Awley had seldom seen the Grand Himself so angry. Murder blazed in the old fella’s eyes. His bowler hat had fallen off twice, and the waistcoat beneath his swallow-tailed jacket had popped a button. Red-nosed and snarling, he stood at the highest end of the circle of standing stones protruding from the mountainside like crooked teeth in an open mouth.
The congregation of leprechauns seated on the July-thick grass winced each time his knobby shillelagh whacked the podium rock: he’d nearly knocked over his heather beer, Jim Joe’s finest brew.
“Ruination!” Whack! “The worst catastrophe imaginable!” Whack! “Disaster for us all!”
Awley yawned. During these sporadic “emergency” meetings, he liked to nap in the ferns and buttercups, wrapped in his tattered coat, his own shillelagh snug in his hand. He’d get no nap today, however.
“Listen to all that bark and blather,” Toby muttered, draining the last of the beer from his cup. He brushed a few wayward drops from his curly black beard and red bandanna. “He’s already scared all the birds away. If he don’t pipe down, someone from Out There will hear him.”
Quinn sat between them, leaning against his favorite rock. He adjusted his newsboy cap to shield his eyes from the stripes of sunlight shining between the stones. “So what if they do? The mortals think this mountain is haunted. They avoid it even when we’re not here. They wouldn’t dare come near it now, not with us throwin’ off so much glimmer.”
Quinn’s declaration drew Awley’s gaze to the shimmering, ice-blue aura hovering over the ring of stones. The Old Ones who’d lived in Ireland before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Tribe of the Goddess Danu, had erected the slabs, some granite, some quartz, some limestone, some slate. The Dananns had learned that each type of stone gave off its own unique energy. Together, they wielded a powerful force that perceptive beings like the sídhe and a few exceptional mortals could sense. The Old Ones had no doubt used the place and others like it for ceremonial purposes, though no one knew exactly what those purposes were.
Whatever its prior use, this particular enclosure in County Meath had served as the leprechauns’ headquarters for more than a thousand mortal years. Each time the clan members gathered here, the blue light shone above them, a concentration of smoke from the slew of clay pipes they puffed and the glimmer that rendered them small enough to fit inside the circle. Even in the morning sun, the glow would be visible for miles.
“The mortals will stay away, all right.” Awley set his unlit pipe between his teeth. “Too bad we couldn’t stay away too.”
Yet no leprechaun would dare miss a meeting called by Falvey Kilduff, the Grand Himself, current head of the leprechauns, the artisans of the fairy world. From every corner of Ireland they came: metalsmiths, builders, musicians, scholars, and distillers of whiskey and beer, like Jim Joe. Then there were the cobblers, fine shoemakers whose ranks included Toby and Quinn. That busy lot worked nonstop repairing the fairies’ dancing shoes. Awley admired their craftsmanship, though he himself was no shoemaker.
The leprechaun tradesmen included financiers who managed the wealth of the fairy world. For centuries, Awley had worked his way up through their ranks. The bag of coins he’d stolen from the Viking mint so long ago had ignited his passion for coin collecting, a hobby that had grown to a numismatic profession. An esteemed broker of rare and ancient currencies now, he knew Dublin’s coin markets well and acted as a buying and selling agent, not only for the sídhe, but also for mortals who hadn’t a breeze who he really was.
“Would yez look at the cut of yer merman?” Quinn’s gaze was fixed on the guest area, where said sea fairy stood on guard in his fish scale and seaweed suit. “Poor fella looks like a big green leek, and a sad one at that, so far from the sea.”
“Let’s play a prank on him,” Toby said. “Somethin’ funny to raise his spirits.”
Awley assessed the visitors. “We’ll play no pranks on these guests, lads.”
Falvey had summoned envoys from every branch of the Danann tribe. The merman, a representative of Manannan Mac Lir, the mighty King of the Sea, spoke with a leaf-clad forest sprite and a white-haired lake fairy dressed in a turquoise jumpsuit. Chatting with them was the oddball red-haired man named Griff, a jigsaw puzzle piece from the wrong box who’d come from the back of beyond. Also on hand was Becula, Chief Witch of Finvarra, the King of the Connaught Fairies and the tribe’s most powerful wielder of glimmer. Their presence meant something serious was afoot, but so far, Awley had only heard the usual tripe, and Falvey showed no signs of slowing down.
