I open my eyes, looking around at the verdant fields with a smile. Leaning against a large rock with my shepherd’s staff resting against my shoulder, I look out over the flock. Just like always, the sheep were milling about while chewing on the overgrown fields of the hills of southern Bayern. The sun was a brilliant light piercing through the few clouds in the sky, warming my skin. I sigh and stretch my back, a few pleasing pops making my back feel all the better. Walking out towards the edge of the herd, I tap my staff a few times to keep a few errant sheep in the large group, laughing as Hamelin comes running around the side, barking merrily as he gave chase to a lamb.
“Hamelin!” I laugh, running towards the advancing dog, bending down to scoop up the panicked lamb. “You can’t be so rough with the little ones, they aren’t as strong as their parents. You understand?”
Hamelin just sat on his haunches, his pointed ears aimed skyward as he panted, his black fur glistening in the sun while his large tail wagged back and forth. Twice as large as a wolf, Hamelin was a great sheepherding companion. I couldn’t count how many times he’d chased off wolves or bears, running them all the way back to the forest. Thanks to him, I had more than one wolf pelt adorning my bed back home.
“Come on,” I say to Hamelin, patting my leg to get his attention. “It’s time for lunch!”
Hamelin barks twice and bolts forward, running towards the large rock where I kept my satchel, and our food for the day.
Walking leisurely as Hamelin danced around the rock, barking madly, I take a moment to enjoy my life. I’ve been alive for fifteen summers, and if I’m lucky I’ll be alive for another thirty. There were three villages within a day’s ride from my farm so I always had a place to sell wool and meat, as well as herbs and timber gathered from the edges of the forest when I felt brave. Hell, most of my business came from the woodsmen that came and gathered trees for new homes and buildings. I offered a free room in my barn and charged seven silver for breakfast and dinner, two warm meals a day. My brother managed those affairs as he wasn’t old enough to tend to the flock.
Stopping at the rock I reach into the satchel and pull out a chicken leg, freshly cut this morning and cooked in goats’ milk. Grabbing three soft-boiled eggs, I toss them out for Hamelin to catch, one by one. He leaps and snags each one high in the air, twisting to get the delicious egg as quickly as he could. I laugh, clapping my hands each time before digging into my lunch, snapping my fingers and pointing to the flock, silently ordering Hamelin to go and guard the flock while I ate.
He ran off, barking and driving the errant sheep into the flock, moving the entire group down the hill to a fresher grazing area. I watch as the fuzzy creatures shuffle along, bleating to each other in their own method of communication. I’ll have to shear them soon, perhaps in a week or so.
A twig snaps behind me, causing me to look up. One of the woodsmen is standing behind me, his ax held in one hand with the head resting in the grass at his boots. He’s large, which isn’t surprising; he spends his days cutting down and cleaning trees, before loading them onto a cart to be brought to one of the villages. The smell of the forest and sweat radiate from him.
“Good day!” I greet him, to which he responds with a smile, dropping down onto the rock beside me.
He looks out over the flock and Hamelin, who is keeping them in their new spot with expert skill. “Quite a dog you have there,” he comments.
I nod. “He’s one of the best I’ve had. I get them from a neighbor who breeds them for most of the shepherds in the region. Cost me a whole sheep and a dozen eggs, but he was worth it.”
“I can tell,” the woodsmen agrees before turning. “I’ve been rude, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Adrian.”
I give him my name and we shake hands briefly. “So how can I help you, Adrian? Is it room you seek? I offer my barn free of charge for any man who works in the wood, so long as they behave while under my care.”
“No,” he says, looking down at his boots as he clasps his hands together, resting the haft of the ax over his shoulder. “No, it’s not shelter I seek, it’s protection.”
“Protection? I’m afraid I only have a few knives and this old knotty staff. And Hamelin, who as you can imagine is not for sale,” I reply.
He falls silent for a few moments before clearing his throat. “I’d like to purchase three sheep from you. Preferably shorn, if possible.”
That catches me by surprise. I give him a sidelong glance before slowly nodding. “This I can do, but how, pray tell, will three of my sheep offer protection to you?”
“There’s something that stalks the woods at night,” Adrian said, eyes looking off towards the forest on the horizon. “What it is, none of us know. But it leaves effigies made from bloody bones as if warning us not to venture any deeper into the woods. The men fear that it is an evil spirit. I would tie up a sheep each night and leave it at our work site, for three nights. Hopefully, these sacrifices will keep the pagan thing from harming any of my men.”
I let this sink in for a few moments. “Truth be told, Adrian, I have noticed a sheep or two gone missing every once in a while. I always chalk it up to a wolf or three, but my pen is never damaged. It’s as if someone opens it and merely takes the sheep from me. Hamelin is always antsy those days, nervously padding around the pen, growling. When I leave him out at night I often hear him barking. Perhaps we do have a malicious spirit in the forest?”
“Then we would be wise to offer it a sacrifice, wouldn’t we?” Adrian asked.
I shake my head. “I’ll send my brother to one of the villages with some silver to bring a priest out here. First, I have him bless my grounds, then my flock. I’ll give you the three sheep for, say, thirty silver a head. They’re all young and many haven’t even had the chance to bear me any lambs. If it’s a sacrifice, I would prefer to give you something young and strong rather than old and tired. If I were an evil spirit, I would prefer the vigor of youth over the wisdom of age. After all, you can’t eat lessons learned, now can you?”
“What you speak is the truth,” Adrian nods. “I can have the silver to you in a week. We make the trade then?”
“That sounds fair. I’ll even let you select which ones you want when you come over, and I’ll shear them that morning before I move the herd out to eat. You can pick them up once they’ve eaten; a hungry sacrifice won’t do.”
Adrian laughs, slapping me on the back. “No, a hungry sacrifice would whine while being eaten, yes?”
“Of course! And who wants a whiny sacrifice. They must be plump and happy from their last meal, so to speak,” I laugh, errantly tossing the chicken bone over into the now shorter grass. “So it’s a deal then?”
Adrian offers his hand. “By God’s grace, it is!”
I accept his hand and we shake on it. “Now will any of your men need room for the night?” I ask with a smile, earning laughter from the large man.
“Ever the business man, aren’t you?” He laughs.
I shrug. “A man must earn his keep, right? I don’t charge for the rest in the barn, but I offer dinner and breakfast for seven silver.”
Adrian whistles. “That is a fine deal… I have seven men with me. Do you have enough room for us?”
I chuckle. “My barn houses only a horse. The loft can hold sixteen comfortably. I even have woolen blankets so you won’t have to use hay as bedding.”
“Really? That should bring some cheer to the men… where is your farm?” Adrian asks.
I point over the hill, where a small plume of smoke rises lazily into the air. “Over there. My brother is readying dinner for us all as we speak.”
Adrian looks up at the sky. “So early? We have several hours of daylight left.”
I nod. “I used to agree, but the boy is a veritable genius in the kitchen. He’ll make a fine housewife one day!”
Adrian and I share a laugh before he tells me he must return to his men. I wave him away and turn to look at my herd. I whistle to Hamelin, signaling that he should begin herding the flock back towards home. They’ve eaten enough for the day…
Whereas my stomach grumbles… it feels as if I haven’t eaten anything for days, maybe weeks!