Marion the Unmagical
© 2000 Melissa K. Michael
Marion the Unmagical (or
Evil in Eldwood)
by Melissa Katherine Michael
The weather was starting to turn its face toward
spring and I was glad of it. Soon the mountain passes to Cheery
Knob, Bellville, Tulane, and points south would open and there’d
be business again for me, a trail guide, tracker, and deliverer
of packages and correspondence. Mistress Fate had been a little
less than kind with me this winter past, such that my purse was
near as thin and pinched as my face. Whatever profit I’d made
from risky deliveries further north to the trappers in Ardenton,
I’d had to eat, to stay warm. Such is winter work.
My path led the long way around Eldwood, in fact, this was the only
point that approached it to the east. Annabelle, my roan mare, walked
along solidly beneath me as the sun slid down through the trees.
Night still came quick these days, but fortune would look up soon.
In two weeks I’d be at the lead of the first fat caravan headed
to Cheery Knob through Garner’s Pass.
I’d just noticed the sound of pounding hooves behind me when
Annabelle screamed and bucked. As I fought to stay in the saddle
dark shapes surrounded us and began tearing at her. She screamed
again, this time more in pain than panic and threw me to the ground.
I was winded but so scared that I instinctively clawed at my blade.
By the time my breath whooshed its return, my sword was free of
its scabbard and nestled within a wolf’s neck. I pulled it
out and jumped to my feet slashing at another attacking beast. This
one learned from the mistake of its fellow and danced beyond my
reach. Annabelle had run on down the forest path. I had no time
to answer her pain-filled screams, fighting for my life as I was
against three of the great hairy beasts that surrounded me and snapped
and growled with evident irritation that their meal had a mind,
and a sword, of its own. They stood waist high and the setting sun
glowed orange-red on their four-inch canines. Or was that Annabelle’s
blood? I pinked one on the ear as it snapped at my leg and caught
the fabric of my trews. They moved with lightning swiftness and
I knew that shortly their feral minds would direct them to act in
concert, and I would be finished.
A wolf slashed at me with its paw and I was able to slice it off
at the elbow joint. Then a ball of black fluff landed on the face
of the second wolf causing it to make curiously frustrated noises
which attracted its fellow--the one not howling from the loss of
its foreleg--to watch in bafflement as it tried to dislodge the
fluffball. The split-second of inattention was all I needed to finish
the third wolf. Then, as its eyes were blinded, I easily struck
off the head of the second wolf, and ran my blade through the first
still screaming and trying to hobble away on its three legs while
blood spurted in rhythm from its fourth.
I stood panting a moment, not quite believing the fight was done.
The furball had detached itself from the wolfhead and regarded me
with solemn eyes. It was a black housecat, the size of those scrawny
creatures one always finds in great abundance around dairy barns.
Annabelle! No sounds came from the path ahead yet I ran as fast
as fear and strength permitted, only to find three more of the fiendish
wolves dining upon her. Upon my horse! They growled defiance but
my anger was too great and swift. My blade found the heart of the
closest beast and then I was standing between two hungry wolves
and their bloody dinner. Did I mention that I’m sometimes
impulsive, reckless, and carelessly stupid?
Mother always said so. Bless her soul, she was right about everything.
My swordpoint wove slowly back and forth between the two sets of
bared teeth. The wolf on the left began to gather himself to leap.
His haunches quivered and I saw it this time. That little cat leaped
out of nowhere and landed just perfectly on top of the wolf’s
long snout, completely covering its eyes with its tiny body, holding
on to ears and upper jaw with tiny claws.
Again, the two wolves were momentarily puzzled and my sword swiftly
drank their life’s blood.
After a quick look around to be sure no other wolves remained, I
sank to the ground and caught my breath. Now came the pain; the
bruises, the scratches, the burning muscles, and the ache in my
lungs from the fall flat on my back. And Annabelle. Oh Annabelle.
