Rolf knew the day wouldn’t be sunny before he opened his eyes. His cubby under the eaves was heated by the kitchen below, but the outside weather penetrated readily enough. The air felt heavy; it would soon snow again.
He hadn’t slept well. Being sent out on this supposed quest felt more like being thrown out of the family. How was he to know if his father wasn’t just sending him out to die because he’d taken some dislike to him? Rolf had always been out with the sheep. That had been his duty. But this was his duty now, and he must do it. Just as the first Willard had gone when the king said ‘go’, even though it was all the way to Jerusalem.
His older brother always talked about going on a quest and restoring the family fortunes. Now Rolf had a quest. An important one. That sword was important to his father, therefore it was important to the family. And Rolf, only Rolf, could retrieve it. Then he would. Rolf filled his lungs and nodded his head.
He undressed and shook out his tunic and trousers, then put them back on. A triple-plaited fiber cord plus a leather thong circled twice around his waist, more to diminish the load in his pouch than to hold up his pants. He wrapped his feet in wool bands and slipped them into his felt boots. He carried down his lambskin jerkin, capuche, and cloak from the loft.
In the kitchen both Father and Mother stood in front of the heath.
“Now.” His father sat on a stool by the fire.
“Eat your porridge first,” Mother commanded.
The older kitchen girl laded a steaming scoop into the stoneware bowl. Will took it from her, noticing that she hid a smile. At first, he thought it was the honor of him eating from pottery, but as he lifted the bowl he smelled butter. He blew on the hot mix, took a wooden spoon and began to eat without looking at anyone. His morning draught sat on the table in a big stoneware cup. He worked through the enlarged portions watching his mother cut slices of the smoked mutton. She wrapped several in homemade parchment and piled them at the end of the table.
Will kept his mouth full while he examined the mound of provisions from his mother. Hard rolls, chunk cheese dipped in wax, several turnips and a bag of cracked oats. A knife with a blade longer than his forefinger and a metal spoon lay next to a metal needle and a roll of wool thread, a tanned-leather flask, a flint and steel, several tiny, plugged jars, new knit stockings, a linen shirt and a bar of soap. Will laughed as she packed the last items into his shoulder pouch.
“Soap? Do you think I’ll be seeing the king, Mother?”
“No, but you will be representing Willardhof to folks who never heard of us. Provided they be friends, we want them to think well of us.” She handed him the pouch.
“And if they not be friends?”
“For them I’ve included the knife.”
Will sprayed ale across the table. His father and the girls laughed, too. His mother wiped the mess without comment, though her eyes squinted.
“Enough then.” The Willard stood. “As I said yesterday, you’re to find our sword and recover it. If it’s not at Burg Altz as we believe or your bro—or that thief doesn’t have it, follow the sword. Everything depends on the sword. After lambing season, comes the warring. When the king calls Augustus, he’ll call me. I’m too old for fighting. That means you, lad. I don’t want you going out with nothin’ but an ash short staff. Get that sword, then we’ll get a horse. We’ve a right to both.” He turned to his wife. “Mother, I suppose you’ll have words to say over him.”
“Indeed I do. Remember, we’ll be praying for you every day.” His mother had watched Will during his father’s charge. Now she stepped toward him and extended a hand. Will steeled himself to allow her embrace in public, but she set three fingers on his forehead and recited, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
“Right. Bless you, boy,” his father said. “Best be off before it snows.”
Rolf settled his pouch over his shoulder and slipped his capuche over that to cover all when the snow started. He half bowed to his father and stepped through the kitchen door.
Willardhof leaned, leaked, and stank. Sandstone walls connected sagging dwellings and outbuildings more for animal control than defense. The main house rose almost two stories, roofed with aged wooden tiles. The other buildings were single level with sagging moss-covered thatched roofs. Banks of brown and yellow snow ringed the yard. The odor of sheep pervaded everything: sheep wool wax, cooking sheep meat and, worst, sheep droppings. The smell of home.
He selected a staff from those stacked by the sheep gate. Most staffs were grown from sapling to be weapons. Some kept the root ball as a knob at their heavy end. Others had slivers of flint cut into the living tree and grown tight. Some were just straight and long. He carried one every day in the hills.
The boy hefted a heavy shaft, took a practice swing, and set it back. He selected the straight ash rod that he often used. A true quarter staff, made by quartering a young ash trunk, not a coppiced branch. The other shepherds must have left it for him when they departed before dawn with the sheep and dogs. He twirled it, tossed it, caught it, and thumped its heavier end on the hard-packed yard. This would be his staff and rod.
Rolf squared his shoulders, looked toward his parents by the house, nodded toward them and started for the front gate.
He stopped. That direction would take him away from Burg Altz.
Rolf listened, taking in the cows lowing, the clatter of looms, chopping of wood, and the other sounds of home. These things he knew. He did not know the world. If he was to succeed, he’d best at least start with what he knew. He’d go where he knew his way—into the highlands and follow the edge of the Elbe Mountains southward to the Altz valley. Rolf strode toward the sheep gate.
“Where you going?” His father asked.
“To Burg Altz.”
“The road’s that way.” The Willard pointed northwest.
“The Altz valley is that way,” Rolf said, pointing southwest. The thought came that, no, it was more south. Even as he wondered how he knew where Altz was, he adjusted his pointing. Then he nodded toward the sheep gate. “But I’m going this way. Good day, Father.”
“You’re as pig-headed as your—that thief. Go whatever way you want. Just be back with that sword before lambing season!” his father called to his back.
