October, Captain Magenta believed, was an ideal season for a cycling holiday in Ireland. The weather was dry — most of the time — and the temperatures were just comfortable enough to make the nights tolerable for camping out when he wasn’t near a village and pleasant for riding all day without much risk of overheating. Best of all, most of the other tourists had left with the summer, leaving the roads and byways free for him to explore in peace.
The day was drawing to its end when Magenta stopped at the village pub. He unlatched his helmet and tucked it under his arm as stepped inside. “A pint of stout, please,” he called to the publican, returning the cheery wave and big smile. “Whatever’s brewed locally.” Drink in hand, he settled himself at a table by the window and opened his touring guide to double check his route.
Magenta didn’t react. His name was a common one in Ireland; anytime it was called, several men turned, as they did now. He smiled and took another swallow of his drink.
“Padraig? Padraig Donaghue?” He looked up into a pair of sparkling green eyes. “As I live and breathe, I never dreamed I’d meet you in a village like Bunclody!”
Magenta frowned and furrowed his brow, trying to recall where he’d met this woman before. It bothered him that a beautiful red-haired woman should know his name when he couldn’t recall hers. “Um, you’ll have to forgive me, I, uh —”
The woman pouted but the corners of her lips twitched as she straightened and planted her hands on her hips, a comic picture of outrage. “Tcha! It’s only been twenty years since we last met! Surely you remember your cousin Nuala? I certainly remember you, Padraig!” She freed the smile. “And your mother and mine recently swapped family photos.”
“Nuala!” Magenta laughed. “Good lord, you were just a plain little girl way back when. How could I be expected to recognise you disguised as a beautiful colleen?”
“Same charming lad you always were,” said Nuala as she slid into the seat across from him. “Now tell me how I found you here! The last I heard of ye, you were some kind of computer expert living in New York City?”
Unable to tell her about Spectrum and unwilling to share anything about his criminal past, Magenta limited his answers. He told her about his college days and early career in a firm, then invented a tale of upward mobility as an in-demand computer consultant. “But I needed a break, so I’m here on a cycling holiday. I started in Sligo, and my goal is to reach Bantry by the end of the week. Bunclody is on my route. I don’t like to ride too far after it gets dark, and the guide book says this pub is also a B&B, so,” he threw his arms wide in a theatrical gesture, “here I am! Now what about yourself? Why on earth are you here? And why now?”
Nuala smiled and sipped her lager. “I’m an ollamh, a professor, at Trinity College. Among other things, I teach about Irish legends and lore and their place in our culture and history. Right now I’m on sabbatical, doing field research to track down and record stories. Pubs like this one are often one of the best places to either hear the local legends and tales or find out who knows them. When I return to the school next term, I’ll share some of my discoveries with my students.”
Magenta was amused. “You mean Trinity pays you to be a storyteller?”
“A storyteller?” Nuala snorted and looked offended. “Certainly not! I’m paid to be a bard!” She grinned over her mug. “It’s a more respectable title.”
They talked for awhile the last time they’d met as children, other family members, Nuala’s work, and about Magenta’s recent cycling adventures.
“So where will you be bound for in the mornin’, Padraig?”
“I’m heading for Graiguenamanagh tomorrow, so the next leg of my tour takes me up into the Blackstairs Mountains.” Magenta was quietly proud of his hard-won ability to correctly pronounce the name of his destination. Although his parents had often spoken Irish while he was growing up, he’d rebelled in his teens and distanced himself from it. He’d had plenty of cause to repent his actions. Recently.
Nuala raised an eyebrow and straightened as she put her glass down hard enough to slop her beer. “The Blackstairs? How late in the day do you usually ride?”
“Until sunset or a little beyond usually. Then I stop at a B&B or set up a camp in a field if I’m not near a village.”
Nuala’s eyes had widened. “You’d be wise to always stop in a village even if you have to lose a few hours of daylight riding. Unless you’re not afraid to meet a pooka.”
Magenta laughed. “Meet a what?”
Magenta’s cousin leaned back, the solemn look on her face spoiled by the impish gleam in her eye. “Your cultural education has been sadly neglected, if you have to ask what a pooka is! What kind of an Irishman be ye?”
Nettled, Magenta mumbled something about there being a lack of pookas in New York City.
“Ah, well, no doubt you could tell me tales of the things I need to be wary of there, the things that come out after dark.”
“All right, I know you’re just waiting for me to ask!” Magenta, certain he was being lead somewhere, leaned back with a grin. “So what is a poo-kah? What does it look like?”
Nuala looked thoughtful and tapped one finger against her lips before she spoke again. “There’s no simple answer to that. It’s certainly a creature of Faerie. It appears near or after nightfall and can take many terrible forms. In some parts of County Down, it’s a deformed goblin. In parts of County Laois, it’s a gigantic, hairy bogeyman.”
“Sounds like what my mother told me waited outside my room if I got out of bed during the night,” commented Magenta.
“In Waterford and Wexford, the pooka sometimes takes the form of an eagle with a wingspan like a small aircraft, and in Roscommon, you’d want to beware of a black goat with curling horns. The pooka quite often appears in human form; then it seems to be a real person, usually an attractive one. Like yerself. Or like me. How do you know I’m really your cousin and not a pooka?” Her face split in a grin and her eyes sparkled with mischief as she drank in his expression. “But most often the pooka appears in the form of a horse lurking on high mountain tops or among old ruins. In fact, there’s a legend that a pooka appears in horse form on a mountain somewhere in Leinster Province on All Hallows Eve or All Souls Day.” She swallowed a mouthful of beer. “Tomorrow is Halloween, Padraig. And the Blackstairs Mountains are in Leinster.”
“So somewhere in Leinster’s twelve counties, there’s a pooka that might or might not put in an appearance tomorrow or the day after.” Captain Magenta shrugged. “I don’t think I have much to worry about. But tell me anyway, what does it do to anyone it meets?”
By now, Nuala’s voice was taking on the cadences of the experienced storyteller. “It lures them onto its back, then tosses them into a ditch or bog, or more often it carries them into deep water, like a pond or a loch, and drowns them. No one who rides the pooka can dismount unless it allows them to or they’re lucky enough to get scraped off somehow. Once, that meant grabbing onto a low branch when the pooka carried you beneath a tree, but that’s not so easy now. There aren’t many modern tales of people who’ve met the pooka and survived unharmed. In fact, it’s said that only one man has ever successfully ridden a pooka without being tossed or drowned, and that was Brian Boru, the Ard Righ, High King of Ireland.”
“Really?” said Magenta, interested in spite of himself. “And how did he manage it?”
“He took three hairs from the pooka’s tail and wove them into a bridle. When he encountered the pooka in its horse form, he threw the bridle over its head. It couldn’t fight the magic in the bridle and King Brian was able to control it until it was exhausted. He made it promise never to attack an Irishman unless the man was drunk or intended to do some sort of harm. But there are so many stories about the pooka after King Brian’s time, I’d say it forgot its promises as soon as King Brian removed the bridle.”
“Pretty neat thing King Brian did. But how could he even tell that the horse was a pooka?”
“Perhaps because,” Nuala continued, drawing pictures with her words and hands as she spoke, “perhaps because it was not an ordinary-looking black horse, but one that was huge and sleek, and breathing blue flames, with eyes of yellow fire, a snort like thunder, a smell like sulphur, and a human voice deep as a cave. So beware if you are thinking of going night riding, Padraig Donaghue! Beware!”
Magenta laughed. “Unless the pooka can transform itself into a bicycle, I should be perfectly fine. Besides, it’s impossible to meet a legend these days.”
Nuala shook her head as she rose to her feet. “I’ll have to say good night to you, cousin. I have an invitation for dinner and stories.” She raised a finger before his face. “But don’t forget what I’ve told you, Padraig. Ireland is a land where the improbable rarely happens.” She paused a moment before adding, “and the impossible always does.”
Magenta got a late start the next day. Somehow, he’d punctured a tire and not noticed the leak before he stopped for the night. It had taken him a while to find and fix the problem, and get on his way again.
He’d grumbled over the delay, but it hadn’t been a taxing ride up into the Blackstairs, and it had been pleasantly lonely. As he’d hoped, the road was not well travelled. He could still make it to Graiguenamanagh and claim his room in the cyclist’s hostel by sundown, if the weather held long enough. It had been a fine sunny day when he awoke, but Captain Magenta had already experienced the notorious vagaries of Irish weather. Looking up at the sky, he could tell it was going to be a race between himself and the raindrops. He glanced at his watch and cursed silently — it was late, much later than he’d hoped.
The clouds became thicker and blotted out the sun. Magenta began to think he’d better turn on his lights and fumbled with the badly designed switches. A rumble of distant thunder covered the sound of the small lorry coming up quickly behind him. Magenta, riding beside the left shoulder of the narrow road, never heard it; he only felt something hit him hard in the back. As the bike skidded out from under him, he flew sideways, rolled and bounced several times, then lay still, unconscious.
The lorry’s driver, preoccupied with looking at his map and cursing his aching back, realised he’d hit something he hadn’t seen. Guessing what it was, he didn’t stop to look at it. Sheep were plentiful, but also damned expensive; he’d already learned that the hard way. All the same, curiosity got to him. He decided to glance at what was behind him in the lorry’s left-hand mirror, then swore a blue streak. The mirror was gone. Whatever he’d hit, it had been much larger than a sheep. He swore again and accelerated. The sooner he got away from there, the better.
When Magenta opened his eyes, he saw that the sky was free of clouds but streaked with the orange rays of sunset.
“I must have been out for hours,” Magenta groaned as he gingerly raised himself from the ground. He looked at his watch; it was broken. At least none of his bones seemed to be and he was fortunate not to have any abrasions, but he was undoubtedly going to have some huge and painful bruises. He got to his feet with another groan and glanced up at the sky again. “There’s no way I’m going to make it to the hostel before dinner; it must be close to six o’clock already. I’d better stir my stumps and hope I can make it before they lock the doors for the night.”
His bicycle was lying some twenty feet away in the roadway. His saddlebags had broken away and landed a few feet further; one side had broken latches and looked as if a tire had rolled over it, but fortunately the contents hadn’t spilled. Magenta retrieved the saddlebags and dropped his broken watch inside, before bending over the bike.
The bike’s rear wheel was crushed and the frame was bent. Magenta guessed that when he’d been knocked out of the saddle, the bicycle must have skidded sideways and gone beneath whatever had hit him. The driver must have noticed he’d run over something, but kept on going anyhow. Magenta cursed again. He could make a report to the Garda, but he couldn’t begin to describe the car or lorry or whatever it had been. But the Garda would at least give him a ride to town. Not that he fancied the experience, although he’d never ridden in an Irish police car before. He dug into his saddlebag again, looking for his mobile phone.
“Shite!” the Irish captain yelled again, pulling out the mangled remains of the phone. First his watch, now this. “Can this day get any better?” he muttered angrily. The sky was darkening and Magenta began to feel a chill. His cycling clothes were close-fitting and thin, made to draw the heat away from his body rather than keep it in. He dug into his saddlebags again, hunting for his fleece-lined nylon jacket.
“Have ye had an accident?” The voice was deep yet unmistakeably feminine.
