The roc arrived on the island like a bad case of the flu, with little warning and ample cause for headache and nausea.
The shepherdess arrived on the island like an ambitious dancer who didn’t know that her feet were too big for any and all dancing shoes. She had come to apprentice with the kirke, the island witch, almost three years ago to the day.
The kirke had always lived on the island like that tiny spot of mold on the bathroom wall no one ever does anything about. She was glad to have an apprentice wander to her abode to watch over her sheep. It gave her more time for magical things.
The sheep were probably indigenous to the island, but no one was sure. They preferred to keep some mystery about them while remaining largely impartial to the kirke, the shepherdess, and the roc, who came last.
The entire problem was caused by that most recent arrival, who was loudest.
The roc’s wings, unfolded, could easily block out the sun, their white feathers scattered the light like cotton candy clouds. When he glided through the air, a noise like threatening thunder followed in his wake, and his cry, his every clearing of the throat, was thunderclap and lightning striking. Even so, the roc was small for his kind.
His beak, petite for a roc, mixed the darkness of thunderclouds with the gleam of polished obsidian, topped off with the guillotine sharpness that could behead a man, not that the roc had any amount of experience in beheading male specimens of any kind.
The shepherdess, who had come to become a witch but had only ever learned how to herd her master’s sheep, noticed the roc second. His huge shadow fell over her flock, the noise of his flight scattered the sheep, and she stood on her little shepherding hill, jaw dropped. She’d have to gather all the sheep, who had noticed the roc first, back together.
This in and of itself might not have bothered the shepherdess, had they been just normal island sheep. But the sheep had decided, in a less impartial moment, that they wanted to be a kirke’s sheep. Their hair of pale gold was both useful and valuable, and to gather it, the shepherdess ran the sheep through her master’s thorn and thistle garden once a month. On thistle and thorn, the wool would spool itself, and there the shepherdess could collect it for her master.
However, the thorns and thistles remorselessly tried to spool the shepherdess’s skin too, and she had only run the sheep through the garden yesterday. Her arms and legs still itched and stung from the little scratches where the thorns and thistle leaves had snagged. A big bird in the sky that drove the sheep into the thorn and thistle garden meant there was now wool on the thorns and on the thistles again, and she would have to go get it.
“Oh, fuck,” she said when she noticed the roc in the wake of fleeing sheep.
It was a tiny noise, that curse of hers, but the roc still managed to hear. He turned one giant eye downward to look at the angry shepherdess with her scratched up arms. She was staring up at him, her gaze hot enough to boil his blood. He quickly looked away again.
The shepherdess—on her hill—ground her teeth and closed her eyes. Just another run through the garden, she told herself. She walked down the hill. One sheep had decided he would stay with his shepherdess. He was loyal like that. His big sheep eyes looked up at her.
“Baa,” he said.
“Thanks, but you are no help at all.”
He had not intended to be helpful, but felt his shepherdess did not need to know that. He followed her to the garden which was separated from the grazing meadow by a hemlock hedge.
The shepherdess looked at the sheep. “You stay. I’ll have to do it all over again if you follow me trailing your wool.”
“Baaa,” said the sheep, resigned to staying as his shepherdess had commanded.
When she came out of the garden, having shooed any and all sheep out in front of her, the shepherdess’s apron overflowed with goldish wool, and her arms bled from scratch upon barely healed scratch.
Her loyal sheep, now more woolen than his brothers and sister, was waiting for her.
The shepherdess ignored him. She carried her apron full of wool to her master’s house. The door, as was often the case, stood open, wide and invitingly deceptive.
“We have a roc,” said the shepherdess. She dropped her apron on the kirke’s work table.
“I know,” said the kirke. Her hair, luscious, long, and luminous, looked particularly beautiful against the light cream color of her dress.
“What are you going to do about it?” asked the shepherdess.
“Me! Do something about a roc? Why would I?”
“He’s scaring the sheep!”
“Into making more wool? Not a problem.”
