In the distance, another noise joined this morning chorus. The faint sound of 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; his mount seeming to favour one leg, laying the hoof more gently than the others.
The rider paused and looked down on Rosendale, a tiny community built on an ancient fording point. Smoke from early morning cooking fires was beginning to pool above the thatched roofs. He gently urged his mount forward, demanding no more than the animal was comfortable to give. Their progress was slow, but it was determined. Before long he clopped betwixt the sleepy houses. He rained his steed to a halt when a rangy boy appeared in a doorway.
"Good morrow, Lad. Do you have a Smithy near about?" he asked, folding back his hood and the morning sun glinted on his long golden locks. The boy looked at him with awe. It was a reaction he was accustomed to. 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; or so he had been told. The boy stood slack-jawed which made him laugh good-humouredly.
"I see the cat has been away with your tongue," he teased, which broke the spell fallen over the child.
"Aye, 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. He stroked the beast’s neck with affection, blowing air across its mussel, something he knew she loved. The animal whinnied and nuzzled his neck.
"There, there, Girty. We'll have you fixed up in no time," he said, stroking the horse’s velvet ears with the touch any lover would envy.
"A fine animal," called a voice, making him jump slightly. A bear of a man stood behind him, watching. 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.
"The very same."
"My mount has thrown a shoe. Can you accommodate us with a few hours rest and a new set of iron for my friend?" he asked, 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," he said, taking the man’s questioning with good humour.
"Coin be coin, no matter what quarter it travelled from. You are welcome, Mr ...?"
"You're welcome to my home, Mr Lonsdale. 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 wife?"
"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 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 they 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 she should rest two nights, mayhap three, before being shod again."
The rider nodded, and although the length of the wait pained him, he said, "What you think best, Mr Shipman."
The Smithy pointed to an open-sided hay manger. "You may loge in yonder rick, if it would please yea."
"It looks as fine as any tavern I've ever encountered," he said, smiling through the lie. He slipped the saddle from Girty and rested it on the fence. Mr Shipman led the horse into his paddock and left her there with a friendly pat on the rump.
The hay was soft and mostly free of insects. He lay back and drew his cowl around his body, feeling every mile of the road he’d travelled pushing down on his eyes. He gladly fell into a dreamless slumber.
The sun was in its final quarter when the sound of hammer on metal roused him. He stretched himself and rose, calling a cheery greeting to the sweat covered Mr Shipman before strolling into Rosendale. 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, in the surrounding grassland. Women waded in the babbling river, slapping sodden garments against the rounded rocks. The air over Rosendale was heavy with happiness which infected everyone who called it home. It was a tonic for his heart.
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. Later, they shared a meal and anyone would have guessed they were life-long friends.
Being a Blacksmith is a proud profession, but it’s a hard one. When he’d first seen the tall, handsome man standing at his forge, he felt uneasy, but when he smiled, he did so with both his face and his eyes. He saw the way the rider dotted on his animal, and that more than anything told him the rider was a good man. When Lonsdale appeared, laden down with food, this virtue was placed beyond doubt.
They shared meals, and good conversation, for three days, but his guest had an otherworldly quality. Perhaps it was his beauty. On the riders last night with him, he 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 from his sleeping mat and crept to the window.
The night was moonless and 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 to who? He was alone. A fountain of sparks rose from the forge while the tall man spoke. Perhaps he was praying. That was when something strange happened.
One glowing spark didn't rise like all the rest. It seemed to dance around the rider’s 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. They were responsible for both good and bad fortune, but he had never seen one before. His heart raced, and his eyes remained glued to 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; 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’d 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 down to land there. Without anger or compassion, the man closed his fingers, crushing the tiny being. The blacksmith was shocked, why would he do such a terrible thing. The rider squeezed his hand for ten ticks of any clock, then opened his fingers. Something glimmered in the light of the forge as the rider looked at it. He seemed satisfied, and stowed whatever he held in his cloak. Shipman moved to get a better look and the rider looked in his direction; as if he’d heard the him. The man’s eyes searched the darkness for the one who spied on him. Shipman dropped to his knees and scurried back to his sleeping mat. Whatever the Fairy King was up to, it was no business of his. That night, he failed to find even a moment’s sleep.
