Second Novel in Ferg Series – Now published as an ebook on Kindle (free Kindle app required)
“My turn, my turn,” screamed the excited children. Little Pophi had not yet had a turn and so, with a little subtlety Mathema edged her to the front. “I think it is Pophi’s turn, don’t you?” she asked the class. Pophi made her way to the rope and jumped and squealed. “Now, when we move the rope, you need to jump at the same time” Mathi implored. Everyone called her Mathi rather than the more formal Mathema.
“Jump” the children all cried, but Pophi jumped too early, was then tripped by the rope and burst into tears. Mathi laughed as she picked her up and brushed her off. “That happens to all of us. Don’t worry, just try again. We need to get our timing right, just like when we dance.” Pophi grinned and looked at the clay statuette of Mathi dancing taking pride of place on a shelf on the classroom wall.
Well, it was an al fresco area, and outdoors is where they were this morning in order to take advantage of the beautiful sunny but sticky, humid day. The classroom was on the roof of the town hall and included an unrestricted courtyard beside an enclosed room with a large open window space. It would soon be shuttered and everyone kept inside all day, when the monsoon rains commenced.
From the rooftop you could see plenty of activity. The remainder of the golden barley crop in the distance, across the broad, shallow river was being harvested and the boats were being readied in the harbour. This was a very busy time of year and most of the older students had been held back to help with the work.
The roads within the town faced due north and south, transected by smaller east west streets forming neat rectangles and a few narrow, meandering laneways. Like all of the neighbouring towns, the houses were built to a grand master plan. The buildings were consistently two storey, baked red brick with an open roof area on top of each. The rooves all sloped from a centre point and had built in drains to take away the floodwaters during monsoon season.
The whole city had been built on a massive brick and mortar platform, which had been designed to hold back the coming floodwaters. It protected the five thousand inhabitants and their buildings from disaster, or it at least had done for the last hundred years and possibly many years before that. The streets were very well worn and the buildings had been replaced a number of times previously, building on the old ruins each time in a similar style.
“That’s it, well done Pophi,” Mathi yelled as excitedly as the children when Pophi managed her first skip. Now I would like to do some special work inside with just a small group. “Pophi, please come over here, and Godhi, Bishu, Abhiram and Chandan. You too. How many is that now?”
“Five” they all chanted.
“Very good” Mathi praised the group. “You have been practicing your counting. Now if you come with me we will be learning about shapes today.” Mathi looked up at the old man singing along with the children, her teaching assistant Andhi.
“Andhi, please look after the rest of the class while we have some special lessons.”
His face changed from a beaming smile to an even bigger beaming smile, and then he started to sing again. He was one of the town’s oldest citizens and loved his work with the children. Andhi had a somewhat manic appearance, all long grey hair and creased face under wild facial hair with bright, shining dark eyes poking through. About ten years back he had just turned up in town pointing to the huge mountains nearby, as if by explanation. Once he had learned their language he did explain that he had come from the land of Xin, whatever that meant. Andhi was too old to work in the fields, but was great with the kids and had much to teach, as long as he wasn’t too hung over. He was ultimately a musician and most of all a singer. Life was always just a rhyme away.
‘Swing the rope and jump away
Watch the happy children play.’
Mathi giggled with the other children as they entered the class room. “Now let’s sort these toys a bit, we need to find all of the ones that are simple shapes.” The children spent a few minutes tidying up all of the toy boats, vehicles, animals, intricately carved game boards and dice, picking out the colourful bricks and blocks as they went.
“Let us start with our standard brick. This is just the same size as all of the bricks that have been used to build our houses. See how it is as high as my thumb is long and it is as wide as two of my thumbs,” she said using her digits to show each dimension. She then placed both hands with thumbs extended on the short edge with her index fingers running along the length of the brick.
“The long side of the brick is four of my thumb lengths, making the sides in the ratio of four, two and one” Mathi continued on with the lesson. “This is one of our most special shapes. It is called a standard brick and it has six sides,” she said, pointing out each side carefully.
She then picked up a small block and described the length of each side. “This brick also has six sides, but each side is exactly one thumb length. Does anyone know what we call this shape?”
“A block” screamed Pophi to make sure that she was first.
