The showy red coat looked bright and cheery from a distance, but up close the patched cloth indicated a dismal fairy on his uppers.
“What the feck d’you think you’re doing?” the leprechaun screeched as I caught him by the ear, pinching firmly between thumb and forefinger to make sure he didn’t escape. He wriggled and threw himself around, but I had a good grip and wasn’t about to let go.
“If you release me now, I’ll grant you any wish your heart desires,” he said.
“Do you think I was born yesterday? Save your breath for squealing. One.”
“All right,” he said, sounding deflated. “You win. I’m your prisoner. I’ll do whatever you say.” His shoulders slumped and even the brim of his tricorn hat seemed to droop with dejection.
I kept my face stern. “Two.”
“Who the feck have you been talking to? There hasn’t been a human in five hundred years as knows the forms.”
I waited. Breaking the code would mean expulsion from the land of the Sídhe, and I happened to know that this particular leprechaun had nowhere else to go.
“All right, all right,” he muttered. “I, Finn Brian Mac Hulighan deliver myself up to you, human, to do with me as you will.”
I let go of his ear slowly, holding my breath, but he didn’t run. He sat down on a nearby dry-stone wall and took off his hat to reveal a shiny bald pate.
Three wishes I had earned by catching him, but I’d need to watch every word I said from now onwards lest a chance phrase could be interpreted as a wish.
“First wish,” I said, carefully. “Is a formal audience with the King of the Fairies, held at a place and time of my choosing.”
He scratched his head and crossed his eyes as he tried to find a loophole he could exploit. After a moment, he slapped the hat back onto his head with a grimace of distaste.
“Done, he snapped. Then what?”
“You’ll get to hear the next wish when I’m ready, and not before.”
The king didn’t look happy to be forced to meet a mortal on such a foggy evening, where coiling mist turned trees into monstrous silhouettes – but as ruler of the People of the Mounds, he was bound by the laws at least as tightly as the leprechaun. He’d dressed for a formal meeting, from buckled shoes to tall top hat, but the buckles were tarnished and the top hat sat askew.
“Whad’ya want?” he snarled, arms crossed over his chest.
I swallowed. “You are holding a mortal prisoner in the Land of the Sídhe,” I said, making sure I didn’t phrase it as a question.
He gave a sly smile. “I have many mortals in my realm, and who is to say they are prisoners? They may leave whenever they want.”
“Yes,” I snapped, “but you make sure they don’t want to by bewitching them.” I only just stopped myself from adding, don’t you? “The mortal I’m talking about is my brother, who you tricked into following you. And now you’re keeping him dancing from dusk ’til dawn.”
The king took a step back and I followed him, keeping him on his toes, making sure he knew I meant business.
“My second wish is that Simon McGloan, presently cursed by you for trespassing on a mound, be freed without harm and released to me at a place and time of my choosing.” I’d tried so hard to phrase it as one wish and to make sure they couldn’t just release him at the edge of a cliff, or worse, onto another mound.
The king and the leprechaun went into a huddle a few yards away. I crept closer to try to hear, but their voices were too soft. Finally, the king took a brightly coloured spotted kerchief from his pocket and wiped foggy water droplets from his face.
“Done,” he said. “Ye have been well schooled in the laws of the Sídhe, but mayhap there’s something you’ve forgotten?”
“My final wish is yet to come,” I said.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting the usual?” he sneered. “Fame and enough riches to keep you and your brother in comfort for the rest of your natural lives.”
I shook my head. “My third and final wish is that your own brother, the leprechaun Finn Brian Mac Hulighan, be freed forever from the slavery you inflicted on him for all eternity. No more crocks of gold.”
You could have heard a pin drop. The little leprechaun in the red coat froze, feet together and toes pointing down, hovering about a foot above the green turf. He stared at me with mouth open and eyes wide.
“Why?” he breathed.
“I promised the Hag I’d free you if I could. You can be together now.”
The little man danced a hornpipe, then he turned a somersault and finished by spinning upside down on the point of his hat until I became dizzy watching him.
The king’s eyes were fixed on me. “The Hag helped you?”
“Yes.” And warned me not to trust the king. “Not all The People hate mortals, Highness. There’s room for tolerance between us.” I saw no need to mention the hair and nail clippings I’d collected while I was working as a room maid in the Shelbourne Hotel, a gift to bribe the Hag. They’d give her power over many a politician and business tycoon.
“Ye foolish mortal,” Finn Brian Mac Hulighan said in a hushed voice. “Ye don’t know what you’ve done.”
“I think I do,” I said. “Simon is to be released one hour from now, in Dublin, into room 324 of the Shelbourne Hotel, without harm or distress caused to him. After that, you will leave him alone and never annoy him again.” I held my hand out to the king. He didn’t take it.
“Clever girl,” he said. “But mayhap not clever enough. You’ll be needing these.” He held out a pair of soft leather laced shoes.
As if by magic, the mist rolled back. Blood-red rays from the setting sun highlighted a flowering blackthorn not two paces from me, and beneath my feet lay the rocky surface of a Sídhe mound.