Rolling by Peter Jerrim

'I've hit something!' Copper yelled from the bottom of the shaft.

Her father ran down the clay slope on the other side of the dig and jumped from plank to plank over the holes that punctured the bottom of the pit.

'Don't touch it till I've had a look.'

'It's hard to see, but it clunked just like glass.'

'Mother be praised. This could be our second cylinder. Well done, Copper.'

'I told you the little one would bring us luck,' she said. 'What do you think, Dad?'

Bronze lifted her from the hole and squeezed in himself. With his head craned back to give him space to bend, his nose was wedged over the top but his thick fingers caressed the clay beneath his feet. 'Yes,' he snorted into the dirt, 'it's the right shape. The top's not broken. You hop back in and dig it out. Summer,' he roared, 'your daughter's found a jar!'

Summer had already arrived. 'Dig it out then,' she said.

'Make Dad do it. I don't want to take any chances.'

'Gently,' Bronze said. 'You can do it, Copper. Pour some water on it. Work around it carefully with your stick.'

Copper probed and scraped and then, with a squelch, she pulled out a lump of clay that was nearly two hand spans long and as thick as Ducki's fist.'Wash it in the trough,' said Summer. Copper carried it as if she held a newborn baby. She washed it, then drew it out of the cloudy water and raised it to the light.

'It's real glass, Dad, just like the jar we brought the little one in. When we dig the mud out of it we'll be able to keep another taddy. Then, if anything ever happens to the little one...' She sighed and stroked the fine fluting around the base and fingered the strange lettering and figures marked in relief above it. 'It's real glass, and better than the little bits we've found before.'

'It's only the fifth one in the world, and you discovered it. This looks like the one they found in Brana Tarn a century ago.' Bronze looked closely but he did not touch the jar. 'Count the edges. There should be twelve.'

'This will cheer up your brothers,' Summer said. 'Come into the yarta and show them.'

They walked in mock procession to the felt wigwam that stood on the other side of the dig. Its yellow and orange colours glowed in the morning light and were reflected in the waters of the rivulet that glided below.

As they entered the interior gloom Copper brayed like a bontu trumpet. 'Tra-da-daa! Wake up you lot. Look what we found.'

A grunt came from Rodji, a 'what?' from Ducki, before he returned to sleep, and a squeal from Isador. 'A jar!' she cried. 'Who found it?'

Bronze bent down and whisked the wriggly child into his arms. 'Your sister found it, Izzums. It's the fifth ancient jar. Have a hold of it and then wake these lumps up and we'll give them a look too.' He set Isador down on the floor of the yarta and Copper handed her the jar.

'It's real glass, Izzy, so be careful.'

'What do you think the round bits on the top are for, Ma?' asked Isador.

'Grooves, Izzy. Maybe they screwed a lid on there.'

'But little ones wouldn't be able to breathe in there then. Rodji said the top's go to be uncovered or they'll die. Why would they want a top?'

'Why would who want a top?' Rodji had woken and was trying to sit up.

'It's time you got up,' said Summer. She knelt to look at him more closely. 'You've got a few bruises but you're not too bad, considering what you went through yesterday. And Ducki sprained his ankle, although how he fell down that hole and only hurt...'

'How Ducki managed to stay on that ledge...' added Copper. 'It's hard to believe you crazies got out alive.'

Bronze said, 'Maybe everything isn't so bad with the world, after all. You've escaped from a whirly, then a cave. Now, this morning, while the heroes lie in bed... What do you think of this, Rodji?'

Rodji glanced at it. 'You're right, Dad. There must have been a flood. How else could people have forgotten how to make things like this? We don't even know what they used them for.'

'This must be where their old village was,' said Copper. 'I think we'll find a lot more than empty jars before we leave.'

'If we get some help,' said Summer.

'We've only two days left,' said Bronze. 'It's nearly the end of the rest-season and we need time to pack and get back to the forest. At least now we have something to show for our trouble. The council might even consider letting me continue one more rest-season, once they see this cylinder.'

Summer said, 'I think you're underestimating the councillors. I'm sure they'll see the significance of this. They might even release you for one or two working seasons so we can complete the dig as soon as possible.'

'I don't know if that would be right.'

'Britos' wife, Miacha; if I had a word with her...'

'And Branan, Ma,' suggested Copper. 'She's replacing Rolf on the council soon. She'll have as much influence as Britos.'

'Baily has the final say, of course. She's old but she's probably more open-minded than you think.'

'Ladies, this dig is a serious matter. It's much too important to be frivolous about.'

'Exactly,' said Summer. 'We'll have to make sure our work can continue, that's all.'

