Night of the Wolves


In Ireland there are many stories about St. Patrick, who, legend says, was captured in Britain by Irish raiders and enslaved for years before he escaped to France and became a priest. He returned to Ireland to bring the Christian religion to the Irish people. His adopted country made him their patron saint, and now people in many lands celebrate March seventeenth as St. Patrick’s Day. This incident is only one of the many legends associated with him.

“Come, Patrick,” the old shepherd called to the boy who was warming his hands by the roaring fire, “time to climb the hill for the night.”

The boy stood up and, wrapping the bearskin cloak around him, answered, “Coming, sir.” Obediently, he followed the old man away from the warmth of the fire into the cold blackness of the surrounding countryside.

“It’s been a hard winter,” the old man said to Patrick as they trudged up the steep hill, “but you’ve learned your job well, and you haven’t complained about the cold or the long nights. When it is time for me to report to our king, I will tell him what a good servant he has in you.”

“Thank you,” the boy replied, “but I like the sheep. Caring for them is not hard for me. As for the cold,” he shrugged his strong young shoulders, “one learns to live with it. No use complaining.”

They reached the top of the hill and approached the fire that the day shepherd had lit as soon as the sun had started to set.

“Ho, Finn!” the old man called.

“Ho, Ober!” came the answer from a man kneeling by the fire. “I am very glad you are here. I fear my old bones are nearly frozen.” He smiled up at Patrick. “Ho, lad. Mind this fire tonight. Don’t let it die down. Listen.”

Patrick strained his ears. Mixed with the low whistle of the icy wind came another sound that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

“A-ooooooooo,” it sounded again from the distance, low and ghostly.

“Wolves,” Patrick whispered.

“Yes, boy,” old Finn agreed. “It’s been a hard winter for them too. One or two young sheep would make them a real banquet. Keep a sharp eye out.” He stood up and stretched. “I’m going down now. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Finn. We’ll see you at dawn,” Ober answered.

“You make the rounds to the west tonight, and I’ll make them to the east,” Ober instructed Patrick.

“Yes, sir.” Patrick picked up a pine stick and stuck it into the fire until the end blazed. Using it for a light, he set off into the inky darkness to check his master’s flock of sheep. He whistled his own little tune, so the sheep would know it was he who walked among them and not be frightened. Now and then he stopped to pat a woolly head.

It was on these dark, lonesome rounds that Patrick most missed his homeland and his family. It had been two years now since that night when he had been carried away by the strange and wild boatmen and transported to this harsh land. It had been two years of service to the king; two years of learning, growing, and longing to return to his home. But I must not let myself feel sad, he inwardly scolded.

Patrick finished checking the sheep and started back to the fire. “I must do my job while I look for a chance to get home again—somehow—someday,” he murmured.

Ober was sitting by the fire when Patrick returned.

“All’s well,” he said.

“It may be, lad, but keep the fire up. Those wolves seem bold tonight.”

“Would they come so close to the fire and humans, sir? I always thought wolves were wild and stayed well back in the forest.”

“They do, mostly,” Ober answered, “except when a winter like this one comes along, and there’s no game left in the forest for them. Hunger is a powerful thing, Patrick. I’ve lost many a sheep close to the fire on a winter night such as this.”

Ober and Patrick leaned against the big trees near the fire. Patrick stomped his feet to keep them from freezing. Something caught his eye on the other side of the fire. It was a strange, small gleam of light. No, two small gleams, like summer fireflies. Now there were four, now six!

Patrick’s heart thumped hard in his chest with a sudden fear. He knew what those lights were—firelight glinting in wolves’ eyes.

“Ober!” Patrick shouted. “Look!” As he shouted, a low growling came from where the small, hard lights gleamed.

“It’s a pack of them,” Ober called back. “Run, Patrick. It may be your only chance. It will be impossible for only two people to keep them from the sheep.”

“And leave you alone, sir?” Patrick asked, certain he had misunderstood.

“I’m an old man,” Ober answered, “and a servant like yourself, Patrick. I must stay and defend our king’s sheep, even if it means death for me.”

Patrick looked over at Ober. The old man had been his teacher, but, more than that, he had been Patrick’s friend ever since the king’s boatmen had captured him and brought him to this strange land. Run away and leave Ober here to fight the wolves alone? Run, even if it might mean a chance to escape? he asked himself.

“If you must stay, then so must I,” Patrick said firmly.

He looked up at the brittle black sky where tiny cold stars flashed. “Help me in this strange land,” Patrick seemed to say as he gazed toward the heavens. Then he grabbed a flaming pine bough in one hand and a heavy, club-like stick in the other. Hollering and shouting, he ran toward the growling pack of wolves.

He swung his club. Back and forth he passed the burning stick, all the time stomping and shouting. The startled wolves growled deeper and bared their yellowed teeth at him, but, helped by Ober, Patrick managed to drive them back, farther and farther.

At last the leader of the wolf pack, with a nasty, helpless snarl, turned and ran off into the trees. For a moment the others growled and snapped at Patrick’s club as he swung it at them. Then they, too, followed their leader into the trees.

“Well done, Patrick!” Ober thumped the young boy on the back soundly. “What a brave lad you are. You fought with the strength of ten men, and you saved the sheep. I would not have thought it possible that you could do it. It is truly miraculous!” Ober hugged the boy happily.

“We did it together, Ober.” Patrick smiled at the old man. Then he lifted his face to the stars and said quietly, “Together.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown