YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
FABULOUS FOUR BATTLE ZOOZOO, THE WIZARD
(opening chapters separately uploaded for anyone interested. The king and queen are captured and the princess has to rescue them with the help of new friends)
8. JOURNEY TO WETLANDS
‘What shall we do, Barado?’ said Samara.
‘There’s nothing for it,’ said Barado. ‘We must leave immediately. Come, sit on me, my princess. We shall be in Wetlands before sunset.’
‘My poor, trusting parents,’ said the princess with a sigh. ‘Let’s go as quickly as we can, dear Barado’
The princess climbed on top of Barado and they galloped away. He galloped, and he galloped, and he galloped, and he galloped.
They crossed huge rocky mountains, where hardly any one appeared to live and, apart from a few stray plants, hardly anything seemed to grow. They only saw a few mountain goats, and once Samara saw a huge bearded man come out of a cave.
After the mountains there came across thick forests. Barado had to slow down to canter along small, narrow paths cut through the woods, or they would have collided with the trees.
Then the forests once more gave way to mountains, but these were not dry and rocky but covered with snow and, despite being sad at the thought of her poor parents, Samara was captivated by the beauty of her surroundings.
‘If an artist were to make a painting of the two of us as we now appear,’ said Samara, ‘anyone who saw it would think I was flying five feet above the ground.’
‘Why would they think that?’ asked Barado.
‘Don’t you see?’ cried the princess. ‘Your colour is an exact match with the colour of these snow-covered mountains. If someone were to paint a picture of you racing on these mountain roads, it would be like using white ink on white paper. The only thing that would show up in the picture would be your bright blue eyes.’
Barado had huge, sad-looking blue eyes. Samara wondered if there wasn’t a secret sorrow, he was hiding from her. She had asked him if there was anything that troubled him, but he had simply brushed aside the suggestion while at the same time brushing away a fly with his tail. In spite of his denial, Samara was not entirely convinced that her beloved companion was not hiding something from her.
The mountains disappeared, and they were now in the plains. The sun grew hotter. Samara began to feel tired.
‘How much further is it?’ she asked Barado.
‘Not much further,’ replied her steed. ‘We are nearing Wetlands now. Can’t you smell it in the air?’
Samara couldn’t smell anything, and couldn’t imagine what Barado was talking about. Her stomach was growling, and she longed for food and a bed to lie down in.
Soon it grew cooler. The light became fainter. Samara felt a moistness in the air, and understood that Barado must have been talking about the smell of the rain. It was raining somewhere not far away.
Barado stopped and honked. He told Samara to take out a raincoat from the bag that fell across his belly.
‘I don’t really mind a bit of rain,’ she said.
‘It’s a drizzle right now, but will soon pick up speed,’ Barado explained patiently. ‘It’ll soon be raining horses and buffaloes, forget cats and dogs. Sweet Princess, please don’t argue with me. Put on the raincoat or you’ll catch a chill.’
So, the princess dismounted and took out a beautiful green raincoat from the bag and put it on. Then she remounted her horse who began to gallop off again. They had hardly travelled another mile when Samara began to understand what Barado had meant.
The droplets of rain were as large as the golden bangle she wore on her wrist. It was as if giants in the heavens were relentlessly and tirelessly pouring huge buckets of water from a lake in the sky. There was not even the tiniest hint of blue in the grey sky. It didn’t stop Barado in his stride, however, for he continued to gallop.
An hour later they reached a large, bustling town called Singalong, the capital of Wetlands. The first thing they had to do was to find a room for the night. Samara and Barado visited many inns, but whenever Samara asked for a room on the ground floor, the manager would refuse.
At the sixth inn they visited, the fat innkeeper, when told of Samara’s preference, actually started laughing. ‘A room on the ground floor!’ he chortled, tears of laughter rolling down his chubby cheeks. ‘I’ve never heard of such a request in this season. You must be either joking or very new here.’
For a princess Samara was remarkably patient, but she was weary from the journey and worrying about her parents. ‘Why ever not?’ she snapped. ‘Surely you have rooms on the ground floor? You cannot build on the first floor without building on the ground floor, or is that indeed how you build hotels in Wetlands? In the air, without any foundation?’
