The sky exploded as the golden arrows of their adversaries rained down upon their ship; so numerous they blocked out the light. The good ship Roma had battled through heavy storms to reach the Sea of Sadness, now boiling with the anger of the mighty Goddess Kushi. A raging torrent of water prevented their craft from heading north into the bay, separating the Aveshi and Garambik peoples.
The Roma carried 24 medium-barrelled cannonades, each capable of firing thirty two pound shot. She was also fitted with smaller nine pound ‘chase guns,’ mounted on the bows and stern, allowing her to fire from the rear, while being chased, or from the front, when in hot pursuit. Unlike other private vessels of her class, all her guns had been precision-bored and were deadly accurate.
‘Hard a port,’ cried the Captain as he headed west to avoid colliding with the barrier.
‘I guess they’ve fixed it then,’ said Satbir.
‘Aye lad, it’s been a while since we were here. Ample time for repair, but it hasn’t stopped them using this Goddess thing though, has it? Did you see her eyes through the foam?’
‘No I was too busy avoiding the arrows coming over the top to notice. Hats off to them for the rebuild.’
Kuriko flew low over the Roma on Gora, his trusty white, winged stallion. ‘Satbir, as you suspected, they are anchored some miles west of here awaiting our arrival, and their reserve forces are amassed off the coast to the east.’
‘Are they Garambik or Aveshi?’
‘Mostly Garambik, but there are one or two Aveshi vessels in the area. They seem to have advanced their military capabilities in the years we have been away, but my guess is, they’re monitoring what the Garambik are doing.’
Satbir knew they were hopelessly outnumbered, and engaging them would be extremely risky. They must find a place to send out a landing party, and locate the Princess before this undertaking escalated into all-out war.
‘You have overall command of this mission, Satbir, what would you like me to do?’ asked the Captain.
They sailed on for some time, the tension among the crew increasing. The hope of finding a safe landing point looked remote. Satbir ordered complete silence, and all that could be heard was the creaking of the ship, and the lapping of the waves. They were barely travelling faster than the tide, and at any moment they faced the prospect of encountering hostile ships. Darkness approached and Satbir demanded a total blackout. Kuriko and Gora landed on deck before the light failed them. ‘They have upped anchor and are heading straight for us!’ Kuriko said.
The Captain changed course immediately, without consulting Satbir.
‘Steer 186 degrees south!’
‘Cat and mouse methinks, hey Captain.’
‘Aye lad, it’s going to be a long night.’
‘We can’t play games indefinitely; is there any way we can steer another course and head straight for where we landed last time?’
‘It would be dangerous, but it’s unlikely they know our current position, as they didn’t see us turn south. My guess is they are patrolling the barrier, and will turn west when they spot their reserves. If we go now, we should miss them.’
‘Should or could?’
‘I guess a little bit of both. Contact with the Garambik may be inevitable, but we have an eye in the sky and they don’t. ? If we do bump into them, we always have our contingency plan.’
‘Have the cutters been prepared?’
‘Loaded and ready to go at your command.’
‘Let’s do it then!’
‘All hands on deck! Come on, look lively, my lovely lads! Tool up and prepare to make sail! Steer 247 degrees north!’
The sails cracked away from the wind as the Roma heaved to port, bound for the Aveshi west coast. The chosen landing place would be no ‘paddle’ on the beach; it was very mountainous and the rocks extended way out to sea. It was shallow in parts and the last time they attempted it, they nearly came unstuck. Satbir was very tired and found himself dozing off, thinking of home. He missed his mother and sister Gurpreet, craving her roti and chi more than ever. ‘I wish I was home, tucking into one of Gurpreet’s breakfasts now,’ he thought.
‘Sorry to wake you up, Satbir, but it’s starting to get light. Time for me to scout ahead again,’ Kuriko said, as he took off with a wave. Satbir felt very cold and shivery, despite the warm weather. He shrugged his shoulders, pulled the collars of his greatcoat up to his ears, and looked out over the waves. The crew were exhausted and far from home. They had travelled many weeks through adversity and now approached the battlefield they had unintentionally helped to create. Satbir scanned the horizon through his telescope; Kuriko was heading back toward the ship, looking every inch a Samurai Warrior, swords sparkling in the early morning sun.
‘Satbir, they are just over the horizon and heading toward you. You must turn around now!’ Kuriko urged as he hovered above.
