A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy

© 2000 Melissa Katherine Michael
3400 words

A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
by Melissa Katherine Michael

I-I’m a healer. Not a killer. But this is how it happened.
I was daydreaming of Batchawana Bay when the demons attacked. We hear stories of Batchawana when we’re young. Far away, beyond the Hundred Mile Marshes, across the many rivers, and over Batchawana Mountain where ‘tis said there are no witches, and that a woman can make her own way by the sweat of her own brow; no more, no less.
The demon was a winged manikin. The little hellspawn drew blood before I noticed its claws on my cheek. Efnir handed out the demonbane from her pocket within my cloak. I let the knotted reins fall to the saddlehorn and took the dried herb in my left hand and touched the ruby locket at my neck with my right. The little demon tried a second pass. I hit it with the swatch of demonbane and it screamed and disappeared with a loud hiss.
“Good work, Livvy,” the squirrel sprite said from my inner cloak pocket. She was some witch’s mistake left to make her own way; too small and furry to be human, too smart and different to remain a squirrel.
“Good work, Efnir,” I answered. We’d been together a long time.
Mattie May, my mare, lumbered on beneath us, oblivious to the demon, but she snorted at the wolf’s cry, a hollow, hungry howl.
Efnir handed me the sling-shot loaded with wolfsbane. I made short work of it, hitting him square in the eye with the dried herb tied into a small, hard pellet.
Mattie sighed beneath me and kept moving, headed for the Ghost River ferry where we hoped to hire on with a caravan headed north to Fort Albany when spring thawed the mighty Albany River in another fortnight or so. I could always find work as a ferry guide and caravan guard. Efnir was great for climbing trees to scout ahead. With luck, some rich noblewoman would want to pay prime silver for a personal bodyguard so that her trips to the privy would be truly private while stopped for the night on the riverbank.
“Someone’s let a hoard of ghosts loose,” I called to Efnir who was dozing. I could just see the transparent shapes floating toward us from the slowly sinking sun. Either that, or we were days closer to Ghost River than I thought. Efnir handed out the catnip. I waved it around overhead slowing the ghosts. Their shadowy forms spread out in a ring around us when three things happened. Mattie May began bucking and screaming like she never had, ever before; something with fierce claws ran up my back and arm; and I dropped the catnip.
It caught on the saddlehorn but Mattie May threw me then landed beside me with a scream and a sickening crack that could be only one thing. Luckily, I landed on my right side and momentum rolled me onto my back. Squished sprite in my cloak would not have helped matters. I heard Mattie May’s distress with my heart as though she spoke human speech aloud. She was hurt and scared and trying to stand up on a broken leg. She’d always stood on that leg, why was it refusing to hold her now? her eyes seemed to ask. I pulled her head into my lap and sang the sleeping song. Could I heal her? A minor talent like me? I could splint the leg and make a fine poultice from my store of traveling herbs.
The ghosts pressed in on us. Eager for Mattie’s fear and pain. For mine. For Efnir’s.
Maybe we could find something to eat in the marsh for the last months of winter and the first of spring, months it would take her leg to heal. But Mattie struggled against the comfort of the sleeping song. Her pain and fear stabbed from her eyes to mine. She wanted to stand as she always had, her whole life. I could never make her understand that she must not. I had not the power to hold her will. But there was one thing I could do.
Tears flowed freely as I drew my short sword.
“Tell me when it’s over,” Efnir said then disappeared within my cloak.
“Na jayate mriyate va kadachin,” I whispered. “For the soul never dies nor is born and is not slain when the body is slain.”
At last her pain was ended. The ghosts were sated. I’d’ve liked to have saved the saddle but couldn’t bear the weight what with water, food, clothes, bedding, herbs, charms, and Efnir, and me on foot now in the marsh.