I began shaking with reaction and crying with grief. She’d
been such a good mount. More than a stupid ridebeast, she’d
become a friend over the years.
I found myself petting a warm furry ball buzzing in my lap and stopped
stroking it when I became aware of my actions. Two brown eyes looked
up at me. Strange. Brown eyes on a black cat. Weren’t they
usually yellow? And the pupils! Maybe the light was too dim by then.
I cleaned my sword with haste and gathered my saddle bags from poor
Annabelle. I wanted to get away from the blood and stench and knew
that I had to get away from this Eldwood. Wild wolves attacking
humans on the outskirts, who knew what horrors abounded within?
The little cat trotted along right at my heels for a mile or so.
At full dark I took a few handfuls of dry rolled oats for my meal
and gave the cat the last bits of stale cheese. He curled up ready
to sleep for the night.
“Oh no, Puss,” I said as I lifted him to the crook of
my arm. “It’s away from this evil wood we’re getting
He rode along quiet enough for an hour or so. There was some skyglow
to find the path easily, that and the lack of underbrush on the
trail. But then he suddenly leapt from my arms and began caterwauling
up a storm out to my right a few feet. He quieted for a moment then
came back to rub circles around my legs. Then he stepped away a
few feet and began making sounds as if talking to me, telling me
to go this way, I thought.
“What is it, Puss? You want to go that way?”
“Mrp!” he said and walked away.
I followed, more by sound than sight, for we’d left the patches
of clear sky over the trail for the shadowy woods.
“Did you get it, Willis?”
I nearly fainted in fright. The gravelly male voice seemed to come
from everywhere, yet it was not loud.
The cat mewed in answer at the man’s feet.
“Who are you?” This was directed to me. “And where’s
Before I could answer, that cat set up his caterwauling much as
he’d done before. A light flared and I cried out in fear,
but it was only a witchlight in an old man’s hand. I say old,
for he had white hair, but his face and hands were unlined like
“Willis, you didn’t! Oh Goddess, you did! How many times
did I tell you, ‘Don’t try it at night!’?”
The old man, the witchman, stood, one hand suspending his witchlight,
glowering down at a rather contrite-looking cat.
Then he looked me up and down. “And you? You don’t look
the sort to come from Jatila’s castle.”
“There’s a castle roundabout?” I asked.
I’d been trying to avoid the plague I’d heard rumor
of to the west of Eldwood, my usual route, by coming down the eastern
side. Must be a small castle with no township for me not to know
“No,” the elder answered himself, “Willis wouldn’t
bring that on me.”
“Brought a pack of wolves down on me,” I grumbled, wondering
if that was in fact what had happened.
I looked up at the sudden silence. The witchman regarded me thoughtfully.
“A pack of wolves, you say,” he said slowly. “And
you are the only one in your party left alive?”
It was such an oddly phrased question, I had to think how to answer.
Before I could, that cat started up again.
“All right, all right, Willis!” the man said. Then to
me, “Come along. I’ll stir up the fire and get something
hot in you.”
The cat turned and with his tail straight up in the air, trotted
off through the trees. I followed simply because my numb mind couldn’t
come up with a reason not to. There were plenty: wolves, witches,
and evil woods, for a start. After a few moments, we reached their
campsite and I realized I was shivering and perhaps a bit shocky.
What was I doing this deep in the Eldwood with a witchman and his
The elder stirred up a goodly blaze, screened by thick underbrush,
and set a small pot of water over the flames. He took the cat upon
his lap and felt it all over while murmuring words I couldn’t
quite hear. He set the cat down with a sigh then took a medallion
out of his tunic and pressed it to the cat’s forehead and
said, “Fruitcake!” in a commanding tone. I swear that’s
what I heard. Mayhap he was speaking a different language.
I’d jumped in my seat at the vehemence in his tone and thought
at first he was calling the cat names, but when I looked to see
the cat’s reaction, there was no cat. A man sat in the cat’s
place rubbing his face with both hands.
