As Good as Gold
by Elise Bryant, 3.49am March 10th 2022

They lay within an alcove of the tourist shop’s brick wall. There were two: tiny, shriveled figures, one male and one female, wrapped in antique cloth, and surrounded by dried flowers. Their little faces were difficult to make out in the darkness of the hole, but they were no bigger than dried apples.

“Of course they aren’t real!” the American scoffed, flicking her hair over her shoulder. “They’re just messed-up dolls!”

Her companion nodded in agreement, but both youths jumped when someone cleared their throat behind them. They whirled around to face a very obvious centenarian- a petite woman, wrapped in a shawl. She looked up at them with bright blue eyes, heavily crinkled in the corners. A name tag identified her as “Rose.”

“Would you like to hear their story?” Rose asked, smirking.

The tourists snorted and exchanged a glance, but didn’t move away. They looked between the figures and the elderly shopkeeper. Finally, one of them elbowed the other.

“Oh, come on!” she urged. “It would be fun to hear some local lore!”

Rose turned and gestured for the Americans to follow her. She led them behind the counter, where there was a table and chairs. Silently, she offered them coffee, which they accepted gratefully. When everyone was situated, Rose cleared her throat and began.

 

My great-great-grandmother’s name was Lily. You see, garden witches have a history of naming their girl children after the plants they tend.

Lily’s daughter, Rhododendron, had finally set a date for her wedding, and both of them were overjoyed. There was just one problem: Rhododendron’s father, a no-good drunk, had stolen a family heirloom when he left them, years ago. It was a necklace, featuring a pendant made of amber. At the center of the amber was what appeared to be a small insect. But any witch worth her salt could see it for what it really was— a fairy.

It was tradition that the witches in their line wear the necklace on their wedding days; it had been so for nearly five hundred years. Lily desperately wanted to retrieve the heirloom, but, despite searching for the past decade, had been unable to locate it. Likely, her husband had pawned it for more whiskey. It could have been anywhere.

With only a week until the wedding, Lily was feeling desperate. She had thumbed through the grimoire multiple times, searching for anything that could help them. Most garden witches know only spells for growth and life.

Finally, she found what she needed, in a section labeled “Creatures of the Earth.” Leprechauns, it was said, could be summoned by a witch with the promise of gold. As fairy-folk, surely they would be able to locate the necklace.

The problem was that Lily and Rhododendron were quite poor; there were only two gold pieces in the house. Would it be enough? Lily opened the lockbox and stared at the money. She needed it for rent; she could not possibly afford to part with it. All through that day, Lily fretted. By evening, she decided that she had to try.

Following the directions in the grimoire, she opened her bedroom window and laid the cold pieces on the sill. Around them, she gently lay several herbs and blooms, muttering incantations all the while. A strong breeze blew in through the window, but the plant bits did not move— they were held fast in place by the magic. The gold pieces, too, were stuck to the sill. The leprechaun would not be able to remove them until it had completed a task for the witch. Then, she could mutter the counter-spells to free the gold for the leprechaun to take as payment.

Satisfied, Lily settled into her rocker, determined to watch for the arrival of the wee folk. She’d spent a long day in her garden, however, and soon fell asleep. The moon had risen high in the sky before she was awoken by a soft thump.

Standing before her was a wee man. He had hair so red that it shone like a flame, even in the moonlight. His suit and cap were smaller than a child’s. As Lily watched, he crossed his arms and tapped one tiny foot at her, the buckle on his shoe jingling with a tinny sound. His eyes, she noticed with a barely-contained gasp, were pure black.

Lily cleared her throat, and then inclined her head slightly, in respect to the fairy being. In return, be bowed low, sweeping the floorboards with his feathered cap.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

Lily jumped when she heard his voice; she’d been unprepared for the deep timbre. It rumbled like distant thunder, incongruous with the diminutive chest that produced it. She tightened her grip on the arms of the rocking chair and cleared her throat nervously. Then, in very clear terms, she told the leprechaun what she wanted him to do.

He narrowed his eyes at her.

“And you don’t know where this necklace is?” he asked.

“No. It could be anywhere in Ireland by now.”

The leprechaun’s gaze slid to the windowsill, where the two gold pieces sat, glinting in the moonlight. His fuzzy, caterpillar-like eyebrows drew together.

“That is quite a task for so meager a recompense,” he observed dryly.

Lily nodded.

“I know, but my daughter is getting married, you see. That’s all the gold I have in the world.”

Silence.

“I promise!” Lily cried. “I give you my word that you shall have all the payment I can give you! word is as good as gold.”

Finally, the leprechaun sighed. He seemed to be moved by the witch’s plight and earnestness.

“Very well,” he grumbled. “I will find your necklace for you.”

 

The week had nearly come to a close before the leprechaun returned. Lily had waited every day, wringing her hands, hoping against hope that the necklace would be found in time. The landlord had come by, also, and had coldly demanded rent. He had only grudgingly granted an extension, because of the wedding. Lily watched her windowsill obsessively, and Rhododendron, unaware of what her mother had planned, became worried.