The shepherdess ground her teeth. “What if he starts eating them?”
The kirke looked at her would-be apprentice with incredulous eyes. “Child,” she said as if to a child, “my sheep are as magical as that roc. He will think twice before he starts to eat them or didn’t you know there was a cost to eating magical things?”
The shepherdess dabbed at still bubbling cuts with her fingers. “No, I didn’t know that, because you never actually teach me anything!” The shepherdess’s eyes started bubbling also.
“Well, I just taught you something, didn’t I?” Then, the kirke considered. “And I’ll do you one better. Come with me.”
Still angry, but too curious not to, the shepherdess followed her master deeper into the house. It looked like a perfectly ramshackle house from the outside, but once you crossed the threshold, the ramshackle look disappeared. The windows were carven of fine glass, some of it stained and showing images of tales the shepherdess didn’t know the words to, the wooden floor was polished to such smoothness that you could easily slip, and the vaulted ceiling served as an aviary for the kirke’s mechanical gold and silver and bronze birds. Needless to say, the kirke’s house was bigger on the inside.
It also had staircases running through it like hidden arteries, appearing when needed or when they felt like it. The kirke led her apprentice down a set of stairs the latter had never seen before.
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, child, to the bowels of the Earth! If only you could stop asking all these useless questions.”
The shepherdess bit her lip. She wanted to be taught, and weren’t you supposed to ask all manner of questions when you apprenticed? Or was that just a tale her first and fleeting love, the blacksmith’s apprentice girl, had told her? (The shepherdess’s skin still tingled with the touch of her rough hands, and oh, the blacksmith’s girl was quite the kisser.)
The staircase lost its outline to a darkness that flowed thick as the new moon’s skin, and the shepherdess had to run her hand along its winding side to make sure she didn’t tumble into the blackness. The kirke’s footsteps didn’t slow down one bit. She can probably see in the dark, the shepherdess thought.
“Ah, here it is!” The kirke exclaimed soon after the bottom of the stairs spilled out beneath the shepherdess’s feet.
“Here’s what?” she asked.
“Oh, and you don’t have good eyes either, it’s hard keeping count of all the things you’re missing.”
The shepherdess heard her master snap her fingers, and all of a sudden a ball of light was hovering in midair above their heads. Its brightness made the shepherdess squint.
“That,” she said once her eyes focused properly again, “looks like a shepherd’s crook.”
“Yes, child,” said the kirke. “That’s because this is a shepherd’s crook. You will need it to make sure the roc doesn’t eat you.”
“So it doesn’t eat you.”
“I heard you fine! How is that going to help me from getting eaten by a roc! The beast is as huge as a mountain.”
“A medium sized hill at most.” The kirke shrugged.
“It’s just a crook! The beast has a beak and talons!”
“You will be fine. Just wave it like so if you find the roc looks at you peckishly.” The kirke demonstrated. She had the grace of a dancer, there was no doubt about it. All the shepherdess had was undeniably big feet.
The kirke handed the crook to her apprentice after the demonstration. “Now you try,” she said.
Heat rose to the shepherdess’s cheeks. Her hands tightened around the crooked wood. Is she making fun of me? But for all her failings as a teacher, the kirke had never outright laughed about her apprentice, not even when she had come back to the house after she had fallen face first into a gigantic mud puddle on the hunt for a stray sheep.
And so, the shepherdess tried. It wasn’t very good, but it was her best. She did manage not to hit herself in the head with the crook.
“Well,” said the kirke, “on the bright side, you managed not to hit yourself in the head with it. And I think that’ll do. But if you do knock yourself out…let’s just say you best don’t.”
“Fine,” the shepherdess spat. It was cold down wherever they were, and some of her scratches started itching now that they had finally stopped bleeding.
“Back up you go then,” said the kirke, and the shepherdess gladly went up the stairs first, because the tears were finally coming down her cheeks in rivulets.
