There once was a son of a nobleman who’d fallen on hard times and could no longer support the estate. “I’m sorry my son,” he said, “you will have to earn your food with your labor like a peasant.” So his son went out from his home to find work. A shepherd gave him a job watching over a flock of sheep at the edge of the woods. “You can have all the porridge you can eat, as well as two coins each day you keep my sheep safe,” he said. It was hard work, but the young man took to it like he’d been born to do it. The sheep were dirty and impulsive, but this didn’t bother him because no one expects much from a sheep. With a little foresight they could be driven anywhere he needed them to go, and because he was from good stock himself he learned to do this very quickly.
One day, a pack of wolves attacked the flock from the woods. The young man drew his sword, his only inheritance from his father, and fought them off. Only a couple of the sheep were slaughtered in the attack because he fought so fiercely. Later that day, the wolf king came to the edge of the woods and entreated the young man. “Peace,” he said, “I didn’t come to fight you. I know now that you’re strong like a wolf and I have no desire to die on your sword. I only came to ask what you will do with those sheep who died.”
“I will burn them,” the young man said. “I have no intention of letting you dig up their bodies for food.”
“Then you are wise as well as strong,” said the wolf king. “If we could dig up the bodies at night then we could attack and eat meat every day and become strong. Only, don’t you think you’re wasting the meat? You could eat some of it yourself rather than burning it, and it would make no difference.”
“I have as much porridge as I want,” the young man said, but in truth he had grown weary of eating porridge day in and day out, and his mind was divided.
“You need to keep up your strength to do continue to fight with us wolves. We are strong. You are strong now, but if you only eat porridge like one of these farm animals then one day you will be weak, and on that day we will kill you and have our feast.”
“Why are you helping me?” the young man asked, suspicious.
“As a matter of principle, of course,” the wolf king said, “free beasts of the wilds are honorable, so we only like to fight others when they are strong.” Then the wolf king laughed at some joke that the young man didn’t understand, and in that moment the young man became jealous off the wolf’s carefree attitude. “Anyway,” the wolf king continued, “sheep are low creatures, and the best they can achieve in life is to fill the belly of a more noble creature like us. It’s the way of things.”
So when the nobleman’s son burned the bodies of the two sheep who had died, he cooked some of the meat and ate it, but he didn’t tell the owner of the sheep. The next day he felt stronger and his blood was hot with the memory of battle, so that he looked forward to the next time the wolves would attack so he could fight them again. But a week passed and the wolves didn’t attack. The young man became discontented with his simple life herding sheep and eating porridge. The sheep dung filled him with disgust and the porridge sat in his belly. And whenever he looked at the sheep, he couldn’t help but think of how delicious their meat would be even though he tried his best not to.
The wolf king came again to talk with him. “Peace,” he said. “I came to bring you this gift.” And a wolf from his pack brought the carcass of a deer out of the woods and left it there. “You see,” the wolf king said, “we hunted so well that we have food to spare. And being a free beast of the wild, it offends my principles…” (here he laughed and had to pretend it was a cough) “…to see someone as strong as you rotting away like…well, like one of these sheep!”
Seeing that the young man was listening intently, he made an offer. “I believe you are not happy guarding these sheep. Why don’t you ask the shepherd if he’ll let you leave for a day and come hunting with my pack? We’ll run through the woods all day and test our strength and our wits, and at the end have all the meat we can eat.” The young man turned down the offer and asked the wolf king to take the deer with him. But the wolf king refused. “It’s a free gift,” he said, and returned to the woods.
The young man decided it would be a waste to let the deer rot, so he cooked some of it and ate it. His blood became hot with the thought of battle again, and he suddenly began to feel he couldn’t stand one more boring day herding sheep and eating porridge without a break. So he asked the shepherd to leave for a day and because the young man had been such a good worker the shepherd agreed. The next morning he went to the edge of the woods and found the wolf king there.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said.
“I thought you might,” the wolf king said.
They spent that day hunting with the wolf pack and because he had eaten so much meat the day before, the young man felt like he could run like the wind all day and never get tired. Indeed, he took to hunting as naturally as he’d taken to shepherding. At the end of the day they feasted on the wild beasts they’d killed. This became their habit. Every few days the wolf king would invite the young man to hunt and, over time, the young man hunted more and more days each week and began to neglect his duties as the shepherd’s hired help. Sometimes, a sheep would go missing or break an ankle, which only made the young man hate them more for their stupidity. He could no longer stand the sight of sheep, the smell of sheep dung, or the taste of porridge compared to the freedom of hunting in the woods.
