story


Herd stood on a low ridge overlooking the chaos in the Ocker’s camp and waited. The slingers and archers were harrying the Ocker pickets, running in to loose stones or arrows then darting up and away. The Older Man wondered if it had always been like this. This love for war men have. The friendships blood-soaked battle engendered. He wondered if the Younger Man would make it through the day unscarred and unscathed. Indeed he wondered if he himself would.

He’d seen war in his own youth, when the Ockers turned from trade to piracy and the coasts became unsafe for man or beast. He remembered the cadence of the small battles and the terrifying, glorious thrill of it. He remembered the exaltation of throwing the Ockers back into the sea and the sand soaked red and rust for weeks. The endless tales of exploits and bravery of the Herd in the face of the Ocker terror, of dodging great war axes that split shields and arms like kindling, of luring Ockers into traps to be crushed with boulders, or to fall in pits. The joy of surviving the onslaught.

And he remembered the endless biting hunger, and the starvation when the crops couldn’t be brought in, or were burned. And the death of kin and kind. And what they had to do to survive.

Yes, men had always loved war. And always would. Because despite the misery, the heartache, the horror; moments like this enthralled generation after generation.

He pulled his helmet lower on his brow. The men had started to chant. “Hah! Hah! Hah!” their weapons knocking their shields, or knocking spears and spear-throwers. The blood was rising. The Ockers would be gone soon.

Parker stepped from the crowd, raised his arms for silence and the Herd obeyed, the gathering roar dropping to the occasional shout. He points to a Tawa Man who steps forward, two poles raised in the air, a head spiked on each. The Tawa Man drives the poles into the ground, the grisly tongues of the heads lolling towards the camp on the beach.

“Men of the Herd!!” He shouts, “They came again! The murderers came again! Came to take your children! Came for raping and murder! Came for our crops, or stock! Come to kill us all!” He pauses, “Will we let them take it?!”

The Herd roars its dissent, a hundred voices raises to shout abuse at the Ockers, who seeing the threat are gathering in the front of their ships, a short line forming, a wall of shields. Parker raises his arms again.

“We are Men of the Herd!” shouts Parker, his voice rising to fever pitch, “We remember! We remember that THEY are the children of the Lying God! THEY are the children of Deniers! THEY lit that fires that drowned the World! THEY brought the death to us!”

The Herd roars again, men stepping forward to charge the Ockers, barely restrained by Parkers hold on them. He raises his spear, points to the sky, his eyes wild with anger, bloodshot, his body quivering with rage, “IS THIS LIFE?!” he bellows

“IT IS DEATH!” The Herd screams, the men are shaking, waving spears, holding shields above their heads.

“IS THIS LIFE?!”

“IT IS DEATH!!! ”

“IS. THIS. LIFE?!!”

It is death.

The Older Man looked up to see the Younger Man smiling broadly as he walked out of the bush and towards where he sat with a friend from Jonsville. They’d been discussing the grazing in the hills towards the south, and joking about the predilections of the Karori herders to relieve the tension.

“What that?” he asked as the Younger Man sat, indicating what looked to be a large round Ocker shield.

“Lucky me” replied the Younger Man, “Parker says I landed a stone right on the crown of this Ocker headman. Maybe kill him outright! So he tells me to keep this shield we take from two Ockers the Tawa Men kill.”

“A good morning!” exclaimed the Older Man, now returning the broad smile, “You did good!

Two Ockers those Tawa Men kill?!” He craned his neck up a little to try see past the Herders milling around the field, but couldn’t see parker near his bivvy, “What Parker thinking now?”

“Dunno. Those Tawa Men are flensing the Ockers, and probably put their heads on spears…” He looked around expectantly, “Any food left?”

The Older Man reached around behind him and brought out some potato bread, and stopped to look at the shield.

“You know,” he asked, “that shield is very big for a wee man.”

The Younger Man smiled again, and reached over to take the bread. “Would probably make a good swap for a handy buckler tho, I reckon. A buckler is more suited to a slinger than blademan?”

“Probably… Hey, why those Tawa Men flensing those Ockers?”

