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Tending the Sheep

“I don’t want to fall asleep, Millie.” Jan’s words interrupted her as she started to doze, and she sat up straight, away from the cushions, to keep herself awake. “Would you talk to me?”
“Of course I will, my love. About anything in particular?”
“Would you tell me about when your father died? You’ve never talked much about the past, and I haven’t wanted to cause you pain, but … well, I’d like to hear how it was, and share some of those feelings you’ve kept shut away.”
She checked the crib beside the bed, where little Senlik was sleeping peacefully. There were nights, now and then, when he didn’t wake until morning, and she hoped that this would be one of those times. She was silent for a couple of minutes; it seemed vital that she explain this right. When she had finally thought herself back to that sad and desperate time, she closed her eyes and began to speak.
“It hadn’t been easy, even before that,” she began. “My father was bed-ridden, and I had to help my mother nurse him. I must have been twelve, I suppose. I’d only just noticed how old my parents were, compared to everyone else’s; I don’t know how I’d managed to avoid realising that for so long, because once I’d seen it, it seemed so obvious. But I suppose I didn’t spend much time with people my own age; my parents tended to mix with other older people, whose children were fully grown.
“But I did notice you, when your parents moved to the village. I could hardly avoid it! There weren’t that many boys in our age group, and all the girls were delighted by the arrival of someone new, someone who didn’t remember all the embarrassing things they’d done when they were little. At least, that’s what I thought it was then. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I realised how very attractive you were. I suppose I was just too young to be aware of such things at first.
“Besides, there was so much else on my mind. My father died, you’ll remember, only a few weeks after you came. And that’s when everything changed …”

 

“I can’t stay,” the woman snapped. “I can’t support myself, let alone her.” She jerked her sharp chin towards her daughter, who was standing a few paces away, staring at the floor and wishing she could sink out of sight into the deep straw that littered the barn.
“She’s too young to be apprenticed yet,” Rimond protested. “What is she – thirteen?” He glanced at his wife, who was still carrying the lunch pail she had brought him from home, as if he would rather trust her impression of the girl’s age than believe the mother. Sarla shook her head, and this may have prompted a truthful answer.
“Not yet,” admitted the woman.
Rimond shook his head. “I can’t take her on. Not even if she’s sure she wants to work with animals, as you say; if she was older, I’d need to hear that from her. But she’s too young, ‘specially if you wouldn’t be around. I’ve seen the odd child apprenticed at twelve or thirteen, but only if they can still live at home. Not with no family closer than Carshak. No, I can’t do it. You’ll have to take her with you.”
“I can’t.” There was no sorrow in her voice, only frustration. “My brother’ll take me in – says it’s his duty. But he’ll not take the child. Not when I disobeyed my parents to run off with her father. If you won’t have her, I’ll leave her with the elders. Let them find a home for her. I can’t provide one.”
She turned to leave the barn, and jerked her head to enjoin her daughter to follow. The young girl looked up at Rimond for the first time, and dared to speak before the chance was gone forever. “I helped look after my dad,” she said beseechingly. “I could take care of sick animals, too.” She saw his face soften, and then she almost fell as her mother grabbed and jerked her arm.
“Don’t know what you had to say that for,” her mother grumbled, marching her through the streets. “I told you to stay quiet. Good apprentices don’t speak to their master, not unless he asks them some’at. Looks cheeky.” They walked in silence for a while; the child dared not answer, but she did slow her pace a little, so as not to fall in too cravenly with her mother’s wishes.
“Excuse me! Oh, do wait up a minute!” The plea came from behind them, and they turned to see who was calling them.
It was Rimond’s wife, stumbling after them, her younger daughter balanced on her left hip and the older one half walking, half being carried, at her side. In spite of an impatient exclamation, the woman waited.
“He couldn’t take her on as a full apprentice,” Sarla began breathlessly when she had caught up with them, “But he can see that she’s keen. He does need a couple more youngsters – there aren’t many coming up towards adulthood, and once the guilds and professions take their pick, there’ll barely be enough to work the land. So Rimond won’t get allocated much help, and he’d be glad of a pair of willing hands. But she’ll need feeding and housing, and she couldn’t go in the youth hut – she’s really not old enough to fend for herself. Nor for hard, heavy work, out in all weathers, all day. But if you’re going to give her to the elders anyway, how would it be if I came with you? If the village’ll take responsibility for feeding her, we could put her up, and she could start small. Half a day working with the livestock, and half a day back home with me. She could learn some cooking, and help with the children. And we’d look after her – foster her, even, if the council were willing.”
The girl was surprised to see the mixture of pleading and sympathy on the young woman’s face, and she suddenly realised that she very much wanted the life that was being suggested for her. “We’ll have to ask the elders,” her mother said abruptly. She turned and resumed her progress towards the centre of the village.
Greatly daring, the girl turned to the older of the two children. “Those little legs must be tired, if you’ve run all the way from the barn,” she said. “Would you like a ride?” Without waiting for an answer, she knelt down, presented her back to the child, and reached over her own shoulders to take the little one’s hands. “Go on – jump up, and hold tight with your knees,” she instructed.

