By Amber Ray
“The gods punish you proud Aislinn! May the devil keep your hide on his wall, and play knuckle-bones with your selfish fingers! May a legion of pox-ridden imps lead you to the gates of hell!” The widow MacNorris spat. “A sea of trouble upon your wicked head!” Her knobby, spotted fingers locked around Rory’s forearm as if to keep him from being sucked that moment into the very hands of the hell-crew.
Aislinn grimly pulled her shawl over her head to ward off the misty rain and wondered why she’d never noticed before how easily cowed Rory was. It had always seemed to her that he was just an easy-going lad, unlike many of the other boys, most of which toiled in the coalworks. Now Rory’s shoulders drooped like his back-bones were melting like candle wax and his eyes were fixed on the ground to avoid the conflict raging over him.
Aislinn bristled, longing to fling something slimy from her garden at the old harridan.
“Good enough for you Widow MacNorris! You know in your withered, nasty, rotten old heart I’m no’ to blame! The curse that magic-man set on me will no’ carry over to your precious boy since we were no more than a week betrothed, and now not even that much!”
“You encouraged the likes of…Him!” The widow snarled and spit, making the sign of the Horns to ward off any evil that thoughts of the magic-man might bring. “You showed yourself to him like a street hussy!” She gave Rory a good, hard shake. “And you all but wed to my poor precious lamb while you were at your sinnin’! Your sort would be glad to lay my precious babe in a cold and lonely pauper’s grave!”
Aislinn rolled her eyes, not even bothering to look again at Rory. She’d thought his eyes were so soft once, it was a pity his resolve was soft too. “Good widow, I’ll tell you one last time that a wind snatched the shawl off my head when I was huntin’ for crabs. I’d no idea the magic-man’d gone looking for his spelly-things that day, nor that he’d not know the meaning of “No thank you sir!” I didna encourage his attentions!”
“Then you’re a filthy slattern for not pinning your shawl down, an’ you’re still a hussy for lettin’ Him see your ankles Aislinn!”
She rolled her eyes again, and rubbed the back of her neck at the old woman’s brick-headed logic. “I told you good widow, I was out by the Rock, where the good tide-pools are. Should I let me skirts drag through every tidepool as I dug crabs for my pot? Faith, a good wool skirt can suck up enough water to drown a girl on dry land! ‘Tis a three-day wonder I got loose of him with my virtue intact—which it is, and if you speak against that I’ll go to the village midwife and prove it!” Aislinn braced her hands on her hips and glared at the work-shriveled old woman.
“No faith in that, liar that you are!” The widow shrieked. “Listen to you denying the sins clingin’ to you like tar oil! You’re not but a sinkhole of filth and fornication, and I thank the good saints above that your good parents didna live long enough to see their babe come to such a wicked end!”
Aislinn growled. “I’ll tell you but once more ye old devil’s midwife! I stand before you and the Saints as innocent as a lamb that’s jumped straight from God’s own arms. I never led on the magic-man, I didna call his attentions to me, and I meant no harm to Rory when I promised to wed him!”
“You’re naught but a liar Aislinn Macleod! We’ll have back that betrothal ring now! I won’t leave it to you so you can give it to the magic-man! The saints preserve us from whatever mischief a devil like you could call down upon our innocent heads just from holding that ring in your reeking hand!”
Aislinn snarled. “Well enough, and here’s your two-penny tinker’s gaud back to you with my blessing if you don’t fear it! She turned it three times widdershins on her finger, spat on it, then threw it to the ground. It bounced on a stone, then rolled to Rory’s feet and he picked it up while his mother began to shrieks about hexes.
“Stow your curses old woman. If I could curse you, I would have by now! Saints preserve my soul, but I’ve heard enough of you. All the mischief-charms that ever was aren’t enough to pay you for how you make me head ache!”
The widow bristled, her sunken old form puffing out like an angry cat’s tail. “I’ll have it shriven before the sun’s dipped to rest! All your ill-luckin’ will roll off us like cold water and pour down your neck like holy water to burn you and your evil!” She turned and marched down the hill like a broken-down queen, not even waiting for her son to be towed along by her apron strings.
Rory stared at Aislinn, shame slowly pushing his head down. “Ais dear…”
“Now don’t you go ‘dearing’ me at this late hour! An’ dare you not call me ‘sweeten’ either, or I’ll knock your ears inside out.” Her face softened at his stricken expression. “Ach, Rory, ‘tis all right. I’d have been no good wife to you. The good angels know I canna put up with your mam. We’d be at each other’s throats with you in the middle.”
