The Iron Shoes

The old ones had always lived in the north. They were the north, born of the rocks and streams which flow still over the mountains and where perhaps the wild heart of the north beats on. And perhaps it seemed that they would live forever, for how can a land imagine, when the purple heather blows on the summer mountain side, that that land will ever die? But then came men, and the old ones and the old ways faded to myth. And then came God, and myth became heresy.

On a perfect spring evening, as the clear sun-light kissed the primroses and the birds sang so beautifully it was hard to believe the land was dying, a perfect spring evening which seems to last for ever, which could have been last year, or ten years ago, or a hundred years ago, one of the last goblin girls was swimming in the river. The young man, walking along the bank, saw her and her beauty took his breath away. She felt him watching her, turned and smiled, for he was a handsome young man, and she was young and liked to be flattered.

He sat beside her, a little nervously, for he had never talked to a goblin girl before, but she looked so kind and young and pretty that he soon forgot to be afraid and talked and laughed with her quite naturally. When it grew dark, he had to go, for cattle weren't safe left out at night. But he realised he couldn't bear never to see her again. And she, too, wanted very badly to see him again. She promised to come back to the river tomorrow.

She kept her promise, for the old ones always do. And she wanted very badly to see him again. They swam in the river, splashing like children, and neither of them had ever been happier. They lay on the bank, letting the sun dry them, and wished that evening could last forever. Just the river, the sun, the heron on the bank, and the two of them. But he had to go back to his farm and his cows, and so he left her for another night.

He couldn't live without her, it would break his heart. But he knew that it was the most depraved heresy to go with a goblin, to run to the wilds, so he couldn't go away with her. He thought of what the priest would say, and hadn't the courage. So he took a pair of iron shoes. When he met her again, he forced them onto her. At first she fought, and kicked and screamed, for the iron burned her as if it had been heated on a forge, but then she sank down fainting and lay there quietly, panting like a deer caught in a gin.

And he took her back to the village to be his wife. He asked her if she was all right, but she wouldn't answer, she couldn't speak. She couldn't speak when the priest poured his water over her. She couldn't speak when he showed her the ring, a pretty one, real gold. She never spoke again. She only faded away, silent and sad, spending hours standing in the meadow listening for the voices she could no longer hear.

The year turned. The wild bluebells bloomed again in the meadows, and the girl's stomach began to swell. He noticed, and was delighted. He had always wanted a baby, it was so wonderful to have a family. He told her, hoping it would make her happy, hoping he would see that smile again, one more time. But she didn't smile, she didn't look at him. The next day he went off to war. The war lasted months. When it was over, the sea was red with blood, the fields were scorched black and of all the young men, he was the only one left alive.

He returned alone to his village. His wife was lying on the bed, dead. The sheets were stained with blood and of the baby there was no sign. His heart broke as he stood over the bed. He had never cried since babyhood, and he never cried again. Or smiled. But he cried then. They say he went mad, that now he sits all day in the meadow, looking towards the mountains, listening for laughter he says he hears sometimes, a child's laughter.