Project Description

I wrote this story for my daughter Annabelle when she was born, to read when she was 13, which will be this July!

Wow time flies..

At the end of nine years our great story begins. It is the story of how the Nine Castles survived and came back to life…

IMG_1254The Orphan King, once an innocent, is now driven by rage and loss in his quest for control. He was ten when his parents were swept away by a river storm and since then has been obsessed by the need to control the river, the Castles, the land and its people. His power has spread by bribe, coercion and curse to each of the castles and now creeps towards the city, where Parjeet, an innocent who knows little of the world beyond his home in the city and nothing of his parents part in the plot to defeat the Orphan King, becomes a target in his evil quest to bring the power of The River of Nine under the control of men. When the Orphan King discovers his plans are being sabotaged, he calls upon his most fearsome ally, The Beast and sends it to Parjeet’s home in the city to seek out the saboteurs.

Parjeet and The Nine Castles

Chapter One – The City

The monsoon rain pounds in his head, but Parjeet can still hear the razor tips of the beast’s claws grate against the hard city streets as she comes to an abrupt halt half a block away from him. He ducks behind a newspaper stand that has toppled over in the rain, the day’s headlines melting into an inky puddle by his knee. Wiping long strands of dark hair from his face, Parjeet peers cautiously from his hiding place.IMG_1261

The beast’s roar erupts through the narrow alley, breath steaming from thick folds of skin around its mouth. A thin strip of stark white fur follows the spine of its steel gray body from the tip of its tail to the nub of its snout where terrible black fangs sprout out of a gnarled face. In the darkness the beast’s white mane almost glows, growing heavy with rain. It paces before a small group of people huddled together at the end of the alley. Behind them, Parjeet can see an entrance to one of the city’s dark tunnels. Three men, two women and a small child, Parjeet’s parents among them, stand terrified at its threshold as if unsure which they’re more afraid of, the beast or the tunnel itself.

Parjeet’s people have always feared the strange black mouths leading to the underbelly of the urban sprawl and his mother has, on more than one occasion, made Parjeet promise her he will never take so much as a step inside. And now she is about to be forced into one of them, along with Parjeet’s father and the others. A few hours ago Parjeet’s life was just as it had always been, now everything he knows and loves is about to disappear into the dark tunnel.IMG_1260

Earlier that night Parjeet was sleeping soundly in his house in The Lanes, when a bizarre rumbling noise echoing through his bedroom woke him up. Confused and sleepy, Parjeet rose from bed and wandered outside. He started heading down the narrow iron staircase to the street, but though he might be dreaming because it felt like someone else was moving his feet for him. Parjeet saw his mother, father and several of their neighbors, standing just like him, out in the middle of the street in the black night. In the open air the rumbling sounded more like the papery wings of nine thousand night moths fluttering in Parjeet’s ears. Then it just stopped. There was a silence, then a crash of thunder released the rain.

Drops of water fell on Parjeet’s face, and feeling more awake he started walking toward his parents. At first they looked as confused as Parjeet felt, but his father’s eyes filled suddenly with terror. His mother screamed like a banshee and his father’s voice sliced through the rain; “Run Parjeet! Run!” Parjeet barely had time to turn and see a pair of glowing yellow eyes atop a open jaw full of razor sharp teeth racing towards him, before his father lifted him clear off the ground and began running, Parjeets toes hitting the pavement

The Beast chased Parjeet’s family and neighbors for what seemed like hours. His father led the group to the failing tents and rickety shack-stands of an abandoned marketplace. When they rounded a corner, he pushed Parjeet violently, sending him hurtling into a stack of old barrels caving in on themselves from decay. By the time he regained his senses, Parjeet’s parents, their friends and the beast had sped right past him lying on the ground amongst a wet pile of rotting yam skins. He followed silently as the beast chased his friends and family out of the marketplace, down the narrow alley where they now stand cowering, the beast pushing them towards the mouth of the tunnel.IMG_1257

Though torrents of rain run down his face, Parjeet’s sharp eyes make out nine symbols framing the tunnel’s perfect half moon mouth. They are connected by a deep groove that winds through the rock like a river. It reminds Parjeet of his father’s stories about traveling along the great river that rushes from one end of Parjeet’s world to the other, where it is swallowed into the depths of the earth. Parjeet’s father has seen the whole river. When he was around the same age Parjeet is now, he followed the river from where it disappears just beyond the First Castle, all the way to the harbor in the city where it’s born. Parjeet has never seen the river.

