Dublin, Ireland - January 1014
The earthen wall ringed the town to protect it, but no wall could keep Ireland’s weather away. Storm clouds blackened the winter morning and turned the River Liffey to slate. Awley knew then that the game would go wrong, but he meant to do his duty. He shifted the bag he’d slung over his back and eyed his comrades.
Toby and Quinn seemed unfazed by the darkening sky. They stood near a noisy cooper’s shop to avoid the crush of foreigners the native Irish called the People of Thor, the Norse, the Ostmen, Land Leapers, Danmarkers, Vikings, and other names far less polite.
Gusts of wind blew scraps of refuse around the street. Chins tucked into their cloaks and collars, the people rushed over the split-log streets unable to see the three leprechauns.
The leprechauns saw each other perfectly. Shorter than the men and women bustling up and down the lanes, they wore bark-brown tunics, leaf-green leggings, and buckled goatskin boots. Their belts held assorted weapons and tools, including leather cudgels.
A pointed green cap crowned Toby’s black curls. He had a face so long and thin, he could kiss a goat between its horns. The whites of his bright blue eyes were red from last night’s beer, but his gaze was sharp, his stance unswerving.
“Where did all these foreigners come from?” he muttered. “Yez’d think the world and his wife had moved to Dublin.”
A merchant in a fur-trimmed cloak charged by. Toby sneered and spat.
So did Quinn, who wore no cap. His wiry orange hair blew wild in the drizzly breeze. “Look at the cut of him, him and his fur cloak. He’s afraid of a hardy bit of a day, but he and his ilk leave the Irish hungry. I ought to kick him into the middle of next week.”
Awley silently scolded himself for letting his nerves get the better of him. What could go wrong with these two backing him up?
Toby wrinkled his crooked nose. “Those fish stalls we passed nearly killed my poor nose, but this skinner’s row stinks even worse, and from more than the straw in your sack, Awley lad.”
Quinn agreed. “’Tis a vile place, all right. Almost as odoriferous as the time the Grand Himself fell into the privy.”
Awley smiled at the memory. He’d held his breath then as he had today, when he and his cronies had climbed the winding street where braying women swatted flies from the fish and the other sea creatures they sold. Yet as bad as the barrels and fish carts had smelled, the stench at this highest and busiest part of the town would knock a banshee senseless.
On one side of the narrow lane, smoked and salted meat hung from wooden poles. Beneath them, butchers in blood-soaked aprons calmly slaughtered livestock. The open shops on the opposite side belonged to the leather men, who tanned the animals’ hides and fashioned the foreigners’ shoes and belts, and scabbards for their keen-edged swords.
Toby swung his head from side to side. “Where are we, Awl? Which way do we go?”
Breathing through his mouth, Awley studied the street to get his bearings. The thoroughfare to his right ran to the dubh linn, the black pool at the convergence of the Liffey and Poddle Rivers. A Celtic ringfort once stood on the spot. The People of Thor destroyed it to build their ugly fortress. In its shadow, Viking craftsmen plied their trades. Some carved ivory, antler, and bone to make spindles and combs for the dour foreign women. The weavers dressed them in linen and silk. The jewelers adorned them with amber and fine black jet.
The artisans’ shops at that end of Dublin smelled better. In fact, the wine merchants’ quarter oftentimes cast a right winsome perfume. Awley wished he were robbing them today, but here he was in the skinners’ row with the bloody butchers and leather men. He was glad that Hazel had stayed behind at Dougall’s Bridge.
The leprechauns had to go west without losing their way in the rambling lanes and alleys, but which way was west? Awley studied the sky. Roiling storm clouds smothered the late-rising sun. Yet below him flowed the river that bordered the northern edge of the town.
He cursed the dragon ships clogging the water. “This way,” he said, jerking his thumb to the left.
At the end of the street, they came to a forge, where sweating blacksmiths in leather aprons pounded their hammers on anvils. Awley sensed iron and copper inside. Those metals would also be in the mint, as would an abundance of silver. Yet he and his friends would come to no harm. Unlike the rest of the Danann tribe, leprechauns were impervious to the lethal aura of metal.
He knew where he was now. The mint run by Steng the Money Master, the biggest Norseman he’d ever seen, should be just ahead.
It was. They approached the building and paused near the entrance.
“All right, lads. I’ll dash inside and have a squizz. Keep watch, and don’t forget to keep up your glimmer.”
Quinn and Toby took their posts on either side of the door. Awley stole into the mint and stopped to inspect the place. As in every Norse home and shop, a fire blazed in an open pit in the center of the floor. Perfect.
The warm air reeked of molten metal, mortal male sweat, and something else. A dog?
