Toka welcomed the warmer waters off his homeland of Ipukarea after the feverish tropics and frigid south. The trade winds carried them towards a land of towering peaks and green forests, a land Toka had subconsciously longed to see again. The other members of the crew sang to themselves as they neared shore, filling the deck with drunken sea shanties. Toka could barely stand the swill most of them drank, but he imagined they had grown accustomed to it during their years at sea.
Other crew members milled about deck in between their duties. Rafiki was reading the children's book he had almost completed. Toka saw Dr. Lucius Locke emerge from his room, with specimen jars, nets, and notebooks for research. Toka was surprised the natural philosopher did not topple over from the equipment hanging from his belt or crammed into pockets as the boat rocked beneath them.
"Ah, Toka," said Locke, waving. "As soon as we make landfall, I would ask your assistance in continuing my-"
"Ship sighted!" came a call from the crow's nest, interrupting their rapport. "She flies Anglavian colors!"
Toka turned to see Captain Jacques Renault extend his spyglass to peer over the waves. Toka himself could barely discern the features at first, but the three-masted frigate gradually came into view over the side. A gunwale in the front, a massive cannon on a swivel, pivoted towards them. The crew of the distant ship climbed across the rigging as they fumbled with cannons and rigging across the deck. Their flag was a balance scale on a light gray background, a symbol of Anglavian commerce. The name Taskmistress was painted on the side, with the figurehead of a blank-eyed maiden holding a coiled whip on the bow of the ship.
The deck of the pirate vessel quickly became a fracas as the alarm bell rang, and Locke rushed to retrieve his weapons. As they returned to their quarters, Toka listened to the shouting behind them. A rapid jolt of the wheel sent Toka collapsing to the ground, only for his hand to brace his fall.
"Erin, pull us alongside her!" Renault shouted. "Rafiki, organize a boarding party!"
"What kind of vessel is that?" Toka asked Locke in the confusion.
Locke readjusted his glasses as a shudder crossed his shoulders. "A slaver," he opened the door to his quarters, grabbing his rifle and a bag of surgical supplies. "Although it is curious why such a vessel is outside the normal shipping lanes."
"What if they are trying to open a new trade in people?" Toka's mind filled with horrifying possibilities. The proximity to his homeland and presence of a slave ship did not bode well for his people, no matter how he envisioned it. The empty stare in Dr. Locke's eyes taught him all he needed to know.
"I've treated people freed from such craft," Locke's skin went pale. "And I wish you to promise me something, Toka."
"Yes?" Toka asked.
"Show no quarter to those who sold and kept them in chains." Locke twirled his tomahawk in his hand. "As a doctor who has seen their handiwork, I cannot, in good conscience, show mercy to slavers."
"What about Rafiki?" Toka asked.
"His flesh still shows the scars of slavery, the bite of the manacles and sting of the lash," Locke said. "He has seen captivity from a position I can only have nightmares about."
"You focus on healing those who need it, Locke," Toka said. "My own iwi was formed by those who escaped slavery, so I will eagerly assist Rafiki in breaking chains."
Toka left the still-shaken Doctor as he readied his own weapons. With his dragoon pistol and carved flintlock ready, Toka stepped on deck as the crew readied their grappling lines and loaded ammunition. The Harbinger's cannons erupted like angry dragons as a salvo of chainshot sheared the masts and rigging from the slave ship. As splinters and sparks flew like shrapnel, grapnels and grenados flew from the deck of the pirate vessel onto the side of the wounded slave ship. Explosions and fire from the swivel guns raked the deck of the craft, painting the deck crimson with slaver entrails.
The Taskmistress sat directly across from them, a paralyzed deer before the hunter. Rafiki was the first to swing across to the deck of the moribund giant with a machete clenched between his teeth. A foolhardy sailor grabbed a boarding pike and thrust it at the carpenter, only to be felled by a shot from Locke. As he reached the end of his swing, Rafiki pounced onto another hapless slaver and hacked his head off with a machete. Toka seized a grappling line from another pirate and swung across as the rope burned his hands. Below him, a pair of slavers aimed musketoons at him, trying to intercept him before he reached them.
The rope's arc carried him forward like a pendulum, but Toka dropped as soon as he reached the edge of the slave ship. He drew and fired his dragoon pistol as adrenaline surged through his body, dropping both slavers in one shot. Another slaver charged him with a cudgel, only to meet his with the snap of Toka's other flintlock pistol. A desperate and portly taskmaster drew a lash, backing away as his feet quivered in his boots. He flailed wildly, trying to keep Toka away with the pitiful weapon.
"Perhaps you should taste helplessness." Toka tossed his hoeroa, binding the legs and yanking the slaver to the ground. His prey feebly raised his hands in defense as Toka brought his mere down upon the pathetic wretch's face.
No sooner had the slaver died than a blunderbuss blasted across the deck, sending both pirates and slavers to the ground. Out of the hellish cloud of gunsmoke came Rafiki, with the weapon in one hand and his machete in the other. He brought down his boot upon the throat of a wounded slaver, pressing harder as the man agonizingly gurgled blood before death. Orbs radiating pure hatred had replaced Rafiki's typical placid gaze.
Suddenly, a man clad in a velvet coat popped his head out from a hatch on deck. A short barreled pistol emerged a split second later, firing rapidly at the towering engine of retribution on deck. By the time the gunsmoke cleared, Rafiki lay on deck, clutching a wound on his chest. The peculiar man vanished below decks as the remaining slavers, now emboldened, charged the distracted pirates.
"For Rafiki!" Toka raised his sword and let a battlecry escape his lungs as Monster Chopper split the clavicle of the closest slaver. The slavers gathered around him like circling vultures before charging simultaneously like ravenous wolves. Toka leapt backwards and swung his blade in a wild arc, practically throwing its heavy weight through the air. Maimed slavers twisted and writhed on the ground, as the survivors stepped back.
For an awkward momentary lull, the slavers and Toka stood in stalemate. Before he either side could counterattack, the pirate crew fell upon them from behind. A steel blade erupted from the chest of a slaver as blood sprayed across the deck. Behind him, Renault wiped his blade and spit on his downed foe. "Oui, it is sad such filth pollutes these waters," the Bordeaux pirate lamented. "But they are all dead."
"I saw one emerge from below." Toka looked down at Rafiki's body. "The one who shot Rafiki."
"Sacre bleu!" Renault shouted. "Alas, poor Rafiki, yet at least he-"
"I am very much alive, Captain." Rafiki sat up, holding the book in his hands. A bullet was flattened against the pages, embedded deeply in the book. "But someone owes me a new book."