Slowly the beast begins to rise up onto massive hind legs, dwarfing her frightened captives, then, with a powerful swipe of its front claws, sends them stumbling backwards into the dark cave behind them. Parjeet watches the tip of its terrible tail sink finally into the tunnel’s blackness.

Parjeet knows he should start running as fast as his lanky legs will carry him, but feels unable to move. Hot tears mix with raindrops streaming down his face. He thinks he might collapse in the inky puddle at his knees, when a horrifying howl fills the night. The beast’s voice, amplified a hundred fold from inside the tunnel, echoes through the streets like the deep groan of foghorns in the harbor. He stumbles in shock, springs to his feet to run, but trips over his gangly legs and falls head first into a large pile of discarded paint tins. When the clatter stops echoing through the empty streets Parjeet lies still afraid to make a sound.

Behind him Parjeet hears the slow clicking of the beast’s paws against the wet pavement outside the tunnel, followed by a series of deep snorting and sniffing sounds. Parjeet holds his breath as the beast’s pacing gets louder and closer. Suddenly the Beast begins to gallop, paws hitting the ground two at a time. Parjeet starts to run.

Without looking behind him once, Parjeet runs full speed through unfamiliar city streets, away from the abandoned market, across the bridge over the motor way, down long winding hills, through a scrap heap, past the wide downtown boulevards and further still. He can no longer hear the sound of his hunter over the heaviness of his breath and without any notion of how long he has been running, ends up clear on the other side of the sprawling city.

A block ahead of him a warm light glows from the front windows of a street-side shop. It’s the first sign of life Parjeet has seen since watching the tunnel swallow his mum and dad. He feels a deep ache sprouting in his ankles and spreading like fire up his legs. Falling to his knees, Parjeet finally looks behind him. There’s no sign of The Beast. Sweat mixes with rain in his eyes as Parjeet gropes for a small wooden doorknob on the huge metal door.

IMG_1255Inside, music blares from rickety speakers suspended above whirling ceiling fans that push and pull the song into a gurgling symphony of mismatched notes. Tall, pale-skinned young men run this way and that with drinks and piles of money balanced on thin wooden trays. Older men with round bellies and greedy eyes recline on silk covered cushions. Their fat arms lunge like cobra at beautiful women who seem to fill every bit of empty space in the room.

The women wear bright red and yellow silks and with gold thread accenting their chests and hips. Bellies and arms are exposed where not covered in silver and gold jewelry. Parjeet has spent many hours watching his mother’s silver bangles tinkle up and down her wrist as she painted the bright murals scattered throughout The Lanes. When he was young, Parjeet took advantage of any opportunity to hold his mother’s hand so he could feel the smooth cool metal of her rings between his fingers. The delicate chains that curled around her ankles like kissing snakes comforted him. But these women look different. They are younger, with far more jewelry, but their faces look tired and almost frightened.

Parjeet is still breathing heavily, his eyes slowly growing accustomed to the smoky glow of candles inside. It smells strange, sweet and heavy, but slightly familiar, like the park the morning after a wedding celebration. His thoughts are interrupted as one of the tall waiters bumps into him, spilling several drinks on top of Parjeet’s head.

“Hey little man,” cries his angry voice. “What the hell are you doing standing around there like that? Do you know how much those drinks will cost me?” Parjeet is startled by the man’s loud voice and can’t even get a good look at him because the dark coloured drinks sting his eyes.

“What cha doing here? Come to steal from the fat men eh? Well you can forget about it,” says the waiter grabbing Parjeets hair and pulling him towards the door.

“Denny!” comes a voice from behind Parjeet’s feet. “Leave him be.”

The waiter tightens his grip on Parjeet.

“Nothin to get excited about Tanna,” says the waiter. “Me an the little guy was just makin friends.”

