The Swarthy Smith of the Socks

“Let us place a bet. I will bet you three hundred marks that I will make something for the next fair, that nothing you can make within the same time could ever surpass.”

By Liana Paraschaki

Once a month, the city of Edinburgh witnesses the magic of a fair. There are stands everywhere, people selling and buying anything as far as the imagination goes. But our imagination need not go that far; the Swarthy Smith, despite years of training and hard work, only ever managed to make socks for ploughs. So, once a month, he took his white horse and his brown cart filled with socks and attended the fair.

One day, after leaving the fair, the Swarthy Smith went to the nearby inn for a pint of ale and a hearty meal. There, he met the King’s smith, and the two men, as men do, started boasting and bragging to one another, neither of them willing to admit that they were equal in craft as they were in boast. Finally, the King’s smith thus spoke:

“Let us place a bet. I will bet you three hundred marks that I will make something for the next fair, that nothing you can make within the same time could ever surpass.”

The Swarthy Smith accepted the bet, and placed one of his own, betting another three hundred marks that he could, indeed, best the smith of the King.

But, the Swarthy Smith forgot. The next day, he returned to his village and his smithy and made his socks. Days went by, and then weeks, but the smith made nothing but his socks. The eve before the fair, a stranger walked into the smithy and reminded the smith of his own bet.

“How are you planning on winning your bet? If you do not begin swiftly, surely you will lose.”

“I have placed no such bet. I am unsure of what you are talkin’ about.”

“Oh, but you have! I was there, I heard you with my own ears. You placed a bet against the King’s smith.”

“Then let me lose. I have only ever made socks.”

“I will do no such thing. Promise to give me half of your earnings and, in return, I will make you something that will best the King’s smith,” said the stranger.

And the smith happily accepted.

The stranger handed him a box. “Now remember, when the King’s smith asks to see what you have made, remind him that, as he was the one to bet first, he should show his own first. That is how you will win.” And with those words, he turned on his heel and left, leaving the smith all alone.

The next morning, the Swarthy Smith and the smith of the King met at the inn once again, boxes in hand and winning smiles plastered on both of their faces. Just as the stranger had predicted, the King’s smith urged the Swarthy Smith to open his box first, but the smith reminded his opponent that he who placed the bet first should be the first to open his box. And so it happened. The King’s smith opened his box and a stag jumped out. Quickly, the Swarthy Smith opened the stranger’s box and released a deer-hound. The hound ran after the stag, only stopping once it caught the beast and dropped it at the smith’s feet. The King’s smith admitted his defeat, and gave the swarthy smith every last penny of the bet placed.

It wasn’t long before the two men placed another, similar bet. They were, once again, to meet in a month’s time, and try to best one another again.

The Swarthy Smith returned to his village and his smithy. The first thing he did upon his return was to hide the marks in a hole under the doorstep, but after that he seemed to have forgotten about his bet once more. He, simply, went back to making socks. Days went by, and then weeks, but the smith made nothing but his socks.

The eve before the fair, the same stranger walked into the smithy. Once again, the smith remembered neither his bet nor what it was about. This time, the stranger had one more request.

“If you promise me half of your earnings, and that you will never return to the inn after the eve of morrow, then I will make you something that will win you the bet.”

“I promise.”

And so, the stranger set to work. He handed the smith another one of his boxes, reminding him again that he ought to open his box last. “Remind the King’s smith that he was the first to wager, so he should be the first to show his technique.” The smith agreed.

And so, it happened. The following day the two men met once again, this time on a water side, as the stranger had insisted the Swarthy Smith not go to the inn. The King’s smith opened his own box first, and released a salmon into the water. The Swarthy Smith then opened his box, and an otter sprang out after the salmon, quickly catching the fish in its mouth.

“It seems that I have won, once again,” said the Swarthy Smith.

“Indeed you have,” replied his opponent, “and if you join me at the inn I will pay my debt to you.”

“That, I cannot do, as I have made a promise never to wager again. Alas, fulfil your debt, and let us part here.” And so it happened. The Swarthy Smith placed the coins in his pocket and returned to his village and his smithy and made his socks once again.

