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Rolling by Peter Jerrim
 
CHAPTER 8

By the middle of the next morning, Rodji and Zeb had descended to the river. They drank deeply and lay on the bank in the shade, listening to the water where it exploded from the base of the cliff. Continuing, they found that the river's banks were so broad it was easy to walk along and enjoy the cool air and the smell of the water. Then the banks grew steeper until they fell directly into the water, forcing the young man and the dog to take the high way along the hillside.

The river entered another gorge. The confined water surged high between the rocks until it broadened sufficiently to allow a smooth, uninterrupted rush. High up on the side of the hill Rodji followed a narrow ledge, an easier thoroughfare than the thick bush at the top of the hill. He took his pack off and supported it on his right shoulder, leaving his left hand free to grasp the bushes that overhung the ledge.

After about a thousand paces, the river broadened into a deep pool dammed by a high rock face. A depression in the surface of the water rippled against the down-river wall of the pool. It seemed that the river passed through another tunnel in the rock, leading to the circular lake he had seen from the escarpment ridge. The currents showed where the water was being sucked into a hole below the surface by a quiet but irresistible force. Rodji remembered another time he had seen water slip into blackness. The threat of its menacing surface gripped his stomach, and the promise of its embrace liquefied his limbs. Rodji clung to the hillside, trembling, and Gengah's words returned. 'Before you arrive...conquer your greatest fear.' Rodji turned straight about on the ledge: he was going back to the forest! But Zeb was right behind him and the surprise movement caught him off guard. His hind legs were knocked from under him and he scrabbled for a moment with his forelegs pawing the edge, then plummeted into the pool below. Rodji had to swing violently into the hillside to regain his balance and, as he did so, tripped on a rock. He banged his left hand hard as he fell on the ledge, and the pack dropped from his hand. It fell into the pool a little upstream from Zeb, who was now floating downstream too surprised to do anything except a desperate dog-paddle nowhere. The pack bobbed along behind him as if it were trying to catch up. Rodji cried out in rage and terror. He had never been in water deeper than his waist before. Here I come, he cried inside to the Great Mother. And jumped.

The death-water snatched him briefly in its mouth, then he was up, floating, gasping, struggling for his pack. He had expected to swim automatically, like the dog, but he could not. He reached up desperately for air but this only made him slide below the surface again. He opened his eyes. His limbs flailed slowly grey around him. His clothes were heavy. The water caught in his throat. He clawed down and got his head above the surface again. The dog had turned toward his master when he fell and bumped the pack, slowing its progress. Rodji threw his arms around the pack and caught one of the straps. The pack had just enough buoyancy left to support him. Rodji, Zeb and the pack swept toward the end wall of the pool. Rodji gulped a last lungful of air.

The dog disappeared as they slid beneath the water into the tunnel. The pack was torn from Rodji's hand as he turned and tumbled alone in the dark fist that plunged him through the rock. He curled up--a monstrous fetus tumbling in a stone womb. Lights broke in his head as he bashed against the wall of the tunnel. He was sucked into a vortex of unconsciousness.

When the dog licked his ear Rodji did not at first respond. He was lost in a distant place. His ears roared so violently that his thoughts were drowned in the rush. Then he opened his eyes and the noise subsided. Zeb licked his face. Rodji looked close into the dog's dark eyes. They had seen death and were weak with the knowledge that it would come again.

But where was the pack? Rodji tried to rise but a pain shot through his head. He lay back down. Nothing felt broken. He groaned as he rolled over on the bubbling pebbles to peer across the river. His pack was caught on a snag, sodden and torn but still in one piece. Now they would be able to make it to the lake he had seen from the top of the escarpment. They could recover there before travelling to the coast.

 


 

And the sea spread out to the vast grey of the end of the world. Rodji sat on the beach, squinting in the summer light, consuming the sight and sound of the endless waves.

