Sheep theft was a common crime in the village of Lanata. It was no surprise. Sheep had the double advantage of being valuable and easy to steal, as they hauled themselves away. Most of the thefts were opportunistic. It was not uncommon for one farmer’s lost ewe to turn up in another farmer's flock, with the farmer in question insisting that it had always been theirs. Every season the village headman would be called on to settle a dispute between two farmers who both insisted that the same animal was rightful theirs.
But on the whole, the farmers of Lanata didn’t steal from each other. It was too easy to get caught. Everyone knew which sheep belonged to which farmer, and so all it would take was one angry walk over to your neighbor's to find out if they had your missing lamb.
Which was why the three men hiding in the forest at the top of the hill weren’t from Lanata. They were from Hyurk, a village three valleys and ten days travel away from Lanata, and they were there to steal sheep.
Sheep theft was not without its risks. Farmers obviously took great exception to some stranger walking away with one of their lambs, and wouldn’t hesitate to use deadly force to protect their livestock. People had been killed because a farmer woke up in the middle of the night to take a piss and saw several men sneaking into his barn. Not to mention that many farmers had large dogs to guard their livestock, who also took great exception to a stranger walking off with one of the lambs. And that wasn’t even including the trouble you could get into if you ran into a stubborn ewe or a ram that didn’t feel like cooperating.
Thus, they had spent all day keeping an eye on the village and the goings-on of the sheep farmers. The house on the hill was an easy target. Yes, it was visible from the village proper. But it was a new moon night and more importantly, there was no neighbors who might wake up and raise the alarm. Not to mention that as far as shepherds went, this farmer in particular didn’t seem to pay much attention to his flock. He let them out in the morning, went back inside, and aside from the occasional wander into the pasture, didn’t seem to give them any mind. At night he let the sheep back into the corral outside his house, went back inside and turned off the lights.
Carefully, they crept down out of the forest and closer to the farm.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” George whispered. “My momma said, black sheep are demon sheep. Can’t we find some other sheep to steal?”
“Shut up!” Berthome hissed back. “Do you want him to wake up? Besides, all the other farmers have dogs.”
“He has a point,” Micheal, patted George on the back. “This is the best chance we got. Besides, they have black sheep in Jounta and they aren’t any different from normal sheep.”
George muttered something about how the sheep in Jounta were brown, and not black like this, but otherwise kept his misgivings to himself.
The sheep were watching them as they rounded the barn and crept towards the corral gate. Bertholme reached over and flicked the latch on the gate open and swung it wide. The sheep just stared at him, then turned to look at each other.
“Com’ere sheep,” Bertholme chirped, reaching into his bag to remove a handful of grain. “Com’ere, come on.”
They had stolen whole flocks like this before. All you had to do was to get one moving, and the rest would follow. The sheep continued to glance back between each other and the three men standing outside their coral, before seeming to come to a decision. One of the rams began to move towards the gate, and just like that, the rest of the sheep followed after it.
“That’s it,” Bertholme cooed. “Come on, come on.”
Micheal and George joined up behind the flock. Micheal’s fingers danced through the air as he quickly counted heads, and George had his crook ready to prod any would-be stragglers. But it wasn’t needed, the sheep followed silently after Bertholme as he led them farther and father away from the farm.
As a result, they didn’t see the gate swing closed behind them on its own accord.
The three of them made good time in driving their stolen sheep out of the valley and as far away from Lanata as possible. By the time the sun was rising over the tops of the mountains, they were already well into the next valley and confident they had left any pursuers far behind.
“We shouldn’t have done this,” George finally broke his silence. “These are cursed sheep. My momma always said that black sheep are demon sheep.”
“Not this shit again,” Bertholme groaned. “We’ve just made a good snag! There’s nothing wrong with any of these sheep! We’re not getting rid of them on some stupid…”
“My momma said…!”
“You’re momma is a superstitious old biddy who thinks the sky will fall on her head if she wears red on Sundays!”
“Don’t you say...!”
“Guys!” Micheal’s voice interrupted their argument. “I counted twenty sheep last night when we stole them. How many are you counting?”
