The King of the Fairies
"What the feck d'you think you're doing?" he 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 I wasn't about to let go. The hag had warned me so I was ready for his next trick.
"If you let me go now, I'll grant you any wish your heart desires," he said, his broad Ulster accent harsh to my English ear.
"Do you think I was born yesterday?" I replied, calm in the face of his ire. "I know all about your tricks, so save your breath for squealing."
He looked so taken aback I almost laughed out loud, but I caught myself. One sign of weakness and this character would be out of my grasp and away. I'd never catch so much as a glimpse of his coat tails after that.
"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 looked down at the little man, keeping my face stern with a huge effort. His brave red coat had looked so bright and cheery from a distance, but up close the faded patched cloth indicated a dismal fairy on his uppers.
"Two," I said.
"Who the feck have you been speaking to?" he said. "There hasn't been a human in five hundred years that knew the forms."
I waited patiently, knowing he had to follow these rules if he followed no others. Breaking the code would mean expulsion from the land of the Sídhe and this little man had nowhere else to go.
"All right, all right," he muttered. "I, Finn Brian Mac Hulighan deliver myself up to you to do with as you will."
I let go of his ear, holding my breath in case I'd made a mistake, but he didn't run. He jumped up onto the dry stone wall, sat down and took his hat off to reveal a shiny bald pate with a mass of dark brown hair in a ring around it. He took a brightly coloured spotted handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face with it. Sat up there he was almost on eye level with me.
I couldn't believe it had worked. The hag had promised, but you can never really trust any of the Sídhe. I'd paid her well with her shopping list of nail clippings from the rich and powerful. It hadn't been much fun working as a chamber maid in the London hotel, but anyone who was anyone stayed there and sneaking in at night with the master key and a pair of tiny scissors was a small price to pay.
So now I had him, what was I going to do with him? Three wishes I had earned by catching him and I had to watch every word I said from now onwards lest a chance phrase could be considered a wish. The Sídhe are tricky folk and not to be underestimated. I took a deep breath.
"First wish," I said carefully. "I wish a formal audience with the King of the Fairies, held above ground in a place and time of my choosing."
He scratched his head and his eyes crossed slightly while he tried to find a hole in my wish that he could exploit. After a moment he slapped the hat back on his head with a grimace of distaste.
"Done," he snapped. "Then what?"
I tried not to show the relief I felt.
"You'll get to hear the next wish when I'm ready," I said.
The King of the Sídhe was not at all happy to be dragged off to meet a mortal, but he was bound to the rules as tightly as the lúchorpáin, if not more so, as the ruler of the People of the Mound.
"Whad'ya want," he snarled, arms crossed over his chest, top hat quivering with indignation. He hovered slightly above the ground, buoyed up by his anger. He noticed my eyes drifting down to his shiny black shoes with their silver buckles and realised he was floating. With a grunt he set himself down on the turf.
"You have 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 go whenever they will it."
"Yes," I replied, "but you make sure they don't will it by bewitching them." I only just stopped myself from adding don't you? to the end. A question answered would mean one less wish and I needed the other two still.
"The mortal I'm talking about is Simon Mc Glone, who you have set dancing from dusk 'til dawn without respite."
The King began to look shifty and shared a loaded glance with the lúchorpáin. I narrowed my eyes, making sure they both knew I meant business.
"My second wish is that Simon Mc Gloan, of Banbury in Oxfordshire, presently cursed by you and your kind for trespass on a mound, be freed without being harmed in any way whatever, released to me at a place and time of my choosing." I held my breath again.
I'd tried so hard to phrase it as one wish but leave them no loophole where he might be released at the edge of a cliff or in the middle of a raging torrent of floodwater. I knew the humour of fairies and was not prepared to risk it. I still needed that last wish, but if I didn't get it then at least I would be the only one to suffer.
The King and the lúchorpáin stood in identical postures, both with crossed eyes as they dissected my wish. A bead of sweat rolled down my forehead to catch in my eyebrow. The King looked up at me, mouth a tight line of disapproval.
"Done," he said. "Ye have been well schooled in the laws of the Sídhe," he said, "but mayhap there's one thing you've forgotten." The lúchorpáin bounced up and down so fast he almost vibrated, excitement radiating off him.
"No," I said. "I don't think I've forgotten anything. My final wish is yet to come."
"I suppose you'll be wanting the usual," the King said. "Fortune and riches to keep you and your lover in comfort for the rest of your natural lives. We've seen mortal greed plenty of times."
They had indeed and perhaps that was why they had no compunction in punishing so many of us. We had, after all, dug up their mounds and torn down their sacred trees to build our housing estates and grow our crops. It was high time they learned that not all mortals were the same. I smiled.
"My third and final wish is that the lúchorpáin, Finn Brian Mac Hulighan, be freed forever from the slavery you have inflicted on him for all eternity."
You could have heard a pin drop. The little lúchorpáin in the red coat had stopped his bouncing, feet together and toes pointing down, about a foot off the green turf. He stared at me open mouthed, eyes wide.
"How did you know?" he asked in a hoarse voice.
I smiled at him. “The hag told me about your punishment and the rainbow," I said. "I promised her I'd free you if I could without endangering Simon. You can be together now."
The little man leapt up on top of the wall and danced a hornpipe, producing a tin whistle from some inside pocket, then he turned a somersault and finished by spinning upside down on the point of his hat until I felt dizzy watching him. I felt the King's eyes on me.
"You spoke to the hag?" the King asked, curiously. "And she helped you?"
"Not all Sídhe are evil any more than all mortals are, Highness. She helped me so I owe her now." I saw no need to mention toenails.
"You foolish mortal," the lúchorpáin said in a hushed voice, now sitting slightly breathlessly on top of the wall. "Ye don't know what you've done."
"I think I do," I said, sadly. "Simon is to be released in one hour from now in London, into room 324 of the Chantilly Hotel in Knightsbridge, without harm or distress caused to him and after that you will leave him alone and never annoy him again."
The lights flashed amber and red as I crossed the road in the rain, the colours reflecting on the wet tarmac. Impatient commuters in powerful cars edged forward, willing me to walk faster; but I couldn't walk fast enough. The compulsion was on me now and I had to get there before the sun set fully.
Already I could hear the beat. It echoed through the chambers of my mind, setting rhythms pumping through my bloodstream. It was hard to resist timing my strides with a beat only I could hear. Once it caught me I would be lost and I had to get there first.
Rounding the corner into an unlit alleyway I almost sighed with relief. There ahead of me, not twenty feet away, was the doorway. I ran the last bit and swung myself through the swing door. The wave of heat and the wall of sound hit me and knocked me back half a step.
In front of me the room stretched away into the distance, filled with writhing and gyrating bodies, all caught up by the music. My eardrums bounced with the force of the sound and the scene began to move up and down in my vision. Looking down I gave a grim smile. My feet had already picked up the beat - the sun must have set outside.
As my sweat-dampened hair clung to me, all I had left was hope. Hope that a little man in a red coat might take pity on me and repay the favour.