“Goddess, that was awful,” the newcomer said. From whence
he came, I hadn’t the foggiest notion. He looked over at the
elder who lay back on one arm panting heavily. “But I don’t
know what was worse, getting caught by Jatila, chased by her wolves,
or being called ‘Puss’ for the last two hours,”
he ended with a glare in my direction.
My mind took in that he must be the cat I’d carried and talked
to and petted since my dear horse was killed, but my heart was seized
and wrenched in my chest. He had the dark hair and eyes that melt
a woman’s heart, but also, he had the cruelly curling lips
that would just as easily stomp it in the mud. Stunningly handsome
with a roguish scar down one cheek, he was clad in black shirt and
“Willis,” the witchman called softly. “Shut up.”
Willis immediately ducked his head in embarrassment then rose and
found some herbs to toss in the pot of steaming water. I took an
immediate liking to the old man, even if he was a witch.
“Don’t mind him,” the witchman said. “He’s
never been good with his own kind. Now, one of you tell me exactly
Willis was absorbed in stirring the tiny pot of herbs so I spoke.
“I was riding down Garner Road when I was set upon by a pack
of wolves. They got my horse and nearly got me, but the Goddess
was with me . . . I guess.”
Willis had turned to stare at me.
“Well,” the witchman prompted.
“Sh-she was amazing. I’ve never seen such swordplay,
such bravery. Standing off a pack of--there must have been nine
or ten of them--single-handedly.”
“But you helped,” I interjected.
He snorted in reply. “With what I could, me in a little cat
body. I’d’ve been wolfmeat sure if you hadn’t
been there. You and your sword. I couldn’t have done better
myself,” he ended with a proud smile.
“So Miss--excuse me, what is your name?” The witchman
offered me his hand. “I am called Falcon.”
“Marion. Pleased to meet you.” Ah. Civilized manners,
“And you. So, Miss Marion was nowhere near the castle and
its treasure when you blundered into it?”
Willis’ proud demeanor withered at Falcon’s statement.
My ears pricked at that word. You know the one. Treasure. Willis
busied himself straining three cups of tea, two cups and a bowl,
rather. We sipped for a moment, then Willis closed his eyes and
began to speak.
“I played hide and seek with her guards all day. I finally
fooled them into thinking I’d left and made it into the throne
room. I set the illusion dispellers just as you said and by the
time they all had pinged, it was nightfall.” His eyes opened
and looked into Falcon’s. “I could hardly take up all
that work, slip out quietly, and try it again tomorrow.”
He reached out a hand at the memory. “I almost had my hands
on the jewel . . . and she appeared. She was quite angry that I
was a man. I was so afraid I’d end up like the wretches decorating
her grounds.” He shuddered at the thought. “But luckily,
she only turned me into a cat. She wanted me to sit on her lap and
purr. When I ran for it, she loosed her hounds on me. The wolves.”
The old man nodded into his teacup.
“Where did I go wrong?” he whispered. Then he looked
at me while Willis set out two bedrolls. “It’s a very
special jewel. One I’d thought hidden from the eye of man
many, many years ago. Legends so old my teacher thought they were
but myth spoke of a fantastic jewel as big as a man’s head
that emits a nugget of gold every day, the size of a goose egg.
Men sought it and wars were fought over it for that alone. But the
real mystery of the jewel is it’s power. The wish of any who
touches it becomes immediately fulfilled.”
I’d heard of such wish-fulfilling gems, chintamani they were
called in the village Tale Weaver’s stories. I’d daydreamed
of finding such a thing. Could it be possible? Falcon and Willis
seemed to think so.
“It is nothing but a tool,” Falcon continued. “It
can be used for great good, or great harm. Such a thing would be
very, very dangerous were it to fall into the wrong hands, as I’m
afraid it has.”
As if he wasn’t convinced that a witch who set wolves loose
on perfect strangers was a danger to civilization. Or perhaps, his
heart wasn’t sure.