‘Hold your position Kuriko!’ Satbir joined the Captain on the quarter deck and could see the Garambik warships in the distance; heavily armed with frighteningly accurate canons jutting out of the sides; waiting to get close enough to let fly with a salvo. They were flanked by smaller, faster Sikari boats with fighting platforms extending outwards from their bows. The platforms, or Tiraphut as the Garambik called them, were supported by beams attached to floats on either side of the vessel. The bravest of warriors would ride on them, grappling hooks ‘a ready’ to board ship, once they were close enough. The Garambik fighters had fought many battles through the ages, both within and beyond the barrier. Satbir had fought against them before, and knew of the origins and exploits of these soldiers from the Princess. He had long admired their bravery, as they wore no armour and did not carry shields, the lack of protective equipment, seemingly compensated for by the sheer number of men. He could see them waiting for the command, bows at the ready.
‘Awaiting your orders Satbir. Shall we retreat?’ asked the Captain.
‘No, hold your position and let’s see what they do next. They are beginning to settle. The warships are in an arrow head formation, flanked by Sikari boats. They are signalling to each other but their flags are unfamiliar.’
‘The lead ship has gone full sail, watch its course, Satbir.’
‘Aye Captain! Hold her steady, steady! Wait until they are in range!’ Satbir stood with his left arm raised in anticipation. The Roma sat almost still in the water. Out of nowhere an arrow hit a sailor in the neck, dropping him to the deck where he stood. Another arrow found a target; a second man fell. Satbir’s arm sliced through the air. ‘Now!’ he screamed. ‘Where is that coming from?’
‘Ship ahoy, off the stern…!’ An arrow in the belly silenced the lookout. A Sikari boat was rapidly approaching them.
‘They’re behind us, marines to aft!’
‘Centre rank, shields up! Front and rear ranks, shields down!’ The Troop Commander yelled. ‘Rear rank, ready your bows; nock, draw…’ Satbir hesitated, waiting for the right moment to fire. ‘Loose!’ The timing was perfect, and the Garambik were put on the defensive until the Captain brought the ship about.
‘We are heading straight for them Satbir!’
‘Maintain course Captain. Let’s ram them clean out of the water.’ The Captain took the wheel himself, and hung on grimly as they raced toward the Sikari. The bows of the Roma cut through the enemy vessel with ease, but despite this, the Garambik had still managed to deploy their grappling hooks.
‘Mashinjala!’ shouted the Troop Commander, his tone more menacing than before.
‘Just the ropes, Lieutenant. A double ration of rum to every man who drops a Garambik in the drink, without burning him alive!’ said Satbir. Under the cover of their shields, the mashinjala was primed, the rear tank pumped and the pilot light ignited. It was a horrendous weapon, capable of incinerating everything before it. The ropes were quickly burnt away, forcing the would-be marauders to swim for it.
The Captain brought the ship around again to face warships from the west. ‘Hard o’ port, man the starboard guns.’ The Roma edged her starboard side to the Garambik. ‘Run out the guns, steady as she goes! Fire as your guns bear.’ Almost simultaneously the canons opened up, tearing into the lead ship’s rigging, making her difficult to manoeuvre.
‘Excellent work Captain, you have smashed right through the mainmast.’
‘Let’s not get too carried away; first point to us maybe, but there are plenty more out there to take this one’s place.’ Sure enough Satbir could see enemy vessels from the west, manoeuvring into range, while the men on the Sikari continued to fire arrows in an apparently unending volley.
‘Time to create our own barrier; on your mark, Captain.’ He nodded his agreement and Satbir ordered Jagdeesh and his team into the water. The Roma was heaving when his men were lowered in the cutters.
‘Drop sail,’ commanded the Captain, as Jagdeesh’s squad hit the waves. They were to row ahead of her as she slowed, allowing them to take the lead. Each man carried a shield and the cutters were loaded with barrels of oil, which they would release and ignite to form a floating barrier of smoke and flame between them and the Garambik ships.
‘Shields left! Cover up and keep rowing until I tell you to stop,’ screamed Jagdeesh as one of his team was shot in the eye with an arrow. The dead man was pushed over the side. The mission was sacred, the command had been given.
Jagdeesh’s squad continued to take casualties but they moved forward as the Roma fell back. ‘Keep your shields up, not long now. Heave, heave, heave; push it out man; dig, dig, dig!’