Finally, on the eve of the wedding, just before sunset, the wee man scrambled in through the opened window and presented Lily with the necklace. Tear sprung to her eyes and she stared at it, rubbing her thumb over the amber and warming it. She looked up at the leprechaun.

“Thank you so much! Oh, thank you!” she gasped. “I thought I’d never see it again!”

The leprechaun grunted impatiently.

“Yes, yes. Now, for my payment?”

Lily held her breath. The greedy landlord had made it clear that if she did not pay him rent the day after the wedding, he would evict her. She could not part with that gold— not yet.

“I am eternally grateful to you, dear sir,” Lily began.

Suspicious, the leprechaun narrowed his eyes.

“But,” she continued, “I beg of you to let me keep the gold, to pay for rent. I will pay you back, I promise! You have my word that what is owed to you shall be paid.”

Leprechauns, however, being wee folk, see any bending of promise to be an outright lie and affront. Word was bond, and Lily had, in the eyes of the fae, committed a terrible crime and offense.

“TREACHEROUS WITCH!” the leprechaun thundered.

And with a whirl of speed, he disappeared out the window. Lily sat, stunned and shaking, looking after him. Why had he left? Where had he gone? For hours, the witch fretted, pacing in her room. Finally, though, exhaustion overtook her, and she collapsed onto her bed in a deep, dreamless sleep. The necklace was clasped around her neck and lay concealed beneath the high, lacy neck of her nightgown.

The witching hour came, and Lily woke to a sudden weight on her chest. Groggily, she opened her eyes, and looked at the figure hovering over her face. Gradually, her vision slid into focus, and she gasped to see the face of the leprechaun man, grotesquely transformed.

His face had elongated, and his ears came to sharp points. Long, sickle-like teeth poked out from under his lips, and his black eyes were two pits of hatred. As she watched, his mouth opened and teeth slid out, dripping green-tinged saliva onto Lily’s chest. Clawed hands slowly raised over her face, and her eyes widened with terror in the dark.

Lily barely had a chance to register the movement of a dozen other figures climbing onto her bed, shredding her blankets beneath their claws, before the leprechaun man descended upon her mouth.

As he chewed the witch’s lips off, he sat upon her throat, cutting off her scream. His fellow wee folk, having yanked the bedding back, now fell upon Lily’s exposed limbs, like wolves upon a felled deer. They pulled away strips of flesh with their powerful jaws, and severed tendons and sinew with their talons.

In the next room, Rhododendron sat bolt-upright in her own bed. Through the wall, she could hear vicious, deep snarling and wet shredding sounds. Throwing back the bedclothes, she grasped the fireplace poker and rushed to her mother’s room.

The scene Rhododendron burst in upon would haunt her for the rest of her life. Tiny creatures, the likes of which she’d never seen before, huddled over her mother on her bed. They were ripping her to pieces. Blood soaked the sheets and dripped onto the floor. It was very, very clear that her mother was already dead.

Rage bloomed in Rhododendron’s chest. With a feral hiss, she ran to the bedside and began swinging the poker, knocking the figures off her mother’s fresh corpse. Two, she managed to stab straight through the chest, and they fell to the floor, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Green spittle sprayed across the floorboards and mingled with the blood.

Fireplace pokers, as you know, are made of iron, which is poisonous to the fae. The creatures began to flee, howling, and she screamed after them as they flopped out the window and landed on the flowerbeds below. Shrubs shook in the garden as the wee folk ran through them and away from the witch’s vengeful daughter.

The last to leave was the original leprechaun man. As he slid over the windowsill, he gathered the two gold pieces, released from the spell upon the witch’s death.

By the end, Rhododendron’s nightgown was red, and the two leprechauns she’d managed to kill lay at her feet, still twitching. Her mother lay in pieces, her face torn beyond recognition, and her nightgown ripped from her body.

A glint of moonlight on her mother’s chest caught Rhododendron’s eye, and she stumbled forward to find the necklace. With a yank, she pulled the heirloom from her mother’s neck and held it close to her heart.

 

 

By the time Rose had finished her story, the tourists were ashen-faced and silent. They sat, frozen, for a moment, before one of them cleared her throat.

“Well, that was… that was quite the story, Rose!” she exclaimed with a whoosh of disbelief.

Rose merely smiled and pulled her cardigan aside to show them the amber necklace that hung about her neck. The two Americans leaned in, squinting, to see what lay within its orange depths. They could barely make out what appeared to be a praying mantis nymph, its wings eternally spread, and its tiny arms reaching. It didn’t look like a fairy to them.

“Well, thanks for the coffee and the story, Rose,” one of the tourists said. “It was a whopper!”

“Be careful, ladies, and keep your windows closed!” Rose called as they got up to leave the shop.

“What a wacky tale,” the Americans whispered to each other.

Still, they gave the alcove a wide berth as they made their way out.