Magenta had not heard anyone approach and looked up sharply at the woman. He noted appreciatively that although her features were classically Celtic, her large doe-like gold eyes and mass of black hair spoke of Mediterranean ancestry. Her loose black jacket and trousers encased rather than concealed her shapely figure. She held a mass of leather straps resting over one shoulder; her free hand rested on her hip, a stance that gave her an oddly commanding air.
The woman seemed accustomed to such scrutiny, or perhaps she thought Magenta’s wits were addled. “’Tis an odd place to meet a stranger, and so late in the day. Are ye hurt? Or lost? Do ye need help?”
“Yes, no, no, and yes, to answer your questions in order.” Magenta smiled, turning on all his charm. “Something knocked me off my bike, but I seem to be okay, just a bit cold.” He shrugged on his jacket. “My bike, however,” he gestured to the twisted metal still lying in the road, “is in pretty bad shape. I was riding to Graiguenamanagh, and I’d hoped to arrive before the town rolls up the sidewalks and find a place to spend the night. I’m thinking now I’ll just have to set up my tent along here somewhere and spend the night.”
“Well, ye canna spend it here. This is my faither’s property, and he doesn’t allow campers.” The woman’s tone was final and defiant.
“Well, do you live near here? Could I use your phone and call for roadside assistance or at least a taxi?”
The woman snorted and shook her head briskly. “My faither is not a kindly man, and hasn’t an ounce of charity in him. He’d turn ye away without a thought, and maybe some buckshot.”
Magenta looked up at the darkening sky and heaved a sigh. “I’ll just have to leg it then and hope something’s open by the time I reach the village.”
“There won’t be,” the woman told him with assurance. “This time of year, in these parts, we retire early. Even the pub will be closed by the time ye could walk there. Yer best chance is to ride.”
“Ride what?” asked Magenta, gesturing to the crushed machine. “My bike is totalled.”
The woman removed the bridle draped over her shoulder and held it out to Magenta. “Ye can take my horse, if you can catch her. I rode her lightly today, so she won’t be too tired to take ye to the next town. The pub is also the hotel and the publican’s lad runs a local taxi service. Ye can get a car there to bring you back to fetch your bicycle and gear.”
“That’s mighty generous of you, Miss, umm…”
“Mairi. Mairi O’Tara.”
“How do you do. I’m Patrick Donaghue, from New York,” Magenta introduced himself, and started to offer his hand, but withdrew with a small smile that matched Mairi’s as she shook the bridle in her right hand.
“Ye needna worry about the horse. Just turn her loose when you get to the pub. She can fend for herself. My mare knows the land well and always returns to her own fields.”
Magenta was sceptical. “But isn’t it dangerous? She could be struck by a car or a lorry.”
Mairi laughed. “No, my Eochbhean is too fast and too canny for that!”
Magenta tried again. “I appreciate the offer; I just don’t feel comfortable borrowing a valuable horse and not being able to return it safely. Look, if you take me to your house and let me talk to your father, I’m sure I can persuade him to let use the phone and stay until help arrives.”
Mairi grimaced. “If you were not a stranger here, you would know why I canna do that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you…” Magenta began but stopped as the woman waved off his apology.
“Many years ago, my family was well-off and my faither was a generous man. He welcomed strangers gladly and gave them help, especially foreigners. But an American came who claimed to be a man of law and convinced my faither that he was the sole remaining kin of a wealthy American cousin who had died intestate, and he would inherit the fortune under American law, if he made certain ‘arrangements’ before pressing his claim.” Mairi pursed her lips and frowned. “The man persuaded my faither to move most of our assets into a trust. It was some time before we learned that the trust was a fraud.” She gazed away over the darkening fields and sighed. “We still have land to support us. But we’re cash poor. Faither doesn’t trust anyone, not anyone, now. Especially not Americans. He’s forbidden all of us in the family to deal with them in any way. So you see,” she finished with a small smile, “you’re best off catching my mare and riding her to the town. I can give you that much help and he won’t know.”
Magenta nodded. He didn’t want to add to Mairi’s troubles, not when she was generously offering him an alternative to walking. He accepted the bridle.
“I was riding her this afternoon, but not hard. She’ll be fresh enough to get you where you’re going. Ye can ride bareback, I trust?”
Magenta had just been opening his mouth to ask about a saddle. “I’ll manage,” he said instead. Well, how hard could it be? He’d just keep the horse to a walk. He’d reach the village quicker at a trot, but it wouldn’t do him any good to arrive sounding like Mickey Mouse.
“Good luck to you then, Padraig. Now the light’s getting bad and my mare is dark-coloured, without any white, so ye’d better go after her. Ye’ll find her somewhere up there,” she told him, pointing back up the hill she’d come down from. He turned to look, searching the hillside for some sign, some horse-shaped shadow. When he turned back, Mairi was gone. He looked around but couldn’t see where she’d gone. Surely she couldn’t have disappeared across the road and out of sight so quickly? But the gloom was deepening and her hair and clothing were so dark, perhaps she could. It wasn’t important anyway. He had a horse to catch.
There were plenty of boulders around, some suitable as hiding places, so he stashed his bicycle and gear behind one and set off up the hill. The day’s rain had made the turf softer and springier than usual. With each step, his foot sank slightly. He hadn’t been trudging long when he stubbed his toe painfully on something hard, yet yielding, something that came up out of the ground with his foot as he stumbled.
“Great. Just great! All I need is to round out this trip is to break an ankle,” Magenta hissed through gritted teeth as he sat down to rub his foot and ankle. He reached for the thing that had tripped him. It was an old, rusty horseshoe. Magenta slipped it into his jacket pocket. “I can use all the luck I can get, he thought wryly, “even from a superstition. At this point, I’d pluck a four-leaf clover if I could spot one.” The light was now fading rapidly, so he got to his feet and began scanning for the horse again.
“Maybe that horseshoe did bring me some luck,” thought Magenta some minutes later, as he topped a plateau and spotted a horse. He approached it slowly while making what he hoped were reassuring noises. Apparently they were, for the horse looked up from its grazing without any sign of alarm. It stood its ground until he came near, then stretched out its neck and nuzzled the bridle. Gently, Magenta stroked the horse’s head with his free hand. Its eyes were half shut and its body completely relaxed.
Magenta looked up at the sky. Stars were beginning to appear. “I hope you’re sure-footed in the dark. I’m trusting you to find your way down the mountain to the road.” The horse’s only reply was a gentle nicker that he took for asset. Magenta fumbled with the bridle; only now did he see that it had no buckles anywhere; it was all of a piece, except for a loop where he could tie the throat latch. He wished that Mairi had told him that it was a bitless hackamore bridle. He wasn’t sure it would give him the kind of control a bit did, but he reckoned the horse was used to it. At least he wouldn’t have to stick a thumb in its mouth to get it to take the bit.
The horse accepted the bridle without fuss and let itself be led to a large rock Magenta could use as a mounting block. It stood quietly, only turning its head to watch his inexpert attempt to mount. Magenta swung his leg over as far as he could and leapt off the rock to get his seat onto the centre of the horse’s back. Settling himself along its spine, he quickly decided to avoid trotting if at all possible. As he took up the reins in both hands, the horse began walking forward. He tried to turn the horse’s head downhill, but the horse flung its head high and made a noise suspiciously like a laugh before starting up the hillside.
“Hey! That’s the wrong way you—” Magenta bit off what he was about to say. The horse had spoken back.
“I know where I’m going, man!” Its voice was deep and rumbling. A hint of blue steam played about its muzzle, and the odour of sulphur wafted back to its rider.
Oh my God, thought Magenta, as the pooka began to trot. Nuala told me about this. She warned me! Would she be laughing if she could see me now?
He considered jumping off the pooka. His Spectrum training had involved a lot of jumping from moving vehicles and rolling to reduce the possibility of injury. It was risky at the best of times, and he couldn’t be sure of missing any rocks or prickly plants that might choose to place themselves in his landing path. But, Magenta had no doubt, it’s better than staying aboard this thing! Gripping a handful of mane to steady himself, he tried to swing his off leg up. To his dismay, he couldn’t move it more than a few inches forward or back, just enough to keep his balance on the now cantering horse’s back. He wasn’t bouncing either, Magenta realised, and he was no horseman.
An evil-smelling cloud of blue vapour swept over as the Pooka snorted with laughter. “Did ye ne’er wonder why others before ye didn’t just leap off?” It snorted again; Magenta’s eyes watered. “By my magic, I can keep ye on my back until I throw you or ye pull yersel’ off with something!” Another, stronger, blast of vapour. Magenta shut his itching eyes tightly. “And I’m careful never to go near a tree!”
The Pooka was galloping now, straight towards the mountain. It looked solid to Magenta. What next? he wondered. A high-speed crash? Do we go straight up the mountain? A portion of the mountain wall seemed to turn hazy, then dissolve completely to reveal a low, black passageway. Captain Magenta flattened himself against the beast’s neck and hung on as tight as he could.
Once inside the gateway, the Pooka slowed its pace, but continued at a canter, swerving then straightening out, taking sharp turns, then straightening again, for what seemed to be a long time. It was dark, but as his eyes began to adjust, Magenta realised the passage was very softly lit. He could make out shadowy walls but no details until the Pooka dropped to a walk and the passage opened out into a chamber with rough-hewn grey rock walls. The Pooka stopped. “Get off,” it rumbled.
Magenta obliged, with difficulty. He’d instinctively squeezed his legs tightly against the Pooka’s sides to keep from being thrown, even after discovering that he couldn’t dismount voluntarily, and his muscles protested as he swung down to the ground. He looked around him and saw, to his dismay, that the chamber was now completely sealed; there was no sign of an entry or exit. If he was going to get out of here, it was going to have to be with the Pooka.
Warily he asked it, “Where are we? What did you bring me here for?”
“We’re inside the rath, halfway along the road to Faerie,” the Pooka replied. “But we’re not going there. Not yet. First, I need your help.”
That wasn’t one of the possible answers that Magenta had expected. No matter, he didn’t believe it any more than he’d have believed any other. “Why would be going there at all? And what could you need me for? You’re the one with magic!”
The Pooka folded its ears back at his tone, then flicked them forward again. “The Queen of Faerie set me a mission long ago. I have tried for centuries to carry it out. I am a magic creature, as you say, but magic is not enough, and no denizen of Faerie can help me. I need a human’s assistance. Tonight, with your help, I will complete my mission. I must. The Queen grows impatient with me.”
“So you got a problem,” Magenta huffed. “What’s this mission of yours got to do with kidnapping me? What are you after?”
“I am ordered to retrieve my Queen’s consort. He had no right to leave her.” The Pooka’s huge gold eyes blazed and it snorted a sulphurous cloud. “Perhaps she should have expected it, given his history,” it snarled, a sound like a temple bell cracking. “But no matter. He had no right to leave!”
Magenta was puzzled. “So you want me to help you retrieve a, um, an elfin prince or fairy prince?”
“No. One who was once human, a man like yourself, until he forfeited his rights to live among you.” The Pooka blew a thick cloud of blue smoke that made Magenta cough and retch. “Cairpre was of the clan Tuatha dé Danann, his clan’s bard and also a wizard; the spells he wove with his songs protected his people. Warriors and even kings feared his tongue and the music of his harp. His people elected him Tanist, heir to the chieftain. That’s how highly they regarded him and how much they trusted him. But he chose to leave them and came to Faerie. He swore he loved our Queen and promised to stay forever. He contrived to make people think he’d died on his travels far from home. But then he broke his word and left her weeping without consolation. She charged me to find him and bring him back to her. I have watched him for many of your years. But I can enter your world only on certain days, and he knows when they are. I know where he is now, tonight! He remains inside a dwelling, where I cannot enter, until I must leave the world again. So tonight, you will go inside that house for me and bring him out.”
