'Ri-gour,' chanted the children on the ground below. 'Rigour! Rigour! Rigour!'
From over the edge of the late summer foliage at the top of the elm, the children's upturned faces looked like pebbles shining at the bottom of a creek.
'Jump! Jump! Jump!' they cried.
Sherri, tiny and blond, trembled fiercely on the platform and drew quick breaths. Then she took five short steps and threw herself out into the empty air.
From below it seemed the clouds had medblossed a sudden sprig of silver. The forest was still for a sick moment and then erupted in squeals and applause as Sherri crawled out from the bottom of the pile of pine branches and paper bark that had been gathered to break he fall.
'Choose your rigour,' cried the small, brown children. 'Choose your rigour for the Rigour Day.'
'Horrible little brats,' said Copper as she led Sherri away from the pile. 'Wait till it's their turn! Sherri, that was brilliant. But look, you've cut yourself.' A seam of blood gleamed on Sherri's left thigh. 'Someone didn't build the breakfall properly.'
'Don't worry about it. I'm lucky I landed the right way up.' Sherri was dazed and triumphantly feigned shock as several young people congratulated her.
Copper said, 'I hope Mikos saw it. It might put a stop to his picking. You didn't turn a bit as you came down. Here he comes.'
Mikos was not much taller than Sherri but his legs were thick and his shoulders sloped powerfully. He said, 'Sherri, at last I am impressed. I heard your screaming and came to see the mess.'
'I'm sorry to disappoint you about the mess, Mikos, but it was my choice--seeing I'm light enough to try the "flying pig".' She fingered the thick ropes of his arm. 'You never could. Pig you might be, but the tree wouldn't support your weight; neither would the breakfall.'
'I'm sure I'd get enough support from that elm, thank you. But I have more important matters to deal with today.'
'Like your friend here.'
'Her ears, to be precise.'
'Oh no,' said Copper. 'I don't think you'll get away with that. The council has questioned the "flying pig", but there's no way they'll allow one of us to be a target. Anyway, I like my ears as they are. I'll get them pierced when I want to.'
Mikos' dark eyes looked up into Copper's glittering green. 'You're afraid. You don't trust my shooting, do you?'
'I'm not worried about your aim. But I may not be so happy about the opposition's.'
'But you don't know who I'm going to challenge.'
'I was wondering about your brother. I'm sure he'd be careful with his sister's big ears.'
'You're crazy,' said Sherri. 'They'll never allow it.'
'You should let me bandage that leg, Sherri,' said Mikos, 'or the loss of blood will drain your head. And I don't think the council would worry about what they don't know.'
'But why Rodji?' asked Copper.
'He's the only one I can motivate. And I don't think you've got any boyfriends you could trust. Except me, of course.'
'You flatter yourself! But why should Rodji accept your challenge? I don't think he'd like shooting arrows at one side of his twin sister's head while you were shooting at the other.'
'The closest of the three shots, without hitting, wins. What's so hard about that? If you're not sure, then ask Rodji what he found at that dig of yours. I think he'll accept the challenge.'
An hour away from the long house on the last crazy day of the rest season, when they were left free by their parents, thirty-six noisy young men and women rimmed the clearing chosen years before in the forest for their ultimate test. A sheet of red cloth was pulled closely around the trunk of a cedar at the apex of the triangular clearing. Against the tree stood Copper, her hands motionless beside her, her head held between two bronze pins. She had changed from trousers and top into a brown and yellow dress. Her head was garlanded with cedar tip interwoven with everlasting daisies. Her face was painted with white ochre. Fifty paces away, apart from the others, at the opposite end of the clearing, stood Mikos and Rodji and a youth who was taller than Rodji by nearly half a measure.
Sherri called to him, 'Fostos. Hurry them up. She can't stand there all day, waiting like this.'
'All right, all right,' he said. 'Now, hear this, everyone. Rodji has accepted Mikos' challenge. Let's have silence for Copper so she knows how we feel for her.' He turned to the contestants. 'Whose bow?'
'Rodji's,' said Mikos. 'It's his sister.'
Rodji pushed his longbow vertically into the earth. A short shadow indicated it was about an hour past midday. 'There's enough direction there for us to determine twist.'
Again Fostos addressed the crowd. 'Gentlemen and ladies, I'll have to ask you again to be quiet while the contestants determine the skew effect which depends, as you know, on the orientation of their shot to the direction in which the Day Light moves. It's only a minute effect...but, when the task is as delicate as this...'
Both marksmen squinted toward the Day Light and then looked up and down the clearing.
'You shoot first then, Mikos,' said Fostos. 'Let us have the pleasure of your bow.'
Mikos stood on his bow and bent it to fit the end-loops of the bow string. Then in one smooth movement he slid an arrow into position, brought the bow up to vertical and drew back the string. He stood, immobile, to concentrate his aim. Then the arrow stung the air and thudded into the red banner a hand's breadth from Copper's neck. The practice shot was recklessly close. It was greeted with silence by the spectators.
