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FICTION: The Fool’s Debt - A Patrick Donegal Fantasy by Mike Phillips  

Posted by Scott Wilson

Deep underground the pursuit began. While the world above went on undisturbed, a secret tunnel was being built. Fixed upon a single purpose, the workers toiled as if to preserve the very life of their Chief, but the true reason was perhaps of greater consequence. It was a matter of honor, a matter of revenge that caused them to labor in such a way. Money was owed. An example must be set. With the promise of reward, the workers kept digging as the day ended and the night grew late.

The soil was soft and loose in the way of well tilled fields, and so the job went quickly and with little trouble. There were times thick roots had to be dealt with, but these were not unexpected and so addressed in turn, hacked away with axes or cut with diamond toothed, two-handed saws taller than the men who used them.

No structure was built to keep the ceiling and walls from caving in. A thin wash was painted over every surface, an eggshell coating that was as strong as stone. The wash also provided the only source of light, a faint yellow glow that was only slightly better than the total dark of the deep places of the world.

After many long hours, the labors were coming to an end. The way began to turn upward. Before the night reached its epoch, they would break through the surface and the errand would be complete.

#

It was a fine evening, that time of joy and plenty between harvest and yuletide. The sun was setting within a clear sky, and the stars were bright within the growing darkness of the heavens.

Down at the Cornflower Inn, a favorite spot of the many pixies, faeries, sprites, and other enchanted creatures that lived in the forest, music was playing. A great crowd had gathered. The dancing and laughter was riotous, a sign of the peace and tranquility of the land in which they lived.

Patrick Donegal and Danny Gorman were seated at table, enjoying the music as they consumed a fine supper of bacon and beans. Such a meal was never to be taken for granted because Misses Malone, the proprietor, was considered the best cook in the entire county. And since she was herself one of the Faerie Folk, it is entirely possible that her cooking was, in point of fact, magical.

“Are you still nursing that cold along?” Danny asked as Patrick demurely blew his nose.

Pocketing the lace handkerchief, Patrick replied, “Aye, to be sure,” but then went back to his meal, knowing the beginning of a lecture when he heard one.

“It comes from all the sleeping out of doors you do,” said Danny, fixing Patrick in his gaze. Danny was not generally a worrier, but he was all too familiar with the personal habits of his friend. Practical by nature, Danny was used to dealing with problems by the strength of his own two hands. He was a woodcarver by trade, and even now as he sat eating, his bag of tools was set on the bench in a place of honor at his side.

Not bothering to conceal his irritation, Patrick said, “May I remind you that I caught the cold from you?”

“Still, with how much you’ve helped the folk in these parts, we’d have willing hands aplenty to build you a nice little house.”

Giving a sigh, Patrick at last looked up from his plate. “Our people have been living outdoors for centuries. The fresh air is good for you. Besides I have a fine bed, thanks to your expert craftsmanship, and that is all that I require.”

Patrick and Danny were Faerie Folk. Patrick was tall for his kind and lean, built like a scholar, but he was used to taking the sort of exercise that made him much stronger than he looked. He had brown hair and hazel eyes that shined with starlight. His suit was so dark a shade of green that it looked black on all but the brightest of summer days. Sadly, he lost his wings in a terrible accident long ago, but he made up for the loss in other ways.

Not quite as tall as Patrick, Danny was still reckoned impressive in size by the men and women of these parts. He had brute arms that bespoke days of hard labor and a fat stomach that bulged over a too tight belt. His complexion was ruddy and his hair an earthy red. His wings were shaped in a way that seemed to have been made for economy, simple but strong, not at all fancy like some.

Fixing Danny in his gaze, Patrick was about to have a word or two about privacy and living life on his own terms, but the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of two other young Faerie men, Billy Donovan and Jim Shannon. They shouted their greetings to Patrick and Danny from across the room, joining them at table before either had a chance to decline the imposition.

“Is that bacon?” Jim asked, taking an exaggerated breath.

“Aye, ‘tis,” said Danny proudly, “Patrick and I had to impose a bit of the Faerie Tax on a certain ill-tempered, human farmer. It’s the best I ever et, to be sure.”

“Really? That sounds like fun,” said Billy, bracing himself as he sat down. He wobbled unsteadily as if he were on a ship in rough water. His breath stank of whiskey and his voice was slurred. “Why didn’t you invite us? I’ve been down on my luck lately, could have done with some cheering up.”