A cat it had been, going after the catnip in my hands. Solid black and small it was, now licking itself fastidiously as if it had nothing to do with all the commotion. I left the catnip then left the trail after a bit to make camp on a solid island of dryness. The little cat followed and began meowing up a storm when I stopped. Maybe it smelled Efnir, who was after all still mostly squirrel, and wanted to try its hand at dinner. But no, the little cat frolicked away a few paces and looked back at me expectantly them came to rub at my ankles before hopping away again. In the fading light I could almost see a new trail, a line of dry, built-up sod.
“Should we follow it?” I asked, opening my cloak.
Efnir watched as the cat went through its antics. She sighed and said, “Couldn’t get us to Ghost River any slower.”
I took that for an assent and followed the cat. We had food for a week, but Ghost River would take us four on foot. After an hour or so it was full dark and I slowed to inspect the faint torches before us. The cat ran ahead to what looked like a huge old castle. Torches burned at the main gate and along the top of the boundary wall, and in a few windows beyond.
“Hold still and we might not kill you,” a gruff voice full of menace said close behind me. It was answered by a laugh.
Dread dropped my heart to my boots. This must be from whence all the demons, ghosts, and assorted evils had come over the last few days, a witch’s castle.
I felt Efnir sliding down my pantleg and knew she’d head for the trees and help when she could. They dragged me into the torchlight and took my bags, my cloak, my sword, my daggers, then took me into the main hall where torches were not needed. High above in the rafters, mingling with the cobwebs some dozen witchlights danced and spun. Tattered stained tapestries tried to hide moldy stone walls. But my attention was arrested by the couple dining alone at the far end of a large banquet table. She had the power. He was a comely dandy trying to win, or to keep, her favor. She was beautiful, no, more than that, gorgeous, but in a frightening, overbearing sort of way. Long black tresses curled over her red velvet gown split to reveal the major portion of her creamy white bust. As the guardsman pulled me along I discerned a softly glowing moonstone locket tied at her throat with a red ribbon. Her eyes glowed green and hypnotizing as they appraised me. Dark arched brows, berry red lips, noble features, young and firm, yet ageless, the face of a centuries-old witch I felt certain.
“Well?” she demanded.
The fop at her side displayed a piqued frown at my disturbance, yet the lines around his eyes eased with relief.
“Found her scuttling around the gate,” my guard said.
“So? Lock her up. Why disturb my meal? No, on second thought, Mudge needs help in the kitchen. Chain her in there, and one of you guard her and make sure she doesn’t get hold of the knives, like the last one.”
You don’t believe it because you’ve never been there, but that’s how it was. Those with the power in the marshes did as they liked to those of us without.
So they chained me to the pump back of the kitchen and one guard checked the pile of cooking pots for knives. These he washed himself and returned to the kitchen. When I finished the pots and pans and cutting boards and bowls and spoons and ladles, they brought in the serving platters and eating plates and all the eating spoons and forks. I swear I must have scrubbed every utensil in the whole castle twice over by the time they locked me in a cell with the other drudges to sleep.
No sooner had I laid down when a fuzzy tongue rasped along my cheek.
“Efnir?” I said, sitting up. She wasn’t usually that demonstrative, but I’ve learned not to be surprised by her. I reached my hand out but it was only the cat.
Then there was smooth skin beneath my rough fingers and I snatched them back to the sound of a muffled giggle.
“Remember me? The little black cat?” a sultry voice whispered in my ear. I smelled fresh summer flowers. A soft glow appeared from a globe in her hand. I looked around, but no one else stirred.
“Dweena sleeps now so I dare assume my true form. I’m Selica. Quickly now, I’ve a bargain for you. Help me just a little and I’ll grant your wildest, dearmost desire.”
My wildest, dearmost desire was the same one I’d had all my life: to get out of the Hundred Mile Marshes altogether, away to a place where magic was used only for good and I could make an honest living without being afraid I’d wind up in some witch’s brew. To find Batchawana Bay.
“Come. What have you always wanted? Riches, fine clothes? Fine food? A handsome prince?” she giggled. “Dweena has something I want and with a little distraction from you, I can easily get it. Then you need only name your price.”