Yes. It slept in a corner, its pointed ears and long white muzzle making it look like a wolf. He knew the breed. A miserable sort, only half the size of the great Irish wolfhound, but a dog was a dog. No glimmer could hide the Goddess Danu’s tribe from dogs. If it opened its eyes, it would see him. He had to be careful, and quiet.
Another step. Surveying the moneyers at their work, he easily picked out Steng. A bucket-headed mortal with bulging muscles and long black hair, he stood at a table weighing metal scraps in the hanging pans of a balancing scale. In his jarring accent, he explained the task to a lanky Danmarker youth. His apprentice, no doubt.
Around their necks, both wore leather thongs that held not only the hated symbol called Thor’s Hammer, but also the cross the Christians wore. Awley’s lip curled in disgust.
Merchants. Always ready to trade with both sides.
The other men wore similar pendants. Clad in white wool and dingy leather, a gray-haired foreigner banged away at an anvil to flatten a piece of silver. Near him, a blond and burly man wielded shears to cut silver sheets into narrow strips. A third man struck a series of coins, imprinting the head of the Norse King of Dublin, Sitric Silkbeard, onto blank silver discs with a hammer and rod-shaped die.
Steng the Bucket Head handed the boy a bowl filled with silvery metal. “We’ll melt this today, Hallfred. Add it to the cauldron with the rest of what we’ve weighed and hang the pot in the oven. We’ll need a good strong fire.”
Hallfred pointed to a leather sack on the table. “What about that bag, sir?”
Steng gazed at the bag so long, Awley thought he’d forgotten the question. At last he said, “That one is special. Lock it in the storage room with those silver coins. No sense tempting thieves.”
Awley frowned. They had to strike now. His spies had reported that Steng would receive an important delivery, though they didn’t know when or what it was. Perhaps the special bag was it.
The silver coins Steng mentioned—the three bags Awley meant to snatch—sat across the room, beneath a row of wall pegs jammed with spears and broad-blade swords. Gauging the distance from the door to the sacks, he figured how much time he and his friends would need to grab a bag apiece and make their escape. A speck of an hour should do it. They were young leprechauns, after all. Not fully fledged yet, but that would soon change.
After today, the Grand Himself would trade their probationary trial coins for their permanent pocket coins. The gold coins, a gift from the Goddess Danu herself, augmented the leprechauns’ already potent glimmer. Awley couldn’t wait.
Having learned all he could, he backed into the busy street and relayed his findings.
Toby’s jaw tightened. “What do you think, Awl? Can we do it?”
“We can if we don’t wake the dog.”
Quinn smacked his cudgel. “We’ll deal with the dog.”
“I’m hopin’ there’ll be no need. Listen up, lads.” Awley described what he’d seen and told them where to find the sacks. “Give me a minute to muck up the fire. Come in when I wave. No noise. And for feck sake, mind the dog. We each grab a bag, shrink it with glimmer, and run like a husk of hares with a wolf on our tails.” His tone grew somber. “For that’s what we’ll be, should they learn we’re about.”
“They won’t,” Toby said. “And if by some chance they do…” He tapped the cudgel on his belt. “Ready, Quinn?”
Quinn dipped his chin. “As the mortals say, talkin’ won’t get the fields plowed, and Hazel will be waitin’.”
She would, Awley thought, pleased by the idea but chasing it from his mind. Wishing he’d worn his gloves, he reentered the mint and slid the bag from his shoulder. He’d gathered the straw from a cow pen, choosing the dampest, moldiest, filthiest stalks he could find. The first handful he tossed in the fire pit dimmed the glowing coals. A second scattering sizzled and steamed. Sooty black tendrils rose toward the roof.
A growl crept from the corner. The dog had opened its eyes, big round things as brown as an otter’s back. Awley stifled a curse and thrust his hand back into the bag.
The third toss of straw caused raven black smoke to pour from the fire pit, reminding him of the clouds billowing over the river. His sense of foreboding returned. He quashed it at once and raised his scarf to cover his mouth and nose. A jingle of the trial coins in his pocket boosted his glimmer to let him see through the smoke.
The dog barked.
Keeping an eye on the hound, he turned and signaled Toby and Quinn. They bolted in, their scarves protecting the lower half of their faces.
Awley pointed. “The bags are there. Grab one, shrink it, and go!”
The choking moneyers scolded the trembling apprentice for fouling the fire. They cursed his sputtered pleas of innocence.
“Hallfred!” shouted Steng the Bucket Head. “Clear the smoke and clean the shop!” He and his coughing mates left Hallfred behind and ran for the door.
Toby and Quinn were right behind them, shrunken sacks in their pockets, cudgels in their hands. Toby stopped at the door. “Awley! What in Danu’s name are you waitin’ for?”
“Go on. I’ll be right there.”
