The Farmer and the Sheepdog

There was once a sheep farmer, getting on in years, who looked over great flocks of sheep. In the past, he’d been able to do well enough for himself, but hard times were upon him and he’d been forced to give up much and move to poorer, more distant pastures. The farmer had been raising sheepdogs since he was a boy, breeding his dogs, training the puppies, and selling most of the pups out to other farmers. The dogs were a joy to him, and he loved them more than anything else. After a hard season, he’d been forced to sell off all but a breeding pair of sheepdogs, who both became stricken by illness and died, leaving the farmer with only a single young pup that had seen a mere few months’ training. The shepherd was desperate and considered giving up and selling his flocks in entirety, but decided to try for one more year with what little he still had. He worked harder than ever to train up his young sheepdog. Using what little magic he knew, he was able to cast illusions of a grown sheepdog to show his little pup what to do. Although the illusion was scarcely enough to spook the sheep, not enough to herd them, the young sheepdog instinctively understood what she was supposed to do and quickly caught on in her training. She would work from dawn until dusk with a bright gleam in her sharp eyes and tongue-lolling grin across her face. With a short word, she would be flying across the fields like a swift, eagerly herding the sheep from one place to another, keeping them together and not letting a single straggler get left behind. She followed each command with dogged obedience and always licked the farmer’s hand when he called her back with a proud “that’ll do.” Before long, she was the best sheepdog the farmer had ever trained. Not only did she excel at what she did, she seemed to understand it all with a deep intuition, to know what her master was going to request before he brought his lips to the whistle. Every evening, the farmer and his dog headed back home together on tired legs. She lay by his feet as he cooked dinner and wagged her tail as they ate together by the fire. At night, he’d fall asleep with his hand in her fur and “good girl” on his lips. After their rest, she’d wake him up bright and early for another day of work. As heavy as the workload was for a single dog, she managed it with zeal and grew better and better at it with each passing day. When it became time for the farmer to shear his flocks, she held the sheep in place and kept the sheared separate from those in line. When a sheep was sick, injured, or ready to lamb, she would paw the farmer’s leg and whine until he asked her to show him what was wrong. One day the two had to guide a flock up onto higher ground, passing alongside a river to do so. When the dog was on one side of the flock, a few sheep started to head towards the river and got dangerously close to the steep riverbank. The farmer blew his whistle urgently and saw the sheepdog race over, but she was too far away to stop them all before they could fall in. Her mouth opened as if to bark, but no noise came out; instead, the sound came from the bushes on the riverbank, startling the sheep and sending them back towards the bulk of the flock until the sheepdog reached them and was able to guide them properly past the danger. “Where’d you learn a little trick like that?” the farmer asked her after they’d gotten the sheep to a safe pasture. She just stared up at him with her shining eyes and doggy grin. The shepherd grinned back and gave her a proud pat on the head. In time, the shepherd began to see success for his farm again. He was able to get his sheepdog a suitor and in time she had a litter of her own. One day, tragedy struck. Without a command, the sheepdog’s ears pricked up and she bolted off. Confused, the farmer went to follow but did not call her back, trusting her judgment. After cresting a hill, he saw a pair of wolves streaking across the fields towards the sheep herd, and his beloved little dog racing towards them. He saw her barking a ways from the predators and heard her voice right in front of the wolves, which paused and wheeled in confusion. She kept charging towards them and stopped casting her bark. The farmer’s whistle was poised just beneath his lips, ready to call her back. The wolves continued towards the sheep, but she fearlessly hurried forward to meet them. The farmer blew on his whistle to call her back, but she either could not hear him over the wolves’ snarling or would not listen. They clashed in a brief fight. The wolves were unnerved by the determination and ferocity of the smaller dog and soon turned away to look for an easier meal. The farmer blew his whistle again and his dog came running back to him at last. “Oh, good girl. That’ll do. That'll do, good girl,” he breathed in relief, hands trembling a little from the shock. “They didn’t get you, did they?” The sheepdog’s shining eyes met his, but he sensed something off in their expression. He froze for a moment and swore, whispering, “they did, didn’t they?” He searched through her black fur and found a pair of deep wounds where the wolves had sunk their teeth into her. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her wounds as best he could before picking her up and hurrying her back to their home. “Good girl, good girl, that’ll do,” he whispered breathlessly as he ran to get her some help. In the end, the sheepdog did not survive her wounds. The heartbroken farmer sobbed and buried her near their home in the fields she’d once loved to work in. A farm cannot stop for even the deepest tragedy, though, so the farmer had to wipe away his tears and continue training her pups on his own. It was slow work training pups that, though eager, had a hard time listening to commands and sitting still. Out of desperation,though, the farmer eventually had to take a couple of them out into the field and try to get them to guide his sheep where they needed to go. He set the young dogs off and blew the whistle to try and direct them. To his surprise, the sheep started moving where they needed to go quickly and neatly. The farmer nearly wept with joy. Looking towards his dogs, he saw the two pups trying to work on either side of the herd, but were clearly not the ones driving the sheep so well. Then he saw a third shape darting across the land, flying like a swift. He blew the whistle and she listened, herding the sheep as she had so many times before. “That’ll do,” he cried, and the sheepdogs ran back to him, led by the familiar figure he thought he’d never see again. She ran up and licked his hand as he gave her a pat on the head. Misty-eyed, he looked at the pups for a moment, and when he looked back, his beloved sheepdog was gone without a trace. It wasn’t the next morning but the day after that in which the same thing happened again: his sheepdog seemed to return to herd the sheep before disappearing once the work was done. Weeks would pass, and she would make appearances every now and then, but little changes began to show up and then accumulate. He noticed with surprise that she never cast a shadow in any of her appearances, and she never seemed to truly see him, always looking behind his head rather than into his eyes. At times, her fur would not blow on a windy day or would whip even when the air was still. She would run where there were no sheep and wouldn’t hear the farmer’s commands, but her pups soon learned to pick up the slack for her. She seemed to grow less and less solid as the weeks passed. Eventually, the farmer could not hear her panting breath or the thump of her paws on the earth as she ran up to him. He could see through her body to the grass beneath and the sheep stopped being spooked by her the way they once had. Eventually, she stopped going up to the farmer when the work seemed to be considered done and instead would pad off to a hilltop where he may have once stood in the past, lick the air, and vanish. Even so, the farmer was glad to see the memory of his beloved sheepdog whenever it appeared, even when the pups became proper sheepdogs of their own and did a fine job herding the sheep as their mother had. One day, the old farmer stood on a hilltop and guided a dog in herding the sheep past the river. When some grew close to the edge, something showed up, little more than a shadow, and gave the sheep enough pause to let the dog reach them in time to herd them to safety. The shadow continued to try and herd the sheep, flickering here and there until the work was done. “That’ll do,” the farmer called to his dogs. The living dog ran up to him, and so did the faithful shadow. This time, she looked up into his eyes as she licked his hand. He could just barely feel her once-wet tongue, had to squint to make out the shape of her grinning face against the ground, but she seemed to truly see him this time, and her eyes shone as they always did so long ago. “Good girl. That’ll do.” He never saw her again. Meet you in the Ruins.