“Because you’re a drunkard and a fool, Billy Donovan, and you would have had us all caught up in glass jars and put into a traveling show,” Danny answered critically. “Why don’t you try an honest day’s work for a change? That would turn your luck around for you, I’d be bound.”

Jim laughed, “Oh no, now you’ve done it, Danny. You’ve said a naughty word.”

“Why are you always so hard on me?” Billy said in his own defense. “Patrick here doesn’t have a steady job either.”

Almost on queue, Patrick sneezed, a tremendous, terrible sneeze. His magic dust blew out over the table, turning it to stone, the crystals in the table’s surface reflecting the light of the fire in little rainbows that spread to every corner of the room.

“Sorry,” Patrick said to everyone nearby, wiping his nose, but he didn’t engage in the argument.

“You know our Patrick works for a higher purpose,” Danny said, taking a huge spoonful into his mouth. “Your troubles, on the other hand, are all of your own making.”

“Fine, I can see you’re in a right good mood tonight,” Billy said, taking a deck of playing cards from the pocket of his shirt. Shuffling the cards, he dealt a hand to Jim and himself, pausing to allow Patrick to decline and ignoring Danny completely.

The maid stopped by and gave an appreciative nod at the table. “Sorry Nancy,” Patrick said. “It’ll change back in a few days, I think.”

“No trouble. How’s the cold?”

Nancy was a pretty young Faerie woman. She had too kind a disposition to work in any ordinary tavern, but Misses Malone ran a respectable establishment and made sure everyone behaved, enforcing the rules with a quick and merciless regard.

“Much better.”

“Liar, I’ll have Misses Malone make up some soup for lunch tomorrow. That’ll have you right again in no time.”

Nancy shot a glance toward Billy and Jim. “What’ll it be for you two, then? Though it’s late, I dare say I could scratch up a plate for each of you.”

“Drink for me,” Billy said quickly.

“I second the motion,” agreed Jim.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” Nancy said, giving Danny a smile and a wink. “Will there be anything more for you, then?”

Danny blushed. “Ah, no, two’s my limit.”

“Let me know if you change your mind,” she said and was on her way.

Billy and Jim were amused by the show of affection. When Nancy was well out of hearing range, they hooted and made catcalls and teased Danny pitilessly.

“Well, I’ve got just enough time to see a man about a horse before she comes back,” Billy announced, rising shakily, excusing himself to make a visit to the privy. “I don’t want to miss what else sweet Nancy has to say to our Danny boy here.”

“Don’t fall in,” Danny shot back as Billy disappeared into the crowd.

“Don’t let him get to you,” Patrick said to Danny. “He’s all talk.”

“Yeah,” Jim agreed, “some day he’ll get his comeuppance.”

#

From the shadows, the gnomes appeared. They were brute, ugly beasts with gnarled muscles and dirty faces. They had been digging for the better part of four days, and they were tired and hungry and in a terrible mood. Some had a sneaking suspicion that they weren’t going to get paid, and this did nothing to improve their disposition.

It was well known in the forest that the Cornflower Inn was the place where decent folk gathered for a night’s entertainment. So as the gnomes climbed out of their tunnel and into the night air, they guessed that following the distant sound of music would bring them to their intended victim. It wasn’t long before they made their way into the Faerie village and hid themselves in the night shadows cast by buildings and hedges, anxiously awaiting the man they sought.

The back door of the Cornflower opened with a bang. A Faerie man of slight stature stumbled down the stone steps, making his way down a gravel path to the few small buildings where the customers went to answer the call of nature. The biggest amongst the gnomes pointed a gnarled finger at the lad, and as Billy Donovan stepped inside, they gathered in strength at the door.

#

“Maybe he did fall in,” Jim suggested hopefully.

“It would serve him right,” Danny said under his breath.

“No, something’s not quite canny,” Patrick said, blowing his nose miserably. He nodded toward the glass. “The day I see Billy Donovan leave half a swallow of ale no less a pint is the day I take up knitting.”

“We had better go find him,” groaned Danny.

In appreciation for the proceeds provided by the Faerie Tax, not only the much praised bacon but also enough ham to last the winter through, Misses Malone decreed that Patrick’s and Danny’s money no longer held value at the Cornflower Inn. Danny left not an ungenerous number of coins on the table as a gratuity for Nancy anyway. Jim settled the remainder of the bill, drinking Billy’s ale in two great swallows.

