Sean and Mike giggle down the forest path, four pints apiece sloshing through their bellies and noggins. Sean clutches a jar of whiskey to his bony chest. He follows Michael’s sun-shadowed rear end to the edge of their secret glen, his heart set on a long afternoon nipping the jug and a lovely nap to follow. It’s just then Mike stops short. Sean collides with his mate, almost dropping the precious jar. Before he can protest, Mike is pointing and whispering.
“What am I seeing there, Sean?”
Sean peers past his oversized pal. He blinks blurry eyes, squints into the sunlit glen. There’s a fella smack in the middle of their secret spot. A wee fella, not more than two feet tall. The little bugger is limping a tight circle, head and hat drooping.
“It’s a leprechaun, Mike, and no mistake.”
“Why’s he marching in a circle, then?”
“Never mind that. Catch him and our fortune is made.”
Greed needs no words, and drunks no caution. The two pals lurch into the sunlight, weaving toward their prey. They’re raising a racket, but the leprechaun continues marching as if deaf to the world.
Sean’s hampered by the whiskey jar, so it’s Mike who’s first to the wee fella. The big oaf snatches the leprechaun under the armpits and hoists him from the ground. Mike lifts his captured prey chest high, but no further. Mike is tugging, but no higher does the nabbed creature rise.
That’s when Sean sees the chain. The taut links shimmer in the sunlight, binding the leprechaun’s ankle to a wooden peg driven deep into the earth. The leprechaun turns his sad eyes to Sean.
“Ya big idjits fell for it, dinna ya?”
The voice is deep and resonant for such a small creature. Mike almost drops him from the shock of it. Sean stares at the green frock coat, the jaunty top hat, and the buckle shoes. Shakes his head, desire pushing him.
“Never mind all that. We’ve caught you fair and true. Now where’s our pot of gold, ya wee fuck?”
“There’ll be no gold for ya lunks, and not much else, nor for long.”
The tiny fella casts a sidelong glance to the edge of the clearing. Sean follows the glance, sees them too late. Many horrible creatures lurching forward, vacant eyes leering, ragged teeth gleaming.
The glen is no wider than a barroom. In a blink, the fiends are on them, climbing Michael like a tree, razor claws rending flesh. For one terrible instant, Sean sees Michael dancing a macabre jig, his oafish body almost hidden beneath a swarm of horrible little monsters. Mike drops the leprechaun and flails his mighty limbs, but it does no good. The evil horde clings to Mike’s flesh, climbing, slashing, and biting. Great crimson fountains of blood spurt into the sunlight.
Then it’s Sean screaming his lungs out. Slashing pain rockets through his legs, his balls, rising through his skinny chest. He drops the jar of whiskey, regretting and forgetting in a heartbeat, of which he has precious few remaining.
The last thing Sean sees in this life is the sad leprechaun, still chained to his wooden peg. The wee fella has resumed his circular march, oblivious to the bloody carnage above him. Then Sean’s screaming is cut off short and sharp along with his throat.
Brigid O’Shea watches old Mrs. Sheehan tut-tutting down the cottage path, her news delivered. Sean and Michael, Murphys both, gone missing these two days. Their wives are frantic, says Mrs. Sheehan. Could not Brigid and her great lurcher search out the lost pair?
The villagers think Brigid fey, a woman of marriageable age, but unmarried. Tall, raw-boned, with green eyes and raven hair. But comes trouble beyond the ken of priest or Garda, it’s Brigid they turn to. And always mum’s the word if you please. Strange Brigid and her big dog Clancy. Wouldn’t have it known they were asking her help.
Brigid shifts the blackthorn shillelagh from its hook and whistles. Clancy clicks across the stone floor, hairy head high, eyes shining. Wolfhound and courser, a bit of greyhound somewhere in the mix. The dog is tall as a child and faster than a horse.
“We’d best be off, lad. Them two idiots are sure to be sleeping it off under a log.”
Tracking the missing drunkards is child’s play. Finding their scattered remains, however, is a dark business. Clancy’s hackles go up the second they step into the quiet glen. Brigid holds the lurcher’s lead short. Her eyes search the glen. Grass stained black, a wooden stake, two bloody furrows where something heavy was dragged away. Two somethings.
