Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Blacksmith and the Ruby

Morning mist hovered above the meandering river undisturbed by even a breath of air. Kingfishers darted from the overhanging trees to spear minnows through the crystal clear water. Over rock and around root the torrent babbled, filling the air with nature’s music. In the sky, birds sang to welcome the coming day as they danced on invisible currents snatching freshly hatched insects from the sky.

In the distance, another noise joined this morning chorus, the faint sound a horse and rider approaching, but the timing was askew. Cling, cling, cling, clang, rang the falling hooves. Cling, cling, cling, clang, in lazy repetition. High on the hill above the river a lone horseman appeared, his cowl drawn up to ward off the dew while his mount seemed to favour one leg, laying the hoof more gently than the others and causing the bum note. The rider paused and turned his face toward the hamlet of Rosendale, a tiny community built on the banks of the river at an ancient fording point. Smoke from early morning cooking fires was beginning to pool above the thatched roofs. The rider gently urged his mount forward with a twitch of his heal, but demanded no more than the animal was comfortable to give. Their progress toward the village was slow, but it was determined. Before long the hooded figure clopped along trails worn betwixt the sleepy houses. He rained his steed to a halt when a raggy boy appeared in a doorway.

"Good morrow, Lad, do you have a Smithy near about?" the man asked, folding back his hood so the morning sun glinted on his long golden locks. The boy looked at the mounted man with awe. It was like seeing a God walk among mortal men. He radiated power and vigour, his face was so handsome it could stop time itself and his smile was so beguiling the birds would fall from the trees at the sight of it. The boy stood slack jawed which made the rider guff with good humour.

"Ah, I see the cat has been away with your tongue early this morning," he teased which broke the spell fallen over the child.

"Aey, Mr Shipman is our Blacksmith, yonder is his yard," said the boy pointing to a cluster of mud walled buildings near the banks of the river.

"Much obliged young Squire," said the rider and he dismounted to lead his horse the last stretch of the journey. When he reached the Blacksmith's forge, the fire had not yet been stoked for the day so he tethered his mount to a post, stroking the beast’s neck with affection and blowing breaths of air across its mussel. The animal whinnied and nuzzled the man's neck lovingly.

"There, there, Girty, we'll have you fixed up in no time," he said while stroking the horse’s velvet ears with the touch any lover would envy. 

"A fine animal," called a voice, making the rider jump slightly. A bear of a man stood watching him. He was powerfully built, if not overly tall, with a thick growth of curly black hair on his chin, and more to match across his ham hock shoulders. The man smiled kindly, offsetting what might otherwise be an intimidating stature.

"Mr Shipman?"

"The very same."

"My mount has thrown a shoe and is a mite lame. Can you accommodate us with a few hours rest and a new set of iron for my friend?" asked the rider patting the animal on the neck.

"You're a stranger to these parts," said Mr Shipman. It was not a question but an observation.

"I've travelled a long road, with longer to go, but my journey is my own so I have time, and coin to spend," said the rider, taking the man’s questioning with good humour.

"Coin be coin, no matter what quarter it travelled from, you are welcome Mr ...?"

"Longsdale."

"You're welcome to my home Mr Longsdale. Come, you must be hungry," said the Blacksmith gesturing toward an open door.

"It's hospitable of your sir."

"There is pottage on the fire but I can't attest to its quality. I'm a fine worker of iron but there my talents die."

"Is there no Mrs Shipman?"

"Sadly she was taken by a fever seven winters back."

"You never took another?"

"If you knew my Mrs, you'd know there could never be another. She'd come back and haunt me should another lass ever cross my threshold," said the Smithy, his voice full of good humour and giddiness.

The tall rider nodded as if happy with the reply, then entered the home. The two men warmed themselves in front of the cooking fire while they ate oats stewed in goat’s milk and drank a tankard of cloudy ale. When the meal was finished the Blacksmith set about examining the horse's leg. She was holding it slightly off the ground, putting as little weight on it as possible.