“No buts. Why, if your mam had two peapods’ worth of sense, she’d have said “Wait a year till you get your magic Aislinn dear. Then you can fight off the magic-man, and wed me dear son the next day. She’s an old fool, an’ I’ll no’ live with a fool like that. Fair invites Lucifer into the house it does…”
“I’m all she has now. It fair killed her to lose me da and brothers to the fevers an’ that mine fire. She can no’ bear thinking of a curse gettin’ me, so shush woman.” Rory ruined the brave thrust of his words by sneaking a peek at his mother to gauge how far she’d tottered.
“And so she’ll hang you in her apron strings one of these days.” Aislinn’s voice was as sharp as the bite of the cold winter wind.
“She’s nae so bad as all that!” Rory pleaded. “She just needs me ‘tis all.” He turned his cap in his hands, his fingers darting swiftly around the rim.
“Ah well.” Aislinn pretended great interest in the fat storm clouds frisking above them like little gray lambs. “As I’ve said, I’d have run the rough way over you, and for certain you’d have gone deaf from two sets of women yammering in your ears. I’ll no hold fault with you Rory-boy.”
He beamed at her, the cutting edge of her tone flying high above his head. “Faith Aislinn! You’re destined to be one of God’s saints!” His head swiveled towards his mother, still too absorbed in her pique to notice his tardiness.
“Ais-dear…faith, Aislinn, I know I’ve done you a hard turn, and you were always dear to me heart.” From under his vest Rory drew a small, heavy bundle wrapped in old sacking and thrust it at her. “I’ll give you this, if nothing else to make amends.” He wavered, feet shuffling, trying to resist the pull of the apron strings for a moment longer.
Aislinn caught the bundle to keep it from landing on her foot. At Rory’s pleading look she drew back a flap of the sacking to reveal six lumps of coal, carved to roughly resemble female figures.
“They’re the biggest I had coin for. Got ‘em from a right proper hedge wizard. I’d figured you’d need big ones since you’ll need a fair-big husband to chase off that magic-man till you get your magic.”
“Rory-boy, I’ve not even magic enough to summon up the Coalwives, or to protect a husband! You know full well any man of Erraen that I marry’ll be killed by the magic-man’s curse, even though his curse says naught but marriage’ll save me from starving.”
“Any husband the Coalwives’ll bring to you’ll no be a man of Erraen will he?” Rory grinned, pleased with himself. “All you’ll need tae do is make them welcome properly, state your need tae them, then send them on their way with a good fire to honor St. Minerva! Godspeed Aislinn!” He bobbed a quick bow to her, then took off running down the stony hillside.
Aislinn sighed hard, clutching the heavy little bundle to her. She’d never really, deeply loved Rory, but she had grown a deep and tender spot for the young coal-sorter ever since he’d dared to ask her to dance at the Solstice Festival. He’d shown more daring than all the other local boys who feared approaching her once it was known magic was coming on her soon.
The cold wind darted around the little stone house to slap at the striped hem of her skirts and she shuddered. Her little shawl was no match for the bite of the sea winds. She shouldered the door open and laid the bundle down by the hearth as she stirred the fire to life. A tiny paste-jewel eye winked merrily at her from a gap in the sacking.
Aislinn chuckled. “Oh don’t you get pert with me madam. You’ll keep in there just fine while I set up the spell-wards fer the night. There’ll be nasty beasties abroad on an eve like tonight.”
She laughed as she picked up the casting salt. Talking to a batch of coal dollies might be a bit daft, but who else was there to speak with? “As you may know little coalies, I’m in a sad, sorry fix.”
She scattered the salt and swept the rowan broom three times against the door, activating the charm that would keep creatures of the dark away. For a moment, Aislinn felt a bit like one of the common village women, setting the house to rights before turning in to sleep with the rest of her kin.
“I thank you fer your patience ladies.” She loosened the sacking from them, and set them in a row on the hearth, out of reach of any jumping sparks. Five of the coalie-dolls were plainly carved, rounded little figures with tiny, plain little black dresses and shawls. The sixth sported the bright paste eyes that had winked at her from the sack, tiny patent-leather shoes tied on with red silk thread, a little paper bonnet, and a minature wire pipe in the corner of her mouth.
Aislinn sat back and reached for the long-hoarded whiskey bottle. “Here’s a little dram fer each o’ you tae shake off the cold. May each of you find good cheer in it.” She poured a drop of whiskey on each of their round little bellies, then a drop down her own throat for good measure.