He passed through the gate he’d used for years taking the sheep to and from pasture. For the last time? He turned right and strode along in the shadow of the wall, then allowed his feet to find their own way to the well-trod path up the valley. He didn’t look back. Sent out or thrown out, he was on his way.
Despite the sureness of his pointing, Rolf didn’t know exactly where the Dragon lived or how he’d get the family sword back, but somehow he knew that the Dragon, not his brother, would be the problem. He’d learned, occasionally through frightening experience, how to deal with wolf packs and angry bears; now he would learn to deal with dragons. He smirked at the foolishness of a real dragon at Burg Altz. He twirled his staff.
This early in the year, pasturage was poor. The family herds rotated through a dozen fields of sturdy winter grasses close to Willardhof. Even before he smelled the stench of the sheep, Rolf could locate each herd by the distinctive bell of its lead wether.
If Father begrudged him a companion for the road, Rolf thought it’d be a comfort to have Blackie along. Blackie had been his dog from a pup. He and Rolf made a good team. He wished he’d thought of that last night. Now that the sheep were out, Blackie might be anywhere. Regardless of the futility, Rolf whistled his warbling “come to me” signal for Blackie. He wasn’t surprised when no dog responded. Not that Blackie would have barked. Willard dogs were trained to only bark on command.
Rolf trudged the well-worn path to the high fields. Hundreds of sheep had trampled the snow in broad paths to the higher fields. Given his relatively late start, he’d have to move smartly to reach the high-country lambing pens by the next night. He planned to camp at one of the summer lean-tos along the trail tonight, at the lambing pens tomorrow, then press southward the next day.
During the morning Rolf passed between two herds of Willard sheep. He never saw them but the bells marked Old Ben and David as the lead sheep of each: Ben’s low, melodic bell sounding far to the North and David’s dissonant clank nearby to Rolf’s right.
As Rolf drew water from a pool, he felt a presence. He rose into a defensive crouch and leveled his staff. He heard nothing. He gave a low “come” whistle. A mostly black snout parted the bleached grasses to the south. A wiry spotted dog crept forward, keeping his head close to the ground and his eyes on Rolf.
“Hello, Blackie. Did you hear me?”
The sheep dog stopped and cocked his head, his tongue lolled out the side of his mouth.
“Who you with this morning, boy? Take me to the shepherd.” He gave the matching hand signal. Blackie turned and trotted off. He paused near the heavy grass to assure Rolf followed, then bounded away through undisturbed drifts.
Rolf soon heard again the clank of David’s bell. Three dozen sheep grazed a patch of bleached grass. Tim sat on a downed tree looking in the direction his dog had gone. When he saw Blackie returning with Rolf, his face split into a gap-toothed smile.
“I knowed you was out here somewheres. Ole Blackie were in a state all morning.”
“I’m off on—“ Rolf paused as he realized how ridiculous the word “quest” would sound to the men Rolf had watched sheep with all his life. “The Willard has a job for me. I’d like to take Blackie, if you can spare him.”
“To watch your backside, to say? Why sure. Not much dangerous out these days. I’ll keep a leash on David. This bunch knows me well enough to follow my call. Don’t you worry.”
“Thank you, Tim. You may want to start back early; it’s looking to snow.”
Tim nodded as he looked over his shoulder at the leaden clouds. “This old dog knows all them weather tricks. I’ll get them safely home. How far you going?”
“To Burg Altz.”
Tim’s smile died. “Heard bad things about that place, regardless of what your brother was spoutin’. You ain’t going to join that Dragon feller, too?”
“Not me. I’m supposed to bring Will and our sword back.”
“Owee. Good luck with that. That Will, he had stars in his eyes when he lit out of here.”
“I know. Well, thanks for Blackie. You sure you’ll manage without him?”
“It’ll only be today. We’ll reshuffle the herds tomorrow, so each has a dog. If you’re heading to the high pens, you two better skedaddle.”
“That we are. Thanks again.”
Rolf gave Blackie the “come with me” hand signal and rounded the grazing sheep to intercept the trail higher into the hills. Blackie bobbed his head and followed.
As he waded through the undisturbed snow among the higher fields, Rolf felt better about his quest. Blackie would be better than a human companion; he could see and hear things a man might miss. The country they’d traverse shouldn’t be attempted alone. He, his dog and his staff: a rope of three cords is not easily broken. Still, he couldn’t shake the feelings of rejection.
This was wild country, though the armies of kings and barbarian hordes had traversed it for centuries. Willardhof land stopped short of the Elbe Mountains, but no other fiefdom laid serious claim to these hills either. After noon, Rolf entered less familiar terrain. Still, that evening he unerringly located a shelter used by shepherds during summer. It huddled near a spring which fed the upper Mulde.
Taking Blackie away from the herds was selfish. As much as he hated being alone, the more Rolf considered his quest the less he thought Blackie would help. But he couldn’t bring himself to utter the simple command that would send the dog scampering home.
He set snares overnight to conserve his food. He and Blackie crowded close to the fire he started with his flint and steel.
Before settling to sleep, he banked the fire and stood his staff convenient to reach. He curled under his boiled wool cloak but didn’t fall to sleep. Rolf rose and knelt by the fire.
“Lord God, I’m obeying my father and Mother, but beyond that I don’t know what I’m doing. Please help me find Burg Altz and save my brother and that old sword.” He paused, thinking he should say more, but could not think what. He sighed. “Thank you, Lord Jesus.”
Rolf crawled back under his cloak and slept soundly.
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.