Progress was incredibly slow, each man rowing with one hand and holding his shield with the other. ‘Easy oars men, loose the barrels, pull the stoppers out.’ The oil started to seep from the barrels and float on the surface. ‘Watch out!’ There was a huge whoosh as Jagdeesh set fire to it, forming a continuous wall of searing heat and thick black smoke. Tragically, one of their own boats was caught in the flash. Men screamed as they hurled themselves into the sea, attempting to extinguish the flames rapidly enveloping their bodies. Not all made it.
‘On me, on me, that’s it lovely lads, hang on to the side, don’t let go! Drop your shields and listen in, the able bodied; heave, heave, heave!’ The cutter was taking in water and slowly sinking as Jagdeesh tried in vain to make headway. He had no choice but to abandon. ‘Everybody out; hold your shields in front of you and swim for it! Every man for himself!’ he shouted as he slipped into the briny.
Men were gradually trickling back to the Roma, at anchor awaiting their return. There was no sign of Jagdeesh. Satbir was feeling very sick, his shivers replaced by a raging thirst.
‘If we’re going to move, we should do it now. This cover will not last,’ said the Captain, and at Satbir’s nod, gave the order to weigh anchor. Kuriko responded quickly to his master’s summons, and was instructed to scout for a safe harbour and return with its coordinates. The oil was starting to burn out as they made full sail toward the barrier. Satbir called for volunteers to take the launch to search for Jagdeesh.
‘I’ll go,’ said Cookie as he jumped to the front, claiming he was the only real sailor among them. ‘I have more experience of navigating than anyone else on board, except maybe the captain,’ he added in response to the Skipper’s beady-eyed look.
‘Okay Cookie, pick your men carefully and take what you need’
The Captain laughed, ‘You have command of this operation, Satbir, but who in the hell is going to cook?’
‘Thank you both, I won’t let you down.’ Cookie chose his men with great care, scrutinising the assembled crew. His gaze stopped when he reached the twins. They had a reputation for great strength, and were excellent rowers. His final decision took a little longer. He stroked his beard for a while, and then pointed at Prakash, ‘You will light up our journey, follow me.’
‘May your God go with you Cookie,” shouted Satbir. The ship’s company saluted his bravery with a cheer as they watched the cook and his chosen men scramble over the side.
Satbir was born in Pavithana a little rural village in the kingdom of Hypanis and lived next door to Jagdeesh. They had many happy times and exciting adventures together. He had a sister Gurpreet who could be a bit bossy at times but always meant well. How he missed her now. She used to make the most beautiful roti and chi with cardamom and evaporated milk. Absolutely scrumptious for breakfast or indeed at any time. She had finished school before her time and had been helping run the house because her mother had cataracts and was gradually going blind. This problem was common in Hypanis and although the operation to remove them was simple it was very expensive and out of reach for most of the people in the village.
Satbir remembered the day Gurpreet had nagged him to speed up and get to school. He had argued with her and his mother about wanting to leave school and get a job so they could save up for an eye operation for Mother. He told them Mr. Ghupta, his class teacher had said he was very grown up for his age and the best in his class so, ‘Maybe I could finish school early?’ he had asked with an impish grin on his face. ‘Absolutely not! You must finish school and decide which University you are going to attend. How silly of you even to imagine I would allow you to leave,’ his mother said angrily. Gurpreet put her hands on her hips and looked menacingly at him. Satbir made a tactical withdrawal and set off to school.
He used to love walking to school and would imagine himself travelling to far distant lands and meeting exciting and exotic people. The whole world lay before him he thought, he could go anywhere. He wanted to experience different cultures, different religious beliefs and different foods. There were stunningly green crops to his left and mud houses bleached white by the sun to his right. There was quite a distance between the houses and each had tables scattered around them for drying fruit and vegetables. He thought the fields looked like huge half-finished haircuts as though a giant had sliced through them with an enormous electric clipper.
