Nell walked until the sun was up, when suddenly she came upon an animal by the side of the road. It was a great, grey wolf, and it was injured. It stared at her out of great, yellow eyes, and it said in a gravelly voice,
“Come close, my dear, and I will eat you up.”
Nell stepped up to the wolf unconcernedly. “I don’t believe you will eat me up,” she said. “You are injured. You are in no shape to eat anyone up.”
The wolf gave a sigh and a wine. “Please help me, young maiden,” he whimpered. “If you don’t, the woodsman will surely come and cut off my head.”
Nell knelt down and peered at the wolf. He had a deep gash along his back leg, but Nell could tell he was mostly weak from lack of food and water. She gave him something to drink, and then she gave him something to eat, and then she tended his wound. The water and food revived the wolf. He sat up and looked at Nell.
“And what,” he said, “is a young maiden doing walking the high-road alone.”
“I am seeking adventure and seeing the world,” said Nell.
“Then you will need a companion and a protector,” said the wolf.
Nell thought for a moment. “A companion might be good,” she said, looking hard at the wolf.
He bowed his head. “Then I will be your companion.”
So the two of them carried on down the high-road. They walked and they walked, sometimes stopping to rest. The wolf told Nell all about his life in the forest, of how people were afraid of him, of how the hunters and woodsmen of the forest always tried to kill him.
“Perhaps if you didn’t threaten to eat people, they might leave you alone,” said Nell, reasonably. “You don’t have to act like the wolf of the stories, you know.”
The wolf thought about that. “It isn’t easy,” he said. “People are afraid of me no matter what I do. It’s just simpler most of the time to be the wolf they expect.”
Nell wasn’t convinced.
They walked on until they came to a kingdom without a king. It was a wide land of pastures and clumps of woodland, but all seemed abandoned. The wolf told Nell the story of the place. “Once upon a time,” he said, “this was a great kingdom. People came from far and wide to visit the court. The Floating Gardens of the palace were one of the wonders of the northern world, and the king’s library held more books than any for a thousand miles.”
“It sounds lovely,” said Nell.
“Indeed,” said the wolf. “But the king was a strange king. He had a way of letting the people govern themselves. The people appointed mayors to govern the towns, and reeves to help govern the boroughs. Every borough sent a representative to the king’s council. Very odd,” finished the wolf.
“Why odd,” asked Nell.
The wolf looked at her. “You don’t know much about kings, do you.”
Nell ignored the remark. “What’s happening there now?”
“Well,” said the wolf. “The king vanished. Some say he died, and some say he was put under a curse by an evil magician. The prince has taken over, but he’s not much of a prince. Too afraid to do anything. He doesn’t trust the people, so he mostly hides in the palace and keeps everyone away. The gardens and the library are closed, and the queen grieves for her husband. The king’s council no longer meets, and the soldiers run amuck. And worst of all, a dragon has taken to pillaging the kingdom.”
“Well,” said Nell, “perhaps we should pay a visit.”
The wolf bowed his head. “As you wish. I will do my best to protect you and guide you.” They walked on.
The sun was high as they came to the borders of the kingdom. The road ran up to a gate, behind which was a fortress. It looked deserted in the afternoon light. The gates hung, burned and twisted, and no guards paced the wall.
“It doesn’t look good,” commented Nell, as they approached the gate. The wolf said nothing. The fortress rose high on either side of the gate, and the road that ran between was lost in shadow.
They were making their way past the broken gates and into the gloom of the road when a shadow split itself away from the wall and ran. With a bound the wolf was after the shadow, and with a crash and a cry, the wolf had something pinned to the ground. Nell hurried up. It writhed and squealed and squeaked.
“le-me go! Le-me Go! I ain’t done nothin!”