Rolling by Peter Jerrim

Brevil Bead--Old Wartnose the children called him--rose, flatulent with self-importance, smoothed the rags over his belly, hitched up his trousers and addressed his musicians.

'A bontol for judgment,' he sniffed, and stretched his arms before the band. Seven solemn chords floated out and echoed around the amphitheatre. In the silence that followed, the crowd settled into is accustomed places and attention sank onto the accused.

From where he crouched on a sheepskin in the lowest depression of the treeless hollow, Rodji gazed up at the members of the tribe whose turn it was to administer his trial. Directly ahead, halfway up the slope, Baily, the council secretary, sat on a dais which had been installed for the occasion on the permanent foundation of four tree trunks carved like birds. They were holding fresh flowers in their beaks, placed there in the morning by young children as a sign of hope for the accused. To Baily's right stood Mykal, the honorary councillor for the defence, wearing a blue robe. The usual gay expression was absent from his face. To Baily's left, Byard, the chief accuser, sat on a tall black horse. Disdainful and confident, he stared down at Rodji and then smugly surveyed the crowd. Byard's robes matched the red of Rodji's sheepskin. The consonance of colour did not bode well for the trial.

'A bontol for righteous accusation,' cackled Brevil. This time the horns brayed and the drums rattled, sending a shiver running through the crowd. No breeze stirred in the hollow but Rodji felt goose-flesh rise on his arms and legs.When the music finished he looked to the witnesses, Fostos and Mikos, who were seated on the ground below Baily. Much would depend on them. Neither of them looked at him but stared at the ground.

'A bontol for mercy,' Brevil murmured and a soft polyphony issued from the band. The crowd relaxed a little. Rodji looked to where his parents sat, dressed in brown and yellow to mark the seriousness of the day. He wondered what they were feeling, and what they knew about the trial. Both Fostos and Mikos had volunteered to say nothing about the cave to anyone, but Rodji had been so worried about what had happened that he had gone straight to see Old Gengah before he even greeted his own family. And then, the unthinkable had occurred, followed by his immediate imprisonment in the high tree. Now here he was, waiting for his fate to be decided.

'Let the accusation be recited.' Britos, who was sitting next to Baily on the dais, stood at the secretary's command. Everyone else, except Baily and Byard, stood too. Byard stiffened in his saddle. Rodji looked at his parents; he knew they were relieved Baily was not standing, that meant the alleged offence did not merit banishment. Britos raised his arms straight in front of him and looked at the tribe that stood in mute rows circling the amphitheatre.

'The accused is Rodji Hardi, son of Bronze Hardi, councillor, and Summer Hardi, councillor. He is eldest of his generation and he is responsible, being of an age ten seasons past fifty. The accusation is that Rodji Hardi entered the council prayer room without permission, there to seek conversation with Old Gengah, sage and master, and, during the course of the conversation, witnessed the sage's death. And, further, the accused was not first shriven and he remained an unseemly time in the presence of the corpse showing no due sense of guilt nor the desire to communicate the presence of the death to the elder councillors. And, further, when found with the corpse, the accused protested that the sage was only sleeping, denying the evidence of the senses as indicated to him by those who discovered him. Lastly, Rodji Hardi resisted rightful arrest, he resisted rightful imprisonment and he brought disgrace on the councillors while doing so by uttering foul imprecations and oaths concerning them.' Britos paused painfully. 'Let it be known that the minimum sentence, if the accused is found guilty, is three months' restriction with hard labour; and the maximum sentence is two years' restriction with one year's hard labour. For this type of offence no remission may be granted.'

The crowd sat. Baily stood.

'Let debate begin.' She sat again, arranged her cloak about her knees and looked to Mykal, who was first to speak.'First, secretary, I object to Byard's being mounted on a horse during the proceedings.'


'Two reasons, secretary. First, as a sign of respect to the sage and master, Old Gengah, whose mourning time has not yet elapsed. Dead three days, buried only two; there should be no person, not even...'

'Yes, yes,' interrupted Baily, 'and the other reason?'