The kirke watched her leave and gave the old shepherd’s crook a look bearing significant weight. “Make sure you drink some tea before you go out to the sheep again,” she called after her apprentice. And much more silently, “make sure you watch over her, you twisted piece of wood.”
The old shepherd’s crook was certain it had done nothing to earn that animosity. Almost nothing.
The loyal sheep had wandered to the kirke’s ramshackle house in order to wait for his shepherdess. He had grown to like her, even if her hair was short and constantly unkempt. She also wore pants all the time, which no proper shepherdess did; he didn’t mind.
The sheep decided to graze while he waited. Sadly, the grass that grew near the ramshackle house was not the lush and juicy type that grew in the meadow. But being a sheep, he just didn’t know how else to pass the time.
Several mouthfuls of dry herbs later, his shepherdess came out of the kirke’s house. “Baaa!” He said in greeting. “Baa!” He added when he saw that his master had given his shepherdess the crook. While his brothers and sisters contended themselves with being mostly impartial to anything that did not concern grazing, he felt very excited for his shepherdess indeed.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the shepherdess told him, as if he didn’t already know. “Come on, let’s go back and try not to get eaten by that damnably big bird.”
The sheep thought this was ridiculous. No roc that small would ever eat him. But he was happy to play along.
The roc had found a valley in the center of the island. With his less than average size, he fit in the valley quite comfortably. Come to think of it, being as small as he was, island life might just about suit him perfectly. He had seen coconut and banana trees, magicked into producing a constant stream of delicious fruit, and he found that ideal. He might make the wild island squash grow large with the brush of his wings, that should feed him for a fortnight or so. On an island like this, being the smallest of rocs seemed like an advantage rather than an embarrassing reality.
And yet, the roc was not convinced about settling down here. As a roc, his kind were oftentimes a questing hero’s second or third choice of creature to approach. He unfolded his wings and wreathed the air through his feathers. Oh, what a prize one of his feathers would be to a hero gone adventuring! He remembered that blacksmith’s apprentice who had, skillfully, bested him at a game of riddles to win one of his feathers. He wondered where she was now and how her quest had been progressing. If only I could go questing like that blacksmith’s apprentice, he thought. No one would ever laugh about me again if I were a quest-born hero!
On the island, there were certainly no quests. There were other island dwellers though.
The roc decided to visit his new neighbors. He would look at the golden-wooled sheep first, but didn’t expect much of them. Sheep were notoriously boring, even if they had enough magic to grow wings (which these clearly had not).
However, that girl who had glared at him with the brightness of sunburn, she had been interesting. A few flaps of his wings brought him just over the sheep’s meadow.
“There he is again!” his shepherdess told the sheep.
The sheep turned one eye skywards, but the roc didn’t impress him.
His shepherdess disagreed. She clutched the crook and waved it in what could be construed as improvised dance if one were a half a glass from severely drunk and had only the vaguest idea of what improvised dance looked like.
“Go away!” She yelled skywards.
The roc circled once, twice, thrice before he realized he was not welcome. He retreated to somewhere deeper inland.
“Baa,” said the sheep. His brothers and sisters had run once more, though why he didn’t know. There was something very sheepish, he thought, about magical sheep running away from a roc.
“Oh, damnation,” said his shepherdess when she saw. “They all went into the damn garden again.”
The sheep was silent. He bent down toward a patch of juicy clover. He could do nothing about the silliness of other sheep.
“There you go,” said the shepherdess as she dropped another apronful of golden wool on her master’s table.
“Oh, how perfect your timing is,” the kirke said in an attempt to cheer up her apprentice. “I just got an order for shirts for the northern princesses. There’s seven of them, and one has very long arms. This should finish the shirts with wool to spare.” she tried to smile at her apprentice, who looked like a cat fresh from a fight with a bigger, much angrier cat.
“That’s just wonderful,” said the apprentice. “How very wonderful.”
Without waiting for a reply, the apprentice shook out her apron and went back outside.
