The echoes had died, and Nell was prepared to knock again, when suddenly she heard the sound of a great bar sliding back. With a rumble and a creek, one of the doors opened a crack.
“Go away!” cried a voice. “Can’t you see this place is under a curse?”
“Yes,” said Nell, “but we want to help.”
“No! No! Now, go away!”
But Nell wasn’t about to be put off. She wedged the toe of her heavy shoe into the crack of the door. “Now, listen,” she said, patiently. “We want to help. Open this door and let us inside.” She looked back down the stairs and waved her companions forward. The wolf leaped up the stairs, while Norman came tripping up behind.
The sound of complaint and protest came from behind the doors, but Nell ignored it. “Come on,” she said to Norman, “grab hold.”
The two of them seized the edge of the great door and heaved. As the door swung wide, there came a shriek from the darkness inside, and then the sound of running feet.
As Nell caught her balance, the wolf slipped past and into the darkness. A moment later, he had a figure pinned to the floor.
“We need some light,” said Nell, and Norman found a lamp and lit it with his flint and tinder. In the soft glow of the light, Nell saw the wolf, one paw holding a figure on the floor.
“Your Highness,” gasped Norman.
Nell peered down at what must be the prince. He was a mess. His face and hair were grimed with soot, his clothes spattered with grease and food stains.
“Let me up this instant!” cried the prince, writhing beneath the paw of the wolf.
“Let him up,” said Nell, and the wolf released him.
The prince sat up at once. He glared around at them. “Peasants!…and a dog,” he spluttered, contemptuously.
The wolf bristled.
“What do you think you are doing?” asked the Prince. “I should have your heads cut off and mounted outside the palace walls.”
Nell looked at him, levelly. He was hardly more than a boy. “Indeed,” she said. “And just who would cut off our heads? Not you, surely?”
The prince scrambled to his feet. Even in the soft light of the lamp, Nell could see his face reddening with fury. “When I find my guard,” he said, “I will have them cut off your heads in the courtyard. No, better yet, I’ll have you drawn and quartered first. Then I’ll have your heads cut off.”
The wolf gave a long, low growl, which caused the prince’s eyes to nearly pop out of his head. But Nell had had enough.
“You are not going to have anyone beheaded,” she said. “You are going to help us deal with the dragon and restore your kingdom.”
“I…” cried the prince. “I had nothing to do with it. It was my father, the King, who befriended the wicked old sorcerer, and who brought the dragon upon the kingdom. He’s the one who should deal with the dragon. Go talk to him…or go talk to my mother.”
Nell looked at the prince for a long time. “You,” she said, slowly, “are a disgrace. You do not deserve the name of Prince. You are a selfish brat.”
She turned to her companions. “Let’s begin a search for the Queen,” she said. “I’m sure we will get better sense and more help from her.”
Norman, who had been in the palace before, led the way. “We will first check the royal bower,” he said. And the three companions set off into the darkness, leaving the Prince to shriek curses after them.
But the Queen was not in the royal bower. They knocked and knocked, the sound echoing down the empty halls.
“Any ideas?” asked Nell.
Norman looked uncertain. “We could look in the gardens,” he said, “or maybe the library.”
“You will find her in my father’s private library,” said a voice from farther down the passage.
Nell looked. It was the Prince, who had followed them up from the main hall. His dislike of them wandering around his palace had clearly overcome his desire not to do anything. He had found a cloak and sword. He looked more prince-like, but no less friendly.
“I will take you to my mother. She will want to see you.” And he stalked away down the passage.
The three companions looked at one another, then followed the Prince. As bad tempered and ill-mannered as he was, the Prince knew the castle better than they. So off they went, following the Prince, who marched sullenly in front.
Down corridors and upstairs they went. Until, at last, the Prince pointed to a door at the top of some stairs. “There,” he said. “Mother has been looking through books of my father’s. Much good it will do her,” he grumbled.
Nell reached for the handle of the door, and they crowded inside.
There, sitting at a long table, was a woman in a comfortable tunic and breeches. She wore high leather boots, and her hair was tied back in a loose bun. She was studying a book that lay before her on the table, looking up as the companions entered. “Well,” she said. “Help at last.”
“Your Highness,” cried Norman, and he threw himself onto one knee. Nell was about to kneel as well.
“Now, now,” said the Queen. “None of that. We have a dragon to vanquish, and a kingdom to save.”
Nell introduced herself and her companions. “We want to help…if we can,” she concluded. Nell found herself liking the Queen much more than the Prince.
“You can indeed,” said the Queen. She looked at them thoughtfully. “My husband, the King, was spirited away one year ago by an evil sorcerer. Since that day, a dragon has been ravaging the kingdom. I have looked through all of my husband’s books, and it seems such a monster can only be killed using a cursed blade—this blade, in fact.”
From the table, the Queen picked up a long knife. It was blackened and battered, and it had an ugly look.
Nell peered at the knife uneasily. “That knife will kill the dragon?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the Queen, gravely.
“That will be my task!” cried Norman. “Give me the knife, your Highness, and I will slay this monster.”
Nell looked at the wolf. He rolled his eyes.
“Bravely spoken, good Norman,” said the Queen. “But I’m afraid the task of piercing the dragon’s heart falls to my son.”
“What!” shrieked the Prince. “I’m not going to stab any dragon, let alone go near the thing. Let the peasant do it. He seems keen enough.”
“My son,” said the Queen, even more gravely. “You are the Prince, and this task is for you. But you will not be alone. You have these brave companions to help you.”
“They’re commoners!” scoffed the Prince. “How can they help? And anyway, I don’t want to do it.”
“But you must.” The Queen’s voice had taken on a steely note. “And, my son, even the greatest of heroes—prince or princess, milkmaid or stable boy—always has help from brave companions.”
Nell was getting a bad feeling about all of this. It wasn’t just that they had to kill a dragon, or that this brat of a prince didn’t seem up to the job. Something else was bothering her. If the dragon had been marauding for a year, why hadn’t it burned the castle to the ground by now?—especially considering the monster had been to the castle often enough to despoil the grounds. But Nell didn’t have the chance to think it through, for the Prince was throwing a royal tantrum.
“I won’t! I won’t!” He was actually stamping his foot. “Kill the dragon yourselves, but leave me out of it.” And with that, the Prince turned and raced out of the room.
As she listened to the Prince clattering down the stairs, Nell knew with a sinking heart that saving the kingdom was going to be more complicated than she had first thought.