He closed his eyes. He wanted to sing wind songs and make wave music, but he could not confine the movements of sound he made in his head to the limits of one melody. The sea was a stubborn animal. He would never be able to tie it down or make it do his will as he could with Zeb. He opened his eyes to see the dog, running along the beach barking at the seagulls, trying to round them up, he supposed. Yet the dog would not swim out to them when they retreated to bob bleakly on the waves. But Rodji could have swum out if he had wished. During the weeks of recovery by the lake, having lost the fear of deep water after his violent immersion, he had taught himself to swim, in a rough sort of way. He could even leap off the sides of the cliff that ran half-way round the lake and plunge underwater before he paddled and plopped back to the shore.

One night he had swum far out into the stillness and floated on his back a while, gently kicking. Far above him, three tiny lights winked alone in the blackness. They were fires. It was the time of the Tree People's festivals when they burnt their bonfires in readiness for the feast of bontu. Up there, on the other side of the aching distance across his cylindrical world, were his people, his mother and his father, Copper, Isador and Ducki. Could they be celebrating now while they worried and pined for his return? The Accusers would also be there, mixing with the others round the fire, their faces painted red and black. The air would remain clear for days before the smoke from the bonfires reached the centre where it would lie banked for months, smearing the light. The next morning he had seen nearly half the world spread out like a map above him. He saw the way he had come and the way he should return but he felt suddenly vulnerable. The Accusers were up there somewhere, looking down at him.

Rodji laughed to dispel the memory of his earlier fear. He had no idea where the Accusers were, but he knew they would not think of looking for him here, right next to the great waters--their fear would preclude that. How great the sea was! There were some who said the sea went on for ever but few believed them because the Day Light travelled through the central axis of the world at such a steady pace. How could it return so quickly, ready for morning, if it travelled over endless water between? Some said the seas were connected beneath the land, but most believed that the universe was solid rock, with cylindrical bubbles in it, just like this world. Rodji liked that idea. It was good to think there might be other worlds, even though they were completely isolated from one another. He wondered if, somewhere in that wilderness of rock, there was an identical world. Perhaps there was another Rodji out there, sitting on a beach, staring out to sea, wondering...

 


 

One crystal morning Rodji was running along the beach with Zeb, naked and free in the summer air. He had left his gear in his cliff-side camp to the north of the beach and then swum in the cold water. Now he was running to warm himself before roasting the breakfast of mussels he had prised from the rocks at dawn. Crisp waves were rising just off shore and breaking with explosive sound along the full length of the beach. The sand was flat, having been washed by the tide during the night. Rodji felt he could run for ever over its pure expanse. He closed his eyes as he bounded along in the froth of the disintegrating waves. The surf sounded like distant thunder in his ears. He opened his eyes but kept running. Still the thunder beat, heavy and continuous; he felt its vibration in the hard sand.

He looked up but there was no sign of cloud. Then Zeb, behind him for once, barked deeply and violently. Rodji stopped and turned. Riders on six black horses were beating down the beach toward him. He recognised each of them. They were Accusers. Rodji stood still. Flight was useless, and the deep water was too far out to attempt swimming. He was caught!

The riders reached him. They galloped round in a half circle to surround him and then stopped and faced him. Berg, Tibald, Mikos, three more, looking pleased with themselves and nasty, despite the tremble of sea-fear in their faces. Zeb barked and leapt at Tibald's feet, biting. The horse quivered but stood its ground. The dog jumped again, Tibald swung his club. It hit Zeb on the head with a dull crack. Zeb tried again to defend his master and was hit harder. He staggered, and then lay on his side at his master's feet. Rodji, with his back to the water, stared speechlessly at his captors.

Berg spoke. 'You've led as a chase, Hardi, but thank you for giving us your valuable time this morning.'

'Don't give the turd too much credit,' added Tibald. 'What are you doing running round like this, Hardi? Haven't you anything to cover your indecency?'

'Answer him, boy. You've got a mouth, haven't you?' Berg said.

'Perhaps he's lost his voice. He's been too long away from his mummy, poor little frogshit.'

'We can cure that,' said Stereos, Berg's brother. 'Seeing you're such a good runner we'll give you a little more exercise. Tie him up.' Rors and Flint, the two youngest riders, dismounted and approached Rodji. For a moment he was tempted to fight but he could see it was useless. The two youths tied his hands tightly in front of him and then passed the rope up to Stereos who tied it to the pommel on the end of his saddle.

