In a remote hamlet many moons ago there lived a farrier whose air of charm had allowed him to make a marriage above his station to a similarly charming woman, the stripe of whose character he had not bothered to ascertain before the banns. He liked the way she felt in his arms, against his chest, and at that time of his life, little else mattered to him.
His new wife placed great store on the lore and traditions of their part of the world. One of these was to hang a horseshoe above the door of the dwelling place, in order to catch all goodness and keep evil at bay. The farrier however scorned the old ways, and to assert his word over both his wife and the whole of his domain, he nailed their horseshoe to hang from its loop rather than its arms. When she saw what he had done, his wife told him that any milk and honey with which their coming together had been blessed was now as good as spilled. The farrier scowled, and said as if to himself, ‘Next she’ll be telling me that horses talk!’ In the coldest tones of their marriage so far, his wife replied, ‘Mark my words, we will pay a price for this.’ The very next day the farrier was kicked into the following week by an irritable stallion whose hooves he had been overlong in shoeing. He had only a dim notion of how close he had come to being kicked into the afterlife.
On his first day back in the smithy, he hammered the index finger of his left hand broken. The following week having been called to a job, he stepped inside for a drop of the local elixir, and emerged to find that his tools had been stolen. He began to get a name for mishaps befalling him. Many who had once come to him with their beasts looked elsewhere, fearing that he was more bother than he was worth. Some work however still came his way, and soon he began tentatively to remark that the ill-winds which had been blowing his way now seemed to be howling over someone else. ‘Told ye so’ passed his lips all too often. His wife bit back her chidings. Had he considered why, he might have realised that her silence meant something; sense, let alone wisdom, had not yet been knocked into the farrier’s head.
What the silence meant was soon revealed. Walking one afternoon into the stables of the richest man in the district – the man who provided him with the majority of his work – he froze to see his wife bent over a bale of hay while his lord and master made close inspection of parts of her anatomy that till then he had fancied marriage had rendered to him alone.
The shine the lord of the manor had taken to the farrier’s wife went beyond worrying what serfs and vassals made of him, let alone God, and soon after being discovered in flagrante delicto, he arranged for an accident to befall the farrier while on his way to a distant farmstead. Left for dead in a ditch, the farrier crawled his way to the road’s edge, where a passing tinker added him to his collection of scraps, trinkets and ironmongery, and took him on his way. In a town a great distance from the only place he had ever called home, he slowly began to recover his wits and his senses, cared for by the tinker’s wife.
The tinker liked to shoe his own horses, and had the wherewithal to allow the farrier once he was better to renew his trade in the town to which horse and cart had carried him barely alive. Soon he was able to afford his own premises, above the door of which he nailed a horseshoe with its arms pointing to the sky. He did not really believe that fate had anything to do with the chapter of accidents which had befallen him; however, he wasn’t going to take any chances. His heart was clear. He bore his wife no ill will yet neither was he of a mind to take or win her back from the lord of the manor.
One morning he was close to finishing trimming a fine sorrel mare which belonged to a rich landowner whose patronage he had gained. As well as the elegance of her coat, the mare was notable for the two silver bangles which circled one of her forelegs. When he had asked the owner what was their significance, he had been peremptorily told to remember his place. Now amid the blows of his hammer, he was staggered to hear the horse speak. ‘No hands have ever handled my hooves as gently as this farrier’s have.’ So great was his shock that he only narrowly averted another broken finger. The voice was half-neigh, half-maiden, and came to his ears as it might in a dream. ‘I am going mad with overwork. Did this mare really speak to me?’ A silence followed his words; then once again he heard the same strong yet honeyed voice. ‘Yes, it was I who spoke. I believe I have finally met with the man for whom I have long been looking, the one I will make mine if he makes me his, for I can hear in his words and his mind that he has taken blows at the hands of fate as have I.’
Speechless, the farrier stood before the mare and waited for more. ‘Ride me to the head of the great river, and once I have taken a drink there, kiss my nose and rotate the bangles on my foreleg three times each.’ ‘And then?’ ‘And then see once more how life can change from bottom to top in the space of moments.’ Amazed at what the mare was saying more than at the fact that he was talking to a horse, the farrier said, ‘If I steal a horse, I can never come back to this town.’ ‘It is not stealing to ride a horse if the horse herself was stolen in the first place and she asks a good man to free her.’
He was being asked to leave behind his restored good name and a life renewed on the say-so of a talking horse. The farrier realised he was at the mercy of another twist of fate; it was clear to him that he had to follow the path laid down for him. ‘I have remade my life from scratch once before; I can do so again if need be.’ He sent word to the tinker and his wife that he had been obliged to leave immediately, thanking them for all they had done. Then he bestrode the mare, settling into a leather saddle of a fineness beyond his own means. Letting the reins fall, he allowed the mare to carry him across the borders of many wapentakes, following the river back to the spring from which it began. Few words passed between man and beast, yet with each mile he felt the connection growing between them.
When they reached the head of the river, the farrier let the mare wander into the water to drink. As soon as she had finished, he kissed her nose and rotated the bangles three times each. So swiftly that he was never clear how it came to be, the horse transformed into a maiden-spirit asleep on the wet meadow grass by the water, naked save for the two silver bangles on her right arm, and so lovely that the like of it can only be told in tales, and yet is neither to be imagined nor divined. He planted another kiss on her lips, and freed at last from enchantment, she awoke into his arms. At no great distance from the head of the river, the farrier and the horse-maiden began their life together. Children who had the power to transform at will into foals and back into children followed. And the teller of the tale let them all live happily ever after.