“That girl,” said the kirke to a bronze bird that had come down to peck at the sparkling wool, “she never does make anything easy on herself. She didn’t even drink her healing tea.”
The bird chirped its brass voice.
“Yes,” the kirke agreed. “She is just like a dancer whose feet are too big. Let’s hope she picks the right shoes soon.”
The sheep tried to look at his shepherdess with inconspicuous curiosity while he grazed. She waved her crook, tested it out in arcs and slashes, and grumbled angrily under her breath.
Night came creeping over the island. The sheep watched his shepherdess’s shadow spill to black, watched her light a lantern she kept in the small hut near her shepherd’s hill. She sliced the lantern light with her crook for a while longer, and the crook certainly seemed to enjoy all the attention it was getting.
“Baaa,” said the sheep.
His shepherdess stopped. “Yeah, you’re right. Time to get some sleep.”
Which it was indeed. The sheep didn’t always snuggle up to his shepherdess, but tonight, the moment she had carried her blankets from the hut to the hill, he found a place next to her where her back was smoothing against his side.
This way, he noticed his shepherdess’s uneasy sleep, fitful and with starting interruptions.
“Big bird…” she mumbled once in her dream, and her fingers closed around the crook.
The sheep liked monotony just a tiny bit less than his brothers and sisters, which was why he was extremely looking forward to the next day.
The next day came in the colors of orange zest and and smashed pomegranates. A warm, salty breeze from the ocean pulled the shepherdess from the wreckage of her feather-spiked dreams.
A noise like thunder from deep inside the island greeted the new day. The shepherdess got up, and her eyes shone with iron purpose.
“If the kirke won’t do anything about that roc,” she told the still sleep-dizzy sheep, “I will. Come along or don’t. I’m going.”
The sheep had come, of course he had. But he wished he hadn’t, there was preciously little grass here, and not a whiff of clover.
“I haven’t seen these pumpkins grow this big, ever,” said the shepherdess.
The sheep just stared at her. Then it tried chewing on one massive pumpkin leaf. “Baa,” he said. Pumpkin was not his thing, gigantic or otherwise.
“I wonder what made them giant pumpkins,” said the shepherdess. She looked back and forth from pumpkin to sheep. The pumpkin had outgrown the sheep. She poked the vegetable with her crook. It seemed an ordinary pumpkin if one disregarded its size. “We should go on,” she said.
“Baa,” said the sheep. Going on and returning to the meadow soon sounded like the perfect plan to him.
The roc’s valley lay centermost in the island’s heart. A long time ago it had been the volcano that made this island, but then, the volcano decided that being a valley was preferable to being a huge, fire spouting pile of rock.
The greenery was lush where the roc hadn’t flattened it.
The shepherdess was low on the ground and tiptoed her way toward the roc, who had his back turned.
The sheep was very dissatisfied with the valley. He tasted the sulfury volcanic ash in everything that grew here, and the walk hadn’t been any fun, at all.
“Baaa!” he said.
“Are you insane!” The shepherdess said. She spun to stare incredulously at the sheep. Then the air in the valley churned as if in a butter pail, and the roc faced her.
“Hello there,” said the roc. His voice carried echoes of thunder and lighting striking, though the vowels flowed softly with the grumble rumble of a cooling thunderstorm in midsummer.
His eyes, huge and dragonish, took in the shepherdess and her sheep. A strange iridescence made them scatter the light they caught to pieces while they remained undeniably luminous.
The shepherdess held her crook out in front of her, hoping that it was magic enough to not get her eaten. His eyes billow with the airyness of sky dragons’ eyes, she thought, even as her arms began to tremble. They sparkle with the tenacity of a river dragon’s stare, and they are so bright.
“Oh,” said the roc, “there’s no need for that. You waved that thing at me before. I think the spell on it is mostly good against lions and bears.” Her eyes are fire; she reminds me of that blacksmith’s apprentice, he thought.