“Parker’s idea,” said the Younger Man past a mouthful, “The wind is South, so they’re gonna roast the meat, let the smell head down to the Ockers. Later,” he gaffawed, “they chuck the bones over the dunes, scare them fuckers half to death!”

The Older Man returned a chuckle, “You better eat up, the women all headed back up to the Pa this morning. Some saying enough of the Herd is here, so we muster on Tahi Bay this afternoon, get stuck in tomorrow.”

“Good thing I got you a real big shield then.”

It was a dull ‘thud’ that made Kevvo turn. The Big Man was slumping sideways in the kind of fall that said either blind drunk or stone dead. The yelling started shortly after, with men pointing towards a low run of dunes, hauling up shields, and looking to him for permission to advance. Confused, Kevvo took a step towards the dunes, and looked, stunned at one of his crew falling in front of him, a stick of some kind embedded in his neck. A man was shouting “Shield wall!! Shield wall!!” and a huddle began to form around him, the occasional cracking noise audible above the din. Ducking under the wall Kevvo heard another ‘pop!’, and over the shield bounced a stone half the size of his fist.

Kevvo looked around. It was barely first light, with many of the men still wiping sleep from their eyes as the slow rain of stones bounced off the clustered shields. Occasionally another stick would fly through the air and lodge itself in a shield, or if lucky, an exposed foot or arm. Cautiously, Kevvo glanced past the shields he was hiding behind. He caught a glimpse of something on the dunes, and his second peek out he saw it, a boy twirling what looked to be a leather strap.

“Them kids!!” He shouted to the men around him, and pointed to the dunes. The men in his huddle nodded, and cautiously they began to shuffle out of the camp under their protective wall. As their confidence grew they began to walk quickly, eventually breaking into a jog when they saw that their surprise visitors were, as Kevvo had said, only boys. Seeing the men starting to roar, and run, the boys bolted back over the dunes and out of sight. The Ockers laboured through and up the loose sand of the dunes and over the crest. The boys were running as fast as their legs could carry them down the back of the dune and towards a string of low trees that marked the edge of the bush, before disappearing into the foliage. One Ocker threw his spear towards a final retreating figure, but it lodged harmlessly at the edge of the trees.

“Stop!” Kevvo shouted, “Them gone…” he looked back towards the camp. A few more men were trailing slowly towards them while the remainder of the camp was in chaos, some tending wounded, others roaring at the surrounding bush. He could make out the prostate form of the Big Man, Jacko crouching near, perhaps inspecting the wound that caused the collapse. Kevvo looked back to see a couple of his men heading down to collect the stray spear.

One man, a Sinny-sider he knew to be brave but as stupid as a ox, was peering into the bush cautiously, his shield raised near to his eyes. The other man bent to pick up the spear when out of the bush a Herder stepped. A huge, brown man. He held a long bamboo spear that darted forward and down, slamming between the bending man’s shoulder blades. He collapsed in a heap while the Sinny-sider lunged forward, shield raised. The brown man roared, stepped outside the spear thrust towards him and seized the edge of the shield, tearing down and sideways as another brown man stepped out of the bush and stabbed with another bamboo. A short spray of blood soaked the two Herders before they  grabbed an Ocker each and dragged them into the bush.

The Ockers stood gobsmacked at the crest of the dune, before a third huge Herder stepped from the bush and shouted. Everyone ran.

He looked up from the fire to see the frame of the Tawa man leaving the copse and walking towards Parker’s bivvy. Outside the bivvy he crouched next to two other Tawa men, one of who rose and went under the woollen canvas. After a brief time Parker emerged and spoke to the three, scratching his beard and looking around the Herd. His eyes settled on the Older Man, and accompanied by the Tawa man from the copse, he picked his way across the field past the sleeping or prostrate forms. Parker sat next to the fire and asked, “What is ‘goal’?”

The Tawa Man leaned forward, “Nah, ‘gold’.”

“Gold?” replied the Older Man, “Dunno. Why?”

“This Ocker, he says, ‘keep you damn gold bastard’ many times before he pass out.”

“Gold?” He looks at Parker, “I never heard it.”

