Did I kill Bryn? Who fell first? Did he get his axe in deep enough? Did I? Did he kick in his spikes? When did Bryn smash his head? Could I have held on? No, he was pulling me over. Could I have held on? Could I? Endless questions but one image. Bryn falling backwards, his unconscious face bloody and unknowing against the blue river below, his body shrinking as it fell away from him.
Kafkas frogmarched him back down the mountain to the Citadel. Half way down, the Priest spat at him and Joe turned to protest but Kafkas prodded him with the tip of his P’tang and scowled.
He wanted his dad here to sort everything out for him. It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t mean to kill Bryn. It was an accident.
He wondered if Bryn’s parents were still alive.
At the staging post, a few soldiers resting there raised enquiring eyebrows at Kafkas.
“Bryn of the Ra is dead,” Kafkas told them. “Dead on the Ice Wall.”
The soldiers straightened.
“And this one?” asked one of the Ra, nodding his head at Joe.
“This one killed him,” said Kafkas simply and the hard faced soldiers glared at Joe, unsmiling.
The cell door closed behind him. He sat down on the rough earth floor and rested his head on his knees. No one came. No Leila, no Tiresias, no Queen. No guards to torture him.
No Bryn. No Stan. No Mum. No Kasimir.
No Leila, where was she? He wanted her.
For long hours, he sat motionless in the cell. No food. No water either. He wondered if anyone knew he was here.
No Stan to talk to this time.
He didn’t care. He didn’t want to talk, to think, to explain himself. He just wanted to sit there, doing nothing, left alone. Alone he was fine. Alone he could cope. It was the dead who complicated things.
He slept a lot.
This one killed him.
Leila’s soft voice woke him gently. She was sitting beside him and for a moment he thought they were back on the SS Horizon and he smiled. But Tiresias was beside her and then he remembered Bryn falling back into the river and he knew he wasn’t on any space ship. Leila put her hand on his shoulder but he recoiled from her touch.
“Joe, I’ve brought you food.”
He ignored her and stared at the wall.
He shook his head slowly. Silence.
“Want to tell me what happened?” asked Leila, coolly.
They sat there for a while, not speaking.
“There’s going to be a Court,” said Tiresias, eventually.
Joe turned round slowly and looked blankly at Tiresias.
“A field Court.”
Skala was pale and shaking.
“Joe, it’s a trial. They’re putting you on trial.”
“The High Priest will preside.”
“Any punishment to be carried out immediately.”
Bryn’s punishment was death, he thought.
“What sort of punishment?”
Tiresias paused before answering.
“At best, a lashing” he said.
A lashing. He’d been tortured by Anver and stung by Bloodies. How bad could a lashing be?
“And the worst?”
“They could tie you to the arrow and fry you,” said Tiresias. “Do you understand?”
I killed Bryn. They kill me. It’s the Ra way, he thought.
Tied to the arrow, fried black by the sun. Stan’s charred face was seared on his mind. But so was Bryn’s, unconscious and serene, as he fell, unknowing, into the ravine.
“I killed him, Red, I cut the rope and I killed him.”
“It was you or Bryn. Tell him, Tiresias. He had no choice.”
“The Ra won’t see it that way,” said Tiresias, gravely.
“Joe cut the rope to save his own skin. Skala would have done the same. Me too. But not Lev. Not Tikhana. Not Anver. Not the Ra. No Ra would have cut that rope.”
Joe held his head in his hands.
“The Ra will think I’m a coward. A selfish coward.”
“Selfish cowards don’t jump into ant pits to rescue their sisters,” said Tiresias, firmly.
“Still going to fry me on the arrow though, aren’t they?” said Joe.
“Maybe,” said Tiresias.
“No maybe about it,” Joe shouted. “I’m a coward and Anver’s been trying to kill me since the day I arrived.”
He looked despairingly at his sister.
“He’s not the only one I’ve killed, is he?”
“We’ve been through that,” said Leila, quickly. “I told you…”
He snapped again.
“I killed them, Red, mum and the rest of them, I killed them all. Don’t you understand? I killed them on the ship. I killed Mum and Kasimir. I killed Bryn. I cut the rope and I killed him and you can say it any way you want but that’s the truth, that’s what happened!”