“Look now, there’s trouble,” Danny said as they approached the privy, pointing to the ground. “A fair number of lads came this way, big fellows too. By the look of it, the shape on the sole of the shoe, mind, they was gnomes. See that little footprint there? That’ll be our Billy. He found himself a load of trouble, no doubt that comeuppance you were talkin’ about Jim.”

Jim looked to Patrick in astonishment and said, “Can you tell all that just by looking at the ground?”

Patrick sneezed, “Not like that, no. Good work Danny, they went off into the wood, you reckon?”

“By the look, yes.”

“Just gnomes, and nothing else?”

“Not that I can see. Of course if there were any of the Faerie Folk involved, they wouldn’t necessarily leave footprints.”

“There weren’t any so far as I can tell, but with this head cold, I’m out of sorts.”

“It’s all the sleeping outside that you do,” Jim said.

“See, I told you,” Danny agreed. “That’s just what I was telling him.”

“Why don’t you settle down and build yourself a nice little house? I know you’re allergic to actual work, but Dan and I will help you out.”

Patrick held up his hands in surrender. “At the moment, I think we have more important matters to concern ourselves with, don’t you think?”

Danny and Jim didn’t think so. They went on discussing the situation amongst themselves even as they followed the footsteps of the gnomes into the forest. It wasn’t long before the trail led them to a wide hole in the ground. That was obviously where the gnomes had taken their wayward friend.

“Inside we go,” Patrick said, but Danny and Jim looked dubious.

The Faerie Folk are all for open land and sky. They love mountains and fields and forests. Dark tunnels are not at all to their liking. Caves they never venture into beyond the light of day, and only then at pressing need. This hole in the ground looked like the worst place imaginable, and the possibility that Billy Donovan might be suffering somewhere deep inside did nothing to assuage their feelings.

“Come on you two, it’s Billy down there,” Patrick said finally.

“Yeah, we know,” said Danny.

“He owes me money,” Jim said, “and I think he tried some funny business with my sister once.”

Danny gaped at Jim, “Why the nasty bugger, I’ll…”

“You’ll save his life if it comes to it,” Patrick broke in. “Remember, it’s not just Billy Donovan down there, it’s all the Faerie Folk. If these gnomes think they can just snatch one of our citizens without just cause, then they’ll have to be taught a lesson.”

“Right as ever,” Danny said, abashed.

Jim suggested, “Speaking of, what about that sheriff? This sort of thing is his job, isn’t it?” He added quickly, “Not to say that you aren’t capable, Patrick, but didn’t you retire from that line of work?”

“Why that no good fool of a sheriff is probably off drunk somewheres,” Danny said in a huff. “Don’t bother with the likes of him. Before he gets up the courage to do anything, Billy’ll be ten years dead and that’s a fact.”

Patrick said, “Danny’s right. That sheriff has hid under his bed more than once when the call of duty was raised.”

“Into the hole, then?” Jim said.

“Into the hole,” Patrick and Danny agreed.

Into the hole they went. The tunnel sloped sharply downward. Patrick walked, light-footed as he was, having no trouble managing the drop even as perilous as it became. Danny and Jim, however, were in the habit of flying most everywhere they went and soon took to the wing for fear of tumbling to the bottom.

“Strike a light?” Jim suggested, gesturing vaguely the sickly yellow glow that surrounded them.

“No use letting them know we’re on our way,” Danny said.

“We should make ourselves invisible,” Patrick added.

“What good will that do?” asked Jim. “I can barely see a foot in front of my face. Gnomes will see no better. They’re not really enchanted, you know.”

“Not so much as ourselves,” Patrick agreed. “But they will have someone on the lookout, expecting trouble.”

“And they’ll see us well enough if we let ‘em,” Danny nodded in agreement.

#

Employing their Faerie Craft of invisibility, the three made their way down the tunnel, going as quickly and quietly as they could. The gloom was oppressive, contrary to the very nature of Faeries, and each soon felt like he was traveling the innards of some impossibly long serpent. But for all the wretchedness of the journey, they did not encounter any opposition. The tunnel was empty.

After walking what seemed an eternity, they came to a meeting of tunnels. There was a pair of gnomes on sentry. They were drunk, so far gone that little would have raised their interest. Patrick, Danny, and Jim had no trouble in eluding the watch, following the footprints of their friend and his captors even deeper below ground.