“Forget it. I’m not helping you kidnap somebody else!” Magenta replied forcefully. He folded his arms and glared at the Pooka.
It returned his glare, its great yellow eyes flashing. It drew back its lips in a ghastly grin. “Then I will leave you here in this chamber. I will not return. Someone else may come here eventually. But not soon. You will not age or die, but you will not be immune to hunger, thirst, or boredom. Do you still refuse me?”
Magenta considered the Pooka’s threat carefully. He did not want to help it but he would have no chance of escape as long as was in this sealed chamber. If he pretended to cooperate for awhile, he’d at least get out of here, and hopefully out of the mountain. He let his shoulders slump as if he was totally defeated. “All right,” he said at last. “What do you want me to do?”
The Pooka pointed at the wall behind Magenta with its muzzle. “Put that on.”
Magenta turned around. Hanging on the wall was an enormous saddle and bridle, and pieces of elaborate gold-coloured armour. It all looked like something he’d seen at a fantasy convention he’d once been persuaded to attend with Rhapsody Angel. There seemed to be a lot more armour than one person could wear. Magenta shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding! I don’t have the first idea where to start. I can recognise the helmet and I know where it goes, but that’s it.”
“You’ll have assistance. Just pick up the pieces. No, that one’s mine,” snorted the Pooka as Magenta picked up a long, many scaled piece of armour. He put it back and took another, noting with gratitude that it was padded inside, and tried fitting it to his forearm. The Pooka snorted again, a sound of disdain, impatience, and amusement. “We’d be here forever if I let you continue to be such a fool. I’ve summoned helpers. They are coming.”
Magenta wondered if he might be able to bolt through the door when the helpers arrived. He tried to surreptitiously look around the chamber again and watch for the opening.
Something unseen tugged at the armour Magenta was holding. Startled, he let go of it and watched with amazement as it soared into the air, revolved several times, then swooped downwards. He jumped as it touched his leg. Other pieces of armour flew off the wall and began fitting themselves to his body. Invisible hands fastened straps, adjusted sets, and hung a sword at his waist. In no time, he was fully suited up, except for the helmet that hung, seemingly weightless, in the air before him.
Invisible helpers had worked on the Pooka as well. It now wore a massive saddle of black leather worked in gold with ancient Celtic designs, a matching bitless bridle, plates of golden armour over its rump, across its chest, and along its mane. Over its face, the Pooka wore a shield of gold set with a luminescent pearl horn, giving it the look of a unicorn. Magenta had though the Pooka was a big horse when he first saw it. Now it looked bigger than a draft horse.
“Pooka, what’s with all this tin-plate? Is this Tanist guy going to put up a huge fight?” Not that I’d blame him.
“Even though you are a mere mortal, you must be a worthy representative of my Queen. So you appear before him as a Sidhe knight.”
“A ‘she’ knight?” Although the golden armour was fabulously decorated with elaborate, intricate patterns, there was nothing effeminate about it.
The Pooka snorted with exasperation. “A Sidhe knight, a warrior of Faerie. Now take the helmet. You can hang it from the saddle if you don’t want to wear it yet. Get on,” the Pooka ordered.
“How?” Magenta asked, reasonably he thought, as he donned the helmet. Although the suit of armour was nowhere near as heavy as he’d expected and surprisingly flexible, he couldn’t possibly mount the enormous horse.
With its tail, the Pooka delivered a staggering blow to his side. “Idjut! Step up on a rock, as you did before. There’s nae shortage of them here.”
They rode back along the twisting passages, out of the mountain and into the light of a full moon. Magenta’s eyes quickly adjusted from the tunnel’s gloom. “Where are we going?”
“To the house where I know the Tanist is staying tonight.”
The Pooka was moving cautiously, picking its way down the mountainside in the darkness. Now was the ideal time to dismount and run for it. Magenta stood in the saddle and slipped his right foot out of the stirrup. “You’ll have to go without me. I’m getting off here!” And with that, he swung his right leg over the Pooka’s back. Rather, he tried to. To his chagrin, he could not move.
“Stay still, man. I told you before that you cannot dismount until I allow you to. But I will let you choose how you wish to dismount. I can carry you to the centre of a deep lake right now and throw you off and let your armour carry you to the bottom, or I can carry you to where the Tanist is and let you down to stand on dry ground. Which do you want?”
Magenta ground his teeth. “The house.”
The Pooka reach the bottom of the mountain and picked up speed as it raced over the rolling landscape, before it deigned to speak again. “Don’t even imagine you can escape from me,” rumbled the Pooka.
They rode on for some time. Magenta was just about to risk annoying the Pooka by asking, “Are we there yet?” when the Pooka slowed to a trot.
“Prepare yerself,” said the Pooka. Their destination proved to be a huge country house; its architecture suggested it had been built no later than the eighteenth century. Bright light poured out of the windows. They turned off the road and began trotting up the long drive.
“Hey, I just thought. What are these people going to think of us riding up late at night with all this armour and stuff? There’s no way they’ll let me in. I look like a madman!”
“You look like a party guest,” replied the Pooka, with a breath of blue smoke. “It’s Samhain, and the people are celebrating with a fancy-dress ball. You’ll fit right in.”
In front of the house, a group of young men in dark trousers, white long-sleeved shirts, and red bow ties stood clapping their hands rhythmically and chanting as a little girl, perhaps ten years old and dressed as a fairy princess, danced a lively Irish jig for them. The men laughed and applauded when the little dancer finished her performance with a deep curtsey. She rose up again like she was on springs and did a little caper. It was she who first saw the horse and rider approaching. She ran up to them, clapping her hands with excitement.
The Pooka turned its head and spoke softly. “Watch your words, man. Play your role.”
Magenta pulled back on the reins and the Pooka halted as the girl stopped at its side. She looked up at him in awe.
“Are you the Ard Ri’, Brian Boru?”
Smiling, Magenta pushed up his visor and theatrically bowed in the saddle. “No, my Lady, I am not a king at all, let alone the high king! I am but a simple knight, come to join in the festivities.” He gave her another sweeping bow, gratified to hear the child’s appreciative giggles, as she dropped another deep curtsey then sprang back up again.
“Then thou art welcome, good sir knight! And thou art in time because Daddy wants me to dance for everybody but not yet.” She beamed up at him. “We have a stable. Can I pet your horse before I have to dance?”
Magenta wasn’t sure what to answer, so he bought a little time by attempting to dismount again. This time, his leg swung easily and he was able to ungracefully slide down off the huge horse, which snorted its disgust. At least he landed on his feet.
“May I pet your horse?” the girl repeatedly longingly.
Magenta wanted to say no. But as he opened his mouth, he realised the child had become unnaturally still. The Pooka spoke instead. “I’ve suspended time briefly. She cannot hear us speaking. Let the child have her wish. She may take me to the stable. You will meet me there with the Tanist.”
“Right. Anything you want. The girl will tell me the way to the stable.” Once I’m in the house myself, he thought, there’s no way I’m coming out again. I’ll be safe there once the sun rises.
“The child will remain with me until you return.” The Pooka turned one burning yellow eye to Magenta’s face. “I do not trust you, mortal, so I place you under a geis. If you do not come back with the man, I will destroy the child. More, your home in the clouds will be destroyed, and all who live there will be doomed.”
Magenta was shocked speechless; he could actually feel the geis hanging like a millstone. As a child, he’d heard stories of heroes who’d been weighed down by dire supernatural obligations, but he’d never imagined it would happen to him. He didn’t doubt that the Pooka would carry out its threat. Weighed against the Pooka’s desire to carry out its mission, the lives of a mortal little girl and of hundreds of other people were worth nothing. Magenta knew when to admit defeat. Even without the burden of the geis, he could not have sacrificed the child to save himself.
He clenched his fists and refused to cower under the Pooka’s glare. “All right, I’ll do what you say. How will I recognise the man I’m supposed to bring you?”
“He wears an earring made of Faerie gold that the Queen gave him. It’s unique. The design is the same as the one of the back of your left gauntlet.” Magenta looked at it. The design resembled a swirling labyrinth, endlessly twisting yet never ending. It seemed to flow into different patterns as he watched. “When you show it to him, he will know who you are and why you are there. Now go!”
Time began moving forward again. The girl shifted her weight on her feet, anticipating Magenta’s answer to her question, her eyes filled with hope. “Oh, uh, aye, my lady. I would be most grateful if you would stable my, um, horse, and look after him.” With that, he pulled the reins over the Pooka’s head and handed them to the girl.
Despite her youth, she seized the reins with the confidence of one who has had much experience of ponies and horses. Magenta watched with trepidation as the two began to walk away, expecting the Pooka to do something as a final warning to him. But it behaved meekly, head low, neck relaxed, and let itself be led.
Magenta grimaced as he turned to the entry. It was time he began the hunt.
The house seemed to be full of people in fancy dress, talking, laughing, eating, and circulating through the rooms. Magenta drew many admiring glances and comments on the spectacular originality of his costume. No one asked who he was or if he had an invitation.
Looking at the crowd flowing around him, Magenta realised he should have asked the Pooka for more particulars about the Tanist. What does a fairy queen’s lover look like? Young, handsome, well-built, I’d guess. And a gold earring. That much I’m sure of.
Unfortunately, that general description seemed to fit half the party guests. He found it awkward to get a good look at each man’s earring. Many of them were etched in one way or another, particularly with Celtic designs, forcing him to take a close look at each and every one he could get near. It was becoming an ordeal to find one that matched the pattern on his gauntlet. He couldn’t do it discreetly, and he didn’t want to get himself thrown out of the party if too many guests objected to his close scrutiny of their jewellery. And he didn’t half like the cheeky “come hither” grins he’d got from a few men who’d noticed him staring in their direction. This task, Magenta realised, was going to be a lot harder than he’d expected. He needed to pause and think out a better plan.
He found a place where he had a good view of the whole room and the doorway, and backed up towards the wall. Encountering something soft, he immediately leaped away again. “I’m so sorry!” Magenta exclaimed. “I didn’t see you there.”
“You weren’t even looking,” replied the white-haired man, who was dressed in an ancient Irish costume consisting of a saffron-coloured leine or long plain tunic, a wrap-belt knotted around a copper ring, a brat or cloak fastened with an ornate copper brooch, a small marsupium, and a gold torque, and laced-up leather shoes. His voice, deep and musical, suggested he was younger than he looked despite the crags in his face and wrinkles on his hands. “But there’s a lot to distract even the most cautious person, so I’ll forgive you.” He grinned to take the sting out of his words. “Speaking of distractions, that’s an elaborate costume! Something straight out of fantasy.”
Magenta chuckled. “I have a friend who loves things like medieval fantasy and Renaissance fairs. She talked me into looking at the armour last time we went to one.”
The old man nodded. “That explains why your armour is gold rather than white metal. Forgive an old man’s ignorance, but what exactly are you?”
“I’m a Sidhe knight.”