"You are fortunate it was such a small bullet, oui," Renault said. "But you can carve what you are owed out of his hide."
"That is fine," Rafiki said. "Although my chest is still sore."
"I am heading below," Toka said as he reloaded his pistols. "Captain, I shall discover why these wretches stalk my coasts."
Toka threw opened the hatch leading to the deck below, and raised both of his pistols in front of him. The lights of the cargo hold were dim, punctuated only by holes blasted during the fight earlier. For a few moments, the only sounds to reach Toka's ears were the soft rocking of the boat upon the waves.
As he peered onto the floor of the lower decks, rage flashed within his mind. The smell that assaulted his nostrils was the reek of human body odor, magnified by a thousand. At least a hundred living bodies were packed below deck, shackled to the rotten boards and wasting away due to starvation. Rats and maggots gnawed at the wounds of the less fortunate, while men and women of all ages laid naked in the hull of the accursed vessel. From their skin tone and the cast of their faces, Toka could tell they were his people, including some from familiar iwis. Shimmering brown eyes turned to him as the pallor in their faces rose and whispering filled the cramped confines of the slave ship. He immediately understood why the others so detested slavers.
As Toka searched for a key, he looked up to see the man in the velvet overcoat. His auburn hair was pulled back behind his head, while he held a candle in one hand and his compact pistol in the other. As Toka stepped forward, he noticed a barrel of gunpowder under the man's candle.
"I am the owner of this ship and its cargo." The main lifted the candle above his shoulder. "I assume you pirates wish to resell these slaves?"
"You own no one, coward," Toka pointed both of his pistols at the man. It took every bit of willpower he had to resist pulling the triggers. "We are here to free them."
"Ah, but I seek something simpler than financial compensation," the man said, smarmy grin still plastered on his face. "I seek a guarantee of survival."
Before Toka could respond, another voice interrupted their conversation. "I can offer that," came Renault's voice from behind.
"Who are you?" the slave-master asked.
"Bonjour. I am Captain Jacques Renault of the Harbinger." He bowed. "I am otherwise known as the third son of the Grand Admiral of Bordeaux, brother of Countess Yvonne, and notorious heretic of the Royal Church."
"Ah, yes, the one who raided Valmont, if I'm not mistaken." The businessman grinned. "Your actions have made all of this possible, you know. With the Bordeaux position weakened, Anglavia has made headway into new markets."
"Charmed." Renault rolled his eyes. Toka stood silently by, unsure of what to do or say. "Tell me, monseigneur, what is your name?"
"Whitman. Richard Whitman," the slave-master replied. "Why would you offer me safe passage after your savagery?"
"Because I have a reputation to uphold, monseigneur," Renault ran his hand through his hair. "Even the Brethren of the Coast can have honor."
"Once I am back in Dorchester, Captain," Whitman grinned, "I can give you a very language amount of money. Your actions in Valmont have made many friends in Parliament."
"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, monseigneur," Renault walked up to him and shook his hand. The Captain blew out the candle, and walked the slave-owner out of the hold. Anger shot through Toka's eyes and face as Renault joked and laughed with the soulless bastard.
"You betray my trust for money?" Toka shouted at Renault.
The Captain did not even bat an eye at Toka as he merrily strolled upwards and outwards into the sun-bathed deck above. Toka grabbed his sword and charged up the stairs, prepared to do the dirty deed himself. As rage clouded his vision, he did not care if he lived or died. Pure hatred coursed through his arteries as he emerged to see the Captain laughing with Whitman.
"Stand aside!" Toka shoved through two pirates to reach them.
"Can you keep the savage away from me?" Whitman stepped behind Renault. "If you were to put a strong one like that in chains, it would get a fetching price."
As Whitman chuckled at his own joke, Rafiki calmly stepped behind the slave-owner. Renault winked, and Toka lowered his sword.
"A debt is owed," Rafiki said, holding up his book with the bullet hole inside it. "May I collect it, Captain?"
Renault nodded, and Whitman turned to see the titanic black man standing directly before him. Rafiki's thick arms snaked around Whitman's thick, fatty neck before snapping it like a twig. The crew began to cheer, and Toka raised his hands in celebration. Renault bent over the dead body, and removed Whitman's coat.
"I apologize for not explaining, Toka," Renault said. "But I feigned kindness to disarm him, prevent him from blowing us all to bits, and to take his clothing without getting it bloody. Slavers are two-legged vermin, but their fashion sense can be impeccable."
"The first time he did that, I acted the same." Rafiki slapped Toka on the back and pulled a ring of keys from Whitman's belt. "Come. You should do the honors."
Rafiki handed Toka the key-ring, and pointed to the stairs leading below. The warrior let the keys jingle as he slowly descended the stairs, as if freedom itself chimed for the captives. The faces of the captives flushed red with excitement, and brown eyes turned upwards towards the warrior. Before kneeling to free an old woman from her bonds, Toka addressed the hold.
"I am Toka of the Great Hunters," he said in his own tongue, a language he had longed to hear. "My friends have killed the slavers and are coming to treat your wounds. Are any amongst you well enough to speak?"
"I am, great warrior!" came the nasal voice of a young man shackled near the wall. "I am Hohepa, of the Western Forest hapu! I remember you, Toka!"
Toka's attention turned to the speaker, a rosy-cheeked young man with a slender build. His skin sagged from the near starvation conditions of the claustrophobic hold, but Toka recalled how he used to look. Few moko crossed his face, but Toka's subconscious mind recognized the flowing curves of his own iwi. Dozens of questions crossed his mind, from fears to curiosity over what transpired in his absence. The warrior grasped the most immediate, and unlocked his manacles. "Hohepa," Toka addressed the eager youth and handed him a spare key, "help me free the others. I will vouch for your courage, if my name is still remembered."
"Oh, it is," Hohepa replied. "They say you were the one who single-handedly slain Murau of the Bloody Hands, avenged our fallen against the pakeha cult, and saved a widow and her child from a fallen tohunga after you left!"
Deep in his mind, Toka was reassured to hear that Arapeta's victims had made it to safety in Great Hunters territory. He unshackled a mother and her daughter, and saw the teary-eyed woman embrace her skeletal daughter. Toka recognized the moko on their faces as that of another iwi, but did not care. They were all kin now.
"Does peace still reign?" Toka felt his stomach twist slightly, as if his gut already knew the answer.
The boy's somber stare told Toka all he needed to know.
"Did these Anglavians make war upon you?" Toka asked. "I have feared the outsiders would impose themselves on my homeland."
"No," Hohepa replied. "The Bloody Hands marched once they heard of your hapu's destruction, enslaved their neighbors and sold them for weapons. But you've returned to save us, right?"
