They only went into the barn to get out of the rain. But that just goes to show that big adventures can start when you least expect them.
Sheep, even rare breed sheep, don't normally mind getting wet, but it had been pouring for days and the paddock was hoof-deep in mud. Jaycey, the pretty little Jacob, had had enough.
"Ohmygrass..." she said, trotting into the cozy barn. "All this rain. I'm having such a bad hair day."
"Don't be silly, dear," said Sal, the fat and motherly Southdown ewe, as she followed. "Only humans have hair. And there's no such thing as a bad fleece day."
"That's right, man," agreed Links, the large Lincoln Longwool ram, even though his own woolly locks were dangling damply in front of his eyes and he couldn't see where he was going. "Fleece is cool."
He bumped into the doorpost on his way in.
Wills, the skinny Balwen Welsh lamb, skipped in after Links. He liked the barn. Usually, there was a laptop in there.
Only Oxo, the great Oxford ram, was reluctant to go inside. The rain made the grass grow longer and sweeter. What was there not to like about that? But he was a sheep and sheep stick together, so he tugged up a last juicy mouthful and squeezed in after the rest.
The hens, who lived in the barn, squawked and fluttered for a few minutes then settled again, and the sheep made themselves comfortable on the straw-covered floor. They sat facing the laptop, which was propped on a bale of hay in the middle of the barn. Jaycey and Wills, the smallest, were at the front, with Sal, Oxo, and Links behind.
The laptop belonged to Ida White, who owned Eppingham Farm where the rare breed sheep lived. She often left it in the barn playing music for the hens. This particular wet spring day she was downloading some new tunes for them, some gentle pieces as a change from their usual pop and rock. The second track was just beginning as the sheep settled down.
Wills, whose mother had died when he was young, had spent his early lambhood with Ida and her grandson, Tod, in the farmhouse kitchen. He had learned a lot about human ways and could even read a little. He slowly read out the words on the screen.
"Sheep May Safely Graze...J. S. Bach."
"What's J. S. Bach?" asked Oxo. "Something you can graze on?"
Wills shook his head. "No, I think it's the name of the composer. The man who wrote the music."
"Shhh," said Sal. She was gazing happily at the laptop. As the music played, the screen showed a picture of sheep grazing in a beautiful sunlit valley. "How fortunate we are to be sheep," she murmured.
"Yeah," agreed Links. "But this ain't exactly a banging vibe, is it?" His curls bobbed up and down as he nodded his head, trying to compose a rap. It wasn't easy to make the words fit the slow music.
"We is Ovis Aries, that's our Latin name,
But you can call us sheep 'cause it means the same..."
Jaycey was also peering at the laptop but she wasn't interested in the music or the pictures. She'd noticed her own reflection in the screen and was studying it carefully. Finally, she relaxed. Not a bad hair day after all. And she was massively prettier than any of the safely grazing group on the screen.
Oxo tried listening to the music for a few seconds but could only hear his own stomachs rumbling, so he gave up and dozed off.
Then it happened.
The sheep on the screen disappeared and, from the blackness that replaced them, a red tongue emerged. It filled the screen, showing the rough, red surface and the tonsils dangling behind. Then came the voice.
"Hi, all you Rams and Ewes and Lambs. This message is for you. We're gonna slaughter you. We're on our way. Red Tongue! Remember the name!"
The sheep scrambled to their hooves and looked fearfully around. Oxo marched to the doorway and glared out. The paddock was empty.
The laptop spoke again. "Red Tongue! Remember the name!" Then the tongue disappeared and the sunlit valley returned.
"Ohmygrass..." Jaycey huddled close to Sal. "What was that?"
"I think," said Wills, "it was a pop-up."
"What's a pop-up?" asked Oxo.
"A sort of advertisement," said Wills, though he didn't really know what an advertisement was.
Oxo lowered his great head and pawed the barn floor with a hoof.
"Just let him pop up again," he snorted. "I'll be ready next time."
Sal raised a hoof for silence.
"Red Tongue...? Red Tongue...?" She was speaking in the odd voice she used when she was trying to remember something important. "Yes..." she said at last. "It's there in the Songs of the Fleece!"
"Uh-oh..." murmured Links warily.
The Songs of the Fleece were ancient. They had been handed down from ewe to lamb for centuries. Not many sheep knew all 365 verses like Sal did, but most knew a few. Sal looked gravely at her fellow rare breeds.
"Verse 204," she announced. "One of the prophetic verses." Then she added for Wills's sake, "Most of the Songs tell of our glorious history, you see, dear. The prophetic verses tell us what is to come."
Wills nodded politely. Despite not having had a mother to teach him sheeply things, he knew that much. He glanced at the laptop again. He felt sure he'd heard Ida say pop-ups were a nuisance. They arrived from nowhere then disappeared again. Just like the red tongue had done.
But Sal was clearing her throat so Wills turned to listen.
"A terrible monster will come from the West," she cried dramatically,
"And a brave flock of warriors will be put to the test.
For this monster has woken from centuries of sleep,
And its stomach will hunger for sheep. Then more sheep.
Hundreds of thousands will die every hour,
All the sheep in the world it will seek to devour."
Sal paused for breath but before she could start again, Jaycey's trembling voice had taken up the verse:
"Like a gigantic dog from the West it will come...
And the name of this monster, be warned, is: Red Tongue."
Jaycey looked at them all with frightened eyes. "My mum taught me that."
She wobbled on her dainty feet then fainted.
There was silence for a few moments then Links said, "So. We's done for, is it? We's all gonna be eaten by a monster dog."
"The Songs of the Fleece are never wrong," said Sal.
Oxo frowned. "Yeah, but what was that about warriors?"
Jaycey opened one eye. "They'll be put to the test," she wailed. "I don't want to be put to the test."
There was another silence while they all pondered.
"Is it us again, Sal?" asked Wills.
Once before, the little flock of rare breed sheep from Eppingham Farm had been called by the Songs of the Fleece to save sheepdom. They had destroyed Lambad the Bad and saved Lord Aries, the mighty Ram of Rams who lives above the clouds.
Sal answered Wills's question by reciting the next two lines:
"Who will come forward in the hour of need?
Hope will lie only with those of rare breed."
Oxo turned toward the doorway.
"Can't be clearer than that," he said. "Let's go!"
He charged out.
"Yeah, man," agreed Links. "The Eppingham rare breeds is the rarest of the rare."
"We did it once, we can do it again," said Wills bravely.
But then Oxo reappeared.
"So, um, where does this Red Tongue hang out, exactly?" he asked.
Sal thought hard then cleared her throat again.
"To the place where the monster first wakes you must go,
Where the sun scorches fleeces and the hottest winds blow.
But only the bravest will withstand this test.
Remember: Red Tongue...will wake in the West!"