The old man was silent for a moment. “Are ye? I didn’t recognise the armour; it’s been a long time since I last saw one.” His voice had lost most of its warmth and humour.
Magenta noticed the change but shrugged. “I really don’t know what the significance is supposed to be; it just seemed like a good costume.”
The old man smiled again. “That it is. I’ve noticed many of the bonniest colleens here are looking you over with interest. For all their modern ways, modern girls still fancy a knight in shining armour!” He offered a hand. “My name is Cairpre Mac Oghma.”
“Patrick Donaghue.” The men shook hands. Shortly they found themselves chatting like long acquaintances. In answer to Cairpre’s questioning, Magenta admitted he was Irish-born but American-raised, and told him about his life in the new world.
Cairpre shook his head. “I ken understand why yer pairents emigrated, and I’ve heard many good things about yer country, but I’ve ne’er wanted to see it fer mesel’. My heart’s always been in Ireland. I spent some years away from her once, and when I returned, I promised I would ne’er leave again. I’ve no reason to. Before I left, I was acclaimed for my music and wisdom, and had loving kinfolk. And since returning, I’ve enjoyed new renown fer my songs and enjoyed family life even more.”
The two chatted on comfortably although Magenta didn’t stop scanning the room and wondering how he was ever going to identify the Tanist. “It’s quite a party,” commented Magenta. “I’m surprised there are so many people here, especially since it must be getting late.”
“Ah, you don’t need to coddle an old man, lad. You young folk have the energy to enjoy yersel’s all night. The only reason I’m still here mysel’ is that my granddaughter, Fiona, will be dancing later. She’s a gifted child, and that’s no’ just an old man’s pride.”
Magenta tensed. “Your granddaughter, is she a little girl, dressed as a fairy princess?” Cairpre nodded. “I think I met her when I arrived. She was entertaining the parking valets with a lively jig.”
Cairpre chuckled. “She loves an audience, wherever she can find one. Just like her Grand-da.” He turned, grinning, to look Magenta full in the face.
It was then that Magenta saw the glint of gold in the man’s left ear. He thought it had a pattern on it, one that was already becoming familiar to him. An icicle ran down his spine as he thought over what the old man had told him, about being away from Ireland once, and his fame as a songwriter. A bard. The Tanist was also a bard, he remembered. “Your earring, it’s most unusual. May I take a closer look at it?” Cairpre raised an eyebrow but consented.
“It was a gift from a lady,” he told Magenta. “I haven’t seen her in many years now and I don’t wish to again, but I still wear it to remember her by.”
There was no doubt whatsoever, Magenta realised. The design on the earring was a match. Slowly, he raised his gauntlet and showed it to the old man, who caught his breath, then let it out slowly.
“So,” he growled softly. “You really are what you appear to be. One of her knights. She sent you, didn’t she?” His clear blue eyes flashed with anger. “Well you can go back to Faerie and tell her I’m not going back to her, not tonight, not ever!”
“Believe me, I don’t want to be doing this. I don’t have any choice! I’m under a geis,” Magenta hissed. Before he could say more, another man dressed as a pirate captain approached.
“Cairpre, have you seen Fiona anywhere?”
“No, Ian, but I’m told she was outside a while ago, practising her dance.”
“She hasn’t come back to the party. And she isn’t in her room.” Ian sighed. “I shouldn’t have agreed to let her attend. She’s much too young for all this excitement, but she was so eager to show off her dancing.” He beamed with an indulgent father’s pride. “I could hardly refuse her, could I? She’s born to be a performer. I hope she hasn’t got an attack of shyness and hidden herself somewhere. If you see her, tell me, okay?”
Oh God, thought Magenta. The little girl dancing in the drive must be his daughter. And I let her go with that monster!
As Fiona’s father moved away, Magenta turned his head and whispered, “Cairpre, she’s with the Pooka! She met us in the driveway and asked if she could take it to the stables. I wanted to say no, but… I couldn’t. It’s threatened to kill her if I don’t bring you out there.”
The Tanist turned pale.
“I’m sorry,” Magenta said sincerely. “If was just me, I’d let the Pooka take me to Hell before I’d —”
“I’ll let it take me to Hell first,” murmured the Tanist. “Ian!” he called. The girl’s father turned. “I think I might know where the little scamp is. I’ll go look for her.” Ian grinned and waved his assent before turning back to speak with a woman costumed as Marilyn Monroe.
“This way,” said Cairpre, the Tanist, with a smile as he put his arm around Magenta’s shoulder. He guided him out of the crowded rooms and into an empty corridor before releasing him and dropping the smile. “We’ll avoid the kitchens and go round the old barracks to get to the stables.” The two men hugged the shadows as they made their way to where the Pooka waited with its innocent hostage.
They heard voices coming from the stable, a child’s piping lilt and the Pooka’s deep rumble. Then the little girl shrieked.
“Come on!” shouted Magenta. Both men broke into a run and burst through the stable doors. The child had both hands over her face.
“Fiona! What’s happened! Are you all right?” The old man swept the girl into his arms.
“Grand-da! Of course I’m all right!” The girl wriggled to free herself.
The old man looked both confused and relieved. Then he detected the faint odour of sulphur, and turned to see the Pooka gazing down at him.
“Why have you come to the stables, Grand-da? Oh!” she cried, seeing Magenta. She dropped a pretty curtsey. “Good morrow again, Sir Knight!”
“Uh, good morrow, Lady, uh, Lady Fiona,” Magenta replied, trying to smile.
“Sir Padraig has invited me to go for a ride on his horse.” Cairpre’s voice reflected no trace of the apprehension he must surely be feeling.
“May I go with you? I don’t weigh too much, I’m sure Eochbhean can carry me!” piped the child, bouncing with excitement.
“No, Lady,” Magenta said quickly, then tried to soothe her obvious disappointment. “Your Grand-da and I are, uh, going on a quest for something that only men can find. Otherwise, we’d bring you along.”
“Oh.” Fiona was clearly disappointed, but accepted Magenta’s explanation without question. “Will you be back in time to see me dance?”
Magenta and Cairpre exchanged a look, then both looked at the Pooka. It narrowed its glowing yellow eyes.
Cairpre straightened the child’s fairy tiara and patted her head. “We’ll try not to be late. Now run inside, your faither is looking for you.” Fiona didn’t move. Her smile froze on her face. “Fiona?”
Magenta shouted at the Pooka. “I’ve done what you told me to do! Leave the girl alone!” He raised his gauntled fist and strode toward it.
“The girl is in my power. I will release her when you both leave with me. Not a moment before!” thundered the great horse. “And if you strike me, man, the child will feel the blow.”
Furious, Magenta drew back his fist, then faltered. He felt the Pooka might be lying. But if it wasn’t… Magenta lowered his arm but he was still angry. The Pooka had defeated him again.
Cairpre put a hand on Magenta’s arm. “The sooner we go, the sooner he’ll release Fiona,” he said quietly. “Pooka!” he continued in a stronger voice. “I’m ready. Let’s be away!”
The Pooka jerked its head high and stepped back. “Bard!” it boomed. “You have steel in your costume!”
“Do I?” replied Cairpre, in a voice of injured innocence. “I know better than to bear iron or steel into Faerie!”
The Pooka laid back its ears and stretched forth its muzzle to point to the brooch on Cairpre’s cloak. “I can see it on you. The clasp pin is steel. You will remove that and also that thing around your wrist.”
Scowling, Cairpre removed his watch and set it on the edge of the stall. He took hold of his brooch and endeavoured to unfasten it. But the pin would not come loose; he’d worked it through too much fabric, and it had twisted. Try as he would, it refused to open. The old man frowned. “I’ll have to cut it off. And I didn’t bring a daigér tonight. Sir Padraig, you must have a dagger I could borrow?”
“My name’s just Patrick. I’m afraid all I have with a cutting edge is a sword.”
“It will have to do, if we work together. You’ll have to handle the sword. Just take care not to cut any of me away with the cloak.”
Magenta gripped the sword in both his gauntled hands and clenched his teeth. It was heavy and he wasn’t used to handling anything like it. Carefully, he sawed at the fabric, which parted quickly under the sharp edge. Cairpre dropped the brooch and the cloak and held out his arms. “Satisfied?”
The Pooka’s eyes blazed with fire and it spat a cloud of blue smoke into the bard’s face. “Fool! You still have your amulet. I know you wear it habitually; a small piece of pure iron on a cord around your neck. You’ve kept it by you to keep me away if I should catch you out of doors, and as a key to leave Faerie again if I succeeded in capturing you.” The Pooka laughed at the man’s expression. “I’ve watched you closely over the centuries, Cairpre. I’ve learned everything about you. Now remove that amulet!”
Cairpre sighed in defeat and reached inside his leine. He pulled out a pendant, a disk about the size of an antique shilling, and weighed it in his hand. The Pooka recoiled slightly. “Do not even think it, Bard!” the great horse rumbled. “The child is still under my control. If you dare harm me, you will harm her.”
Magenta made a sound of surprise. “What’s so scary about that little thing?”
“It’s enough iron to poison the pooka and spoil a fair-sized bit of land in Faerie,” replied the bard. “It was my insurance.”
“Take all that metal and throw it down the well!” thundered the Pooka. “Then you will both mount me. You, knight, you will hold the reins. The bard will ride pillion.”
Silently, Magenta and Cairpre gathered up the watch, the amulet, and the cloak with its brooch. Cairpre led the way to the well, and they dropped them in, then hurried back to the stall where the Pooka waited impatiently.
Magenta dragged over a bale of straw and used it as a step to climb aboard the Pooka. Once he was settled and had hung his helmet on the saddle, he reached a hand down to the old man, who pointedly ignored it. He took a few running steps and expertly vaulted onto the horse’s back with ease.
“All right, Pooka. You have us both,” growled Magenta. “Now release the girl, as you promised!”
The Pooka breathed a cloud of blue steam over the girl. Immediately she began moving again, and behaved as if no time had passed that she was unaware of. “Have a good ride, Grand-da! Good luck on your quest, Sir Padraig!” She looked wistful a moment. “Are you sure I can’t go with you?”
“I’m sorry, lass, but no. Yer faither was looking for you; he wants you to dance soon.” Disappointed, the child nodded and waved her farewell. Cairpre leaned down to touch her raised hand. “Fiona, I heard you shriek just before we came in. What frightened you?”
The girl looked astonished. “I wasn’t scared of anything, Gran-da! I was laughing because I was talking to Eochbhean and asked her to tell my future. She told me I have to marry an English prince when I grow up. It’s so stupid!” She laughed again. “I don’t want to be a real princess, but if I have to, I’ll be an Irish princess! And a doctor and a dancer, too.” With another laugh and a wave, she ran out of the stable.
The Pooka allowed her a few moments to get clear, then charged out the stable and was at full gallop before it cleared the portico. Its hooves struck sparks when they touched the ground. Despite the furious speed, Magenta knew it would take some time to reach the mountains again. He turned his head and tried to speak over his shoulder. “I’m sorry about this, I really am. This damned monster didn’t give me much choice. I wanted to get away but he put me under a geis and tied it to Fiona. If I didn’t bring you to him —”
Cairpre leaned forward and craned his head so he could speak directly into Magenta’s ear. “Not your fault, lad,” he interrupted. “I knew this day would have to come.”