Toka muttered to himself, cursing the dark and wretched forces that toyed with all of them. While he had left to protect his people from Matarere's machinations, outside forces of a different type had encroached upon Ipukarea. The warrior ruminated to himself as he wordlessly unlocked the shackles on his people, fearing Hohepa would continue his line of questioning.
"You didn't answer me," Hohepa said, shifting back and forth impatiently. "Where did you go?"
"I sought help," Toka answered. "And I went alone, as not to lead enemies home."
"Sorry if I offended you, mighty one." Hohepa bowed his head. "I failed as a warrior to protect our people during a Bloody Hands ambush, though I took some down."
"You are still a child," Toka replied. "But if you wish to be a warrior, listen to my advice."
Hohepa nodded vigorously before turning his attentions back to the prisoners. Locke descended into the hold with his medical supplies in hand and a pleasant grin on his face. "This is Lucius Locke," Toka said, introducing his friend. "He has traveled a long way to help us, so honor him as you would me."
The prisoners slowly and curiously reached towards the brown-coated doctor and Toka, staring with wide wistful eyes. An old man leapt up with the vigor of a teenager, held back due to the chain around his ankles.
"Patience, friends," Locke said. "I will start with the most injured amongst you."
Locke set down his black bag of medicines and surgical tools, and began treating the tender leg of an old man, still scarred from his bonds. Toka returned to releasing the prisoners, as Hohepa started on a row behind him. There was an awkward silence for a few seconds before Toka began speaking.
"Who is the rangatira of the Bloody Hands?" Toka asked.
"He is known as Ngārara, for the foreign war-dog he brings into battle and the dog-hide coat he wears." Hohepa shuddered. "He is the son of Murau, and continued where his father left off."
"Do any still stand against him?" Toka shuddered as his imagination painted a blood-rimmed gallery of atrocities.
"The Western Forest hapu stands, due to their guns and cunning," Hohepa continued. "And they are protecting refugees of other iwis."
Toka sighed to himself. He felt the creeping influence of Matarere on the edge of his mind, a cold and alien awareness that whimsically observed his own. His mind began to turn as he considered options. He saw Locke applying a tourniquet on an arm, and an idea crossed him.
"Do you know where the Anglavians conduct their business?" Toka asked.
Hohepa nodded. "A small trading post along the coast," he said. "What are you planning, master warrior?"
"They are not expecting an attack from the sea." A long grin crossed Toka's face. "If we can take the outpost, then we can seize the weapons and ambush the Bloody Hands when they come bearing slaves."
"Clever." Hohepa smiled. "Just as the stories say!"
"What else do they say?" Toka asked, curiosity dancing through his mind.
"They say you smashed through a dozen fierce warriors to face Murau in single combat, and then felled him in a single blow as his men quit the field," Hohepa exclaimed. "Is that true?"
"No," Toka replied. "I was simply fortunate."
"That's it?" The young man stared up eyes widened in disappointment. "Nothing else?"
"Combat is more than personal glory," Toka replied, as he unlocked the warrior. "It is knowing when not to fight, and how to face the enemy on your terms."
Hohepa nodded vigorously, his face lighting up as he absorbed the words of his senior. Toka and the excited youth finished freeing the captives, as the crew of the Harbinger brought down rations for the starving victims. A lean woman with sun-kissed skin and coal black hair embraced Toka, who stood nonchalantly.
"Thank you, oh great one!" she said. "You saved my life!"
She leaned forward to kiss him as something shifted in Toka's vision. Matarere's presence slid through Toka's mind like an oily fluid, making his hair stand on end as the woman leaned forwards. Her face melted into a skull-like visage as Toka moved his head backwards as the chill touch of oblivion caressed his hand with a bony finger.
"You never told them about our arrangement, Toka," the Harbinger taunted. "But you told your shipmates. Which matters more to you?"
No sooner did he shift his head backwards than the woman's face returned to his eyes, a confused expression on it.
"There still are more to save," Toka replied, walking away from the woman as he headed upstairs. "Excuse me, but I must plan."
Spots danced before Toka's vision as his eyes adjusted to the sun. He crossed the gangplank back to the Harbinger, only to be stopped by Captain Renault. The Bordeaux pirate whistled at Toka, beckoning the warrior over. The Captain leaned against the mainmast, cupping his hand over his eyes as he surveyed the shoreline.
"Do you know where we can set them off safely, Toka?" the Captain asked. "We cannot carry all of them for much longer."
"I know a friendly village nearby," Toka answered. "But I have a favor to ask of you."
Toka explained of the Anglavian slaver outpost nearby, and his plans to ambush it. Renault's face reddened with excitement as his eyes widened. Renault whistled to Rafiki, who walked across the gangplank with scavenged weapons under his arms. The first mate sat down the arms on deck before saluting the Captain.
"Toka says there is a slaver outpost up the coast, full of weapons and supplies for us to plunder," Renault said. "Ready the crew for battle."
"Oi, them Graycoats'll have at least half a company of marines there," Erin interrupted from the helm. "They ain't no pushovers like the slavers were."
"We shall have help," Toka turned to see a Hohepa leading a group of captives across the gangplank. "I have asked Hohepa assemble any who desire utu."
"We have plenty of spare arms." Rafiki tossed a musket to Hohepa, who examined it with glee. "But the marines have the best."
"Weapons are no substitute for cunning," Toka replied. "I look forward to removing those wretches from my land."
"Hello, great warrior." Hohepa approached Toka with eyes downcast and his musket pointed at the ground. "I have found many volunteers eager for justice."
"Do you know how to use that?" Toka picked up the musket. "This battle will be fierce, and our pakeha foes are feared across the world."
"This is an Anglavian Blue Betsy flintlock musket," Hohepa cocked the hammer back and pulled the trigger, snapping the flint onto the empty pan. "It must be divine irony that it will now be used against its original owners."
"Or simply irony," Toka added. "I would rather not think of the divine before battle."
"Then what would you think of?" Hohepa asked as he leaned against the weapon, which was slightly taller than him.
"Home," Toka said, "and all who are depending on us."
Hohepa nodded as a sailor walked towards the mainmast of the Harbingerwith the Anglavian flag. "We raise their flag," Renault explained. "So they will not suspect us until it is too late."
"Great warrior," Hohepa dropped to one knee. The men and women behind him did likewise, prostrating themselves before the warrior. "We will await your orders."
"Then stand on your feet," Toka replied as he headed towards his bunk. "You shall address me by my name only, is that clear?"