Will you slay all your kind and then your self? I thought, very quietly, to myself. “How can I help you?” I asked, mystified.
“You’re healthy and strong and not so hard on the eye. They’ll have you carry in her platters tomorrow night. I’m sure of it. When they do, you drop it on her or something. Something that will draw her utmost attention to you, while I steal her Desire Diamond.” She looked down and I missed her expression but I heard about a yard of cold steel quivering in her voice. “While she has it, I can’t take her; but when it’s mine, I’ll own the world.”
She looked up to meet my eyes again. “And you with me,” she amended with a smile. “Don’t you see? Dweena’s so petty and small-minded. She uses the power of the Desire Diamond for pretty clothes and baubles, fine horses, silken sheets. She has no idea of the uses of that diamond! It’s wasted on her!”
I could hardly refuse. She might turn me into a cat.
No. I could have refused. I chose life instead.
I managed to get a few hours sleep and a few breadcrusts before it was time to wash all the pots and dishes from breakfast. When I finished, there were the pots from lunch. They unchained me long enough to sweep then scrub the kitchen floor. I thought my arms were going to turn to rock they got so hard and stiff. All that and only a handful of boiled potatoes for lunch. It was obvious why all the castle staff looked so pale, weak, and sickly. They were.
If Dweena really had a wishing stone, why couldn’t she use it to provide everything for her staff same as herself? Then they’d love her and stay and do her bidding willingly, out of love. But that isn’t the witches’ way. Not in the marshes.
“Get that one,” I heard Mudge’s voice. “She’s hale and hearty. Unlock her,” he said to my guard. Then to me, “You help with the carrying tonight and if you do good, you get a full meal. And if you try anything, my knife’ll gut you sure as his will,” he ended, pointing his eighteen inch carver at my guard.
It was a whole hog, pit-roasted all day. My nose curled at the stench and my gut churned at the sight of a big red apple in its snout.
“Me? By myself?” The boar must have weighed a hundred pounds, plus the platter and garnishes.
Mudge only laughed. “No, I’ll help you. She doesn’t like my looks, so you lead.”
At least Dweena had some discrimination.
I carried the great platter with my hands behind me and led the way into Mistress Dweena’s dining hall. A small motion caught my eye, conspicuous because it didn’t belong. It was a small black cat slinking about the far door.
Dropping the platter at that instant would not have had the desired effect. A sound beating before they flayed the skin from my flesh? I’d heard it done in remote witch havens like this. I planned to spill wine on Dweena’s silk dress, knowing of her attachment to finery. And then? Either she or the cat-witch would surely kill me.
No, I didn’t hope to come out on the other side of midnight alive. I kept my eyes peeled for a way out, hoping Efnir had found it, yet knowing she didn’t have the good sense to desert me.
Mudge set about carving the beast and I lingered, unsure what to do with no instruction, sure that whatever I did would draw attention along with someone’s displeasure. These fools who had everything had nothing, for they knew not happiness, peace, nor contentment.
“Wine,” Dweena said and held aloft her drained glass. It sparkled as though cut from some blue gem.
There was no one else, so I stepped forward and lifted the wine bottle. With a silent wish to live through the night, I began pouring, right on her head.
Ruby wine bled all over Dweena and her snow white silk gown until she leaped up with a shriek. I dropped the bottle and ran the route I saw the cat take.
I hadn’t made it through the door when my feet stopped in their tracks and my body refused my commands. I toppled forward slowly by my momentum and as I fell, I saw a squirrel scampering down the same hall the cat had taken.
My end is certain, I thought. My suffering over. Now I go to join Mattie May. Would that I could swiftly. Witches are not known for their mercy.
“Think you’ll ruin my day, do you? You little insignificant animal! I’ll make you wish you’d never been born!”
Oh, I already wish that, Lady, almost since I’ve been born, I thought to myself.
“That’s it for the new help,” Mudge grumbled with a sigh. “And so good with the pots.”