“If you’re willing, I want you to help Willis try again.
But for now, eat some stew and rest.”
Oddly, I felt safe and comfortable bedding down with these two strangers.
They hadn’t tried anything, hadn’t even made any crude
jokes, which surprised me about Willis. He seemed the arrogant type.
But maybe his gruffness was merely a shield to hide him from the
world’s hurt. Goddess knew, there was enough of that going
I turned over and breathed in Annabelle’s scent clinging to
my blankets. The witchman, he minded me of a village grandfather
who might pull out a bright bead or bangle for the small children
at the price of a smile.
As I lay waiting for sleep, beside a wizard and a man who’d
lately been a cat, I pondered my choices. Without a horse, I could
walk down to Garner’s Pass, possibly hitching a ride or two,
possibly making it there in time to compete with all the other guides
for the last of the spring caravans going down to Cheery Knob. Possibly
I could get hired on without a horse--sometimes there was a noblewoman
needing a personal guard--but these were long hopeless hopes. Most
likely I’d spend the next few years a tavern wench until I
could raise the gold for a decent horse. My lips curled in a grimace
at the notion.
On the other hand, I could very likely meet my death at the hands
of an evil, demented witch, if half of what Falcon said was true.
But the reward, if we won, if we got the jewel from her; we’d
be reducing the evil of Eldwood by half and gaining ourselves a
fortune. Falcon wasn’t even interested in the gold and Willis
said there was more than we could carry on a train of mules. Falcon
wasn’t even interested in the power of the jewel. His main
concern was to get it out of Jatila’s hands before she wished
everyone in all the land dead, or worse.
I rolled again and stuck a foot out of my blankets and into the
crisp spring night. I’d been thinking of enough gold for a
pair of fine horses and maybe a wagon; but with the gold from that
jewel, I could have my own castle and never have to go hungry and
cold through the winter again. At last sleep claimed me.
In the morning I was awakened to the heavenly scent of string bean
stew and berry muffins. Falcon had been busy but Willis still slept
as one dead. The sun was high in the sky. I marveled that I’d
slept so long. Then I remembered why and shuddered in my blankets.
Poor Annabelle. After breakfast and what washing we could do at
a tiny trickle of a stream, Falcon proceeded to tell me how best
to go about relieving Witch Jatila of her precious jewel.
“She’s immensely proud and stubborn and leaves hardly
any guard or wards about her treasure room. She relies on simple
superstition to keep curious souls out. The gruesome display of
bodies has so far sufficed. But we are made of sterner stuff!”
Into his confident smile I could only state what had been growing
on my mind throughout breakfast. “If it’s so easily
accomplished for such as us, Master Falcon, how much more easy it
must be for you alone. I see not why I am needed.”
Willis gulped but managed not to choke on his muffin.
Falcon’s smile vanished. “Alas, Marion, she is a powerful
and subtle witch. We have knowledge of each other, and should I
come close to her keep, she would immediately know and then a battle
of magnificent proportions would be joined.
“I should readily join such a battle should it become necessary,
but let us exhaust all other possibilities first.” A sardonic
smile lifted his bushy white brows. “The most logical being:
to send in two totally unmagical and thereby undetectable warriors
such as yourself and Willis. True, he was defeated by his own greed
already, but I think your presence will temper his enthusiasm.”
The rest of the day was spent in recovering strength and sharpening
blades. Being a creature of darkness, Jatila rested by day and was
awake and active by night. So we had another night of rest before
setting off on our campaign the following daybreak.
I was horrified although I’d been warned. Emasculated bodies
hung by the score from the castle’s outer walls. Some were
very old and had little flesh left. Others were fresh and bloated.
Crows fed in the bright morning sun.
“Why did they leave the bridge down, when you attacked just
the other day?” I demanded.
“The rope’s broken. None of them know how to do anything.
You’ll see, and she doesn’t care. They won’t stop
us till we get to the castle proper. And remember, it’s a
kindness we’re doing them.”
