Aislinn peered over their shoulders, wondering why the wind flapping the edgings of her best nightgown did not chill her. The women’s movements were steady and unhurried, not to be rushed. She danced slightly, burning with curiosity.
One of the women looked up, her face shielded by the brim of a crisp white bonnet. She rocked heavily to her feet, blocking Aislinn’s view. She was larger than the rest, and Aislinn could see rich blue puffs of tobacco smoke rolling from a pipe. A jewel-bright eye winked, and the dark-swathed woman shook a soil-daubed finger, shooing her back.
Behind her, the other women rose with something huge and dark cradled in their swaddled arms. Aislinn drifted after them in the wake of the pipe’s smoke.
They trekked swiftly over the rolling hills, across a land of and high rocks, then across a desert of red sands. That gave way to a deep green forest that made Aislinn feel as if she were a tiny insect walking on the bottom of a deep green pond.
Aislinn looked around. Her nose told her naught, and her bare feet felt neither cold, nor a forest’s floor. She laughed aloud, feeling foolish for not having realized what was happening. “I dream.” She laughed. “I only dream.”
The dark-cloaked woman beside her blew out a stream of pipe smoke, but said nothing. She stopped at a rise in the path, drew her pipe from her mouth, and pointed ahead.
Aislinn turned to look, and found herself standing in the village square, facing the steps of the church. The five other women approached with their burden, and laid a great dirt-crusted stump on the porch of the church.
“Is this then me husband?” Aislinn approached the porch. The ladies swirled away, making no more noise than a winter leaf. “I suppose you took what I said to heart.”
Their leader’s eyes twinkled and Aislinn nodded. “But you do have the right of it milady. A betrothal, no matter how strange, must always be announced from the steps of the Church, even if there’s none to listen.” She climbed the stairs.
“Before the steps of the Most Holy, and the eyes of the village of Dartenny, I Aislinn Macleod and…” She looked at the odd form lying beside her. “And my betrothed hereby announce our intentions to marry and be joined as one in the eyes of the Holy Church.”
The Coalie-Queen waved her pipe at the town square. Aislinn raised her head, and could feel the distant dawn waiting to be born to full day. She closed her eyes, to concentrate better on her announcement.
“The wedding is at daybreak, and since me parents are dead, shall be celebrated in me own home.” She opened her eyes, and in the moonlight, saw the square fill with wispy forms.
She squinted at them, thinking the dead had risen to witness her betrothal. But as she looked, she recognized one face here, and another there, all of them very much of the living. One pale face even yawned, impatient to be back in bed and snoring. “I am seeing the townsfolks’ souls gone walking in their dreams!” She whispered in awe, drinking in the fey sight.
The dreaming souls parted, and a slightly more corporeal form made its way to the Church’s steps. Aislinn supposed that since Father Dennis worked with souls all day, his should be a bit more developed. Besides, she mused, she couldn’t imagine such a plump man’s soul not reflecting its’ owner’s corpulent form somewhat.
The priest bowed before her, and did a blessing over her, and over the stump at her side, accepting her announcement. She stared up at his round face, trying to find words to explain the strange sight of her betrothed. The priest smiled at her, and his face began to widen even more, and then to give off a shining silvery light.
Aislinn woke in her bed, the fading moon staring her full in the face. “I’d think that I had gone mad, but more like the rest of the world’s beat me to it.” She grumbled, rose, and rolled out of bed to wash her face in the basin.
She was just putting a good knot in her bodice strings when a knock sounded on her front door. “Wait now, hold you!” She called. She plaited up her thick copper hair as quickly as she could and pushed open the bedroom door, only to freeze with one foot in the air.
On the floor, in the middle of her well-kept front room, lay a huge stump, large enough for a well sized man to have curled up in. A whiff of clean, healthy earth and peat touched her nose, and she breathed in the scent deeply, noting just a touch of something else, sweet and musky beneath the loamy smell.
A bang on the door sounded again. “God’s little furry green toes!” Aislinn swore, scrambling around the stump. “Saints in Heaven! This must truly be me husband! He’s underfoot and tripping me already!” She managed to get to the door and swung it open.
One of the village boys stood staring at her. “Priest-sent-me. Everyone-on-the-way.” He gasped, his face glowing with effort from running.