Dweena stood over me though I could not see as my face was flat against the cold stone of the floor.
“I’ve got a closet full of fine silk dresses, that you’ll never have, you envious little snake. If you’d been nice I might have rewarded your favorable service.
Yes, Mistress Dweena, like you’ve rewarded all your faithful servants I see about me.
“But you’d rather act meanly and be punished. And punished you will be. Just as soon as WHAT!!” Another of her ear-splitting shrieks rent the air. “My Diamond!”
With that, she strode over me and ran down the hall, dripping red wine from her dark tresses.
Feeling and control returned to my limbs and I struggled upright through guards, cooks, drudges, and whatnot as jumped and straggled over me. I suppose I should have turned and run. Efnir could slip out of the tightest knot, but I had to know. I wanted to see for myself if the cat-witch, Selica, was any better than Dweena with that stone. Quickly, I ran down the hall past doors and hallways and through a set of still-smoking splintered oaken doors into a chamber large as the dining hall. This one had a higher ceiling and it needed it. I stopped and stared in shock along with the rest of the household. No spell held me but wonderment at the sight of a huge mountain of gold and jewels in front of which the two witches fought, throwing blazing colored lightning at each other. High atop the pile of jewels sat a clear diamond nearly the size of that hog we’d set on the banquet table.
Now blue lightning flashed filling the room, now yellow, now red; in thigh-thick fingers of power. I felt the heat of each blast. To my immediate left stood the guard who’d first captured me. My short sword hung invitingly within my reach from his right hip.
Dweena’s back was to me. She shrieked some phrase over and over and that blue lightning arced again and again between herself and Selica. Shouting with fury, Selica threw her arm toward Dweena and a hail of tiny winged demons flew from her hand to attack.
I grabbed my sword from its scabbard and ran at Dweena’s back planning an upthrust through her kidneys. Demon’s scraped and clawed at me, then fire burned along every nerve, but I pushed forward and suddenly I was at Dweena’s back. She turned, her hand tensed into a claw. My short sword sank to its hilt in an upthrust through her gut that must have pierced her heart for she stilled instantly and . . . and began decaying. Her flesh was rotting away from her bones even as I let her fall.
All near me were in shock but soon there arose a merry cackle above us all as Selica ascended the jeweled mountain and took her seat upon the diamond throne.
“Now all in Hundred Mile Marshes are my slaves!!” she cried in triumph.
No, I never really thought she’d be any different.
My sword had rotted to nothing along with Dweena’s body, and I hoped, her soul. Looking around quickly, I saw that the foppish man held steel. His eyes met mine and I saw murder in them, not directed at me. Oh no, he’d had his fill of witches running the show, same as I. Had I looked like that, minutes ago? I nodded and relieved another guard of his sword. The household was milling about aimlessly. One witch or another, it seemed to be the same to them.
“Ach! You little!”
I looked up toward the witch’s cry and espied Efnir in her hair, scratching and clawing in earnest. The dandy and I wasted no time scrambling up the pile of gems from either side. She didn’t notice our approach, being so surprised and befuddled by Efnir’s attack that she didn’t think to use magic on her. We made the summit and each stuck a sword into her. She screamed for quite some time, writhing as though trying to escape while rotting and burbling away.
I was still doubled over and panting from the uphill sprint when the man asked, “So now we fight for the Diamond?”
I looked up sharply, but saw merriment in his eye.
“I think Mudge deserves it, or the guard captain. Me, I’ll take a load of this and head out the marshes, for Batchawana Bay.”
“My thoughts exactly,” he smiled.
We took all the finest of Dweena’s horses loaded down with bags of gold and jewels and bought a train of mules to get us here. We lost some mules to the marsh, some more to the mountains, but we made it. So, that’s where we come from and why.
I really am a healer, though not very powerful. And Efnir’s a great asset for scouting and watch duty, and Weddin, he’s a fine worker and knows farming. Might we stay and build a home here?


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