The Forge in the Forest  by Padraic Colum

King Fergus and the Water‑Horse

dropcap image HE shoes with which a man could walk on the surface of the water and walk in the depths of the water once belonged to the Wee Folk of Faerie, and they were given by them to a King in a certain land. Not gladly did the Wee Folk of Faerie give the shoes that were part of their three treasures—they gave them as ransom for their King Iubdan, who was being held by this other King.

Now when this other King—Fergus was his name—obtained these shoes he became fonder and fonder of using them. He went upon the rivers of his land, walking upon the surface of their waters, and he went down into the depths of the lakes. And to the lakes that were at the farthest parts of his kingdom he went more and more. On empty lakes where the boat of a fisherman had never been he would go walking on his fairy shoes. He could follow the wild duck and her brood across the lake, walking on the water. And then he could go down into the depths of the lake and watch all that were there—the great eels moving swiftly through the water and the grey and the speckled fishes moving up and down.

He began to care more for the water with its silence and its strange sights than he did for the upper world with its songs of birds; he was no longer happy when he was sitting upon the judgment seat, or when he was driving in his royal chariot, or when he was hunting upon the plains of his land: his thoughts were always on the silent things that were in the waters of the lakes. Into lakes that were farther away, and into lakes that were deeper and deeper, King Fergus ever went.

There was in his country a lake that no man had ever dived into. This lake was called Loch Rury. King Fergus put on his fairy shoes and went upon the surface of this lake. He went below the surface and down into the depths, and he walked amongst the kingly crowns and the sword-hilts that had been cast into the lake. He walked amongst them saying to himself that no King in all the world had been able to see what he was seeing. And as he was walking there and thinking these thoughts, Muirdris the Water-Horse appeared before him.

The lips of the Water-Horse were drawn back, and on them there was a grin of such malignancy that the heart of Fergus, the King, was as if it had been squeezed and wrung by strong hands. He dashed up to the top of the water as if through drowning waves. He swam upon the lake, struggling, not using the fairy shoes to walk or to run upon the water. He saw the clear sky again and the birds flying across, and he knew that never again would he go down through the depths of the water nor let himself be looked upon by the fearful things that were there.

And then he heard the scream of Muirdris the Water-horse as it came after him through the water. He looked back at the creature, and his face became twisted by the terror that he felt. He threw himself upon the shore, and he lay there until his attendants found him and brought him back to his palace.

The face of Fergus was all twisted and awry. And when they looked upon him in his litter his captains spoke to one another and said, "Our master can no longer be King. No one with a blemish may be King over the men of this land, and this twisted face is a great, great blemish.

So they said as they carried him in in his litter, and the King not hearing them, for he was senseless from terror. But at the Council that they held they said, "If we should bring back the one who should succeed this King, there would be war in this land." And then they said, "Let Fergus rule us still, but let it be kept from the people that his face is blemished, and let it be kept from the King, too, that he may not know of his blemish."

The King never went near water thereafter, and he never saw himself in a stream, or river, or lake. And he never saw himself in any mirror. The Queen had all the mirrors sent out of the palace. And they told the King that a wise woman had told the Queen that she would die upon the day that she saw her face in the mirror with either pallor or a blush upon it.

And those who trimmed the beard or the hair of Fergus did it without having a mirror or any shining thing before them. Before he went into the houses of his nobles, couriers went before him and had the mirrors in the houses and all things with shining surfaces taken away. So by forethought they baffled the malignancy of the Water-Horse.

In his thoughts the King often met the Water-Horse, and in his thoughts he always fled before it. But no one ever said a word to him that might remind him of the lake where he had met the Water-Horse. No one for a long time. And then a bond-maid did it. The King had reproved her for some negligence. She answered him back. And then he took a switch and struck her for answering him back. "If you had been so brave," she said, "when the Water-Horse faced you, you would not now be keeping from the sight of a twisted face."

And then the King remembered that he had never looked at himself in a mirror since he had come out of the lake where he had met Muirdris the Water-Horse. He called to his attendants and ordered them to bring a mirror to him. They brought one and the King looked into it. He saw a face that was twisted and awry. "The Water-Horse of Loch Rury did this to me," he said. Afterwards he said, "I am not fit to be your King, both because I have a blemish and because I have not avenged myself on the creature that put such a blemish upon me as this twisted face."

He took the fairy shoes that he had left aside for so long, the shoes that the Wee Folk of Faerie had given him as a ransom for their King, and he took his great sword in his hand, and once more he went to Loch Rury, and went down into its depths. His people gathered upon the shores of the lake to await what might happen. Their King had promised them that he would win back his own unblemished face.

He went through the depths of the lake. He stood amongst the crowns and the sword-hilts that Kings had cast into it. He heard the scream of Muirdris the Water-Horse. And then it came to him, its teeth bared in a grin of malignancy. The King faced the creature and fought with it, his sword striking at its hard skin and hard sinews while it fought him with teeth and hoofs.


The King faced the creature and fought with it.

The people gathered upon the shores saw the waters of the lake boil up and redden. Then the head of their King appeared above the waters. His face was no longer twisted; from it had gone the blemish that the terror of the Water-Horse had given it. In his hands he held the head of the Water-Horse. "O my people," he cried out to them, "I, and not Muirdris, have conquered." He looked at them, his face unblemished. "Fergus, Fergus!" they cried to him. The land never knew him again; he sank down into the water.