Dai pointed to the tussock pocked hillside that veered up sharply from the bottom of the valley. These sheep were a hardy local breed with grey-white fleeces and small curling horns. They moved with agility over the rocky slope, their flock spread out into groups, pairs and singletons.
It was early morning and the report of a new theft had them driving through the wild country that formed the hinterland between Viriconium and the coast.
“The first question I have,” Bryn said, his own gaze firmly on the narrow road ahead as it wound along beside a stream at the bottom of the valley, “is how do you take sheep from a hillside like that? I mean it’s not like they are in a field and you can just wave your arms at them and back up a trailer to the gate. You couldn’t bring something big enough to carry all those along a road like this anyway.”
They were heading out to the small crofting farm which had been the victim of the last sheep rustling incident, in the hope of gaining some insight into who might have known where the flock was when it was stolen.
“Dogs,” Dai said, wondering if he was right. “Or maybe people on quads?”
“At night?” Bryn sounded doubtful. “And over this terrain?” He gestured with one hand to the high-lifting hills on either side.
“Drones, then maybe? Though no one seems to have seen any around that shouldn’t be there, I did the checks. It does make you wonder.”
They reached the main farm buildings after a bumpy journey over a potholed mud and gravel track that led up from the road. Two skinny herding dogs with lolling tongues and high lifted tails followed the woman who owned the croft out of the door of the small cottage, built from local stone. She stayed by the house as Dai and Bryn parked up and got out, the dogs now sitting beside her. For a moment Dai was reminded of Canis and Lupo sitting beside Julia. These dogs had an owner not much taller than Julia was, but maybe a decade older. She stood, back held stiffly straight and chin lifted with an almost defensive pride, brown eyes fierce, her dark blonde hair half hidden under a woolly hat.
Bryn gave her a friendly nod as she looked between them. “You’ll be Hyla Edris, I’m SI Bryn Cartivel. We’re here…”
“About last night?” The woman’s voice sounded taut.
“That’s right. I was hoping you could help me understand a few things about what happened and then we might be able to get your sheep back more easily.”
Hyla Edris shook her head, and Dai was sure he could see an extra brightness of moisture in her eyes.
“No. You won’t be bringing my girls home. They’ll all be dead by now. But the fools that took them have no idea what they did.”
“My girls weren’t bred for eating They were all bred for their wool. Five different rare breeds I had in my flock, from three different provinces. They were worth a lot, lot more than just meat on the hoof.”
“You’ll have insurance for them?”
“Oh, for sure, there is a man due out tomorrow to talk to me about it. Seems there was some problem with my paperwork. But that won’t bring my girls back, will it? And even though the money will help, my business is ruined.”
“You can get more sheep,” Dai said. “Surely even rare ones?”
The woman shook her head as if he was missing the point. Then she gestured towards a recently re-roofed outbuilding. “My business is spinning and weaving. I keep the sheep because I can’t buy in the wool I need. It’s not so simple as you think. But then you lot from Viriconium, you know next to nothing of what life is like for us here in the hill farms. We’re not all inbred yokels chasing round a few sheep, there’s some of us with a bit more going on.”
Dai spread his hands in a gesture of apology. “I promise we will do our best to bring those who took your sheep to justice.”
Which was when she saw the silver band of Citizenship on his finger and her face changed. A quickly hidden mix of fear and anger.
“Roman justice. Killing people for entertainment. That’s not going to help me… dominus.” She made the honorific sound more like an insult.
Bryn cleared his throat.
“I need to ask you a few questions about what happened. Where were the sheep last night?”
The woman drew a tight breath as if to get herself back under control.
“I had them in the low field because I was supposed to have them microchipped today.”
“So it would have been relatively straightforward for someone to steal them? No need to go all over the hills for them?”
“Who would have known they were in that particular field?” Dai asked and almost winced at the ferocity of the look the question earned him.
“Most everyone in the area.”
“Local gossip is that good?”
This time there was more of contempt than anger in her face. She put a hand into the pocket of the long coat she was wearing and pulled out a much folded sheet of paper which she thrust into Dai’s hand. He opened it out noting the Demetae and Cornovii administrative area official logo at the top. It was a notice of compulsory microchipping of all sheep in the district. It included a list of names and dates for all the farms in the locality.
Dai passed the letter to Bryn who read it quickly.
“At least one other farm on this list has had their flock stolen,” he said.
“Now isn’t that just the coincidence.” Hyla Edris sounded bitter.