NYC Midnight Challenge 1

I recently took part in a very fun flash fiction challenge! In 48 hours the writers in my assigned group (Group 6) had to write a short story, 1k words max, in the genre of Historical Fiction, set in an underground bunker, and mentioning a bag of coins. I perhaps fudged on the bunker a bit, but at any rate, here’s my tale, squeaking in at 992 words.

Carolan, a blind young man, must spend the night in the faerie hill. If he survives he will emerge either as a madman, or the finest harper in Ireland.

Into the Faerie Hill

Lough Scur, Ireland, 1690

Carolan stumbled over the knotted field, resenting the steadying arm of the servant, yet grateful to the man for keeping him from breaking his neck. The edge of autumn lay in the air, and the earthy smoke of peat. Every step released a dank whiff from the ground. Surely they must be near to the place.

“Is it dark yet?” he asked.

This was a thing best done under stars and moon, though he could not see them. Would never see anything again, since the fever had stolen his eyesight two years ago. He swallowed, glad of the flask in his pocket that helped keep the bitterness at bay.

“Sheebeg’s just ahead,” the servant said. “Watch yourself, lad—a gorse thicket here.”

Picking through gorse was bad enough when one could see. Carolan bit his tongue on curses as the thorns scraped his skin and clawed at his coat.

They pressed through into a clear space, and the servant halted.

“The faerie hill,” he whispered. “Are you certain—”

“Where’s the entrance?” Carolan was not at all certain, but he’d given his word to spend the night.

In the morning he would wake raving with madness—or bearing the gifts of a bard.

Either one would be a welcome change.

The man led him forward a pace. “Best if you kneel.”

Solid stone beneath his knees. Carolan reached, his fingers brushing slabs of lichen-knobbled rock shoring up the sides.

Directly before him lay emptiness, a passage into the hill. He could feel the exhalation of the earth against his face.

His salvation. Or his grave.

“Luck be with you,” the servant said, unease tightening his voice.

Carolan nodded and the man retreated, the rustle of gorse marking his departure.

“Well, then,” Carolan said to himself. He’d come too far to turn away now.

Ducking his head, he went into the ground.

The tunnel quickly narrowed until he was forced to go on his belly. Fear latched onto his spine. The flask in his pocket scraped against stone, and the bag of coins he’d brought clanked softly.

After what felt an eternity, but was only ten thundering beats of his heart, his head emerged into a larger space. He drew in a deep breath, his chest still constricted by the passage. Pray God he did not fall headlong into a cache of ancient swords or a battery of muskets. If he died here, he wished it would not be from clumsiness.

The floor proved to be less than a foot down. Carolan wriggled, sprawling ungracefully out of the passageway. One hand extended cautiously over his head, he sat up.

His fingers encountered a slab of stone, unbroken as far as he could reach.

“Ta!” he said sharply, listening for the space to throw the syllable back at him. No echoes came, confirming his sense he was in a small enclosure.

An enclosure he had no desire to explore further. Whether this was a military fortification or a barrow grave, he sensed danger.

Tis the provenance of the Fair Folk, his mind whispered. You should be afraid.

 He fumbled the flask from his pocket and unstoppered it. Lifting it to his lips, he paused.

“To the spirits of this place,” he said, “whatever you may be, I mean no harm. Accept this humble offering.”

He reached into the blackness and poured out a libation. It splashed against stone, filling the chamber with sharp, sweet fumes.

The burn of the whiskey against his throat soothed him. Warmed him against the coming night.

“I’ve this, as well.” He placed the sack of coins at the edge of the passageway. He prayed it might guard his sleep and appease the fey and fearful things that crept through the dark.

There was nothing else to do but finish the flask, then put the hard stone at his back and close his eyes.

The faerie folk chased through his dreams, wielding bright swords under the command of a giant chieftain and his warrior queen. Their armies danced together in starlight, the battle surging between two hills like the waves of the sea. A melody called to Carolan, full of sadness, full of joy. He followed it, his heart rising up like a white moth beneath the stars.

***

“Take care.” The voice sounded into the darkness. “What if he’s a madman?”

“Then you may club him. Carolan! Are you there, man?”

He woke, and nearly scrambled to his feet until he remembered he was in the depths of the hill.

“Hello?” he called, his throat fuzzy with sleep. “Squire Reynolds?”

The man who had challenged him to sleep within the faerie mound.

“A blind harper with little talent is a sorry thing, indeed,” the squire had said. “Better to dare greatness and fail, than to continue on in mediocrity.”

Carolan straightened from the rock, his mind awhirl with fey images, bound with melody. Was he mad?

“Go in,” Squire Reynolds urged his servant. “See if he’s alive.”

“I’m here!” Carolan called.

He felt for the mouth of the passageway, and touched the bag of money. The hard, round coins were gone. Neck prickling, he stuck two fingers inside and touched something brittle and rustling. Faerie gold, changed into dry leaves by the light of day.

Carolan pocketed the bag and crawled through the passageway. Behind him came an ancient breath, carrying the whisper of a tune. Or madness.

The sharp scent of bruised gorse greeted him, and then Squire Taylor hauled him forth, exclaiming and brushing off his shoulders.

“Grave dust upon you, or worse,” the squire said cheerfully. “So lad, which is it?”

The music brightened inside Carolan, like the sun burning through morning mist. A swirl of melody, where the faeries of the big hill and the faeries of the little hill strove together.

A tune that would carry him forward into the rest of his life.

“Bring me my harp,” he said.

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