"Youíre our last hope."
Brian OíRourke chuckled as he leaned back in the overstuffed chair that smelled of pipe tobacco and smiled. "Athair," he said, using the Gaelic term for father, "you always exaggerate."
His father scowled, running his fingers through his graying beard, as he always did when he was upset. Which wasnít that often because Athair usually was in a jovial mood, telling tales and overseeing their vast clan of cousins and aunts and uncles, all of whom addressed his father as "Himself." That old custom Brian couldnít quite bring himself to use. He called his father Athair, no matter what other titles he could claim.
"Donít try to get around me by using Gaelic," Athair said. "You know you donít have any use for the old ways." His green eyes narrowed. "Just as well, because theyíre about to come to an end."
"I doubt that."
"Do you?" He rubbed his hands together and stood from where heíd perched less than ten seconds ago. Athair hadnít sat still since Brianís arrival. Odd, for his father had been known to sit a whole sunny day without budging while he counted out pots of gold. "I canít break this accursed contract, and now weíre all doomed to be cursed."
"A curse?" Brian got up and stretched. Riding on that blasted bus from Limerick to Dublin had left him aching. He wasnít used to sitting still that long. "Since when have you worried about curses, Athair?"
"Donít you believe in curses?"
"Of course, I do. Iíve seen what Auntie Agnes did to Uncle Pat. Last time I went to visit, his ears were still shaped like a donkeyís, even though the rest of him had changed back."
A smile trickled across his fatherís lips but vanished, astonishing Brian. Usually his father enjoyed reminiscing about his henpecked brother. "Brian mílad, this is serious." Locking his hands behind his back, he took a deep breath that threatened the shirt buttons already pulled tight across his full stomach. "I must find my shillelagh."
"Which one?" He leaned on the wide windowsill and glanced toward the street, enjoying the sight of a pretty redhead. She had a nice motion in her walk. It created a musical rhythm that any man would be glad to turn into a duet. Not that heíd have a chance. With his father babbling about curses, this conversation wouldnít be over anytime soon. He couldnít believe Athair had called him home to talk about a ridiculous curse. This wasnít the Middle Ages! Times had changed, and it was time his father changed along with them.
"What?" he asked, still watching the woman as she paused to talk with Mr. McGregor, the greengrocer on the corner.
"You arenít listening." His father looked past him. "Ah, now I see why."
With another chuckle, Brian faced him. "Athair, how many times have you said the OíRourkes have a keen eye for women?"
"Many times, and Ďtis sure to be the downfall of every OíRourke male. Once I set eye on your mother, I was lost for all time." He sighed, and Brian knew he was thinking of the woman whoíd left him more years ago than Brian wanted to count. Last time Brian had seen her, she was involved with someone else, someone who helped her walk the fine line between the old ways and the modern world. Heíd never seen her so happy, but he knew better than to mention that to his father who preferred to think she was pining away without him.
"I know," was his answer.
Something in his voice must have revealed the course of his thoughts because his fatherís scowl drew even deeper lines in his brow. "You must be wary, son, of what can be a curse."
"Iíve got to admit Iíve never considered women a curse."
"Women arenít, but that one woman who steals your heart is. Sheíll steal all the joy in your life, because youíll find you canít be happy unless youíre with her. Your joy sheíll share with you along with her special pleasures."
Brian rolled his eyes. No matter how old he got, he still didnít like talking about sex with his father. Athairís ideas of sex were as old-fashioned as his ideas of courting. Brian didnít know anyone who expressed his interest in a woman by tying a knot in a rose stem, but Athair insisted that was the only way of showing a woman true love.
"Maybe women can be a curse, but theyíre a far better curse than some absurd contract you canít get out of."
"Be wary, son. Thereís sure to be a woman out there who can beguile your heart with a magic stronger than any a leprechaun can call forth." He sighed. "And right now, you donít have time for cailŪns."
"Thereís always time for women." He wanted to keep his father from drifting off into Gaelic melancholy. If he didnít, Athair soon would start singing about the sorrows created by womenóor cailins, as the old Irish songs called them.
"I need your help."
"To find an old stick?"
"You know my shillelagh is more than an old stick. It is the source of our magic, of everything we are."
"Then you should not have risked it."
"Thatís easy for you to say, Brian mílad, but whatís done is done."
Brian couldnít argue with that. "All right. I understand, but why did you call me here?í
"You need to find it."
"Me? Iím not the one who signed some contract to give it away."
"You are my son and my heir, Brian OíRourke! When I need you, the least you can do is help without asking a thousand questions. After all, Iíve never asked much of you."
"Thatís true," he agreed, even though it wasnít. His father had called on him to help escape many scrapes. Thereíd been the time when Athair allowed himself to be captured by a wise farmer lad and had nearly lost every piece of gold heíd ever dug up. And the time when Athair tried to trick another of the faery folk and had been embarrassed in front of his clan. And the time when... Counting the number of times heíd pulled Athair out of a sticky situation would keep him busy for hours.
"Everything we are," his father said in the same grim tone, "depends on finding my shillelagh before the church bells ring the last hour on St. Patrickís Day."
"St. Patrickís?" He laughed. "Not very imaginative."
"I didnít pick the terms of this contract." Whistling a low note, he held out his hand. A bluebird flitted across the room and perched on his shoulder.
Brian watched as his father took the sheet of paper from the birdís beak. He bit back his astonishment. Athair had chided him for years to be cautious about using magic where others might see. Not everyone guessed leprechauns were living among them, not wee people, but a branch of the faery folk who looked like humans. Something must be very wrong.
Taking the page his father held out to him, Brian read it. He swore when he saw the faded name on the bottom. "Why did you sign this contract? How could you have been so stupid?"
"It was the only thing I could do at the time."
"You made a bet while you were drinking, didnít you?"
"Ah, Brian mílad, you know your old father far too well."
Brian shook his head. "And then you lost the bet."
"I did, but who wouldíve guessed Iíd ever have to worry about anyone collecting on it?" He shuddered so hard the bird nearly fell from his shoulder. Over its squawking protest, he asked, "That we would ever have to worry about it? But the shillelagh is gone, and youíve got until midnight on St. Patrickís Day to find it for me."
"Or, Brian mílad, every last one of us leprechauns will be gone forever."
Text Copyright Keri Arthur 2005
Website Copyright ImaJinn Books 2006