The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 7, the Last Chapter

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.

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 6

Nell stood at the head of a valley with her companions. After discussing dragon slaying strategies with the Queen, she and the others had taken a short rest, eaten some food, and then got ready to meet the dragon.
The Queen looked grave as she bid them farewell. “I am sorry about my son,” she said. “I do not ask you to do this,“ she added, looking at Nell.
“But if your son isn’t willing,” said Nell, “then someone must try and stop the dragon.”
The Queen nodded. “I have misgivings sending you and your companions to fight such a monster.”
Nell had misgivings of her own, but she found most of them hard to put into words. “Who is the sorcerer who put the spell on the King? And where is the King?”
“Perhaps the sorcerer is holding my husband captive, but I fear he is no longer alive. As for the sorcerer himself, I’m not sure. My husband told me a story, long ago. He said that he met someone on his travels whom he thought was a sorcerer or a wizard, but he would never talk about it.”
And that was all Nell learned. And now, she stood at the top of a valley, looking down into a haze of smoke and steam, carrying a cursed knife, and getting ready to fight a dragon with two companions—a wolf and a boy.
“The dragon lies below,” said the wolf.
Norman simply stared, his eyes round. He was clutching a spear, and he was now dressed in a helmet and chain male coat, which Nell knew would do nothing at all against the dragon.
“Well,” said Nell. “Let’s go.” And the companions began the long walk into the valley.
As they moved deeper between the hills, the air became thicker, and breathing was difficult. Clouds of smoke and steam drifted past the companions, and Nell wondered how long they could endure this terrible place. The grass and trees were blackened and burned. The ground was churned and broken by the passing of the monster, and here and there were the blackened ruins of what once must have been huts and farm houses.
The air was heavy—no sound of bird, and no breath of wind. Nell felt the ground rising before her feet. As she and her companions came to the top of the rise, before them, emerging out of the smokes and steams, lying half on its side, with its great head and forelegs facing them, was the dragon.
Even though the monster was lying in a hollow, its head was on a level with the companions. Its body, with its dark, roughened hide, long as a ship, was stretched out behind, its spike tail disappearing into the reek.
At first, all Nell could notice was the eyes—great, yellow eyes with the vertical pupils of a cat. The eyes looked directly at her, and Nell looked back, mesmerized.
She wasn’t sure what she saw in those eyes—something bestial, but something else, submerged beneath the rage and the animal violence. Was it pain—perhaps? Or maybe it was a need or a desire beyond anything she understood.
Nell tore her eyes from those of the dragon, and then she could see that the creature’s left hind leg was stretched out at an odd angle. It looked hurt—possibly broken. Nell felt a sudden surge of compassion for this beast. For it was a beast, and it was acting according to its nature, regardless of what that was. The Queen had said that she must plunge the cursed knife into the heart of the monster in order to kill it, but Nell wondered if such a thing was even possible.
Holding the eyes of the dragon once again, Nell began to walk slowly down the far side of the rise.
“Be careful, Nell!” cried Norman. “It will probably eat you!” He and the wolf followed close behind Nell, although there was little either of them could do to protect Nell or themselves.
The monster watched Nell’s approach, lowering its head as she did so, until its long, horned head and jaw lay flat to the ground between its clawed feet.
Nell did not take her eyes from those of the dragon, and she still held the cursed knife in her left hand. She slowly reached out her right and touched the dragon. Its grey-black hide was hard as stone and hot to the touch. It reminded Nell of the outside wall of the baker’s house back in her village.
Nell was beside the head of the monster now, and she held its eye. She thought she saw something else in that eye—a pleading?
Nell looked down to the great foreleg that reached forward, leaving an angle where the hide of the monster looked less like roughened stone. If she plunged the knife right there, she just might strike the creature’s heart. Nell clutched the knife, and took a breath.
At that moment, the wolf gave a howl and Norman a cry. Nell couldn’t see anything beyond the body of the monster, but she guessed well enough. She heard a high-pitched, squeaky cry. The Prince had decided to join them.
The monster reared up, and Nell caught a glimpse of the Prince, lunging in and stabbing at the dragon with a sword that was far too big for him—the idiot.
No time now to try and reach the monster’s heart. Nell stabbed wildly with the cursed knife, catching the beast barely a glancing blow on its iron flank. But the shock of the stab ran up Nell’s arm, numbing it to the shoulder and causing her to gasp with pain, while the dragon gave a screeching bellow that sounded like mountains being torn asunder.
Nell staggered as the monster writhed and flailed. She felt herself caught, then dragged away as the air filled with choking smoke and steam. And as the world spun and churned around her, Nell had one thought: her father would have liked to hear this story.

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 5

Fairy Tales,Original

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.

