Myths and legends of old speak of a golden fleece that was shorn from a mighty ram belonging to the gods. This fleece became a symbol of power and kingship. In the possession of legends, it became a legend itself.
But this story is not about the famous fleece of the ancient world. It is about another fleece, not as well-known, though just as mighty in its own way. Rare and much-disputed is the tale of this fleece.
It is said that the celestial being came to the earth, to our mortal realm, to hide from enemies (or perhaps friends). This being, like others of its kind, could change shape and form into any physical thing. This being gave much thought to what shape should be taken. A rock would be simple, but dull. A tree would be better, for trees have the company of birds and beasts. Trees are beautiful and surrounded by beauty. But trees had one drawback that the being could not oversee. They could not move. So, it had to be an animal. The being rejected humans, for humans were too prominent in the world. So too did the being reject all beasts who could fly, for much the same reason. Beasts who could fly were easily seen by those searching from above.
So the being considered the sea. Hidden in its depths, the depths of a realm that covered most of the known world, how could the being ever be found? And yet, the sea did not appeal to this celestial being, for water, while wondrous, would dull too many senses. So the being went through all the beasts of the land considering and rejecting, and soon decided on the perfect form. A beast that could be mighty or humble. One that could stand alone or be protected by a flock. A sheep.
The being transformed into a sheep. There were black sheep in those days as there are now. The celestial being became one such sheep, but with a coat of wool so richly black that it seemed to drink the light itself. And yet the being’s black fleece seemed to vibrate with its own dark vitality.
The celestial being, now a great black ram, lived a jolly and peaceful life on the earth. Romping about, fighting other rams, munching on the greenest and juiciest grass. The ram soon forgot that he was once a celestial being.
This…was not what the being intended.
The hiding was only to last for a short while, a few dozen millennia by mortal measure. In all that time, the ram had never been caught and sheared. Many had tried. But the ram, even after forgetting his celestial nature, had ways about him, enchanted ways. He had learned the languages of his fellow beasts, from the largest to the smallest, and befriended so many that they would warn him should a shepherd approach with a pair of shears. Indeed, he had learned the languages of humans as well, but never spoke to them.
Then one day, a shepherd approached with a pair of shears as many had before him. The ram munched on a patch of grass and watched from the corner of his eye. He was prepared to dash away in half a blink. But the shepherd did what no other had done. He set down the shears. He sat on the grass. And he began to speak.
Curious, the ram listened as the shepherd told a sad but common tale. The young shepherd had few sheep and the poor weakly creatures grew shabby wool on their backs. The young shepherd could not sell this wool for more than a pittance and so he and his family had grown poor. He knew no other trade and his children needed food. He had heard tales of the great black ram that roamed free and had never been sheared. He hadn’t believed in the legend until he saw the ram by chance one day. He saw that the rumors and legends were true. Even from afar, the ram’s fleece appeared magnificent, thick and glossy. Surely, any who managed to shear such wool would be paid a fortune for only one shearing.
The shepherd wanted no fortune. He asked for only a patch of wool. He thought it would be enough perhaps for some rich lord to buy and fashion into a trinket for his lady. The shepherd asked forgiveness should the ram be insulted for his wool to meet such a fate. But he asked the ram to remember that the sacrifice would feed the shepherd’s family for the winter at least. And the shepherd would set aside some of the money to learn a trade in the village, so that he might feed his family with the aid of his labor.
As an offering of thanks, the shepherd brought forth a basket of grass and sweet clover. He set it on the ground and backed away from it.
The ram considered the shepherd’s bargain. He was a mischievous but not unkindly creature. He moved toward the basket and began to eat. The shepherd picked up the shears. He cut a lock of his own dark hair and held it up to show the ram how much he would cut. Then he approached with caution. The ram kept eating and he kept watching the shepherd. The young shepherd came closer and closer. When he was close enough to reach out and touch the ram, he did so and felt a fleece so warm it could surely stave off the bitterest of winters and as soft as the cheek of his youngest child. The shepherd was reluctant then, to take even a piece of the precious wool for himself, but he thought of his children, and how they hungered. He took his shears and cut a lock of the ram’s fleece. But as he did so, something dawned on the ram. A notion. Or…a memory. Or only a shadow of a memory. The ram stopped eating and raised his horned head.
He looked at the shepherd and huffed through his grass-stained nostrils.
