusively.
“I told you this is not the way it works with women here.” The man who earlier acted as the false priest came forward and pulled at Abhaya’s arm which she resisted with all the fury she could gather and finally pushed him with a sharp stab on his belly. The man though enraged, held her arm in a vice like grip for a couple of moments before descending to ground at the pain. The three other soldiers came forward to help their comrade.
Maatangi looked unperturbed. “Lift the girls on to the palanquin.” She ordered holding Abhaya’s arm which held the pitchfork, now dripping with blood.
“No! don’t even dare to touch them!” Abhaya shouted fiercely. “Vrinda! Viraja!”
Maatangi held her right arm more tightly, preventing Abhaya from attacking again. “Princess, you don’t have any other choice. If you want them unharmed, leave the weapon.”
Abhaya tried with all her strength to repel her. But the woman seemed to command a super human strength the way she held Abhaya back from moving. The princess of Anagha stared, trying to kick helplessly as two of those soldiers picked the two younger girls whose bodies went limp.
Maatangi’s grip showed a sudden increase in strength and the pitchfork fell from Abhaya’s hand. The latter jumped at the shot of pain through her arm. She saw the soldiers moving towards the river carrying the girls.
“Wait!” Abhaya shouted to them. “They are too young! You are not taking them to those gruesome places of worship!”
“They are young. Yes, princess. But you don’t seem to make things easier.” Maatangi smiled meaningfully. “May be they would help us to keep you peaceful till the realization dawns on you!”
“Leave them alone, Maatangi. I shall come.” Why did she feel so weak? Abhaya regretted giving up practicing on sword in the last couple of months. “But by the trident of Mahadeva, what is the devil that possesses this woman!”
“Good decision, princess. But just to ensure that things turn out good for both….” Abhaya squirmed and unsuccessfully resisted Maatangi held her arms behind her and a rope went over them.