“I mean it Denny. Let go of him!”

The waiter grumbles and shoves Parjeet away from him before heading back into the crowd, empty tray swinging at his side.

“Are you alright?” asks a gentle voice. Parjeet feels soft fingertips on his cheeks as the woman wipes the stinging drink from his eyes.

“I think so,” Parjeet barely manages to mumble as the woman comes into focus. She wipes a cool cloth over his eyes and Parjeet starts to see clearly again.

The room is full of people, but it is the cold leering eyes of a group of men reclining on cushions next to him that fills Parjeet’s heart with fear. He is about to turn around and run out the heavy metal door when Tanna grabs him firmly by the shoulder.

“You can’t go back out there at this time of night, it’s too dangerous,” she says, but before Parjeet can protest, a thick harry hand comes down heavily on Tanna’s cheek and she falls to the ground at Parjeet’s feet.

“Do you think I pay you to babysit?” asks a large man, his thick oily skin shining in the candlelight. Tanna shakes her head without lifting it from the ground “Well get back to work and get that child out of here before I put him to work in the back room.”

Tanna remains on the dirty floor for a moment, her back lurching from stifled sobs, before slowly rising to her knees covering an already bruised cheek with her hands.

“I’m sorry,” whispers Parjeet to Tanna as he helps her up.

Tanna moves her hands away from her eyes then looks for a moment into Parjeet’s young face and smiles before taking him firmly by the hand and leading him towards a tiny door at the back of the large room. When the door closes behind them, Parjeet finds himself outside where a narrow, lantern-lit staircase winds up the back of the building.

He is frightened to be outside again and looks carefully up and down the alley behind the club. By the time they reach the top of what seems like nine hundred stairs, his legs are aching and Parjeet is almost asleep as he walks. Tanna removes a large key from the folds of her silken skirts and opens a heavy metal door at the top of the rickety stairs. Inside, sleeping mats almost carpet the dark wood floor of a small room with a low slanted ceiling.

Candlelight from the stairway is reflected in hundreds of tiny mirrors sewn into the folds of tapestries that hang along the wall at the back of the room. It looks like a night sky until Tanna pulls the door shut behind them.

Tanna leads Parjeet to a tiny mat in the corner at the back of the room, helps him lie down and places a thin sheet over his aching legs. He shivers as Tanna strokes his wet forehead.

“What’s your name,” Tanna asks.

“It’s Parjeet.”

“What are you doing wandering around the city alone on a night like tonight? Where are your parents? Do they know you’re missing?”

Parjeet’s heart freezes at the mention of his parents. He takes a deep breath then starts recounting the night’s events in a hurried voice. He tells Tanna how the Lane’s people were woken up in the middle of the night and lured out into the street by a strange sound; how once they emerged from their rooms, the dark gray beast pounced on them and started chasing them through the city streets. He tells Tanna about his father’s quick thinking saved him and how his parents and the others disappeared into the darkness of the tunnels before the beast found him again and chased him through the city. When he finally takes a breath and looks up, Tanna is staring at him with worried eyes, placing a hand across Parjeet’s forehead to check for fever.

Of course she doesn’t believe me, thinks Parjeet. Frustration and exhaustion hit him at once, so at odds with one another, he begins to sob and buries his face in the sheet Tanna wrapped around him. When Tanna is sure Parjeet’s asleep, she walks quietly out of the dark room, careful to lock the heavy door behind her.

Falling towards deep sleep, Parjeet feels safe for the first time since all of this began. He dreams of a mighty river flowing peacefully past green fields adorned with tiny yellow flowers, buzzing with humming birds and butterflies. He sees a round-faced boy laughing as butterflies land on his outstretched arm. The beautiful field grows misty as his thoughts fade back against the flow of the river and he sees the rooftops of ancient castles and an old river barge flowing with the current. A cold wind blows against the river and the blue sky above begins to swell with clouds turning an icy gray. Soon all he can see are storm clouds swirling tighter and tighter until his ears are full of the sound of their churning. Parjeet recognizes the sound and to his horror it is the same strange purring that woke him from his warm safe bed at home earlier that night. He wakes with a start, eyes wide and full of fear.