He’d already shriveled his sack of coins. Paying no mind to the barking dog, he ran to the scales and grabbed the special bag. Whatever was in it, he couldn’t leave it, not with war in the air. Better to throw it into the river so no one could have it—after he checked its contents.
He jingled his trial coins. The special bag shrank. He tucked it in his pocket beside the other sack and turned to go.
The growling dog stood staring at him, its pointed fangs bared, its fur on end. Holding his breath, Awley gripped his cudgel.
“Roki! Get out here, you stupid cur!”
The hound whimpered and cantered outside to Bucket Head. Awley released his breath.
A pail of water sloshed in Hallfred’s arms. He stumbled through the pungent smoke, hacking and gasping as if someone were strangling him. Once he’d doused the fire pit, he staggered out the door. He slammed right into Toby.
Hallfred went down. Toby yelped. The break in his concentration cut off the flow of his glimmer. The sack of silver coins fell full-sized from his pocket and jangled to the ground. Thank Danu the bag was tied shut! Toby popped into view beside Hallfred, and Hallfred screamed.
The snarling dog barked. Steng the Bucket Head kicked the beast and grabbed it by its collar. “Silence, Roki. It’s only smoke.”
Seizing the diversion, Awley and Quinn rushed to Toby’s aid. The crowd that had gathered could see him now, though from their shouts, the risk that the fire would spread to their shops and homes concerned them more than did Toby or Hallfred.
Bucket Head shouted that all was well. “It’s only smoke,” he repeated, louder this time and sounding too cheerful. He pointed at Hallfred, still sprawled on the ground. “My bumbling apprentice—” Steng’s eyes grew as round as toadstools. He’d spotted Toby and the bag. “What? What’s this? A thief? Thief! Seize him and cut off his hands!”
Awley shook his trial coins. Toby vanished from mortal sight. While Quinn condensed the sack of coins and shoved it in his pocket, Awley dragged Toby from the scene.
“Let me go,” he said. “He bollixed my arm, but I can run.”
Awley noted Steng’s red face and swinging fists. “If you can run, I suggest we do so at once. Old Bucket Head will figure it out in short order.”
Steng’s rabid bellow fulfilled the prophetic words. “Irlander elves! Stop them! Get the spears and hunt them down! Call the sorceress!”
The leprechauns bolted away from the mint and down the skinners’ row. A spear flew within an inch of Awley’s arm. His racing heart walloped his chest and ribs.
“They see us, Awl!”
“They do not, Quinn. ’Twas a lucky throw, and they’ll peg nothing else at us now. The crowd’s too thick here. They’ll never find us.”
“Maybe they won’t,” Toby gasped, “but that flea-ridden dog will!”
Awley glanced back. The galloping dog was gaining ground.
Down the winding fish market street they ran, weaving between the unsuspecting People of Thor who shrieked at the sight of a savage, growling dog chasing nothing.
“Mad dog!” they cried, and Awley hoped someone would kill it so he wouldn’t have to.
He and Quinn pumped their arms to help them run faster, but Toby’s injured arm hung limp. He lagged behind. As Awley turned to help him, the dog pounced.
Toby ducked behind a fish cart. The dog’s jaws snapped at empty air. Its forward momentum propelled it past Quinn and Awley. They ran to Toby.
“No, lads,” he gasped. “Yez have the silver. Take it and run. I’ll lay low here for a bit and meet yez back at the camp.”
Snarling fiercely now, the dog whirled and ran at them. Awley drew his cudgel. “Are you astray in the head? Did you not hear Steng call for the sorceress? You’re comin’ with us.”
The dog attacked. Awley swung and bashed its head. Bone crunched. Without even a yip, the animal fell like a little girl’s doll and lay on the ground unmoving.
“That’ll soften your cough for you, bucko.” Shouts drew Awley’s attention to the top of the street. Steng ran toward them leading a mob armed with swords and spears. “Time to go, lads.”
The leprechauns plunged through the chattering crowd. They had nearly reached the end of the street when a mournful wail made them stop and turn.
“Roki! Ro-o-o-o-ki!” Steng dropped sobbing to his knees and stroked the dog’s corpse. “My faithful friend,” he cried. Then he leapt to his feet and shook his fists. “Come out, vile cowards! Irlander dung beetles! I will have vengeance! Seal the gates! Don’t let them escape!”
“They’ll let all the dogs out soon,” Awley said. “No time to lose. Split up, lads. We’ll meet at the bridge.”
They turned and fled in different directions. Awley whirled and crashed into a fish cart. It toppled, and in his panic, he slipped into mortal view. The fishwives screeched. Ignoring them, he shook his head and found himself staring at Steng.
“I have you now, Irlander maggot!”