The shepherd locked gazes with the ram. He was certain he understood. And though it seemed a bold risk, after he had promised to stop at one patch, the shepherd raised his shears again and cut. He cut and he cut, until he had sheared the ram’s whole hide. But the patches did not fall to the ground. The shepherd cut so expertly, surprising himself with his skill, that the fleece came off the ram as a whole. The fleece began to slip off then, but as it did, the ram’s horns too slid off. The shepherd dropped his shears and stepped back.
Before him appeared a wondrous sight. Something emerged from under the night-black fleece. Something that glowed brightly. The shepherd winced and threw an arm over his brow.
A voice spoke but not in his ears. It spoke in his mind and told him the tale of a celestial being who came to the mortal realm to hide, who took on the form of a beast both proud and humble. This beast had forgotten his celestial self altogether, until the shepherd sheared away the cloak of ignorance in which the ram had covered himself.
The glowing brilliance seemed to have the form of a very tall and slim man, but the young shepherd still could not see clearly past the light. He saw what seemed like a delicate hand reach down to touch the fleece, which had fallen to the ground, horns and all.
The being thanked the shepherd for lifting his ignorance, and as repayment, gave a gift more precious than a mere fleece of rich wool. The being enchanted the fleece with all the knowledge he had learned during his time as the ram. The being asked the shepherd to use the gift wisely, but did not direct the shepherd how he should do so. The light coming from the being grew brighter and whiter. The shepherd closed his eyes until he sensed through his eyelids that the light had faded.
When he next looked about, the world seemed far darker though it was only midday. And it was darker still when he gazed upon the grassy ground where lay the enchanted black fleece.
The young shepherd, excited and afraid, took the fleece home. For three days and nights, he kept the fleece hidden and did not touch it. He was not a wise man. He did not know how to use the fleece wisely. So he thought of all the people he knew who were wise, for he thought it best to pass the fleece on to one who could make the best use of it.
At last he decided that the wisest person he knew was a sage who lived in the mountains beyond his village. The shepherd wrapped up the fleece and made his way to the mountains. The journey was rough and it was cold. So one night, shivering under a thin blanket, and watching the woods for the sounds and sights of bears or wolves, the shepherd decided he might as well enjoy the rich fleece while he had it in his possession.
As soon as he swept the fleece over his shoulders, warmth flowed through him all the way down his boots to the tips of his toes and all the way down his arms to the tips of his fingers. Such a sudden relief was it that he gasped. The pebbly rock against which he had been leaning now felt like a bed of fresh grass.
Had this been the end of the fleece’s wonders, it would have been enough for the shepherd to reconsider giving it away. But the fleece would have been warm and soft without the enchantment that the celestial being had placed upon it.
The shepherd wore the fleece for the rest of his journey and he soon came to learn what the being had learned. When he heard the birds singing in the morning, he understood what they were singing about. When he heard the distant roar of a bear, he knew it was a roar of frustration, for the bear had missed catching a fish. When he saw the ants marching along on a tree that he leaned against as he took a rest to sip some water, he heard the murmur of their chanting as they went about their work.
He was not a wise man, but nor was he a fool. The fleece was enchanted with the power to understand the language of the beasts. He abandoned his journey and turned around at once to return home, for he knew just what to do with such a gift.
The young shepherd wore his night-black fleece under a poorer one, so none could see its richness and try to steal it. He spoke to the beasts of the fields, coaxed the sheep in his flock, directed his shepherd dog, and did so in their own tongue. The animals were surprised but pleased. And as he was kind to them, they were kind to him. He soon became the best shepherd for leagues around.
It was, after all, the only gift he wanted, the means to feed his family and raise his children in comfort and not in want.
As his sons and daughters grew older, the shepherd chose one among them to inherit the enchanted fleece. None but his wife ever knew the secret of the fleece. So when all the children were told of their bestowals, the one who would inherit the fleece was at first disappointed, for the shepherd was now well-to-do and all the child’s other siblings were endowed with riches or land. The heir of the fleece was the shepherd’s youngest daughter, though not his youngest child. Darya was rambunctious and had hoped that when she came of age, her father would give her a horse as her bestowal, so that she might leave her village and travel the realm in search of her own fortune.
But when her father told her about the fleece and she donned it for the first time, she became delighted. She had lived for ten summers and ten winters. She was one of those children who dreamt of being able to speak with the animals. And so she caught a glimpse of her future, of knowing what was meant by the buzzing of bees, the howling of wolves, and the hissing of serpents. But the fleece was only to be hers when she came of age. And it was only to be hers if she kept its nature a secret, even from her brothers and sisters, until it was passed to her.