The landlord sobered down when he saw that his young customer had become annoyed. ‘Do not get angry, my dear,’ he said. ‘No, we do build a ground floor before building a first floor. Some people, however, would say that we construct buildings without any foundations, since so often they are practically invisible.’ He saw that his guest was once again getting angry, so he turned deferential. ‘The point, dear Princess – may I call you that?’ He paused.
Samara nodded her assent but said, ‘How do you know I am a princess?’
‘You look and behave like a princess, if I may say so,’ said the manager, ‘Anyhow, the point I wished to make was that, no one, absolutely no one, would make the mistake of asking for a ground floor room in this season. The reason, my dear, is that the water comes in. It’s all we can do in this inn to keep the water out of the reception area; we can’t possibly keep the ground floor rooms dry. At this time of the year, we can only offer rooms on the first floor of the hotel. This is the best that we can do if you want to stay close to the earth, on terra firma, which, I understand, is what you prefer?’
The mystery was solved. Samara now wanted to know what season was about to begin.
‘We call it Bhansoon,’ said the innkeeper, showing his crooked teeth, ‘but, to put it in plain words, it could also be called the MUCH MORE RAINY season. You see we have four seasons in Wetlands. We have the DRY season that lasts exactly five days in the year. Then we have the rainy season that lasts nearly three months, and then we have the MORE RAINY season that lasts for six months. Finally, we have the season that is just about to begin, which lasts for nearly three months. This is called the MUCH MORE RAINY season. Do you understand, my dear princess?’
Samara thanked him for his explanation.
‘Shall I book you a room on the first floor?’ asked the innkeeper.
Samara nodded. She paid for a large room for herself and a private stable for Barado for one week in advance.
‘Will you be having dinner, Your Highness?’ said the innkeeper, as he eagerly pocketed the money.
‘No, thank you,’ said Samara, ‘but please provide a bushel of the best hay for my traveling companion.’
‘The very best, Your Highness,’ said the hotelier.
Barado looked pleased. He was most certainly exhausted and ravenously hungry from the very long journey.
Samara fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. In her dreams, she imagined she was once more with her parents, holidaying near the snow-flaked peaks of Mount Uncha.
The next day she woke up late in the morning to find that it was still raining. She ate lunch in an excited but leisurely manner. The vegetables at Nonamia were mostly green but here they were of different colours: blue, green, yellow, and even golden! There was even a multi-coloured fruit for dessert. It was green, blue and orange, all together.
‘Delicious!’ she spoke to herself, as she savoured the food.
Samara ate unhurriedly, because the food was so incredibly tasty, and she wanted to savour every morsel. She took almost two hours over her meal, and when she had finished found she had eaten so much that she couldn’t move. In a little while though, she found that the food had somehow been magically digested.
She went over to the stables and found Barado waiting impatiently for her.
‘Where have you been?’ he complained petulantly. ‘We must try to find the boy who can carry the Golden Key across a lake without a drop of water spilling on it. The good fairy told us that we would find him in Wetlands.’
‘Provided we were good and generous,’ Samara added.
‘Yes, yes,’ honked Barado, ‘but we are that, aren’t we?’
With Samara on his back, Barado set off at a canter towards the Singalong main market. Wonderful smells that emanated from the dishes being served in the taverns. It was a pity, Samara thought, that dear Barado ate only hay because right now she wanted to share the tasty food with a friend. It’s far, far better than the vegetables we have back home, she thought, even if the food at home was served on silver plates with gold-plated cutlery.
The market was in a low-lying area, and the streets were full of water from the rain that poured down incessantly. With Samara astride him, Barado trotted along the sidewalk where the water level was not too high. There were elevated platforms, built by the municipality at intervals alongside the streets, and you could stand there comfortably without being submerged in water. Chocolate coloured bridges intersected the streets every now and again.
‘How beautiful!’ said Samara, and turning to Barado, added, ‘Do you think…’
Without saying a word, Barado strode up one such bridge. There they paused to watch the strange life in the streets below.
The market was a noisy place, full of trishaws, chattering women dressed in multicoloured wraparounds, sharp-looking scoundrels and guffawing shopkeepers. Samara thought she had never seen such a fascinating place in all her life. She stood next to Barado and simply gaped.
