axel-and-alice.com

 
Rolling by Peter Jerrim
 
CHAPTER 10

'Wake up. It's time for breakfast!'

Mikos sat bolt upright. Rodji stood above him waving a pan of pemmican in his face.

'What are you staring at?'

'You,' said Mikos. 'You're alive.'

'Definitely. Look at this.' Rodji bared his chest. There was no wound or scar, just smooth skin.

'How...?'

'You used my cylinder, didn't you? Well, whatever you did, it worked. Now eat up before this gets cold.'Rodji wrapped the cylinder in the cloth and dropped it into his pack. 'Amazing little thing--it lies in the dirt for a thousand years and then fixes me up good as new. But it seems we can only find out what it can do when we're faced with an emergency.'

'Like life or death.'

'And what about you, Mikos? You look tired.'

'The important thing is that you're alright. It's time we were heading home.'

'Haven't you forgotten something?' said Rodji.

'What?'

'If we get home together, everyone will know that you have been with me before my year of banishment expired. You know what that means.'

'Don't be stupid. Exceptional circumstances. It's the greater good that decides--over and above a decision of the trial if it's a matter of saving life.'

'I suppose so.'

'I got you into this trouble and it's up to me to get you out of it.'

'Now that I'm better...'

'Now that you're better,' said Mikos, 'we've got to go. When we get home it will be way past the time of your banishment. The councillors will have to listen to us when we tell them about the Accusers. We can show it's a lot more than just breaking customs...it's more like murder. They'll be split up and banished forever for what they've done.'

'We've got to get home safely first,' said Rodji. 'I'm still confused as to how we got here or even where we are. I suppose we're a couple of days away from the beach but even from there we couldn't get back the way I came before.'

'And the Accusers will still be looking for us. Probably the safest thing would be to go the way they least expect.'

'Like, go back the way you came?' said Rodji. 'How did you find me, anyway? Tracking?'

Mikos pulled the bigger sticks out of the fire and kicked dirt over the coals. 'We thought you were heading east so we followed Calm River to the sea then headed south till we found you. If we use your idea then all we need to do is go back to the beach and turn left. But we'll save a few days if we leave Calm River where Mountain River joins it and then head back through the bontu forests. After that it's just a week on the plains and we're there.'

'Well, what are we waiting for? Let's get going.'

'We still have one more small problem,' said Mikos.

'What?'

'Fortunately I have a spare pair; you need some trousers.'

 


 

That night they slept in the open and by the end of the following day they had reached the beach. Rodji ran down over the dunes and dived straight into the water. Mikos refused to go in until Rodji proposed a wrestling match to decide the matter.

Mikos won and remained on the beach unmolested for an hour before stolidly walking in. When the water was up to his knees, he sat down. Rodji watched, fascinated,

remembering how different his first experience of deep water had been. When Mikos grew more confident and went in deeper to jump up

and down in the waves, Rodji joined him.

It was getting dark when cold drove them from the water. They staggered out to dry off and get their gear together for the night.

'What's that?' chattered Mikos. He looked up the beach to where a black dot was moving on the sand.

'I don't know,' said Rodji. He peered ahead. The dot was moving at some speed.

'It's time to go,' said Mikos.

'No, wait,' said Rodji. 'I know what it is!' The object hurtled toward them. It was an animal bent on intercepting them before they left the beach. They stood mesmerised by its familiar form. Then it arrived and was leaping at them, barking and licking and bowling them over. 'Good boy, good boy...good old Zeb!' Rodji laughed with joy, rolling over with the dog in the sand. 'I didn't ever think I'd see you again. But look, Mikos saved me.' The dog jumped and licked Mikos on the face. Then he raced off down the beach, unable to contain his excitement, leaving the imprint of his hot body on Rodji's chilled skin. In a few moments he was back.

'A joy attack,' shouted Rodji. With a series of slaps and feints he tricked Zeb onto his back. The dog yelped with pleasure and danced to Mikos who grabbed him by the head and scratched him behind the ears.

'Look at this.' Mikos pulled Zeb's right ear out straight. A triangle as big as a thumb had been clipped out of his ear. 'The Copper People do that. After you were caught he must have recovered from the blow and tried to follow us. Some Copper People must have found him and looked after him until he decided to come back here to where he'd last seen you.'

'Unless the Copper People are nearby now,' said Rodji. 'We'd better sleep in my cave tonight.'

 


 

The forest on the plain was mostly ash and fir, crisscrossed with tracks that linked stands of timber with a few lanes broad enough to allow a cart to pass. Following the least worn paths, Mikos, Rodji and the dog worked their way west. By the middle of the second day they reached an avenue running straight through a belt of ancient oaks left untouched by woodcutters.

'Another hundred seasons,' said Rodji, 'and these oaks could be cut for bontu bells.'

'Some of them have been worked already,' said Mikos. 'Look how many have horizontal branches. The best position for a bell is where you cut out the bole from a big branch that's been put under strain for a few years. But these must have been done decades ago.'

