“Whist. Bad enough he comes in here, but he has to make such a mess when he does.” She picked up the bits of the milk jug, and started for the broom leaning against the hearth. The pieces tumbled from her hands as she caught sight of the merrily burning Coalwives.
“By the little green toe bones of the good Lord Almighty! The magic-man went and curdled me poor brains to leave them be!” She dashed to the fire, and tried to scoop the Coalwives from the flames with the iron spoon. All six of them were aflame, and seemingly fixed to their places.
Five of the dolls were nearly burned through, but in their midst, the sixth doll still stood, her bright eyes twinkling. In the thick smoke, it seemed to her that she winked and blew a thick smoke ring.
“Fine for you not to worry Coalie-Queen, you’re not the one wishin’ to be rid of a pesky magic man.” Aislinn’s large blue eyes filled with tears. “I don’t fancy havin’ tae take on someone tae protect me when I can do just fine by meself—barring pesky magic-men. I was hopin’ to wait so’s that I can be wed like me Mam and Da was. Right good for each other they were. Me Mam and Da fought some, but they laughed more. They wanted more bairns around the house, but always thanked the Lord kindly fer me.”
Her fingers drew patterns in the ashes, sketching nothing and everything. “They raised me to know me own mind, and that mind says that I’ll no’ put up with less than they had. Folk can say all they like about how a woman should be a meek and docile thing, but I wasna born a sheep, and I’ll no’ live me life as such.”
She stabbed a clot in the ashes firmly. “Mam and Da’d be a-spin for true if I let meself be led off tae marry the parish bully, magic man or no, and that’s Saint Michael’s own truth.”
The coalie-queen winked again. The fire raged around her, but left her face serenely untouched.
Aislinn regarded her for a moment, one thought tumbling over the next in her head. “After all ye saw you’d be fair to think I had no liking of men, which is no’ the truth. I’ve known many a good man, and would ha’ welcomed them into me home if they’d asked.” She gestured, spinning out her thoughts from the air. “But I’ve a fierce temper you ken. If I’m told nae to do something for good reason I’ll obey right gladly, but doin’ as a man wills for a whim burns in me craw.”
She shifted a little. “The good sisters warned me of me own will. They said it’d work fer me, or that it’d work me. I do think it worked fer me this particular time. If I’d nae had such a terrible will I’d be married tae the magic man with nary a whimper, and that’d be a proper hell of its’ own—assumin’ he didna sacrifice me to some dark godling fer the power I’d bring him!” She chortled darkly, and through the smoke, it seemed the coalie-queen grinned too.
“I were goin’ tae ask you and your kin to bring me a good man to help me send the magic-man packing, and be a good husband after we were wed. Any you’d bring me would be beyond his reach, and mine for that matter too when I get me gift.”
She grinned. “And come tae think on it, that’s a proper good thing since if I lose me temper with him, I can only use the broom on him like every other good shrew does.” She glanced at the Coalwife ruefully. “But bein’ the demure little flower that I am, you’d never see me do such an unmaidenly thing, eh?”
Aislinn rose, and fetched the whiskey, pouring a dram over the Coalwives with a double portion for their queen.
“I were going tae ask you if you could have brought me a man who’s good at heart, sound of mind and limb, and easy in his ways. I’d ask he be baptized, or amiable, and that he knows the ways o’ patience, but I’d no’ welcome another wet-cloth like Rory. A man should know himself, and have words of his own tae say.”
She placed the bottle back into the cupboard. “That’s a bit more tae chase the cold away ma’am. I only gave you but the barest welcome, but I’ll no’ have any guest, no matter what sort leave me house without a wee bit tae ward off the damp.
The fire made an inquiring sort of sound, and she sighed. “I suppose ‘tis without saying that I’d not argue if you brought me a man that would be easy on the eyes. Not too pretty you understand.” She frowned. “Too fine-looking a man’s just another bit o’ trouble, especially with the lonely lady neighbors.”
Aislinn got up and began putting the room to rights from the night’s battle. This night she didn’t bank the fire in order to not make her fey guests feel she was hurrying them from her hearth.
She wrapped a piece of flannel around a warm brick for her bed. The Coalie-Queen’s attendants were collapsing into ash, eager to be on their way no doubt, but the little Queen stood her ground, unfazed by the bright fire. A curl of smoke from the tiny pipe twined around the paper bonnet, then fled up the chimney.
She smiled at the little queen. “Before I take me off tae bed, I’d ask you one last favor your ladyship.” Aislinn curtsied as the good sisters had taught her.
“I’d ask that what man you bring tae me, that he has a bit o’ book learning, and be a man of goodly intelligence. I’m no’ asking for a man of the Queen’s College, but I would no’ be happy with a lump-for-brains. It gets terrible dark and cold here of a winter’s night, and idle minds make more bairns than not.”
The Coalie-Queen’s eyes sparkled mirthfully, and Aislinn regretfully turned, and headed for her cozy bedroom. As she curled in bed, sleep tugging at her nightgown-hem, it seemed to her that the night itself was standing on its tiptoes, looking in through the heavy glass windowpanes. It sent the wind to scutter inquiringly across her roof-tiles, and Aislinn squinted her eyes shut to avoid seeing the fat moon’s curious face staring down at her.