When they left, Rodji lay still and stared at the tapestry that hung above him on the inner wall of the yarta. It was his mother's favourite possession, so when they went on their annual dig she always brought it with them. The tapestry showed a girl and a boy chasing a deer down a hill. At the bottom their parents waited with a net, ready to catch the deer. After the bontu ceremony for which the deer was needed, she would be released unharmed. But how must she feel now? Rodji wondered. The deer knows only the fear of the chase, not the eventual outcome. The children seemed so sure-footed on the mountain, those waiting below so confident of capture. The crags and fells provided a calm backdrop for the simple scene. Even the flowers embroidered around the border spelt timeless order.

A draught of air from across the rivulet slipped through the flap and slid over him. Rodji looked over to where Ducki lay in his blankets. The little boy stirred and rolled over. Every crease of fear had been smoothed from his cheeky face. We were together in the cave, Rodji thought, and yet I saw and you didn't. Now we are apart. And Rodji was all at once relieved but buckled up within himself too. He wondered how he could tell them the rest of the story.

At noon the following day, Rodji sat on the edge of the dig resting in the shade. He had started digging that morning in the dark, on the side of the pit where Copper had found the jar. At dawn he had been joined by the rest of the family. They continued digging out on the left for several measures. Four more jars lay on the ground next to the last hole. Raking up at a sharp angle from the bottom at the extreme left of the pit was a long glass rod. Summer was picking dirt away from around its base.

'It's joined here,' she cried. 'There are four more rods going down from a star.' She continued digging while Bronze and Copper hopped about her, cleaning the rods with wet rags.

'Look how strong they are,' said Copper. 'Come and feel them, Rodji. You can try to bend this free one right back but...'

'Careful!' Bronze grunted. 'We don't know how strong they are yet.'

Rodji climbed gingerly into the pit to try the strength of the one free rod. After testing it he bent it down with all his weight. The free end moved less than the breadth of a fingernail.

The midday meal was forgotten as they watched the uncovering of a shiny structure about six lengths square and half as high as it was wide.

'It looks like part of a building,' Summer said. 'can you remember the shrines in the abandoned villages, Copper? They're built in a similar way, though only from wood.'

'I remember. We went there before the Accusers started to use them. It's the frame of a building all right. They could have draped felt over these or used skins or shingles. Maybe they even had windows made from real glass.'

'We can't imagine what the rest of the building was made from, if it is a building,' Bronze murmured. 'This structure is perfect. These star joints have no seams. They couldn't have been made in any way we know.'

'It looks as though it grew there.'

'That's dumb, Isador,' said Copper. 'How can a building grow?'

'I don't know. It's just that it looks like something I've seen before, but I can't think what.'

'The main thing is,' said Summer, 'we'll be able to come back here soon and continue work and uncover the whole thing. The council will have to recognise what it means. We might even get some help with it. Some of your friends would help, wouldn't they, Rodji?'

Rodji shuffled round the structure, tapping the rods. Each rang with a clear tone, its pitch determined by its length. Then he spat on his fingers and stroked the rods in sequence to make a slow melody that left every rod resonating softly. His family sank back on the turf beside the dig to listen to the music. It seemed to hypnotise them. One by one they wandered off to the pool by the rivulet to bathe. But the music awoke a powerful energy within Rodji. Something seemed to be calling him, drawing him. He grabbed a spade and wandered about the dig. Then, on a sudden impulse, he plunged it into the clay beneath him. He dug with increasing force.

When he struck a rock he did not stop. He worked at it with a digging stick. He tried to smash it with one of the small dolerite boulders the family kept for the purpose. But, unlike the soft mudstone they had found before, this rock did not split or break when he repeatedly dropped the boulder onto it from the top of the shaft.

Rodji looked where the sticky clay had been scraped off by the dropper. It wasn't rock at all. A gleam of glass had appeared. He ran for water. He poured it on then dug around again, Soon he had worked loose a glass jar--a jar which had withstood the impact of a dolerite dropper! Earlier in the day one of the other jars had cracked when Ducki prodded it too hard with his stick.

Like a participant in a bontu ritual, Rodji carried his prize to the trough. It was lighter than the other jars. Washing revealed that it was empty. It had a glass lid screwed on securely, preventing anything from entering it. Rodji held his breath as he lifted the jar up into the late afternoon light.

Inside the glass was a cloudy cobweb of lines so fine that when he blinked they disappeared for a moment before coming back into focus. Much clearer to see was a central thread running the full length of the jar. It gleamed with the colour of Copper's hair.

The sound from the rods had subsided to a low hum. Rodji looked around him. He was alone. He had in his possession a jar of unknown potency, untouched since ancient times. He'd found it by himself and, alone, he would learn to use it and exploit its power. Destiny gripped his heart. Hot with shame and excitement, he went to his saddle-bag in the yarta, wrapped the jar in a jerkin and placed it deep within. Then he walked outside whistling casually, in time to meet his family returning from the pool.


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