“That’s right Pophi. Does anyone have another name for it?
“A cube, a dice, a unit cube” were the various cries from the older boys.
“Very well done, yes you are all correct. It is called a unit cube because all of the sides are of one thumb length. Does anyone have another name for the brick shape?”
They were all silent this time as Mathi waited. “It is called a cuboid and while the cube has each side equal, a cuboid has a different length, breadth and width” she said pointing out each dimension once more. “Now, can each of you make a full sized brick shape from the wooden blocks in front of you. Pophi what colour would you like?”
“Red,” she beamed.
“But my thumbs are smaller than yours” Bishu protested.
“That’s right and that is why we have a standard measure that is kept in the town hall below us and it tells us what a standard thumb length should be. It was made by the wise ones, the Magi very many years ago. Each of our thumbs do not have to be the same length”
As they all got busy on their project, the two twins Hanita and Hansa entered the room. They were pretty girls, with dark, curly, shining red hair down to their waists. Their eyes were a matching deep, iridescent green, creating an exotic feast for the eyes. “Please Mathi, it is very hot, and we would like a drink. Can we go down to the fountain to get some water pleae?”
“Yes, of course. Take a couple of the boys to help you carry it back. Stay together and come straight back, and make sure you tell Andhi where you are going” she yelled after them as they disappeared out the door. Mathi swooshed her own cotton dress around to stir up a bit of air movement and show that yes she did understand that it was hot. It was very finely woven in the colours of the sunrise and complemented her bright silver bangles which extended all the way along her left upper arm.
She did a little jig and rattled her bangles musically, to the delight of the small audience. “How are we all going, have you finished yet?”
“Yes, Mathi, we finished a long time ago.” They screamed in unison. She looked down at their smiling faces and finished projects. “Who can tell me how many blocks you used?”
They all put up their hands except for Pophi, who was still busy counting. Mathi waited a minute and then asked Pophi “How many did you get?”
“Eight” she replied, a little apprehensively.
“But why are you worried about your answer. Are you not sure?”
“Oh, I am sure, but you always have a little trick, Mathi. I thought maybe I had missed it?”
Mathi laughed. “No, no tricks, and yes you are correct Pophi, well done. But what if we split the brick into two pieces that are just the same?”
“Four,” they all chanted.
“Correct again, and what if we push two bricks together, how many then?
Pophi did as she was asked and started to count. “There are now sixteen,” Godhi interrupted her.
“That is correct Godhi, and how did you know that so quickly?”
“I added eight plus eight.”
“Or you can multiply four times four,” Bishu chimed in.
“That is correct. Well done Godhi and Bishu. We will have to teach you how to add and multiply, Pophi. It is most useful to remember the numbers, like the boys have done. They like to play games with the numbers and I think that you might too as you grow older. It is why I have put you in the numbers class with the boys.” Mathi praised them all, with particular attention to Pophi.
“Now, if I take four blocks, and press them in the sand like this, what shape do we have now?”
“The impression makes a square out of four unit squares, Memsaab Mathi.” Abhiram’s family were migrants and he kept up a very proper attitude to his work. He was not as relaxed as the locals.
“That is correct once again, Abhiram and you are most polite, but it is unnecessary here. Please feel free to enjoy the class and don’t be concerned if you make a mistake. It is how we all learn. And yes if you press a side of the cube into the sand, the impression has four equal sides, marking out a square shape. If you press four together you have a two by two square, and if you press sixteen you have a four by four square, which is two brick impressions.”
Pophi was a little puzzled by all the numbers but she could see the regularity of the shapes, and how they were derived from each other. Mathi was right, she did like these games, and she did like to watch the older children play board games. She wanted to join in but they did not let her play just yet. She hoped they would, once she learned her numbers.
“Andhi, can you find the children, we need some water to drink in here” Mathi yelled out to the court yard.
‘Water, water everywhere
In your pants and in your hair’
Andy sang as he ran towards the stairs and disappeared. A short while later he returned with a large jug and the children in tow. He organised cups and they all drank their fill.
“OK, you five, back to today’s lessons. Yes, so we can put two bricks together and they make a large four by four square. Now we have a second brick, a larger one this time. What is the ratio of the sides please Chandan?”