“Yeah.” Parker states as he stands. Before he turned away he looks at the Younger Man, “Get you and the slingers. Before dawn the Tawa men will take you near Tahi Bay.”

The Younger Man nods to Parker, who lopes back to his bivvy and crawls inside. Turning back to the Older Man, he asks, “What happens at Tahi Bay?”

“You wake them Ockers up boy. A few stones kill their sentries, make some noise. Harass them, make them jumpy. Works well.”

The Younger Man nods, then looks across the field to where some more Jonsville Men are sitting around a fire or sleeping. The turns back and asks, “Why these Ockers come here? Why not stay in their country?”

“You know the tales boy. They haven’t changed.”

“Tell them again so I remembers them well.” He smiles, “Who knows what tomorrow brings?”

The Older Man breaks a wry smile, and rising onto his aging legs, lifts his arm and raising his voice he says, “This is the Tale of the Harrowing! The Tale of the End, and the Beginning of all things!”

A few rise from other fires and walk nearer, and some who were lying closer sit up to hear. A voice replies, “The End, and the Beginning!”

He looks to the edge of the field and sees a sentry standing on a low rise, framed by the thousand souls of the departed rising to cross the bridge of the sky.

“There was a day when all people lived the lives of Gods. Their hearths were never crowded, their villages never dark. A day when food was plenty, and none went hungry. A day when sickness was no fear, when crops never failed. A day when death was a stranger to the people.

“On that day all grew old as a crone, all grew withered and grey, but all stayed strong of body and mind. The people grew older, and older, and older but they stayed mortal, and boredom was the great enemy. They called their young before them to always dance, to sing. Their lives were easy.

“But old is old, and people still feared the great killer, the cold. And fearing the cold they lit fires to warm each other. Great fires in their hearths and fires on their paths to light and warm their way. Their great houses had stone walls and stone roofs, and hid they hid to ward off the cold, they huddled and feasted, watched their children and counted their days .

“And there the Lying God found them hiding, and he fed their fear of his brother the Sky God. Our God, the moody Sky who brings rains and winter hail. The people heard the Lying God, and they build their fires higher, and the smoke clouded the sky, and still he lied, and the fear became madness.

“But the Sky God, he saw smoke and worried for the people. Not knowing the tricks he brought light rains to wet the fire. But when he brought rain, the people heard the Lying God, and the fires were heaped higher and higher, and the the Sky God rained, then stormed.

“Soon, the water filled streams, then rivers, then harbours, and still it rained. Then waters began to rise. Slowly, slowly they came up, rising to the doorsteps, then to the closed doors, then to the closed shutters.

“The flood destroyed the houses of the people, destroyed the crops, drowned the animals. Feeling hunger for the first time, the old people saw what they had done. They thought they had been abandoned by the Sky God, and in their fear and anger they fell upon one another, first blaming, then hating, then murdering.

Then the first Ockers took to boats. The Harrowing was a wicked, dark day. The Ockers brought their Lying God to this land, and he ate our people in his hunger, emptying the souls of people and flinging them in the wind in handfuls, and like leaves in the Spring gales they were raised to the sky. It was the End of day of the old people…

“And now their souls walk from edge to edge of the sky every night…

“But without death, there is no life, and with the End came the Beginning. The old people were too weak to fight. When they were all dead and gone the young woke, turned on the Ockers together, drove them into the sea and ceased the killing.”

The Older Man, raised his arm again and pointed to the sky, “The End and the Beginning.”

A low murmur ran through the Herd, “The End and the Beginning.”

The Older Man whispered, “Is it Death? It is Life.”

The keeler came towards the shore slowly, depth sounders in the bow watching keenly for submerged ruins or other means to run afoul. The oars dipped slowly into the water in the familiar rhythm, and the mate could be heard shouting orders to the crew. With an audible heave from the slaves the boat leapt forward to beach itself, and some of the crew jumped overboard into the shallow and cold water to haul it ashore with heavy hemp ropes.

“Hoy!” Kevvo shouted to the skipper when he appeared in the bow, “Bin fishin’?!”

