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Melissa Mead is a packrat who lives in Upstate NY. She hasn't been in High School or college for an unsettlingly long time. Here's a link to her web page: carpelibris Story comments: I found the original version of this story in the attic a while back. I think I wrote it High School, possibly college. It was full of truly dreadful faux-medieval dialogue. But the heart of it seemed sound, so I gave it another look. I like this version MUCH better.

The young woman left the tiny cottage on foot, her eyes on the hills ahead, her face set. Behind her, the old couple who had raised her cried and begged her not to go.
She didn't look back.
She strode past the stone where deformed and defective babies were left to die.
She passed through the village, not responding to anyone who greeted her.
Past the farthest fields she went, into the barren hills, where the Mandrake laired.
She didn't know what the Mandrake looked like, whether it was animal or human or some monstrous combination of both. No one did. All anyone knew was that to hear its cry meant instant death. And that the King had promised any wish within his royal power and a sack of gold to anyone who could slay the deadly creature.
The young woman prayed that it didn't look human.
The sun sank lower. The young woman began to shiver, and told herself that it was only from the cold. Not because she was out here alone, in the Mandrake's hills at the shifting shadows of twilight, armed only with a knife meant for butchering hogs.
She thought of the old couple in the tiny cottage, and the holes in the cottage roof, and the empty cupboards, and the bag of gold. And the wish. She brushed her coppery hair back from her face with a hand that hardly shook at all, and waited.
And waited.
And the Mandrake came.
It came on two legs at first, like a man, and the young woman hesitated. She saw its bony chest expand, its mouth open in a killing wail.
The young woman still stood, the knife still raised. When she didn't fall, the creature stared like a senseless beast, then rushed forward to devour her, all teeth and claws and hair. The knife struck first.
The young woman watched the Mandrake bleed its life out, howling. She didn't hear the howls, any more than she'd heard her foster-parents' pleading when she'd left in search of the monster, or their lullabies when she was a child.
When the thing was dead she cut off the head and put it in a sack, and walked home as quickly as she could by moonlight. The old couple hugged her, heedless of the bloody sack. Together, they walked to the palace.
The guards tried to turn them away. The king was at a Royal Banquet with his ministers, they said.
So much the better, the old man replied in response to his daughter's hand signs. When the guards raised their spears, she showed them the contents of the bag.
The Captain himself led them down candlelit marble corridors to a dining hall rich with bright tapestries and the scents of meat and fine wine. The king leapt up from his high seat, his face turning as red as his hair from shouting. The young woman would have known him by that alone. No one else in the kingdom had hair like that. Except her.
She marched up to him and dumped her gristly trophy on the white marble floor. His mouth closed. His face went pale.
The young woman's foster-mother came to her side and translated her hand signs and indistinct speech.
"Your Majesty, I bring you the head of the Mandrake."
He tried to argue, but the head was so obviously inhuman, and the young woman with the still-bloody knife in her hand had so obviously fulfilled her end of the bargain, that he would have disgraced himself before his ministers had he tried to do anything but fulfill his.
"Fine! You. Bring the girl a sack of gold."
"And the promise, Your Majesty," said the young woman. "Any one wish within your power."
He went gray. Even her stepmother, who could hear perfectly, leaned forward to hear him when he whispered. "What is your wish?"
She spoke the wish in her own voice, for them all to hear, enunciating as clearly as she could.
"The stone. The stone where babies are left to die. I was left there."
The king's legs gave out from under him. He dropped into his gilded chair.
"Never again. Break the stone."
"Break... the stone?"
She thought he hadn't understood her. "Yes, Majesty. Break it."
"That... that is all of your wish?"
"And the gold."
"Of course! Of course!" The blood rushed back into his face. "Bring this young heroine the largest bag of gold in the treasury. Smash that wretched stone. Now. By torchlight. I don't care if it's dark. And let all bear witness that our bargain is complete."
When they were all safely back in the cottage, marveling at the glow of gold in the firelight, the old man chuckled. His daughter tipped her head to one side, questioning.
"Didn't you wonder why the King himself looked more afraid of you than of the Mandrake?" he signed back. "He knew who you were, with that odd hair. Likely he thought you'd wish for his death, seeing how he left you to die."
She signed her strongest negation, dismayed that anyone could believe her capable of such a thing.
"Don't look so shocked. Kings think like that. He knew you were his daughter."
She signed the emphatic NO again, pointing to both of them. Father. Mother.
"That we are," said the old woman, smiling. "Now go get out of those bloody clothes, young lady!"
And the Slayer of the Mandrake smiled at her mother, and went to her room.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 19th, 2017

Author Comments

I found the original version of this story in the attic a while back. I think I wrote it High School, possibly college. It was full of truly dreadful faux-medieval dialogue. But the heart of it seemed sound, so I gave it another look. I like this version MUCH better.

- Melissa Mead
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