Magenta turned his head as much further as he could. “You heard what she said. She was talking to the Pooka! And it spoke to her! She knew its name and she wasn’t the least bit scared of it. Maybe I could have resisted it. Maybe it lied about the geis.”
“And maybe it didn’t! You canna know,” shouted Cairpre. “What’s done is done.”
They rode on in silence. “Cairpe, would you tell me something?” His companion didn’t answer in words, but tapped his finger to indicate he was listening. “How did you ever get mixed up with the Queen of Faerie in the first place?”
At first Magenta thought his companion didn’t want to answer. The other man sighed. “Then, I was a bard. Now I’m just a storyteller and song maker, but in my youth, more than a thousand years ago, a bard had high rank and great respect, and was an important member of the clan. And I was the Tanist, the heir-elect of my clan, the Tuatha Dé Danann. If the chieftain, my father Etan, had died, I would have taken his place. But it was as a bard that I had the most power. It was like wielding magic! I’d made songs and stories and prophecies that frightened and humiliated great kings and made them afraid to attack us. So afraid, that my clan had been at peace for many years. I suppose I found peace somewhat boring; I’d lived to a great age for the time, long enough for my hair to turn white, as it is now. With no enemies to excoriate or repel, I had few duties besides providing entertainment. I needed an adventure and inspiration for new songs, so I went travelling, just myself and one servant. One day, while fording a river far from Tuathan lands, I saw a beautiful gold-haired lady dressed all in green seated on a huge black horse with yellow eyes — possibly this very beast we’re riding. The horse had fifty-nine bells braided into its mane and tossed its head to make them ring. But it was her song that captivated me; the horse played music for her and she sang a tune like none I’d ever heard. Unearthly beautiful it was. I spoke to her and she replied, in a voice as lovely as her song. I suppose I fell in love with her on the spot. She invited me to walk and talk with her, and after some time, hours maybe, we reached a rath, a great green mound, and a door opened into it. She gave me the choice of going inside with her or staying behind, but warned me I’d never see her again.” Cairpre made a sound of exasperation. “I was not young, but I was bedazzled! I forgot my obligations to my clan and sent my servant back to tell them I had died of sunstroke. Then I followed the beautiful lady because I desired her and I desired her song. She gave me back my youth and many other gifts. And I stayed with her in Faerie, for seven of its years.”
“What was it like there? I’ve heard stories but you know what stories are,” Magenta said after the bard had been silent for a while. He had no doubt they were going to Faerie now and felt he might as well hear the worst.
Cairpre actually managed a weak laugh. “It’s not a road to hell, as yer probably thinking. There are no burning deserts and no rivers of blood. There are indeed fey creatures like this monster —” at that, the Pooka, which was also listening to his tale, blew a thick cloud of blue smoke out of his nostrils — “but they aren’t so fearsome there,” Cairpre managed to say between coughs. “Faerie is more like the Garden of Eden than anyplace else I could describe. And I was happy there, happy to be the Queen’s consort and honoured by all, happy for a long time.”
Again the bard fell silent and the only sounds were the Pooka’s hooves drumming on the turf beneath its feet.
“And then?” said Magenta. “You said you were there for seven years. You were happy.”
“Aye, I was. But as beautiful and kind as the Queen and her people were, I grew bored, as I had become bored with peace in my homeland. I began to remember my people and what I was to them. I feared that my absence had emboldened our enemies. I was an important defender, more skilled with words than others were with swords and arrows. And I missed my people. I missed their imperfections, and I missed the changing seasons. Paradise had become boring and I was homesick. The Queen had never told or shown me how to leave Faerie, but there was one who did. I dare not speak his name, for I’m certain this wretched beast would tell her, if she doesn’t already know. But I stole away without telling the Queen that I was going, and returned to my own world, long centuries after I left it. My home was long gone, my people scattered, the whole world I’d known was a thing of tales.” He sighed, a sound of regret and resignation for all that he’d lost. “But I’d retained my youth and managed to make a place for myself in this new world, to find love with a mortal woman, and grow old again. This time, I was content with peace.
“And that’s my tale. And what about yours, Sir Padraig? How did ye meet the Pooka?”
Magenta told him everything, beginning with Nuala’s warning and ending with the meeting at the party. “I was astonished when I saw your earring. I was looking for a much younger man.” Magenta regretted the words as soon as they came out; he’d seen the implied insult much too late. But to his relief, Cairpre chuckled wryly.
“I’m well-preserved for a man more than 1,000 years old.”
After what felt like hours, they were finally approaching the mountain. Once again, the Pooka raced forward and into it without slacking its speed. Again, they swerved and wound through the tunnels until they reached a chamber. Magenta could not tell if they had taken the same or a different route, or whether this was the same chamber he’d been in before. The Pooka came to such a sudden halt that the men flew halfway up its neck and would have gone over its head if the Pooka hadn’t reared, throwing them back into the saddle again. “I will not carry you before my queen like some beast of burden. Off!”
Unseen hands pulled both Cairpre and Magenta from the Pooka’s back. The old bard staggered as he dismounted. He fell against the Pooka’s hindquarters and clutched at its tail to stop his fall. Whirling angrily, the Pooka lashed its tail from the man’s grasp, pulling him off-balance again. Magenta lunged to catch him. “’M okay, lad, just a bit shaken.” He adjusted his belt and marsupium as Magenta helped him to his feet.
The invisible helpers were swiftly removing the Pooka’s harness but none came to help Magenta. He was still wearing his weather-proofed nylon jacket beneath the padded armour covering his chest and back. It had been comfortable enough in the night air, but now he was beginning to feel too warm. He began unfastening the buckles on the sides of his breastplate.
“No,” thundered the Pooka. You will appear before the Queen as you served her, as a Sidhe knight!”
Brushes and combs were flying over the Pooka’s coat, hooves, mane, and tail, and kept up their work until the huge black horse gleamed. It tossed its head and held it high. “Now I am fit to enter Faerie.”
A gateway opened in the stone wall and the Pooka trotted forward into another tunnel. The two men exchanged a look. Cairpre shrugged and clapped a hand on Magenta’s shoulder, as the two of them began to jog after the Pooka. “We canna go back, so we might as well go for’ard, lad. Life in Faerie isn’t bad.”
“But you left,” Magenta pointed out.
“I did, and without regrets. There was much in the world to call me back. But that’s all over and done now. She’ll never let me go again.” He sounded resigned. “But you’ll still have a chance to go home, if I can possibly manage it.”
Although the Pooka had tacitly promised to free him, Magenta doubted he’d ever see the outside world again either. And he could only blame himself.
How did I get so stupid! Just yesterday evening — was it really just yesterday? — Nuala warned me about the Pooka in the Blackstairs Mountains and I laughed at her. Magenta clenched his teeth, remembering Mairi, who had given him the bridle and sent him to find the Pooka. He groaned silently. Oh, Nuala, I owe you another apology! You warned me that pookas appear as beautiful women. What was it you said? The improbable never happens but the impossible always does. Nothing could be more impossible than this! I was having such a good time on this trip. But I was starting to look forward to going back to work and seeing all my friends again. Looks like the best I can hope for now is to become a knight in the service of the Queen of Faerie. From what Cairpre told me about Faerie, it probably wouldn’t be a very dangerous job. No Mysteron threats to deal with for one thing. I suppose being a knight would be a good thing, but if I still had a choice, I’d be a humble Spectrum captain.
Magenta was sweating. His armour didn’t allow any of his body heat to escape, and he was feeling a dull pain in his side. He hadn’t given up on finding a way out of this predicament, perhaps by charming the Queen into making the Pooka honour its implied promise, but there’d be no hope for him at all if he collapsed. He reached again for the buckles holding the armour around the right side of his body and loosened them. The pain, he realised, didn’t just ease; it moved. He slid a hand under his armour and pressed it against his side.
“Cairpre,” he said in a low voice, hoping the Pooka wouldn’t hear. “Cairpre, I think I can get us out of here. Both of us.”
The bard was unaccustomed to exerting himself, and panting hard. “I —” he puffed, “I — don’t want you — to — to sacrifice — y’self for — for me. — I may be — able to — do some —something — meself. Wi’ —” He wheezed for several seconds, which caused Magenta great concern. “Wi’ luck.”
It wasn’t much longer before they emerged into sunlight. Magenta had thought Ireland was the most beautiful green country he’d ever seen, but it was a pale imitation of the emerald lands that stretched out around them now. He could see vast fields of gold and magnificent orchards, the trees heavy with fruit. Birds sang songs whose words he felt knew but could not quite remember. The air was warm and the breeze gentle.
The Pooka slowed to a walk, then halted. The men seized the opportunity to sit down on the grass and catch their breath. “I will graze before taking you to the Queen,” declared the Pooka. “I do not wish to annoy her with the sounds of my rebellious stomach.”
Magenta waved a hand. “Go ahead, take your time. Not like we’re in a hurry.” The Pooka gave him a disdainful look, then wandered off a ways to start pulling up mouthfuls of rich green grass.
Before them rose a castle covered with flowering vines. Magenta was astonished to see that the castle’s walls appeared to be made of clouds, lazily drifting and billowing into soft mountains. Its shape flowed and shifted yet always retained its essential character.
A moan broke Magenta’s reverie. He glanced at his companion, who had drawn up his knees and was resting his head on them. “Cairpre, are you all right?” Magenta asked with deep concern. The bard’s breathing was slowing but he seemed to be in distress.
“No, Sir Padraig, I’m not. I can feel the land reaching out to hold me again, to make me stay. And a part of me wants to stay.” He raised his head, sorrow and distress plain on his face. “I’m an old, old man of more than a thousand years. I don’t want to live another thousand.” He gripped Magenta’s arm. “I abandoned the people I loved once before; don’t let me make that mistake twice.”
“Let you?” Magenta was puzzled. “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Do you want to stay or do you want to try and escape with me?”
“To escape,” replied the bard firmly. “But the spell of this place may make it seem otherwise. And Oonagh — she will be hard to deny.” He sighed. “I’m a weak man, Sir Padraig, I know it. If I’d been as strong as my clan believed, I’d never have let my discontent with peace carry me away from them. And I wouldn’t let it carry me away from the family I love now.”
“So how do I not ‘let’ that happen?”
“I need your strength, Sir Padraig. Oonagh will try to tempt me — perhaps both of us — with her hospitality. Accept nothing — not a morsel of food or drink, no invitation to dance, no gifts. Try not to be rude about it, but refuse it all the same. And prevent me from partaking as well. They are traps for the body and soul. I won free once, but I doubt I ever should again.”
“How do I prevent you? Should I tackle you and wrestle you to the floor or something?”
Cairpre shook his head. “Words alone will do, but you’ll have to make them sound like poetry.”
“But I’m not a poet or a bard! How can I —”
They stopped talking as the Pooka approached again. “You will follow me.”
Magenta walked behind the bard and the Pooka through the castle’s wide-open gates and into the great hall. The roof was translucent but though the sun shone brightly, the end of the hall was in shadow. Something pinged softly off Magenta’s head, once, twice, three times. He looked up, and something glittering fell from the ceiling, gently struck his face, and trickled away. Annoyed, Magenta ran his hands through his hair and pulled out the little drops that seemed to have stuck there. They weren’t wet at all, but solid. He looked at his hands and found he was holding tiny, faceted jewels of every colour.