Brigid stalks to the centre of the glen, waves away pillars of black flies swarming the blood. A rumbling growl boils out of the lurcher. She sees the broken whiskey jar, a sure sign that Michael and Sean are no more.
A circular path worn into the grass around the wooden stake, made by small feet moving round and round. She kicks the stake, works it loose, and pulls it from the earth. Long as her forearm and fashioned from yew, Eó Ruis, one of the five guardian trees. There’s a notch below the hammered top, a carved vee stained black. Brigid rubs a fingertip into the notch, lifts a line of tarnish. Silver.
The bloody drag marks lead under shadowing oaks. That’s where she finds the gnawed bones and broken skulls. Not a shred of flesh or sinew. Cracked eye sockets empty and staring. Bones stripped clean and bare as if a hundred generations of ants and beetles had made a picnic of Sean and Michael.
She kneels, pulls Clancy close, whispers.
The lurcher obeys her command, going silent as a shade. Brigid clicks her tongue and they’re off, following the track and scent. Not far from the glen, the trail splits, the fainter tracks leading right. Clancy pulls that direction and Brigid follows.
Woman and dog climb the rising ground through copse and clearing. The village lies in the valley below. Now and anon, Brigid spies the track of a shod foot amongst the trampling, such as would be made by the shoe of a child.
They’re an hour on the trace when the lurcher freezes. Brigid hunches beside the dog, spots ten wee folk threading a path through lichened boulders ahead. Nine are barefoot, dressed in ragged clothes, and hatless. The tenth is all in green with a top hat pulled low over his eyes. None more than two feet tall. One of the nine has a chain wrapped round its hand, the other end bound to the green fellow’s ankle.
A wee head snaps around, feral eyes wide and staring. An unearthly wail breaks the air. The creatures charge as one snarling pack, low and fast, straight at Brigid. The green fella and his guard stand their ground. There’s no time to plan and no room to run. Brigid rises and brandishes her shillelagh, yells at the lurcher.
“Dul a mharú!”
Clancy needs no command to kill. He’s already up and snarling.
Brigid takes the first creature’s skull with a rising swing, leaps over the charge, and bashes two more heads from behind. Brains splatter and bone chips fly. Clancy snaps one neck, then another, flinging the twitching corpses aside like a terrier tossing rats. But two wee bastards climb the dog’s hindquarters, clinging and biting like rabid squirrels. The lurcher howls in a killing rage, spinning and biting the air.
Brigid turns to Clancy’s howls and only just dodges as the last attacker leaps for her throat. She blocks the little monster with her cudgel, sidesteps, then smashes the fiend’s skull to pulp. Then she spins to her stricken hound.
An underhand swing knocks one clinging bastard from Clancy’s torn flank. As Brigid leaps forward to finish it off, Clancy clamps his jaws on the second and his great fangs make an end of it. The lurcher’s blood rage carries him forward. The guard drops the silver chain as Clancy’s fangs rip into its throat. The lurcher throws the headless body into the air, then collapses in a bloody, panting heap.
She is at Clancy’s side in an instant, hands stroking his head. The dog is bleeding from a dozen deep wounds. Brigid runs her free hand over bloody fur, realizes there’s no hope. Then a deep voice breaks into her grief.
“Free me, Lass, and I’ll save yer great hound. Bound as I am, I have no power.”
The leprechaun looks dull and beaten. She meets his eye, then looks to the chain wrapped round the creature’s ankle.
“We’ve not much time. You must trust.”
One look at her dying dog, then her fingers are on the chain. It looks no more than a child’s plaything. She pulls with all her strength, but her fingers cannot break it.
“It’s enchanted. Stop thinking like a human.”
Brigid draws a breath, calms her screaming mind. She is Clíodhna, Queen of the Banshees. With one more breath, her muscles flex, and the chain falls to pieces beneath her fingertips. When she opens her eyes, the leprechaun is glowing green and bright.
“Well done, Lass.”
The leprechaun springs to the dying lurcher, tiny hands outstretched. Golden particles dance from his fingertips. The animal’s torn flanks glow and pulse as the wounds close. The leprechaun mutters an ancient Gaelic Brigid cannot understand. With a final wave, he leaps aside. Clancy is up on all fours, tongue lolling over his great fangs. Brigid can barely see through her tears.
“Seamus the Small, at your service.”