'It's to do with another custom, secretary, this one of much greater antiquity and gravity. I refer to the age-old right of the command of horses being confined to females who are past the age of fifty seasons. Since time immemorial that has always been so and yet, in these last few seasons, the right has been usurped not only by a few senior men who style themselves "Accusers" but also by a number of young gadabouts who seem to consider that they, too, should have the privilege of riding our community's horses, neglecting their duties in the field and forest and riding off at any time of day or night, taking the law into their own hands in more cases than I could say. This attitude destroys our communal life and standards. Animosity builds between us and the Copper People--an unheard-of thing. I have personally received reports of wanderers and travellers being molested by these young men and by some of their older leaders. It is simply not fitting that the symbol of that flouting of our laws should be brazenly flaunted before us today.'

'All very true,' admitted Baily, who had noted the murmurs of agreement from the crowd and now looked to Byard for a reply. None was given. Byard knew the law of the Tree People too well and he waited for the secretary's decision. Baily continued, 'However, Mykal, there is a difference between custom, however ancient and grave, and law, which must be upheld at all costs. I am afraid, although your objection moves us all,'--she looked around the crowd and at the group of eighteen or so young Accusers lounging behind Rodji, leering at him--'or nearly all of us, there is nothing in our law which condemns until a crime can be proven. Nothing is stated about who may or may not ride horses. Nor is anything said in our law about respect. Your objection does not stand.'

Safe from objection, Byard was able to begin. 'In that case, may I present my evidence?' he asked.

'Yes,' said Baily.

'I call first a secondary witness, Berg Toldi, who saw the accused enter the council prayer room on the day of which we are speaking, accompanied by his to friends, Fostos Marta and Mikos Mikosi.' A tall youth, dressed in black, left the ranks of the Accusers, strode up to Byard's horse, stood next to it and rubbed its nose and patted its flanks. He composed himself and then trotted out his story.

'In the afternoon of the day of the crime I was on cleaning duty in the main corridor of the long house when Fostos, Mikos and Rodji rushed past me towards the council room. When they reached it, Fostos and Mikos lay down in the request alcove but Rodji went straight into the prayer room opposite. A few moments later he came out and called the others in. He looked at me but he didn't seem to worry that he had gone in without permission. Soon after, Fostos and Mikos came out, looking upset. They stood outside the door, talking and looking nervously at the door and at me. I walked towards them to see what was going on but again they rushed past me and disappeared down the corridor. I knocked on the door of the prayer room but when I received no reply I went to get help from someone who could enter unannounced. Jorg and three others returned with me and they went in while I remained outside. Eventually they came out, holding Rodji between them. He was shouting and struggling. I helped them take him to you and then to the high tree.'

Berg remained standing next to the horse, waiting for questions from the defending councillor but Mykal shrugged his shoulders and said, 'No questions, secretary.'

Berg returned to his place.

'As you can see, secretary,' Byard said, 'there are two primary witnesses, Fostos and Mikos. Fostos will speak first. Fostos--tell us what you saw immediately upon entering the prayer room.'

'Well, Byard, the first thing I saw was that there were a lot of flowers in the council room--I didn't realise they had flowers in the council rooms--and then I saw that someone was lying on a couch on the side of the room over near the window.'

'Go on.'


'Who was that someone?' Byard asked.

'It was Old Gengah.'

'How was he lying?'

'He looked very still, Byard.'

'How still, exactly?'

'Well,' replied Fostos, 'he looked to me, I mean...he looked dead, Byard. His face was all white and his eyes were wide open, but not blinking, if you know what I mean. I mean, I haven't seen a dead person before, so I can't be sure.'

'But to the best of your knowledge, you thought him to be dead.'


'Yes or no, please.'

'Yes. But Rodji...'

'No more questions for Fostos.' Byard looked to the secretary. 'I have four more secondary witnesses at this stage, if the defence does not wish to question the last witness.'

'I do wish to question him,' said Mykal turning to Fostos. 'Fostos, what reason did Rodji give for coming to see Old Gengah immediately upon your return from the dig?'

'It's a bit hard to explain, Mykal, but I think he,we, wanted to know if something was true.'

'If what were true?'

'Well, while we were away at the dig we did a lot of talking about the past--about the ancients and all that--and we had wondered what kind of people could have lived in the world before the Great Flood. Rodji had some funny ideas about that but they were borne out by some of the things we discovered at the dig. I think we all wanted to know if our ideas fitted in with what Old Gengah knew.'

'How did you know Old Gengah was in the council prayer room?'

'We met one of the young Accusers on our way back from the dig and he told us that Old Gengah was sick and that he was staying in the prayer room while he got better.'