Stereos rode off down the beach, jerking Rodji behind in a staggering gait. Then he dug his heels into the horse's sides and it started to trot. Rodji sprinted with all his strength to keep up.

Stereos glanced behind, laughing. 'Not bad for a Hardi,' he shouted, and dug into the horse again. It broke into a canter for a few measures and then slowed, but it was enough to jerk Rodji off his feet. Hitting the sand with a thump, his arms were wrenched up and he was dragged along the sand on his belly. The hard sand rubbed hot and scraped his skin raw. Stereos slowed the horse just long enough to allow Rodji to get up and continue running. When they came to a stretch of beach covered with shells Stereos jerked the rope again. Rodji twisted and heaved to disperse the damage but then flicked out of control onto his back. His head beat the sand, his back cracked and his neck jerked, mashing his teeth together.

Stereos stopped. Berg had galloped up to him and was shouting at him. His voice seemed a long way off.

'Don't hurt him too much! We want him wide awake for the sacrifice.' Stereos dismounted and untied Rodji, dragging him to his feet. He swayed unsteadily, blood oozing from the raw skin and the grooves that had been cut by the shells.

Berg shoved him into the water and laughed.'Clean yourself up, son. You look a bloody mess.'

The salt water raged and stung. Rodji could not move his neck and his left eye was closing up. Someone bound his hands and feet and he was slung over the back of Mikos' horse. The horsemen rode up the beach and into the bush at the southern end of the bay.

At first, Rodji tried to watch where they were going but the heat of the day beat down on him. The horse's ribs pressed into him and its sweaty hide rubbed and stung his raw skin. Flies buzzed round him and then settled, tickling furiously as they gorged on his drying blood. His head pounded and the constant beating against the side of the horse made him vomit. The spew trickled down the horse's flank and dribbled into the dust. He stared at the ground that jerked beneath him, dimly realising that, for the first time since he had left home, he was travelling on a road. The pace increased and he bounced harder against the horse. Every movement seemed a deliberate torture.

Deep into the afternoon the party travelled. Rodji lost sense of time and distance. The voices of his captors mingled with the hullabaloo of dust and the heat and the painful swelling of his body. He felt he was swimming in a sea of mud. Hot blood breakers were throwing him down.

He cried out, 'Gi' me a drink!' There was no response. He cried again, 'I'm thirsty!'

Stereos called from somewhere up the front, 'You can wait.'

'He won't last much longer like this.' Mikos had spoken for the first time.

Stereos replied, 'He'll last.'

When they finally stopped, Rodji was dragged from the horse and dropped on some grass under a tree. He lay still until Mikos forced a waterskin between his lips. Then Mikos took a phial of ointment from his saddle pack and rubbed it into Rodji's cuts, cleaning them as he went. Next, he wrapped him in a black sheet, propped his head up and gave him more to drink. The others looked on but said nothing. When Mikos had finished, Flint jerked Rodji to his feet to continue riding.

This time he was allowed to sit behind Rors. His feet were untied, but it was difficult to balance without the use of his hands. His legs had no strength and, after a few paces, he fell off.

'He's only a nuisance like that,' said Berg. 'Untie him.'

Rodji did not fall again. He was able to look about him with his good eye. They had reached hilly country after travelling south along the coast. They had left the road and were picking their way through light scrub. Deep down on their left the sea stretched out soft and pink in the evening. High overhead a lark sang out the last of its complex daytime joy. Then a mist descended.

The party veered right to follow a track which dropped to the floor of a valley filled with oaks. They searched in the gloom until they found a stand of trees taller than the rest. It was surrounded by a tea-tree thicket which had been planted in a circle to form a palisade walling off the area from the rest of forest. After dismounting they searched the thicket for several minutes until they found a concealed entrance through which they forced the unwilling horses. They emerged into a clearing, tethered the horses and set up camp for the night.

The clearing was twenty measures across and quite bare except for a broken structure in the centre that gleamed in the Night Light that had just begun to shine. It looked like the skeleton of glass rods the Hardis had unearthed in the village of the Ancients, but here the rods were snapped off, spoiling the symmetry of the design. In the centre of the structure, raised about one and a half measures above the ground, was a boulder that had been quarried and chipped into the shape of a cube. Copper eye bolts protruded from the ends of the cube. Cords were tied to them. But no one looked at it as they prepared a late meal. Soon they were all seated in a circle eating a greasy stew of biltong and carrots. Rodji was given a plateful which he devoured unquestioningly.

