Nell woke slowly. She was lying in a soft bed, and looking up at an unfamiliar ceiling. “Where am I?” she said to herself.
She felt a cold nose in her hand, and she looked over to see the grey wolf sitting beside her bed. Gathered around were several people: Norman, his hair singed and round eyes anxious; the Queen, her face grave, and still wearing her riding clothes; and the Prince, his arm in a sling and a smirk on his face. As for the other person, Nell didn’t know him. He was tall, a little stooped, and his dark hair and beard were streaked with grey.
“Hello,” said Nell. “What has happened?”
“My lady lives!” cried Norman, a hand to his heart.
Nell tried to sit up, but the Queen leaned forward and gently pressed her back into the pillows.
“You must not move too quickly,” said the Queen. “You have suffered a great shock—not to mention saving both the kingdom and my husband.”
Nell looked curiously at the Queen. “Your husband?” she asked.
The Queen smiled. “Yes, but all in good time.”
The man whom Nell did not know made an awkward bow. His leg seemed injured. “Nell,” he said. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. You have saved me, my son, and the kingdom.”
Nell was confused, but she still felt tired. “Tell me all about it when I wake up,” she said, and went immediately back to sleep.
Nell heard the story of the dragon several times in the next few days. Norman and the Prince each had their own versions, but Nell found the King’s to be the most interesting.
It appeared the wicked sorcerer had put a spell on the King. The King himself had become the dragon that had laid waste to most of the kingdom. “But I hadn’t entirely lost my sense of who I was,” said the King to Nell. “Even as the dragon, I couldn’t destroy the gardens or the palace itself. I created those gardens for the Queen many years ago. They were…” he added, “an anniversary present, don’t you know. Some part of me remained human—enough to keep me from destroying everything, and enough to enable me to recognize that you, Nell, had come to set me free. Once you touched me with the cursed blade, the spell was broken. Of course, if you had plunged the knife into my heart, I would have been dead as well.”
Nell sighed. “I knew something was odd,” she said. “But I still tried to kill you—the dragon, I mean. It was really the Prince who saved you. If he hadn’t come at you with his sword, I would have stabbed you in the heart.”
“Perhaps,” said the King, with a gentle smile. “The point is that you broke the spell and saved both me and the kingdom, not to mention your companions. As for my son—he believes himself a hero, so we will let him think so—at least for a while.”
“One thing,” said Nell. “Why did the sorcerer put the spell on you in the first place? The Queen said that you had met a sorcerer years ago. Was it the same one?”
The King paused for a long time. Finally, he sighed. “I did a foolish thing, Nell. I was a young man, and I desired peace for my kingdom above all else. I didn’t realize at the time that even wishing for peace, as noble as it seemed at the time, was the vanity of a young man. Peace can only come with the help of others. Only sacrifice can lead to gain. As a young man, I promised the sorcerer that if I could reign in peace, one of my sons would go with him as his prentice.”
“Well, the years passed, and I only had one son, and not a very good one at that. The Prince tries, but he has much to learn. When the sorcerer came to take my son as his prentice, I refused. The sorcerer was angry, of course, and he cursed me and the kingdom. But you, Nell, have saved us all.”
Nell was content to let the King think so, but she felt that things had managed to just work out all right. They could have gone very differently in that valley.
Perhaps the wolf put it best. “Every hero needs his or her companions—just as the Queen said. Even the Prince had his part to play, but it was your hand that wield the cursed knife.”
Nell wasn’t sure if the words of the wolf were helpful or not, but she was content for the time being. After several days, during which the castle was as busy as a hive of bees, Nell went to the Queen. “I must return home to my father,” she said. “He’s probably wondering if I’m even alive.”
Nell thought the Queen would try to convince her to stay, but she smiled. “You have restored my son’s father to him, my husband to me, and the King to his people. Go and find your own father, Nell. But you are welcome in the palace at any time.”
The next morning, Nell and the wolf took the road. Norman didn’t come, but Nell could tell he wanted to. “You are needed here,” she said. “Stay, serve the King and Queen, and help rebuild the kingdom.”
Norman nodded, silently, and a single tear trickled down his cheek. Nell hugged him. “We will see one another again,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
Nell and the wolf said their goodbyes to the King, the Queen, and the Prince, and off they went. It was an uneventful journey, but the roads were crowded with people returning to the kingdom. The wolf slipped off the road whenever another group appeared on the road. Nell heard the story of the slaying of the dragon more than once from travellers. Some said the Prince had slain the dragon, and others told the story of a great warrior princess from the north, who had come to slay the monster and free the kingdom. And some said that the King, who had been transformed into a dragon, fought the sorcerer in the form of a great wolf, and when the dragon had slain the wolf, the spell had broken. Nell listened to all of the stories and smiled.
At last, Nell and the wolf came back to the edge of her own village. “Here I must leave you,” said the wolf. “No one will be happy to see a wolf in the village.”
“I suppose,” said Nell. “But you will come and visit?”
“Of course,” said the wolf, and the great beast licked Nell’s hand once, and bounded away into the forest.
“Here I am again,” said Nell to herself, looking at the empty road. She felt a little sad. But she set off again, passing by the village, and taking the path into the forest that would lead to her home.
It was dusk by the time she came to the cottage in the trees. And there, sitting on the steps as though he had never been anywhere else, sat her father, carving a tall walking stick from a branch of ewe wood.
When he saw Nell, he stood up, his face smiling in the twilight, and tears running down his weathered face. “You have come home, my daughter,” he said.
“I have, father,” said Nell, hugging him tightly. “I’ve been and seen the world. And, I think, it will make for a good story.”
“Then you must tell me all about it,” said her father. And they went inside the cottage, where the wood-carver put on the kettle for tea, and he sat in his armchair to hear the story of Nell’s adventures.