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Rolling by Peter Jerrim
 
CHAPTER 7

With his family's tears hot on his face and their cries stinging in his ears, Rodji hurried from his home, dawnwards, toward the Morning Sea.

Midway across the clearing where the wagons were kept he paused to tighten the straps on the pack that was slung across his back. As he lowered it to the ground he heard a muffled laugh and a stone whizzed across the clearing, hitting him in the leg. He peered into the gloom and saw a dozen vague shapes barring his way. They were behind him, too. Accusers.

Someone called from in front of him. 'Off for a morning stroll, Hardi?'

From behind, 'Isn't it a bit early to be out? Mummy's boy might catch cold.'

'The selfish frog-sucker's looking for taddies early so he doesn't have to share them with anyone.'

Rodji had not expected anything like this.

'Sneaking out without saying goodbye to your friends?' Rodji recognised Berg's voice.

'We wanted to say goodbye properly, didn't we, boys?' That was Mikos. A stone spun across the clearing and hit Rodji in the chest.

'Get out of my way,' Rodji cried. 'You've no right...'

'We've got every right to treat a criminal as he deserves,' said Berg.

Another stone hit Rodji hard on the back of the head. He was frightened and angry. He drew his bow from his pack. Never to be used on humankind. The memory of Mikos' taunting face in the glade came before him. He loosed an arrow. Someone screamed and he reached for another arrow.

Berg said, 'Get Stereos out of the way and form the wagon wheel. Fix the frog-stuffer before he does any more damage.'

The circle closed. Each Accuser held before him his staff, pointed at Rodji like the spoke of a wheel towards its hub. His bow was knocked from his hand and the staffs poked in his stomach and thumped his back, winding him. He fell to the ground and rolled into a ball to protect himself but they hit him in the ribs and the side of the head. Then the beating stopped and Rodji looked up through a haze of blood to see above him in the gathering light the figure of a man on horseback.'Fools. Do you want to kill him?' It was Byard. 'You can easily get rid of his clothes and gear, but his body?' They drew back from Rodji, not answering. Someone was whimpering.

'Stop sniffling, Stereos,' said Byard, 'your wound's not serious. Berg--get your brother back to the long house and clean him up before anyone sees him.'

'What about Hardi?' whined Berg.

'We have plenty of time to deal with Rodji Hardi. Leave him alone for now. He could be quite useful for us later, if he survives.'

'What if he doesn't survive?'

'Then you'd better help him on his way, hadn't you? Those hot clothes and that heavy pack are just going to be a nuisance to him with such a long walk ahead. Relieve him of the burden.'

Byard turned his horse. 'And Hardi, if you even think of coming back to find your things, you'll be dead before you get five paces.'

Byard rode off in the direction of the long house. Someone said stupidly, 'Hurry up, it's time for breakfast!' They stripped Rodji's clothes from him, divided them up between them with his pack and gear and trotted up the lane after Byard. Rodji lay in the dust, naked, bruised and bleeding.

After a time the heat from the morning light revived him. He dragged himself to his feet and staggered off to the east. Noon found him safely away from the stubble fields but hot and burnt by the late summer light. Evening came. He entered the forest seeking water. By nightfall he was stumbling through a tangle of thorns and mosses. Finally he crawled into a grove of beeches where, catching his foot on a root, he sank into a drift of litter and early-fallen leaves. At midnight he woke, weeping with cold, and numb with the knowledge that he was an impossible fourteen days' journey from the coast. But he was soon asleep again in a bed of moss and leaves that he scraped together in the dark.

He woke in horror, face downward, choking, but when he turned over the light winked in his face and bird song shimmered in his ears. He spent the rest of the day shivering, searching for food. He found a lizard.

The second night he tossed deliriously in alternate spasms of heat and cold and at dawn dreamt of a dog. It had got under the long house in the night and was worrying the fowls. He had to go down and get it out before it woke the whole house. But he was too tired. Maybe someone else would get it out. The dog barked on and on. He would have to do something. But when he forced his eyes open he found himself back in the forest.

Then the dog barked again. It wasn't a dream. He crawled out of the leaves and hobbled toward the sound. He did not care any more if he were caught.

Only twenty paces away a black and white sheep dog was tied to a tree by a thong. As soon as it saw Rodji it quietened and strained at the leash, whining softly. Rodji cried, 'Zeb!' It was Fostos' dog. It took nearly a minute to untie him, he was so full of wag and jump and lick. As soon as he was released, Zeb raced off into the forest in the direction from which Rodji had come the previous day. Rodji panicked but the dog returned in a moment, barking, bounding, trying to show him something. He stumbled after the dog to the foot of an elm.

'Good boy, Zeb. Good boy!' The dog was sitting next to a pack just like the one which had been taken from him.