She took a step back, fear in her eyes.
“Red,” he said, “what’s the name of that bloke who brought all the bad luck?”
“You know….that guy in the Bible…..with the whale and everything.”
“Jonah, that’s right. Jonah. Well, I’m a Jonah, Red, I bring bad luck. Nix gets his arm ripped off. Stan gets tied to the arrow. Lev breaks Raising. Skala gets her arm bust. Mum dies, Kasimir dies, Bryn dies, Stan dies. And I’m there every time it happens. I’m bad luck, Red, I come along and bad things……..”
Leila reached out and slapped him hard.
His startled face turned red. He began to shout back at her but she cut him off.
“Enough! This isn’t about you! It’s got nothing to do with you. If it wasn’t you, it would have been me. Or Kas. Or mum or dad. Could have been anyone. No one could have saved the ship. Skala would have cut that rope. We’re not the Ra. We don’t have all these weird notions of the tribe. And there’s no such thing - no such thing - as Jonahs! Sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, talking nonsense about Jonahs. It’s worse than bloody useless!”
The vehemence in her voice startled him into silence. She turned round and kicked at the wall of the cell with her boot then she sat down and closed her eyes.
“We need to get out.”
“You were the one who wanted to stay,” he said petulantly. “You said we should wait for dad!”
“Yeah, well,” she replied, exasperated, “it’s possible I was wrong.”
Joe fell into a truculent silence, sitting down on the floor, ignoring his sister but Leila began pacing up and down the room.
“Tiresias, how does the Court work?”
“Court’s made up of twelve Ra, six soldiers, six Priests. Shurrun and the Priests will want Joe dead, that’s for sure. Soldiers won’t.”
“Why not? You said no Ra would have cut the rope. You said….”
Tiresias held up his hand.
“Priests are the guardians of the tribe. Priests tell the stories. Priests keep the wisdom. Priests enforce the rules. You broke the rules; they’ll want you dead. But the soldiers……well, they will see it differently. They judge a man by how brave he is. Cowardly to cut Bryn loose, they won’t understand that. Brave beyond brave to jump into an ant pit to rescue your sister. They’ll understand that and because of that they might not want you to fry.”
“Then the court splits six six,” said Leila.
“You only need one, not six,” said Tiresias. “They vote with black and white balls. Pick them out of a bag. Black balls are good. White balls bad. One black ball and they can’t kill you. That’s the law. One black ball and they’ll lash you instead.”
“How many lashes?” he asked.
“Queen decides the punishment,” said Tiresias and Joe’s spirits suddenly soared. The Queen had been friendly. She had protected him before. He was going to get out of this.
“Good,” said Leila slowly.
“Yes. And no.”
Joe was suddenly wary.
“She can’t just let you off, can she?” said Leila, her brow furrowed. “She’s not strong enough. The priests want your blood so she can’t let you off……how many lashes, Tiresias?”
“At best, five, maybe ten.”
“Bet it’s ten. It’s the best she can do for you. Priests will want to fry you, she’s got to offer them an alternative. Joe, listen, can you take ten lashes from the Queen?”
“Actually, I don’t think you’ve got much choice. It’s that or frying to death on the Arrow. Tiresias, what happens if it’s not a split Court? What happens if he doesn’t get a black ball?”
Tiresias shook his head. He looked over his shoulder, at the cell door, then gathered the twins close to him and spoke in the lowest of whispers.
“Listen to me, both of you. You must survive. Until the Equinox.”
He made for the door then turned again.
“Remember. Until the Equinox. Do as I told my people. Do anything to survive. Find a way. Leila, find a way!”
He turned his back and swept out of the cell, leaving Joe and Leila staring at his back, mystified.
“What was all that about?” asked Joe.
Leila gazed after Tiresias.
“Joe, we need a plan for the trial.”
Silently, they waited on the parade ground for the shadow of the flag pole to cross the arrow.
“Judgement hour,” said Joe to himself.
