by Graham B.
Bringing the livestock to market while contending with the weather.
Olaf pulled his furs close and grabbed the ancient staff, which had been passed down through generations.
Helga appeared from the guest bedroom and eyed him incredulously.
"Are you going out today?" she asked, hands on her hips and head tilted in her look of disapproval.
"Yes, my love," said Olaf. "I must drive the sheep to the market to be sheared, today. I have delayed it too long."
As if to back up Olaf's decision, plaintive bleats sounded from outside.
"My mother read the bones this morning. She says that Thor will send blizzards over the mountains!" said Helga. "You won't make it back!"
"I will be just fine, woman!" grunted Olaf. "Your old fool of a mother can no better sense the weather than my leg."
Right on cue, Olaf's battle-scarred left leg began to throb, and he grunted again.
"You see," said Helga. "Your leg agrees!"
"Haven't I sacrificed to Thor, and honored him? I have no time for silly omens. Thor will protect me from the elements."
Olaf stomped out the door. He eyed the mists roiling over the mountains to the East. Seeing little threat there, he looked at the sheep, bloated with overgrown wool.
"At least you will be warm," Olaf said.
He opened the pen.The sheep streamed out and obediently gathered around him. With the flock in tow, Olaf set off for Einar.
The sun was shining on Olaf's back, enough to cause him to loosen his furs. Only a few clouds scudded across the bright fall sky, and even the trees looked cheerful. Olaf cast a glance over his shoulder at the distant mountains. Had the mists gotten closer? He turned back to the path, confident his task would only take a few hours. Despite himself, Olaf quickened his pace, forcing the sheep to hurry along with him.
"Thor would not be angry with me for ignoring my fool of a stepmother, would he?" Olaf asked no one in particular.
The sheep merely bleated in reply, their noises becoming more nervous.
A chilly breeze lifted the hairs on Olaf's neck. He looked back, and saw that the mists had obscured the entire mountain range, towering threateningly above.
"Perhaps I wasn't wise to go today," said Olaf. "Odin would not approve of rash action."
He began looking off the path for shelter. As he did so, he heard a howl, a long, drawn-out, lonely sound.
Wolves here? Perhaps the weather had driven them in from the wilderness. Olaf left the path and headed for an outcropping he had seen before.
The sky was now the color of iron, and the wind had strengthened. Snow began to blow across the fields. Olaf squinted his eyes against the white flakes. Somewhere behind, he heard the pattering of paws, and panting over tongues.
Olaf began running, his grip on his staff tightening as his eyes searched the rocks for a place he hadn't seen since childhood.
There! A cave, almost invisible in the blowing white and nearly overgrown with bushes. Olaf guided the flock - still together - toward the cave. The sheep were bleating with fear now, having caught scent of the wolves.
"There!" roared Olaf through the howling wind. "Inside you go!"
He began herding the flock inside, though they needed little encouragement. Olaf heard another howl and some yips, very close. He shoved more sheep inside.
Olaf made a count, and came up one sheep short. Then he heard bleats of terror outside, and ran out of the cave.
The world had gone almost completely white, now. He guided himself to the lost sheep by its noises. It had tangled in the brambles, thorns grasping at its heavy wool like claws. Olaf used his staff to pry it loose, and the sheep trotted to the cave to join its brothers and sisters.
"There now!" said Olaf. "Don't get me into any more trouble!"
Olaf was about to follow, when the first wolf lunged out of the whiteness, fangs bared, yellow eyes blazing. He fetched it a good whack with the staff and it fell away, whining. He ran for the cave, hearing the nearly silent patter of paws on fresh snow.
Reaching the cave with the flock ensconced inside, Olaf positioned himself in the cave's mouth. The wind bit at his cheeks and nose, threatening frostbite, but he continued to stand there until the wolves appeared like demons from out of the blizzard.
"Come on, now!" he shouted, waving his staff. "I'll have you all for pelts!"
The wolves stopped short, looking at him in confusion. The wind was roaring like an invading army, and Olaf imagined he could hear Thor's own voice somewhere in it.
The wolves seemed to look at each other, then the whiteness enveloped them, Olaf could see them no more.
Olaf stood there until he could stand it no longer. He went to the flock and huddled with the sheep, trying to stay warm. Slowly the feeling returned to his face. He waited for the first set of jaws to tear into his back, but none did.
Slowly, the wind began to die down. After half an hour, Olaf took his hands and face out of the wool of a sheep's back, where he had buried them. Staff in hand, he carefully stepped to the entrance and looked around.
Snow coated everything, the trees, path, rocks, even the sides of a nearby cliff. Snow covered the brambles, making them look like sheep themselves.
It covered seven large lumps.
Olaf looked closer. The wolves lay where they had stood outside the cave. The cold had killed them.
"Thor, I thank you," said Olaf. "Doesn't that beat all? If we had stayed at home, the wolves might killed my sheep in their pen. Strange indeed!"
He ushered the flock out of the cave, and as the mists parted to admit the sun, man and sheep lightly stepped across the snow and continued to Einar.