“The accidental uncoverin’ of our treasure stashes is escalatin’.” Whack! “The mortals are buildin’ new roads and housin’ developments.” Whack! “Feckin’ golf courses!” Whack! “And ’tisn’t only the builders. A young lad chasin’ a rabbit in Wicklow found silver coins at the mouth of its den. He ripped the place up with his bare hands and uncovered a crock of coins.” Whack! “Our coins! And what did he do?” Whack! “He brought them to his father, and now they’re in a feckin’ museum!” Whack! “If this keeps up, all our wealth will be in museums, useless to us.”
“Why don’t you move the treasure, Friend Falvey? You’ve done so before.”
Becula’s voice rasped like pebbles tossed into a rusty bucket. Her question drew gasps from the crowd. Of those in attendance, only she would dare interrupt the Grand Himself. Hunchbacked yet taller than everyone present, she stood near the podium rock, bony arms folded, hairy chin raised, the bright blue hue of her cobra eyes marking her one of the sídhe.
Yes, she was one of them, had lived among them since time long past. Yet her ghastly appearance still frightened most of the tribe, and who could blame them? Her scowling, swollen, burlap face would drive rats from a barn. Nevertheless, the Danann clans knew her to be a good friend.
Awley certainly did. If her nose weren’t so mottled and warty, he’d jump up and kiss her for far more than rendering the Grand Himself speechless. Becula had helped him with sensitive projects before. At the end of the meeting, he’d ask for her help again. No other witch he knew could tame a vengeful ghost. Or the Grand Himself. Awley chewed the stem of his pipe and settled back to enjoy the show.
Old Falvey, who’d been shuffling his feet since Becula spoke, nodded with overdone deference. “It doesn’t matter where we move our treasure pots, ma’am. The mortals will find them, and now we have a critical problem. Several tucks of time ago, we buried a hefty treasure stash beneath a pub in Waterford. We set those funds aside to finance this summer’s Lords and Ladies Ball Hop. How could we know the pub owner would lay a new floor? His workers found the coins beneath the old planks.” Whack! “Off to the museum! A massive amount of treasure, and we have no other at hand to turn to mortal cash at the moment. Our royals won’t be happy if they have to wear old gowns and dancin’ shoes to such an elaborate event.”
Worry crimped Becula's face. She rubbed her bristly chin. “Surely you and your leprechauns have more coins, Friend Falvey.”
“We do, ma’am, in smaller amounts and earmarked for other expenses. ’Tis a matter of economics, y’see. Our bankers collect funds from all the leprechauns, much like the mortals collect taxes, and the Chief Banker sets the budget for the lords’ and ladies’ entertainment. We’d allotted the Waterford stash for this Ball Hop, and now we’ve lost it. If our royals want fancy new clothes and a lavish banquet, and we know they do, we’ll all have to chip in to cover the cost.”
Undercurrents of grumbling left no doubt as to the leprechauns’ opinion of that idea. We already paid! Why should we have to pay again? Why should we have to pay at all? We never get to go the parties!
“Silence!” Whack! “’Tisn’t as if we ever invite them to our hooleys, now, is it?”
Awley gripped his shillelagh. He’d need it to help him gain his feet in a moment.
“This news will displease His Majesty,” Becula said. “He promised Queen Oona a new gown for the Ball Hop, for word has reached Knock Ma that the wife of the King of the Sea will have a fine new gown.”
“Yes, Queen Fand has been promised a gown,” said the gloomy green merman, “but I fear this unfortunate loss of funding will dash her hopes.”
“Queen Sabia too has been promised a gown.” The web-fingered lake fairy’s silvery voice proclaimed her a female. “She seldom asks for new clothes. I’d hate to disappoint her.”
“That’s one reason for this meetin’,” Falvey said. “’Tis our responsibility to see that our royals look their best. I have no wish to deplete our individual stores, but I see no other way to pay for the Ball Hop on such short notice. The Chief Banker has some ideas to keep our contributions reasonable. Where is he? Awley O’Hay! Show yourself!”
“You’re on, Awl,” Toby whispered. “Make it good. Last time somethin’ like this happened, Mac Lir called up a tidal wave and wrecked the coast of Kerry.”
“Them royals and their temper tantrums,” muttered Quinn.
Awley agreed. He slipped his pipe in his pocket and raised his arm, shouting, “Here’s my arm, and the rest of me’s comin’!” Digging his shillelagh into the ground, he pulled himself up, half-expecting Toby or Quinn to knock the stick out from under him for a prank.
They didn’t. Not this time.