When Parjeet sits up and looks around the dingy room above the still noisy club, the call of the beast is gone and all he can hear is the whirling lost music and the occasional booming laugh of a fat merchant from the club below. He gets up from the mat and begins to pace around the room. It is stuffy and wet inside. Parjeet looks around for a window, desperate for a breath of the night air. He sees a narrow window beside the door, so dirty it almost blends in with the wall around it, but it is locked with a rusty clasp. Parjeet jiggles it again and again trying to let a breath of air into the room, but finally he gives up and turns to walk back to the mat. As he turns away from the window, Parjeet freezes in his tracks. Before him, Parjeet sees hundreds of haunting yellow eyes staring back at him from the tiny mirrors in the tapestries on the wall. The beast is just behind him glaring in through the dingy window. Parjeet screams and falls backwards. The beast’s many eyes are angry and turning around he can see its fangs dripping through the dirty window. Parjeet screams again and calls out for Tanna, but there is no chance anyone downstairs can hear him over the music and fat laughter. He runs to the door only to find that it is locked tight. The beast’s eyes disappear from the window and Parjeet can hear the slow sound of its sharp claws on the roof above him.

Parjeet runs back to the mat where he lay dreaming only moments ago and pulls the thin sheet over his eyes. Then he hears a mighty pounding and scraping on the heavy door. The pounding gets louder and louder until he can feel the whole room shaking around him. Then he notices a sliver of light through a crack in the wall right next to the mat. With all his strength Parjeet kicks at the wall next to the crack and to his great surprise three boards fall away easily revealing a narrow dark passage right in front of him. He squeezes his body through the opening just as the door crashes in.

As the beast speeds towards him, Parjeet scrambles deeper into the passageway. It stops just at the entrance to the passageway, too small for such a large animal squeeze through. It tries to swipe at Parjeet with razor claws, squeezing as much of itself as it can through the opening of the passage. Staring back at the beast barely two feet away from him, Parjeet screams and the beast responds with a powerful wail as one of its claws catches the back of his leg. He feels hot blood dripping down to his ankle as he scrambles deeper into the strange passageway. The Beast begins to tear at the boards around the passage, ripping out skull size chunks of wood with each powerful strike of its front legs.

Parjeet continues to crawl through the passage, which winds around several times until he can’t see any sign of the beast, but still hears it tearing at the walls, screeching in frustration. Suddenly the floor disappears from under him and Parjeet falls head first down a slippery shoot. He lands with a thump in a very dark room. He can’t see a thing and fumbles around him on the wet floor. His hand touches a thin metal object on the floor and without thinking Parjeet puts it in the pocket of his pants. He crawls in one direction until he hits a wall and starts blindly feeling every inch of it looking for a way out. Finally he finds a wooden handle half rotted away in the dank darkness. After giving it a firm tug, a small door opens on to the alley behind the club. Parjeet climbs out over a pile of decaying garbage, quietly looking around him for any sign of the beast. The alley is silent save for the sound of the rain pounding on the earth below. Parjeet looks down at his leg. His pants are soaked with blood and ripped from the knee to the ankle. Parjeet tears the bottom of his pant leg off and ties it around the wound.

The alley is dark and although there is no sign of the beast, Parjeet is certain it’s lurking somewhere close by. He thinks about climbing back into the dark room and waiting there until daylight, but when he turns around the door has locked shut behind him. So without giving it too much thought, Parjeet begins to run again, his long legs finding some hidden source of power and speed. He no longer feels exhausted and for the second time that night begins to run like never before.

His long legs carry Parjeet through more unfamiliar parts of the city, winding down towards the port. He can see light from the ships in harbor and heads for them. By the time he reaches the port, the marketplace is already buzzing with merchants preparing for the day’s sales. He wanders between rows of stalls, slowly filling up with vegetables of all varieties, flatbread and fruits. Others display the finely woven silks Parjeet’s father has told him are brought from very far away on barges down the river. Some are cluttered with metal objects of every shape and size from pocketknives to large lanterns. He begins to feel safer walking among these busy men and women even though their faces are cold and warn Parjeet to keep to himself. After walking until the sun begins to glisten orange against the water in the harbor, Parjeet comes across a pile of wheat seed at the end of a row of market stalls. It is so big, Parjeet is certain he can hide behind it unnoticed and finally lies down to rest. The wheat is soft and curls into the folds his neck. Parjeet’s eyes close.

