Song of the Shepherd

by Terry Knight

Sheets of rain whipped across desolate tussock covered plains as occasional rumbles of thunder echoed through the mountain valleys. A chilling wind bent  the scraggly bushes and rich flowing grasses. Mists swirled and danced over hillocks and rocks, concealing then revealing, the wind moaning through the branches of weather-beaten trees as a lone hooded and cloaked figure made its way through the storm. Stopping for a moment, the weary wanderer raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding rain, his rough woollen cloak torn and buffeted by the wind.  He shoved the shepherd's staff he was carrying into the sodden ground, bracing himself with it against the weather's onslaught.

I can just make it out! Shelter at last! The wanderer shook himself, his weary eyes lighting up with anticipation. Friday, m'boy, you're almost there! Summoning his remaining strength, he pushed himself onwards, his feet slipping and sliding through the muddy ground, splashing through swollen creeks and over slippery rocks as he pressed on. He stumbled over tussock clumps and through the spiny branches of matagouri bushes, the thorns tearing unnoticed at his cloak, never letting up until he found himself in the lee side of a collection of rocks and massive lichen covered boulders. Gasping with relief, the wanderer traced his way along the side of the rock pile until he found a large cave-like opening amid a pile of smaller stones, and with a final burst of energy he pulled himself inside, collapsing wearily onto the cold dry earth floor of the cavern. His staff clattered noisily as it fell against the jagged rock wall.

Made it... oh gods, I made it... For several blissful minutes the wanderer lay panting on the floor of the cave, his body heaving with exertion. Six hours of fighting, then three days of continuous travel... thank the gods that's all over.  After what seemed like hours he managed to pull himself off the ground and sit up, pulling his hood back to reveal the face of an elderly male Border Collie, his black and white fur tinged with grey from his soaked ragged mane to the tips of his floppy ears. He rubbed his eyes wearily, blinking in the dim light and slowly running a black-furred hand over his muzzle and ears, wincing as he found fresh cuts and bruises.

"Looks like you're all in one piece, Friday," he said to himself, slowly stretching his arms out and loosening his cloak. He tried to stand up, but sank back wearily as it rapidly became obvious that he was still too weak. Leaning over to one side, he managed to retrieve the shepherd's crook from where it had fallen, holding it reverently up before him before slowly lowering it beside him. "Though I think you're gettin' a bit too old for this sort of thing... Still, all I need is a rest and I'll be out of here in no time. Back to the station before anyone notices I'm gone." Chuckling to himself, Friday leaned back against the rock and closed his eyes, slowly drifting off to sleep.

Friday woke with a start. Night had fallen, and the storm had got worse, judging by the increased howling of the wind outside. Shivering, he wrapped his still wet cloak tightly around himself, teeth chattering with the cold as he struggled to find a more comfortable position, not daring to lie down. The cold on the mountain plateau could kill anyone if they unwarily fell asleep, he reminded himself, wishing not for the first time that he hadn't lost his tinder-box during the confrontation with Donaldson. But then, that was a small price to pay for preventing that evil man and his army from sweeping down on the small settlements of Fairlie Creek and Albury from his mountain stronghold. If Friday had been unsuccessful in defeating Donaldson's forces - especially the steam powered armoured gun he had somehow managed to secretly build - the entire province of Canterbury may have fallen, and with the town of Christchurch taken if would only have been a matter of time before His Majesty's Government had been swept into the sea.

It didn't actually matter that he had lost his tinder-box. There was nothing dry to light here anyway.

Friday drifted in and out of sleep, his mind filled with images of the confrontation. How he'd stood before Donaldson's cannon, leaping up fifteen feet to where the Irish Setter was rallying his troops. Of staring down an army of thousands of angry prisoners diverted from the Tasmanian penal colony, knocking soldier after soldier out as he fought his way towards their leader, protected by the Mystic Power of the Shepherd as their musket balls struck but vaporized harmlessly in a spray of silver light. Of seizing control of the steam cannon, turning it away from the entrance of the pass, and managing to roll the thing onto its side. And how he had finally used his Shepherd's Staff to puncture the ironclad's boiler, triggering an almighty explosion that had wiped out Donaldson and virtually his entire army - and if it hadn't been for his super speed, Friday as well.

