I did not suffer my punishment well, hard though I tried. Sleeping while standing was no easy feat and I almost hit the cave floor on more than one occasion that first night. By morning I almost fell just to invite the deadly spear and end my torture but my will to live unfortunately prevailed.
My suffering was momentarily relieved at the sight of my brother standing at the cave entrance. The lack of sleep had me believing he was just a mirage but when he walked in and took my hand, I knew the touch was real.
“You may sit,” he commanded. I hesitated. If this was a mirage and I followed its command, my death was imminent. He spoke more harshly. “Sit or answer to Odin.”
I obeyed and Hugo crouched in front of me, his face hovering over mine. Tears fell as he whispered so quietly I almost failed to catch his words. “I don’t like treating you this way, but they are always watching. You’re my sister, Ankita, I love you dearly, but you have to play the game. It’s the only way right now. They have a very close eye on you, they…” he hesitated, but I dared not look up to see why. The smoke at the cave entrance was threateningly close – Hugo was already taking enough chances without me making things worse. “…There’s been a development. Your gift is valuable and I’m making myself valuable as well; it’s the only thing keeping you alive right now. Things are going to get worse for you when they come for Vivaaha and…and Ankita, you have to trust me: go along with it. Survive. Survive and we will find a way to get away from here.”
The mass of both hysteria and confusion that tore through me at his words left a small puddle of tear-stained mud & dirt at my feet. How much more torment did he think I could withstand? But I nodded. The fear that scorched my insides was equally offset with the tingle of relief that I had not yet lost my brother’s heart. There was still hope, somewhere. Somehow. I could trust him, couldn’t I? It was hard to say – no one else had ever spoken of escape before. Everyone assumed it was impossible. I wanted it so badly it hurt, but it would likely be months, perhaps even another year before I’d have the opportunity to see my brother again. What had I been condemned to live through until then?
I had a million questions to ask him – he certainly left me with more questions than answers – but I knew better than to ask them. Not knowing was commonplace; a way of life for us. He stood and spoke again, but this time in his loud, authoritative voice no doubt achieved after hours of training with the Diocesans. “Odin and the Quorum have decided to show you mercy as your services will be requested following initiation tonight. You will obediently follow me back to your camp in gratitude for this gift.”
I nodded with an exhale as my body contemplated my reprieve. Perhaps I would be allowed to sleep before the ceremony. I certainly would be unable to perform otherwise and failure was never an option.
Hugo led me on the short walk back to the gate, the iridescent smoke creating an eerie trail behind us. When we entered the camp, Leif was guarding the entrance – it seemed a bit odd as Willem was the known protector of the Quorum – but he exchanged a glance with Hugo that, from my viewpoint focused on the dirt, seemed to contain just a hint of understanding.
Hugo escorted me all the way to my hut. “You will take a few hours to rest so your mind and soul will be clear for erudiation. I would suggest you consider seeking out Odin before your enter your home to offer him the Invocation of Thanks for his kindness.”
I could hardly think from the sleep deprivation; my bed being just yards from where I stood did not make matters easier. But I knew what Hugo’s words meant – suggestions from the Quorum were never true suggestions. No matter what flowery or vague words they used to decorate their commands, obedience was always the only choice.
I turned from the door and wandered through the camp to find Odin. It occurred to me that this was part of my punishment – to bring me so close to the relief of my bed, then send me wandering about seeking the grace of my savior.
I wandered from hut to hut, through the Square, and back around before I finally found him near the entrance – his location was strategic, no doubt. I approached him reverently, hoping I could find the concentration I needed to remember the Invocation of Thanks.
He stood by the gate, resting in a chair below the rusty scaffolding in deep conversation with Klaes. I dropped to my knees at his feet. “Odin, Chief of the Quorum, I come here to offer thanks for your mercy in suspending my well-deserved punishment. The offense will not repeat and my heretic nature is changed by the grace of your kindness.”
“You may continue.”
My mind scrambled. If I could just remember the first few words, the rest would flow freely. I relaxed my mind the same way I did before erudiation. I opened my mouth and the words came tumbling out.
“Axel, Ruler of Heaven to whom I, my sisters, and our esteemed Goddess Aditi are indebted: enshrined in our devotion, Tua.” I motioned with the back of palm to my forehead in honor of the sacred pronoun of the gods we only spoke to in prayer. “Ruler of the Sphere upon thy return, Tua. And forever compensated in the promise of obedience we shall be, here and upon our return to Helheim.” I took a deep breath and continued, my weary mind intuiting the words from the very depths of my psyche. “In the name of Axel we eat, by mercy we are forgiven and are permitted to grant forgiveness when the honor is requested, and it is only through obedience and docility that we shall earn the right to live untarnished by the evils of rebellion, Tua. The Sphere, the beauty and finality of ultimatum, and the unbridled worship of devoted followers shall ever be, Tua.”
The final words begged not to be spoken, but I quelched the ache in my heart and plowed forward. “Unto Odin, to whom I bequeath my life, my liberty, and my body should I become Chosen, I utter in meekness and humility my supplication and adoration. Gratitude is divine as is the benevolence you have freely bestowed upon me. In thanks for an allowance I may never again merit, I offer my ministration in whatever matters you shall require during your stay with the Women of Olaug and beyond.” I tried to suppress the burning in my cheeks – the last woman who had muttered such words carried his child not a week later, only to be disposed of once his prize was attained. “Thy name will eternally remain in my soul and in all supplications to the power of Aditi. Should she find me worthy, my prayers shall reach Axel and reign upon you the proper appreciation.”
I waited in agony. The balls of my feet were almost numb from the cold hard cave floor, my knees ground roughly into the dirt, and my eyes threatened to send me to sleep and to my death all at once.
At last, Odin spoke. “Your gratitude is accepted. Please take your leave and know that you have made yourself light in the eyes of Aditi.”
I nodded, stood, and wandered in the direction of my hut. Voices spoke to me as I stumbled across the camp, but I heard nothing. I all but crashed through the straw door and fell to the inviting reach of my wooden bed. Consciousness quickly left me to obtain recompense for my ceaseless affliction.