He’s awoken by the sound of a deep voice shouting in anger. Parjeet doesn’t know how long he has been asleep, but the sun is now high in the sky and his clothes have dried. In the distance the marketplace is bustling with sound. Just behind him, the voice that woke him up grows louder and louder, Parjeet gets up quietly to see what’s going on. A very large man with raw silks wrapped many times around his sweating head stands with his back to Parjeet, shouting angrily and throwing rotted husks of corn at a crumbling brick wall in front of him. Parjeet moves further out of hiding and sees a small, round faced boy cowering against the wall dodging dry husks of corn as they hit the wall with a crack.

“Think you can steal from me eh boy? You little varmint! Do you think a man like me risks his life barging up and down the river for silks, just so brats like you can steal my profits?” Whack! Another husk of corn hits the wall just missing the boy’s head. Parjeet hears the boy laughing a little under his breath. Rolls of chub hanging out of the man’s cloth robes shake with anger now.
“Alright you, I’ve had enough!” The man turns away from the husks of corn, picks up an empty milk bottle from a crate and chucks it harshly at the boy’s head. Shards of glass fly into the boy’s face and he groans. The man picks up another bottle and smash, it explodes against the wall at the boy’s feet. Then the great bully picks up another bottle and smashes the bottom of it off on the side of its crate. “I’m not letting you get away with it this time boy,” he says in a menacing voice and starts walking towards the boy who is cornered at the end of the alley with no means of escape. Sharp points of glass gleam in the sunlight as the brute makes his way to the round-faced boy, the broken bottle held out in front of him.

“Leave him alone!” shouts Parjeet jumping out into the alley. Stunned the brute turns around, his makeshift weapon now pointing right at Parjeet.

“Ahh… Traveling in packs now are ya? Well it doesn’t matter to me which one of you I stab. Which should it be the little one or the lanky one.” The brute pauses his attack, considering which one of his little enemies to go after, but before he can make another move the small round-faced boy kicks an old push cart with wobbling wheels toward the brute hitting him square in the shins and sending him reeling in pain to the ground. Before Parjeet can register what’s happening, the small boy shoots out from the wall, around the side of his attacker and grabs Parjeet firmly by the arm pulling him down the alley. Weaving in and out of stalls and heaving large empty wooden crates behind him the boy leads Parjeet through the market. They can hear the brute following them, cursing.

They run down an abandoned lane in the market towards a small door. The small boy wiggles the door handle trying to get in but it is locked tight. He swears then tries to run the other way but the brute has cornered them again. He’s sweating and bleeding from identical gashes on either shin.

“You’ve done it this time,” he says pulling a long knife from under his robe. The blade glistens in the sun. “You’ve stolen from Belchus one too many times and now you’ll have to pay,” he says wiping the blade against the folds of his robes. “Who’s gonna miss two runaway orphans like you two eh? No one that’s who,” he says smiling through great gaps where teeth once grew. He stands over Parjeet and the boy resting one arm against the door above their heads, the other swinging the knife casually inches from their necks. Suddenly the door in the wall opens, causing the brute to fall forward and loose his footing.

“What’s all this now?” comes a voice from the doorway.
“Oh Thamas,” the brute stumbles, quickly putting the knife back into its sheath in the folds of his robes. “I didn’t know you were home. I’m sorry to disturb you sir… sorry. But I’ve caught more of these damn orphans trying to steal from my cart again.”
“I see,” comes the voice from the door. Parjeet tries to glimpse where the voice is coming from, but the sunlight is in his eyes and all he can make out is a pair of sandaled feet taking a step outside the door to see who the brute has cornered.