Jacko waved his arm dismissively, “Nuttin’! Them Herders stupid, an them women ugly!”

Kevvo barked a laugh, “Them fight?!”

“No more! Took two for slave. Some women, children in the lock-up!” He laughed viciously, “All quiet now!”

“Get meat?!”

“Some!”

Kevvo jumped down from his keeler and walked over to Jacko as the captain walked amidships, climbed into the cold water, continued to shout orders at his crew, and waded ashore. They shook hands gruffly. Jacko made admiring noises about the speed of Kevvo’s crew in building the palisade, and shouted back to his men to join the work when they had tethered the keeler.

“What them fires up there?” He asked, pointing south.

“Scout says a mob of Herders, all sit up there.” Replied Kevvo.

“Big Man think what?”

“Them come down, get theyself killed tomorrow, maybe day after?”

“Hah! Bet them even fights like sheep…”

Kevvo paused, “That bet, no-one is taking’.” Jacko looked at him sideways before gaffawing, then paused as the Big Man approached.

“Jacko! Liking this new huntin’ ground!”

“Dunno? Them grounds rich?”

“Fair few Herders up with them fires,” said the Big Man, indicating towards the smoke from the cooking fires blowing gently over the trees to the south, “all them fuckers gotta hearth somewhere.”

Jacko nodded. “Wanna go up, kill before them come down?’

“Nah, no hurry. Today, tomorrow… wait, an more get scared, more run, less killing. Then slaves them all become.”

Jacko nodded again, “Put all them working looking for metal an this gold?”

“Yup.  Maybe that storm in Tasman did us favours after all.”

“Maybe,” muttered Kevvo, “if this be Wellton.”

The Big Man’s eyes slowly moved to look at Kevvo sideways.

The walk down the valley was an easy one. The Old Road was subsiding in places, and the occasional tree made an appearance, gently muscling its way from the wooded roadside and through the broken rock into sunlight. On the way they were joined by others from their Herd, and the conversation was relaxed in the odd manner of men contemplating war. The Older Man smelled smoke from cooking fires near, and far in the distance the more sinister plumes of something larger burning, perhaps homes.

When the Old Road neared the bottom of the Tawa Valley, the trees parted enough to see the Herd camping in light woods near the stream that divided the valley.  He recognised the men and boys of Tawa, the hillmen from over in Hariyou, and a few from Eastern highlands. The Older Man waved to a group of Easterners sitting round a nearby fire, “What you eating men? Rabbits?”

“Cat.” Came the reply.

“Lucky!” He exclaimed with a smile.

“Not so much for him!” One man shouted to a round of laughter.

Smiling companionably, the Older Man continued to walk into the Herd, waving to some, speaking loudly to others, introducing the Younger Man to the most important. He stopped when he saw Parker talking to three other men in a small copse further ahead, and motioning to the Younger Man to stay put, he walked towards the trees. One of the three saw him and indicated to Parker, who turned. Grim, thought the Older Man, and he approached the four when beckoned.

Parker stood head shorter than most. He was a wiry, dark man with the habit of scratching his ears and beard when stressed or worried. His beard was a mess. “Welcome,” he stated blandly, “It’s good you came. You bring more men of Jonsville?”

“Some,” replied the Older Man, “your runner is over to Karori by now. More will have your message soon enough.”

“Good… good.” Parker picked at his ears and glanced at his three companions, “you traded with Ockers before the troubles started, yeah?”

“Yep.”

“Come see this.” Parker turned from the group and waved for the Older Man to follow, he walked into the trees a way, past a man standing with spear and shield, and there, bound hand and feet lay a prisoner. “Maybe you can talk to the Ocker, find out why he comes here?”

The Older Man stepped past Parker and squatted. The prisoner wriggled under his gaze, and slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position. His eye was badly blackened and he looked to have been bleeding from the scalp, but he was otherwise unharmed.

“You doin’ reccie?” the Older Man asked.

“I bin doin’ nuttin… Out gatherin firewood for me mates when some fucker slugs me”

“Long way to here for a Brissie man.”