 

Jan smiled and squeezed her hand, and this brought her back to the present. She checked the crib again, but Senlik was breathing slowly and evenly, deeply asleep. She could see that Jan was disappointed that she had interrupted her story, so she went on before he had to ask her to continue.
“Well, as you know, I moved in with Rimond and Sarla. It was difficult, at first, to be part of such a noisy household, after the silence I’d grown up with. But difficult in a good way. I was appreciated, and my needs taken into account. I was learning so much; not just about caring for animals, but also how to run a home. And seeing Sarla with those two girls – well, thank the spirits I had her example to teach me, for I’d have hated Senlik to be mothered the way I was.” She was silent for a while, reflecting on that, but when he raised his head and opened his mouth to speak, she hurried on, determined to tell him all of it.
“And then there was you,” she said, her voice soft and tender. “I’d assumed – well, everyone assumed – that you would become Tarlan’s apprentice. You’d have made a good builder, and there really weren’t any other suitable lads in the village. In fact, when he couldn’t have you, Master Tarlan worked alone another year or two, until Sharn was old enough, rather than take someone who didn’t have the aptitude.” She hesitated, not wanting to allow her curiosity to change the conversation, but decided that this of all times was a moment for truthful questions, as well as answers. “Why did you change your mind?” she asked. “Why did you choose working with animals, when everyone said that your parents and Tarlan had decided?”
He smiled up at her. “That was your doing,” he said. “Well, not entirely. I would probably have been quite happy, being a builder. But all those silly girls, giggling and whispering, and not looking me in the eye! You were different. You spoke to me like I was a person. You seemed interested in what I had to say. I wanted to get to know you better, and there you were, living in Rimond’s household and working in the stables and barns in his charge. I knew I could be happy as a shepherd, too. So I applied.”
“Even then?” she asked. “Even then, you knew?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I knew,” he admitted. “I did want to get to know you better, though. Away from those silly girls and their gossip. I liked you. More than that, actually; I thought we might be suited. And we’d not been working together long, before I knew I wanted you.” He shifted position and grimaced. “My leg’s gone to sleep,” he explained, as concern flitted across her face. “It wasn’t that quick for you, was it?”
She smiled ruefully, and tried to hide her fear. “As I said, I was young for my age. It wasn’t until several months later that I realised how I felt about you.”
“Tell me, then,” he urged, “Tell me when you first knew that you wanted to spend your life with me.”
She tucked a stray lock of his hair behind his ear, and then took his hand. “Well, I’m not sure about that. That knowledge came on slowly. But I do remember when I first realised that I wanted more than just to work with you. It was early Spring.” She thought herself back to her younger self – was it really less than four years ago?

 