“Ah.” He heard Cairpre’s soft intake of breath. It had nothing to do with the rain of gems, Magenta saw. Cairpre’s attention was on the shadows before them. Magenta turned to look as well.
To his sun-dazzled eyes, the darkness seemed complete at first. But slowly, as the sunlight crept up and dispelled the darkness, he saw the crystal dais upon which the most ethereally beautiful woman he had ever seen was sitting. Behind her and all along the walls of the great hall, members of the Faerie court stood and observed the newcomers. Magenta heard them whispering and saw them pointing. He understood at last why they were called the Fair Folk. Every single one of them was stunningly attractive, but the Queen was the most dazzling of them all. She smiled and beckoned to the men to come forward. The Pooka remained standing behind them.
“You have changed since you left Faerie, my love. I would have you as you were.” With that, the Queen blew a handful of iridescent light towards the bard. Magenta shielded his eyes as the light shrouded the old man and grew in intensity. When he was able to see again, he was amazed by the change in his companion.
Cairpre was a stunningly handsome young man. The burning green eyes and high cheekbones in his ruddy face gave him a sculpted look, and his hair shone like red gold. His hands, which had been knotted with age, were now smooth, the fingers long and supple.
“So, my love. My first gift to you on your return,” smiled the Queen.
Cairpre flexed his hands in wonder and his expression softened as he looked at the queen. “I thank you, Oonagh. I have missed you sorely.”
The Queen held out her hand. “And who is your companion, my love, the Sidhe knight who has returned you to us?”
“Sir Padraig of New York,” Magenta declared, stepping forward but not near enough to take her extended hand, and made a curt bow. He thought fast. “I serve my Lord Cairpre.”
She acknowledged the introduction with a small nod. “Well done, Sir Padraig. You may keep the jewels in your hands as my gift.” She then turned her attention back to Cairpre. “We must celebrate your return properly.” She clapped her hands, and the great hall changed. Garlands of flowers and greenery, interlaced with sparkling gems, covered the walls, and musicians began to play. “Come, my love,” said the Queen, taking the bard’s arm, “let us dance.”
Like a sleepwalker, Cairpre started out onto the floor. Magenta, remembering his instructions, shook his hands free of the jewels he did not want, then followed the bard and put a hand on his shoulder. He tried his best to make his speech flowery enough to penetrate the fog that seemed to be filling the bard’s mind. “Wait, my Lord Cairpre, before we arrived, you were telling me how tired you are, and looking forward to simply sitting beside your Queen.”
“Yes,” said Cairpre dazedly. “Yes, I’d like to do that.” He smiled at the Queen and kissed her hand. “To just sit and bask in the glow of your beauty.”
Oonagh smiled back at him. “I should have guessed you would be tired. You must also be thirsty and hungry.” She clapped her hands again and a huge banqueting table appeared, groaning with every kind of food and drink. The members of the Faerie court laid to with a will. “Now, beloved, what do you wish?”
Magenta felt his stomach grumble. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast at the pub in Bunclody before he’d set out. The sight and smell of so much good food was tempting, and the feasters were obviously enjoying themselves. He reached for a particularly succulent looking piece of fruit. But Cairpre’s warning rang in his ears and he stopped himself in time.
A servant filled a bejewelled goblet with deep red wine and handed it to the bard. Before he could take it, Magenta had intercepted it and put a hand over the top. “My Lord,” he declared in his best schoolboy Shakespearean declamation. “Did you not say that the Lady’s beauty is all the sustenance you need? All this,” he waved his free hand in a dramatic gesture, “is as straw and water beside that.” He crossed his fingers and hoped it was enough.
Cairpre’s eyes, which had seemed dazzled, began to clear. “Yes. Yes, that is true. You, Oonagh, are my food and drink, the breath of my body. I desire nothing on this table before me.”
“Then,” purred the Queen, stroking his cheek and raising her face to be kissed. “We must satisfy your deepest desire.”
Cairpre stepped back from the Queen, bowed low to her, then shook his head, his expression sorrowful. “Oonagh, I do have one desire, but it is not what you think. I beg a gift of you.”
The Queen was surprised. “What is this? What could you want that I have not yet offered?”
“Only one thing. Sir Padraig wishes to leave Faerie. Let him go.”
Oonagh relaxed. “Is that all? Then I will grant it with all joy. He did us a great service bringing you here, and is obviously devoted to you, but I will allow him to leave as his reward.” Her voice was sweet, but Magenta could read in her eyes that she was growing angry at his efforts to prevent Cairpre from doing anything that would enable her to strengthen her hold on him. She would be very pleased to see Magenta go.
Magenta bowed, causing his loosened armour to part, and put his hands on his hips beneath his armour as he straightened. “I thank you, Lady. I appreciate the reward but it’s not quite enough. When I leave here, Cairpre’s got to come with me.”
The musicians fell silent and the feasting stopped as the Queen turned a fiery red. “You ask too much, mortal. Be grateful for what I’m willing to grant.”
Magenta drew a deep breath. “My freedom isn’t yours to grant. It’s my right. And Cairpre’s. He didn’t come here of his own free will any more than I did.”
“He speaks the truth, Oonagh,” Cairpre suddenly declared in a strong voice. “I want to leave. I don’t want anything you offer, not food or jewels or love.”
The colour drained from the Queen’s voice. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. “You reject my gifts? You reject me?”
The court buzzed with shock. Cairpre simply bowed and let his silence answer.
The Queen became furious. “You are and have always been a traitor! You betrayed your people and you’ve betrayed me. I allowed you to come here because you amused me and because,” her voice broke, “because I truly loved you. Few mortals have known my love.” She swallowed and her voice became steel again. “You cannot leave here; you cannot leave me again, not ever. If your companion will not leave without you, then he must also stay.” Her eyes narrowed to glowing green slits. “But I will keep him and his poisonous words far away from you. Guards! Seize him! Seize them both!”
Knowing that the captives were unarmed and had nowhere to escape, the Queen’s guards did not rush forward, but moved gracefully to surround them. Magenta’s right hand was still concealed beneath his armour, but they did not immediately perceive its movement as anything more than a man’s scratching himself. But they halted abruptly when Magenta showed his hand. It was not empty.
Magenta gripped the horseshoe tightly as he held it out to the Queen. “I believe you can guess what this is,” he told her with a thin smile. There was a loud collective gasp and more than a few screams from members of the Faerie court.
Oonagh did not gasp or scream, although her doe eyes widened to the size of saucers and the colour drained out of her face. “Iron,” she whispered. “Iron. In Faerie! But how —?”
“Before I met the Pooka, I tripped over it and put in my jacket pocket. Then I forgot all about it until my armour started pressing it into my ribs and I discovered it again.”
The Queen did not look away from the horseshoe but her words were addressed to the bard. “Cairpre, do you hate Faerie so much? Do you hate me so much that you would destroy me and all that I love besides you?” Crystalline tears rose in her beautiful green eyes and slowly crept down her face. Even when she wept, she was beautiful.
“Oonagh.” Magenta heard great sorrow in the way Cairpre spoke her name. “Oonagh, you know that could never be true. But I made a grave mistake following you here. I had to return to my people, to try and set things right.”
Oonagh laughed, scorn and bitterness taking all the mirth from the sound. “Your people had long since disappeared. I believed you would return as soon as you learned that; I gave you a whole week to understand how alone you were in the human world.” She looked at him, her expression reflecting the conflict of love, anguish, and hatred that roiled within her. “To protect my realm, I cannot keep you here. You are free to go! But,” she hissed, her eyes narrowing to slits, “how will you get out of the mountain?”
“The Pooka will take us,” declared Magenta. “Won’t you?” He glared at the Pooka and waggled the horseshoe. To his amazement, the Pooka cowered and seemed to diminish in size. Its eyes were filled with terror.
“I will do as you command. But you must keep the iron inside your clothing! If any bit of it touches me, I will be destroyed and you will never leave the mountain.” The Pooka shook with fear even as it announced its conditions.
Magenta wasn’t sure the bargain was free of loopholes. He turned to Cairpre and spoke in a low voice. “I don’t trust that monster. We need it to get us out of here, there’s no choice in that. But after we get outside, what’s to stop it from racing away with us? You know how fast it gallops; if I touch it with the shoe at that speed and it falls or evaporates or whatever it would do, the fall would probably kill us, too.”
To his surprise, his companion chuckled. “We have more than that bit of iron to serve us, lad. I told you a while ago I thought I could do something to help us, with luck.” With a smile, he pulled three long black hairs out of his marsupium. “Back in the chamber, when I pretended to fall against the Pooka, I grabbed its tail and pulled these out. I thought if they made a good enough bridle for Brian Boru, they should do for us as well. You’ll be able to control the Pooka once we’re outside.”
Magenta continued watching the Faerie courtiers as he held the horseshoe at arm’s length. “Great! How fast can you make a bridle out of those? My arm’s getting tired.” He tossed the horseshoe skyward. Everyone around him let out a gasp of horror and froze; to catch it meant certain death and would delay the destruction of Faerie by only moments before the iron fell from the dead hero’s grip to the ground. Grinning, Magenta caught the shoe deftly out of the air, then tossed it up again. He let it fall farther the second time, before languidly reaching out to catch it before it touched the ground, then lazily tossed it up again.
Cairpre didn’t waste time or breath answering and paid no attention to Magenta’s diverting antic. Deftly, he twisted and tied one of the hairs into a rudimentary bridle consisting of a noseband, headstall, and hair bit. The other two hairs he attached to serve as reins. “Now, Pooka.”
Its eyes burning with shame and hatred, the Pooka literally shrank, becoming the size of a small draft horse, then stepped forward and opened its mouth for the bit. Cairpre quickly slipped it in and drew the bridle over the horse’s ears. “Are ye ready to go, Padraig?”
“In a minute.” Magenta caught the horseshoe again and held it in plain sight as he began to pulled off his armour. “I appreciate the offer of hospitality, Your Majesty, but I don’t want to take away anything that belongs here.” Shortly, with Cairpre’s help, his armour was reduced to a golden heap.
The Pooka wasn’t nearly as large now as it had been before. But it was still too tall for Magenta’s comfort. He looked chagrined. “I’m going to need a hand up to climb aboard this monster.” He looked the Pooka in the eye. “If you’re thinking of trying anything funny, just remember I’ve still got the iron horseshoe in my pocket.” The Pooka flattened its ears back against its head, confirming Magenta’s suspicion about what it had intended to do.
“Hold the reins while I mount.” Cairpre vaulted into the saddle and took a firm hold on each of the hair reins Magenta handed to him. “Now come up, lad.”
Cairpre obligingly reached down and when Magenta gripped his arm, gave him a mighty pull onto the Pooka’s back.
Once the men were settled, the queen pointed imperiously at the Pooka. “Take them away from here, you miserable animal.” Beneath them, they felt the horse wince at the insult, and shrink even more. “And don’t trouble yourself to come back until you receive word that I’ve forgiven you for this egregious mistake. If I ever do.”
