"Ah, yes. Ye 'n me 'ave survived yet another winter."
Or, so thought the sheep herder, as he poked at the well thawed ground with his staff, following his placid, dull-witted mob. They were making their way out of the flimsy pen enclosure where he'd been counting faces and looking for any signs of illness among them.
He knew his sheep better than he would his own children, if he'd had any children. He recognized the oldest to the youngest and grieved deeply at the demise of any of his wooly charges.
It had been a particularly dreary and difficult winter, with four head of his precious herd falling victim to starving predators, or frozen stiff in the frigid blasts from the north. His cozy cottage was his only solace in the cruel winter visiting his Emerald Isle.
"Come along now me dears. There be a few tender tufts o' grasses, waiting fer ye up ahead."
This time of year, when it became lighter earlier, the world around him seemed to cling stubbornly to the scraps of night hidden in the shadows.
The old man trudged in silence, with only the occasional word of encouragement to his animals and an answering bleat of acknowledgement.
With the melting of the snows from the earth and the subsequent releasing of fresh fodder for his sheep, he prodded them after a long grazing time, toward a sweet water stream nearby. He had never used this as a watering hole before, but at a new neighbor's urging, and given clear directions, he now guided his small band toward its burbling and welcoming sound.
He counted off his wooly heard and then recounted. There was one more than his last accounting. Shaking his own shaggy head, the shepherd went among the creatures standing knee deep in the cold, fast moving waters. He touched each one with the flat of his hand while calling out the number as a fail-safe for memory.
"Why, how ken this be?" he asked the dumb beasts.
"Ye, there!" he called as he splashed over toward a face he didn't recollect.
"Ye seem new ta me old eyes. Let's get a closer look."
He grabbed a fist-full of thick, coarse strands of hair, tugging the stranger out of the water.
He was about to begin his closer study of the animal when a sudden bleating filled the air.
Looking over at his tiny herd, he stood with a stunned expression as their numbers had increased two fold. Where once stood ten lapping at the waters, now twenty drank deeply. He blinked and two more appeared on the fringes.
"Tis the work o' the woodland elves, it tis!" his rheumy eyes, wide with amazement.
He stood and marveled as the herd continued to increase until the small stream was covered in bobbing and bleating heads. As far as the old man could see, which wasn't very far since he was near-sighted, both upstream and down, nothing but matted, winter weary sheep.
This was surely a prank by the mischievous elves, but the sheep presented a temptation he could not resist. Besides, he no longer could pick out those sheep that were his from the interlopers. Each of his had an exact twin in every respect.
Now, he became panicked. He had lost his only herding dog two years past and it fell to him alone to keep track of the once tiny group. How was he to round up this larger herd and drive them back to his farmstead?
No sooner had he cleared that thought from his mind, then he was struck with another. He spoke his plan out loud as if to give it credibility.
"The new neighbor, what tol' me o' this stream...I'll go ta him fer help in roundin' up the lot o' em!"
With that resolved to his liking, the old man set off at his slow trot. He'd kept hold of the one sheep who had set off the whole investigation. He was dragging him along the narrow path leading away from the crowded stream and to the new farmer's cottage.
He banged hard upon the wooden door, its hinges groaning with the rough treatment. After several minutes of pounding this way, the old man was turning to leave; certain the new man was off to tend his fields.
Before he could take another step, he was thrown onto the ground by a mighty shove. He sat looking up at a wiry young man dressed in greens and browns and wearing a cap with feathers adorning it the same color as his flaming red hair.
"O lordy me! Tis the elf his own self!" he said in a choked whisper.
"I be tinkin' ye need a good thrashin' ol' shepherd! Dragn' me along like a sack o' old goat turds!"
"Sir," said the old man to the newly revealed elf. "I be dreadful sorry, I am, tinkin' ye was no morn' a black faced sheep."
The elf laughed at this description and cast a spell over the old man at his feet.
When the new neighbor came home he found two black-faced sheep munching at the stiff grasses of his front yard; as if waiting there for his return.
"What's afoot 'ere?" he asked the two dull witted sheep with the usual response.
"Tis a blessin' from the woodland elf I suspect fer me kindness to the old shepherd. Well, me boys, ye look ta be identical twins, but I ken tell ye apart by eating one o ye! It's been sech a long, hard winter....