His best friend Jagdeesh interrupted his chain of thought with some style as he skidded around him on his bicycle. Jagdeesh was much taller than Satbir and his mother said he ate too much ghee and roti. He certainly loved his grub and the ladies at the temple would always ensure he had second helpings. Jagdeesh’s Father worked on the railway and when Satbir's Dad lived at home they worked together. Satbir was unsure what his Father did for a living but he remembered him and Jagdeesh's Dad traveling to work together. They Left very early in the morning and returned home late at night. Satbir’s mother used to call his Father, “the Scarlett Pimpernel.” The boys had arrived at their usual stopping point mid-way between home and school. It was an old sewage pipe left abandoned long ago by the village council after they had run out of money building new houses. It was completely overgrown and barely recognisable as a sewage pipe. It was not very long but it was high enough to enter without banging your head, unless you were over six feet of course. It looked more like a very neat hill with a flat top than a sewage pipe. All the kids loved it but Jagdeesh and Satbir regarded it as their exclusive property. It was right outside Aunty Kalair’s house and she would often invite them in for a cold glass of mango lassi when they stopped. They rarely refused. They called it their ‘secret tunnel’ and no matter what was happening, they would always stop at this place on their way to school. They didn't necessarily go in but they always stopped.
Satbir was trying to decide whether they should risk going in, he knew his Mother and Gurpreet would be visiting Aunty Kalair’s that day. ‘Should we - could we - Dare we?’ He said to Jagdeesh. They hung around outside trying to decide when Jagdeesh spotted the outline of Satbir’s Mum and Gurpreet coming up the road behind them. They ran quickly and awkwardly to the entrance and Satbir caught his head on the overgrowth above him as they ran in. It was quite dark in there and they sat on the floor for a moment catching their breath. It was strangely comforting, cool and very quiet. It smelled of worms and wet soil but they didn’t mind. Satbir said he felt calm and peaceful. ‘What to do next?’ He asked. They both stood up and began walking further into the tunnel. Satbir led the way and the tunnel seemed to slope away from them as they got further into it. It seemed never ending and Satbir was beginning to think maybe they had taken a wrong turning somehow but how could that be? They had done this a thousand times but he couldn’t remember it ever being this long and they had never been this far in before. Their hearts were pounding but one way or another they managed to hold their fear at bay even when the rats began running over their feet to escape their advance. They bravely wiped away the spider’s webs which stroked their faces like fine netting as they got deeper and deeper into the tunnel. Through squinted eyes they could see a faint glow emanating from what appeared to be the end of the tunnel. There was something painted on it. ‘What’s that?’ whispered Jagdeesh. It was a huge symbol they had never seen before. Satbir wiped it clean with the sleeve of his shirt. It was a large dark circle with a golden star inside.
He cleaned it completely and sat back to admire his handy work. He felt elated and exhausted at the same time and strangely giddy and giggly. He could not account for these feelings and was beginning to think he might be a bit poorly. He could feel Jagdeesh shaking behind him. He stared at the star for a moment and reached out and touched its centre. The more he looked, the more it seemed to move. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, the star had started to rotate within the circle. Satbir was rooted to the spot. It got faster and faster until it was a blur. It kept changing colour. Red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo, and violet until it was a blinding white light. Satbir could resist no longer. He pushed his hand against the wall and it went clean through it. He screamed for Jagdeesh but got no reply. It was like touching quicksand! He felt himself being sucked through the wall and then spun around and around until he landed with a surprisingly light bump onto a grassy surface. He kept his eyes closed for a minute and called out for Jagdeesh again but still got no answer. He looked around him nervously. He was in a beautiful garden surrounded by the most curious blossoms he had ever seen. They looked like blossoms within blossoms; drooping with their own weight. The flowers were never ending and their smell so intoxicating and overwhelming. Satbir reached out and pulled a clutch toward his nose. He fell to the floor unconscious. When he awoke he found himself standing at the entrance to the tunnel.
He felt absolutely marvellous as though he had been away on a relaxing holiday. He didn’t have a care in the world. Well that was until he turned around and saw his sister and his mother coming toward him. ‘Stop messing around and get to school,’ shouted Gurpreet. ‘Oh pants, school,’ he whispered under his breath. ‘Where in the hell had Jagdeesh got to, he thought. I am going to be horribly late.’ Without so much as an ‘ok’ to his sister or mother, he ran off in the direction of his school. His mind was racing as fast as his legs. What had happened to him and what was going to happen to him? Where had Jagdeesh gone?