I met Willis’ grim visage with a nod then hunched over and
scurried as we crossed the drawbridge. Logic told me the dark witch
of evil slept by day, but that little animal in all of us gibbered,
“Hide! Hide!” in my mind’s ear.
The walls of the castle were stained with the unmistakable black
mold that sets in if there’s no washing after the spring melt,
for many years. The path to the main doors was lined with pikes
stuck in the ground and decorated with human heads. There were perhaps
ten on either side. Surely I walked the pathway to hell itself.
A shrill yell sounded to my right, the east. The castle entrance
faced south. One of the main doors was open.
“Run for it,” Willis said and we sprinted for the door.
Inside, we were set upon by a dozen dirty screaming women. They
smelled rank, their hair whipped about in knotted locks, their clothes
were torn and filthy, and their eyes held no intelligence at all.
Lost souls to a woman. Truly it was a kindness, the killing we did.
While blood spurted over me and mad women made for my throat with
their teeth, nails, and an occasional dagger, I felt as though I
was liberating lost souls from hellish punishment rather than murdering
innocents, or slaying valiant warriors guarding their mistress’
We stood panting when another batch attacked through the door we’d
left open at our back. Gruesome, bloody work it was. They attacked
with maniacal energy yet no guile or skill. The stench of death,
bowel and blood, filled the air. I staggered away from the pile
of bodies, slipping on the fluids, to fall to my knees and empty
my stomach. I was a trail guide for Goddess’ sake, not a murderer,
not a warrior. I kept wolves from taking the horses. I kept bandits
from robbing the caravan. I’d seen more bloodshed in the last
quarter hour than in my entire life.
“Now that’s the way to start the day I always say,”
Willis called with false cheer after he finished emptying his stomach.
We strode together down a long hall to another set of great doors.
We pushed on one and it opened with an ominous creak.
“Oh my Goddess,” I breathed, for in the middle of the
cavernous room there rose a small mountain of golden goose eggs.
On high sat a great shining jewel winking slowly with the clouds
passing by the sun.
“Quick! The dispellers!” Willis cried as a snorting
red dragon rose from the floor.
We separated and each set an illusion dispeller in two corners of
the room. As I circled around the pile of gold I saw what looked
to be a pair of thrones, their cushions worm-eaten, their marble
covered in green slime. Soon the dispellers pinged and I dared approach
the mountain of gold. One of us had to climb to the top and take
the jewel. I’d just put a gold nugget in each pocket of my
trews when I heard a loud pop! Taking a step back I saw Willis stretched
senseless on the floor and a beautiful woman standing over him.
My heart dropped into my boots.
She raised her eyes to mine and I saw that they glowed red in the
sunlight. I thought it was the sunlight.
“What do you here in the company of that?” She pointed
at Willis’ still form. “Come to steal what isn’t
Well, she wasn’t a demented slow-wit.
“You killed all my guard,” she said, her beautiful brow
knit in amazement, but then her mood changed and she smiled chillingly.
“No matter. They had passed their usefulness. Now you’ll
be the captain of my new guard.”
I ran but my legs carried me only one step. I tried and tried but
they wouldn’t move. My whole body felt encased in steel. Why
had I agreed to venture where a powerful wizard like Falcon dared
not? It had seemed so reasonable last night. He couldn’t come
too close or she would detect his magic whereas Willis and I, being
completely unmagical, could easily gain the throne room and steal
the jewel, while she rested in the day. Yet here she was, up at
She pointed at Willis, the velvety fabric of her gray and black
dress shimmered with her movements. “Your first duty as my
captain of the guard is to emasculate him, cut off his head, and
pike it in the front yard along the walk.” She crossed her
arms and turned to pace, her shiny dark tresses bouncing behind.
“You’d think people would get the hint, but no, alas,
they keep coming, keep trying to steal our wishes. They don’t
even ask nicely.”
To my horror, I felt my body respond. I walked over to Willis and
lifted my sword.