The two gave a worried glance and quickly began doing their own counts of the flock.
“Twenty nine,” George replied.
“I got thirty one,” Bertholme added.
“That’s what I got,” Micheal replied. “No, wait.” His finger danced through the air as he did another count. “Now I’m counting thirty three. I swear there was only twenty last night.”
Bertholme snorted. “You miscounted, that’s what happened. It was dark and these are black sheep. You obviously missed a few of them. Don’t see what the problem is anyway, this just means we’ve got more sheep to sell than we thought. Good news far as I say.”
Micheal didn’t say anything, he just gave Bertholme a worried look and went back to counting the sheep.
By afternoon, the three of them stopped on a grassy hillside to take a break and eat some food.
George was silent, but his nervous glances at the sheep grazing around them, and the way he continued to finger his lucky pendant said plainly enough that he didn’t considered the matter dropped.
“I’ve counted again,” Micheal stated as he sat down next to Bertholme. “Three times. There’s now forty of them. Look, you and I both know George’s mom is too superstitious for her own good, but there’s something really weird about these sheep.”
“Oh god, not you too,” Bertholme muttered. “I thought you didn’t believe in that nonsense.”
“Normally I don’t,” Micheal countered. “But I swear to all the spirits that half these ewes didn’t have horns when we first saw them, and… I swear, swear, that those that did have horns don’t have the same type of horns they had when we first nabbed them.”
Bertholme looked out at the sheep grazing peacefully on the hillside. Micheal did kind of have a point. He’d never seen any kind of sheep with horns like that, or such variation in them.
“Look,” he finally said. “Weird sheep or not, either way we’re not keeping them. We just have to get them to the market at Troston and then we’ll be rid of them forever.”
“I suppose,” Micheal conceded, pushing himself to his feet. “I’m going to start rounding the sheep up. By the time you two are done, we should be ready to go.”
Now, to the three sheep thieves, the sheep they had just stolen were merely grazing on the hill in the same way sheep do everywhere. And even if they had a different vantage point, it was unlikely that any of then would have been able to make any sense of the pattern the sheep formed on the hillside. All three of them were illiterate.
The hermit, walking along a path on the other side of the valley, was not illiterate. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief as he read the words written on the hill in grazing sheep.
“THEY HAVE NO IDEA.”
They arrived at the cave just as the sun was starting to set. It was a well known place for shepherds to shelter their flock on their way to market, with sleeping spots worn smooth and a well used fire-pit. The smell of sheep had, of course, seeped into the stones over the generations, but having grown up herding sheep all their life, all three men were used to it. The drove the sheep into the cave, rolled out their sheep skins, lit a fire, and settled in for the night.
All three of them had the worst nightmares they could ever recall having in their lives. George was the first to wake up, his body drenched in sweat and his breath coming in gasps. His eyes snapped open and he stared around the room in brief panic. He had no problem seeing, the glow from hundreds of glowing red eyes lit up the cave nicely.
His scream was heard across the entire valley.
“DEMON SHEEP! DEMON SHEEP!”
Bertholme and Micheal woke up in alarm. There was a frantic scrabbling for their flint and in the confusion Micheal got a torch lit. He held it above his head, lighting up the cave to reveal forty otherwise normal black sheep looking at them.
“Fuck,” Bertholme swore. “You were fucking dreaming you idiot. Fuck, you scared the crap out of me.”
“But, but, I saw them!” George gasped. “They all had glowing red eyes, and fangs. So many fangs…”
“Look,” Micheal butted in. “You had a nightmare. I did too. Just, try and get back to sleep. It’s going to be another long day tomorrow.”
George whined a little, but pulled his sheepskin back over himself and closed his eyes nonetheless.
He didn’t go back to sleep. Nor did Micheal or Bertholme.
Neither did the sheep.
The next morning, the three men ate a quick breakfast of dried fruit and cheese. Though Micheal grumbled all the while that he was sure the cheese had been the source of their nightmares last night. They let the sheep have a quick meal of fresh grass, before once again driving them down to the road.