'When Rodji went into the prayer room, you waited outside at first?'


'Why didn't you go in?'

'Only Rodji was allowed in because he had permission from Old Gengah to see him at any time, wherever he was. Mikos and I only went in when Rodji said it was all right and that there was something we should hear.'

'Hear what?'

'Something Old Gengah was going to say.' Fostos seemed puzzled by the direction the questions were taking. But there were no more questions for him.

Mykal turned his attention to Rodji. 'Secretary, may I question the accused?'

Baily nodded. The trial was warming up. Rodji stood and walked stiffly to his position below the secretary but next to the defence.

'Rodji Hardi, can you tell me why you thought Old Gengah was not dead but only sleeping when it was clear that he was dead when the Accusers entered the prayer room?'

'With respect, Mykal,' Rodji replied, 'you only have their word for it. Old Gengah told me he was dying but first he must sleep for a while. He had to rest to gain enough strength to give me a message. While he was resting he was seen first by my two friends and then by the Accusers who burst in upon us. They should know that a sage can rest with his eyes open. I pointed out to the Accusers the truth of the matter but they did not believe me. At no stage did I do anything but politely disagree with them about Gengah and ask them to let me stay...but they would not listen. I had no reason to utter "imprecations and oaths" against the members of the council.'

'Thank you, Rodji,' said Mykal. he turned to Baily. 'I do not need to examine any more witnesses at this stage.'

Baily addressed the tribe in the amphitheatre. 'I think we have heard enough for a judgment. Let me sum up for you. First, all the evidence is a matter of word--the word of the accused against the word of the accusers. Second, the permission to enter the prayer room could have been given by Old Gengah; there is now no way of knowing if that is true or not. Third, as material evidence is so lacking, the only substantial accusation is that of being in the presence of a deceased person without being shriven. Rodji is too young to have been shriven--Old Gengah was not a member of his family group--so the trial turns upon the establishment of the precise time of Old Gengah's death. As there is no accurate evidence provided I would suggest that the accusation be dismissed. People of the Trees, I put it to you for the first time. Is there any objection?'

Rodji could not believe his ears. Baily had twisted the trial around to release him. He could feel the load lifting off him already. He must be safe now. He had only to wait for the verdict to be given by the parents of the tribe. Guilt was only determined if all of them stood. He must be safe.

'There is one other point germane to the trial, secretary.' Byard's voice rang out with surprising confidence. He did not seem to be disappointed by the turn of events.

'Speak, Byard,' Baily replied.

'I refer to a point of law, secretary--that which deals with a previously unknown former offence.' A hammer of shock hit Rodji's temples: how could they know? Not now, when escape seemed certain. He looked to his parents--they couldn't bear much more of this.

'I call the other primary witness, Mikos Mikosi.' Mikos rose and went to Byard who was still sitting on his horse. 'Tell the people, Mikos, what really happened when you went to the dig with Rodji and Fostos.'

Mikos began. He told them that he had suspected Rodji's motives from the start but felt it to be his duty to go along and find out the truth of the matter. He told everything in detail, especially what had occurred in the cave. It was clear that Rodji had deliberately taken them there knowing there was a corpse inside. That made him and Fostos innocent and Rodji's crime all the greater. He described with growing horror how Rodji had tampered with the skeleton and placed his hand on the skull. He did not mention the bag, though, or anything about the glass cylinders.

The tribe was stunned. A young woman retched at the thought of the horror Mikos had described. Rodji knew that he was finished. There was no point in delaying any longer. He knew that he would never be able to explain his motives or excuse himself. Old Gengah's words had made him feel that he had been on the right path even though he had kept things from his parents. Now he knew that those small decisions of dishonesty had led to his downfall. He had no alternative but to confess. He stood.

'It is true,' he said.

Baily looked at him sadly for a moment and then said, 'As the accused has confessed, no verdict is required. He is guilty once. That is enough for punishment to be decided. I rule that Rodji Hardi be banished for four seasons. Parents of the tribe, stand if you agree.'

They were torn between love for their child and respect for the law but at last even Bronze and Summer stood.

Baily spoke for the last time. 'You have one night to prepare yourself, Rodji. You will leave your people at dawn tomorrow. You will not return, if indeed you can return, for four seasons. We pray that you can.'


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