The bushy ironworker cooed soothingly as he took her forelock on his aproned leg. He cleaned the area with a pick and nodded sagely, before gently resting the foot back on the ground

"She's not yet lame, but not far off either. The shoe was badly fitted if you ask me. It has come loose and has been chafing the poor thing with each step. We'll make a new set for your girl but I would say she should rest two nights, may hap three, before being shod again."

The tall rider nodded and although he looked pained by the length of the wait he said, "What you think best, Mr Shipman."

The Smithy pointed to an open sided hay manger near a stock field, "You may loge in yonder rick if it would please yea."

"It looks as fine as any tavern I've ever encountered," the rider said smiling through the lie. He slipped the saddle and blanket from Girty's flanks and rested them on a fence. Mr Shipman led Girty into the paddock and left her there with a friendly pat on the rump.

The hay was soft and mostly free of mice and insects. He lay back and drew his cowl around his body, feeling every mile of the road he had travelled pushing down on his eyes, the mysterious Mr Longsdale fell into a dreamless slumber.

The sun was in its final quarter when the sound of hammer on metal roused the stranger. He stretched himself and rose, calling a cheery greeting to the sweat covered Mr Shipman before strolling along the bank of the river into Rosendale itself. The village wasn't big, but it was beautiful. Pigs squealed in pens as they nosed through the mud for remnants of their last feed. Chickens ran wild in the spaces between houses. He could see children minding sheep, goats and a few thin cattle on the surrounding grassland. Women had waded into the babbling river, slapping sodden garments against the rounded rocks before soaping and rinsing them anew. The air over Rosendale was heavy with happiness which infected everyone who called it home.

The rider talked cheerily with those he passed. He purchased eggs, a creel of potatoes, a chicken for the pot and a skin full of ale. He knew Mr Shipman would insist on offering him vittles’, sadly he had been right about his cooking abilities, and the rider had seen just how bare his cupboards had been. Once back at the forge, Mr Shipman had made a good show of refusing the offered supplies but not good enough to make the refusal anything more than politeness.

***

Being a Blacksmith was a proud profession, but it was a hard one. When the Smithy had seen the tall handsome man standing at his forge, he felt uneasy. The man was too fair, too wholesome, but his smile disarmed any fear Mr Shipman may have felt.  He also treated his mount with the utmost kindness, the virtue of a good man, and when the mysterious Longsdale had appeared laden with food, this virtue was placed beyond doubt.

They shared meals and good conversation over three days but there was always something otherworldly about his guest. On the night before he was due to shoe the horse, Mr Shipman was woken by a sound he knew as well as his own heartbeat, the sound of his bellows breathing life into his forge. He rose and crept to the window. The night was moonless and none in the village stirred. The tall stranger stood before the forge, warming himself against the chill of the night. He had stoked the coal into a fiery glow and shadows danced across his face. He appeared to be speaking but there was nobody else in sight. A fountain of sparks rose from the forge and vanished into the night sky. He was very animated in his movements and Mr Shipman thought he may well be praying. That was when it happened.

One glowing spark didn't rise like all the rest, it danced around the riders head, glowing brilliantly, and growing by the second. When the spark reached the length of a man’s middle finger, the Smithy finally recognised it for what it was, a fairy. Everyone knew such magical creatures existed and were responsible for both good and bad fortune, but this was the first time the Blacksmith had ever seen one with his own eyes. His heart raced and his eyes remained glued on the unfolding scene. The fairy darted in and whispered into the rider’s ear, causing the tall man to nod and scratch his chin. The riders winning smile was nowhere to be seen, if anything he seemed to be brooding. The fairy and the man conversed as if lifelong friends, the magical creature seemed deferential to the rider. In the Smithy's mind the pieces of a puzzle clicked together and it was with fear and trepidation he realised who he had been sharing his days with. The man standing at his forge was the Fairy King!