He tore it open. Everything he needed was there: clothes, equipment, hunting gear, food. He ripped open a cloth bag and devoured the uncooked pemmican he found inside. He stuffed dried apricots and apples into his mouth and chewed their sweetness till he felt sick.

So this was the extent of Fostos' friendship. Without anyone knowing it--no, he must have had some help, perhaps an Accuser--he had tracked Rodji there with the dog, and left the pack behind in the night, unable to look at Rodji or let him know he was there for he would not break the banishment taboo. And he had left his own dog for company and protection during the long months to come.

Rodji dressed. He fed the dog a strip of biltong and sat down to think afresh of what he was to do. Now he was self-sufficient again, he would avoid the Copper People for the time being. He knew they stayed in their coastal villages during winter and only returned inland to work their open-ground mines during summer. They would not look kindly upon him at the lean time of year when they had no use for his labour. This, and his fear that it would not be long before the Accusers came searching for him, made him stay in the forest. He could build a shelter in a lonely place and survive on hunting and the dried food he had. Zeb could retrieve as well as shepherd so he would be useful in the marshes that were not far away; there would be birds there, even in the cold months.

That afternoon Rodji found the treasure that helped him survive his winter loneliness. As he rummaged at the bottom of the pack he found a roll of cloth. Inside was a jar--presumably the one from the cave that he had given Fostos; Rodji had hidden his cylinder before the trial. That night Rodji lay with the jar beside him and he dreamt of Gengah.

In the dream Gengah was not old any more, but youthful and agile, climbing a tree and talking all the time. When Rodji woke early in the dark hush of the forest, he could not remember what Gengah had been saying, but lay in his blankets, aware that something had changed. There seemed to be an unexpected warmth beside him. A glow lit the lower foliage of the oak under which he lay. Then he sat bolt upright and gasped when he saw the cylinder.

A teardrop light glowed rapidly on and off in its centre. Each time it shone it displayed red which faded to rose, then gold, leaving a pale green after-image before glowing red again. The light was bright enough to be seen in broad daylight. The fine copper line Rodji had previously stared at so hard to see now appeared thick and dark. The pulsing light lifted gently up and down upon it. Turquoise clouds drifted close to the circumference. Crimson pools and eddies appeared and faded, moment by moment. He lay down on his side to look at it more closely. The dog was awake. He sat beside Rodji and snapped at a night insect.

As Rodji quietened, the pulsing light slowed and its colour changed. He gazed at it with a queer feeling of recognition. His skin crept and his insides churned. The colours changed again. His heart pounded in his chest. The light pulsed brighter and faster. He breathed slowly and deeply. The heart light slowed again, rising and falling in time with his breathing.

The jar was somehow a reflection of himself, though not the reflection he would see if he looked in still water or in a burnished disc of bronze, the Rodji that other people saw. This was the real Rodji. Currents of gold ran around the tangerine flames that licked the bottom of the jar. Clear but unrecognisable images flickered into focus then blurred into nothing. Rodji knew that it was himself he saw: certainly his body, and perhaps his mind and emotions too.

During the rest of the winter, while Rodji patrolled his forest snares and birded in the marsh, while he shivered in his tree-house eyrie searching the forest canopy for the smoke of unfriendly fires, and while he lay entombed in snow in his hidden shelter, he discovered more of the cylinder's powers.

It was not that it actually did anything, but that everything he wanted became, somehow, easier, as if the cylinder were quietly arranging circumstances behind his back. If he held the cylinder while he thought of hunting then he would come upon waterfowl when he arrived at the marsh. And his snares were always full if held the cylinder close to him the night before as he wondered what he would find the next day. He took to cradling the cylinder in his arms as he slept. One morning he woke cold and stiff after snow in the night and lay dozing till midday. Later, when he dragged himself from his couch of moss he discovered the tracks of horses in the snow nearby. If he had risen at his usual time, the passing riders--were they Accusers?--would have seen his early morning footprints and tracked him to his lair.

But most of all the cylinder worked on his dreams. Every night as Rodji lay asleep, he dreamt of Gengah. It seemed one long dream really, a new episode each night, but full of easy learning as though all his problems and all his past were being sorted out and put away forever. Most of the dreaming drifted along so pleasantly that Rodji could remember nothing clearly but, one morning in spring, he woke with Gengah's voice ringing in his head: 'Go to the sea and stay there--alone. Before you arrive...conquer your greatest fear.'

 


 

For six days, Rodji and the dog splashed around the swamp that lay to the east of the forest. Then they came to a river that drained the swamp into a valley that dropped between low hills. From there the land rose steeply to an abrupt escarpment that ran north and south as far as Rodji could see. They followed the river down a ravine to the escarpment wall where it plunged into a short, deep gorge and then fell out of sight beneath the rock. Propelled by the progress of the last few days, Rodji did not stop to consider the consequences of climbing.