Hohepa leapt to his feet as if he were a coiled spring, and nodded. The others followed his lead, standing like statues on the deck of the ship. After a quick glance backwards, Toka vanished into his quarters to make his own preparations for the coming battle. His mismatched brace of pistols was oiled and reloaded. His sword was cleaned before vanishing back into the sheath. His mere was polished and slipped into his the depths of his coat pocket, while he tightened the rope on his hoeroa. He set out his dictionary and a letter instructing the others to publish it if he fell in battle. He imagined the other sailors had their own rites before a fight, religious or not. The rocking of the ship and lapping of the waves had become a calmative sonata that cleared the warrior's mind.
An impatient pounding on the door spoiled the serene atmosphere of the bunk as Toka turned to see Hohepa standing in the doorframe behind him. The young warrior's face was reddened and his limbs were restive and jittery. The insecure youth clasped the musket in a death-grip, clutching it like a sobbing lover. In the dim light of the hold, Toka saw the youth approach him on his spindly legs, still bearing scars from the slave ship.
"The others said you were here." Hohepa leaned against the wall. "Do you have any advice to me for the battle?"
"Stay alive," Toka replied. "Run if things go badly."
"Run - like a coward?" Hohepa slammed the butt of the musket against the ground. "Why would you say such a thing?"
"Sometimes the prey has the advantage," Toka explained. "There is nothing cowardly in fleeing to fight another day. How do you think our iwi came to be known as the Great Hunters?"
"Because we killed all who opposed us?" Hohepa shrugged and raised the weapon in front of him and his shoulders slide backwards, a defensive gesture.
"A hunting party is greater than one man," Toka continued. "The beast may be stronger and faster individually, but we work together to slay it."
Hohepa nodded. "But isn't the weakest man a burden on the others?"
"A good leader can compensate for others' failures," Toka said. "But at the same time, he relies on others for his strength."
"I think I understand." Hohepa slowly nodded, his gaze shifting towards the weapons laid out on the table. "You carry all of those?"
"Some of the crew carry even more," Toka replied. "But they have served me well."
"Which is your favorite?" Hohepa asked.
"Whichever works," Toka said. "Now tell me how did you were really captured."
A fearful expression crossed Hohepa's face as color flushed from it. The young man's jaw dropped, and the musket shook in his quivering hands. The skittish teenager's eyes welled up, as if Toka's silent stare were burning through him.
"Were you alone?" Toka's eyes glared down upon the young man. "I saw no other warriors of ours on that ship."
"I was just a runner," Hohepa sobbed, and Toka handed him a cloth from his desk. "My scouting party saw a Bloody Hands war-band, and they sent me to warn to our pa."
"And you were caught," Toka said. "But what of the others?"
"I don't know their fates." Hohepa shook his head. "But I saw none of them in chains at the outpost."
"Come," Toka said, as he rummaged through a desk drawer. "Here is my pride and joy."
Toka pulled the dictionary from his desk and handed it to Hohepa. The youth thumbed through the pages, bewildered and puzzled by the strings of characters marching across the page. He nervously lifted pages, stopping only to momentarily gaze up the sparse illustrations. Hohepa set the book down as tears vanished from his face entirely.
"What is it?" he asked.
"A guide to our language and traditions," Toka explained. "In the pakeha language."
"Interesting," Hohepa asked. "You wrote this?"
"With help," Toka cared not to elaborate. "I hope to win allies with it."
"Clever." Hohepa set the book down carefully. "I am glad you are our side."
"Thank you." Toka bowed his head. "Now, I can think of two ways you can help me tomorrow. Would you like to do what you are best at, or see how I fight?"
"See how you fight, of course!" the youth responded.
Toka sighed to himself, but realized this plan put him in less danger. Hohepa listened intently as Toka explained his strategy.
By the time the youth left, night had descended on the ship. The rescued captives rested on the floor of the lower deck, forming an expansive human carpet across the cargo deck of the ship. While the smell was better than the putrid hold of the slave ship, Toka awoke desiring the fresh air above decks.
As he navigated by lantern lights, Toka saw many of the captives resting comfortably on each other, pressed against the bodies of loved ones. The warrior tiptoed over a sleeping man before accidentally stepping on a snoring woman's arm. She grumbled and turned over on her side, as Toka continued up onto the deck. As the stairs creaked beneath him, a baby started crying somewhere below. He ignored it as his lungs filled with the refreshing, salty air blowing over the sea.
"Excited for tomorra, mate?" Erin's voice came from behind him. Toka turned to see her in a white silk nightgown, an outfit he had not seen before. "It be a good fight for once."
"I will deliver what is due," Toka said. "Nothing more, nothing less."
"Then what?" Erin leaned against the mainmast, her clothing clinging to the porcelain skin underneath. "Ye be leavin' us? Be a pity if ya do. Ain't many gentlemen aboard."
"No," Toka replied as he stared over the darkened sea. The stars faded into the distant horizon, as if they traveled across the great void above. "But I fear for you."
"Harbinger?" Erin ran her hand across his shoulder. "Ar, he be a nasty trickster."
"There are other dangers," Toka said as unwanted memories flooded into his head like a torrent of bile. "Other dark gods, enemy ships, strange creatures."
"Ye ain't alone." Erin slapped Toka on the back. "Yer folk ain' the only ones the Graycoats stepped on."
"Oh?" Toka asked.
"Yep," Erin said. "The Emerald Highlands were once proud an' free, till the Graycoats swallowed 'em up."
"I am sorry to hear that." Toka bowed his head.
"Ye and Rafiki may have seen yer people in chains." Erin looked out over the waves. "But I've seen mine under their boot."
"That is horrible," Toka said. "I hope neither fate awaits Ipukarea."
"Aye, matey," Erin added. "Just means I'll do me best to help ye out. Ye be part of our crew, Harbinger or not."
"I wish I could dismiss Matarere so easily," Toka sighed. "But thank you, my friend."
"Jus' take care o' that kid, Toka," Erin said as she walked away. "He looks up ta' ye."
Erin vanished below decks as Toka saw a familiar pair of eyes glaring up at him from beneath the deck hatch. Hohepa's head quickly ducked down as the warrior approached, but Toka calmly looked down at the nervous youth.
"Get to sleep." Toka looked at the youth. "Tomorrow will be a bloody day."
"I wish I could speak their tongue as fluently as you," Hohepa said. "Will you teach me?"
"Get to sleep and I'll think about it," Toka responded, before letting out a yawn. "Good night, Hohepa."
Toka descended to his bunk, deftly weaving through the mess of slumbering bodies on the floor. Above him, there was a flurry of footsteps on deck and then silence. Oblivion took him, and did not relinquish its grasp until dawn.