“Thank you Niall.” She found a twopence and tossed it to him. “I haven’t more than last night’s stew in the house, but I can make enough tea to go ‘round.”
“No-need. Everyone’s-ringing-food-and-tables.” Niall turned and began dashing back to the villiage.
“Well enow. As they be ready, so tell them to come.” She called after him. Aislinn turned and walked back into the modestly sized room.
She studied the stump, hands on her gently rounded hips. “I did have me a different picture of what the goodly ladies would bring to me, but do suppose the magic-man can do precious little to you.” She patted the stump. “That is, unless he should think to bring an ax. He could magic up a fire-ball at you, but I think that you’re too damp to burn. A few flakes of loam and bark tumbled away from her pat.
“Oh now, will you be dropping your whatnottery all over me clean floor already husband?” She sighed, eyeing the brightening window. “I do wish that you had hands to stir up a batch or two of cakes. ‘Tis a bit unmannerly to depend on the villagers for all our wedding feast.”
Curiously, she prodded the stump with her foot, and in retaliation it dropped an entire chunk of bark on her foot. “I did ask the Coalie-women tae give me a husband with a bit of book learning.” She frowned. “I dinna see where you’re to be holding a book, much less how you recited your lessons.”
She sighed and got the broom and some rags. “Stump you may be, but I’ll not have you looking poorly on our wedding day.” She worked over him as her largest cauldrons brewed an immense batch of tea for the wedding guests.
There was not time enough to wash the caked dirt away, but once the worst of the loose earth and root-bark was brushed away, Aislinn was surprised to notice that the stump resembled a man lying on his back, a little curled up. One great root formed an up-flung arm, another formed a bent knee whose foot tucked back into the great block of packed soil that clung to the stump.
Aislinn ran a hand over it gently, noting a slight warmth. “Well now, there’s a bit more here than what’s showing isn’t there?”
She’d only just gotten into the fine wedding gown her mother’d had just enough time to finish before the fever took her, when the gay song of a fiddle turned her attention to the visitors climbing the steep path to her home. The whole village was on the move, decked out in its Sunday best, and toting everything from flower wreaths to tables, kegs and cakes.
She eyed the stump. “Thank Saint George you’ve nothing tae drink with. These boys’d try tae see if a whole keg would fit inside you if they thought Father Dennis would look away long enow.”
Aislinn walked to a chest nestled in the corner and lifted out a paper-wrapped veil. “This were me good mam’s. She always did wish me to be wearin’ it upon me weddin’ day. It came all the way from Hegenmary, like all the clothes the best gentry wear.” he twirled, the lace billowing around her. “She said it would look well upon me.”
The stump dropped a few flakes as if agreeing with her.
There was a firm knock at the door. Outside stood Father Dennis, clad in his best cassock. “Good morn Aislinn! ‘Twill be a grand day fer a weddin’!” He glanced over his shoulder. “Drop those cakes and you’ll be reciting psalms for two days!” The village boy scuttled over to one of the tables.
“Will you come in for a quick cup of tea Father?” Aislinn gathered up the folds of her wedding dress and moved aside.
“That I will gladly. I do admit that I’ve had me a bit of curiosity about the groom you’re tae wed.” The chubby priest stepped in eagerly. “Faith I can hardly believe the dreams that I had last eve. I didna believe ‘twas real till one and another of the town began tae beat down me door!” He shook his head. “I went an’ dreamed that the Coalwives brought you naught but a dirty old stump tae wed.”
Aislinn crossed to the stump as it lay in all its finery. “Father, you dreamed true. They did and here he be.”
“Saint Cuthbert’s woolen under-drawers!” Father Dennis’ clapped a hand to his chest. “What have they done? What have you done? I canna marry you tae an auld stump!”
“Father, calm yourself. The good ladies had their reasons. We’re no’ meant tae understand their ways.” She patted his dimpled arm.
“But Aislinn child! How can I marry you tae a stump?” Father Dennis spread his hands helplessly. “The right of it aside, how’s he tae answer?”
“Silence implies consent. That ploy’s been used on a few reluctant spouses Father.”
“Ah yes, that it has.” Father Dennis took her hands, his deep jowls shaking with concern. “Child are you sure that you want this? This is no regular marriage.”
She smiled and hugged him. “Father, you’re as good as havin’ a Da of me own again. But aye, I am sure about this, as sure as there be water in all the briny seas.”
