Abhaya looked at the plates piled with food that lay before her. But appetite failed to raise while in captivity. She looked around the heavily guarded tent. Vrinda and Viraja sat a little away from her with little interest on the food served to them.
“You should eat.” Abhaya spoke as much comfortingly as she could.
Vrinda broke down into fearful sobs. Her companion was in tears too. Its was past five or six days since they were abducted by these unknown group of Shakti worshipping warriors. Abhaya had hoped that their hideout would have been somewhere in the nearby woods. But to her dismay, she found themselves being taken yojanas away for days together. Instincts drove her to escape once or twice. But how could she leave two defenceless girls behind in the hands of those Vamaachaaris?
“Eat. This is the time you must not let your energies fail you.” Abhaya spoke with more authority. She lowered her voice “I haven’t yet given up on escaping. Then you girls need to be strong and determined.” She forced a smile on herself.
“Is it possible? These are really bad men. And that demoness…” Viraja was cut short by Abhaya to lower her tone.
“We did not make an attempt to escape for the past three days. Anyways it would not have been wise to attempt so when we were inside those forests. But I think we have reached near to some civilization. Look at the food they’ve served us. Taste it, it is freshly cooked.” Abhaya encouraged.
As the girls started to eat out of curiosity, she smiled with satisfaction. It was boiled grain with some spice she could not recognize, but it tasted nice. Her appetite shot up with her mind planning things ahead.
“How good are you at swimming?” Abhaya asked as she attempted to draw out a way to escape.
“We used to do that all day at times.” Vrinda managed to smile.
“I meant to ask if you can swim under water.” Abhaya asked again.
“Why? Yes we used to compete with each other as well as other girls about staying underwater for longer time.” Vrinda replied.
“But I used to win most of the times” Viraja piped in.
Abhaya smiled as she felt the energies coming close to normal. “Well, come closer.” She proceeded to explain what she had planned out. She knew it was a poorly made attempt in desparation. But the girls were innocent and also desparate enough to believe it was possible.
“Don’t lose heart if one of us is separated. We must make our way into the nearest city and get help there.” She concluded. The girls suddenly looked confused and fearful again. She assured them with a look and called out to the guards. Maatangi entered to her surprise and to an extent delight.
“Maatangi, I have agreed to come with you. But it does not mean that you keep me in this state. We did not have a proper bath since days. We did not get proper food till today. What do you plan to do at all? Sacrifice us all to some kshudra devata who you call as Mother?” Abhaya hoped to show as much has haughty rage she could put up.
“Have patience, princess. None of us had the luxury” Maatangi was defensive, but then sounded apologetic also. “You don’t have any choice. But if you can bear it for another day, we shall reach a place where you can bathe to your heart’s content.”
“I am not eating till then. The food you give us is so bad that starving sounds a better option.” Abhaya hissed back.
“You shall get better grains too. Princess, you forget that you are the very image of Mother herself. How can you give in to petty disappointments?”
Abhaya looked at her, now burning with real anger at the taunt. “Well, the day I realize I am the Mother, you all shall be taken care of!!”
“I repeat, have patience, Princess.” Maatangi held her arms with the same mixture of strength and restrain. Abhaya summoned all her strength to ward her off. “You lie! Do you expect me to believe your lies? Or are you supposing that you would create some water springs and grains with your lowly magic tricks?”
“You don’t believe me? We are reaching near the banks of Ganga tomorrow! See for yourself! Now if you don’t stop your rants, you would be bound again like you were two days ago!” Maatangi pushed her onto the bed in exasperation. “I pray Manikarnika gives you the sense to realize truth and shed your Aryan madness.”
Abhaya continued to feign anger. No she was angry, angry beyond measure! But her ears were sharp enough to get the clue. Ganga! ManiKarnika?
“Get away from me! I don’t want to see you!”
Maatangi for a moment considered binding the fiery princess who could anytime turn like an untamed horse. Something made her decide other wise. “Don’t even dare to think of escaping. They would suffer for your acts if you did!” She said calmly, pointing to the girls and left the tent. Abhaya felt the guard outside the tent went up for she heard far too many voices. But this moment would be unwise to attempt anything as the guard would be fully active given her outbursts. She felt it better to stick to the previous plan.
“Are you hurt?” Vrinda’s concerned voice came from her right.
“No dear, I am fine. Now listen to me. Listen carefully. You both have to do this. For all your love for Vrindavan, for Radha and your Kanha, you have to give your best in swimming to safety tomorrow. I know where we are. We are nearing Kashi. It is a place which draws hundreds of pilgrims. Mahadeva willing, you might find anyone from Shurasena there. All you need is to keep away from the sagely looking people for we know not who is genuine and who is fake. Keep away from the soldiers too for I doubt whether they can be trusted. Observe and look for pilgrims who are simple villagers like you. You need to stay safe. And lastly, never leave each other.” Abhaya found her voice breaking
“Why do you speak as if you are leaving us?” Viraja asked with a sharp look.
“No, we shall all try, but in case we are separated, you should work out your way back to Vrindavan.” Abhaya assured and explained the rest of her plan.
By the dusk of the next day, the group reached Kashi as Abhaya had guessed. She had increased her whimpering for a bathe to Maatangi. She had refused to eat any food in the afternoon, but insisted that the girls eat.