One day, the wolf king came to the edge of the woods and said something different. “Soon there will be no more food in these woods. I am leaving with my pack to travel over the mountains to find a new hunting ground. Will you come with us?”
“Of course!” the young man said. “I have no inheritance here and I can’t stand the sight of these sheep anymore. Why would I need porridge or money if I can be free and eat meat every day? I’ll tell the shepherd to keep my pay for today and leave with you immediately.”
“Well, there’s just one problem,” said the wolf king. “We’ll need food for the journey over the mountains and there aren’t enough deer in the woods. We need the sheep or we’ll starve before we find a new hunting ground.”
“I can’t do that,” the young man said, “even if I don’t care about these sheep, I can’t betray the shepherd! He’s always paid me on time and never mistreated me, and I have my family name to think of.”
“Your family name?” The wolf king laughed at this. “Your flock of sheep is already in shambles. I should know, I ate one of the ones that went missing just yesterday. The shepherd already disrespects you. Feeding porridge to someone with noble blood, I never heard of such a thing! No one here respects your great potential. You have no inheritance. Why should you care about your family name. On the other side of the mountain you can have any name you desire.”
“I won’t do it,” the young man said, “my honor won’t allow it.”
“Don’t talk to me about honor,” the wolf king said, showing his teeth, “when you’re too selfish to do what’s right for the pack. I thought you were one of us, but I can see now I was wrong. You’ll let that shepherd lead you around by the nose your entire life doing whatever he says like you’re one of those sheep, from some old-fashioned notion of morality. I won’t have someone like that in my pack.”
“Please let me go with you,” the young man begged. “I can’t stand it here even one more day!”
“You can come with us, but only if you do one thing,” the wolf king said. “When you bring the sheep back to the farm to sleep tonight, leave the gate unlatched. Then go to the woods to sleep and we’ll meet you there in the morning. If we find the latch open, then you can come with us over the mountain. But if the latch is locked, you will be our food. There can be no compromise in this. And take heart, you’ll never return to this place so it doesn’t matter what happens after you’re gone.”
That night the young man locked the sheep in their pen. Anguished, he walked through the fields until midnight, trying to decide what to do. Suddenly, he saw a shadow passing over the fields and looked up to see the moon eclipsed. In that moment he decided it was a fateful omen, heralding visions of everything he’d dreamed and some things he hadn’t dared to dream. He imagined himself as a king of barbarians leading an army of wolves to scour the land and right all the injustices which would cause a nobleman’s son to be wasting away as a humble shepherd’s helper. He imagined paying off his father’s debts with the spoils of conquest and buying the shepherd ten times as many sheep as he’d had before. In this way he made his decision.
He went back to the farm and unlatched the gate to the sheep pen, and took his father’s sword with him into the woods to sleep. But he slept fitfully, and was assailed by dark dreams of sheep screaming as he tore pieces of meat off them with his teeth while they burned alive in the flames of the shepherd’s barn. He awoke the next morning feeling like a sick old man, and not at all like a barbarian king leading an army of wolves. When he became hungry he began to hunt for food in the woods, like he had with the wolf pack. He found the wolves in a glen, laying about with their bellies distended from eating their fill of sheep. Aghast, he asked the wolf king if there was enough meat left for the journey over the mountains.
“That’s the thing,” said the wolf king, “we aren’t going anywhere. There’s still plenty to eat left in these woods.”
“You lied to me!” the young man cried out. “What happened to your honor as a free wolf? What happened to your principles? What happened to our deal?”
“Honor?” said the wolf king, and laughed. The whole pack joined in until they were laughing so hard they were howling and some even rolled in the grass. The wolf king had to wipe tears of mirth out of his eyes before continuing. “Young man, I am a wolf. I kill, and I eat. I cheat and lie. I steal cows from poor farmers who will starve without them. When I said I wanted you to be strong it was because I wanted to eat the sheep you were guarding, and now I have.
“Speaking of that, what use do I have for a shepherd’s helper with no sheep?” And with that the wolf pack fell on the young man. He fought back but his heart wasn’t in it, and he died there and was eaten.