“Millie!” Jan barely glanced up at her before turning his full attention back to the ewe lying on her side in front of him. “I’m so glad you turned up. She’s birthing, and I need a hand.”
“We can’t deal with that! We’re just apprentices. Hold on – I’ll go and tell Rimond, and he’ll send someone who knows what to do.”
“We don’t have time for that; I think the lamb’s almost here. But she’s tired and anxious – she’s been birthing a while, and it’s her first lamb. It must be very early; she wouldn’t have been sent to spring pasture, outside the village, if they’d thought she was near her time.”
“But I don’t know anything about birthing!” This was almost a wail, and she reddened, embarrassed to have demonstrated her inadequacy to Jan.
“Millie, Millie; don’t fret so!” His words reassured her, until he added, “I need you to be calm, or she’ll sense it; she’s already fearful enough. Listen, how about if I take care of the birthing, and you try to gentle her? She’s a poor young creature, and she’s hurting, and she doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and she’s frightened. You can soothe her, can’t you? I’ve seen you with sick animals before.”
“Yes, I can do that.” Since nursing her father, she had taken care of many wounded and sick creatures, and Jan’s words had given her back her competence. She knelt slowly and carefully by the sheep’s head, but when she reached out her hand, the ewe twisted away. She put her hand back in her lap, and started talking in a soothing, almost monotonous, voice, trying not to wince as shudders rippled through the sheep’s body. “You’re skittish, aren’t you? I don’t blame you. Out in the meadow with the other young’uns, when you need a nice warm barn and an older sheep to reassure you. Stuck here with only us for help. Well, never mind, sweetling; this is your lucky day, after all. I never saw such gentle hands on a shepherd as this Jan has, and he’s kind, too. He’ll see you right, don’t you worry.” The ewe was looking up at her now, and Millie held her gaze as she moved her hand towards the woolly shoulder. This time the sheep did not pull away, so Millie stroked her tentatively, and then more confidently. “There you are. That’s better. Take comfort where it’s offered, that’s my advice; it’s something there’s rarely enough of. And if you can’t have your mum, I promise you that Jan will do his very best for you.”
A bigger tremor suddenly shook the young animal, and she struggled to rise. “Oh, don’t do that! Lie still!”
“It’s all right, Millie. The lamb’s coming. If she wants to stand up – well, she probably knows better than we do.”
“She’s never lambed before!” In spite of her protest, Millie supported the sheep’s attempts to rise.
“Neither have we,” he reminded her dryly.
Millie risked a glance at him, but although his eyes were twinkling at her, his hands were checking the sheep, one feeling her distended belly and the other – well, Millie had no words for what his other hand was doing, but she blushed and looked away. She therefore sensed, rather than saw, his amusement.
The sheep raised her head and arched her back, and then lowered her gaze and rounded her whole body. A few more shudders, and Jan cried, “It’s here! Oh, it’s such a little lamb!”
It lay still on the ground, between its mother’s rear legs, who then turned around and started licking it, gently at first, and then more and more roughly. “She’ll hurt it,” Millie protested.
“I don’t think so.” Jan’s tone was sad and empty. “It’s not moving. I think it was born too soon.”
She stared, uncomprehending, and then keened, “No! Oh, no, no, no! Can’t we do something?”
“I wouldn’t know what. But look!” The sheep was nudging the lamb’s head now, licking its nostrils and forcing open its mouth. “She knows what to do!” The lamb gave a little cough, and then its eyes flew open. “She’s revived it. Oh, well done, sheepie, well done!”
Millie sank down, suddenly unable to support herself, and tears brimmed in her eyes. “Oh, thank the spirits! What now? Should we get them back to the barn? They can’t stay out here!”
“No, but I can’t leave the others. Can you go and get help? Either someone who would carry the ewe back – you could take the lamb, couldn’t you? – or one of the other apprentices, to stay with the flock while you and I take them back.”
“All right. Just give me a minute.” She watched as he ran his hands gently over the lamb, now contentedly suckling, and then over the sheep, both checking and reassuring her. It suddenly occurred to Millie that she would like to feel those tender, competent hands on her own body, and she looked quickly away. She scrambled to her feet. “I’ll be back soon,” she stated without looking at him, and set out at a steady but swift pace for the village.
Nevertheless, when she found Rimond, she asked him not for someone to bring back the sheep, but for someone to take over in the pasture. It would be with Jan that she brought the ewe and lamb home.

 