Satbir dashed through the school gates and nearly knocked poor Mr. Ghupta off his feet. ‘Satbir what has gotten into you boy?’ He asked sternly. ‘Sorry Sir,’ panted Satbir, ‘I am late.’ ‘What are you talking about boy? You are not late at all. In fact you are early and what in the world have you been up to?’ He asked. ‘You look exhausted and your clothes are filthy. Go and clean up before class starts’ he said. Satbir took himself off to the changing rooms to clean up. When he returned he was astonished to see Jagdeesh riding his bike like a bat out of hell through the school gates. He looked pale and shocked and he was shaking like a leaf. ‘How, how did you get here before me?’ Jagdeesh panted, still shaking. ‘I saw you disappear through the wall. How in the hell did you do that? It was a trick wasn’t it? You did it deliberately to scare the pants off me didn’t you? Well congratulations mate, you did it. I think I need to change my underwear. I can’t stop shaking,’ he cried hysterically. His knees were knocking together violently and his face had drained of its colour. He turned around suddenly and vomited voluminously. Satbir said later ‘it was like everything had gone into slow motion. Jagdeesh turned, his stomach visibly heaved and sick spurted from his mouth like an exploding rainbow.’ Unfortunately it landed all over Mr. Matu’s shiny shoes and the bits got stuck in the turn ups on his trousers.
Mr. Matu was the Head Teacher at the school and was a very nice man. He was tall and skinny and always wore a very smart military looking turban. It was jet black and immaculately tied. The folds and creases seemed to be in exactly the same places every day. Pupils at the school used to say he glued it together like a hat so he could just place it on his head in the mornings to save time. Some of the boys said he was completely bald under his turban but his beard was so long he could tie it up over his head to cover it. Nobody could be certain as he was never seen without his turban, not even on sports days.
Mr. Matu did not look so smart now though! ‘Erm right, erm ok, you boy Satbir take him home will you, I believe you live next door,’ instructed Mr. Matu with a nauseated look on his face. ‘Fine, good, excellent, carry on boys to your classes,’ he said as he waved Satbir and his classmates to their duties. He took a stiff legged walk to his office. The boys couldn’t help giggling as he left.
He was a very gentle man and he couldn't tell anybody off if they were naughty. He used to delegate that responsibility to his School Secretary Mrs. Chang. She was a formidable woman and was certainly not afraid of giving a naughty pupil what for when the occasion arose. He used to write to her detailing the pupils’ misdemeanours and suggested punishments for her to choose from. She was always glad to oblige and only too happy to carry them out!
Nobody was quite sure where she was from but she was such a scary lady despite her diminutive figure that everybody was too scared to ask her. She lived in an old hotel surrounded by ornamental gardens with two huge stone lions guarding the front gates. A number of people seemed to live there but people rarely came to stay. They had a funny old gardener named Davinder who the children of the village called ‘laundry head,’ because of his huge dishevelled orange and blue turban.
Satbir picked up Jagdeesh’s bike and they both left through the school gates. ‘You really splattered Mr. Matu good and proper but if it’s any consolation to you every boy in the playground physically winced then laughed hysterically. So I wouldn’t be too upset,’ said Satbir with a grin. ‘It’s all right for you to talk. I am always the idiot. Anyway it’s no wonder I was sick, that joke you played on me was terrifying,’ Jagdeesh sobbed. Satbir was unsure how to tell his friend it had not been a joke at all but a reality.
Satbir beckoned his friend to come and sit beside the road and rest for a minute. They had stopped at this point on many occasions as had others and over time two seats had been shaped into the earth separating the road from the crops. Jagdeesh was still very shaky but his friend looked him straight in the eyes and said, ‘But Jagdeesh it was not a joke!’ Jagdeesh stared at him in disbelief. ‘But you disappeared through a wall. How is that possible?’ he asked. ‘I have absolutely no idea but I landed in a garden with really strange but beautiful blossoms in it. They had the most incredible smell I have ever encountered and when I put my nose in them and had a good old sniff, I woke up standing outside the tunnel feeling absolutely great. That’s when I saw my mum and Gurpreet so I legged it to school. I thought I was late but I wasn’t. Anyway how did you get behind me?’ he asked. ‘You’re at it again,’ Jagdeesh said angrily. ‘When I saw you disappear through the wall I panicked and ran for it. I flew out of the tunnel like a shot and cycled straight to school without stopping.’ ‘Are you sure you didn’t hit your head or anything?’ asked Satbir. ‘Absolutely certain,’ he replied. ‘Then how do we explain it,’ Satbir asked with a puzzled look. Of course neither boy could explain it. How could they?
