“You there, boy, quite the dog you ‘ave,” said a voice from the tree. The boy with the dirty face looked up and saw a small greenish man looking down at them along his long pointed nose. “And them sheepies look to be sportin’ thick coats.”
The goblin hopped down from the tree and circled the four sheep standing behind the boy.
Two days ago, the boy and the dog had woken up on the floor on the cabin, or what had been a cabin the night before. In the morning light, it was once again a dilapidated hovel, with a caved-in roof and walls threatening to collapse at any second. The rain had stopped and the river they almost drowned in the night before receded until it was nothing more than a small creek.
A note from the old man was pinned to a beam.
“Sorry lads,” it said. “Had to get out here earlier than expected. I thought the rains would last a few days, but they cleared right up in the night. I left you a sack with some provisions, enough to hold you over for a few days. Head west, after three days you should come on a village by the name of Red Leaf. Four of Billiam’s flock washed up in the rains, and he’d be more than pleased if you were to lead them back. There’s a crook for herding, they should just follow you. Keep to the road and build yourselves a fire come night to keep the wolves away.”
A braying caused the boy and the dog to look up. Four sheep stood there, grazing on the wet grass, just as the letter said. The boy with the dirty face slung the sack over his shoulder, twisted his half-broomstick in his belt, took the crook in hand and started west. The dog nipped at the sheep and barked and they soon followed.
The dog was born to shepherd it seemed, and never let any of the sheep stray too far. He’d nip and bark and send them back to the boy if they scuttled off the path. They walked for a day and a half before this goblin hopped down and stopped them.
“Where’d a filthy little bugger like you get sheepies, I wonder,” the goblin said. One eyebrow rose until it almost leapt off his forehead. His mouth stretched out into a pumpkin grin. “Stole ‘em, didn’t ya?”
The boy with the dirty face started to say he was just returning them when the goblin shook his head.
“Don’t ‘ave to make up stories for me, boyo. My life’s exciting enough. Fact is, I’m waiting for my angel ‘aired bride. She’ll be coming up thisa way soon enough.”
The goblin pulled his pipe from a pocket and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. He circled the sheep again, poking their haunches and checking the thickness of their fleece. One sharp fingered hand lifted their chins and he examined their ears and eyes and noses. The sheep bleated softly as he poked and prodded.
“Fine looking sheepies, indeed,” he said. He snapped his fingers together violently.
“You know,” the goblin said. “A kind ‘earted man might offer one of his sheepies as a wedding gift to the ‘andsome stranger he met on the road. Could make the new wife a lovely thick blanket to curl up under. Or a thick sweater for ‘imself. Wives canna keep a man warm all winter, though we’d like ‘em to try.”
The goblin laughed so hard his pipe fell from his mouth. He doubled over and slapped his knee.
The boy with the dirty face stood there and watched. The dog edged closer to the goblin.
“So,” the goblin said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Will you be a gentleman and offer me one of your sheepies, or will I have to take it?”
He started towards the closest sheep. The boy cried out, and the dog jumped between the goblin and the sheep, all snarls and growls and bared teeth. He snapped and almost caught the goblin’s hand.
The goblin turned and scampered up the tree. The dog almost caught his foot as he climbed.
“Fine, I can see you’re no gentleman,” he said, his voice shaky. “Off with the lot of ya. My wifey should be coming along and I don’t want ya upsetting her.”
He tossed a few acorns at their backs as the boy with the dirty face, his dog and the four sheep continued along the road.