Rodji sidled over to Fostos as he prepared for his sighting shot. 'What did you tell him about the dig?' he murmured.
'Only about the rods, I think.'
'He knows more than that, by the sound of things. I wish we didn't have to go through with this.'
'You can't turn back now,' said Fostos. 'So be careful! It doesn't matter if you don't win. Just don't hit her, that's all.'
Rodji strung his bow and took aim. He trembled and eased the pressure on the string, pointing the arrow to the ground. 'Is this necessary, Mikos?' he asked.
'It all depends what you want me to tell your parents about your time away.' Mikos laughed and looked down to where Copper stood, with her eyes shut, bolt upright against the tree. 'Come on, Rodji. It's only a game. It is Rigour Day, after all. Anyway, after this Copper will know she can trust me. I've go to go through with it.'
Rodji drew his bow again and, with the barest pause for aim, shot to the right of Copper's head so that the arrow glanced off the trunk and fell harmlessly to the ground. There were a few half-hearted jeers from the onlookers.
'You'll have to do better than that,' said Mikos. He shot again. The red-tipped target arrow hit just above his first shot.
Copper opened her eyes and shouted at him, 'You'll have to do better than that, Mikos. My ears, remember? Come on, you two, I'm getting tired of this.'
Mikos smiled. 'I like a woman with guts.'
Rodji's next arrow was much closer to Copper's head.
There was no breath in the glade as Mikos prepared for his last shot. Every eye, except Rodji's, watched him. Mikos stood, motionless as carved oak in the glistening light, holding taut the bow that was nearly as tall as himself as if it were not strung at all and the whole scene a passing image in his mind. Somebody sobbed but still Mikos paused. The sweat beaded on his brow and trickled on his hairy limbs.
Then the arrow spat into the red banner a finger's breadth from Copper's right ear. Before anyone could draw breath Rodji drew his bow taut and sent his last shot shivering through the leafy air to pierce the banner a bee's whisper from his sister's left ear.
Tumult. Screams. Joy.
Copper did not look at the five darts that had bloomed about her head. She did not hear the shouts of her friends. She walked to the other end of the glade and lay face down in the grass.
Fostos yelled for quiet. 'We have seen the judgment of the arrows in the tree. Now we should keep the rest of the tradition. What about the judgment of the mark? What does she think? Who had the fairer aim, considering the consequences? Don't forget, we judge by handicap--by what each contestant stands to lose!'
Copper turned over in the grass and looked up into the grey world above. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Sherri walked tentatively toward her. 'Mother God, hasn't she had enough? Why should she have to answer that?'
'It's only the rules,' said Fostos in a small voice. 'Only the rules.'
'I know this is in the rules,' Copper said quietly. She stood, trembling, and looked round the crowd that was pressing in on her. 'I know this is in the rules,' she repeated, 'that I can now challenge who I like, and he cannot refuse me.' The crowd melted back. 'and I choose to challenge Rodji. Now I wonder who will stand against the tree?'
So it was Mikos whose face was whitened with ochre and whose head was placed between the pins. And again the challenger shot first. The arrow stuck in the tree two hands' breadths away from Mikos' right temple. And, as before, Rodji aimed desultorily at first and the arrow was a long way off. Then Copper put two arrows in a row within a finger's breadth of her first arrow as if to say, 'You know I could go as close as I like!' And Rodji's second arrow was a little closer to the mark than hers as if he said, 'So the Hardis are the best shots here but I want none of this.'
It was Rodji's last shot and hatred sprang within him. That this dark Mikos, this tricky friend, had dared to put his sister's life at stake, and forced the challenge with suggestions of knowledge that he should not have. This Mikos, who spurned Sherri and lusted after Copper who wanted none of him, this Mikos had an Accuser's heart. How difficult and unfair it all was, with the dig and the crack and fall and cave and... He would put an end to this, even if against the rules...and he aimed for Mikos' mouth and--prophetic this, he thought--let the arrow fly.
The arrow quivered in the tree where Mikos' head had been. Mikos and Rodji stared at each other. Everyone else except Copper, Fostos and Sherri sank away into the woods.
Death, thought Rodji. I thought I smelled death.
Mikos laughed. 'Better a live chicken...'
'Come on,' said Fostos. 'We've had enough for today.'
The gleaming rungs of the end ladder swept in a curve from the leaf-littered ground to the high opening of the long house. Centuries of skill had developed ladder-making into one of the Tree People's favourite art forms. The hardest aranda wood was lovingly selected, dried and joined into springy bontu logs and carved into long, curved rungs. The blend of timbers, the precision of the drying and joining, and the length of the ladders--some extending to the height of sixteen or more people--meant that the ladders swayed gently when used. The rungs were set at irregular but harmoniously spaced intervals as that the climber varied his or her pace in a rhythmic, satisfying surge up or down. Wooden bells hung from some steps and clonked softly when the climber passed or as they were moved by the wind. Ladders lasted about fifty seasons by which time deep grooves decorated the aranda, showing the habitual beginnings of descent and ascent. It had been one of Rodji's earliest duties to wax the first bontu length; now he glanced at the top rung and, as he climbed, sensed that there might come a time when he would not feel that familiar rod beneath his feet again.