Chandan busily measured each side and came up with the answer. “It is four to two to one again Mathi” he replied, very seriously for a young boy.
“You are correct again. Our builders like that ratio. Everything is built from bricks that have those exact dimensions. It makes building so much easier if all the parts fit together and it also makes it easier to determine the number of bricks that we need to produce. Now look at this.” Mathi smiled deeply as she laid the long edge of the large brick, across the diagonal of the square made up of the two smaller bricks. “It fits exactly. The diagonal across the square made by two small bricks, is exactly the same length as the long side of the large brick. And now Chandan, how long is the larger brick?”
Chandan quickly set about measuring the large brick’s longest side and after a couple of attempts looked puzzled. “It is not any length, Memsaab Mathi. It is too long for five thumbs and too short for six. But maybe I am mistaken?”
“No, you are correct again. See how the measure has been divided into ten smaller divisions. I think you will find that the answer that you are looking for is five and six tenths, or very nearly. It is a puzzle to find the exact number and no one has yet done so. Maybe you can one day, if you keep studying numbers. It is the way back from making the square. We know that two times two makes four, but what equal numbers do we multiply to make two. It is a puzzle for the Mages.”
Hanita came back into the room looking a little concerned, but afraid to interrupt. When Mathi noticed her, Hanita spoke. “I don’t know where Hansa is. I have not seen her since we collected the water.”
“Did she come back with you?” asked Mathi.
“I don’t know. I was too busy talking to the boys and took no notice of where she was. Then Andhi found us and we were all singing. I don’t remember Hansa singing.” She sobbed the last bit as the realisation took hold.
“That’s OK, we will find her,” Mathi comforted her.
“Andhi, you stay here and look after the children, while I go and find Hansa. It appears that she did not come back when she went to get the water.”
Mathi ran down the stairs, two at a time. She reached the ground floor and ran over and into the public toilets, looking around frantically. A large, square cistern was filled with clean water and to her relief, no bodies. She checked behind the wooden buckets, used to flush the toilets, but no Hansa. Mathi called out her name and heard many echoes, but nothing from the living.
She raced out to the water fountain. People everywhere were going about their business, but no Hansa could be seen. Mathi spoke to a few people that she hoped had been there for a while, but no one had seen anything. She ran back down to the town hall ground floor area which was mostly a large open space, but there were a few nooks where a child could hide.
“Have you seen a little girl come this way?” she asked the brewer, going about his business. “No, no one has been this way. I am careful to keep a watch over my fresh products. I don’t want any interference as it could ruin my brew, so I would be surprised if I did not notice an interloper. If anything falls into it, the taste is different and everyone complains.”
Mathi ran to the main road, searching anywhere a child may have wandered off to if they were distracted, but still no Hansa. I need help, she thought, now becoming worried that something serious had happened. Crime was so rare these days that she could not bring herself to think the worst. Hansa must have met up with someone she knows, Mathi decided. She should approach the mayor and enlist her help, yes that was the right procedure.
As quickly as she could, Mathi returned to the town hall and ran up the stairs to the roof. “Has she returned yet?” she asked of everyone. The response from all was the same. No one had seen her.
“Hanita, come with me please.” She took Hanita’s hand and went down a floor to the Mayor’s rooms and found her working on her artisan jewellery. She was drilling a precision hole and was concentrating on getting it just right. Mathi could not decide whether to interrupt or wait, but her inability to stand still interrupted the Mayor anyway.
“Mathi, you look distressed. Whatever can be so wrong to put you in that state?”
“Lalassa, I am most sorry to be bothering you, but one of the girls has gone missing. I cannot find her.”
“Children do get distracted and wander off. She has most likely met someone and gone off with them.”
“She is a twin. Her sister can think of no one she would have gone off with by herself. As you can see, she is very worried as well.”
“It seems that we had best start an official enquiry then,” said Lalassa, putting down her tools. “You can perhaps take Hanita home and tell her parents. I am sure they will want to help in a search. I will gather a few people and start an organised hunt. Was she dressed like you Hanita?”