Behind her, the stump dropped a few flakes that hit the ground with a strangely relieved sound.
“You have me blessin’ then.” Father Dennis grinned. “Oh but I’ll have a good tale tae be tellin’ tae that fancy cousin of mine in Dinseen! Always acting like the cock of the walk with that big fancy city parish of his and all their fancy city things happening!”
A village man knocked. “We be here tae give the groom a hand tae the doorstep. Figured he’d need it.” He grinned, showing a missing front tooth.
“Lead on man. We’ve no need for a certain guest to find time to arrive.” Father Dennis hurried to his position as three men lifted the stump and bore it to the right of the door. Aislinn took her place to the left, and Father Dennis stepped onto the door-sill and began the ceremony.
Aislinn made her replies in a firm voice for the entire village to hear, one hand holding an out-thrust bit of the stump she’d decided was a hand.
“Do you…” Father Dennis paused. “Do you…Betrothed of Aislinn MacLeod wed and promise to faithfully abide with her?” He frowned at the stump, plainly not liking such an inexact means of address.
The stump dropped two flakes.
Aislinn leaned close to the stump. “Two flakes for yes, and one for nay? Drop two if you agree.”
Another two flakes dropped.
“Then I pronounce you wed in the eyes of man and God.” Father Dennis blessed them and the crowd cheered.
She only had enough time to drop a quick kiss on the stumps’ “head” before she was whirled away by a crowd of well-wishers. All the village girls cooed over her dress, the husbands sneaked kisses from her, and the matrons stuffed her full of cake and advice.
The dancing and feasting lasted until dusk. Time and again during the day, Aislinn would catch a glimpse of rusty black, or see a thick cloud of blue tobacco smoke curl up from the crowd, but she could never catch a clear glimpse.
At long last the women took Aislinn to her room, put her in a new nightdress, decked her hair with flowers, and told her of every bawdy joke they could think of. The men followed, and placed the stump by the side of the bed.
With a last cheer and many a raised tankard, the last villager lurched from the house.
When the last was gone, Aislinn slid out of bed to sit on the floor beside the stump. It reeked badly of ale. There was even a small puddle of it still on the stump’s “belly”. A splinter dangled drunkenly from one of the ‘arms’ and dropped, twirling drunkenly to the floor.
“I see sir that since they couldna put a keg inta you, they went and put you in the keg!” She tsked, got a rag, and began mopping. A squelchy daub slipped off his ‘arm’ and splattered on the floor.
“That’s it! I’m gettin’ me scrub-brush! I’ll no’ have you in here reekin’ of a brewery all night!” She threw down her rag and stormed to the kitchen to fetch a bucket of hot water, a trowel, and the threatened scrub brush.
“Damn drunken husbands, always makin’ a mess!” She fell to, her strong arms working through the ale-soaked earth.
After about four buckets of water, and the better part of two fingernails, Aislinn sat back on her heels and regarded the stump. All of the root-bark was gone, and the peaty earth was melting into a clearly human shape. She sighed and lifted the scrub brush in her aching arm.
“If you melt awa’ tae naught sir but dirty water and bark, me and them coalie-girls are going tae be havin’ some hard words.” She huffed.
The edge of the brush knocked into one of the out-thrust arms and a deep crack snaked through the wet, caked dirt. Aislinn sunk her fingers into it, pulling hard at the mucky stuff. As her fingers worked their way deep into the mud, something clutched at her fingers and held them a moment.
“By the little blue toe bones of Saint Electus!” She shot to her feet like a spark from the fire.
A droplet of goo hit the floor. Her eyes shot to the “arm” it had slid from. Something pale moved in the confines of the muck.
Aislinn ran back to the hearth and grabbed up her largest poker to lay within her reach. Gingerly she took up the brush again and began swabbing at the clutching things.
A clot of earth slithered down her bosom, but she paid it no mind as more of the clinging sludge fell. The clutching things were a man’s well-shaped, olive-skinned fingers. They were strong-looking, and lightly callused, as if their owner was no stranger to a fair share of work.
“Saint Minerva’s mercy on me, I hope the rest of you be as well-made!” She breathed and fell back to her work with gusto.
Two buckets of water later her labors uncovered a hand, then a wrist, then a whole arm with a steady pulse.