They spent half a day on top of the bridge without anything much happening and soon began to wonder where they would find the boy the fairy had told Samara about. There was no point going to people’s houses, knocking on front doors and asking if there was a boy who wanted to meet them. At the same time, it seemed unlikely that the said boy would find Samara in the lodge where they were staying without her making any effort to find him.
‘I’m worried, Barado.’ Samara’s brow wrinkled. ‘Will we find the boy? We must find him, and soon!’
‘We will, princess, we will.’ Her trusted steed tried to allay her concerns. ‘Be a little patient!’
Samara and Barado decided that they would come to the main market every day, stand on the bridge and watch the flow of human traffic. They decided that this was the most likely place where they would find the boy, or rather where he would find them – if only he knew who he had to find.
If there was anything that calmed her fears, it was the letters that Khabar brought her every evening providing news of her parents’ safety.
‘We miss you, Samara!’ said one of her father’s letters. ‘That’s the only thing. We are otherwise fine.’
‘I miss you too,’ Samara spoke to herself. Her expression turned fierce. And soon, very soon, we will come to rescue you. Oh, when would they find the boy?!
9. SWIMMING IN THE STREETS
The next day the rains became heavier still, and soon they were glad for the bridge that the municipality had built where they could stand keeping dry because the streets had become completely flooded. It was then that they saw an amazing sight.
‘Swimming in the streets!’ said Samira, with delight. ‘How incredible!’
‘It’s certainly a faster way to reach your destination, than walking,’ said Barado, who was obsessed with speed.
The main market lay in a low-lying section of the town and the water level there was quite high. It was something like a large and deep pond. Although it was mostly able-bodied young men and women who swam, there were a number of children swimming as well. A few middle-aged and older men and women also swam through the streets, although they lagged behind the others.
At first the sight was so startling as to be almost unbelievable, but gradually as the days passed Samara became used to it. She also found answers to some of the questions that had bothered her at the beginning of her stay in Singalong. Surely, she had initially thought, people would get sopping wet and would then need to dry themselves as well as their clothes? Wouldn’t this process of continuously getting wet and then drying off cause them to catch a cold and even develop a fever?
They did get a little bit wet, but most swimmers wore watertight Zip-Ups that kept almost all of their bodies and their clothes, and whatever else they had inside their suits, completely dry.
‘Will I be able to get a Zip-Up suit in my size?’ she asked Moshy, the rotund innkeeper, with whom she had now become friends.
‘Of course, you will, Princess,’ he said. ‘It would hardly be enough to have Zip-Ups in only three or four standard sizes. Zip-Ups are in fact available in all kinds of sizes, since they might be needed, for example, by women to keep their shopping baskets dry.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Samara.
‘Or by shopkeepers,’ continued Moshy, who was quite talkative, ‘or even innkeepers like myself to keep our ledgers and accounts books secure when we walk down to the accountant’s office.’
‘Oh, yes, that’s true,’ said Samara.
‘Or even poets and writers,’ said Moishy, who was in full form, ‘from getting water splashed on their manuscripts, when they go to see their publisher in the rain.’
‘I get the idea, Moshy,’ said Samara.
The inhabitants of Wetlands used nature-friendly material to make these outer garments. All Zip-Up suits were made of a grass called lifafa that grew in Wetlands. Like most grass it was green, but unlike most grass that grew elsewhere it possessed special qualities. You could take a bushel of it and keep pounding till it became paste. This was hard, laborious work, but the results were well worth it, because after you dried out the paste in the sun, the lifafa became a wonderfully air- and watertight material that you could wrap around you. All you needed was to stitch it together, and for that you had threads made by a process of adding water to the lifafa paste, boiling it, and then drying it out. So simple, and yet so magical in its results. This lifafa became the material for all the Zip-Up suits made in Wetlands. Because it was air- and watertight, however, you couldn’t remain very comfortable in it for long. After three or four hours you would start to feel as though you were suffocating if you had lifafa wrapped around you.
Imagine swimming in all that filthy water, with banana peel, old slippers and other things floating about. Yuck! But actually, it wasn’t bad, because all low-lying areas in the country’s capital were kept scrupulously clean to ensure that the swimmers swam in relatively clean water, and for the most part they kept their heads above the water.