“Berth,” Micheal said. “There’s fifty of them now. This goddamn flock is growing larger with every step we take. That’s not all, the sheep themselves are getting bigger. That ram over there was no bigger than any other sheep I’ve ever seen. Now it’s the size of a draft horse.”
The ram in question was sharpening it’s horns on the stone fence that lined the road. Sparks were flying from the stone, and looked like the fence was getting more sharpening than the ram’s horns were.
“And I know for sure that that one didn’t have four sets of eyes!”
Said sheep passed by a sapling growing out of the ditch, seized it in its mouth, effortlessly ripped the sapling out of the ground, and began devouring it. Wood, bark, leaves, rootball and all.
“Strange things happen,” Bertholme growled. “My pa had an ewe that gave birth to a lamb with two heads once.”
“Like that one?” Micheal pointed across the way to a sheep grazing along the side of the road.
The sheep immediately raised its head in response to Micheal’s exclamation. The other head kept grazing.
It was a good day for fishing. Old Man Jonas sat himself down on the edge of the bridge and cast his line out into the water of the river. His old dog lay down at his side with a huff, and the two of them began a long lazy day of fishing.
At first, either him nor his dog paid any attention to the sound of the shepherds driving their flock down the road to the bridge. Then the old dog lazily cracked open one eye. Then both eyes popped wide open.
Old Man Jonas nearly fell off the bridge as the dog let out a terrified howl. His head snapped around to see what had sparked the reaction, and he nearly fell off the bridge again. Three men were driving what could only be a flock of the devil’s own sheep down the hill towards the bridge.
“HOLY HELL! IT’S HAPPENING!”
He scrambled to his feet and took of down the road as if he were twenty years younger. His dog followed at his heels, still letting out the same terrified howl.
Micheal stopped and looked around. George was as pale as a sheet, and was holding onto this lucky pendant for dear life.
“Demon sheep. I knew it. We just stole sheep from a demon. These are demon sheep...”
He stared out at the flock of sheep that now surrounded them on all sides. If sheep was really the right thing to call them. Normal sheep did not have horns like these did. Normal sheep did not have glowing red eyes. Sheep in general never had more than one set of eyes or legs.
He snared Bertholme’s elbow with his crook. “Berth…”
“Troston Market!” Bertholme practically snarled. “We just need to get these damn sheep to…”
“BERTH!” Micheal interrupted the rant. “Face it, we’re not going to get these sheep to Troston Market. And even if we do, who in their right mind is going to buy them? Sheep don’t have fangs Berth!”
It was at that moment a hare darted out of a bush on the side of the road and bolted for cover on the other side. One of the sheep opened it’s mouth and it’s tongue shot out, snaring the hare and yanking it back into it’s maw.
The hare’s terrified screams were interrupted by the sound of crunching. All three men fell silent.
“Right,” Micheal declared at last. “George, help me turn these sheep around.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Bertholme protested. “We’re not throwing away two days of hard work…”
“We’re taking these sheep back to wherever it is they came from,” Micheal stated with a tone that broke no argument. “Hell probably.”
In a strange inversion of their journey, by the time they got back to Lanata they once again found themselves driving a flock of twenty mostly-normal sheep. That was a good sign Micheal figured. The entire village stared at them in stunned astonishment as Micheal politely asked a passing farmer if they knew whose sheep these were.
There was no question about that apparently. When they made it up the hill to the small stone house, they found the farming leaning against the doorframe with a look on his face that suggested he had been expecting them.
Upon seeing their first sight of home, the sheep immediately surged passed the three men, and milled around the closed gate to the corral. The gate obligingly lifted its latch and swung open, allowing the sheep to wander back into the corral, whereupon it kindly closed and latched itself behind them.
The farmer watch all of this with a look of smug amusement. “I see you found my sheep. Thank you for bringing them back. Is there anything I can offer you as a reward?”
“Well,” Bertholme pipped up. “We do need…”
George cracked him across the head with his shepherd’s crook.
“You don’t… Ask… Demons… for rewards! Didn’t… Your… Momma… Teach you manners!”