After another two kettles of hot water, and eight petitioned saints later, her questing fingers found the warm, flat surface of a smooth-planed chest. She ran a palmful of water across the delightfully muscled skin, uncovering more warm flesh, and a flat little male nipple.
She gave up washing the loam away, and began to claw it away, digging out a pair of powerful shoulders that flowed into a gracefully sculpted throat. The whole floor of the bedroom was now awash in bark and mud. Her nightgown looked like it had been used to sieve the stuff.
Her hands hesitated for a moment, then began to pull away the mud caked over his face. It peeled back in great chunks, as if eager to go. She seized the bedside basin and dumped it out over him, unable to wait long enough for a gentler washing.
The last of the soil fell. Aislinn felt something in her middle go loose and wobbly from relief. His face was not only human, but was as well made as those clever, strong hands.
The basin tumbled out of her tired fingers and bounced with a clang on the floor. He was more than well made. He was fair-on handsome.
The planes of his strong features were built on bold, nearly harsh angles, but his lips were full and sensuous. The nose was a trifle beaky, and favored the left a hair, but there were laugh lines framing his eyes and those sinful lips. His skin was indeed olive colored, and though his hair still had mud dripping from it, it looked about walnut color.
She stroked her hand through it, feeling its warm silky-wet texture. As the strands flowed through her fingers to pool upon his proud forehead, his eyes opened.
Aislinn jumped back with a startled yelp. His sensuous lips curved into a drowsy smile. She tried to tidy her nightgown.
“I beg your pardon…I didna mean tae be forward…” She stammered, unsure of how to speak to a man she’d just been fondling.
His eyes blinked away some mud, and his protruding hand twitched. “Loose me from the rest of this, my wife.”
“Aye husband!” She gladly attacked the portion of earth holding the rest of his arm.
He struggled a little, and blinked like he was remembering something. “Acayib. My name is Acayib.” His accent was strange, and had an odd, musical lilt.
“I had been a-wondering over that. The good ladies neglected tae tell it tae me. You fair gave Father Dennis the fits you know—he didna like tae wed me tae a stranger he’d not the name of, nor the baptism of.” She laughed a little as she knocked a chunk loose. “I trust they told you me name’s Aislinn?”
“Aislinn, Aislinn.” He rolled her name upon his tongue like a ripe berry. “Yes. They whispered to me as I slept. You are as beautiful as they told me.” His arm pulled free with a sucking noise. He reached out and cupped her cheek with one rough palm, learning her shape and texture.
She blushed wildly. “I’ll hae none o’ that sir. ‘Tisn’t proper.” She set to work on the other arm.
“Oh yes ‘tis. I’m your husband now my love.” His grin was wicked as he helped dig for his bogged-down limb.
She blushed worse at that. “Well…You’re not proper now…”
“It’s much better when we’re both not ‘proper’ my bride.” He trailed a finger across her arm with a warm smile.
Aislinn ducked her head and became terribly busy with his arm. He chuckled, but kept his peace as they both strained to pull the earth away.
It was nearly dawn before his legs were freed. He stepped from his prison, legs shaking like a newborn calf’s. The rest of his was indeed as well-made as his hands. Aislinn stole little peeks, and every one showed her a tall man, slender and as fair to the eyes as the first clear day of spring.
He was also not ashamed to be standing birth-bare, and to be bathed by her. With several more blushes she opened her father’s chest and helped him into the warm robe her mother thought had made father look like a country gentleman. As she tied the belt, he lifted her hand and kissed it, his lips trailing over her freckle-dappled skin. She began to step towards him.
“Now isn’t this a tender scene. Dearest child, how could you settle for an unwashed woods-fey when you could have a man of means such as I?” Aislinn pulled away from Acayib’s gentle embrace to see the magic-man standing on her muddy bedroom rug.
“Aislinn love, I do insist the next time you invite a strange man to our house you tell me next time.” Acayib yawned elaborately and stroked her back.
She thought of the butter churn lying all the way in the next room. Acayib’s hand warmed her shoulder, and she smiled at him. “Oh, but husband, whate’er shall the puir cat do for her supper if she canna take a nibble from his leg? She’s so fond of the flavor of rat.”
The magic-man swelled with rage and a gold button flew like a pistol-shot from his doublet. “Willful rotten brat! I were a-goin’ tae wed you, but now your death’ll do as well!” In his fury, the fine polished accent fell away like lead coin.