“I stand ready to serve, Your Grandness.” He swept his arm and made a gallant bow.
Falvey puffed up like a wind-filled sail. “We’re all eager to hear your financial strategy, Awley.”
“I have some ideas, yes, but I’ll start with a suggestion. In light of our lack of time to come up with adequate fundin’, we should cut expenses. That means keepin’ the cost of the Ball Hop down. Instead of flittin’ from palace to palace, our royals might hold their party in one abode.”
The delegates traded worried looks. The merman bit his lip. “I doubt King Manannan would agree to that. He and Queen Fand have been sprucing up their palace to show it off.”
“So have Finvarra and Oona,” said Becula. “Even if they did agree, they’d argue over whose castle would provide the venue. And we’ve all seen what happens when they argue.”
Falvey blew out a knowing sigh. “War. Foul weather. Tidal waves and earthquakes. Sick mortals and mangy cattle. And hungry sídhe. Bad idea, Awley.”
The red-haired man called Griff stepped forward. “I respectfully disagree, sir. As you know, my job is to help keep peace between us and the mortals. No one wants war again. I think Awley’s idea is a good one. The royals have faced tight budgets before. They’ll complain at first, but they’ll comply, as long as they can party somewhere.”
Forehead creased in concentration, Falvey turned his stick in his hands. “They might agree,” he said at last, though he sounded unconvinced. “But wherever they hold the ball, we must find a way to pay for it. Awley, tell us your plan, if you please.”
Awley stood like a king proclaiming a law. “Turn in your pocket coins, everyone!”
Falvey sputtered but couldn’t speak. Not so the other leprechauns. Shouts of outrage pierced the air. The blue cloud above them wobbled like jelly.
“You can’t take our pocket coins!” Mickileen shrieked.
“They’re our power!” cried Jim Joe.
“They’re a gift from the Goddess Danu herself!” shouted Barney.
No one knew who said what, so great was the pandemonium. The coins are sacred! Untouchable! Insult! Evil! Barbaric! Violation of trust!
Falvey whacked the rock nonstop, his calls for order trumpeting over the protests until they ebbed. “Enough! Awley O’Hay, you know the rules. No one can take our pocket coins!”
Awley’s shoulders shook. A loud guffaw burst from his throat. “Ah, I was only messin’ with yez. A little joke to lighten the situation. Listen up, and I’ll tell yez the real deal.”
The Grand Himself chuckled. “You’re a scoundrel, Awley. Good joke, good joke. Now come up here and tell us what we must do.”
“Not funny, Awley,” Quinn growled. “You scared the heart out of us.”
Toby agreed. “Yeah, we’ll get you for this,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Ah, go boil your heads.” Awley’s walking stick thumped as he sauntered toward the podium rock. Holding the stick like a shepherd’s crook, he turned and faced his audience. “As the Grand Himself has stated, we have a problem, one we’ll meet as the competent team we are. I’m askin’ yez to pay out a biteen of change for the party. Consider it an investment.”
“What kind of coins do ye want?” Falvey asked.
“The older the better, well struck and sound. Only gold and silver, and only those with a dandy shine. I’ll take them to the Dublin coin auction next week. The mortals are mad for the things. Bidders call in from all over the world. We should get a good return on the coins, a sufficient amount to cover the cost of the Ball Hop and give yez back the price of your stake, and maybe a handful more.”
Mickileen, one of the oldest leprechauns, nimbly stood and spat. Suspicion warped the wizened face beneath his white-haired head. “We all know that’s how you made your own personal fortune, Awley O’Hay. You have rare coins aplenty in your private collection. Mighty money, or so you claim. Why don’t you front the Ball Hop yourself and get the price of your own stake back?”
Across the enclosure, Barney stood too. “It ain’t that we don’t want to help, Awl, but them auctions is a gamble. What guarantee can you give us that we’d not be throwin’ good money out the window?”
“Shurrup!” shouted Jim Joe, who stood near his beer kegs, ready—or not—to refill cups. “Awley knows what he’s doin’. He has good figuresome sense. That’s why he’s the Chief Banker. I’ll gladly bring him my best coins.”
“So will I,” said Toby.
“And I,” said Quinn.
A new round of griping surged through the gathering. Some sided with Mickileen and Barney, though most agreed with Jim Joe, Toby, and Quinn.