‘It must be difficult for you, Barado,’ she asked her companion one day as they were walking towards the bridge.
‘Not really,’ said Barado. ‘The soil here is such that my legs don’t get dirty.’
As a matter of fact, the soil didn’t get mixed up with the rainwater to make it all muddy because in Wetlands the soil was a sandy soil that didn’t mix with the water, so there was no slush or sticky mud that attacked your trousers when you walked the streets. Wetlands, although it had so much rain, might once have been a desert because the soil seemed to have a limitless capacity for absorbing water without turning sticky.
Samara couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw that even five- or six-year-old children were swimming in the streets. When they swam, they all did the breaststroke rather than free style, and kept their heads well out of the water. They swam back to their homes from school because the streets were flooded with water, and no small child could possibly walk any more. Only the bigger boys could place their feet on the ground.
When Princess Samara saw the people swimming in the streets and learnt how they did it, she, too, was tempted to ask Moshy to order a Zip-Up suit for her and jump into the water with it. But she reminded herself that she had a more pressing matter to think of: she had to find the boy who could carry a key through a river without a drop of water spilling on it. Where was he? What if the Red Wizard did something to her parents? She couldn’t bear the thought.
10. RAJA, THE SWIMMING CHAMPION
On the fifth day of their stay in Wetlands, shortly after two o’clock when the schools closed, the streets were cleared for some school children to swim across the water.
‘Ka ka!’ chanted a group of people gathered on an elevated platform. ‘Ka Ka!’
‘What are they saying?’ said Samara to Barado, who was standing on the bridge next to her.
‘It’s probably the name of one of the swimmers,’ said Barado.
‘That might be it,’ agreed Samara.
‘Ra Ja,’ chanted a group on the other side of the street. ‘Ra Ja’
‘Might be the name of another favourite to win the race,’ said Samara.
Barado nodded in agreement.
As the contestants appeared there was loud cheering from the crowd of people gathered to watch this annual sporting event for school children.
This particular contest was known as the Candle Race. In this race boys had to swim along the length of the street, which was about two hundred metres, carrying a lit candle on their heads without the candle’s flame blowing out. Should any water spill on the candle and douse it, that swimmer was immediately disqualified.
The main Candle Race began, and it was one of the most exciting sport’s events that the princess had ever seen. At the sound of a loud clap the boys jumped into the water and began to swim, carefully balancing small saucers on their heads on which the lit candles were placed.
One boy in particular attracted Samara’s attention. He had a black mole on his chin. The boy did not notice her because he was entirely focused on winning the race. He was certainly likely to win because he rapidly outpaced the other boys as he approached the bridge on which the princess stood. Samara leaned across to get a better look at him, and as she did this the clasp to the emerald necklace, she wore around her neck that her father had given to her came undone and fell into the water.
‘My necklace!’ Samira gave a shout of despair because it was one of her most prized possessions, especially now that she was so far away from home.
The necklace fell right in front of the boy. He was startled and looked up to see the princess’s face contorted in horror. And then he did something that Samara would never forget for the rest of her life. He put out one of his hands and grabbed the plate on top of his head, taking care that his movements did not extinguish the candle. He held the plate with the brightly burning candle and simultaneously pushed his head and his other hand into the water to search for the necklace, all the while keeping afloat through a rapid movement of his legs. A few agonising seconds later Samara saw his head come out of the water with the necklace in his other hand. He put the necklace into his mouth, replaced the plate with the burning candle on his head and continued with the race.
In these few precious seconds, two of the swimmers gained a lead on him. Without further ado he raced after them across the waters. In a few minutes he had drawn ahead of one of them. Then with a final dash he levelled with the other boy and they were both rushing across the water, neck and neck towards the finishing line. As they approached the finishing line, the other boy’s candle went out.
A roar of applause went up from the crowd that had gathered to watch the event and had witnessed the episode with the princess’s necklace. People crowded around the boy offering their congratulations. The princess and Barado saw everything from a distance, waiting for the crowd to thin out before approaching him.
‘Surely this is the boy we have come to look for, Barado?’ said Samara.