They got to their feet and headed for home. Jagdeesh had regained some of his colour and he was no longer shaking. ‘I don’t suppose you would consider going back into the tunnel would you Jagdeesh?’ Satbir asked tentatively. Jagdeesh just stared at him. ‘I’ll take that as a no then,’ he said.
The next day as they walked to school together, neither boy spoke much and the subject of the secret tunnel did not arise. Not even when they paused outside it on their way. They arrived at school and sat beneath the hall window in the shade. ‘Satbir, Jagdeesh didn't you hear the bell?’ shouted Mr. Ghupta. The sound of clattering tin cups and lunchboxes reminded them to line up with the rest of their class in alphabetical order.
The class was very well organised. Desks ran from left to right and they sat in alphabetical order as well. The desks were very old and had a rich patina formed from age, elbows, inkblots, blood, sweat, and tears. The initials carved on them told the story of past pupils joys and woes. The school was built by the British for children of the railway and the plaques on the walls in the corridors described the story of the people who built and ran it.
Satbir always thought his Father had something to do with the government after he left the railway but he hadn't lived with the family for years. He didn't even know where he was and it seemed to be a touchy subject at home. It always provoked stern looks from his mother or a telling off from his sister.
Satbir had forgotten his first two periods that day were algebra. He hated the subject. ‘How can you do sums with letters?’ He used to ask. The bell signalled the end of the lesson and Satbir was unable to recall anything his teacher had said. A testimony maybe to his dislike of the subject and not a comment on Mr. Ghupta’s teaching.
The children used to take turns to sound the bell and today it was Navdip Sangat's turn. He was huge and very strong and although Satbir regarded him as a friend, Navdip would often ask him to do things he wasn't comfortable with and got him into trouble. Nothing major of course but Satbir would rather have avoided the hassle it caused at home.
On one particular occasion he persuaded Satbir to help him tie long lengths of very fine black cotton onto people’s doorbells and hide on the other side of the road. Then they pulled the cotton so the bell would ring and the occupants would think there was somebody at the door. Of course when they answered nobody was there so they would go back inside and close the door. This was repeated until they were sussed out and chased by the house owners.
Unfortunately they did it to Aunty Kalair once and she recognised Satbir's laugh. He was grounded for a month and had to help Aunty in the garden each night after school. Satbir did find it funny watching the puzzled looks on their victims’ faces but the punishment he received made him think twice about doing it again. Whenever Navdip rang the school bell everyone knew it was him without having to look. His bell ringing was legend. Ear piercingly loud and long and he always had to be reminded to stop even after most kids had left their previous classes and arrived at their next.
Satbir and Jagdeesh sat outside eating their lunch. Gurpreet had packed him some extra roti and lassi for break time. It had got a bit warm but it was still very good. He used to wish they had a fridge at school like the one's he'd seen a guy selling at the roadside in the town. An old guy used to drive up to the edge of the village in an old flatbed lorry and unload a pile of fridges off the back and arrange them carefully on the pavement.
Satbir had never seen anybody buy one but he must have done as he was there every day. He had a big sign he used to place some distance away telling people of his special bargains and he'd prop it up with sandbags to stop the wind from blowing it over. The guy had a flat nose and no front teeth so maybe at some time he'd bashed his face on a fridge door when he was carrying it?
Navdip’s bell ringing thundered through the school once more and it was time to go back in. ‘Japan is the land of the Samurai,’ said Mr. Ghupta knowledgeably. ‘It consists of 6,852 islands.’ ‘The four largest are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku.’ The Emperor of Japan comes from the oldest continuing hereditary Monarchy in the world.’ its main religions are Shinto and Buddhism,’ he continued. ‘Which as you know originated right here in mother India.’ Mr. Ghupta had a peculiar habit of raising his heels off the floor when he wanted to emphasise an important point. Like an exclamation mark. His right eye would twitch as though to ask ‘are you listening boy?’ Satbir’s train of thought was halted by the sound of the bell signalling the end of the day. ‘Thank you Navdip for scaring the pants off me’, he thought although it did mean he could go home. He grabbed his things and headed for the door. Satbir called to his friend. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’ve been thinking maybe we could just have a little peek in the tunnel. Just a little one mind; see if we can see anything obvious from just poking our noses a little way in. If you are too scared to go in with me, I will go on my own. I have been thinking about it all last night and today during school. Whatever you decide I will be going into the tunnel again. I have to find out what happened,’ he said decisively.