The Blacksmith watched as the rider held out his palm and the fairy flew in a spiral down to land there. Without anger or compassion, the man closed his grip crushing the light from the tiny being. The rider held his hand stiff and unmoving for ten ticks of any clock and then his hand vanished inside his cloak. When the rider looked up, his eyes seemed to bore through the darkness and seek out Shipman. The Smithy dropped to his knees and scurried away to his sleeping mat. He didn't look out the window again until the sun rose above the tree tops, but his eyelids failed to close for even a moment’s sleep. 

That day, the Blacksmith completed the shoeing of the chestnut mare in record time. The man, or whatever he was, complemented him enthusiastically on a fine job and held out three silver coins for his work, and his kindness. The Blacksmith took the coins, gushing his thanks, but the truth of the matter was he'd gladly forgo the money if the man would just leave. Every moment the rider took to saddle his beast, and gather his belongings, seemed to last an age. When the man finally placed his foot in the stirrup the Smithy was dancing with nervousness. The stranger swept his leg over the horse's rump causing his cloak to flare. Something caught the Blacksmith's eye as it flew across his yard to land in the straw where the stranger had been sleeping. The Smithy thought about saying something but the urge to be rid of his guest was too strong. Instead he raised a hand in salute as the horse and rider strode away content in their new shoes.

Once the rider had forded the river and vanished into the woods on the far side, the Smithy sifted through the straw at the edge of his hay-wain. His hand rested on something hard and he hoped it was silver coin. When he opened his fingers he got the shock of his life. Sitting in his hand was a ruby, as big as a robin’s egg and a red as blood. The value of such a jewel was beyond imagining. He stood there, dumbfounded and for a second considered racing after the stranger to return the gem, but the thought of chasing down a being from the underworld into the darkness of those woods strained even his bravery. He rolled the ruby through his fingers and let the red beams of light play across his eyes. It was such a beautiful thing, and so valuable. He was holding a king’s ransom in his hand.

His started to walk down into the village, eager to show off his prize but doubts crowded his mind. Would they make him race after the stranger or would they believe what he saw last night? Would they want him to share his fortune? Would one of his neighbours steal up on him in the dead of the night to stave his brain in?

In the end Mr Shipman turned around and walked back toward his house. The rider may well return for the jewel so he had better keep it safe for him. There was no point in telling anyone. He lifted the hearthstone and scooped a tiny hollow from the dirt below. Once the granite slab was back in place, the Blacksmith returned to his work but his mind was filled with dancing red light.

The day passed and the stranger failed to appear. That night, the Blacksmith bolted his door, a thing he had never done before, and removed the ruby from its hiding place. Late into the evening, he watched flames dance through the gem. That night his dreams were filled with castles and banquets, fine horses and silken robes. When he unlatched the door in the morning, his treasure was hidden once more and the yard stood empty. As the hours passed and the stranger didn't appear, the Blacksmith began to believe the stone may well never be claimed.

The days turned into weeks and people started to comment on the changes in Mr Shipman. He never came into the village to share a tankard of ale with his friends anymore, in fact he never strayed more than a few yards from his home. His naturally friendly demeanour soured and those who turned up with something to mend were dealt with brusquely and none were ever invited to share an ale or a meal. Even the few copper coins he'd always been so happy to receive were being snatched with impatient hands and vanishing without a word. Slowly, fewer and fewer people called to the forge. Then came the day when the coals weren't lit at all, and Mr Shipman's house door failed to open.

The darkness that hung over the Blacksmiths home deepened and started to spread. One by one, misfortune fell on all the houses of the village. Small things at first like a lame calf or hens refusing to lay, but early in September there came a night so cold it froze the ground solid for two days. By the time it passed, every grain or vegetable waiting for the harvest was scorched black and rotting in the ground.