‘No doubt at all, Princess,’ answered Barado.
‘I do hope he agrees to help us, Barado,’ said Samara, anxiously.
Eventually the people went away. Samara and Barado came down to one of the raised platforms, and the boy swam up to them.
‘I have something of yours, Dear Sister.’ He clambered up and handed over the green necklace to Samara. (In Wetlands it was usual for people to address each other as ‘dear sister,’ or ‘dear brother.’) The boy appeared to be a couple of years younger than the princess, and she couldn’t help thinking how great it would have been to have had a younger brother like him.
Samara thanked him profusely, telling him how the necklace held special significance for her as her father had given it to her.
‘You’re most welcome.’ Raja was fair skinned, with broad shoulders, and just a bit shorter than Samara. He has a swimmer’s body, lean but muscular.
‘You’re quite fair, you know.’ Samara touched the boy’s skin lightly.
‘It’s because of the clouds.’ Raja looked up at the sky, which was still overcast, although it had stopped raining for the time being.
Samara understood that because of the cloud cover for most of the year, the sun’s rays were soft on the skin of the Wetlanders, leaving them fair-skinned for the most part.
‘Personally, Dear Sister,’ said Raja, ‘I prefer coffee to milk.’ He glanced at Samara to see if he got her meaning, and grinned.
‘He he,’ he laughed, showing white teeth. ‘He He.’
Samara loved the boy’s open, friendly expression. She knew in her heart that she had found a trustworthy friend, who would be like a brother to her.
‘You can call me Samara,’ said the princess. ‘Is there anything I could do for you in return?’
‘Oh, please don’t worry about it,’ replied the boy. ‘My name is Raja. You don’t seem to be from this region; you are clearly a foreigner. Are you by any chance from the Hotlands?’
The princess explained to the boy how she and Barado had come all the way from Nonamia. She told him the story of how her parents had been kidnapped and how she badly needed the help of a swimmer like Raja who was capable of swimming across a lake carrying a golden key without spilling any water on it.
‘I would love to help you, Dear Sister,’ said the boy, ‘but at the moment I am caught up in an emergency. I live with Dadima, my grandmother who means everything to me, and she has been terribly unwell.’
‘What happened to her?’ said Samara, concerned.
‘A terrible infection, known as the khang. Here in Wetlands we have no known cure for the problem, but a herbal medicine sold in the Hotlands can cure her.’
‘Isn’t it available here?’ asked Samara.
‘It’s easily available most of the time,’ he replied, with a forlorn look, ‘but at the moment all the pharmacies are out of stock of this particular medicine. Camels come here from the Hotlands every week carrying medicines, and they take away spices from us, but they have not come for the past weeks because of a terrible storm raging in the desert. I think that the storm is over now, and I just hope the camels will get here soon.’ There was a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
‘Could you not go to the Hotlands yourself and bring back the medicine with you?’ said Samara.
‘It takes at least a week to reach the Hotlands,’ said Raja, frowning, ‘and a week to return. I don’t think Grandma can wait that long. I’ve been waiting every day, hoping that the camels would come, but still they have not come.’
Samara’s heart went out to the small boy in front of her. Surely, she could offer Raja a ride to the Hotlands, since they were in any case travelling in that direction. Raja could help them cross Lake Kaala Paani, but first his Dadima needed to be saved. Hadn’t the good fairy said that the boy would help them only if they were good and generous? Now, this was the way: to help Raja to bring the medicine to his grandmother. It was the least she could do, to help someone in need, and Raja was such a special boy. With Barado, it would take only a day at the most for them to reach the Hotlands.
‘Yes, we absolutely must help Raja,’ thought Samara, and decided to consult Barado. ‘What do you think?’ She whispered her idea in the horse’s ear.
Barado nodded his head immediately.
‘You can talk to each other?’ said Raja, his eyes widening with interest.
‘Yes, we can,’ said Samara.
‘What a beautiful animal!’ said Raja admiringly.
‘Isn’t her?’ agreed Samara. ‘And this beautiful animal and myself wish to offer you a ride to the Hotlands.’
‘It will take too long.’ Raja shook his head.
‘Just a day,’ said Samara. ‘Barado is not only beautiful; he is the fastest horse in the world.’