Maatangi gave in to the pressure. She did not want a starved and emaciated princess to present in the place of her worship. Fearing that the princess would throw a tantrum for the evening meal too, She led the Abhaya and the two gopikas towards the river. Two burly guards whom Abhaya recognized as a new addition to the group accompanied them.
They were led towards a deserted Ghat with broken steps. At a distance across the river, Abhaya could faintly spot lamps. There seemed to be a ghat with some pilgrims, hopefully Aryan pilgrims. It was necessary to take the risk though. Abhaya winked at Viraja pointing out in the direction discreetly. She threw another tantrum to keep the guards at a distance. Maatangi had to concede and ordered the guards to turn back, but block any way of escaping and wait. Abhaya was waiting for this.
She suggested that the girls bathe first while she watched over. Maatangi did not speak anything and remained unsuspecting.
“Mahadeva! Let it go as per plan.” Abhaya tried to strike a conversation with maatangi, trying to distract her from the girls. Raking up the superiority of Dakshinachara ways of Aryas was a good bait. Maatangi remained staunch in her cynicism towards Aryas.
“Bind a woman in a wedlock for life! Make her do lowly tasks. Get some petty priests to sing glories of some obscure pativratas and keep them in ignorance forever. This is what your Aryas are capable of!” Maatangi spat, getting drawn into conversation.
“Ahhh your Vamacharis are better in many ways, you think? You give in to sensual weaknesses all the time in the name of worship!” Abhaya shot back discreetly glacing at the waters.
“Weaknesses! That is how your Arya seers mislead the whole lot of you! The sadists take some pleasure in robbing people of their indulgence. Do you think the Mother expects all that from us? She expects us to reach her state through a blissful way. She would be loathe to subjecting our bodies to meaningless tortures. We Vamacharis believe in the freedom of self and not restraint of self.”
“Indeed! I get to see a lot of freedom. Binding us with ropes, feeding us drugged food, a lot of bliss and freedom!”Abhaya spoke with increased vehemence. Part of her was getting engaged in the debate. But she was agile enough to keep an eye over where Viraja and Vrinda went into waters. The waters seemed calmer and sound of splashing was not heard.
“It is dark, are these two girls gone to drink the whole river? What in the name of Adi Shakti are they doing for so long?”
Abhaya noticed the Sun had set quite early. With the winter setting soon it was expected early. Also, she noticed that they had gradually moved eastwards. Early darkness was welcome today. This would make it difficult to these heretics to trace those girls.
Abhaya smiled at Maatangi’s concern. Now she needs to keep the group focused elsewhere for as long as she could. “Well, seeing waters after seven days. They should be bathing to their hearts’ content. Mahadeva knows when you plan to give us the opportunity next.”
“No, Don’t you think it is dark and it is….” Maatangi appeared stung as she saw Abhaya’s calm expression. All these days she noticed that the princess always protective of the younger girls and that they served as a clear bait to keep her in control. What made her so calm now. Maatangi’s brows came together in anger and suspicion. “Are you planning…”
Whoosh!!, she felt a shower of smooth sand into her eyes. She stumbled while trying to simultaneously get onto her feet as well as catch hold of Abhaya. The princess of Anagha had swiftly turned over her back and armed herself with another fistful of sand. She threw it again at Maatangi this time, gaining a relatively safer distance. The latter struggled bursting into a fit of coughs. Abhaya wasted no time in darting in the opposite direction. She chose not to run towards the waters.
“If those girls have gained any distance, let them stay safe there. I should try something more to ward this group from hounding them back.” She heard maatangi calling out to the soldiers who saw her escape and positioned themselves blocking her way. She saw Maatangi now running towards her with increased fury.
Stopping for a moment to gain breathe, Abhaya looked at the soldiers poised to block her from either sides of the narrow road. She ran with a measured pace and stopped a few feet away from the men. This was something she had anticipated. While she was training with Vikram about close combats, the latter had explained about various ways of warding an attack while being unarmed. It was fair to attack at vital parts of an armed opponent while one is unarmed. She had to launch the move before Maatangi could catch up with her.
Again taking a deep breathe, she bolstered herself towards the man on her left with a leap. He charged holding his sword high with his right and spread his left to catch her. As she landed about two feet away from him, She deftly turned right to frustrate his charge and landed her foot with all the force she could muster on the unsuspecting second man below his navel. Both the soldiers fell to the ground, one dazed and one screaming in pain. Abhaya felt Maatangi close behind and broke into a run.
“You call yourselves, men!!????” She heard Maatangi’s angry words behind. She paused at a distance to see what her pursuers were upto. Satisfied after making sure that the three of them were behind her, she continued in her path, now vaguely visible in the darkness.
She heard them shout out, probably calling for help. One of the men shouted a curse in Arya tongue. Turning in the corner, Abhaya found herself running short of breathe. They had camped some good distance away from the city of Kashi. Only way to get there would be on the longer road or by water. There was no way to get back to the waters. Abhaya decided to continue on her way on the road. But her pursuers at least Maatangi and one soliders were gaining on her. She continued, in a frantic pace and turned right again. She remembered that their camp was towards the left. She wanted to avoid the other soliders who by now might have been alerted by the shouts.
This path was bushy and not cleared well. Abhaya wondered if this led to a woody path. She needed to take care about the reptiles that would be on the prowl. Looking back and forth, she blindly ran forward not caring as sharp edges of some thorny bushes scratched agains her arms. Her head hit against something that felt like an extended branch and she could not suppress a cry of sudden pain as she fell to the ground.