Oisin’s Hoard

An Urban Fantasy Short Story Written By Cora Ruskin

Oisin’s Hoard

by Cora Ruskin

Cora Ruskin writes both fiction and poetry, and listeners can find a list of her published work on her blog, www.corastillwrites.wordpress.com. She also uses this blog to rave about whatever book she’s currently obsessed with.  Her debut novel, ‘Other People’s Butterflies’, is available to buy on Amazon. It’s a Young Adult contemporary novel about identity, friendship, trying to understand the world around you and making really bad choices along the way.

A titanium wedding ring was the thing to have. Masculine and durable and antiallergenic. Pete had gone for gold three years ago, and now he regretted it. The dim lights of the bar were glinting off the surface of his ring like it was the most precious thing in the world.

Maybe he should stop drinking. Or have several more drinks. Maybe he should cut his losses and have a one-night stand with a twenty-five-year-old (something he’d never done when he was twenty-five).

Some kind of commotion in a corner of the bar caught his attention. A burst of raucous laughter from someone obviously the worse for wear. The laughing man and his equally wasted friend were standing over a ginger guy seated at a table, joking with him. Or maybe the ginger guy was the joke. Pete thought he heard the word “midget”, and it dawned on him that the ginger guy was very small. If it weren’t for the rust-coloured scruff on his face, he would have looked like a child.

Pete raised his pint and took a long drink. By the time he put it back down, the two drunk blokes were on the floor. He watched, dazed, as they struggled to their feet and stumbled away. The ginger guy caught Pete’s eye and smiled at him. It was a spectacularly creepy smile.

Now he was getting up, and crossing the room towards Pete, who turned away and focussed very intently on a bottle of Glenlivet behind the bar.

“Someone spilled their drink all over the floor back there. Did you see that fella slip?” The man spoke in an Irish accent, and hoisted himself up on the bar stool beside Pete. “Went down like a lead balloon and took his friend with him.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate for them. Can I get a rum and coke, please love?” He smiled at the barmaid, and it was a much less creepy smile than the one Pete had been favoured with a moment earlier.

“Name’s Oisin,” the man said, offering his hand to Pete. For a moment, Pete just stared at it blankly. Then he remembered what to do with it and reached out.

“Pete.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Pete. What’s up with you then, you having a bad day?”

Was Oisin selling something? Or hitting on him? Or about to ask him if he’d accepted Jesus as his saviour? “It’s an average day I s’pose.”

“Alright. It’s just, you’ve a face like a smacked arse.”

“Pink?”

Oisin laughed. It was a wicked-sounding giggle of a laugh that put Pete in mind of a camp supervillain. “Fine, fine, you don’t have to tell me about it.”

“I know.”

Two drinks later, he’d told Oisin pretty much everything.

“I mean, she keeps saying I’m not the man she married,” Pete slurred. “And it’s like … I know! How could I be? I’m working twice as many hours, making three times as much money, I’m bloody stressed! And I’m doing it for her, for our future, but she doesn’t get it. Honestly, I give up.”

“Now there’s the three magic words,” said Oisin, quietly.

“What?”

“Not to worry, fella.”

Pete raised his glass, not even sure of what he was drinking at this point. He’d switched from beer to something sweeter. Cider? By the time he put down his empty glass, Oisin had disappeared. No goodbye, just gone. Maybe he went to the loo. Pete raised his hand to get the barmaid’s attention, but lowered it again as he noticed his wedding ring was gone from his finger.

A quick, frantic search of the bar and the grimy floor beneath it. Then he remembered Oisin shaking his hand, and oh no, oh shit. The bastard had stolen the ring. Pete hit his head, trying to get out from under the bar too quickly. A galaxy of stars spun in front of his eyes but he managed to weave his way between them and find his way to the door.

Outside the bar, the cold night air sobered him a little. He looked left, then right, and saw Oisin walking down the darkened street. The little prick walked with a swagger, arms swinging. Pete could have sworn he saw a glint of gold on Oisin’s hand as he passed beneath a streetlight.