Her father had put the fleece to humble use. But Darya realized what a grand gift the fleece was. She told her father she was grateful to him, for she had known a happy life, and it was all because of him and how he chose to use the fleece. But she admitted to him that she longed to be more than just a shepherdess. She feared hurting her father’s pride with such a proclamation. But she needn’t have. For the shepherd knew his daughter well. She was young, but he saw future wisdom in her. She was bold, but also kind and thoughtful. For all those reasons, he had judged her the worthiest to possess the enchanted fleece.
So the enchanted fleece passed on to Darya and she struck out into the world. She became an adventurer. A vagabond. A rogue. And sometimes, a hero.
She hired herself out as a problem-solver of sorts. She used her gift of languages to speak to the animals that were present when wrongs were done or when secrets were spoken. People ignored beasts when they told secrets or stole from their trades-masters and the like.
She too hid the fleece, for she wore it openly after her first year out in the world, and that very day, a couple of merchants tried to buy it from her. When she refused, that very night, the merchants sent thieves and thugs to steal it from her. She escaped them, for she was given warning. She had befriended the mice of the inn with the extravagant gift of a rather large hunk of cheese and an entire loaf of bread.
The fleece granted her the gift of knowing the language of the beasts, but Darya learned many other skills with focus and hard work and study. She was quite quick and agile, which was helpful at times, like when she had to run out of one town for revealing the mayor had been cuckolded. She learned to read and write in the language of the realm. She learned the histories of any town or village she was in. She studied with mystics and thieves and noblewomen and professors. She was an expert in no one field, but knew much of many fields.
Soon, she turned from solving petty problems, to solving grave ones. In one village, a few children had gone missing one day. It was feared that some beast or villain may have carried them off. Darya came to town. She was known in those parts and was asked to help in the search. She donned her fleece and asked the village’s beasts what they had seen. The children had run off just to frolic and play away from their mother. They had gotten lost and the elder one, trying to be brave, had walked off confidently in the wrong direction. Darya found the children and brought them back.
After that, instead of being run out of towns for the secrets she knew, she was cheered by them. Her heroic deeds only grew, as did the riches she was offered. She gave much away, and kept only what she needed to live and to assure that she could one day retire in a cottage by the sea. For the sea was where she was slowly headed, that grand expanse of water that she had only dreamt of and seen pictures of in books or paintings hung on the walls of manors.
Not all could manage gold coins. She was sometimes given humble rewards. Villages would throw a feast in her honor. Farmers would offer a portion of their crop. Feasts she always welcomed, so long as all could enjoy. Never did she take food from those who needed it more. But there was one humble gift she was given that she could not refuse. A tiny pup, his fur as black as her enchanted fleece, was offered up to her as a companion. She had sworn she would not have any wee ones, children or pups or any small babes of any kind, until she was settled, if ever she should settle. The pup’s tale was a sad one, for his mother and all his brothers and sisters died in a fire that spared him.
He was as dear as he was strong. He could not be refused. He was ever the greatest reward she received for her deeds.
But not the grandest.
The rescue of a princess was a deed of legend and one typically ascribed to a knight or a valiant hero. But in the case of this princess, it was no dragon or wicked suitor she needed rescuing from, but from her own questionable judgment. Darya needed no enchanted fleece to speak the language of a young girl uncertain of her path, her future, her purpose. She had become a friend to the princess and gave her good counsel. That was all.
There had been no danger, no great risk, and yet, as reward for helping the princess, the king and queen gave Darya a small kingdom of her own. And if that was not grand enough, the kingdom they gave her was by the edge of the sea.
The king and queen sent her advisors to help her learn to govern, and they warned her that ruling her own realm was as much a burden as it was a gift. But Darya, now ready to settle in one place at last, was overwhelmed with gratitude, and she accepted the gift and the responsibility. She became queen of her own realm.
She governed well enough, though she would never be known for her governance as well as she was for the dashing figure she cut, both at court and at sea. For the daughter of a shepherd, whose family had lived on solid ground for many generations, she took to the sea as if she were born to it.
By that time, her companion and best friend, Sable, who once was a little pup, had grown into a rather large black hound who looked to be half-wolf and half-bear. He joined her on all her jaunts and she joined him on his. Often they took to the sea. To Darya’s dismay, she learned that the fleece’s power did not work for the beasts of the sea. She could not understand them though she wished to dearly. Little was the fleece seen in the days of her sea adventures. But always she took it with her. For even without its other gifts, the fleece kept her warm when freezing fogs set upon the ship and dry when the sea came crashing onto deck during storms.
