The horses screamed. Their galloping hooves thundered over the moonlit plains of Galway. Jewels embedded in their foreheads reflected the flames they breathed. The riders’ capes flew wide behind them in an even green array. No hint of a winner yet.
The finish line, a sloping stream, appeared in the night like a ribbon of sparkling stars. Finvarra roared with joy and spurred his stallion hard. Bracing its mighty quarters, the black beast leapt high and hurtled ahead of the others.
Finvarra won every race, yet he exulted in each victory as if it were his first—at least until the competition ended. Quickly bored yet again, the King of the Connaught Fairies wished himself home to the crystal palace beneath the hill the mortals called Knock Ma.
He climbed the steps from the stables thinking that home was looking tired these days. When the glimmer slipped, as it did when the troop diverted their magical muscle to dancing or racing their horses, the wear and tear of the centuries glared. Cracks had appeared in the ivory stairs, and the flickering golden sconces ought to emit a more pleasant perfume. Little holes dotted the rock crystal walls: misfortune had forced Finvarra to sell the decorative gemstones.
He swept through the arched entrance to the bustling, music-filled banquet hall. Decked out in their tattered party attire, the laughing fairies were whirling and reeling around marble pillars. Those taking their turn as liveried servants carried ale to the dancers. In wooden cups!
What would they eat tonight? Bad luck to the Munster fairies who owned the bottomless cauldron that never ran out of food. Perhaps one day Finvarra would lead his troop on a raid to steal the vessel from them. In the past, when the mortals believed in the fairies, the peasants left milk and butter on their windowsills every night. The wealthier mortals offered kegs of good wine and tasty oat cakes. Now the troop had to pilfer what they could, though they didn’t seem worried as long as they could dance.
They spun around couches covered with matted, mangy furs. Half the candles in the chandeliers had burned out. Cobwebs covered the tapestries.
Finvarra stomped into the room. “Have a care for the glimmer, my friends!”
The startled fairies stopped in their tracks. Turning their heads like addled owls, they squeaked and tsked as if they’d only just noticed the deterioration around them. Once they’d boosted their glimmer and cloaked the hall in its former glory, Finvarra cheerily retired to the private rooms he shared with Oona.
With the glimmer in full force, all was as it should be. Gems adorned the furniture. Silk brocade trimmed with gold covered the bed. Seated before the smokeless hearth, he sipped a goblet of so-so wine and watched his stunning queen prepare for her next outing. Oona primped before a gilded mirror, changing the color of her big round eyes, finally selecting periwinkle.
Whatever color she chose, her eyes beguiled Finvarra. He adored her. “Where are you going, Oona?”
“To Gort, to catch a hurling match. You know how much I appreciate the mortal players’ skill.” Her voice trilled as it always did when a rollicking good time chanced her way.
“I know how much you appreciate the mortal players’ physiques.” Finvarra grew jealous, not of the players, but that Oona had something to do and he didn’t. “Ah well. Have your fun. I’ll find some means to amuse myself.” He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Perhaps I’ll order a formal ball.”
Yes, that would do it. How brilliant he was! Though he joined in an occasional polka or jig downstairs, ages had passed since he’d spent an entire night dancing. A proper ball would occupy him for a good long stretch, but he must find a mortal woman. The female fairies might be nimble, but a mortal woman had more grip to her—and Finvarra enjoyed his gripping.
Oona tossed her head. Her thick blond hair cascaded over her shimmering curves and swept the gilded floor of their boudoir. “I heard the mortal king is having a ball soon. Such a shame his clan no longer invites us to their parties.”
Finvarra considered her words. “It has been some time, hasn’t it?” Wounded by the perceived insult, he punched the palm of his hand. “I should have let him die in that battle! We rode with the Irish and fought bravely. I doubt they would have succeeded in trouncing the Vikings without our magic. King Brian himself would be dead if I hadn’t personally saved him from assassination. Then where would Ireland be? They’d have presidents and prime ministers instead of kings. Why does Brian spurn us? Why, Oona? We’ve been good friends to him.”
Oona’s reflection smiled at him from the mirror, her aging face still heart-shaped and lovely. “How often must I tell you, sweet? You saved Brian Boru nearly a thousand mortal years ago. Ireland has a different King Brian today. Same lineage, same name, but generations have passed for the mortals since the Battle of Clontarf.”
Finvarra often forgot such tedious details. “Ah yes. Modern, they call themselves now. Building, always building. They used to know better than to violate our homes, but they’ve damaged several of our forts and hawthorn trees lately. I can’t abide the noise, and our coffers won’t bear the strain of paying for repairs much longer. Why, the mortals have made a golf course out of Cousin Donn’s sand hills down in County Clare! Ripped one of his finest hawthorn trees right out of the ground. I would have blinded the thieves, for all the good it would do. They don’t believe in us anymore, Oona.”
A tiny pout appeared on Oona’s mulberry lips. “That is a concern, but we have lots more forts and palaces. Why don’t you have the troop keep a closer watch on them? Tell them to wield our old mischief when the builders approach. Nothing too extreme. Make their machinery stall. Untie their shoelaces so they trip. They’ll believe in us then.”
Oona applied her glimmer. A burst of youthful beauty masked her true appearance. Decay had crept into more than the palace: the fairies were growing old. They needed the mortals’ belief to keep them young and maintain their magic at adequate levels, but the mortals no longer believed in them. What would become of Finvarra and his troop? Of all the fairy folk in Ireland, for that matter?
“I’ll give it some thought,” he said. “Right now, I want to dance. I must obtain a mortal dancing partner.”
“Have Becula help you. She has a knack for finding suitable partners from Out There. But remember, darlin’. We promised the mortal kings we wouldn’t keep the girls anymore. Just borrow them for a dance or two and send them back with no harm.”
Finvarra sighed. He hated rules, but maintaining the mortal women had proved more trouble than they were worth. The troop had to feed them, and they eventually aged and died, even in the fairy realm, where they lived much longer than they would Out There. They were down to three mortals now, ancient women far too old to dance. Now they spun cloth and helped serve food at special parties. In their youth, they’d favored Finvarra with many hours of dancing and other delights. He would miss them when they were gone.
“The same goes for you and your hurling lads, Oona. Don’t be bringing them back here.”
She shot him a lusty smile. “Of course not.”
“And don’t be away too long. I may enjoy dancing with mortals, but I prefer your company.”
“Oh, Fin, you say the loveliest things.” She patted his face, studying him as she did. “Be sure to spruce up your glimmer before you meet your mortal dancer. You wouldn’t want to frighten her.” She kissed him and vanished.
Lips still tingling, Finvarra glanced in the mirror. The handsome youth he’d been for ages no longer stared back at him. He’d grown shorter, and his golden locks had faded to lifeless silver strings. And his face! Grizzly stubble blotched his once smooth cheeks; webs of lines rimmed shrunken eyes whose brilliant azure had dulled to gray.
Peeved that his regal good looks had melted away, he let out a roar that would reach every corner of Ireland: “Becula!”