They reached Aunty Kalair’s house and Jagdeesh finally spluttered, ‘Okay, okay I will go in with you. Why do you make me feel so guilty all the time?’ ‘Top man Jagdeesh,’ replied Satbir as he gave him the thumbs up. Jagdeesh got off his bike and they edged their way gingerly to the tunnel’s entrance. It was completely overgrown but they could see where countless people had entered before.
Satbir was first. He pushed his arms into the entrance, followed by his head. Jagdeesh did likewise. ‘Stay right by my side,’ he said to Jagdeesh. ‘Don’t worry mate, I’m glued to your hip,’ he replied nervously. They pushed on into the darkness. The smell of wet soil and worms hit them again. ‘I hope that’s sweat running down my leg,’ said Satbir. Jagdeesh gave a short worried laugh and said ‘I know it’s not sweat running down mine mate and I think it has lumps in!’ Satbir burst out laughing.
Soon the rats were beginning to run over their feet again but they spurred each other on until they reached the end of the tunnel. It got warmer and warmer the further they went in and was now very hot. The boy’s hearts were pounding and they were dripping with sweat. The weird symbol was still there and seemed to be glowing faintly. ‘Right, do exactly as I do,’ whispered Satbir. He raised his right arm and opened his hand. Jagdeesh followed suit. ‘Now touch the wall,’ As soon as the boys touched the wall the symbol began to spin. Faster and faster, flashing all the colours of the rainbow until it turned white. ‘Now push your hand in,’ shouted Satbir, whereupon it began sucking the boys straight through the wall. Down they went spinning into the garden just like Satbir said he had done. They landed with a soft bump onto the grass.
‘Wow that smell. It’s beautiful,’ said Jagdeesh. ‘See it wasn’t a prank. Don’t smell the blossom by the way, I think that put me out last time,’ Satbir warned. ‘Good safety point. Least it’s masking the smell emanating from my underpants,’ joked Jagdeesh. The garden was indeed very beautiful and it looked a lot like a Japanese garden. Satbir recalled the text book Mr. Ghupta had been using earlier in the day. It had a picture of a Japanese garden on the front cover.
‘Who the hell are you,’ a voice boomed. There before them was a tiny, tiny man. They had never seen his like before. He was dressed in black silk robes and his hair was pure white and tied back in a plait. He looked Chinese. ‘Who are you?’ asked Satbir politely. ‘You must know otherwise, why are you here? And what’s more we haven’t got time for this. Have you brought them?’ asked the man rocking back onto his feet. ‘Sorry I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about,’ replied Satbir firmly.
‘Don’t take that tone of voice with me boy. Don’t you know who I am?’ the man said angrily. ‘Look mate we haven’t the foggiest idea where we are, who you are or what you are talking about,’ Satbir replied firmly. He was feeling rather proud of himself for his bravery when all of a sudden the tiny man launched into an angry tirade. ‘Well the cheek, the audacity the bare faced effrontery of the lad. I’ll have you know young man you are addressing none other than the Abhibhavka and you are the kuji da vika akipara; the keeper of the keys.
You probably don’t know it but you’re going to save the world. Yes without a doubt. Well you and a few others, including this tub of Ghee stood by your side.’ He glanced at Jagdeesh’s tummy and shook his head. Jagdeesh didn’t know whether to cry or kick the little man back to wherever he came from. ‘Oi Shorty,’ cried Satbir. ‘That’s my best friend you are insulting. Only I am allowed to do that!’ ‘Undoubtedly and I am sure you do but he is your Squire don’t forget that. You will have adventures together you never thought possible and I will be there to look out for you through my eyes the Rak Aka and his white stallion,’ said the little man excitedly. Jagdeesh was speechless for a second. ‘What do you mean you the only one allowed to insult me?’ he said. Satbir and the little man ignored him completely.
‘Although your Rak Aka lives far away he will make contact with you and you will be as one. You are to seek out the keys. There are seven seals and seven keys and in time you will recover them all,’ said the man. He handed Satbir a scroll and said ‘keep this safe for this will define your quest.’ The man waived his hand and in a moment they were back in the tunnel. They made a beeline for the exit and both collapsed onto the ground outside the pipe laughing uncontrollably. There laughter was interrupted by a slow handclap. ‘Hello boys!’ Cried a young girl’s voice.