The Pooka leapt sideways and was galloping before it reached the castle gates. It didn’t slow its pace as it entered the tunnel through the mountain and thundered recklessly through the near-total darkness. Cairpre laid almost flat against its neck. Magenta clung on tightly to the bard’s tunic and kept an even tighter grip on the iron shoe in his pocket. Magenta couldn’t tell whether the hair bridle gave Cairpre any real control over the Pooka, so the shoe was their only guarantee of getting out of Faerie safely. The ride seemed to go on and on and on. Magenta wondered if the beast was really going to carry them into the outside world and was just about to shout a reminder to it when the Pooka’s pace slowed to a trot and they burst out off the tunnel and onto a meadow.
The reins grew slack in Cairpre’s hands. The Pooka’s size continued to diminish until it was nearly the size of an ordinary horse.
“Take us back to the house you found me at, Pooka,” ordered the bard. “At a more decorous pace than that at which you took me away!”
“How long do you think we’ve been gone, Cairpre?” asked Magenta.
“It’s the same night, just a few hours later,” the bard replied.
“How can you be sure? I always thought time was different in Faerie, that we could spend a few hours there and years would pass out here!”
“Aye, it is so,” the bard acknowledged. “But time in Faerie is sometimes faster than that of our own world. I developed a sense for time in both worlds. Believe me when I say we weren’t away as long as it seems.”
He reined in the Pooka as they turned into the drive. There were no cars lining the drive now, no music playing, no lights. Bathed in the light of the sinking moon, the house had a strangely deserted air, as if it had been abandoned long ago. They rode all the way around the house, but all was closed and quiet.
The Pooka released a sound like a laugh but managed to turn it into an equine snort. The bard was not deceived.
“And what are you laughing at, exile?”
The Pooka turned its great yellow eye to him. “You’re exiled from Faerie, too, foolish human! And, it seems, from your people. They locked the doors and windows against your return. And you have no key.”
“Then I’ll just have to ring the bell and knock on the door. At worst, I can throw gravel at a window until someone wakes.”
“Or phone the Garda,” Magenta put in.
The bard laughed. “Or that. At least I’d sleep in a warm place instead of on a doorstep. Although I’ve done that plenty of times in my life. You’d better get down now, lad.”
Magenta awkwardly swung his leg up and rapped the Pooka on the hip before sliding off with more speed than grace. The horse complained angrily and loudly in a language Magenta didn’t understand. He felt fortunate he didn’t when Cairpre laughed and replied, “Ah, now, a beast that resembles a son of an ass shouldn’t be commenting on others’ ancestors!”
Magenta and the Pooka exchanged blistering looks.
“Hold the reins while I dismount. It won’t do for us to lose control now. You still have to return to wherever the Pooka stole you from.” Cairpre dismounted expertly, but as his feet touched the ground, he suddenly groaned and clutched the saddle. Magenta watched, transfixed, as the bard’s hands and features grew pale and wrinkled, and his abundant red-gold hair faded until it was once again the colour of new snow. “Well,” said the old man, with a wry smile. “At least my people will recognize me.”
The Pooka barked, unmistakeably a sound of laughter this time.
Magenta gave the reins a sharp tug, pulling the Pooka’s head down. “What’s so funny?”
“You men! You won’t sleep on a doorstep tonight, bard. Nor in a bed anywhere. You really think you’re safe now, just because you’re back outside this house , and there are people within who might — just might — let you in. But the people sleep and the house is very big. It would take time for your calling and pounding and stone throwing to wake someone.” The Pooka barked again. “You’ve forgot, haven’t you, oh wise bard! It’s All Souls Day, and the veil between the worlds is thin. There are other fey creatures abroad tonight, not all of them friendly to traitors. They’ll have heard of your offence already, and some will seize the opportunity to do the Queen’s will.”
Cairpre turned pale. “It’s true. Unless I can find something to protect myself with…” He began looking about to see what might offer itself. “If I could spot a bit of an old nail, anything iron…”
Magenta pulled out the rusty horseshoe. “Wouldn’t this be better?”
“Aye, it would.”
“Then you’d better take it, Cairpre,” Magenta told him, and handed him the horseshoe.
The bard held the shoe, then shook his head. “The only protection you have is the bridle; it will allow you to control the Pooka and nothing else will harm you while you’re riding, but you’ll be needing all the protection you have when you get yourself home, lad. I’ve no doubt the Pooka’s friends and allies will want to call on you. Unless, of course,” Cairpre added with a chuckle, “you mean to ride the Pooka all night!”
“Then that’s what I’ll do,” declared Magenta, ignoring the protests of muscles unaccustomed to long hours in the saddle.
“It’s at least an hour, maybe more until dawn. You’re going to have a long ride yet, Padraig. Just be sure to dismount when the sun begins to clear the mountain. When the light touches the Pooka, bridle or no, it will disappear. If you’re still mounted…”
“I won’t be!” Magenta promised.
The bard looked doubtful. “You may find it harder to dismount than you think. Brian Boru never explained why, when he had gained control of the Pooka, ridden it to exhaustion and he had extracted its promise not to do harm, he still remained on its back until dawn.” The bard pushed back his hair and tugged at his ear, then reached out and pinched Magenta’s ear.
Surprised, Magenta took a step back. “What was that for?”
“For luck, Sir Padraig. For remembrance. What you will.” Cairpre smiled enigmatically. “You rightly refused to take anything from Faerie, but I brought a little of its magic with me. With that pinch, I’ve given you just enough power for one wish. Make it a good one.”
Magenta nodded dumbly, then recovered his voice. “I will, Cairpre. I promise. Now I’d better be on my way, so you can start working on getting safely indoors.” A thought struck him. “What on earth are you going to tell them? How will you explain disappearing tonight??”
Cairpre grinned and his eyes twinkled. “I’ll tell them the truth!” He laughed as Magenta’s dismayed face. “I’m an old man. It won’t be the first time I forget myself and everything around me while composing a new song or thinking up a new story.”
The Pooka meekly let itself be led to a large rock. Magenta climbed onto the rock, and from there easily stepped back onto the Pooka’s back. Cairpre carefully handed him each wispy rein. “I forgive you for taking me away from here, Padraig Donaghue.” He raised his hand to prevent Magenta from responding. “I knew you had no choice; I never blamed you. But you didn’t have to bring me back when the queen released you. For that, I will always be grateful. And for this,” he added with a smile and a brandish of the horseshoe. “It’s fortunate for us both, you didn’t drop it while you were ‘entertaining’ the Fair Folk with it.”
“Lucky for them, yeah. You told me it would have done a lot of damage if it had touched the ground.”
“Which we were standing on.” He smiled as realization dawned on Magenta.
A last thought occurred to him. He didn’t like to leave the old man without knowing he’d be safe. “What will you do if you can’t get inside?”
The bard shrugged. “If I could get to the stables, I’d bed down in the straw. Otherwise, I suppose I’ll just kip on the doorstep.”
Magenta stripped off his nylon jacket. “Look, it isn’t much, but it will keep some of the night’s cold off, and it will definitely keep you dry if you’re caught out in the morning dew. Please,” he added when the old man hesitated, “you’d do me an honour by taking it.”
Cairpre smiled with genuine warmth. “Then I’ll accept it, with thanks. It wouldn’t do to deny a knight’s honour. I’ll repay you by really making a song about this night, and our escape from Faerie.”
“I’ll look forward to hearing it sometime. But now, you’ve got to get into shelter and I’ve got to get this miserable monster far away from here. Goodbye, Cairpre.”
“Goodbye, Sir Padraig.” The men solemnly shook hands. “May Brian Boru’s bridle see you safely through the remainder of the night!” With that, he slapped the Pooka soundly on the rump, and it leapt forward. Magenta pulled back on the reins and kept the horse to a rapid trot all the way up the drive and onto the road.
“Right, you mangy nag, you’re going to take me back where we started. Then we’ll locate my biking gear, see how far it is to the village, and kill time until dawn.”
“As you command, master,” replied the Pooka, releasing a cloud of blue vapour as it spoke, and broke into a canter.
Magenta hauled back on the reins. “Take it easy! We’ve got lots of time. As much as I’d rather not be spending it with you, we’re stuck with each other.”
“The least you could do is have more mercy on me than my Queen! I’m an exile now.” The Pooka sobbed. “You’ve seen the fantastic world I was born in. To think I’ll ne’er see it again!”
In spite of himself, Magenta felt pity for the beast. He’d never forget what he’d seen during his own short sojourn in Faerie, although he wasn’t sorry to be back in his own world. “What are you going to do after we end this hell-ride tonight?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“What can I do but learn to live in your miserable, limited world?” screamed the Pooka in reply. “But at least I can assure that you won’t be in it with me!”
It ducked its head suddenly as if it had stumbled. Magenta was yanked forward. To keep himself from being thrown, he grabbed for a handful of mane. As he did so, he momentarily loosened his grip on the reins; the ends whipped out from between his fingers. He no longer had any control over the monster he was riding.
The Pooka screamed with rage and laughter as it broke into a gallop, Magenta flattened against its neck, clinging to its mane with both fists and gripping with his knees as hard as he could. He couldn’t tell if he was actually stuck to the Pooka’s back again — his backside certainly didn’t seem to be — but if he fell off at this speed and on this rough ground, he’d certainly be seriously injured, perhaps even killed. Worse, now that the Pooka was freed from his control, Magenta realized that the ground seemed farther away than it had; the Pooka was growing larger again.
“Pooka!” he shouted, the wind catching his words and flinging them back in his face. “Where are you taking me?”
“To be cleansed in the waters, then to your final destiny! Hopefully, to Hell!”
Grimly, Magenta rode on. He knew from what his cousin had told him that the Pooka would plunge into a loch and leave him to drown. He was a strong swimmer, although how well he’d manage after this tiring night, he’d just have to see. Unless dawn came quickly — a quick glance at the star-dappled sky told him that was unlikely — swimming to safety was his last hope of coming out of this with his life.
But the Pooka wasn’t heading for a loch.
“What the hell is that?” yelled Magenta as they few off an embankment and he saw the rippling silver ribbon below them.
The Pooka plunged into the river, its roaring laughter almost drowned out by the splash it made. Magenta struggled to keep his thoughts collected and concentrated on remembering all the pooka lore his cousin had mentioned. Some people who got away, he recalled, escaped from the Pooka once it carried them into the water. But they’d been carried into a pond or loch, not a fast-flowing river. If he let go of the Pooka now, he’d have a hard time swimming for the shore across this current. Suddenly, he realised he was hearing more than just the Pooka’s roar. He sat up as straight as he could and looked out over the Pooka’s head as it plunged forward through the water again. Rapids! Magenta was a strong swimmer but even in top form, he wouldn’t dare try to swim through white water without a life-vest. It was now or never. He let go of the Pooka’s mane and pushed off with his arms and legs.
And discovered he couldn’t pull his legs away from the Pooka’s sides.
The Pooka shrieked with laughter, a cloud of steam rising from the water. “Aye, we’re stuck wi’ each other, as you once said!”
The churning water was cold and roared like a thousand lions. The Pooka plunged into the deepest part, carrying Magenta underwater, then surfaced again. He spat out a mouthful of water and drew a quick breath before the Pooka dived again. The horse leaped and bucked and dived among the rapids and between the rocks. Magenta groaned as his arms and legs scraped against the hard stones. In a way, he was grateful for the river’s cold, because it numbed the pain almost before he could feel it and stanched the flow of blood. He tried to stay focussed on his predicament and not despair. Some of the Pooka’s victims had had to survive or no one would ever have heard their stories. But how had they done it?