Six priests in purple robes and six soldiers, dusty from their training, sat at a long table in the afternoon sun. At one end, the Queen on a high backed chair, Nix standing behind her, impervious to the heat. At the other end Shurrun, the gold medallion glinting on his chest and Anver, arms folded, waiting. Two hundred Ra circled them in a living amphitheatre and in the middle stood Joe, Leila at his side, gripping his hand. Outside the Citadel, a million cicadas clicked their songs, but inside the Ra and the Yanquis stood silently, waiting.
The shadow moved on and Shurrun, High Priest of all the Ra, stood up.
“May Lord Raz guide us.”
“In Raz we trust.”
“May Lord Raz lead us.”
“In Raz we trust.”
“May Lord Raz judge us.”
“In Raz we trust.”
Shurrun turned to the twelve Ra at the table.
“Bryn of the Ra died yesterday. He died on the Ice Wall and the alien boy Joe Crowe is at court to answer for the killing.”
I’m an alien again, thought Joe. No one objected. Not the Queen. Not Nix.
“Bettina of the Ra, on the bones of your grandfather, which lie now and forever in Indoria, do you swear that the truth will be the only words you speak on the death of Bryn?”
The stocky Ra priestess stood before the table of judges and nodded.
“Bettina, what happened on the sea wall yesterday?”
“Alien boy there….”
She nodded at Joe
“….alien boy and Bryn went last. Alien fell off the ledge, pulled Bryn after him. Bryn slid down the snow field pulling the alien to the ridge. Bryn went over.”
“They were lashed?”
“The ropes were tight? There was no slack? No loops?”
“My lord, I did it myself.”
“The rope could not have broken?”
“I’ve been roping Raislings on the Ice Wall since Lord Anver was on his mother’s teat, my Lord. No rope I ever tied has come undone.”
“After the accident, Bettina of the Ra, did you inspect the rope?”
“Yes, my lord. It had been cut. The end was smooth.”
There was a rumble of whispers and murmurs from the assembled Ra and neither Shurrun nor the Queen moved to silence them.
“The end was smooth. The rope had been cut.”
Shurrun spoke loudly and looked round, to make sure everyone had heard. Joe felt two hundred eyes bearing down on him.
The Priestess turned to leave the circle. Joe shook his head.
“They’ve already decided,” he said to Leila, despondently.
“Sprague!” called out Shurrun.
Sprague walked across the parade ground, dressed in the purple robes of a Ra priest, hair cut short and brushed forward, Ra style. His skin was deeply tanned and his hands were chapped and scarred with scabs; the hands of a workman, not a teacher.
“What’s he doing here?” hissed Leila out loud, blinking in the sun and the strangeness of seeing Sprague dressed as a priest of the Ra.
“On the bones of your grandfather, do you swear that the truth will be the only words you speak on the matter of the death of Bryn of the Ra?”
“Yes, my lord,” replied Sprague, with a deep bow.
“Sprague of the Ra, you know the alien boy, Joe Crowe?”
“Yes, my lord,” replied Sprague. “I was his teacher.”
“Sprague of the Ra?” whispered Leila.
“Was he a good pupil?”
“No” said Sprague. “He was not.”
“And you were a rubbish teacher,” shouted out Joe.
“Silence!” shouted Shurrun. “You may not speak!”
He turned back to Sprague.
“He was disobedient?”
“Yes, my lord.”
The Ra stirred, stiffening a little.
“He did not obey the laws of the tribe?”
“No, sir, he did not. As his teacher, I frequently had to reprimand him.”
“And was he beaten for his disobedience?”
“Sadly, my lord our….our tribe did not believe in beating as a punishment.”
A murmur went up from the assembled Ra.
“Yeah, you’d have liked that, wouldn’t you?” Joe blurted out.
“Silence,” bellowed Shurrun. “You will have your chance to speak.”
“Shut up, Joe, you’re making it worse,” hissed Leila.
“What’s the point?” he shouted at her. “They’ve made up their minds.”
“Silence!” growled the Queen. “Joe Crowe, you will be silent or Nix here will personally shut you up. Savvy?”
He glared at the Queen then nodded his head.
“He was disobedient, Sprague?”
“He never followed instruction.”
“Never followed instruction,” repeated Shurrun.