“Belchus!,” the voice is angry now and Parjeet hears something familiar in it. “Belchus you empty headed… These are not orphans and I’m quite sure they weren’t doing anything to warrant you taking out your knife.”
“But Thamas they’re always causing trouble around the market and…”
“I’ve heard just about enough Belchus. These two are my guests and I’ve been expecting them. Now move on quickly before I decide to send port officers to check your ferry for black market goods.”
Frustrated the brute starts to shuffle off and just as he turns away from them, the small boy winds up and kicks him right on his bleeding shin. “Aaargh!” the brute screams turning around again gripping the handle of his knife. But by this time the man from the door has stepped between Belchus and the boy and with a simple gesture of his hand Belchus turns abruptly and walks away.

When the man turns around to face the boys Parjeet can barely believe his eyes. “Uncle Mas!” he screams throwing his arms around the man’s knees.

“Yes yes Parjeet. What on earth are you doing here?”
Parjeet starts to recount his story in a jumbled trembling voice, but is interrupted by her uncle who couldn’t have made sense of a word of it. “Ok nephew calm yourself. Lets get out of this dusty alley and away from the sun.” He places a gentle hand on Parjeet’s back and ushers him through the door. Then he reaches out a hand to the round-faced boy. “Oja,” he says shaking the boy’s hand in a surprisingly adult greeting. “Are you ever going to stop getting yourself into trouble? We need you, you know. We can’t have you losing it to a stupid oaf over simple silks now can we?”

The three of them pass through the small door in the wall out of the dusty marketplace and into a lush garden full of green and shade. The sound of flowing water fills Parjeet’s ears as the door closes tightly behind them. Two tiny streams flow over terraced rocks on either side of the door now barely perceptible among the thick vines growing over it. Several stone paths lead through the garden away from the wall behind them. Oja walks confidently ahead of them taking the path to the right. Parjeet’s uncle places a hand on the top of his head and leads him silently down the path to the left.

Looking around him, Parjeet almost forgets what has happened to him in the past night. His body begins to feel rested, the marketplace dust in his eyes clears and he looks up at his uncle’s face. “Come on now Parjeet, it could start raining again at any moment,” says Uncle Mar. He leads Parjeet along the winding path, past green and yellow bushes that stand feet taller then Parjeet and are covered with tiny blue and white flowers. Giant gold and orange fish swim along the stream in the same direction they’re walking. They come to a clearing in the garden. A huge gazebo, as big as Parjeet’s whole house, stands where three streams meet to form a moat around the structure. Parjeet’s uncle leads him across a small stone bridge into the gazebo and tells him to sit down on one of the many soft cushions arranged around low black-wood tables. He walks over to the side of the gazebo and takes a tall crystal glass from a tray where several are arranged in perfect circles. He leans over the railing and dips the glass into the moat. Giving the glass to Parjeet, his uncle sits down next to him. As parjeet drinks he feels his strength growing bit by bit. It starts in his feet, travels up his legs past where the beast struck her, soothing the pain. The relief continues right up to Parjeet’s eyes and into his head. He takes a deep breath and feels like he’s had a long night’s sleep in a feather bed.
“Now Parjeet. Tell me how you came to find me,” says his uncle. “And start at the beginning this time.”

Halfway through the story, Parjeet’s uncle interrupts. “What exactly did this beast look like?” he asks. Parjeet wonders why the beast’s appearance is of such importance, but carefully explains what he saw of its giant dark grey body with a strip of stark white hair, the long claws on its front legs and the black fangs that hang over its lower jaw like icicles. When he finishes his description, Parjeet’s uncle looks worried and stops puffing on his pipe. “Parjeet,” he says, his voice sounding decidedly uneasy. “Wait here for a while please, I have to go and call on some friends, but I’ll be right back.”

Parjeet sits dumfounded, watching his uncle hurry away along the winding stone path. The sounds of the garden, its flowing water, jumping fish and trees creaking gently under the weight of their wet branches, fill his ears and soothe his mind. Parjeet dips his now empty glass into the moat, raises it to his lips and empties it in three gulps. Unlike the first drink, which revived him and sharpened his thoughts, this second drink numbs Parjeet’s body and mind leaving him with a sense of calm he has never known before. Looking around him Parjeet notices several odd things about his uncle’s garden.

