The Book of Secrets|Alex Dunne|The O’Brien Press|€12.99|cover illustration by Shona Shirley Macdonald
Extract from Chapter Five of The Book of Secrets, by Alex Dunne
The moment the sun dipped below the horizon, the Pooka stepped out of his hiding place beneath the hawthorn bush and stretched out his long limbs.
He sniffed the air, relishing the smell of turf smoke wafting up from the town below. The fairy magic had continued to work on the hillside throughout the day and now the Green Rath looked every bit as splendid as it had in the days of the Pooka’s youth.
All around him, fairies hurried to and fro, preparing the fort for the arrival of their king and queen. Mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables and barrels of the finest oak-aged wine and stout were sent to the kitchens while a group of musicians tuned their instruments in the fading evening light. The Pooka ignored them all and slipped through the trees in search of his messenger. He had work to do.
He found the magpie dozing in the branches of a young birch tree.
‘Good evening, my feathered friend,’ said the Pooka. ‘What news do you bring me?’
The bird opened its left eye and ruffled its feathers in annoyance. It had been a long day and he had hoped for a few more hours of rest.
‘Good evening, Master Pooka,’ he replied, more gruffly than he intended. ‘I have done as you asked. I have flown the length and breadth of the town in search of a gift suitable for a fairy queen.’
‘And it was as you suggested it would be. The girl with the Sight has grown old, but there are others who she cares about that will do nicely.’
The magpie told him of the houses on the estate and the children who lived there. He described them perfectly, from the colour of their hair to the way they walked and talked. When the bird finished the Pooka clapped his hands.
‘What an excellent job you’ve done, magpie my old friend! I’m sure the queen will be most pleased indeed.’
The magpie puffed out his chest. He was not immune to flattery.
‘How will you lure the children away from their kin?’ the magpie asked.
‘You leave that to me. Rest now, while I do what needs to be done.’
The magpie squawked in agreement and settled back into his slumber.
Once the creature was sure no one was watching, he sought out an old tree stump long since rotted and pulled it from the ground as easily as if it were a blade of grass. He bent close to the stump and whispered to it until it started to grow.
First its roots began to lengthen and straighten until they resembled a pair of human legs, then it sprouted branches that became human arms, and finally a head emerged complete with bouncing red-gold curls. To all the world it looked exactly like a real girl.
It blinked up at the Pooka but said nothing. Although it looked like a human child, it was no more than a clever enchantment.
The Pooka looked at the newly created stock with the pride of an artist assessing his masterpiece.
‘You’ll do nicely,’ he said, ‘but for the boy I have something else in mind. Come, follow me.’
He slipped back up the path and into the heart of the Green Rath where a room had been made up for the oldest and sickest of the fairies to bide their time before they passed into the shadow realm. He dropped to his haunches by the bedside of a particularly wizened fairy elder.
‘Good evening, Grandfather, and how are you this night?’
‘Old,’ replied the dying fairy. ‘And I’m not your grandfather.’
He glared at the creature and raised his wrinkled brow in surprise. ‘Well, if it isn’t yourself,’ he said, ‘and what is it you’d be wanting from a tired old fairy such as me?
‘I came to see if you cared to have a little fun.’
The old fairy caught sight of the stock-child, hovering by the Pooka’s side. He smiled and the years seemed to melt from his face. ‘Ah, so it’s mischief we’re to be making! I’ll admit I’m not as spry as I once was, but I think I still have it in me.’
The Pooka bent low and whispered his spell into the fairy’s ear. At once, the elder’s body shrank and his wrinkles began to disappear. His hair went from white, to steel grey, to light brown. When the spell had worked its way through him, he no longer looked like an old man, but like a boy little more than a year old.
‘I’m ready,’ the newly formed changeling said. The wheezing, rasping voice sounded strange coming out of the mouth of the child.
‘Then it’s time.’
The Pooka clapped his hands and in a flash he had transformed himself into a horse with a coat as black as pitch.
‘Hop on,’ he said, ‘and let us go and seek our fun.’