“W-what?” The shepherdess’s grip around the crook tightened, and multiple thoughts crashed wavelike in her head: the kirke had given her a completely useless crook because there were neither bears nor lions on the island, the kirke had, in fact, refused to deal with the roc although she was clearly responsible for dealing with loud invaders, and lastly, the shepherdess realized she would be eaten, and the sheep would have to find his way back to the meadow by himself. Which was unlikely. “P-please don’t eat me…” she pleaded. She wasn’t sure pleading would help much; the roc was one big bird.
The roc kept his beak straight, but his eyes already dilated with the brimming laughter that gathered in his belly. A tear of sweat ran down the shepherdess’s brow along her jaw and dropped to her elbow, which was when the roc laughed out, loud as ice clouds colliding with warm weather, loud as a rocky avalanche.
“Eat you! Why would I eat you?! My squashes are already big enough to feed me for weeks, while you are scrawny! And you are a person, are you not, what civilized creature eats people?”
“W-what? You’re not going to eat me?”
“Not if you climbed into my beak, no.”
“But in the stories…”
“In the stories all the witches eat seafaring men. Do you eat sailors, little witch?”
“N-no. But I’m not a witch. There is only the kirke here.”
The roc’s feathers ruffled slightly. “Oh? Well, I have been mistaken before. Could I offer you a banana?”
“A Ba-Na-Na. They are good.” With his right wing he helpfully gestured to the brown-spotted yellow heap of fruit he had collected for a small dessert.
“Uhm, thank you, I’m fine,” said the shepherdess. Then she realized she still held up the bear and lion deterring crook. She lowered it.
“Did the island witch tell you I eat girls?” The roc asked.
The shepherdess considered this. “Well, she didn’t say you don’t. She complains about me a lot. I think she would like for me to get eaten.”
The roc’s eyes were the still streaming of a frozen waterfall. “I doubt any witch wants her apprentice devoured.”
The shepherdess tried not to meet the roc’s eyes. “I told you, there is only the kirke. All she has me do is watch the sheep.” She gestured at the sheep.
“Baa,” agreed the sheep. He was really getting hungry.
The roc looked from the crook to the shepherdess. “I think your kirke has a strange way of teaching new witches, unless…say, how long have you been here?”
The shepherdess considered this. “Three years today,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the things I have learned about herding sheep, about keeping thorn and thistle gardens and minding hemlock hedges.”
“And the weaving with crooks?”
“You mean the waving of crooks?”
“…whatever you say, Shepherdess,” the roc said. He amended a little chuckle, which came out like hail.
“Well, anyways. I appreciate your offer of…bananas, but you need to leave. Whenever you fly over the flock, you scare the sheep, and when the sheep get scared they run into the thistle and thorn garden, and guess who gets to collect them from there.”
The roc blinked, and that made his eyes look like ice sparkling in spring sun. “This one seems to like me.”
The shepherdess looked at her loyal sheep. “Well. He’s a bit…special, you know. He’s not like the other sheep.”
The roc lowered his head and dug his huge beak through the valley’s grass absentmindedly. He stopped only when he noticed how big the witch girl’s eyes had gotten at such a display of sharpness. “Pardon me,” he said. “It occurs to me that not being like the rest of the flock can help you see things other rocs—other members of said flock—never see. I wouldn’t have come here if I were as big as all the other rocs.”
“Are you telling me you are a little bird?”
The roc tsk-ed. It sounded like a bout of thunder. “You should see my hatching sister. She is almost twice my size.”
The shepherdess scratched her head. “I still need you to leave,” she said.
A shiver ran through the roc’s large wings. It is said, among roc-kind, that once you get your feathers involved in the questing of a hero, some other quest might find you and hit you over the beak in a slicing motion. Perhaps, thought the roc, this is that. Perhaps there was a quest on this island after all.
“Let’s bargain then,” he said to the shepherdess. “I’ll leave, but only if you come with me. Just a year, I ask nothing more than that you keep me company for a year, because some company is really all I wanted when I came here. After one year, I’ll drop you back off at your witch’s door, and if you still want me to leave, I’ll go. What say you, Shepherdess?”