When she was not sailing out upon it, Darya would stare out at the sea. One day, she was by herself on the deck of her ship. They were sailing softly out to explore and map the seas, when in the distance, Darya spotted a young girl in danger of being dragged under by what seemed like the coils of many snakes.
Without a second thought, Darya grabbed up a harpoon and dove into the water. She had read of such beasts and been told tales by her sailors. The coils were not snakes, but tentacles, and the beast was a great squid. Beside her, she heard a splash and soon saw that Sable was swimming with her. He reached the beast first, clamped his jaw upon a tentacle, and began to savage it. Darya slashed at the squid with her harpoon. When the girl struggled free, Darya saw to her great surprise that the girl was no ordinary mortal girl, but a mermaid, who cast only one fearful glance behind her as she swam away. But the squid was now upon the queen and the hound, and it was they who needed rescuing. The faithful and watchful crew joined the fray and together they drove the squid away.
Darya became enchanted. For never since the ancient days had mortals set eyes upon one of the sea-people. Her longing for the sea ached all the deeper.
Little did she know that the squid was no beast but a sea-sorcerer who did not fancy being thwarted from his quarry by the likes of the land-dwellers. As the little ship sailed away, he cast a curse upon the ones who had freed his would-be prisoner. He cast a curse upon the queen and the hound.
Many years passed. Darya ruled and she sailed. She had many failures and many triumphs. Many sorrows and many joys. Foremost among her joys was the birth of her first and only child, a girl. And foremost among her sorrows was the passing of her greatest friend, the one who was more a brother to her than her own blood brothers, the great black hound. The end of Sable’s life was a peaceful one. He was honored as a hero. Upon his head, the baby princess placed a pale white water lily. And upon his back, the queen placed the enchanted black fleece.
As queen, Darya had taken to wearing the enchanted fleece in plain sight, for she now had means to protect it as a treasure of her realm. Many coveted the fleece. Once, a king of the sea tried to trade for it, knowing how desperately Darya wanted to visit the sea realms. After some debate with her advisors and with her friend, she said “no.” Sable had encouraged her to give up the fleece, for visiting the sea realms was her greatest dream. But she had promised her father and herself that she would use the fleece wisely. She promised her daughter that the fleece was her birthright.
But though the princess had only seen two winters and two summers by the time the great black hound passed on, she had grown to love him as much as her mother did. She knew the fleece was special, could see something special about it with her child’s eyes. When Sable passed, the princess was there. She pulled the fleece from her mother’s shoulders and tried to drape it over the dog.
It was then that the queen decided. She gave the fleece to the only one worthy of it.
The enchanted fleece was burned along with the remains of the heroic hound on a great pyre. As she watched, Darya was filled not with sadness but with love and hope. And with pride at having known and befriended such a noble spirit. The fleece shimmered and glowed as it burned, not just with the light of fire, she thought, but with the light of that noble spirit.
That was to be the end of her friend and the fleece.
It was a chill night and the fog rose high, so high it poured through the windows of the queen’s chamber as she slept next to her king. She woke right away, her first feeling was fear, her first thought was for her child.
But the child was still asleep nearby.
A shadow crossed the room and the queen turned to face it. The shadow walked into a shaft of moonlight and she knew it at once. The ghostly hound had returned from the realms of the dead still draped in the night-black fleece.
The queen was happy to see her friend, but she saw that he was in misery. He had come to warn her of a curse that had struck them both. The curse cast by one of many enemies. The hound was sent by this curse to the underworld’s realm of torments, there to suffer eternally, his heroic deeds forever forgotten. He told the queen that it was too late for him, but that she must find a way to break the curse upon her before she passed from the mortal realm.
The queen asked how he was able to return to her. Some subtle sorcery had protected him long enough for him to escape. It was woven into the fleece after he died, an enchantment, common but powerful and yet rarely captured. An enchantment woven from the love and loyalty of friendship and of family.
The hound would be hunted, for the lord of the underworld did not tolerate escape. But so long as the enchanted fleece remained upon his back, he could remain in the mortal realm to help his friend. The queen, Darya, vowed to break the curse that chained her friend to the underworld, so that he may go to his rightful rest in the happy realms of the afterlife.
Likewise, the hound, Sable, vowed to break the curse that still lay upon the queen, so that when she passed, she would join him in that rest. But the two friends were not yet ready for rest. The enchanted fleece had brought them back together, for they had yet to save each other, and they had many more adventures ahead.
Copyright © 2016 by Nila L. Patel.