The prisoner glared at the Older Man, “Ain’t no Brissie Man!” he asserted before muttering, “Sinny-sider me… now stuck on a freezing shithole with herders…”

The Older Man stood and took a step back, and beckoned to Parker before speaking quietly, “This is a Sinny man. Which means at least two keelers. You know where they are?”

Parker nodded, “There’s one beached down by old Porry, and there’s one maybe two prowling around Tahi and Mana Islands.”

“Yeah, I seen smoke when walking down.” He scratched his own beard nervously before resting his hand on the machete at his belt, “they building down the beach?”

Parker nodded again. The Older Man winced before turning back to the prisoner.

“Hey, Sinny-sider man. Why keelers come here? Slaves?”

The prisoner dropped hi s head and said nothing.

“Hey Sinny-sider, I say why come here?” The Older Man looked at Parker briefly, waits as if thinking, then gestures to the spearman standing nearby, “Hey, Tawa man, strap this guy with your spear.”

The prisoner’s head whipped up and he screamed as the bamboo shaft landed on his back. He began shouting as the Older Man stepped towards him and crouched again. He spoke softly, “Yell all you needs to Sinny-Sider. There more Herdsmen out them trees. More you can count. Talk. No talk an you dragged out there. Maybe you lucky they just eats you.”

With eyes wide, the Prisoner stared towards the light through the trees. “No idea why we here…” he mutters, “but we be slavers all same…”

The Older Man stood and scratched his scalp before turning to Parker, “Slavers,” and to the guard, “Tawa man, strap him good and senseless, don’t kill him.”

Kevvo scratched his beard.

“Summin not right with this…” he muttered.

The big man to his right looked over, leaned forward on the long handle of an axe, tilted his helmet back to show a fringe of blonde hair, and said, “Aeh?”

“Arsehole up this coast explain it right?”

“Yep. Down coast, thru heads, an there be ruins. An there,” he indicated with his eyebrows, “be ruins.”

“Doesn’t look right.”

“Mate. You wanna head back Sinny, explain Mad Max why we got nothin’?”

“…Nah.”

The two stood in the breeze on the deck of a keeler looking south and watching their men working just beyond the low dunes. The palisade was progressing well, with a long, low earthen rampart forming. Armed men were coming back from bush on the nearby hill carrying poles and what looked like raw flax. The keeler was beached in a broad, shallow inlet. Around the inlet low parallel ranges ran to the south, the western side littered with the tell-tale teeth of shattered stone buildings climbing out of the cool green water, white and grey against the olive drab of the bush.

“Might get some fires by nightfall.” Kevvo said thoughtfully. “Boys need to muster some locals, make sure this Wellton?”

“Mate, you wanna worry less? He said Wellton, an this be Wellton.  An somewhere here,” he indicated the ruins with the haft of this axe, “be that mile of gold.”

Kevvo looked back over his shoulder at the western horizon. Plumes of smoke rose lazily into the sky from beyond the harbour heads. “Looks like Jacko might be finished with that island. Could be mutton tonight.”

“Yep. Be good getting his crew finishing this work as well.”

“Why you believe that bloke he said this place had a mile of gold you reckon?”

The big man exhaled slowly, took off his iron helmet and set it on the rail of the boat. He paused and looked both ways up the beach before continuing, “You remember yarns about Canburra? Them stupid goat-rapers come over Blue mountains forever tryin tell Sinny-siders how to an what to?”

Kevvo nodded thoughtfully, “Yep.”

“Tell is them come over the Blues cause them was what be called Party Men. Has steel when Sinny-siders has ticks and rocks. Was a time when them Party Men tell every fucker from Sinny to Brissie how to an when to. An all of us, every last one, jumped when them arseholes clap.” He paused, yelled a direction at some men who looked to be stopping work, and leaned against the haft again, “Four counts of hands before them weak enough an get told to piss off.”

Kevvo nodded again, his brow knotted. “An?”

“An Wellton was the place of the Party Men here on Pig Island.”

Kevvo’s eyes widened a little in recognition, “Ahhh…”

“If nothing, we strip metal from this shithole, muster us some locals an have some fun.”

Kevvo grinned broadly.

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