The air in the cave grew colder and colder, and Friday noticed that he was waking less and less frequently. Tired... so tired... he wondered, each breath forming a cloud of steam before him. It didn't seem to be getting lighter outside. Surely dawn can't be too far away? Wish I could afford one of those watches the bosses have... then I'd know. His mind moved sluggishly. It's can't be long now... I don't even feel so cold anymore. Suddenly something clicked in his mind, and Friday tried to move his legs, struggling feebly for several minutes before the full impact of his failure to move hit home.

I'm dying... freezing to death... Friday realized. He no longer felt cold because his body no longer could tell the difference, and his weariness was because the cold was sapping the last vestiges of heat from his battered body. Dying, then... something even the Powers of the Shepherd can't fix. Every thought flowed sluggishly now, and the collie sensed that the end was near. Wish... wish I didn't have to die alone though... my family...

"We are here for you, Brother Shepherd,"  a voice softly whispered. Friday struggled to sit up, trying to find the source of the voice, scrabbling at the floor of the cave with his crook as he struggled in vain. "Who... who's there?" he managed to croak, every word an effort.

"It is us, your Shepherd Brothers and Sisters," the voice gently replied. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, and by now Friday was too weak to do anything more than listen. "You have done well, you have saved the Flock and vanquished their foe, we are honoured by your deeds and words... but now it is time."

Time? For what? Friday wondered, though even in his semi-conscious state he could already guess the answer.

"It is time for you to join us, dear Brother. You have defended the Flock, but now it is time for you to rest. We past Brother and Sister Shepherds welcome you into our hearts and our love. Do not be afraid... it is difficult, we know, but soon you will understand."

My... my family... and...  Friday struggled to think. There was something important, something to do with the staff - My successor! I have no successor - who will learn the ways of the Shepherd now? I have failed... Already he could feel himself slipping away...

"No Brother, you have not failed - you have defeated the last adversary of the Flock with such power that it will be over a hundred years before we are needed again. And when the time comes... a new Shepherd will arise, and we will guide that new Protector. You have done very well, and we are all proud of you."

'Tis good then... Friday agreed. His eyes grew heavier and heavier, and he leaned back against the wall, holding the staff upright in his left hand. I can rest content...

"Rest, dear Brother... and welcome home."

"Welcome home Esmerelda! How was the trip?"

"It was good thanks Mum!" Esmerelda replied, heaving her suitcase from out of the back of her car and dropping it onto the gravel driveway. "It's good to be back out in the country - thanks for putting me up on such short notice!"

"You know there's always room here for you dear," Jeanette replied, grinning happily and clasping her hands together. "Now don't worry about that case love, your father will get it." She whistled sharply. "TOM! Come and give Esmerelda a hand with her bags!"

"Coming dear!" A middle-aged collie bounded out of the front door of the weatherboard cottage, grinning from ear to ear. "Esmerelda! You're looking as beautiful as ever!", he exclaimed, throwing his arms around Esmerelda in a loving embrace. "And how's my little girl?"

"Aw, Dad!" Esmerelda smiled sheepishly, returning her father's embrace. "I left school years ago... I don't think I'm quite so little these days!"

"I know, I know," Tom chuckled, giving his daughter an extra squeeze of affection. "And a lovely lady you are too, we're both very proud of you." His soft dark brown eyes met hers. "You'll always be our little girl to us, not matter what happens."

As Tom turned away and and picked up her suitcase Esmerelda sighed softly to herself. Even after so many years away from home as an independent woman she still felt as though her parents hadn't really let go of her as their child. But then the love that Tom and Jean showed towards her was genuine enough, Esmerelda had to admit, and it wasn't really that bad. Burying her resentment in the back of her mind, Esmerelda retrieved her handbag from the front of the car and after locking it up followed her father into the house.

To Be Continued