'Generations,' said Rodji. 'Why don't we mark out a tree for us now, to help remember this time? We can come back and cut it when--when we're old men.'

'Leave it till the next rest season. We haven't got time for memories now.'

As they proceeded down the avenue Mikos continued, 'I remember now. This lane runs on a fair way and then comes out in country similar to what we've just left. It's funny how this belt of oaks divides...' He paused. They were both looking at Zeb, who had stopped still in his tracks, just ahead of them.

'What is it, boy?' Rodji asked.

An arrow thwacked into the ground next to the dog. He yelped and jumped aside. Rodji and Mikos dived to the side of the lane and into the trees as more arrows whistled down on them. One stuck in Mikos' pack. They crouched in a thicket, listening, peering out into the forest. The dog followed silently.

'This time we fight,' whispered Rodji. Mikos nodded. They both removed their packs. Still crouched over, Rodji strapped on his quiver and strung his bow. Mikos had no weapon-- he had left them with his horse when they had escaped--but he looked down at his broad hands and grimaced. The dog sniffed and pricked his ears. Rodji looked up. Sitting high in a tree on the other side of the lane was Tibald. The arrow in his bow was aimed at the lane. He was waiting for them.

Rodji whispered in Mikos' ear, 'Give me room.' Mikos slid behind and leaned back against the thicket. Rodji held his breath and drew back the string. Never use in anger. This is not anger, he thought, this is justice. He released the arrow. It flew harmlessly past Tibald into the foliage behind him. Rodji strung another arrow. Tibald looked around, confused. The second arrow hit him deep in the side, under his ribs. He looked down on Rodji, grunting in surprise. For a time he did not move; then he wheeled off the branch and fell in a rush to the ground.

'Over there!' someone yelled. They heard footsteps running across the lane and into the trees beside them.

'Split,' whispered Rodji. 'Stay,' he said to the dog. Rodji and Mikos slipped out and crept away in time to see three youths, dressed in green, scramble towards the thicket. Two of them looked in while one looked out. The dog kept quiet. Rodji shot the guard in the thigh,and before the others could turn Mikos had grabbed them by the hair and cracked their heads together.

Then someone dropped on Rodji, knocking him down. As Rodji twisted underneath, his assailant worked quickly with a cudgel, battering him about the body and the head without landing a substantial blow. He threw the man off and tried to stand but tripped and fell again. The Accuser pulled a knife from his belt and dropped knees-first onto Rodji's chest. Rodji reached up with both hands and grabbed the man's wrist to twist the knife away. But he could not force the weapon from his hand. Rodji released the pressure on the wrist, at the same time darting from under its blow. In a moment he was up and had kicked the knife out of his opponent's hand. When the man tried to stand Rodji knocked him in the head with a glancing side kick. He grabbed the knife and looked for Mikos. Two others lay where Mikos had been.'Mikos,' he yelled. 'Mikos!' An answering cry came from the lane. Rodji ran out. Mikos was standing in the middle of the lane. Stereos and two others were approaching him with spears. Rodji had lost his guard. He heard a noise behind him and spun round to find Berg standing there. His drawn arrow was aimed at Rodji. Rodji dropped the knife and raised his hands.

'Turn around, Hardi. Watch the fate of your friend.' Mikos was backing down the lane, defenceless before the threat of spears. His pursuers were in no hurry and advanced confidently.

'All clear,' called Berg. The remainder of his force came out of the wood and stood in the lane to watch. Mikos could see by now that Rodji was caught. He continued retreating down the lane, perplexed that the three were not attacking him. Suddenly his right foot was pulled from under him and he flew upside down into the air. He jerked around, dangling from a rope about three measures up.

He yelled, 'Take them all with you, Rodji!'

'Watch how we deal with our traitor friends,' Berg said, and he motioned to one of the archers who had just appeared. He aimed carefully and shot Mikos in the foot. The rope jerked as Mikos shuddered from the impact. The archer looked to Berg, who nodded. Mikos was shot in the thigh and then in the buttocks. The arrows sank in deep like needles piercing an apple.

With a voice of unnatural loudness, Mikos shouted again, 'Take them all with you, Rodji.'

The next arrow sank into his stomach. He quivered violently and then hung limp. He did not move when the next two arrows hit--in his chest and his open mouth.

'That's how we deal with our friends, Hardi,' Berg murmured. 'Imagine, if you will, how we will deal with someone like you.' He stepped back to the side of the lane. He was directly in front of the thicket where Zeb was still hiding. Just as Berg was about to speak again the dog barked sharply. Berg turned momentarily in surprise giving Rodji time to lunge out and knock Berg's bow arm. The blow released the arrow harmlessly into the earth.

Zeb barked again, his sudden voice making him sound three times his size. Rodji ran. Berg turned to the others who were still up the lane, staring as if hypnotised where Mikos swung slowly back and forth above them, tracing a pendulum pattern in blood on the ground. Berg shouted as he drew another arrow. Rodji was already fifty paces down the lane. The arrow whizzed past him, very close. As more arrows fell around him, Rodji knew none of the men could be following yet; he had a start.

'Run! Get him!' Berg's scream echoed down the lane. Rodji risked a backward glance. Zeb was sprinting after him. Encouraged by a partner in escape and with the fear of death behind him, Rodji raced to the end of the avenue.

When he broke out into broad daylight, he turned straight towards the river. Their horses would be hidden nearby so he would go where it would be difficult for them to follow. The Accusers did not know of his ability in the water. He reached the end of the forest and ran out into the open for a while, heading directly for the river. Zeb bounded beside him.

By nightfall Rodji had slowed to a stumble. He hobbled ahead in the dark for a few hours until the Night Light ceased shining. He lay with the dog on the bare earth and fell asleep. He woke just before dawn. A breeze had cut into his back during the night. He was aching and cold but he got up and started walking straight away. He knew that the best way to maintain pace over a long distance was to mix walking with running. He had no food and little idea what he would do except keep moving. By the time full daylight lit the hills on the other side of the river he had warmed sufficiently to run. He jogged for an hour and then walked.

When they reached the river he lay in its shallow reaches to drink and cool himself. He sat on a stone and glanced back at the way they had come, then studied the land over the river. If he crossed the river and went east past the mountain at the end of the escarpment, he could double back onto the path by which he had already come. The Accusers might be gone by then. From there, if he moved fast, he might be able to get home in another week. But when Zeb whined, he looked behind him again. Only a hundred paces away were two horsemen. They had not seen him yet, but he would have to go into the open to get away. The river was broad and shallow here, so he could not escape by swimming.'This is it, Zeb,' he said. 'Let's go down fighting.'

But the dog looked up at him as if to say, 'All right then,' and shot off straight for the horses. The riders did not see the dog at first, so Rodji crouched low to watch. Just before he reached them, Zeb veered off the way he had come. The riders turned to pursue him. As soon as they were out of sight, Rodji ran.

Half an hour later he was still running by the river. Its bank steepened as it plunged into a gorge. He clambered along the top until the gorge turned into a large basin, two hundred paces across. It was walled in by cliffs which extended at their base into a ledge of bare rock scattered with boulders. A steep promontory intruded a third of the way into the basin.

Just as he reached the edge of the bush near the promontory he heard a shout from behind him.'Got him!'

Rodji sprinted like a maniac over the bare rock until he reached the end of the promontory. Five horsemen followed him. He recognised Berg, Stereos, three more from the lane. He looked down. It was much further than he had expected, twice as high as he had jumped before. Rocks jutted out into the water at the base of the cliff. He would have to judge his fall well if he were not to lose himself on them. He was about to jump when he looked back and saw that none of the riders had drawn a bow. He waited. They were no more than twenty paces away.

'Leave him to me,' he heard Berg say. 'He's caused us too much trouble. I want this one for myself.' He motioned to the others to wait. 'Third time lucky, eh, Hardi?' he said. 'Now I know you're beside yourself with fear, standing next to that steep drop. Why don't you come over to Berg like a man and take what's coming to you?' Berg's controlled words belied his face which Rodji now saw was so twisted with rage and frustration that it was almost unrecognisable. Berg himself was terrified by the deep water.

'Come and get me, Berg,' Rodji panted. 'Come and get me.'

Take them all with you, Mikos had said as he died.

Berg dismounted and walked slowly toward Rodji, swinging a cudgel. 'Now I find it tiresome having to fetch a boring little person like you. Why don't you come to me, like I said?' Berg tapped the cudgel in his hands and moved closer. Rodji stepped back to the edge of the cliff.

'Why don't you come and get me, Berg?' he whispered. 'Or are you afraid?' Berg roared with rage and ran at Rodji. Rodji stood still until Berg reached him. As Berg swung his cudgel, Rodji stepped aside. Berg careered silently over the edge. The other horsemen, astonished, dismounted and started to walk toward Rodji. When Stereos drew his bow, Rodji turned, took careful mark of the two big rocks below--one with Berg's body sliding off it into the water--and jumped.

Expecting arrows, he sank deep then swam as far as he could underwater, out into the basin. When he broke the surface he swam for a few seconds and then dived again, continuing until he felt safe enough to look back.

Four faces stared down at him. He got to the other side of the basin and clambered onto a warm rock to rest. Then he swam round the basin to the upstream southern bank of the river where he climbed out, safe. He looked up at the promontory. The faces had gone. Soon he caught a glimpse of riders between the trees to the east. He was alone again. He felt sick, stained with blood. He had killed two men and was not yet safe from the vengeance of their companions. He knew he would meet them again.

 

Back to the chapters

 

<<< Chapter 9                   Chapter 11 >>> 
 

  

axel-and-alice.com