‘Is that really the case?’ Raja’s eyes lit up. ‘Today has been a grand day. First winning the race and now this.’ He paused. ‘How soon can we go?’
‘Right away, if you wish,’ said the princess, with a smile.
‘Will you come to my home then? You could meet my grandmother. I will pick up a few of my things to travel with and then we can be on our way.’ He looked at Samara. ‘You’re not wearing a Zipup Suit? I usually swim home. It’s the fastest way.’
‘There is still a faster way, Raja.’
‘Of course!’ said Raja, slapping his forehead. ‘Fastest horse in the world! My apologies, Mr Barado!’ He bowed.
Raja and Samara climbed on top of Barado and the horse galloped away. With Raja giving directions, they took a relatively dry route to Raja’s house that was easier for the horse to navigate.
Inside the house they found neighbours sitting beside Raja’s grandmother who lay on a bed. Dadima wore a white dress, and gold rimmed spectacles. She looked frail. A physician had just finished examining her. He was a very short, fat man, dressed in white shirt, white coat and black trousers. He gave the overall impression of being a very large football.
‘My name is Dr Wuwa,’ said the physician introducing himself. ‘You must be Raja.’
Raja nodded, swallowing hard.
‘I was called by one of your neighbours, who had come to see how your grandmother was doing,’ he explained to the small boy who was nearly in tears. ‘At the moment, the situation is not very grave because it will be at least another week before the infection becomes serious, but still we do need the Osfofo herbal concoction as soon as possible. I hope the camels come very soon.’
‘You will have the medicine in three days,’ said Princess Samara, and at this everyone looked at her.
‘I am Princess Samara from Nonamia,’ she explained, tears filling her eyes, ‘and for me Raja’s grandmother is just like my own grandmother. We will travel to the Hotlands immediately and be back before the end of the third day.’ She explained to her incredulous audience that Barado was the fastest horse in the world that would take them to the Hotlands in next to no time.
Everybody in the gathering was overjoyed. Dadima, Raja’s grandmother, also had tears in her eyes. ‘I always wanted Raja to have an elder sister,’ she said in a low, faltering tone, ‘and I’m so glad that you are here helping him now.’
‘And he has helped me too, Dadima,’ said Samara, as she explained about the necklace that had fallen into the water.
‘Don’t worry too much, my dear children,’ said Dr Wuwa picking up his briefcase. ‘At the moment there is nothing to worry about, because the illness does not yet have its full grip on her. Just so long as she has the medicine in time. Now I must be going.’
So, saying the portly doctor rolled out of the room.
Slowly the other people left. Masima, the neighbour who had called Dr Wuwa, was the last to go, but not before she had assured Raja and Samara that she would keep a close watch on Dadima.
When Dadima was left alone with Raja, Samara and Barado, she wanted to know more about how Samara came to be travelling in Wetlands. When she heard what had happened to her parents, her eyes at once filled with tears.
‘It must be the evil wizard Phuphu that you are talking about!’ she exclaimed.
‘Not Phuphu, Dadima,’ corrected Samara. ‘The wizard’s name is Zoozoo.’
‘Oh, it must be the same dreadful one,’ said Dadima. ‘I’m sure his name was Phuphu. Does he have yellow hair and bright, green glittering eyes?’
Samara admitted that although she had never met Zoozoo, nevertheless from what she had heard from her parents he fitted that description.
‘Oh, my God!’ exclaimed Dadima. ‘My God! My God!! My God!!!’
‘What’s the matter, Dadima?’ asked Raja who was now very worried. ‘Are you feeling worse?’
‘Oh, my God! My God!! My God!!!’ Dadima shook her head again and again.
‘What’s the matter, Dadima?’ asked Raja again, for he had never seen his grandmother in such distress before, even when unwell. ‘Shall I fetch the doctor?’
‘No, there is no need for him,’ said Dadima. ‘But my children I need to tell you something. You must know, Raja, that your parents did not die in an accident as everyone thinks.’
‘What?!’ said Raja astonished. ‘Are they alive then?’
‘Yes, I think so,’ nodded his grandmother.
‘But that’s so wonderful!’ Raja’s face shone with excitement. ‘Why didn’t you tell me, Dadima?’