Toka's senses catapulted him to awareness in the azure hours before sunrise. The ship was rocking but not moving, likely anchored in the coastal shallows. Toka gathered his weapons and walked out into the mess. The freed captives dined alongside the crew, devouring bowls of gruel textured like bird droppings. Rafiki and Locke poured gruel into bowls as a stream of hands grasped like ravenous zombies. The seats were already filled, so Toka stood in a corner as he received his portion. As he poured the slop into his mouth, Toka's limbs jittered with anticipation of the coming battle. The warrior finished his meal as fast as he could inhale his food, and left the empty dishes for the crew to clean. He stepped onto the deck, as Renault spied the nearby shore with his telescope. Hohepa stood by his side, his musket freshly cleaned and polished.
"Oui, Toka." Renault handed the spyglass to the warrior. "What do you think?"
Toka stared out across the waters, and saw the Anglavian outpost. Ramshackle thatched huts of dried mud and rotting timbers were encased by a palisade of jagged timbers and stone walls. Unlike the makeshift fortress of the Ebon Tide, the Anglavian outpost was dominated by rectangular and militaristic precision in its structures. Above the center of the fort flew the colors of Anglavia, insulting hoisted above the soil of his homeland. A pier connected a wooden gate to a nearby beach, protruding out over the nearby beach. Beyond the fortress were rolling hills, with only a narrow path between them.
"I think it needs to burn," Hohepa wagged his tongue at the distant colony.
"I concur," Toka added. "But first, we must free any captives within."
"Oui, they have a strong position," Renault said. "But we have advantages of our own."
"Yes?" Toka asked.
"Their greed," Renault said. "Remember my idea, non? I pose as a customer, and you are my interpreter."
"Yes." Toka nodded, handing the telescope to the teenager. "Hohepa, remember your role?"
The teenager eagerly nodded. "I'll do my best!"
"Prepare the launch!" Renault pulled out a firearm from his coat, resembling a blunderbuss with a cup-shaped spigot over the muzzle. "This expensive flare gun had best be worth it."
Toka followed the foppish officer towards the rowboat as other sailors piled into it. It was almost completely emptied after its most recent trip, and Toka sat near the center. His heart raced as the launch was lowered into the drink below. As they rowed away, Hohepa wistfully observed them with the spyglass. Behind them, the Harbinger flew the Anglavian colors, to lull the garrison into a false sense of security. Renault leaned back against the prow of the boat, lifting his legs as Toka and the sailors strained themselves rowing.
"You are enjoying your role too much," Toka muttered.
"And I am very good at it, non?" Renault slyly grinned as he crossed his legs. "Now, tell me when we arrive."
The boat rowed to the end of the pier as the wooden gates of the fortress cautiously opened. A pair of soldiers in gray greatcoats marched in lockstep out of the fortress with muskets clutched in their hands. A grim-faced officer with a chest full of metals and a hawkish nose strode out with a square of infantry surrounding him, never flinching in their gazes.
"State your business, or we will open fire," a blue eyed officer with half the medals of his obvious superior stated. He held a strange gun in his hands: a multi-barreled weapon that looked like it would release a volley of rounds. The younger officer shifted his stance as he handled the unwieldy weapon. Toka imagined it was overcompensation for something else.
"Bonjour!" Renault stepped out of the boat, and pulled out a folding paper fan. He fluttered it back and forth, and looked amongst the soldiers. "I am Pierre Colin, and I am interested in your merchandise!"
"Major Baldwin, can we blast this Bordeaux dandy?" the lower-ranking officer asked.
"No, Captain Thatcher, you may not," Baldwin said. "Now, Mr. Colin, what business are you referring to?"
"Slaves and servants," Renault said. "Some former customers of yours recommended I come to you."
"To whom do you refer?" Baldwin stared at the Captain suspiciously, his hands never far from his double-barreled pistol.
"Richard Whitman from the Taskmistress," Renault replied. "I am considering opening a plantation in these islands, but my father refuses to do business with Anglavians! I, however, find their vessels and crews quite affordable."
"Ah, Whitman's a regular client of mine." Baldwin's demeanor suddenly changed. "But I'm afraid you're just out of luck. Whitman's just purchased my entire stock a mere fortnight ago."
"Drat!" Renault forced his lips into a pout. "I need labor urgently! When will you have new ones?"
"We have arrangements with the local savages," Baldwin said. "They provide us with merchandise, and we provide them with arms. Mutually beneficial, but we have no idea when the next shipment is arriving."
"Curses!" Renault uttered. "My ship requires repairs, so we will be unable to leave for another fortnight. Please let me know if you have a dozen in stock. Whitman said there's a bulk discount, non?"
"Depends," Baldwin said. "Now, anything else I can help you with, Mr. Colin?"
"Yes," Renault said. "My ship requires resupply, if you have any provisions to spare."
"Aye, we can do that," Baldwin said. "We have spares since Whitman cleaned out the merchandise."
"Were all of your men stationed here by your government?" Renault asked.
"Nah." Baldwin shook his head. "These boys all signed on for a piece of our fastest growing market. Pirates sacked the Bordeaux colony, so the Republic's encouraged these private initiatives."
Toka felt his stomach twist a bit as he considered his indirect part in that. Somewhere within the depths of his mind, Matarere laughed in a slick and oily voice.
"So I've heard," Renault said. "Major, may we discuss the supplies?"
"How's this sound?" Baldwin suggested. "My boys'll move the provisions down to yonder beach, and we'll talk business at noon."
"A pleasure doing business, Major," Renault extended his gloved hand. "My crew will be waiting by the beach to assist, and we shall signal to our crew."
A coprophagic grin crossed Baldwin's face, the smug satisfaction of another done deal. "Yes, a pleasure," he waved to his men. The marines groaned and grumbled before vanishing into the fortress. Renault ordered them to row towards the nearby beach, and the crew disembarked. Toka felt his boots sinking into the white sand, recalling the times he stood on his homeland's shores in handmade sandals or bare feet. Toka felt a mild displeasure, distaste for the role which Renault enthusiastically played.
"The fools will carry out the heavy cargo," he chortled to himself. "And we ambush them."
Toka waited as a trickle of soldiers poured forth from the fortress, not unlike a parade of ants. They bore heavy wooden chests and crates with them, unflinchingly marching as Captain Thatcher threatened to lash them for insubordination if they slowed. Renault stood by in a leisurely fashion as more soldiers streamed out of the fortress. Toka counted at least forty men, but estimated the fort could hold far more.
"Ready yourselves," Renault told the sailors. Hands shot towards swords and pistols as the Captain drew his flare gun. Toka felt his blood boil and adrenaline rush as he glanced back towards deck. Hohepa still stood, watching with the spyglass.
