Timothy lived in a cottage high on a mountain with his aunt Lucretia. Lucretia was a wizard s daughter and made potions and magic spells for the villagers below. One morning she said to Timothy, "I want you to gather some of the yellowroot that grows up by the stream. It's for a potion I'm making, so don't dawdle along the way."
"I won't," said Timothy.
Lucretia sighed. Timothy always meant to do the things she asked, but he was as curious as a puppy and he often forgot. Then there would be no wood for the fire or butter for the bread.
"You'd better not," she said, "or I might turn myself into a crow and snip off your nose."
Timothy grinned. Aunt Lucretia was teasing, but he knew that she really could change herself into a crow or a frog or whatever else she wished.
"I won't dawdle," he promised again and set off up the slope, whistling.
But instead of going straight to the stream, he remembered a nest of robin eggs he wanted to look at. Then he followed a bee until he lost track of it in a bush. When at last he came to the stream, he was surprised to see an old woman wading across it barefoot. She wore a long, ragged skirt of red velvet, and her snow-white hair fell in braids over her shoulders. She looked almost like Aunt Lucretia, except that Lucretia had hair the color of beech leaves in autumn.
Timothy scrambled down the bank and helped the old woman up.
"Thank you, sonny," she said in a creaking voice as she sat down on a large rock.
Timothy stared at her curiously. "Excuse me," he said, "but where have you come from? And why were you wading across the stream?"
"Well, sonny," said the woman, flapping her skirt to dry it, "that is a long and interesting story. If you have the time, sit down, and I'll tell you about it."
Timothy quickly sat down on a rock.
When I was a young girl (said the woman, looking at Timothy), I had a pet dragon. My father was a great king and could afford to buy me anything I wished. It was a very small dragon and probably would have made a very nice pet. But I was rather a nasty child, and when found out that my dragon hated to be teased, I spent all my time thinking of new ways to torment it.
"Supper's ready, Dragon, dear," I would call, and then put out a dish full of mud. I hid its rubber ball in a bucket of tar and one night I tied pillows on its back and made it look like a camel. The next morning my dragon had disappeared.
I pretended not to care, but I remembered a great golden tear the last time it had looked at me.
"Poor little dragon!" I cried. "I'm going to find you and I'll never mistreat you again!" And I set out to look for it.
Nobody I met on the road had seen a lost dragon, but after many miles I heard strange snuffling noises coming from behind a hedge. Eagerly, I ran to look and was surprised to see--not my dragon--but an old man sitting by a fire and crying into a large red handkerchief.
"Oh, you poor man," I said. "Why are you crying?"
The old man looked up and blew his nose. "That," he said, "is a long and interesting story. If you have the time, sit down, and I will tell you about it."
So I sat by the fire next to him, and he began.
Many years ago, I was a soldier in the King's Guard (he said). I was young and eager for adventure, but guarding the king was about as exciting as oatmeal. He was never in any danger. Just when I was beginning to wonder if I would ever draw my sword, word came from a nearby village that a terrible monster was making mincemeat of the population. Seeing my chance for adventure, I rode to the village and followed the trail of burned cottages and uprooted trees to the mouth of a large, dark cave. I tied my handkerchief over my horse's eyes and drew my sword.
"Monster," I cried, "come forth and fight!" With a roar like an exploding cannon, it leaped out of the cave. My horse threw me to the ground and ran for his life.
I remained where I was, for I did not have the strength to rise. The monster towered over me. Its nine heads--three dragon, three lion, and three snake--breathed fire. Its tail rattled with glistening spines as long as spears.
"Monster," I cried, "can you explain your wicked deeds?"
The nine heads glared at me. Then the middle one--a lion--roared, "That is a long and interesting story. If you have the time, sit down, and I will tell you about it."
"I am sitting down," I said. "Go on with your story."
Very well (said the monster, settling itself on its fifty haunches). Long ago, I was human, the only daughter of a poor, widowed stonecutter. My father and I had little, but we loved each other dearly. One day a rich merchant asked my father to cut the stones for a house he was building. The man liked my father's work so much that when he died, he left my father his house and all the treasures in it.
My father and I were overjoyed, but our good fortune soon turned bad. The merchant had a sister who was an evil witch. When she heard that she had got no share of her brother's treasures, she stormed down from her cottage in the mountains and burst into our new house.
"A curse on you, stonecutter," she cried. "My brother was a fool, but you shall be a bigger one!" She waved her hands with a noise like thunder.
Suddenly my father forgot everything that had happened. He became frightened at finding himself in the merchant's house drinking from gold cups, and he insisted that we put on our ragged clothes and go back to our shabby little hut.
"No, Father, it's a trick," I cried, clinging to his hand.
"Get out, girl," the witch snarled, pointing her bony finger at me. "If I ever see you again, you will bring a more terrible curse upon yourself!"
Three weeks later, my poor father died, penniless. I went back to the merchant's house, but the witch had left it as bare as an eggshell.
Furiously, I set off for the witch's cottage. But the path I was following began to behave strangely. It kept leading me to the edges of cliffs, or into tangles of thom bushes. Finally I became completely lost. I wandered for days, nearly dead with hunger and thirst.
At last I came upon a little stone cottage and collapsed on the doorstep. A short, chubby man with a curly beard carne out to see what the trouble was.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I whispered, trying to sit up. "Please, who lives here?"
The little man looked at me with eyes like shiny black buttons.
"That is a long and interesting story," he said, "but it's none of your business. And will you please tell me why you're sitting there instead of picking yellowroot for your aunt as you were asked to do?"
Yellowroot! Timothy nearly fell off his rock. The chubby man, the daughter, the monster, the soldier, and the princess disappeared like smoke.
"Aunt Lucretia!" he cried. For the white-haired old lady had turned into his autumn-haired young aunt.
"Yes, it's me," she laughed. "I believe you would have sat listening to that story for the rest of the week! Do try not to dawdle so much, won't you?"
And Timothy did try."
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