Now the tunnel began to grow broad and better shaped and was joined by an ever increasing number of tunnels. The yellow glow of the washed walls and ceiling grew bright, almost pleasant, much like the light of the sun on a cloudy day. In many places works of art, scenes of the world above, were painted on walls and ceiling. The murals depicted gardens of flowers in full bloom or forests teeming with life. Every species of nature imaginable was at play within.

Some of the paintings were enchanted to take on the aspect of real gardens, now past prime. The flowers and shrubs and trees were dead, the detritus of leaves and flowers blown by a wayward autumn wind. But for all that the earth was expectant, awaiting the rebirth of spring.

The main tunnel at last opened into a sprawling metropolis, branching out into a great underground cityscape in all directions, what seemed to the Faeries a labyrinth of impenetrable depth and complexity. Here there was an iron gate with a half a dozen guards armed with poleaxes standing watch.

A young guard took note of the Faeries as they passed, feeling perhaps a change in the air or maybe hearing the slightest sound of a sniffle that hadn’t come from the direction of any of his compatriots. He said something about it to his superior, but the sergeant dismissed the notion as nerves, and so the alarm was not raised.

The buildings of the gnome city were cut from the living earth. Their walls were sometimes washed like the tunnels, vibrant in every imaginable color, sometimes clad in pebbles or planks or even cut stone. The buildings were quaint, charming, and the Faeries became light hearted as ever, if not completely at ease in their unusual surroundings.

Fortunately the gnome population kept hours similar to the world above. The city slept. Following the footprints, the Faeries worked their way between buildings and down avenues, into a district where many workshops and warehouses lay. At last they stood before a wide building encased in fine stone. There was a stout wooden door bound with iron and a brace of gnome guards standing watch outside.

“Take care until we see what sort of reception we’ll receive,” Patrick said in a low voice to Danny and Jim as he made himself visible.

The guards didn’t react to Patrick’s appearance at first. They kept to their post, their weapons easy in their hands. They didn’t try to be threatening or to chase him off by giving him cross looks. Only when Patrick approached did the guards stand erect, looking nervously each to the other.

“What’s your business here?” one said when there was finally no other option.

“I’ve come seeking a friend,” Patrick replied, taking his lace handkerchief from a pocket and blowing his nose.

“Just you?” the guard said doubtfully, looking anxiously about.

Patrick smiled, “We’re all reasonable people, aren’t we?”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said the second gnome. “We don’t want no trouble. Jeiramin is the boss. It’s his business what brought your friend here. No need to turn us into anything unnatural, see?”

“All I want is to have a conversation with this Jeiramin. As long as we remain civil to each other, nothing untoward will happen.”

“We’re just teamsters,” the second gnome went on, indicating his friend, “him and me, not warriors. We’ve been paid to dig a tunnel and to stand here and let the boss know if anyone showed up, that’s all and no more.”

“Then you may announce my arrival.”

“Fair enough, I reckon. Just you remember that Smuko and I won’t stop you if you want to go and we ain’t gonna do no fightin’.” The gnome jerked his finger toward the building, “Not for the likes of him.”

“Yeah, Jeiramin is a rat fink but a man’s got to feed his family.”

“And who can argue with a month’s wages?”

Patrick said, “If matters come to an impasse, I will most certainly take that into account.”

Satisfied, the guards nodded their agreement. They stood dumbly for a long while, seemingly awaiting some purpose inscrutable to all but themselves. Patrick tapped his foot impatiently, his arms folded at his chest. Finally, one of the gnomes plucked up the courage and asked, “So what should we do then?”

“How about you knock on the door?” Patrick suggested helpfully. “There’s no need to get excited just yet.”

The gnome did as he was bid and admitted Patrick cordially. With a quick introduction, the guard and his companion made themselves scarce, seeing the anger and the fear light in their employer’s eyes. Unseen, Danny and Jim entered and took positions to either side of Patrick.

They were in a warehouse that was both wide and long, with thick columns spread at regular intervals supporting the earthen ceiling. Though there were no windows, it was bright inside all the same, the walls lit by the same strange wash of paint that gave structure and light to the gnome kingdom.

Seated at the clerk’s desk nearby was Billy Donovan. His face was battered and bruised, but he was alive. Billy was bound in iron, a complex rig made of a cuff at the wrists, ankles and neck. A cobweb network of chains secured his wings. The Faerie Folk are powerless against iron, and Billy had no hope of employing his magic to secure his escape. Only by physical means could he free himself.