Suddenly, a white-hot star shot into the morning sky, burning for a few seconds before vanishing above the sparkling blue above. The Harbinger's cannonade responded, hammering the ground before the fortress like divine retribution. Shrapnel reduced the unlucky marines to quivering and mewling bodies on the ground, as headed shot reduced the fortress walls to splinters.
"Charge!" Toka shouted as he drew his brace of pistols.
A handful of survivors lingered on the beach, with Thatcher frantically barking orders. Even though half a dozen of the marines remained, they rushed to form a firing line with feverish efficiency. Toka broke out into a sprint ahead of the pirates with a fearsome cry, unloading his pistols as caustic gunsmoke enveloped him. One of the marines dropped instantly, but others charged into take their place. Swords reflected the violent discharge of pistols as the pirates closed ranks.
Toka drew his blade as the mad melee swirled around him. A marine with a cutlass charged him, only for Renault's blade to burst through his stomach from the rear. Toka turned to see Thatcher raising the volley gun around as his hand jerked the weapon. Toka twisted as he brought Monster Chopper down as fast as his arms would lead him. The volley gun thundered as it fell to the ground, with Thatcher's arm still holding it. Toka felt a jolt of pain across his leg as a ricochet grazed his shin. Before the first wisps blood hit the ground, he rammed his sword through Thatcher's torso and eviscerated him. As the Captain's disemboweled body fell to the ground, Toka saw the last marine fall before Renault's duckfoot pistol.
"We have them where we want them," Renault looked through the blasted front gates of the fortress, still smoking from the bombardment. His eyes dropped to the ground as he saw blood flowing down Toka's leg. "You are wounded, mon copin."
Toka lifted his pant leg, sighing in relief as he saw only a superficial wound. A sailor handed him a cloth soaked in alcohol, which Toka tied tightly around his leg. Agony shot through his nerves as the makeshift bandage applied pressure. The warrior grunted as he returned to his feet, and bit down on a cartridge to begin reloading his pistols.
"Sacre bleu, this will be a good fireworks show!" Renault launched another flare into the air, directly over the wounded fortress. A momentary silence filled the air, and interrupted only by pirates looting the dead. Cannonfire erupted from the vessel offshore, and shells smashed into the structures still standing. Suddenly, a jet of flame erupted from behind fortress walls, unleashing an acrid stench across the beach. The pirates began cheering, and Toka shouted out in excitement. He could see that, back aboard ship, Hohepa and other warriors were leaping into the shallows and swimming to shore as the sailors followed them. The remaining crew reloaded the Harbinger's guns, while reinforcements stormed towards the beach.
"Oui, there goes the powder magazine," Renault said. "Let us finish this!"
Toka ignored the pain in his shin as he charged into the fortress with a gun in each hand. He shouted at the top of his lungs as adrenaline and anger exploded outwards. A pair of marines took cover behind a broken wall, cautiously sticking their weapons outwards. Toka bounded up onto the pile of rubble and blasted both as soon as they saw him. Their bodies fell limp as wide-eyed stares were plastered on their faces. As Toka looked up, time slowed to an unnatural crawl, far more than more adrenaline.
"Toka, it is time to move," Matarere chided from deep within his brain. "Be more careful."
Toka's senses immediately registered a firing line concealed in an opening between two burning buildings. Baldwin aimed a strange rifle with a cylinder beneath the barrel directly at the warrior, his finger frozen the instant he pulled the trigger. Toka leapt behind the broken wall as musket balls whistled over his head. Toka stuck the tip of his sword upwards, only for another musket ball to whiz by. He saw Baldwin cock back the hammer on his rifle, rotating the cylinder. The flintlock repeating rifle ignited as Toka took cover again, only to see marines charging his position with fixed bayonets. Toka cursed to himself and sprinted away into the cover of a half-burning shed as the Anglavians closed in. Baldwin fired both barrels of his pistol, but the Major's shots slammed into the walls, knocking off burning cinders.
"Lock it and smoke him out!" Major Baldwin shouted. Toka saw a marine brace a broken piece of wood against the door, and begin searching for other openings. Chains and nightmarish, blood-stained devices covered in spines filled the room, indicating it was some kind of torture chamber. While he hoped to never find out how they worked, the warrior had more pressing concerns as smoke filled the room. Soot covered Toka's face and assaulted his lungs as he sought an escape from the mad inferno. Flames climbed the walls as Toka violently coughed, making him think he'd hack up his lungs. With his remaining strength, he kicked open the rear door to the shed, only to find a marine aiming a musket in his face.
Toka yanked the firearm forwards, dragging its owner along with it. The marine gritted his teeth in agony as Toka smashed him in the knee, slamming his foot into the marine's shin. The warrior felt the grip loosen as the musket flew into his hands, and a look of fear on the marine's face as the stock of the weapon crashed into his knee. Toka finished the downed marine with his mere, a move burnt into his muscle memory by years of combat. With a loaded musket now in hand, he charged out to see another marine rushing forwards with a fixed bayonet. The warrior pulled the trigger and a mortal wound blossomed on the marine's chest as red flowed from gray.
"Fall back!" Baldwin's voice echoed through the buildings.
Toka saw the officer fire his repeating rifle until it was emptied and then break into a sprint for the rear exit from the fortress. Toka hurled his hoeroa, aiming for his foe's legs. The Major, however, narrowly dodged the whistling messenger of doom as he sprinted away. Toka cursed to himself, only to see the officer fall dead from an unseen shooter. Hohepa waltzed forwards, leading a group of warriors and pirates behind him. He picked up the Major's repeating rifle as he turned to see Toka.
"Was he an important one?" the youth asked.
"The leader," Toka replied. "Are there any left?"
"Just a few cowards who fled," Hohepa said. "But Renault said they are finished."
Toka surveyed the destruction they had wrought, allowing the true extent to sweep over him like a storm. Dying embers danced across the skeletal remains of the outpost. Bodies of pirates, marines, and native warriors lay across the battlefield, consecrating it as tapu.
Looking up at one of the few things still standing, Toka drew his sword as he approached the wooden flagpole. It leaned slightly to the side, but it still flew foreign colors over his land. He yanked the Anglavian flag down and tossed it to the ground. Each swing of his sword was cathartic, but the final collapse of the flagstaff was pure excitement. One of the pirates snatched the fallen flag from the ground, another trophy for the Harbinger.
After relishing his symbolic gesture, Toka turned his attention back to the others. The pirates were scavenging whatever they could while the warriors cheered and celebrated in their native tongue. Rafiki had armed himself with the fallen Captain's volley gun, while Erin spit on the Major's carcass as she snatched the double-barreled pistol for herself. Locke watched stoically from the ramparts, surveying the birds circling above. Renault, now covered in sweat and blood from battle, fanned himself as he approached the warrior.