With no crops to gather the villagers had to resort to killing or selling their livestock. By mid-winter, famine had settled on the inhabitants of Rosendale. Over those long dark months, every family lost members to starvation or sickness. Even Mr Shipman was suffering, he had eaten the last of his hens weeks past and now stood on the brink of starvation himself, but he refused to part with or even speak of the fortune which lay hidden beneath his hearthstone. His soul was devoured by greed, his mind as black as the spuds rotting in the fields. He had the power to save himself, and all his neighbours, but he couldn't make his fingers uncurl their grip on the ruby.

It was the darkest night of January that the storm came. Shipman lay weak on his sleeping mat, floating in and out of dreams while the roof above his head creaked and swayed in the fury of the gale. When he opened his eyes and saw the Fairy King on his threshold, Shipman thought he was dreaming. He watched the handsome man stride in, sweeping the door closed behind him. With a flick of his elegant wrist every candle in the room burst into life, and the fire embers roared upward renewed by fairy magic.

"You have something of mine?" said the man sternly, standing over the now withered Blacksmith. Any words he felt could help were trapped in the Blacksmith's throat by despair. He had come at last. Lonsdale, or whoever he was, held out his hand and the flagstone before the fire began to shudder. With a pop it flipped into the air and the ruby floated across the room to land softly in the stranger’s hand. The tall man closed his fingers without looking on the gem and hunkered down to be near the Blacksmith.

"Did you think I'd be so careless with such a precious thing? Did you not imagine I knew where this lay? You're truly are a foolish man, Mr Shipman."

"I was keeping it for you," said a now terrified iron worker while levering himself into a sitting position with the aid of the mud wall. Thunder split the sky and the hut was lit up as if it were mid-day.

"You take me for a fool? You kept this for yourself, even when it could have saved your friends and your neighbours. You let so many die and for what? A pretty pebble? I gave you the chance to be different, Mr Shipman, an opportunity you squandered. You would be suffering still, but for Girty. You can thank her for my compassion. She said you had gentle hands."

Fat tears ran down the Blacksmiths face and into his wispy beard. The rider stood to leave when he heard the Blacksmith's choked cry behind him. He stopped and turned, "What was that?"

"Please, don't take it from me." crooked the sobbing man.

"This thing?" asked the rider holding out the ruby.

"Please."

"So be it," said the tall stranger with a sorrowful look and tossed the gem to the prone villager. The Blacksmith fumbled but managed to catch the gem in both hands and clutched it to his chest.

"Thank you Sire," croaked the man as fresh tears rolled down his cheeks.

"Look again," said the rider.

Shipman opened his fingers and his face was bathed in golden light. There in his palm stood a tiny fairy with gossamer wings. The creature stuck out his tongue at the Blacksmith before it zoomed upward, leaving a trail of sparkles in its wake as it shot out through the chimney.

The Blacksmith cried out in agony as he stared at the spot his ruby had just been and it was a sound that would freeze a man’s blood solid in his veins.

"Things are not always as they seem," said the rider striding out into the storm.

The next morning the tempest had passed. The village stood damaged, but it still stood. Every house would need repair, fences were down but they had no livestock to keep penned, trees had been uprooted and the river was in flood. In the heart of such devastation, the cries of delight echoing around the glen seemed strange. The raggy boy who had directed the stranger toward the Blacksmith all those months ago had discovered huge wagon sitting on a broken axle by the fording spot. It was laden with every food and animal known to man. The whole village gathered and discussed what to do. Soon, morning turned to noon, they felt the wagon must be a gift from God.

It was decided that every man woman and child in the village would receive an equal share of the bounty and should an owner appear, they would all work in unison to pay off the debt. Even Shipman who still remained locked in his house, was allocated a fair portion. His oldest friend offered to bring the Blacksmith his food.


When the man pushed open the door to the Blacksmith's home he found Mr Shipman sitting up on his sleeping mat, his body as cold as ice and clutching a garden rock in the palm of his hand.
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