“Are you well, Billy?” Patrick asked, not bothering to address Jeiramin. Billy roused himself, looked up, and nodded weakly.

“Though William Donovan here has been severely mistreated, he has his wits about him, whatever else,” Patrick said, now talking to the gnome Chief. “You must know that absconding with one of the Faerie Folk is something we view with the utmost of disdain. The protection of our people is the foundation of our law.”

“Since you gnomes are a magical race, you are allowed certain privileges in this respect. A petition may be brought against one of our citizens, but such a petition must be made to the appropriate authorities. I will now give you an opportunity to repent your actions and to give up the man willingly. All will be forgiven and we can go about our respective businesses such like the affair had never occurred.”

“What are you, the constabulary?” Jeiramin said dryly.

“Something like that.”

“Well, that little bugger owes me money.”

Patrick was about to reply but found that he could not. He had been trying to stifle a sneeze since the conversation began, but could hold it in no longer. He sneezed explosively, sending his magic dust out in a great cloud. Everything in sight was covered with fluffy, pink fuzz. Flower petals and stuffed playthings in the shape of puppies and kittens littered the floor.

“Goodness!” Patrick said when he had recovered himself. “Bless me.”

“Who are they, your backup?” Jeiramin said, pointing to Danny and Jim. Thanks to the pink fuzz, they were now quite visible.

“Interested parties, to be sure. Well, now that we’re all present and accounted for, would you mind telling my friends and me the reason why you have taken our Billy?”

“Why, I aught to beat the lot of you to a bloody pulp for your tricks.”

“Enough of that,” Patrick said sternly. “I am willing enough to hear your complaints, but I will allow no one else to come to harm. You’ll find yourself in a fine shade of toad if there is any more talk like that, understand?”

The gnome guards became stiff, warily looking about them as if already beginning to plan their escape. The Faerie Folk had a horrible reputation for tricks, and none of them were willing to share in their employer’s missteps.

For their part, Danny and Jim giggled behind their hands as the danger was explained. Danny took the opportunity to pick up a stuffed poodle and put it into his pocket, knowing a certain young niece who would be delighted by the present.

Jeiramin swallowed, saying politely, “Yes.”

“Good. Now tell me, what’s the trouble?”

“He owes me money.”

“Yes, I did catch the gist of that already, thank you. What for and how much?”

“Lost it to me in a bet, he did.”

“That sounds like our Billy,” said Patrick. Then to the named man, he said, “Is the claim valid?” Billy nodded. “And what is the sum?”

“Fourteen pounds six pence,” Jeiramin said.

“Fourteen pounds six pence?” Danny said incredulously. “That’s it? Seems like an awful lot of trouble for such a pittance.”

“A debt’s a debt no matter the price,” Jeiramin said resolutely, crossing his arms and sticking out his chin. “You let one get away without paying and there’ll be no end.”

Patrick said, “Yes, your business is your own. We will settle the debt and be on our way. I trust you find that acceptable?”

The gnome nodded. “Yes.”

“Good,” Patrick said, not bothering to check the contents of his own purse. “Jim, do you have any money on you?”

Jim blushed so deeply that it shined through the pink fuzz. He took a small, deflated leather bag from his pocket and, opening it, he mouthed the words as he counted the small amount in his possession. “Ah, no, Patrick, not even close.”

“Danny?”

“Bless me, but it’s an ill wind that blows my way,” Danny said angrily, opening the drawstrings of his purse. “Rest assured you’ll pay your debt to me, Billy Donovan, be there no doubt in your mind of that. I have half a mind to let these fellers here have their way with you, now that I know their side of the story. But you’re one of us and I got to do as Patrick says. You’ll be carting firewood for my mother for the next fifty years, be certain of that you no good sluggard, but you’ll have your freedom.”

“Stop grumbling, Danny. Now there’s a good fellow,” Patrick said.

Counting the appropriate number of coins into Jeiramin’s hand, Danny added two silver pennies to the sum, saying, “For your troubles, and no hard feelings I hope.”

“Well done, Danny,” Patrick agreed.

“No, no hard feelings. Thank you,” the gnome leader said, bowing in the way of his kind to return the honor. “The debt is paid in full.”

The End

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