To begin with some of the trees appear to be upside down, their leaves growing down from the trunk towards the ground and covering the area around the tree with a carpet of soft green. Sprouting from the tops of these strange trees, root like structures dripping with deep green moss reach ever higher into the sky where they spread like a ceiling, sheltering the forest floor from harsh sun and heavy rain. Nine fine glass goblets hang from the highest reaches of the strange trees, on strings as fine and hard to see as spider webs. The fish from the stream have congregated in the moat and Parjeet is certain they are staring up at him. “Hello,” Parjeet speaks questioningly to the water. The fish swish back in surprise then clump off into little groups with their heads huddled together. Parjeet is sure he can hear something like voices in their bubbles as they break at the surface.

There is a rustle in the bushes at the other side of the garden and Parjeet sees his uncle, accompanied by two tall women in long white silk robes and Oja with a large brown sac thrown over his shoulders, hurrying towards the gazebo.

“Listen to me carefully Parjeet,” says Uncle Mas taking the pack from Oja and handing it over to Parjeet. “You, however, are in grave danger. You must leave the city at once and follow the river to the Crystal Castle where my good friend Kendra will take care of you.”

“But Uncle! What about mom and dad, and the others?”

“Parjeet!” uncle Mas snaps. Looking at his frightened nephew, his face and voice turn soft but serious. “I’m sorry Parjeet. The beast that’s chasing you, the same one that took your parents into the dark tunnels, will not stop until she’s found you. If you leave now and take to the river, you might loose her. Once you get to the Crystal castle, you should be safe. I will do everything in my power to find my brother… your father and mother. Now you must trust me and go, quickly. Oja will go with you. He is one of my most trusted friends.”

With that the two women lead Parjeet and Oja back through the garden the way they came towards the small door in the wall. Parjeet takes a last look over his shoulder at her uncle who is already hurrying in the other direction, before being pushed back out into the hot dusty market with Oja.”

Oja leads Parjeet down to the docks. Once they reach the water he finds an empty crate for them to hide behind while they wait.

“What are we waiting for Oja?”

“We’re waiting for the barge.”

“Which one?” asks Parjeet staring out at a sea of river barges moored, landing or leaving port. Oja doesn’t answer Parjeet’s question and several hours pass in silence. Parjeet’s chin is about to fall to his lap under the heat of the sun when it begins to rain heavily.

“This one.” says Oja suddenly, pointing out a rickety barge, surely the oldest in the harbor. Oja gets up and starts walking toward the boat, Parjeet follows. When they reach the thin planked boards of the ferry’s deck Oja signals for Parjeet to wait and walks onboard heading for the galley. When he returns a short man who walks bent over at the waist accompanies Oja. The short man looks Parjeet over silently then shouts “Alright! Everyone on-board then.”

Looking very pleased with himself, Oja signals for Parjeet to join him on deck.
“We got lucky this time Parjeet,” says Oja smiling as he helps Parjeet on board. “They’ve agreed to give us passage to the Crystal Castle.”

Oja notices the distinct look of worry on Parjeet’s face. “Listen Parjeet. Sometimes you have to forget all your questions and just trust that you are on the right path. Your uncle is wisest man I’ve ever met. He rescued me from that huge factory on the other side of the port,” Oja points to a large stone building with heavy blue smoke billowing out nine large stacks on its roof. “I was being held as a slave because I was small enough to crawl into the machines and make repairs. Ever since then, whether I understand it or not, I’ve trusted him. Anyway we are about to leave the city! We’re going to get a chance to see the River of Nine,” Oja continued excitedly. “I bet few kids ever get to travel the river on their own. And in the end we don’t have much of a choice. It’s either the river or the beast,” and with that Oja lies back on the deck of the ferry smiling up at the rain filled sky.

Sitting with his legs dangling from the back of the river ferry, watching the mighty river pass under his feet, Parjeet sees his home, the city, fall into the distance, his face heavy and full of questions. How will Uncle Mar rescue my parents and why couldn’t he speak more clearly what he means? Where did the beast come from and what does it want with me? Where will this river lead? Who is this Kendra Uncle speaks of? When will I see my home again? Why…”

So begins Parjeet’s adventure along the River of Nine