In the morning, he completed shoeing the chestnut mare in record time. The man, or whatever he was, complimented him 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 just to get rid of the stranger. Every moment the rider took to saddle his beast seemed to last an age. The man finally placed his foot in the stirrup and swept his leg over the horse's rump causing his cloak to flare. Something flew from it and landed in the hay where the stranger had been sleeping. He thought about telling the rider but the truth was, he wanted the man gone. Instead, he raised a hand in salute as the man rode away.
Once he was alone, he sifted through the straw and his hand found something hard. He hoped it was another silver coin but 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. He considered racing after the stranger to return the gem, but the thought of chasing down a being from the underworld strained his bravery. He rolled the ruby across his fingers and let the light play across it. He had never seen anything so beautiful.
He started to walk down into the village, eager to show off his prize but doubts crowded his mind. Would they make him give it back? Would they want him to share his fortune? Would one of his neighbours steal up on him in the dead of night, to stave his brain in? In the end, he turned around and walked back toward his house. The rider may well return for the jewel, so he’d better keep it safe. There was no point in telling anyone else. He lifted the hearthstone and scooped a tiny hollow in the dirt below. He put the jewel in the hole and replaced the granite slab. All day he worked, but his mind was filled with dancing red light and the desire to hold the gem once more.
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 hidden once more; the yard was empty. As the hours passed and the stranger failed to appear, he began to believe he might get to keep the stone.
Days turned into weeks, and people started to comment on the changes in Mr Shipman. He never came to 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. None were invited to share an ale or a meal. 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 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 thawed, every vegetable waiting to be harvested was 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 people to starvation or sickness. Even Mr Shipman was suffering, he’d eaten the last of his hens and was on the brink of starvation, but he refused to speak about his treasure. 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 release the ruby.
It was the darkest night of January that the storm came. He lay on his sleeping mat, floating in and out of dreams, while the roof above his head creaked in the fury of the gale. Something made him open his eyes and was shocked to see the rider standing over 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 him. In his withered state, he had no hope of defending himself. He was powerless to stop the man taking his precious ruby. Lonsdale, or whoever he was, held out his hand and the flagstone flipped into the air. The ruby floated across the room to land softly in his palm. The tall man closed his fingers on the gem and hunkered down to glare into his eyes.
"Did you think I'd be so careless with such a thing? Did you not imagine I knew you had it all this time? You're truly are a foolish man, Mr Shipman."
"I was keeping it for you," he said, levering himself up against the mud wall of his hut. Thunder split the sky, and the hut was lit up by lightening.
"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, unsure if he was going to live or die. The rider stood to leave and he couldn’t help crying out for his treasure. The Fairy King stopped and turned, "What was that?"
"Please, don't take it from me," he sobbed.
"This thing?" asked the rider holding out the ruby.
"Please," he snivelled, holding out his hands, begging.
"So be it," said the tall stranger with a sorrowful look, and tossed the gem to him. He fumbled, but managed to catch the gem, clutching it with both hands to his chest.
"Thank you, Sire," he croaked and fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. He couldn’t believe his luck. It was really his to keep.
"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 it’s tongue and zoomed away, leaving a trail of sparkles in its wake. It shot up the chimney and was gone.
The Blacksmith cried out in agony. "Things are not always as they seem," said the rider striding out into the storm.
The next morning the tempest had passed. The village was damaged, but it still stood. Every house would need repair and fences were down, but with no livestock to keep penned, that was a job that could wait. Trees had been uprooted, and the river was in flood. In the heart of such devastation, cries of delight echoed. The rangy boy who had directed the stranger toward the Blacksmith all those months ago had discovered huge wagon, filled with food, abandoned in the middle of the village. The whole community gathered and discussed what to do. Hunger might have had something to do with their decision because they declared the wagon, 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 Blacksmith's door, he found Mr Shipman sitting up on his sleeping mat. His body was as cold as ice, his face seemed to be frozen in a scream. In his outstretched hand, he held a lump of dirty grey stone, as if offering it up in his final moments.