A few days later, the stranger returned, this time to collect his own debt. The smith refused, promptly forgetting both his own promise and the stranger’s kindness. The stranger was forced to leave the smithy, but not before leaving something behind.

The following day another gentleman walked into the smithy, his horse in need of shoes. The Swarthy Smith replied, “I have never in my life made anything except from socks for ploughs!”

“Many a thing a man could make, if he only had the courage to try!”, said the stranger. And so the two men set to work together.

The stranger reached for his horse. In one swift motion, he chopped off its two front legs, right below the knees. The horse screamed in agony, blood pooling all around them, staining them a crimson red. The man, blood-stained, and yet determined, reached for the hinder legs of the horse and did the same. Soon, the poor horse laid in a pool of red, unable to move, or even lift its head. The two men took the legs and placed them in the fire. After a short while, the stranger urged the smith to remove the legs, and the two men, working together once more shod the legs, their cruel hands leaving bloody handprints on the hilts of their hammers. Once they were finished, they nailed the horse’s legs back into place. This time, the horse had neither the strength nor the ability to scream. It simply rose, good as new, and once the stranger was safely on its back, galloped away.

The Swarthy Smith was ecstatic, and he soon called out to his wife: “Bring me my white horse! I will no longer pay the town’s smiths to shoe my own horse; now, I can make do without them!”

At once, he reached for his own knife, and cut off the horse’s legs, paying no mind to the animal’s cries, or the blood that now seemed to have seeped into the wooden floorboards. After a short while, he removed the first leg, ready to strike once more. Only this time, there was nothing but charred bone left behind, all the muscle and sinew stripped away by the fire. Striking it was pointless, but the smith tried so anyway, breaking the bone into a thousand charred pieces. There was nothing to be done. There was only bone left behind, and the legless carcass of a once sturdy horse.

Soon after, a third gentleman walked into the smithy, followed by two old crones. “Will you make me a young maiden in their place?” the stranger requested.

“But how could I? I have only ever made socks!”, the smith cried out.

“Then let me make use of your smithy, and with your help, we shall succeed,” argued the stranger. The smith agreed. The two men grabbed the old women and, without much hesitation, threw them in the blistering fire. Once they removed their bodies from the heat, they set to work, hammering and striking, until the most beautiful maiden either of them had ever seen took shape before them. The stranger paid the smith handsomely, and he and his young maiden departed from the smith, hand in hand.

Oh, how delighted the smith was! He and his wife had yearned for a daughter, a beautiful child that had never come. But now the smith knew the secret, two old women, for a young maiden. “I can give you that which we never had before. My wife, I now know how to make us a daughter, if you would only call your own mother and mine.”

The result was the same. The smith could not replicate that which the stranger had done. Once he reached into the fire, his hands only touched charred bone, his smithy filled with the scent of the burned flesh of his own kin. He wished he could scrub his nostrils clean, wash the death off his hands, and wipe the guilt away, like sweat from his forehead. But death crawled all around him, and his smithy, once a place for mindless work, was now haunted by the blood spilled inside it.

Days passed, and then weeks, and soon the first gentleman returned to the smithy, looking for his share of the money one last time. The smith, however, refused once again. He had sacrificed his horse, his own mother to the fire. He was not about to lose his coins as well. His refusal angered the stranger, and he grew in anger, and grew, and grew, and grew, so large and so terrifying that the smith feared he would suffocate. At long last, he agreed to give him his money. The stranger calmed, and soon became smaller and smaller, until he became so small, he could fit into the smith’s purse. With one quick jump, the stranger leaped into the purse, and found himself surrounded with golden coins.

But the smith was very fast. He quickly tied the purse strings together, placed the purse on the anvil and used his hammer to strike down as hard as he could. One, two, three. The third strike was met with the loudest bang ever heard in the village. The smith’s wife ran terrified to the shop, almost certain of her husband’s death.

But, there was the smith, his hair plastered on his forehead, glistening with sweat. “He may have cheated me out of my property, but, at last, I cheated him out of his life.” The laugh he let out, was ecstatic, a sort of almost maniacal joy.

He wrapped his hands around his purse, and made for the doorstep. His fingernails were still dirty with the blood of his dead, and his mouth filled with the taste of death and guilt and senseless revenge. He grabbed his hammer once again. And started making a sock.