“Hey!” Pete shouted, and walked as fast as he could (which wasn’t particularly fast in his current condition) towards Oisin. The man didn’t turn around or stop or speed up. He just kept walking at the same steady pace on his short legs, and Pete couldn’t catch up with him even when he broke into a jog.

“Did you nick my ring?” he called, and there was that laugh again, echoing through the darkness. Pete was running in earnest now, but he wasn’t getting any closer to Oisin. It was the strangest thing. Until something stranger happened.

Up ahead, there was a little hillock with a fat old tree growing on it, just where the road veered off to the left. Pete watched Oisin run straight into the tree. Literally, into it. He was there one moment, and the next moment he seemed to have been swallowed up by that swollen trunk.

Pete stopped for a moment, then ran forward quicker than ever, then slowed down a bit. When he got to the tree, he circled it twice and called Oisin’s name. “Look, I’m not gonna beat you up or anything, I just want my ring back!” he shouted desperately.

At this point, he noticed something he hadn’t seen before. A deep gash in the bark of the tree, at waist height. It was gently curved, like a smile, or a huge eyelid. He touched it, and his fingertips came away sticky with sap. Then, following some mad, childish impulse, he grabbed both the edges and pulled them apart.

The tree was hollow, and full of darkness. But there was something glowing in the darkness. So he pulled the edges of the bark, and it crunched and bunched up in his fists, but didn’t break. Soon, he’d created a hole big enough to step through. He stepped through it, into the tree, and he fell.

It was a little like the water slides he remembered from long-ago summers, except he was sliding through dirt instead of water. The cold crumbs of it lodged in his nostrils and got into his mouth, and just as he thought he was going to drown in dirt, he fell down through thin air and landed on a soft floor that was not nearly soft enough.

He spent a long time just coughing and spitting and blinking furiously, trying to work the dirt out of his eyes and get the taste out of his mouth. Eventually, his senses recovered enough for him to put his palms to the ground and feel a cool, springy layer of leaf litter beneath him. Looking up, he saw a ceiling of earth, and the hole through which he had fallen. Then he looked in front of him and saw something he really should have noticed straight away.

A rabbit. About the size of a horse. It had bulging golden eyes that lit up the underground chamber, and ears that twitched gently, throwing odd shadows on the earthen walls.

“Lose something?” said the rabbit, in a voice that sounded like bones crumbling. Its expression was mild and friendly.

“My wedding ring,” croaked Pete.

“Oisin probably has it. I can let you through to look for it.” Here the rabbit hopped nimbly to the side of the chamber, revealing a dark tunnel behind its massive bulk.

“Okay.”

“But you’ll either have to answer a question or fight me before I can let you through.”

Pete considered his chances in a fight against this bizarre beast. It was big enough to crush him to a pulp simply by leaning on him. It looked no more vicious than the average rabbit, but it sounded like a thousand tortured souls were trapped inside it.

“I’ll answer your question.”

“A wise decision. You entered this realm through a tree, did you not?”

“Yes.”

“My question is, what type of tree?”

What type of tree? How was he supposed to know that? It was something he would have noticed long ago. Back when he was a child and he went outside and touched things. When he learnt the names of plants and animals for no particular purpose.

The rabbit was prowling towards him, and Pete swore he could smell blood on its breath. “If you can’t answer, you’ll have to fight me.”

It wasn’t fair. He didn’t have room in his mind for stuff like that these days. A tree was a tree.

“Five seconds,” the rabbit said.

Oh God. It had been a tree with rough bark. And the leaves were … wobbly shaped. “Oak!”

The rabbit stopped. Its nose quivered, inches away from Pete’s face. Then it stepped aside delicately and Pete ran past it, not wasting a second. He dashed through the tunnel, which sloped slightly downwards, taking him even deeper into the earth. A kind of iridescent fungus grew in clumps on the walls at seemingly regular intervals, lighting up the darkness with an eerie, silver-green glow. After a minute or so, he saw a warmer light up ahead.