A tip of the top hat, a mocking bow, then the wee fella is all business.
“You’re in this now, human, like or not. Too much to explain and no time. We can talk as we go.”
Seamus waves his hand and Clancy sets off at a trot with the little bugger keeping pace beside him. Brigid hurries to catch them. She starts to speak but Seamus holds up a hand. Her mouth snaps shut.
“The answer is zombies. Zombie leprechauns. Bastards caught me whilst I was napping. My ancient kin, I expect. A bunch of Wiccan girls down from Dublin, playing at magick. Drunk as faeries they were, dancing and casting spells. Big joke it was, a lovely playacting party. Only their incantations were real. No idea what they’d done, the daft ninnies.”
Seamus gives her a sharp look, points to the valley.
“These bastards will kill everyone in your village. They’ll keep killing until we stop them.”
She forces the words out.
“The odds are long. Ninety and nine, minus the nine you done for. That makes thirty apiece for each of us, and I’m no fighter. No, we must trap ‘em, send ‘em back underground to sleep.”
Seamus scuttles faster, still talking.
“Do youse know the wee standing stones?”
“Aye, the faerie circle behind McCarthy’s farm.”
“Faeries, bah! Drunken sex maniacs, the lot of them. No, those stones mark a leprechaun burying ground. We don’t live forever, ya know.”
Brigid pointed ahead.
“It’s just down over this rise.”
That’s when they hear the screaming.
They reach the tilled field at a dead run. Two McCarthy boys lie dead and torn on the raw earth. A feeding frenzy of miniature zombies surrounds each of the shrining corpses. Himself is screaming and running, ten zombies riding him like a mule and the rest of the horde hard behind. The doomed farmer goes down. Seamus slides to a halt.
“Too late for those poor sods. Run for the circle. Be on the far side, you and the hound. I’ll lure these lunkheads to you. You must keep them inside the circle. Inside, you ken?”
Brigid nods, grabs Clancy’s lead. Seamus puts a finger beside his nose and—Poof!—he’s gone.
Woman and dog sprint for the ring of standing stones. She passes the circle on the left, panting to a halt. The turf is scarred with tiny graves long and deep as her arm. Tiny, empty graves.
She sees Seamus running, with the whole pack of zombies on his heels. The feeding zombies have left their meal to give chase. The sight of Seamus free is more than the monsters can bear.
Seamus the Small sprints to the centre of the stone circle and skids to a halt. He sticks out his tongue, waves his arms, hurls Gaelic curses at his undead kin. Snarling monsters pile atop him. Seamus disappears under the crushing wave. A few wee zombies tumble toward the jagged stones. Brigid smashes two with her shillelagh. Clancy clamps another in his jaws and flings it back.
The last straggler steps foot inside the circle. Brigid hears a roaring laugh from beneath the writhing pile. Threads of green light pulse from the silent stones, weaving through and around each other until the lighted strands merge into a solid glow. Brigid stumbles back as the eerie shining forms a dome that encases the circle and everything in it. The dome flares an unearthly green, then compresses into the earth, muffling a screaming wail. Then all is still.
The circle of stones is empty. There is no trace of the zombies and no sign of brave leprechaun.
“Oh no, poor Seamus.”
Clancy swivels his bristled head, keening a low wail. The scarred turf is healed, the graves closed and gone as if they had never been. Brigid feels hot tears stinging her cheeks.
“Why the waterworks, Lass?”
“Seamus! You’re alive!”
“That I am. Not the smartest buggers, that lot. Fell for a bit of deception, they did. Dry your eyes, now. You’ve done well.”
Seamus the Small lays a finger against his nose.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“To Dublin, Brigid the Fey. I’ve a lesson to teach to a group of young ladies. I don’t believe it will be to their liking but taught they shall be.”
“What about me? What do I do now?”
“Bury your dead. Remember them. Carry on. What else is there?”
Brigid nods. Clancy nuzzles her hand.
“And will I see you again?”
“Aye, that you will, human. We’re bound together now, you and me. You freed me, and I’ll not be forgetting.”
He winks at her, still smiling, taps his nose. There’s a soft pop, then empty air.
Clancy whimpers and Brigid strokes his head.
“C’mon, Lad. We’ve a tale to tell. But who’ll believe us, I wonder?”