“That soon?” he asked. “And like that? You hid your feelings well.”
“It wasn’t for me to speak first,” she stated, “And I couldn’t have behaved like those silly girls, giggling and giving themselves away, with no dignity at all.” A thought occurred to her. “Anyway, what about you?” she asked. “I had no idea you’d already settled on me. When did you decide to ask for me?”
“That was tricky,” he admitted. “You were so young – you wouldn’t even have been apprenticed, if you’d had parents to look after you. Mind you, if I’d known the sort of thoughts that were running through your head, maybe I’d have spoken sooner! But I had to convince Rimond and Sarla that I could take care of you. That’s why I waited out my two years. Once I was an assistant shepherd, rather than just an apprentice, I knew the elders would give me space to build a hut for my wife. Especially if Rimond spoke up for me.”
His voice had grown hoarse. She framed his face in her hands, and saw how dry his mouth was. She felt a moment of panic, and wondered if she had been right to tell Passenda to leave them on their own. She tried not to let her fears show as she dipped her clean cloth in the cup of water and let a few drops fall between his lips. He smiled his thanks, and she smiled back at him, making sure that her sorrow did not sully the glow of love in her eyes. She was just casting about for a way to prolong this tender conversation, when he asked, “Was it hard for you, when you found you’d been blessed with a guest? I was so delighted, it didn’t occur to me that you might have worries about having a baby.”
“Oh no, my love. There were no worries. I was so happy. We’d only been married a few months, but already I’d seen what a lovely family we were going to be. So different, we were, you and I, from how my parents were together. It was as if that old life had never existed – as if all the time before I met you was just being a caterpillar, and afterwards, I was a butterfly. Not the same person at all. Not frightened, or sad, or lonely. When I felt the changes – when my breasts felt different, and I sensed myself fuller somehow, and then when Passenda confirmed that I was hosting a guest – there was nothing but joy. And we’d not talked about it, you and I, but somehow I felt sure that you would be happy, too.” The love on his face was overcast by pain, so she gave him a little of the willowbark and henbane mixture that the healer had left for him, and hastened to distract him once again. “I’d finished work early, and I’d been to see Passenda,” she said, “But I couldn’t wait for you to finish your time in the hills and come home. I was that eager to tell you!”

 

It was autumn, but the weather had not yet turned; the days were still bright, although the warmth of the day was less certain and inclined to seep away once the sun had set. She therefore had her cloak slung over her arm; she had a long way to go, and the air would be chilly by the time she returned. She carried some savouries in her basket, and half of the cake she had made that morning, and she added a handful of apples as she skipped through the orchard on her way to the hills south of the village. Rimond would, of course, have sent food up to the shepherds’ hut, but she liked to think that her baking would nonetheless be appreciated, for having been made with love.
In a way, she mused to herself as she started up the rolling downs, it was a shame that the sheep had not yet been brought down to the meadows, where they would spend a cycle or so outdoors before coming in to the barn for the worst of the winter. Jan would have been a great deal closer, and in fact would not have had to stay away from home for days at a time, which was the case when the sheep were so far from the village. But it did mean she could make an occasion of her announcement; Jan would certainly not be expecting her, and they would one day be able to tell their child how special this news had been.
By the time she had climbed the first hills and remembered just how steep they were, she was beginning to wonder if this had been such a good idea. Her previous visits to the summer hut had always begun in the morning, and she had usually been accompanied by another apprentice, to take further provisions to whoever was on duty with the sheep at the time. Starting out towards the end of the afternoon meant that the sun was already low on the horizon, and, although the steep climbs ensured that she was not cold, she could see that it would be fully dark by the time she reached home again, even if she did not stay long with Jan.
She squared her shoulders to give herself courage, and sped up as she descended towards the little pond where the sheep drank. It would not be long now. She allowed her eyes to drift up the hill on the other side of the water, which she would have to climb to reach the shepherd’s hut, and saw Jan, striding down towards her.
She did not know what his business was so low on the hill, whether a sheep was lost or he was fetching water for his own use, but she was delighted; perhaps she could pass on her news and return home sooner than she had feared. She waved and smiled, and walked still faster towards her husband.
“Who sent you?” he asked after welcoming her with a kiss. “There’s food aplenty in the hut. Actually,” he continued, examining the items in her basket one by one, “This isn’t from Rimond, is it?”
She did not know how he could tell, for she had learned to cook from Sarla, and both the savouries and the cake were therefore identical to ones that their employer might have sent. Perhaps they looked as well as tasted better, for having been made with love. “I wanted to bring you something myself,” she answered.
He selected a little ball of cooked vegetables rolled in chopped hazelnuts. “Delicious!” he pronounced. “Are you tired? You must have done nearly a full day’s work, as well as walking up here. Shall we rest here for a bit while we eat some of these lovely snacks?”
“They’re not meant for me!” she protested, as she nevertheless allowed him to steer her to a flat stone and sit her down. “And they’re supposed to last you ‘til you come home.”
“Ah well, in that case we’ll just eat a few, and have the rest on our way.” He smiled at her bewildered expression, and then answered her unspoken question. “I was on my way back. Rimond came up this morning, to check on the flock, and I asked if I could be relieved. I set out as soon as Marind got here.”
“Oh. Why did you do that? Is something wrong? I hadn’t expected you for several days.”
“No, nothing’s wrong. In fact, if I’m right about your reason for coming up here, wearing your best tunic that’s not suited to clambering up hills, and carrying a basket full of treats, I should think everything’s very much all right.” Something suddenly seemed to occur to him, and he added, drawing her into his arms, “Unless you’re not happy about it?”
“Oh, I’m happy. But I wanted it to be a surprise. How did you know? I didn’t even see Passenda ‘til today, and I’m sure I haven’t started to get fat yet.”
He nuzzled her hair, and she could hear his amusement in his voice. “I’d make a pretty poor shepherd, if I couldn’t tell that my ladies were hosting until their bellies revealed it to the whole world!”
“Is that why you were coming home? Because you knew I have a guest? How long have you known?”
He stroked her shoulder, and kissed the top of her head. “I suspected, at least, several days before I came up here. And the last day or two before I left, you were a bit quiet. My guess was, you’d started to wonder. And I thought you’d see the healer to check, or maybe Passenda – I know she’s not finished her training yet, but she’s a woman, so I thought you might prefer to see her. And I didn’t want you to be on your own, and maybe a bit worried about how it was going to be, so I decided to ask Rimond if I could come back to the village early. So I could keep you company, in the evenings at least, while you got used to the idea.”
She lifted her head to look at him. “I am so lucky. You’re such a nice husband.”
He kissed her nose. “Careful, now! You’ll have me getting too big for my boots, else.” He gently moved her sideways, so that she was no longer leaning on him, and then supported her as he rose and drew her upright with him. “We’d best get home, if you’re rested enough. It’s getting colder.” He settled her cloak around her shoulders and did up the clasp. He took her basket, and slipped his free arm around her shoulders. “If we’re quick,” he added, “We’ll be home before it’s properly dark.”
She put her arm around his waist, and snuggled up against him. She felt so comfortable, surrounded by his arm and his loving acceptance, that she would have been quite content if the journey home had lasted forever.