“Not always a bad thing” said Jonas, one of the twelve Ra judges.
“Rarely a good thing in a Ra soldier,” said Shurrun.
“Your ship crashed. That is why you are here?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“How came it to be crashed, Sprague.”
“I don’t know, my Lord. I was asleep at the time. It would appear that Joe Crowe was the only person awake when it crashed.”
“Could he have brought about the crash, Sprague.”
Sprague looked doubtful.
“It’s possible, my lord but….”
“This is just talk, High Priest. Time to hear from the boy,” growled Nix.
Shurrun smiled wryly at Nix and then coolly at Sprague.
“You may go, Sprague”
As Sprague walked away, Shurrun beckoned Joe. He walked slowly towards the judges, sweltering in the afternoon heat. Last time I was here, he thought, they made me a Ra. Now they want to fry me on the arrow, like Stan.
Shurrun’s dark eyes stared straight at Joe, as they had at the Thanksgiving bonfire.
“Joe Crowe. How did you come here, to this place, to Ultramont?”
“We came on a ship. It crashed.”
“And how did it crash?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
“Was something wrong with it?”
“I think so but we never found out.”
“Who was in charge of the ship when it crashed?”
Joe looked down at his feet.
“Was it you?”
“How many of your tribe were on the ship?”
“About twenty, I suppose.”
“And how many are still alive?”
Joe shook his head, refused to answer.
“How many of your tribe died, alien boy?”
“We’re not a tribe,” answered Joe, angrily, glaring straight at the High Priest.
“Did your mother die?”
“Your friend? Your friend’s mother? All your other friends? Are they all dead?”
“Are they all dead because you were in charge of the ship when it crashed?”
“Yes,” said Joe, finally, staring sullenly at the ground.
“Did Lev of the Ra break the Raising to rescue you?”
“Were you in charge of the brake on the sea wall when the wheel broke and Nix of the Ra lost his arm?”
“Who fell from the ledge? You or Bryn?”
“Did you kick in with your spikes?”
“I tried to.”
“Did Bryn fall straight over the edge of the cliff?”
“We slid down towards it.”
“Slid straight down to it?”
“I got my axe in but I couldn’t hold us.”
“And did you call for help?”
“Yes. No one came.”
“Prya and T’Choo came.”
“Help came, but you didn’t wait for it.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“When Bryn went over the cliff, what did you do?”
“I….I…” Joe faltered.
The image of Bryn slipping over the cliff…..
“I…I dug my spikes in. And my axe. I shouted for help.”
“And then you took out your knife and cut the rope,” said Shurrun.
“Not immediately…….How long was Bryn dangling there?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know…..A few seconds.”
“A few seconds! You cut the rope after a few seconds? You cut the rope and Bryn of the Ra fell to his death?”
“You let him go. You didn’t wait. Help was coming but you didn’t wait. You thought only of your life. Joe Crowe would live and Bryn would die. You cut the rope! You lived! Bryn died! Ain’t that the truth of it?” demanded Shurrun.
“It wasn’t like that!” Joe shouted back at him, though Joe knew that was exactly how it had been.
Silence descended on the parade ground again as Shurrun let his words sink in. Silence, except for a mosquito buzzing around Joe’s ear. It sounded like an aeroplane.
“Do you have anything to say?” the High Priest asked, looking straight at Joe. But he shook his head. He had nothing to say. And besides, thought Joe, Shurrun’s right. I did kill him.
“Who speaks for this boy?” asked Shurrun.
No one spoke, the silence echoing across the parade ground.
“Does anyone speak for him?” asked Shurrun.
“Very well,” said Shurrun, “we will now…..”
“I do,” said Leila, looking small and sounding nervous beside her brother. “I speak for him.”
Shurrun glared at her. Then he raised an eyebrow and curled his lip in a sneer.
She looked up at Joe and then walked hesitantly to the judges table, standing before Kafkas the priest at the far end.
“Priest Kafkas,” she said firmly “have you ever been in the Valley of the Ants?”
The Priest looked shocked at being so abruptly addressed by a fourteen year old girl but slowly he shook his head.
“No. I have not.”
“And have you ever been inside a Bloody Mound?”