Acayib yawned again, unimpressed by the sparks snapping from the man’s beard. He scooped up a bit of mud in his hands and began to roll it between his palms. “You’ll be leaving our home. Now. My wife told you to go, and you must respect that.”
“I’ll be goin’ when it pleases me!” The magic-man sparked again. He shook a bony finger at them. “And tonight it pleases me tae come t’ this miserable shack and make you a widower boy!”
“That will not happen. You will be the one punished.” Acayib’s eyes shone green, like light finding its way through the depths of a forest pool. He kneaded the soil in his hands gently, almost sadly, and it seemed to grow.
“It looks like I’ll be laying you in the grave too then sonny.” The magic-man grinned. “Don’t you worry boy. I’ll keep you alive long ‘nuf tae see what I’ll do to your slut.” The magic-man raised his hands and they began to glow a sickly yellow.
Acayib opened his hands and threw the little ball of moss and soil at the magic-man.
The magic-man squealed and batted at the little ball with glowing hands. Tiny strands of moss snaked from the ball and linked through his fingers. He screeched and shook his hands, throwing drops of glowing yellow ichor.
Aislinn looked down to find a bit of moss creeping across her toes. Acayib pulled her out of its way gently and it slithered over to the magic-man. More soil crept in from the door, oozed through the window, and unwound itself from the ball on the floor. With pleasure, Aislinn watched the soil abandon her floor to flow over to the magic man.
The magic-man flung more bolts of magic around, singing the roof-beams and the drapes, but the moss and mud kept advancing. It crept up his body, enveloping him slowly.
In but a few moments, there was nothing left of him but a misshapen stump on the floor shaped like a man curled up on his back. Aislinn crept up to it and tapped it with her foot. Petulantly, it dropped a chunk of bark on her toe, but the bark leapt back into place and was joined by a second, fatter piece.
“For every bit of harm he tries to do in there, his prison will grow and tighten upon him.” Acayib put his arms around Aislinn’s waist.
“How long shall he be as such?” She still eyed the stump dubiously.
“Far longer than a year love. He’ll stay like that until he gives up his misguided ways, then when he can let that go, the real work begins.”
She drew closer to Acayib’s woodsy-smelling warmth. “And what work would that be?”
“He gets made into something new. Something that perhaps can make up for some of the harms he’s done.” He dropped a kiss into her hair.
Aislinn glanced at the stump. “Were you…”
“Somewhat. I had sins to make up for. I’ve let them go and been forgiven of them.” He kissed her again, walked to the door, and with a deep bow opened it. “This man is yours Mother.”
A puff of tobacco smoke preceded the Coalie-queen and her attendants as they silently entered. Acayib sank to one knee before them. The Coalie-queen turned to Aislinn, her eyes glittering inquiringly.
Aislinn curtsied and wove her fingers through Acayib’s. “I do thank you greatly Your Ladyship. I am more than pleased with this man. If he did ill before, then ‘tis between him an’ Father Dennis. I accept him as me husband for now and with all my soul.”
The Coalie-queen blew out a satisfied puff of smoke, then hunched over the newly stumped magic-man. She blew a giant blast of smoke over him, then her sisters lifted him as if he was naught but a babe in a cradle.
Aislinn laid a hand on Acayib’s shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her tightly.
“I dinna understand. If they be putting him aside fer the same fate as you had, some poor lass is goin’ tae be gettin’ a right nasty excuse for a husband.” She screwed up her face at him.
He stroked a hand across her back. “Not necessarily. They…they plant souls in need of growing, and we grow…We bloom into something…different. Little in him will be the same. The clearest thing I’ve kept a hold on from…before is that I like custard.” He shrugged absently.
“You were a magic-man then?” Aislinn liked the feel of those strong hands petting her.
“Of a sort I remember. I know I made that young pup look about as menacing as sugar-roses.” His hands wandered.
She purred, arching her back. “Young pup?”
He grinned. “Aye. Time passes in its own way…in the changing place. He’d better mend his ways quick or he’s liable to end as the answer to some childless woman’s prayer.” He kissed her gently.
“By Saint Swithin’s little bodkin then!” Aislinn exclaimed in mock horror and kissed him back. “I’d ask you then tae help make certain I’ll no’ be sayin’ such prayer good husband.”
Acayib smiled…and answered her wish.