As they cleared the rapids, the Pooka leaped high above the river then dived deep again. Magenta sucked in a deep breath of air and fought to hold it. His lungs began to burn and his heart pounded so hard his ribs were hurting. When they surfaced, he saw there were more rapids ahead, even worse than the ones they’d just come through. The water gushed wildly among jagged stones and over drops. The Pooka deliberately scraped every stone it could as it carried its reluctant passenger. Magenta cried out with pain each time, but not so much because he was hurt. He’d realised that the Pooka was toying with him, getting closer and closer to the rocks, preparing to smash him into them and break his bones. And he’d noticed that whenever a rock caught the skin of a leg, it held him briefly — oh so briefly! — but just long enough to interrupt the leg’s contact with the Pooka’s body. Nuala had said that a low-hanging tree branch could knock a pooka’s rider free. That knowledge gave him a chance, albeit a slim one, of escape.
Magenta wasn’t certain he’d be able to act on his idea. He was cold and exhausted and battered and bruised. And still the wild ride continued. “How much farther are you planning to carry me, Pooka?” Magenta shouted when the Pooka was above water.
“All the way to the sea, and let the white horses there carry your body to where it will never be found! But first I’ve got to make you tender for the fishes to eat!” He could hear the malice and amusement in the fey horse’s voice.
It was now or never. Magenta tensed as the Pooka lunged sideways towards a tall, narrow stone that rose at least a foot above the water. Just before his knee made contact with it, Magenta leaned forward and sideways to wrap his arms around it and tried to kick out with both legs. The rock tore at his face, and he felt a ripping sensation all down his legs, but Magenta clung to the rock with all the strength he had left. Then, suddenly, his legs were free, and the Pooka was rolling away down the river screaming in rage and frustration.
He’d be safe now, Magenta thought. The sky was beginning to get light. He couldn’t be too far from the river’s bank, and as soon as there was enough light, he’d get to it. He lifted his head and turned to look down the river, to see if there was any sign of his tormentor.
To his horror, the monstrous horse was swimming back up the river, steam billowing from its nostrils, eyes blazing. It wasn’t going to let its prey go so easily! Swimming was impossible, so Magenta wrapped his arms and legs around the stone as tightly as he could.
“You won’t take me without fight!” he yelled.
He bared his teeth in defiance as the Pooka came closer, throwing water into his face as it plunged towards him. As it opened its mouth and blew a cold cloud of water vapour over him, he shut his eyes tightly and waited for the Pooka to slam into him. He had just enough time to think, I wish the sun would come up!
When he opened his eyes again, he saw grey clouds moving away as if propelled by the weak rays of the dawn sun.
“What am I doing here?” Magenta found himself lying outstretched on the ground by a country road. His clothes were torn, his bicycle helmet was gone, and his head and sides were aching. He lay still for a moment longer, assessing his aches and pains and gingerly moving his toes and fingers, then his hands and feet, and finally his arms and legs. No bones seemed to be broken, although he hurt all over. His face felt sore, he touched it and looked at his fingers; there was blood on them. With a groan, he rolled over and got to his feet. He looked around and saw his bicycle lying nearby. Its rear wheel was crushed and the frame was bent. Shards of a large, shattered mirror were scattered everywhere.
“I remember now. Something hit me… and the bastard obviously didn’t stop!” There was no way this smashed bicycle was going to carry him anywhere. Cursing softly, Magenta looked up and down the road, but there were no signs of dwellings anywhere nearby, and no sound of traffic. He’d chosen this route because it wasn’t supposed to have much traffic. But right now, he’d have given a lot to be beside an urban motorway. Magenta kicked the remains of the bicycle gently, just to vent his frustration without injuring himself further.
“I wonder how far it is to the next village?” He took a few painful steps and swallowed a groan. He was afraid it might be too far but he had to try and reach help.
Then he heard the sweetest of sounds, the soft purr of a motor. A small car came over the rise behind him. Awkwardly, Magenta stepped into the road and tried to wave his arms to flag it down. He was momentarily afraid the car would pass him by, but it braked and rolled to a halt beside him.
“Good lord, man! What happened to you?” exclaimed the driver. “Is anyone else hurt?”
“No, no, I’m by myself. I just need a ride to the village, just to the village.” Magenta realised he was repeating himself, but the flood of relief was overpowering.
The Good Samaritan helped Magenta into the car, found his saddle bags, loaded the wrecked bicycle, and insisted on taking him to the village doctor. After a thorough examination, the doctor declared that he had a serious case of road rash but would recover with time and rest.
“I’d say that when you hit the road with your chin, you knocked yourself out,” the doctor mused. “You probably drifted into mild shock after that, then into sleep, which rather surprises me, but I imagine you were tired after a long day’s ride. Still, seeing as you lost your helmet, you’re fortunate not to have any head injuries, Mr. Donaghue. But you’re sure you aren’t experiencing any of the symptoms of concussion I described to you?” The doctor’s slight tone of disbelief reminded Magenta of Doctor Fawn. He began to grin but stopped when he felt the pain in his face.
“I’m sure, Doc. Look, I’m expected home tomorrow. I promise I’ll call my own doctor about seeing him the same day.”
Captain Magenta boarded the coach for Dublin gratefully; he’d had quite enough holiday. When he got back to Cloudbase, he promised himself, he was going to write a long letter to Nuala and tell her about how her storytelling had given him the worst nightmare of his life.
Captain Ochre met him on the flight deck. “Hey, buddy, did you — Good grief, Pat! What’s with all the bandaids? Did some pretty colleen try to scratch your face off or something?”
“Or something.” Magenta sighed as he limped down the gangway. “Sorry, I’ll have to tell you the story later. I’ve got orders to report to Sickbay immediately.”
“Ah, that would explain why you’re wearing a sweatsuit instead of your uniform. You’re usually so eager to resume work.” Ochre insisted on going with him, if only because he wanted the story of what happened. Magenta had woken up feeling especially stiff and sore, and he was in no mood to argue, so the two of them headed for Sickbay. “You know, Pat, they aren’t going to let me stay to hear your story unless they think you need my support.”
“Ah, you’re right. So, give me an arm.” Ochre got his arm around Magenta’s shoulders and Magenta began to stumble as they entered Sickbay.
“Captain Magenta here,” Ochre told the nurse, “has orders to see a doctor right away. He had a rough time on his vacation.”
The nurse showed the two men to an examination room and went to fetch Doctor Fawn. He arrived shortly, and after greeting them, directed Captain Ochre to return to the waiting area.
Magenta gestured to his friend to sit down again. “I told Rick he could tag along so I don’t have to repeat the story twice before I get a cup of coffee.”
Fawn scowled, but only asked, “The nurse said you were staggering. Is it just your face I need to look at or are you really hurt elsewhere?”
With the doctor’s assistance, Magenta slowly and painfully pulled off his sweatsuit. His arms and legs were covered with heavy plasters and bandages.
“Pat, you look like something the cat chewed up and spat out again,” exclaimed Ochre. “What the hell happened to you?”
Hesitantly, Magenta explained how he had apparently been knocked down by a car, thrown from his bike, then spent the night unconscious by the side of a country road. He wasn’t about to mention the strange nightmare he’d experienced. “Apart from that, I had a good holiday.”
“I hope you aren’t going to keep any of that as souvenirs!” Ochre replied.
Doctor Fawn had gently removed all the plasters on Magenta’s face to examine the scrapes. “No worries there, Captain. You got good immediate wound-care in Ireland, and we’ve got all the latest treatment options here. You’ll still make the ladies swoon, and not with fright!” Everyone laughed, Magenta with a certain feeling of relief. “That earring of yours will be the only remaining souvenir visible by the time we’re done with you.”
Ochre smirked. “Yeah, Pat, I never reckoned I’d see you sporting a gold earring. It gives you a kind of dashing buccaneer look.”
Magenta was puzzled. “Earring? What earring?”
“Don’t play daft, Magenta,” scoffed Doctor Fawn. “It’s not surprising you couldn’t take it off before coming home, what with those stiff hands of yours and the bandages. Just make sure it’s gone before you see Colonel White.”
Magenta would have frowned if his face allowed it. “Before you wrap me up again, can I have a mirror, doctor? It’s about time I faced myself.” When the mirror was brought, he braced himself to look. The damage was extensive. His chin, nose, right cheek, and the right side of his forehead were raw and bloody looking; his right eye was swollen partially shut.
“I suppose we could call you two-faced,” drawled Ochre. “Or Captain Magenta and Mr. Hyde.”
“Shut up,” rejoined Magenta absently, turning his head slightly. Sure enough, there was a glint of gold dangling from his left ear. He indicated his hands and pointed to his ear as well as he could. “Doctor, could you, uh…”
Fawn smiled. “Sure thing. I don’t want you in here with a ripped ear lobe because you couldn’t draw the wires. Well,” he declared, “that’s clever! It’s just a clip of some sort.” He removed it gently and set it on Magenta’s outstretched hand. Bright gold inscribed with an intricate, ancient, and now familiar Celtic design winked up at him.
“With that pinch, I’ve given you just enough power for one wish. Make it a good one.”
Magenta stared at the earring, watching the pattern swirl and flow. “I hope he gets my name right in the song,” he said distantly.
Fawn and Ochre exchanged a concerned look. The doctor made a note to schedule Captain Magenta for more head-injury tests.
On a stud farm in Leinster, a new-born black filly lay sleeping in the straw beside her dam, and dreamt of Faerie.
Credits and other stuff:
Faerie creatures, including the pooka, are easily offended and their memories are long. So I’d better not be in Ireland on Samhain until, oh, the next millennium.
In Irish tradition, the nature of the pooka varies from benign to mischievous to evil; the bits of lore Nuala mentions reflect this range. There is indeed a legend about a pooka that emerges from a certain hill in Leinster on All Soul’s Day, a hill not far from the road on which Magenta was cycling. The Leinster pooka is not a malevolent one; as the one in this story did for Fiona, it will tell the future of anyone who asks. I’ve incorporated a few other elements of pooka legend, such as Brian Boru’s mastery of a pooka and how a pooka typically ends a ride, but the pooka’s behaviour is otherwise my own invention for dramatic purposes.
No pooka I’ve come across in legends (and I’m excepting the James Stewart movie Harvey) ever gives the pooka a name. In my story, the Pooka’s name, Eochbhean (roughly pronounced Ak-ban), is my own creation. It’s based on the masculine name Eochaidh (horseman), which is also the name of one form of kelpie, a Scottish water-horse that, in the Eochaidh form, is more or less a centaur. It seemed appropriate that my Pooka, appearing in both human form as Mairi and then as the mare, should have a name reflecting both qualities.
In Irish legend, Cairpre Mac Oghma was a bard and satirist; some say he might also have been a wizard. He’s mentioned frequently in tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann, but the story of his death is quite vague; it suggests that he died of sunstroke while on a journey as an old man. I combined elements of some of the legends about Cairpre with elements from the ballads of True Thomas (Thomas the Rhymer) who sojourned with the Faerie Queen in the 13th Century. But I’ve also taken great liberties with those legends and ballads to weave my own tale.
My thanks for the inspiration underlying this story go to the unknown recorders and tellers of classic Irish legends and songs.
And many more thanks to Chris Bishop for her patience as I struggled to finish this story.