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 4

The thing on the ground was making such a fuss that it took a moment before Nell could understand what she saw. “Come on,” said Nell. “Bring him out into the light.”
The wolf picked up the unfortunate squeaker like a sack. He trotted forward to where the road ran out from the shadow of the fortress, and dropped his burden in a heap.
Nell peered down. Lying before the feet of the wolf was a dishevelled young man—hardly more than a boy. “Now stop your noise,” said Nell, sternly. “Who are you, and what has happened here?”
The boy gave a sniff, and he looked up at Nell. “It’s the dragon, Miss. It comes a marauding every night. T’is said no man can stand against it. It burns and destroys where ever it goes. It eats the people’s cattle and sheep, and it carries off the young folk to its layer. I always thought dragons was particular about maidens, but this one don’t care. Carries off all the young folk it can find. It almost got me the other night.”
Nell thought it was time to interrupt the boy’s story. “What is your name?” she asked kindly.
“It’s Norman, Miss. I’m the smith’s boy,” said Norman, with a sniff. He looked a scance at the wolf. “Is he going to eat me, then?”
Nell laughed. “No,” she said. “This wolf is my friend. He won’t hurt you.”
“Now, what about the prince?” asked Nell, more brusquely? “Is he not doing anything about this monster?”
Norman looked at her out of round eyes. “The prince?” he said, his voice rising again to a squeak. “The prince is mad—or perhaps just terrified, Miss. They say he has closed the palace up to any and all of his people. He is afraid the dragon will come and take his Royal Highness, so he has locked himself away. He won’t let anyone near—not even his Royal Mother.”
Nell looked thoughtful. She glanced at the wolf. “Perhaps we should pay a visit to the prince,” she said.
“He won’t let you near,” warned Norman. “He’s mad, like I say.”
“Be that as it may,” said Nell. “We are going to go and ask him what he intends to do about this dragon. Having a dragon rampaging over the land simply won’t do.”
Norman sprang to his feet. “Then I will come with you, Miss!” he cried. He held up two weedy arms. “I may be just a smith’s boy, but I’m strong, Miss. If you intend to do something about this terrible dragon, then I want to help.”
Nell looked at him sceptically, and then at the wolf. The wolf looked back impassively.
“I can at least show you the way,” said Norman, hopefully.
Nell didn’t bother pointing out that the road would probably lead right to the palace. “Very well,” she said. “You may join us.”
“I am at your service,” said Norman, bowing low.
“You need not be at my service,” said Nell. “But you are free to accompany my companion and me for as long as you like.”
And with that, the three of them turned and began walking down the road, Norman chattering away about the kingdom, the dragon, and a very special milk-maid he had a fancy for back home.
The way was long, and not until nearly sunset did the companions arrive at the palace. But arrive they did, and it was a sight to behold.
The dragon’s marauding feet had crushed and trampled the grass and gardens all around the palace, but, oddly enough, nothing seemed burned or destroyed. The famous floating gardens were hidden by a mist over the lake, and the palace itself was shrouded by a roiling fog. The light was fading, and the air was damp. Nell shuddered in her heavy travelling cloak. The wolf’s eyes seemed to glow in the strange light, and Norman’s teeth rattled in his head.
“H-h-here w-w-w-we are,” stuttered Norman, from cold or fear Nell wasn’t sure.
Nell peered through the fog to where she could just see the outline of a broad set of marble steps leading up to the palace doors.
“Any suggestions?” asked Nell.
“I suggest you knock,” said the wolf. “This place seems under an enchantment, but I see no harm in trying.”
Nell nodded, and she walked across to the broad steps, peering up at the great palace doors. They looked uninviting. But with a quick breath of resolve, Nell mounted the steps, and spotting a knocker in the shape of a dragon’s head, she knocked three times, the sound booming and echoing weirdly in the foggy air.

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, chapter 3

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!”

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 2

Nell walked until she came to the village. It looked peaceful in the grey light of morning. She said a goodbye in her heart, she gripped her stick, and she took the highroad.
Nell walked and walked all that day, seeing nothing unusual and encountering only one or two other travelers. At sunset, Nell stopped for the night, making herself a camp beneath the trees. She eventually wrapped herself in her cloak and blanket and fell asleep, listening to the whisper of leaves in the darkness.
Nell woke all of a sudden. She opened her eyes to the glare of torches. There was a hand before her face. It wasn’t very clean—the nails were especially dirty—and it was holding a long knife.
“What do we have here?” said a growling voice, as Nell sat up.
She looked around to see a group of men, all bandits, most certainly, and all leering and grinning nasty grins. They were dressed in heavy leather jerkins and breeches and boots. Some carried knives and some carried short clubs.
“You are going to come with us, my pretty,” said the one who had held the knife to Nell’s face. “And if you behave yourself, we won’t kill you right away.”
Nell stood up and looked at the bandits. The one who had held the knife to her face seemed to be the leader. “Let me gather my things,” she said.
The bandits looked at one another. Weren’t girls supposed to scream and cry and carry on? The bandit leader made a horrible face. “Now you’re going to come with us, and you’re not going to make a sound. Understand, girly?”
Nell nodded. “You may want to put that knife away. You may cut yourself.” Nell was aware of how dangerous knives could be.
The bandit leader glared at her. “Just you keep quiet,” he said, snarling. “Keep your tongue in your head or I might decide to cut it out.”
Nell smiled and nodded once again. The bandits looked again at one another, and this time they grinned.
The bandit leader led the way through the trees until they came to the bandit hideout. They had clearly been out all night, for they started grumbling about supper and who was going to make it.
“Your turn,” said one of the bandits, shoving the shoulder of his companion.
“No!” cried another. “Not his turn. He’ll poison us all!”
“I’ll make you supper,” said Nell. And the bandits looked at their leader hopefully.
The leader turned to Nell before the door of the bandit hideout. “Now,” he said, with a snarl. “Just you make us something tasty. If you don’t, we may have you for supper!”
The others laughed, trying to sound as banditish and dangerous as possible, but it wasn’t very convincing because they were now only thinking of their supper
Nell set to work. She told the bandits to sit at the table and wait quietly. She frowned at the state of the stove, but soon she had a great pot of stir-about bubbling and steaming. Opening a small pouch at her belt, Nell took a large pinch of herbs from a cloth. Nell knew all about herbs. She added it to the stir-about.
Soon she was doling out the stir-about into bowls, while the bandits waited obediently for their supper. They ate greedily, shoveling in the food and not saying a word, while Nell filled their tankards and bowls. It wasn’t long before they were yawning and nodding where they sat, and one by one, they put their shaggy heads onto their arms and fell fast asleep.
Nell sighed, looking at the lot of them around the table. She quickly got her things together. She thought of leaving them a note, but she doubted if any of them could read. She left the cave, and walked briskly through the forest, as the sky began paling towards dawn.