Hanita could only manage a nod as they left on their own mission. Lalassa strode around to the offices behind the town hall and found two pada who were not working in the fields. One was a young teenage boy with a bad limp and the other a stick-thin, dark skinned elderly man. The mayor had a quick look and wondered if the only available law enforcers could provide any useful assistance.
“Bring your lathis and help us find a missing girl’ she commanded. “ Lailesh, you walk down to the main gate and ask if anyone has seen a red headed girl come past” she said to the old man as she wondered how long that might take. “And you, young man, can you bring a table and chairs out into the courtyard where we will set up an investigation centre by the fountain and question everyone who may have seen the little girl.”
Mathi ran across the city with Hanita in hand. They had headed north, out from the upper levels of town and down towards the docks. The main river could be seen as a rippling, swirling expanse of muddy water, flowing rapidly in a south easterly direction. Mathi and Hanita followed a well-worn track around to the docks, located in a relatively quiet backwater and found Hanita’s parents preparing their houseboat for a launch. It had been docked for the dry season, when the water level was too low to navigate safely. The snow melt had recently started the process of filling the rivers, but they would not be fully navigable until the monsoons commenced.
“Hanita, you are home early,” scolded her mother Jhun. “Mathi, where is Hansa?” she asked, getting concerned at seeing only one daughter accompanying her teacher.
“We went to the fountain to fill the jug with water, but I did not see her come back, and now she is gone,” cried Hanita, before Mathi could explain.
“Is anyone looking for my daughter?” Jahi asked, as he approached the small group. He was dressed in a rough broadcloth dhoti tied in the way of working men, fastened around his hips and pulled up between his legs, leaving his chest bare in the hot weather.
“Yes, Lalassa is coordinating a search party.”
“Well we had better gather some of the workers and go back and help with the search.”
Meanwhile Lailesh was busy talking to anyone he came across as he slowly made his way to the town gates. No one had seen anything of the girl and yes they all knew who she was. She and her twin sister always stood out in a crowd. As he approached the main trading area, he found that the streets had become quite busy. Everyone wanted to get moving while the roads were still passable, before the deluge arrived. He concentrated on the incoming traffic but still no one admitted to seeing the red haired girl.
The main gates were massive wooden structures, with intricately carved mandalas representing the city plan. On the outside a series of figures had been carved into the main plinth, outlining the services that could be found within the city walls. They included medics and dentists, transport services, grain and fish supplies, jewellery and various fabrics. Lailesh looked away from the gates and sighed. He knew that if the young girl had been snatched and taken from the city limits, there was no way that they could find her.
Mathi and her entourage returned to the town square at a run and found the area around the fountain was busy with people searching every possible hiding place.
Lalassa had set up a table and chairs a little earlier and had interviewed anyone that had seen the children fill up the water jug. No one could remember anything out of the ordinary and all remembered both girls being part of a small group of boisterous children. This investigation was going nowhere fast.
Chura was an old and blind fortune teller who had set up camp in the square a number of years ago. Maybe, just maybe she could help. She could not have seen anything and was seriously hard to understand at the best of times, lost in some mysterious world of her own. Lalassa had led Chura back to her interrogation station and was pondering what line of questioning to take. Chura was likely to take offense easily, or more to the point was unlikely to answer a direct question if asked.
“The beast, you are looking for the beast, the beast with a single horn and adorned in fresh flowers” Chura informed her, before Lalassa could think of a question to pose.
“What beast?” Lalassa asked impatiently. This is going to be a waste of time she thought.
“The one horned beast has taken her.”
That grabbed Lalassa’s attention, “has taken who?” she asked.
“The red haired girl you seek. She has been taken by the magical beast. She has been taken into the sewers.” Chura spoke in the most unequivocal terms.
“I see the world in a different way, but I see everything, even things the others cannot see.” The blind woman spoke and then turned on her heel and headed slowly back to her small camp without assistance.
Mathi and entourage arrived to see the mayor sitting on her stool deep in thought.
“What are you doing, why aren’t you searching for Hansa,” pleaded Jahi.
Lalassa looked up, coming out of her trance. “Chura just told me that Hansa has been taken into the drains. I am deciding if she should be believed. She mentioned the beast.”
They all looked horrified. 5;