'Enjoy it,' whispered Rors, 'you won't taste anything like that again.'

'Now don't spoil the surprise,' said Flint.

'Shut up, Flint,' said Stereos. He rose from where he had been squatting by the fire and strode over to Rodji. 'It's time you were put to bed, Hardi.' He pulled Rodji to his feet and pushed him toward the structure in the centre of the clearing.

'What about the ceremonial clothes?' asked Berg.

'All right,' said Stereos. 'Dress him up for us, Mikos. You're the one who seems to like playing with him.'

'I'm just being careful,' said Mikos. 'You've got to look after a patient until he's ready for his operation. But you wouldn't consider that, would you? You can't think further than your fingers.'

'Watch your mouth, Mikosi,' said Stereos. 'You're not in the wrestling ring now.'

'Come on,' Mikos said. He took Rodji over to Berg's saddle pack and pulled out a bag from

which he drew a set of black clothes. Before he made Rodji dress he rubbed him down with ointment again.

Mikos and Stereos shoved him to the stone in the centre of the clearing. The others followed and made him climb onto it. They threw cords over him and pulled them tight, forcing him onto his back. Berg and Stereos looked down on him, but Tibald, Rors and Flint could only see over the stone when they stood on tiptoe. He could not see Mikos. Rodji laughed hysterically at their beady eyes. They were dark with desire and seemed to nibble at him like hungry mice. Or rats.

'Mister Hardi finds this amusing,' drawled Berg. 'Let's see how he appreciates us tomorrow night.' Then they withdrew to complete their meal.

Hours later he was woken by a scream. He jerked up in response but was held firmly by his bonds. A white face lit by torchlight leered down at him. It smirked, gurgled and dropped closer. Its breath curdled in his nostrils and made his good eye water. Another scream stung in his left ear. Another white face was beside him on the stone.

A drum began to beat. Shadows of dancers were cast by firelight onto the oaks at the edge of the clearing. The face above him materialised a body. Its hands slid down and opened his shirt. A knife glinted above him and then descended to his chest. It did not penetrate; its sharp point rested above his heart. The face above him laughed and then the face beside him bit his arm, right through the sleeve.

In disgust Rodji cried, 'No!' The face above him smirked and the point of the knife pressed harder into his chest; the knife felt reptilian, a familiar of nightmares.

The drum beat louder for a while and then ceased. Rodji heard the dancers coming over to join the two faces at the stone. Pinned by the knife, his stiff neck loosened by fear, Rodji turned his head to see them. More white faces stared at him with hungry eyes. The face next to him mouthed at his arm. The teeth crushed his flesh and gnawed against his bone. Rodji screamed.

'At last we have a response. That's what I like to hear.' The voice from the face above was Berg's. 'What a pity we can't complete this tonight. But Mikos is right. We should take more care of our patient. We don't want his blood cooling yet, do we--before the operation?' He withdrew the knife from Rodji's chest and cleaned the blade between his fingers. 'How cold is a frog's blood, Hardi? You should know.'

'Oh, look,'--it was Stereos--'he's got some nasty marks on his arm. But Mikos can clean him up. Don't look so worried, Rodji. We're not really going to carve you into a frog. You might come hopping back. We'll tidy you into something a little more permanent.'

The thought of sacrifice conjured up fears of wickedness and the supernatural that Rodji had not known he had. He hoped they would not play with him too long before they killed him. He wanted to scream at them--Kill me now! Instead, he heard himself say quietly and independent of his horror, 'You'll never kill me. You wouldn't have the guts!'

'We will kill you,' yelled Tibald hysterically, 'we will, we will.'

'Most assuredly we will kill you, Mister Hardi,' said Berg. He climbed down from the stone. 'But first we have to wait for the right day and the right hour. You have a little longer, just a little longer. So relax and enjoy life while you can. Before long you will be begging us to kill you, and then, by the Great Accuser himself, we will.'

 

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