She sighed to herself. She certainly was in need of visitors, with how long it had been since the cozy walls had sheltered more than herself. Before the curse, the good village women had come calling from time to time, bringing treats in hopes of currying her favor when she got her magic, or just to visit.
It had been months since the curse, and only the widow had finally scrunched up enough courage to face the magic-man’s wrath by dealing with her.
She snorted loudly at her fear, and took another nip of whiskey for good measure. At the very worst, she was only talking to an old woman’s charm that she wasn’t sure would work. She studied the coalie-dolls, remembering the tales about them. The coalie-dolls were supposed to have the power to grant a wish, but only if they felt they’d been offered proper welcome, and liked the wish made to them. They were unreliable as kelpies, whimsical, undependable, odd in their sense of humor and easier to offend than the worst maiden aunt to ever wear pinchy shoes.
Daft or not, it was comforting to have company, even if it was the magical sort. “God’s little bodkin.” She groaned. “Where to start?” She poured herself a cup of tea, not wanting the whiskey to make her tongue run away with her good sense. On a whim, she placed a saucer of stew, and six bits of straw for spoons on the hearth. “Do feel free. There’s enough at the moment, though I dinna know where the next batch will come from. Me garden’s fit for nothing but luring snails an’ I feel tae sorry fer me poor goat to be killin’ him even for the pot.”
“Aislinn my little country doll, it’s more than kind of you to offer me your quaint fare.” A wheezy, raspy voice purred. “But there’s better at my home for us to share.”
Aislinn spun about, knocking her tea over. The magic-man sat in her best chair, one boot resting in the middle of her mending, the spur tearing a hole in the linen. He snapped his fingers, and the tea leapt back into the cup. “Mind yourself my simple dove. I suppose I will have to teach you grace after you’re properly placed in my manor house.” He grinned at her, showing teeth yellowed from chewing joy-root.
Aislinn wrinkled her nose. If joy-root wasn’t bad enough, the remains of his last meal was decorating his beard. Toothpicks and mannerly eating were obviously beyond this man’s care. “God’s blessing to ye sir, but the devil will be making harps o’ me poor bones before I wed the likes o’ you.” She bobbed a snide curtsy and gave him a smile that would have soured an angels’ milk.
“Dear me your speech leaves much to be desired. I might have to put a spell of silence on you until you learn better manners.” The magic-man drawled and stroked his heavily pomaded beard. “You must try not to sound so provincial, though you are.” He leaned back against the cushions. “And do stop making references to Him. It offends myself and my patron.”
Aislinn’s lip curled. “I’ll ask you to be going now, Lord Horseflop.”
“What? Are you afraid of ruining your reputation love? I did offer you marriage, but you turned me down. I assumed you preferred a more informal arrangement.” He leered at her, his fingers dancing across the rows of pearls scattered like lice over his dingy scarlet velvet doublet.
“I’ll no’ marry you, nor be your fancy-lady. Aislinn turned to the hearth, and began to stir the simmering stew with a heavy iron spoon. “I’ll ne’er go with thee. Not now, not next month after. And in a year, ‘twill be fair battle between us.”
“As if you will live to see that far! I’ve fouled your stores, blighted your garden, and called down the Black Staggers on your goats and sheep. I’ve brought winter early, and the earth of your garden weeps with too much rot to even grow winter potatoes. The villagers fear my wrath too much to help you, and if another goodwife like Sarah Allswell leaves so much as last week’s bread upon your doorstep, I’ll know! Three pretty children she’s got. Pity the little ones are always so frail in winter.”
“You’ll no touch those babes or I’ll drown meself in the loch just to keep out of yer hands.” Aislinn’s face was stormier than the blackened skies outside.
“Temper temper dear. Another fault to be seen to.” He leered at the angry rise and fall of her ample breasts that rode high within her tightly-laced bodice of forest-green wool. “It would be a pity if my punishments shall have to be harsh enough to make you lose flesh.”
“Magic-man, the good Lord himself shall come from the clouds, trailing all the saints and angels behind him before my flesh is of any concern of yours!” She waved the iron spoon at him like a broadsword.
His face purpled, and a quirk of his fingers sent the spoon across the room. “I could turn that thing across your bottom, but I want you in good form for when you come to my bed. Bruises should be made during love sport, not before. And you won’t be serving my master’s rival much longer.”