 

“I’m glad you were happy to be hosting Senlik,” he said. “I was worried it was a bit soon: that you should have had more time with me looking after you first. You were so young, and you’d not had an easy time, between your mother’s unloving nature, and then having to work so hard to prove to Rimond that you could keep up with the older apprentices.”
“It wasn’t just that,” she pointed out. “It was like he’d saved me – him and Sarla – by being willing to take me on. I didn’t want him ever to be sorry he’d done that.” She thought about exploring this topic further, but there was pain behind the tenderness in his eyes, and she could not leave her feelings unsaid. After helping him to take some more of the henbane and willowbark that Passenda had made up for him, she confided, “I’ve never wished we hadn’t had Senlik so quick. It always felt entirely right to me.”
“And now?” he asked, his voice sad and harsh.
She cast around for a way of avoiding discussing this further. “Let me give you some water,” she suggested, dipping her cloth in the cup.
He shook his head impatiently. “And now, Millie?” he insisted. “You see, I have to say, now is the first time I’ve regretted being so impulsive. Not that I’m sorry we had him, of course. But it might have been better, not to leave you a child to raise on your own.”
She accepted his insistence, and let the truth console him. “Better to leave me your child, than to leave me on my own,” she said, and could say no more.
The pain on his face eased a little. “He’ll keep you looking to the future, at least. And he’s too young to remember me; you’ll not have his sorrow to deal with.”
“But I’ll make sure he’s proud of you; proud to be your son,” she promised. “In fact, I think I’ll ask the elders if they’ll change his name. I’d like it to remind him that he came from you. Not Jan – not your name – but from Jan, of Jan. Ojan would be a fine name, wouldn’t it? If you agree, that is?”
He smiled, but his eyes were blank. “That’s a lovely idea, Millie. Millie? I think my arms have gone to sleep – I can’t find the strength to lift them and hold you. Would you hold me?”
She lay down beside him, holding him with all her being and stroking his face, his hair, his arm. His eyes were closed now, and hers were weeping. But she kept her voice even as she whispered, “I’m glad no-one else calls me that. Millie will always be just for you.”
She kept her cheek close to his face, to feel the last of his breaths. When she could feel them no more, she would have flung herself over him sobbing, but a little cry stopped her. She turned to the crib, and then turned back to her love. “I’ll bring him up well,” she promised. “And maybe somehow you’ll know.” She picked up their baby, and leaned back into the cushions to feed him. Jan had been right: little Senlik – little Ojan, she reminded herself – would help her find a way to look to the future.

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