That night, having spent all day working on The Pig, Alvez and Pukunati returned to their hut. As he stepped through the doorway Pukunati stopped dead in his tracks.
‘What is it?’ Alvez asked irritably, almost bumping into the boy.
‘Look,’ exclaimed Pukunati pointing to the floor of the hut: as Alvez’s eyes slowly became accustomed to the gloom there, clearly scratched in the bare dusty earth, were two words - ‘help us.’
Alvez turned and looked around the village to see if anyone might be watching and waiting for their reaction as they stepped inside the hut, but everybody seemed to be going about their business as normal.
‘What do you think it means?’ whispered Pukunati.
‘That somebody would like our help?’ suggested Alvez acerbically.
Pukunati chose to ignore the comment, ‘what shall we do?’ he asked earnestly.
‘Nothing,’ replied Alvez simply, stepping into the hut and brushing away the word with his boot. ‘No doubt it is somebody being mischievous. If somebody really wanted our help they would come and speak with us. Forget about it.’
Pukunati looked at the scuffed-up earth on the floor; he wasn’t convinced by Alvez’s explanation but he knew better than to push the point, certainly at the moment, when Alvez was tired and hungry.
The next day labour continued on the boat, which was now only a day or two from being ready to return to sea. No mention was made of the message scratched in the hut the previous evening and soon even Pukunati had pushed the incident to the back of his mind. But, that night, when they once again returned wearily to their accommodation, a further plea awaited them, ‘save them.’
‘This is more than just a mischievous game,’ argued Pukunati, ‘somebody is trying to make contact with us, and they need our help.’
‘And what would you have us do?’ snapped Alvez, ‘we do not know who is leaving these messages so how are we supposed to help them?’
‘You could speak to Chief Tangata,’ Pukunati suggested tentatively.
‘I am sure that if somebody does have a problem then they could speak to the Chief themselves. To not do so, and come running to us, visitors, instead, is disrespectful.’
‘Maybe the Chief is part of the problem?’ Pukunati ventured quietly, ‘and they don’t feel able to talk to him.’
‘The Chief is a good man,’ Alvez replied forcefully, ‘I cannot believe he wants anything but the best for his people. I will hear no more of this, we leave in two days. We do not need silly distractions. We will not get involved.’
‘That’s not your decision,’ Pukunati whispered under his breath.
‘What did you say?’ growled Alvez, his voice laced with menace.
‘I said,’ replied Pukunati struggling to sound more confident, ‘that somebody has asked for our help and we should try and give it to them. There are two of us on the boat…. and you alone should not decide our actions,’ he added, his voice petering out to a whisper.
‘Do not,’ replied Alvez fighting to control his anger, ‘ever mistake our travelling arrangements for a democracy. We are not equal. I am in charge and I decide what we do, where we go and when, and if you do not like that then you are most welcome to remain here.’
In anger and frustration, the boy turned and stormed from the hut.
That night, Alvez lay awake for a long while considering and regretting his outburst. He knew the boy was genuinely concerned by these emotive messages and felt the need to help, but the last thing they needed was to become involved in somebody else’s problems. But then, where would he, Alvez, be now if somebody had not helped him so selflessly in his hour of need?....
…. He was but a small boy when, one day, without warning, renegades came to take his family’s lands, and father and son had been forced to flee for their lives. In a desperate attempt to save his beloved son and the family bloodline his father had put Alvez in the care of his most trusted servants so father and son might meet again when it was safe to do so. The servants fled with the boy to the dark forest but they were tracked and chased down in short time, and it was only the quick thinking of Astan, the blacksmith, that had enabled the boy to steal away and hide in the undergrowth in the chaos that ensued.
Even now, it still gave Alvez an icy chill to remember how he had watched the renegade leader, a young man, tall with yellow hair, gather the servants in a clearing and call out to him in a commanding voice, ‘come out boy, show yourself, we only want to talk.’ Alvez sat tight, hidden amongst the dense bracken, heart racing. Long minutes passed, he heard the men searching, clumsily thrashing their way through the lush green vegetation trying to unearth him. ‘You cannot hide forever. We will find you,’ announced the man scornfully. But the search was haphazard and never threatened to discover him. ‘Come out now, boy!’ the man now demanded, growing anger and menace in his voice, ‘if you do not then I will be forced to exact a severe punishment on those that have helped you: homes will be destroyed, crops burned and wells poisoned. And it will all be your fault if you do not come and talk to me this instant.’ For a long moment all was silent as the renegades halted their search and waited. The boy held his breath, fearful that even the slightest noise or movement might give him away. Suddenly, a frightened female voice cried out, ‘come out boy, he only wants to talk to you,’ and then a second, ‘please, talk to him, save our village.’ The boy screwed his eyes tight shut and covered his ears but he could not block out the servant’s plaintive cries, pleading for him to show himself.
Now, even though a fully grown man, sometimes those desperate cries still came back to haunt Alvez in the dead of night, as did the accompanying guilt: could he have done something? Should he have shown himself? But what could he, a child, have done? To have revealed himself would surely have meant almost certain death. Eventually, as night fell, the men had finally given up their search for him, and Alvez had no way of knowing whether they made good their threats to the village: he had never returned home, nor was he ever reunited with his father, and to this day did not know whether he was alive or dead.
And so, Alvez found himself, a small boy, wandering lost in the forest; and if it had not been for the kindness of the woods folk who had found him, he was not sure he would be here today. They had selflessly helped in his darkest moment; and, in return for his labours, they treated him in as one of their own and taught him their ways. True, theirs was a harsh existence and very different to the cosseted life he had previously led but such hardship became the making of him and set him on the path to the man he had become today….