“This has nothing to do with Bryn of the Ra,” hissed Kafkas.
“Answer the lassie,” growled Jonas. “She speaks for the boy and you have a duty to answer or by Raz you’ll answer to me.”
Kafkas looked daggers at Jonas and then back to Leila.
“No, I have not,” said Kafkas.
Leila stood back and then worked her way down all twelve judges.
“Have you ever been in the Valley of the Ants?”
“And have you ever been inside a Bloody Mound?”
None of them had ever been to the Valley of the Ants. None of them had ever been inside a Bloody Mound.
Finally she came to Shurrun.
“High Priest,” she asked “did my brother go into the Valley, into antland?”
“Aye, he did,” replied Shurrun, levelly.
“And did my brother smash his way into the Bloody Mound with a machete?”
“Aye, he did.”
Something’s wrong, thought Joe. Shurrun isn’t fighting, he’s toying with her.
“And did my brother jump into the pit to rescue me?”
“He did that, Leila Crowe.”
Leila seemed taken aback by Shurrun’s reply and paused.
“Have you finished ?”
“No, not yet.”
She turned and walked back down the table, to where the Queen was sitting, Nix by her side.
“Lord Nix,” said Leila, loud enough for everyone on the parade ground to hear.
“Nix of the Ra, have you ever been in the valley of the Ants?”
“Aye,” he replied.
“And did you jump into an ant pit?”
“Yes, Leila Crowe, I did once.”
Leila gave him a little bow.
“Thankyou,” she said.
“Have you finished, now?” barked Shurrun
“Yes, yes, I have.”
She began to walk back to Joe then turned once more back to the judges and curtsied to them.
And then she went back to Joe’s side. He beamed at her.
“Tiresias said your only chance was to remind them of your bravery.”
Then Shurrun spoke.
“The alien boy fell off the ledge. As Bryn of the Ra fell over the edge towards the river, the alien cut the rope to save himself. He has admitted it. Bag and balls, boy!”
Tesselow, Gracie’s son, scurried over to Shurrun and handed him a small canvas bag. Shurrun emptied the bag into a small wooden box. Twelve white balls, twelve black. Tesselow took the box to Kafkas at the end of the line of judges.
“Now, vote!” Shurrun instructed the judges.
Tesselow moved along the line of judges holding the box. One by one, each judge put their hand in and took out a ball and placed it into the bag. When they had all voted, Tesselow gave the bag to Shurrun, who took the balls out one by one and placed them on a metal tray in front of him.
Four white balls.
“Twelve white balls and not even the Queen can save you,” Tiresias had said.
Four more white balls. Leila tightened her grip on his hand. Eight down, four to go.
Another white ball.
And then a black ball. Shurrun stared at it in fury and then at each of the judges in turn. He lingered long over Jonas, who met the High Priest’s gaze with his own.
The twelfth ball was white.
“Eleven to one,” said the Queen. “The alien boy Joe Crowe is guilty of the death of Bryn of the Ra.”
The spectators looked on expectantly at the Queen.
“Twelve white balls for a death, one black ball for a lashing, the old law is clear. Aye, high priest, you can find it in your books for it was written by your ancestor Semele.”
The crowd murmured their disapproval.
“Field Punishment Number One,” she barked. “Twenty lashes, when Raz’s shadow falls. This is the sentence of the Queen.”
Shurrun was on his feet immediately.
“My Queen,” said Shurrun through gritted teeth, “Semele’s law applies to Ra only.”
“Joe Crowe became a Ra on this very spot a month ago, High Priest. Have you forgotten so soon?”
“Blood from blood and blood only,” hissed Shurrun. “Joe Crowe will never be a Ra!”
“Twenty lashes, High Priest, this is my word. Or does anyone here wish to dispute this?”
Tikhana turned and glared at the crowd, which seemed to shrink back a little under her gaze.
“A tribe divided cannot stand, Tikhana,” hissed Shurrun at the Queen.
“Ra will not be ant to Ra, High Priest. Then truly will the end be near. Am I understood?”
Shurrun did not answer and the Queen turned to Tiresias.
“Twenty lashes. Prepare the boy.”