The shepherdess stared at him open-mouthed. She ran her free hand over her apron, tightened her grip on her crook, however useless that might be. “You want me to come with you?”
“For one whole year.”
“Not that long a time, if you think about it.”
The shepherdess did think about it. Few people came to the island, all they ever really wanted was a shirt or pants or mittens woven from the golden wool of the sheep, no one ever asked the kirke to teach them anything. She figured her hopes of becoming a kirke’s apprentice would still be there after a year. “Well, I guess the sheep will still be here,” she said.
“Baaaa!” said the sheep. He hated being left out like this even if technically, he should be impartial.
“Oh well. You can come too I suppose,” said the roc in a rumbling voice.
The shepherdess had managed, after no less than three ungraceful attempts, to climb up the roc’s wing and onto his neck. The sheep had managed the climb on the first try.
The roc’s feathers were a beautiful white, and they were warm and shielding both against the sun and the wind.
Even so, the shepherdess was glad when he landed, minutes later, on the grazing meadow. Predictably, the sheep had vacated the grazing meadow and retreated to the thorn and thistle garden.
However, the kirke was there to watch her apprentice slide down the roc’s neck, who bent as close to the ground as he could. The shepherdess landed in a pitiful tangle of arms and legs.
“Only now do I notice,” said the roc when she had gotten back to her feet, “that your feet seem rather big.”
“Oh, be quiet, Little Bird,” said the shepherdess.
“Well, well.” The kirke clapped her hands, and all the sheep but one came back out of the garden to stand around her. “It seems you will be leaving us.”
“Yes. But only because you didn’t make him go.”
The kirke rolled her eyes. “For the record, I’m glad you forced the child into a bargain. It was a bargain wasn’t it?”
“Surely,” said the roc. He liked the kirke even though he’d never invite her to fly away with him.
“I need to give you back this crook,” said the shepherdess. She walked toward her master with it. “It’s useless.”
“Oh, child,” the kirke said. “That crook is not useless, and it’s yours. Keep it.”
The shepherdess shrugged. “I’ll be on my way then. That sheep wants to come along too.” She pointed at the sheep, who was trying to munch down as much grass as he possibly could.
“Ba,” he said with his mouth full.
“Yes, that one was always and oddball. I daresay he fits in with you.”
“I’m sure we don’t know what you mean at all,” said the roc with more than a subdued twinkle in his snowy eyes.
The shepherdess almost turned to leave when she spun back around to face her master. “I do want to thank you,” she said. “You taught me something.”
That made the kirke smile. She smiled to push away a sheen of wetness that had come, unbidden, to her eyes. “You were always such a difficult student. And all I really managed to teach you is enough bravery to walk up to a giant creature that might kill you, armed with nothing but your wits and a shepherd’s crook. I hope that’s enough.”
“Baa!” said the sheep.
“Yes, and with a sheep at your side,” added the kirke.
The shepherdess held back her own tears. “I just think the island is a bit small for me,” she said. “Like shoes that don’t quite fit, you know.”
There was a small moment in which the two women might have hugged, but it passed.
The shepherdess clambered up the roc’s feathery neck, and this time, it took her only one single, ungraceful try. The sheep joined her swiftly.
“We will see you in a year, kirke,” said the roc, and the shepherdess waved from beneath his plumage. Only her hand and the crook in it could be seen. The sheep’s bleating of good-bye was mostly drowned by the sound of the roc’s wings finding air.
The kirke and her sheep stood and watched the trio fly off. They didn’t have to watch terribly long, for rocs are fast.
“There goes my little witch,” said the kirke to her sheep. One of them nudged her master’s hand. In turn, the kirke patted her. “I wonder what she’ll be once she gets back.”
The sheep, all of them, did wonder too, but they would never admit that. So they glanced up at the sky with one eye only when they were sure no one would see; after all, it would hurt their impartial reputation if they were found out to be partial to their questing shepherdess.
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