Awley sneered at Mickileen. “Here I am givin’ yez a chance to make a profit, and what do I get? Why don’t you front the Ball Hop yourself? All right, anyone who wants to contribute, bring your best coins to me in Dublin by week’s end. I’ll tell yez fair and square what they’re worth. Anyone who doesn’t want to doesn’t have to, but I for one won’t forget the names of those who’d turn their backs in our time of need.”
“Nor will I,” said Falvey. “What would you have us do, Mickileen? Turn robber again? We only did that to help King Brian triumph over the Vikings. We’re honest leprechauns, we are.”
Mickileen’s head drooped. He pulled at his collar. “Sorry, lads. I spoke out of turn. The beer is affectin’ my brain, is all. I’ll bring a coin or two, if you think ’twill help.”
Awley beamed at his friend. “’Twill, Mickileen. Good man yourself. And now that our plan is in place, what say we refill our cups with Jim Joe’s outstandin’ heather beer?”
Whoops and cheers echoed through the stone circle. The merry sound of fiddles and whistles put paid to the business end of the meeting, though Awley wasn’t quite ready to dance. While his jubilant friends lined up at the kegs, he swaggered over to Becula.
She stood with the more genteel visitors, who seemed reluctant to mingle with the rowdy leprechauns. Awley couldn’t blame them. Honest the leprechauns might be—for the most part, anyway—but during these gatherings, their trademark uncouth behavior degenerated to downright rumbustiousness. They only met once in a while, after all, and he always tried to leave before the fights broke out. Before he joined the beer line, however, he wanted some witchly advice.
Becula saw him approach, for she glued her reptilian gaze to him and stepped away from the other guests. Her hideous yet jovial smile exposed sharp gaps in her jagged teeth. “Greetings, Awley O’Hay. I had a feeling you’d seek me out. How can I help you? Another nid pole in the woods?” She laughed at her joke.
Awley did not. Though a thousand mortal years had passed, the bloody horse head stuck on the nid pole often bedeviled his orderly thoughts. Without Becula, he and his friends would still bear the curse of the sorceress Steng had summoned.
Necessity pulled Awley back to the present. He stepped closer to Becula. “’Tis fine to see you, ma’am. I find I’m again in need of your help. Your latest Draugr Confinement Spell has kept the essence of Steng and his flea-bitten dog beneath the ground for two hundred years or so. They’d no doubt be there forever, but for the Yank ambassador.”
“The American ambassador? Ambassador Gleason? What about him?”
“You know him?”
“I do. His young granddaughter is a friend of mine.” She narrowed her eyes, and Awley cringed. “’Twould displease me if anyone tried to harm her. What’s this all about?”
“The ambassador’s hired diggin’ machines. I don’t know why, but those gizmos are pokin’ too close to the stone we set over Steng’s coffin box. If they disturb it before we can move him to a safer place…”
“Is there a safer place? We’ve moved him three times already. He’ll be like your treasure pots, always in danger of being dug up.”
“If someone finds our treasure, we lose money. If someone finds Steng, the draugr he’s become will awaken.”
“And hunt you down, as he promised. I see more at stake here, Awley. As you well know, a draugr can injure or kill not only the sídhe, but our mortal friends as well.”
She rubbed her chin again and muttered something that sounded like “Janet.” Her cunning crocodile grin appeared, and he knew the fierce light that came on in her eyes. She was preparing for battle, enjoying the game before it began.
“Who or what is Janet, ma’am? If you don’t mind my askin’.”
“Hmm? Oh. Janet is the American ambassador’s granddaughter. The sídhe have caused her much distress. We mustn’t let her suffer again because of us. We must prevent those machines from digging until we can move the money master and his dog.” Her grin grew wider. “The site isn’t too close to the house, I hope. I’ll need silence to concentrate when I chant the spells.”
“Not too close. Behind a stand of trees. You don’t mind helpin’?”
“I never mind helping you, Awley. You’re a cut above your ilk, and I do enjoy getting out of the house. I find few occasions to practice my craft these days. I’ll meet you in Phoenix Park tomorrow.” Yet again, she rubbed her chin. She eyed the leprechauns, most of them lined up and kicking like chorus girls. “Hmm. Perhaps I should leave now, before they lose the run of themselves.”
A cackle and pop, and she vanished. The other visitors barely blinked. They’d all leave by similar means before long.
“Get over here, Awley! Me and Quinn are savin’ a place for you!”
Toby’s shout made Awley realize he could do nothing until Becula returned. He made for the beer kegs and shoved his way through the queue. Then, with a fresh cup of beer in his hand, he joined the conga line.