‘Let me explain,’ said his grandmother.
‘Eight years ago,’ began Dadima, as he pushed herself to an upright position on the bed, ‘the Red Wizard invited Raja’s parents, who were the king and queen of Wetlands, to a private meeting to discuss co-operation between the two kingdoms. They had gone to the meeting, with their army chief and a few ministers without suspecting anything. Since that fateful day neither of them had returned or ever been heard of.’
‘But you just said they were alive!’ said Raja.
‘I’m coming to that,’ said Dadima, holding up her hand. ‘Now Phuphu (Dadima insisted that was his real name) came to Wetlands a few days later, with one of his own generals, General Zimzim and explained that the king and queen had died in an accident.’ She paused to catch her breath.
‘And?’ cried Raja and Samara in one voice.
‘In their final moments,’ Dadima continued, ‘Zoozoo said they had left instructions that henceforth General Zimzim, the brother of General Zombo, the commander-in-chief of Zoozooland, would manage the affairs of Wetlands under his guidance.’
‘How could everyone simply accept this?’ said Raja, frowning.
‘That’s the strange thing, my son,’ said Dadima. ‘Everyone has simply accepted this unquestioningly. Ever since General Zimzim has been in charge of the affairs of Wetlands the country has slid from being one of the richest countries in the world to a nation of poor and hungry people. Nowadays, half of what anyone earns goes on taxes and no one ever thinks of protesting.’
‘Hypnosis!’ exclaimed Samara, remembering the message that Khabar had brought her.
‘What’s that?’ said Raja.
Dadima looked at her questioningly.
‘It’s something that the Red Wizard uses to cloud people’s brains,’ explained the princess. ‘The army chief and the ministers must have been hypnotised by Zoozoo, and he must have given the Wetlands people something to drink mixed with gulgula!’ exclaimed Samara excitedly. ‘But I wonder why you, Dadima, could not be hypnotised? You are actually the Queen Mother, are you not?’
‘That’s true, my dear,’ said Dadima, ‘and Raja here is the prince. I doubt I could have resisted those glittering green eyes if I had taken the – what do you call it? – gulgula.’ Her eyes took on a faraway look. ‘In those days I used to keep a fast. I ate no food and drank no water for three days every year and would pray for the wellbeing of my family. It was during the time of my fast that Phuphu came to take over the kingdom. The hypnosis wouldn’t work because I hadn’t drunk anything. When I saw how everyone except myself had been hypnotised, I realised that it must have been because of something mixed in the water, and I made sure that subsequently Raja and I only drank fruit juice.’
‘So that’s why you don’t allow me to drink plain water,’ said Raja, sounding aggrieved. ‘Why didn’t you tell me all this before, Dadima?
‘You were too young, my dear,’ exclaimed his grandmother, ‘and you were also quite alone.’
‘What did you think had happened to your son, the King of Wetlands, and his wife the Queen?’ asked Samara.
‘Initially I thought they really might have had an accident and died,’ said Dadima, wiping a tear away at the sad recollection. ‘A month afterwards, however, Mausi, the queen’s cat – the queen never went anywhere without her – came home one day with a note tied around her neck. From that note, written by my son, I learnt that he and his wife were both alive and that the wizard had imprisoned them in some palace.’
‘Pa and Ma alive? I can’t believe it!’ Raja’s face was radiant with joy. He turned to the princess. ‘They must be imprisoned in the same palace where your parents are being held.’
‘No doubt,’ said the princess grimly.
‘I wanted to tell you all this before, Raja,’ said Dadima, ‘but I was afraid that you might do something foolish.’ She turned to look at Samara. ‘Now you have an elder sister, who I can see is someone very special. I am sure that together you will be able to do something.’ The emotion and the long speeches she had made now became too much for her, and she burst into a fit of coughing.
‘We most certainly will,’ said Raja, in a very determined voice, ‘but before that we must help you to get better.’
‘Raja is right, Dadima,’ said Samara. ‘We must now be on our way so that we can return as soon as possible with the medicine that will cure you.’
When she saw Raja’s troubled expression, her fears about her own parents returned with renewed force. What a villain the Red Wizard was!