A group of old people descended as he climbed the ladder. Rodji weaved in and out, unconscious of his lifetime's practice. Reaching the hooded entrance to the long house, he waved to a group of young people eating in the first communal area on the left. He recognised Copper in the gloom but did not pause to greet her in the customary manner. He dodged into the corridor that ran higgledy-piggledy down the centre of the house. He strode through its familiar darknesses until he came to the glow that livened the deeply shining floorboards outside the open entrance to his parents' room. He paused. He needed time to think before he went to the council where his parents and elders were debating the importance of the dig. They would be talking a long time yet.
He wandered inside and gazed around the room where he had been born. The couch was still there on which all the children had slept when they were young, near the warmth and comfort of their parents. Here were the fleeces spilling out of bags, ready to be spun. Here was the wheel that he himself had repaired when he was only forty seasons old.
Rodji walked to the hole that served for a window in the summer world beyond. Trunks and branches of elms and oaks paraded in a colonnade away to the green drapery in the distance. He listened to the restlessness of the creaking logs and the squeaks of the planks tugging at their leather thongs. In the old rooms, branches and sometimes trunks had grown completely around the supporting logs, holding them solid, a living part of the forest. He remembered how winter revealed the architecture of grey piles and buttresses that lifted the long house into the cool, winking light. But now, in the heat, he loved to see the green leaves outside contrast with the golden shafting from the cracks in the floor of the rooms that hung above.
Rodji left the room and continued along the corridor to pause outside the door of the council room. He heard the muted voice of Baily, the council secretary and leader of the tribe. She could be grumpy, even caustic at times, but now Rodji discerned an interest and reassurance in her tone. He heard in turn Britos, Summer and Bronze. The meeting was concluding satisfactorily. Now it would be opportune to seek permission from his parents and the councillors at the same time.
He lay on the floor in the request cubicle to the right of the entrance to the council room. Face downward, he raised a hand and placed it in the correct position on his head.
A few moments later his parents emerged. On seeing Rodji they paused. 'Ah, Baily, I think we have a moderate request to be received.' Bronze Hardi said. He smiled. 'A request for a short time away, I think.'
Rodji protested, 'How did you...?'
'How may days?' asked Baily, appearing in the entrance.
'Four, secretary,' Rodji replied, still not believing his luck.
'For further excavations, I imagine. Stand up.' Baily took his hands and fixed his gaze with her fierce and watery eyes. 'Granted. But mind you, young man, no disappearing tricks. Stick to the plan you will outline with your parents, and...'--she looked at them as she spoke--'I think it would be appropriate for you to have a companion. Do you have any suggestions?'
'Perhaps Fostos, secretary,' Rodji said in surprise. 'I'll need to make arrangements for others to swap fatigue duty, secretary.'
'When do you plan to start?'
'By the end of the week, I think.'
'Come and see me as soon as you return,' said Baily. 'I'd like to keep up with what's happening at the dig.'
Rodji walked past the benches in the main aisle of the eating pit until he came to Copper, Sherri and her younger brother, Broot. They were taking it in turns to sip from a bowl of broth.
'Anyone seen Fostos?'
Sherri answered, 'I think he's gone off to see Mikos about swapping a fatigue or a field duty.'
'Thanks, Sherri. I'll see you lot later.'
'Hold on. What's the big rush?' asked Copper.
'Fostos and I are going back to the dig for a few days, as soon as we can arrange our duties.'
'You'll be lucky,' said Copper.
'Why? I've got Baily's permission--and Ma and Dad's.'
'The problem is Mikos,' said Broot.
'After what you did to him yesterday I wouldn't blame him for being uncooperative,' said Copper. 'You must have been crazy--or is his Great Accuser getting hold of you, too? Anyway, Mikos is the only one who can swap with Fostos. You know the rule. You'll have to go to the dig by yourself.'
Rodji sat beside them. 'But Baily has suggested that a partner should come with me. Otherwise I can't go.'
'Here's Fostos now,' said Sherri. Fostos ducked his head as he entered the eating pit. He squinted through the smoke until he saw them, then came over.
'Problems, problems,' chimed Fostos, 'but I've solved them all.'
'What a clever boy we are,' said Copper.
'Mikos didn't want to swap, but I've done a deal with him and two of his friends on one simple condition--and he's agreed to it like a lamb.'
'What condition?' asked Rodji.
'That he'll come too!' Fostos' smile evaporated when he saw Rodji's response. 'Well, it was the only way,' he cried. 'It was that or nothing. And now we'll have him on side so he won't cause any bother.'
Copper turned to her brother with fear in her eyes. 'Don't be too sure of that,' she said.
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