“Jatila,” I said, surprised I could talk. I’d’ve
started talking sooner if I’d known I had that volition.
Her beautiful yet demonic eyes snapped to mine and my body was withheld
from all movement again, much to my relief.
“You know my name!” she said, her eyebrows raised in
astonishment. Then her eyes turned suspicious. “Who sent you?”
she demanded, her eyes blazing red fury into mine.
I held my lips closed. After a moment she broke her fierce gaze
and danced away with a laugh. Her skirt swirled about her in a giant
gray and black circle.
“I can’t make you tell me, but I know what can!”
she sang merrily. She held out her hand toward the crest of the
golden hill. “Come my jewel of jewels! I have work for you!”
I watched with a sinking heart as the shimmering gem glided through
the air to her hand. She held it in both and approached me. “Now
you’ll tell me who sent you. And why. And where he is now.
For I am sure it is a he.”
As that jewel came closer and closer to my head I tried to think
what I should wish for, for she was surely going to touch it to
me to get it to grant her wish. What would save Willis and me, get
us out of this demonic witch’s castle alive (with a few gold
eggs), and what would stop this evil woman?
I felt the cold hard surface on my forehead and couldn’t stay
my tongue from speaking, “Falcon.”
A loud pop! greeted my admission (and fervent desire) and then the
witch was screaming in anger and spitting with hate like a bobcat.
Suddenly, my limbs were my own again and I fell across Willis while
managing not to sever his head from his shoulders with my blade.
I turned to see what the witch faced and there was Falcon making
magic signs in the air, blue witchlight glowing off him like a halo.
Jatila was doing the same, her witchlight surrounding her in an
evil, angry red fire.
“Willis!” I slapped his clammy face. “Willis!
He stirred a little. Witch battle raged around me singeing my eyebrows.
Jatila screamed curses and Falcon roared defiance as they threw
Goddess knew what kinds of magic at each other. Seemed a perfect
moment for a quick getaway, but Willis was too groggy.
“You never loved me! You always gave Anlita more! You always
let her go first!” I heard the first distinct words in my
language from Jatila’s mouth since the witches’ battle
“Is that why you killed her, your elder sister? Because I
gave her a pony to ride when you were too small to reach the stirrups?”
I looked at Falcon in shock. Jatila was his own daughter?
He advanced toward her. She remained motionless, much as I’d
been held minutes earlier.
“And is that why you killed your younger brother, because
I gave him a nice sword when you stole all his toys? And your mother?
Did you kill her because I loved her, too? Jatila, you never understood--,”
Falcon’s face broke and tears showed in his eyes.
I rose to my feet, horror washing me erect.
“--I loved you. Or I would have killed you long ago.”
Falcon bowed his head in defeat and Jatila began to raise her arms
to cast a final spell.
My feet moved of their own accord now. I was three steps from the
pair and as Falcon sank to his knees, defeated by his own goodness,
foolish as it was, I reached right over him and clove that hellbeast
in two down to her brisket.
“Good stroke!” Willis called to me.
I turned to assist Falcon to his feet and away from the grisly sight
of his own flesh and blood when a shudder ran through the castle
“Get the rock, Willis,” I called. “I’ve
got him.” Then I watched to be certain Willis indeed had the
Falcon seemed to come back to himself and began trotting away from
the groaning, shuddering castle. “Thank you,” he said
without looking at me.
We reached the first line of trees and I felt relief wash through
me along with an overpowering urge to take Willis in my arms and
kiss him soundly.
As I began acting on it Falcon called, “Willis,” his
voice heavy with threat.
“I wish her the way she was!” Willis cried in guilt
and thrust the jewel from between us toward Falcon.
My arms were still at Willis’ waist. His eyes met mine.
“I wish that you would kiss me,” I said, hearing a strange
daring huskiness in my voice. “Do I need the jewel to gain
He showed me then and ever after that some things are magic even
for the unmagical.
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