Each month I will introduce a new character from my work-in-progress, Heartless Hette, a retelling of The Princess who never laughed. I’ve already introduced Princess Hette, Friedrich the Sorcerer, and Konrad the Court Fool.
Today I’d like to introduce you to a person who is even a fairy tale within this tale–the Wise Shepherd. This is part a tale that the Court Fool tells.
There once was a shepherd, famous through the whole land for his wise answers to questions. The king did not believe it and sent for the boy. When the boy entered–a lanky youth in tattered clothes–the king believed it even less.
“Tell me,” said the king, “how many drops of water there are in the ocean.”
The boy gazed at the ceiling, as if he’d not heard the king.
“Boy, answer me.”
“I will answer when I’ve been asked a question.”
“Do you understand who I am?” bellowed the king.
The shepherd turn to look at the king. “You are a prisoner, caught in a cell of stone walls, trapped between the demands of courtier and commoner, ever under the sword of rebellion.”
“Me, a prisoner!” sputtered the king. “Take him out and behead him.”
“Wait,” called a youthful voice. The king’s oldest son rose from his chair on the dais. He was but a child of twelve years, fair of face and dark of features; beloved by the king. “Father, may I ask him a question first?”
The king’s face had turned purple, but he nodded. He’d deny his son nothing.
“Wise shepherd,” said the prince, “How many drops of water are there in the ocean?”
“Kind prince,” said the shepherd, “If you will dam all the rivers of the earth, so not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have counted, I will tell you how many drops are in the ocean.”
“Father,” said the prince, “may I ask him a second question?”
The king nodded again, though his jaw clenched along his high collar.
“Wise shepherd, how many stars are there in the sky?”
“Kind prince, if you will gather all the sands of the earth’s beaches, I will count them and that will be the number of the stars.”
“Father,” said the prince, “May I ask a third question, and if he answers well, will you give me his life?”
The king, who could deny his son nothing, lifted his scepter, “Shepherd, if you answer his question well, I give your life to him. You will serve him until his death and die upon his dying.”
The shepherd held his head high. “My life is not even a drop in eternity. What matters a few years, more or less? Do as you will.”
“Wise shepherd,” said the prince, “how many seconds are there in eternity?”
“Kind prince, in the center of the Black Forest is a diamond mountain which is two-and-half-miles high, two-and-a-half miles wide, and two-and-a-half miles in depth. Every hundred years a sparrow comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away, then the first second of eternity will be over.”
The prince clapped his hands and ran to the shepherd’s side, “And our friendship will last as long. What is your name?”
The shepherd knelt before the prince. “I’ve forgotten the name my mother once called me before she died. And I’ve never taken another. You may call me shepherd.”
“No,” the prince pulled the shepherd to his feet. “You are shepherd no longer. You are my brother. And you shall be called Erasmus.”
The two clasped hands, the shepherd towering over the prince, and the penniless youth and the royal child became brothers.
Though the king held a dark heart toward Erasmus.