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Rolling by Peter Jerrim
 
CHAPTER 11

Rodji shook with fatigue as he stumbled through the dry upland bush to the south of the basin. Until then he had not noticed the heat. Hunger and exhaustion had dulled his awareness. He had been expecting autumn, but instead there was a blast of heat from late summer. Bare stretches of scree had absorbed so much heat during the morning that his callused feet cringed to step on them. He dodged among the tussocks and scrub that crept around the wattles and the big gums.

By the middle of the afternoon he came to the foothills he had seen two days before. At the top of one he peered up at the mountain. Its pock-marked limestone face glowered down at him from under a mantle of dolerite. Perhaps he could find safety there. It would be a good vantage point for following the movements of the remaining Accusers.

As he climbed the hills the breeze, which had been blowing all the afternoon, stiffened. The bush began to moan and twigs and leaves blew through the dry air. By the time he had reached the last hill before the mountain, the wind was roaring through the trees. He sought refuge in the lee of the hill. There the air was still. The stiff arms of the gums pushed out of a blanket of undergrowth. He searched for a place to lie down. A snake slithered out from underfoot and glided into a thicket. His senses sharpened. He heard a change in the roar of the wind. It was deeper than before, touched with the snaps and cracks of exploding wood. Then he smelled it. Fire! The air had already grown darker, orange with smoke. As he struggled through the undergrowth to the top of the hill something slid from his memory:

Do not fear the water,
Fear the fire.

He reached the top and looked down to the river. Three separate fires were alight near its bank and now raced up the hills with the rising wind. As Rodji watched, the fires spread out. After a few minutes they became a wall of flame, eating up the slope after him. Rodji ran toward the mountain.

The wind whipped up the fire. He saw the bare cliff rising ahead and looked back; in a few minutes the inferno would reach him. He ran again, his body moving like a heavy puppet. His lungs billowed in his chest. He came to a stretch of rock kept bare by the irregular mountain streams. It was about three hundred paces wide. If he could cross it he might be safe against the cliff. Then, above the noise of the fire, he heard a yell. It came from a lookout perched in a cleft of the cliff, calling to three horsemen below.

Rodji was right up against the cliff now, going faster than the horses on the rocky ground. He beat along the bottom edge of the cliff. Cracks and seams opened in its side. Then he stopped. Ahead of him were four more Accusers, their horses delicately picking their way toward him. He was trapped.

Then these words flickered through his mind:

Do not walk from the cave's mouth
But run from those who ride on high.

Beside him there was a low but deep depression in the rock. If he got in there they would have to come one at a time to get him out. The riders were closing. Rodji ducked into the depression and scrambled to the rear. It was illuminated by the fire, allowing him to see the black silhouette of a hole where the ceiling met the floor. As the Accusers dismounted he crawled to the hole. The rasping of his breathing and the mutter of the fire echoed from below. It was a cave.

He squeezed through the hole. Kicking his feet about, he found a ledge. The cave was about twelve measures each way, with more ledges leading down like steps into a mess of stalagmites and stalactites. As the fire outside burnt itself out he could dimly see a pool, down on one side of the cave. Then it was dark. With the dying of the fire the wind settled and the voices of the Accusers echoed in from the entrance.

It was Stereos first. 'By the Accuser, he must have been desperate to go in there.'

'Don't worry, Stereos,'--the voice had Flint's nasal twang--'He's so scared, he'll come out soon.'

'But what about the water?' someone else asked. 'He should have been scared of the deep water but he wasn't. He could even swim!'

'It's magic,' said Stereos. 'That's how he swam. It's unnatural. Perhaps he's not afraid of being in there, either. He's been studying magic. That's why we have to sacrifice him. He's not only a murderer but he practises forbidden things. When we get him we'll force a confession from him. Then we'll be able to catch others too.'

'We can't get him, though.' It was Rors' voice. 'We can't go in there and get him.'

'Can't we?' said Stereos.

'Not me,' said Rors.

'Nor me,' said Flint. Other voices rose in protest. They would not enter what they now realised must be a cave.

'We don't have to worry,' said Stereos. 'He'll come out of his own accord, you'll see. Hunger and thirst will drive him out, even if fear doesn't.'

Don't you believe it, thought Rodji. I think I'd rather stay here and die quietly.

A voice Rodji did not recognise joined in. 'He's been running for over a day. He'll be thirsty all right. I'd give him another day at the most. He'll be out.'

'Good thinking,' said Stereos who it seemed had assumed command after the death of his brother. He will die anyway. But I want him out!'

The talk of thirst had its effect on Rodji. He felt his way down to where he could hear water dripping into the pool. It smelled good so he drank deeply. Then he crawled back to listen to the conversation outside but it had ceased. He was preserved for the moment. But he was hungry and cold and his dreams that night were filled with confusion and fire.In the morning, with the return of voices and the dim renewal of light in the cave, Rodji dragged himself to the entrance and peered out. One of the Accusers was sitting nearby. He turned to look in and Rodji ducked his head momentarily then bobbed up again to see the guard standing up to talk to someone.

'No sign of him yet,' the guard said. It was Rors.

'You won't see him till we drive him out,' Stereos replied. 'We're nearly ready. Stand back from the entrance now but keep a sharp eye.' Stereos unexpectedly looked into the cave and cried, 'I see you, Hardi.' To Rors he said, 'Good, he's still alive.'

