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?”
“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.”