"You remember the first team, oui?" he asked.
Toka recalled their strategy. While Toka dozed, Renault had landed a team of native scouts under cover of darkness to call upon the Western Forest hapu for help. Hohepa had unknowingly decided to stay with Toka instead of running for help.
"Have they responded yet?" Toka asked. "Their pa is far from here, so it will take time."
"A scout reported back while we fought," Renault said. "He said the Bloody Hands were marching towards us, with more prisoners. It was hard to miss the signs of our battle."
Toka cursed to himself. He had had more than his fill of battle during the day, but fate had other plans. Over the hills, the warrior heard a howling dog. "How many?"
"Too many," Renault's fatigued face sagged as he cast his eyes downwards. "Any ideas? I am exhausted."
"Send Locke, Rafiki, and some musketeers above the pass." Toka pointed to the path through the hills. "Take the wounded back to the ship, and have the able bodied fighters hold the fort."
"I would suggest the same." A hint of mirth shot across Renault's face in a quick grin. "You are learning from the master, non? This may be useful."
Renault handed Toka the flare gun as the warrior rolled his eyes. Renault went to rally his crew as Hohepa jogged towards him, brandishing his new rifle like a beloved child's toy. "I can load this gun and fire all day!" Hohepa grinned, but Toka did not share his amusement.
"The Bloody Hands approach, with more prisoners," Toka said. "Our scouts have confirmed it."
"Then I await your orders." Hohepa shouldered the weapon. "Tell me, and I will open fire!"
"We must think of the prisoners first," Toka said. "The longer we trap them in this valley, the more time we give our allies to respond."
Hohepa saw Locke and Rafiki leading a party of musketeers up the nearby hills, guarding either side of the pass. His head was cocked sideways in curiosity until Toka drew imaginary lines of fire onto the pass below. A grin crossed Hohepa's face as he recognized the tactic.
"But what of the prisoners?" Hohepa asked. "Not all of them are our iwi, so why save them?"
"Several reasons," Toka replied. "It fosters goodwill with our neighbors, it denies the Bloody Hands captives for trading, and they become reliant on our protection instead of foreign nations."
"You should be rangatira," Hohepa complimented.
"I have no stomach for politics," Toka said. "It is one thing to drive a sword through a man's gut, but another to betray his trust behind his back."
Hohepa nodded in agreement. "Where do you want me?"
"Tell our people to wait behind the fortress walls," Toka ordered. "Ideally, we can terrify them into submission. I will lead a war haka if necessary."
Hohepa darted off as Toka ascended the ramparts himself. Through the fog and mist, he could see the Bloody Hands file through the snaking pass as his gunners awaited his signal. He quickly instructed them on his strategy as the enemy tribe marched towards the smoking husk of the fortress. Toka saw them march down towards the fortress with weapons raised, obviously suspicious. Behind them trailed a column of forlorn captives, broken souls bound and condemned to slavery or death. The largest warriors, however, carried muskets carved like the moko on their faces and shoulders. In the center of the tall warriors was a man who towered a head above them, with a ravenous canine companion gnawing on marrow from a broken bone. His face and bayonet-mounted musket were decorated the most ornately of the war party. With scars and lacerations covering his chest and a dogskin cloak hanging from his shoulders, Toka had little doubt that this was Ngārara.
"I can smell you here!" he shouted. His men lined up behind him. "I can smell your fear!"
Behind him, his soldiers dropped to one knee and began pounding the ground with their fists. Toka felt a chill cross his spine as he recognized their peruperu, their war haka. The rhythmic pounding resounded as the rangatira called out.
"I am Ngārara, ravager of Ipukarea and son of Murau!" he called. "Mightiest of the mighty!"
"We are mighty!" called the line behind him.
"Step out of the shadows, cowards!" Ngārara called. "Or else you shall feed Kararehe!"
The line twirled their muskets about, shifting into a firing position. Ngārara did the same as he advanced. "You may have slain the greedy pakeha," he taunted. "But I do not fear shadows! I rip them apart until my hands are wet with steaming blood!"
"Bloody hands!" the other warriors called.
"Come forth, or I will sacrifice the worthless!" Ngārara taunted. He gestured to his warriors, who brought forward captives and placed knives at their throats. "I have slain my own brother for cowardice, and I will not suffer the pathetic to live!"
Toka climbed on top of the wooden ramparts, with a half dozen warriors behind him. He inhaled as he prepared his own response. Ngārara's gaze locked upon them, a look of contempt for the pitiful few standing before them. Behind him, his warriors pounded the ground and stamped their feet as they built a rhythm of their own.
"I am Toka of the Great Hunters, the stone against the sea!" he called across the hillside. "I felled the mighty Murau in a single blow, and I have traveled beyond the ends of the world!"
Ngārara looked up with his brows furled, curiosity crossing his face.
"We Great Hunters trap our prey where we need to!" he taunted. "As we have done to the slavers, we will do a hundredfold to you!"
Toka drew the flare gun and fired it into the air, signaling the ambush parties to emerge from cover. From the tops of the nearby hills to the fortress battlements, dozens of musket barrels pointed at the Bloody Hands. The noose tightened around their necks, but the Bloody Hands were not idle. Ngārara whistled, and his troops changed formation. The troops rapidly circled themselves, holding captives outwards as shields. He pointed his musket directly at Toka, nonchalant about the weapons trained on him. Hohepa aimed and squeezed the trigger on his rifle, but Toka pushed it downwards.
"If you have honor, come down and face me in single combat!" Ngārara called. "Or my men will slay your kin!"
"Spill the innocent blood, and none of you will leave here alive," Toka called. "Release the captives and you may leave unharmed."
"My cowardly brother feared a Great Hunter with your name." Ngārara took another step forwards, his wolf-like dog barking beyond him. Toka saw his own men step backwards. "But I do not. The Bloody Hands respect only power."
"And you have witnessed it," Toka replied. "Your men are trapped and outnumbered. Only beasts fight to the death. Men reason."
"This is my final argument." Ngārara fired the musket into the air and took another step forward. "I came to trade slaves for arms. Why would I release those who would again make war against me?"
"You will live to fight another day," Toka replied. "Why test my patience?"
"You dress like one of the pakeha," Ngārara mocked. "I would expect better from the one who killed my father."
"And you prostrate yourself and your iwi before them, selling our people for weapons," Toka said. "I know how we may stand against them."