The tunnel ended abruptly, and Pete found himself in another chamber – this one much larger than the one where he had almost been attacked by a giant rabbit. It was filled with gold. Coins, mostly, but with a generous scattering of jewellery and the odd pyramid of gold bars. Sitting atop a particularly large pile of treasure was Oisin, who waved cheerfully at Pete.

“Okay,” said Pete, after taking a moment to catch his breath. “I have questions.”

“Shoot.” (Oisin emphasised the word with finger guns.)

“What are you, where am I, and what the fuck was that?” With the last question, Pete’s voice took on a rather screechy quality and he gestured behind him in reference to the rabbit.

“First question – I’m a leprechaun. Honestly, I thought you knew that already. People are always calling me a leprechaun up topside. Second question – you’re in my hoard.”

At this point, Oisin slid down the pile of coins, which shifted under his weight and made a terrific jangling noise. He came to a stop directly in front of Pete.

“Third question – that was a pooka.”

“A what?”

“A pooka. A sprite that can take animal form.”

“Oh.” Pete didn’t know how to process any of that. He decided to put it all aside for later and focus on the task at hand. “Look, you took my wedding ring, didn’t you?”

“I did indeed.” Oisin smiled shamelessly. His teeth were pointed like a shark’s – how had Pete not noticed that in the bar?

“Okay, so give it back.”

“I can’t remember where I put it.”

“Think.”

“Don’t be telling me to think, sunshine, I’m always thinking. Anyway, you’re more than welcome to look for it yourself.”

Pete looked at the mountains of gold in despair. He could probably spend a year sifting through it and never find what he was looking for.

“D’you want a cuppa tea?” said Oisin, apparently taking pity on Pete.

“Tea? I dunno. Do you even have a kettle?”

“Look around you, fella,” the leprechaun snapped. “I got more gold than every Swiss bank combined. I got gemstones you never even heard the names of. If you want tea, I can get you tea.”

“Okay… okay, yeah, I would like a cup of tea actually.”

Oisin nodded, then looked a little awkward and said, “The kettle’s in another room.”

That was how Pete ended up on a magical mystery tour of a leprechaun’s hoard. He began by following Oisin up a steep slope of coins towards a hole in the wall that presumably led to the next chamber.

“Why did you take my ring anyway?” Pete demanded. “It’s not like you don’t have enough gold.”

“I don’t take gold. I take things that people have given up. You give up on your marriage, I get to take your wedding ring.”

Pete looked down at the riches beneath him, shifting with every footstep. A pearl necklace wrapped around his ankle and his eye caught the sparkle of a diamond engagement ring, but most of what he saw was money.

“Who’s ever given up a giant heap of cash?”

“Plenty of people. Folks give up chasing riches to raise kiddies, or to do a job that’s more meaningful to them, or to make art that no-one’s gonna buy, or to look after someone who needs looking after. The money they’re missing out on has to come somewhere.”

Oisin bent down and plucked a particularly shiny coin from the pile. Then he popped it into his mouth, chewed and swallowed it. Pete didn’t say anything about this. At this point, the fact that Oisin ate gold didn’t even seem strange.

They made it to the top of the slope, and Pete followed Oisin through the hole in the chamber wall. Moments later, they emerged into another cavern, just as large as the first but more dimly lit, without the glow of gold. Pete tried to make out the shapes of the things that surrounded him, draped in cobwebs and covered in fine dust. Were they… exercise bikes?

“New year’s resolutions,” said Oisin, in response to Pete’s obvious confusion. “A fresh batch of given-up things every year, around mid-January.”

The next chamber was filled with musical instruments. Oisin picked a path through the discarded drum kits and pianos and euphoniums, and Pete followed until he saw something that made him stop.

“That’s my guitar!”

“Hm?”