He waved a finger that sported a ruby the size of a pigeon’s egg. “You’ll wed me you little bumpkin, no matter what you think. I’ll not have another practitioner of the magical arts running around loose. It is not agreeable to my will!” He thumped his gold-topped cane on the floorboards loudly.
“Your mam should have stopped giving you barley-sugar when you were out of leading strings. You’re fair spoilt by now I’d say.” She hitched her skirts up and tucked them in her belt, then rolled back her sleeves. “You’ll quit this house now, magic-man.”
The magic-man roared with laughter, and tried to leap dramatically to his feet, but his arthritic joints creaked loudly, and he tottered, nearly falling. His magicked cane bobbed and danced, trying to lend him support, and he swatted it away peevishly.
“Feeling that extra hundred years? Maybe the last poor sot you drained the youth from managed to keep some back from you.” She taunted, edging towards her churn.
The magic-man’s cane did a flip, broke the milk jug, then flew into its’ master’s hand. “I’ll beat you until you howl! You will do as I say! You have no choice!”
“Oh, your wrong there boyo! That was me best milk jug you broke, and if you anger me anymore, I’ll be goin’ tae get me ax! We’ll see if it takes you a fortnight to put yourself back together again! Remember the last time I had you tae bits and flinders?” Her fingers found the edge of the churn, and a tingle skipped across the freckles of her arm as her palm wrapped around the dash.
“I ought to cast a case of the Bleeding Shudders on you, cursed chit! That last tantrum of yours ruined my best doublet!” Peevishly he settled a gilt-edged frill. “You’ll learn to come to heel. I have a whole grimoire full of surprises that I’ve been meaning to try, and devoted wives should always should help their husbands with their research.”
He dipped into his pocket and pulled out a garishly jeweled snuffbox, paying no attention to her as she carefully drew the dash from the churn.
“I can summon a coach and have us before a dark priest in an hour. You might as well give in gracefully.” He smiled, content as a cat full of cream.
“You’ve no other way to fight me, or support yourself, so either it’s off to wed me, or off to the nearest dockside brothel with you. I’ve heard a girl can last six months in one of those places if she’s good and hardy.”
Aislinn drew herself up to her full height, the flush of battle reddening her apple-cheeked face. “By Saint Dymphna, and the Blessed Lady herself, I’ll wed a tree stump before I marry the likes of you!”
By the fire, the coalie-dolls suddenly clattered and stood upright. Aislinn could hear a sudden high-pitched whirl of voices laughing and chattering like a swarm of magpies. The doll with the bright paste-jewel eyes rocked back and forth chirping merrily, tiny puffs of smoke rolling from her pipe.
“Youeech! Coalwives!” The magic-man grabbed his cane and with a single vicious stroke, sent the six coalie-dolls into the bright fire dancing on the great stone hearth. They rolled, landed with all six fully upright, and burst into eerie green and blue flames. “Filthy things! Nasty toys!”
“And that’s it, you filthy codpaddle! By the Archangel Michael, I’ll no wait for my magic! ‘Tis open war between us this instant! Aislinn swept the dash from behind her back, spattering the magic-man with buttermilk.
“Bad wench! I’ll beat you…” The dash landed on his shoulder soundly and he gave off a sudden burst of red sparks. He screamed like a trapped hare.
“The dash of me churn’s made of banewood, blessed by the parish priest, and laid to rest for three days in the earth of Holy Sister Maurissette’s grave, may the church finish granting her sainthood quickly.” She smiled grimly, and held the dash before her like a broadsword.
“This little thing’s guaranteed to drive evil from a household. I had it made special against your unwanted coming. I figured you’d learned caution against near every other thing in the house but a low thing like this what’s below Your Lordship’s notice.” She strode forward, the dash gripped tightly in hands that could break a chicken’s neck in one blow, or heave a forty-pound stone three men’s length from a field.
“I’ll double the spells on you! I’ll give you a case of oozing sores…”
“It’ll take you a month and more to pin yourself back together after what I’m going to do to you now.” Aislinn’s dimpled arms raised, drew the dash high, then brought it down upon the magic-man’s bald pate with terrible force.
The magic-man caved in with a shriek. “This won’t stop my curse on you fool girl!” His voice came from within his torso. “It’s a done spell, and none of your tricks will touch it!”
“But you’ll no be here, and that’s a blessing of itself.” Aislinn brought the dash down on him again, shattering him into a glittering pile of dust. The dust yipped, then collapsed to coat her clean floor.