"Good for you." Ngārara braced the tip of his bayonet against the wall. "But I seek utu for my father's death. If fortune favors you, my iwi, captives, and mana are yours. If not, my men and I will leave peacefully."
"Without the captives," Toka said.
"Very well," Ngārara hissed. "No loaded firearms. No men helping us. This is between us."
Toka climbed down from the ladder, but he felt Hohepa tug on his greatcoat. "You're agreeing to this?"
"It will buy us time," Toka said. "If I fall, ensure those prisoners are freed."
"But he's more ferocious than his father!" Hohepa protested.
"If I need you, I will call." Toka descended to the ground, and fired his pistols into the air. His men formed a ring around him, forming a circle between the wooden wall and hillside. Toka drew his sword and exhaled. Ngārara twirled his musket upwards, keeping the bayonet above his shoulders as if it were a taiaha. Toka circled as the warlord narrowed his eyes at his opponent.
"Begin." Toka stood calmly with his sword raised above his head.
Ngārara barreled forwards with a flurry of thrusts, forcing Toka backwards. The warrior brought down the heavy blade as he twisted to the side, for the war-chief to reverse the weapon and strike the butt at his temple. Toka craned his head just out of range as the rival stepped back into a defensive guard. Ngārara kept the bayonet pointed at his foe as both warriors searched for openings.
Toka leaped backwards as he drew his hoeroa, savoring the familiar whistle as it flew through the air. Ngārara's eyes tracked the projectile as it snaked around the muzzle of his musket, only to twist as Toka pulled the line taught. Toka muttered himself as he stumbled backwards, feeling like a giant without balance. Ngārara's jolted towards his stomach, only to penetrate Toka's greatcoat. The rangatira withdrew the weapon as Toka swatted with his mere, narrowly missing his foe's head. Toka stumbled forwards as his foe retreated to a defensive stance.
"Kararehe!" Ngārara's voice boomed, as if it were a mighty cannon. Toka turned to see the hunting dog pounce at him, its jaws opened as the canine projectile shot towards him. The warrior futilely raised his hands to protect himself, but the dog bowled him over. It snapped and snarled as it bit at Toka's hands, drawing streaks of blood down his coat. Ngārara raised his musket to deliver a killing blow, just as Toka whistled.
A rifle shot stopped both combatants, and even the dog momentarily ceased its attacks. The sand next to Toka's head erupted as the bullet burst into fragments.
"Aim higher!" Toka shouted to Hohepa.
The next shot struck true, dropping the dog in the chest. Toka drove his sword to finish the whimpering mutt as Ngārara's face reddened.
"We agreed to no help from other men!" the enemy protested.
"You had the dog," Toka replied. "So I called the boy."
Ngārara's face contorted into a mask of naked rage as his attacks become restless and unfocused. Toka kept retreating as bayonet and butt-strikes rained forwards, allowing his foe to tire himself out. While Toka felt pain flowing through his arms and shin, he pressed on as his own stamina wavered. As Ngārara swung wildly at him, Toka imagined the torments that Matarere promised to inflict upon him for failure. The warrior regained focus and stepped past the arc of the strike. A loud thud momentarily distracted Ngārara, the sound of his musket impacting the wooden fence. It was a split second, but it was all Toka needed. The blade plummeted into Ngārara's neck, partially decapitating the war-chief. Toka continued with his blade until the musket tumbled from his foe's dead hands.
For a while, Toka could scarcely believe the fight had ended. His stamina was drained, and every step felt like an intense labor. The warrior stepped towards the Bloody Hands, away from the motionless body of their rangatira. With the bloody weapon still in hand, he saw the warriors drop to their knees before him. The prisoners did the same as Toka approached the closest one to him, an old man with his face covered in moko and hands bound in thick ropes. Toka dropped his sword, cutting the man's bindings.
"You are free now," he spoke in a half-whispered tone to the captives.
Before freeing the others, he turned to the Bloody Hands warriors. "Do any of you seek utu?" he asked as he extending his hands widely and turned around. "Stand now, or forever let your desires go."
"I do," came a voice from behind Toka.
A man as tall as him stood up, clasping a taiaha in his hands. Toka pointed to a spot on the ground between them, whistled, and a shot rang out. The bullet landed directly in front of the warrior, terminating in an explosion of dust. The massive warrior dropped the weapon and returned to his knees.
"Anyone else?" Toka asked. "We Great Hunters fight together. That is why we can slay the strongest beast. You all fight for me now."
Not a single warrior stood up after that, so Toka returned to his position on the wooden ramparts. Renault clapped vigorously as the warrior ascended the fortifications. Hohepa stood wide-eyed next to him, and then embraced the warrior.
"It is true!" Hohepa shouted. "You are a better warrior than even the stories!"
"No," Toka said. "The stories spread beyond my control, but I fear this day will spawn even more outrageous tales."
"Wait until Hunapo and Iritana hear about this!" Hohepa raised his hands in the air. "What will you do now, great warrior?"
Toka looked out upon the captives, both the ones from the ship and the ones he had just rescued. "I think I will try to rebuild," Toka said. "Many of them have lost their homes, as I have lost mine. We cannot replace the dead, but we can move on with our lives."
"So you are here to stay?" Hohepa asked. "If more pakeha come, we need you and your friends here!"
"I am not sure," Toka said. "There are...complications of which I will tell you and the Western Forest hapu of."
Hohepa's eyes widened and his head tilted, staring silently and curiously at him, before the pirate crew joined him.
"Quite a day, mon ami." Renault looked over the pass before him. "We've leveled a fort, annihilated the slaving operation, and freed the captives."
"You said you have done the same before," Toka noted.
"But not in the same day!" Renault slapped him on the back. "If you do not mind, I would like to stay for a while. I am sure the locals would appreciate me more than the Anglavians or my relatives in Bordeaux."
"Aye!" Erin looked out over the distant land. "We should celebrate! Ar, I'll go and tell th' crew to break out the grog!"
"I cannot complain." Locke nodded stoically. "I would welcome a chance to continue my observations of local flora and fauna. Before that, I would like to more thoroughly treat your wounds."
"You have done your people a great service." Rafiki extended his hand, and Toka felt a mighty grip around his hand. "I am proud to be your friend."
Toka looked over the horizon, and saw a woman approaching on horseback. Hunapo approached on her mount Ahu, with warriors from the Western Forest hapu marching behind her. Toka knew there would be much to tell her and her mother. He would spare no detail of his adventures.
Deep inside his mind, though, churned a feeling of deep-seated unease. Matarere's voice reverberated through his head. "You have only just begun your service," the entity said in a low voice. Toka ignored the being the best he could, and decided to savor the peace as long as possible. The warrior decided he no longer needed to stand alone against the sea.