Pete clambered over a tangle of saxophones and clarinets, driven by something more urgent than pure nostalgia. He wasn’t sure how he knew it was his. There were probably lots of people who’d sold their Honeyburst Les Paul Classics because they never played them anymore. But somehow, he knew.

“Why did you stop playing it?” Oisin asked, as Pete slung the strap over his shoulders and cradled the instrument lovingly.

“’Cause I was never gonna be Jimi Hendrix.”

“Well yeah, nobody’s Hendrix but Hendrix.”

Oisin only gave him a moment to pluck idly at the strings before he continued forging his path through the brass and woodwind. Pete shifted the guitar around to his back, and followed.

The next chamber was lit by the light of hundreds (Thousands? Millions?) of glowing insects, which swarmed just beneath the ceiling. There was a good smell in the air, as the musty underground smell mingled with the unmistakable odour of old books. Memories of many different lives, lived between pages, came flooding back. How many people gave up reading for the joy of it? From the looks of things, it was a lot.

As they made their way between shelves and piles and precarious stacks of books, an occasional glowing bug would drift down from the ceiling like a spark from a fire, and swirl around before finding a place to land. One of them landed on a paperback at the top of a nearby pile, and Pete picked up the book. It was some kind of swords-and-sorcery thing. Dragons on the front cover.

When me and Sadie first moved in together, we used to read to each other sometimes. It was her idea – I think she saw people doing it on Downton Abbey – but I liked it. We always had the same taste in books.”

He might have said more. Something about how it had felt like exploring a new world together, which was great because they didn’t have the money to actually travel back then. But the neck of his guitar collided with a particularly tall stack of hardbacks, which toppled on to an unstable pile of crime thrillers, which caused an avalanche. He and Oisin bade a hasty retreat.

In the next chamber, Oisin finally found his kettle. It was a round, bronze thing that Oisin filled from a jug (Pete knew better than to ask questions about the contents of the jug, or underground plumbing) and hung over a small fire that crackled away in a fireplace built into the muddy wall. Pete settled himself on a wooden chair, at a wooden table, and watched Oisin rummage in a wooden cupboard before putting perfectly ordinary-looking teabags into a couple of large mugs.

They sipped their tea together – it tasted like PG Tips – and Pete felt sleepy and pensive.

There’s just never enough time,” he said, staring into his mug. “Not enough time for Sadie. Not enough time for … anything, really. Except getting shit done.”

You can’t fight time,” Oisin replied. “If you keep trying to take everything you can get from every minute of the day, it’ll start taking things from you. Things you love. People you love. The person you are. Still, what do I know, eh? Not like I live in the real world!”

Oisin giggled, and Pete couldn’t help but smile around a mouthful of tea. His smile faded as he felt something hard and round against his tongue. He tasted metal. Cautiously, he fished his wedding ring out of his mouth, dried it on his shirt, then slipped it onto his finger. Only then did he glare at Oisin, who was looking at him like butter wouldn’t melt.

What? Engagement rings are always turning up in glasses of champagne. What’s so strange about a wedding ring in a cuppa?”

Pete tried to ask him if he’d had the ring with him the whole time, but no words came out. His tongue suddenly felt thick and heavy, and then his eyelids felt the same way. He looked down at his empty mug, which blurred and darkened. It took a huge effort to raise his head, and the last thing he saw in Oisin’s hoard was a smile full of pointed little teeth.

#

Pete woke up on top of his guitar, which was a wholly inadequate substitute for a mattress. He struggled out of the instrument’s strap and into a sitting position, and the dew from the grass soaked his trousers. He checked his left hand and saw his wedding ring shining in the sharp light of sunrise. His watch, unfortunately, had a large crack across its expensive face. But at least he was all in one piece. He hadn’t lost any parts of himself, not really.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called Sadie. She didn’t answer, so he left her a voicemail that promised her a crazy story. Sadie liked crazy stories – they both did.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


3 × five =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.