Rors' head joined Stereos' in silhouette against the crack of grey morning light. 'See you soon,' he said. Then they were gone and Rodji crept back and waited, trying to prepare for the unexpected.Then a ball, sputtering with flame and smoke, was thrown into the cave. The smoke stank of pinewax and stung Rodji's eyes. He tried to throw it back but it was too hot to touch. He could not kick it with his bare feet. Another ball hissed in, dribbling past him to the bottom of the cave. Two more--and the stench became unbearable. Rodji blundered to the pool, tore off his shirt, dipped it in the water and held it to his mouth. Crying and coughing, he broke off a stalagmite and pushed the stinkballs into the pool to extinguish them. But for each one he dowsed more were thrown in from above. Rodji wet his shirt again, tied it round his head and staggered back to the wall of the cave. He followed it round, bumping into protrusions and banging his head on the lower reaches of the ceiling. Then one of his feet found space beneath it. He thrashed his foot around and felt more ledges like those at the entrance.

He climbed down until he came to a halt on the floor of a small chamber. He felt around blindly with his hands. There was no escape. Above he could hear more of the stinkballs being thrown in. The acrid smoke seeped down to his last refuge but still Rodji refused to be driven out. Moaning with the searing pain in his eyes, throat and lungs, he staggered round the little hole before collapsing on its uneven floor, only to rise again screaming uncontrollably at the assailing vapour. His instinct was to leave the cave but still he refused. Bracing himself against the wall of the hole, his hand fell onto something smooth and cold. His fingers trembled around it. It felt like a circle, only a few hand-widths across, and easy to hold. He grasped it to take his mind off the torture, but when his hand jerked in a spasm of pain from the smoke, the circle rotated with his hand. He turned the circle around. It spun. He flicked it on--twenty, thirty times before it slowed to a stop. Then, with a shocking, incomprehensible force, Rodji was hurled against the wall of the chamber. The wall behind him had spun out, pinning him to his left in a gap that saved him from being crushed. An immense turbulence rippled past him, extinguishing the smoke but deflating his lungs with its suction. All the winds in the world seemed to have been bound beneath him. Now the force of their compression released into the cave above.

Later, when Rodji found the strength to move, he pressed his back against the door of the rock behind and shifted it enough to crawl out. He wanted light. He raised his hands to find the ledges that led up to the ceiling. There was a shuddering above him and he leapt back into the cavity. Weakened by the wind, the limestone had cracked. It crashed and tinkled down from the cave, sealing the entrance above.

After the noise of the wind and the rock-fall the silence rang in Rodji's ears. He felt his way out of his hiding place. He pressed against the rock door again but it was jammed with fallen rock. He felt around with hands and feet. On the other side of the door was empty space. Holding onto the door with one hand--he was sure now that it was a door--he leaned out into the emptiness. His fingertips touched a wall, smooth as copper, on the other side. He traced the curve of the wall around. The door appeared to lead to a circular chamber about a measure across, but it had no bottom. He knelt on the rubble and felt around lower in the chamber. A protruding metal bar was attached to the wall below. There was another bar about half a measure beneath it. He heaved himself back up into his hole in the rock. Something was wrong. His shirt was still wrapped round his head. As soon as it was off his head on his back he felt better. He climbed down into the chamber. The rungs felt firm so he descended.

But his legs were trembling and he had to stop, not knowing how far he was from the bottom. He was afraid he would lose his grip and fall. He swung his arm around the wall of the shaft.His hand closed on a tube that reminded him of the glass rods at the dig, but it gave slightly when he pulled it. He ran his hand down the tube as he continued his descent. Soon he came to what felt like a narrow, curved platform extending from the rod a third of the way round the shaft. It seemed stable. He climbed on and rested his feet on the platform while he grasped the tube. The platform and the cable whisked smoothly upwards and in a few moments he was back where he started. As he wondered what to do next the wall of the shaft began to glow, so softly at first that he thought he was imagining it, then with increased illumination until, to his dark-accustomed eyes, it appeared as bright as day.

He looked around the chamber. The jumble of rocks above cut him off forever from return. He looked down the shaft and his heart dropped in his chest: it was so deep the bottom was not visible. It glowed like a yellow pipe that merged into itself in the distance below. In fear and frustration Rodji tugged the cable he was holding. The platform dropped in a rush. He pulled at the cable but the platform fell like a stone. The wall of the pipe was so smoothly continuous that the sensation of falling ceased. His feet floated off the platform and splayed out into the rushing air. The shirt and trousers Mikos had given him rippled loosely over his skin. After a quarter of a minute, Rodji's weight came back and the platform slowed to a stop.

He was on the floor of the shaft. He stepped off the platform. Looking up the shaft was the same as looking down. It reached so high it seemed to close in the distance. Behind him the last of the escaping air sighed from a tunnel. Before him a section of the wall of the shaft slid open, revealing a dark cell about twice as large as his parents' sleeping cabin. Despite the unfamiliar shapes looming there, he felt safe. The air was warmer than in the shaft. As he entered, the wall of the shaft was sealed behind him and light filled the cell.

He was in a room. But what a room--not at all like the poor little rooms they had been in when they visited the Copper People so many years ago; or like the cabins in the long house, or even the prayer room. The floor shimmered like the sea. It looked hard but it felt soft and warm to his feet. The walls were the colour of a silver moth's wings. They reached up to a ceiling through which arched the clouds of a stormy evening edged with gold.

A couch on one side of the room was covered with a fabric that shone in the light from the cloudy ceiling. Opposite the couch was a low table. In its centre stood a glass bowl full of water in which pink roses floated.

Then Rodji knew why the room seemed so homely, despite its strangeness. He could smell cooked chicken.

 

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