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.