The escarpment was a dolerite cliff about the height of fifteen men and the only place of advantage nearby was a ledge about half-way up. Above it, a chimney, about a measure across, rose directly to the top of the cliff. He would have to climb right to the top, then pull the dog and the pack up after him. He hoped he had enough rope to drop more than the height of the cliff.

'Wish me luck, Zeb.'

The first few measures were easy. The cliff was not quite vertical and narrow ledges protruded at intervals. When Rodji began climbing, Zeb whined and jumped against the base of the cliff, trying to climb up by himself.

'Calm down, boy. Your turn will come.' Rodji tried to console him but the dog was agitated and began to bark. Rodji wagged his finger and shouted, 'Shut up! I've got to concentrate.' The dog quietened down and wandered to a shrub and settled in its shade.

Directly above Rodji was a shallow depression presenting no possibility of a hold. To his left the climbing seemed easy but it veered away from the ledge. Looking up at it, he saw, in the cliff beneath, a vertical split into which he could squeeze his hands. He extended his right arm as far as he could and jammed his hand into the crack. He twisted his hand to wedge it firmly and then swung his body over. The force on his hand wrenched the skin and stung the tendons but his hand held. He jammed in his left hand above his right and scrabbled for a toehold. He ascended the crack by progressively jamming and unjamming his hands. When he had reached the top of the crack his hands were bleeding but, in his exertion, he felt no pain. Having found a foothold he rested and looked up.

The route from his perch to the ledge was blocked by a bulge of about two thirds his height. Rodji realised that, up until this point, though it might be difficult, he would be able to descend the same way he had come. But now, if he could get over the bulge, he would not be able to retrace his climb. The thought of letting go and jumping over the bulge, with only one chance of grabbing a hold above it, was frightening. It did not help to have the constricting bulk of the rope wound round him either, but he braced himself and prepared to jump.

His legs refused to move.

He waited, hugging to himself the fact that he was alive. Part of him longed for the security of knowing the safe way but the other part of him, the part that had been listening to Gengah, knew he had to jump. He would surprise his legs, lull them away from danger, then catch them unawares and get them to do what he wanted.

The air was fresh and cool. The rock was warm. It was so comfortable if he closed his eyes and thought of times past. He thought of Fostos and wondered what he was doing now. He remembered when, a few seasons ago while on a bontu expedition near the Evening Sea, Fostos had climbed a huge redwood just outside the camp. Rodji had followed him up. The branches had swept out from the trunk so regularly it was like climbing a ladder--until they were within two measures of the top. Then, for the height of a man, the trunk was bare of branches. Rodji did not know how his friend had found the courage to scale it, but there he was, sitting at the very top of the tree with his legs wrapped round the swaying trunk, eating some fresh figs he had hidden in his pocket.

'If you don't get here quick you won't get any,' he had called down. Desire for the figs spurred Rodji to bravado. He reached up his full height and grasped the branch above.

'Yeehaa!' He grabbed the figs from Fostos, stuffed them into his mouth and laughed at their audacity. So, imagining his mouth spurting with figs, Rodji now jerked his way up, clawing the smooth rock as he went. Then he threw his arms up--his left arm in as his right went out for balance. He grabbed a hold before the impact of the bulging rock on his thighs levered his feet away from the cliff. He was left hanging by one hand. But the momentum of his effort and the image of the figs wonderfully persisted and in a few moments he had grabbed on with his right hand too, and hauled himself onto the ledge. He gazed up through the chimney. It would be easy now. But his legs started shaking uncontrollably and he had to sit down for fear of losing his balance.

While Rodji rested, he hummed a working song. A bee flew in and out of the hidey-hole, then darted high in the up-draught that blew through the chimney. Down below, Zeb woke up and barked for his master. Rodji stood gingerly. The wobble and jerk had gone from his legs. He climbed round from the ledge and entered the chimney. By wedging himself in with his back on one side and his feet on the other he felt secure. It did not take him long to work his way to the top.

He scrambled up the last slope to the highest point of the escarpment. Glancing back he saw the swamp that he had crossed and the river that he had followed when he could, hoping that he it would lead him to the sea. In the westerly haze the forest beyond the swamp was a blur of blue tapestry. Somewhere beyond that was his home. He looked ahead to the east. Three ranges of hills folded down in decreasing height into a steep ravine from which he could hear the distant roar of water, the river issuing from its underground course. The hills were covered in eucalypt scrub with giant trees standing like sentinels guarding the way. Beyond the hills the land levelled out in thick bush. Then it dropped again into a circular lake hugged by steep hills and cliffs. Far beyond hung the grey smear of the sea.

Hitching the dog and reascending the cliff was not easy. By the time Rodji had finished it was nearly dark and he was trembling with fatigue. When he untied Zeb, the frantic animal raced up and down the slope eight or nine times.

Then he lay next to his exhausted master and looked at him as if to say, 'What are you so tired for? I'm all right.'

 

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