Gnarl grunted as the bottom of Nod’s boot hit him in the back.
“Get up, Gnarl. Get up!” Nod said.
“Hey now! Not fair! What’s the matter with you?” Gnarl turned a bleary eye toward Nod, who stood overtop Gnarl’s aching body.
Nod squinted into the sun, absently scratching his head. “Get up. We’re going.”
“I don’t know what you’re on about, Nod, but I ain’t going nowhere.”
“Exactly. Now get your gear.”
Gnarl sighed. “Where to then.”
“It’s Poolie. She’s been taken by the Queen of the Fairies, and we’re gonna get her back.”
Gnarl spluttered and coughed. “Nod, there ain’t no Queen o’ the fecking Fairies ‘cause there ain’t no fairies a’tall. How many times I got to tell you that? Now let me be.” Gnarl snuggled back down into his tattered blanket. He wasn’t getting up, not for any stinking kid who went and got herself lost, probably on a purpose.
“All right, then. I’m going without you. See you later, you old goat. There’s gold at the end of this quest, and I’m for it.” Nod turned away, as though he actually did mean to set off by himself.
Gnarl sat up like a young oak. It wasn’t so much the gold, Gnarl said to himself, as it was that a young girl needed saving. If you couldn’t count on old Gnarl to get you out of a fix, why then, who could you? Nod? Gnarl coughed. Surely not.
“You come back here and let me get my pack. You ain’t goin’ nowhere without me and you know it.”
Gnarl grabbed the old leather bag that held all of his belongings, and a mug half-full of last night’s ale, before he thought to ask Nod how he’d heard about this profitable quest.
“Well, it were Lord Fadlil told us at the pub last night. You’d have known it yourself but you was all passed out under the wagon beyond.”
Gnarl coughed. “I weren’t passed out! Had a rough day, is all.”
“Right,” Nod said. “But he came and he said that any as could get his Poolie back from the Queen o’ Fairy would get ten thousand pieces of gold for their trouble. I ain’t turning my back on that.”
Nod is a simpleton, Gnarl thought to himself as he strapped his pack on his back. “And how does the good Lord figure Poolie got took by the fairies?”
Nod scratched his head and Gnarl shuddered at the thought of Nod’s lice coming along with them. Gnarl’d had them once, nasty little buggers, and had kept his head shaved ever since.
“He said they’d found an egg on her pillow in the morning instead of herself.”
Gnarl burst out laughing. “An egg!”
Nod’s face turned a dark shade of purple. “You can get on, Gnarl, and I’ll keep the gold, seeing as how you think it’s so funny that little Poolie is adducted.”
That did it. Gnarl choked on his laughter, spilled his ale on his trousers and swatted Nod so firmly on his back that Nod staggered five paces down the road and almost toppled into the hedgerow.
“That’s a good one!” Gnarl paused until his coughing subsided. “I’m going, boy, ‘cause the minute you see a fairy you’ll fall right over with fear of it and be no use to no one.”
“And where do you suppose we’ll find the Queen o’ Fairy?” Gnarl asked Nod after they had travelled for roughly an hour.
“I figure we’ll walk until we see sign. You got any better ideas?”
Gnarl pondered a moment. Sure, he’d heard stories about the Folk, but he was not one of those to be spelled by a tale of something no one could prove existed. Still, he’d listened a time or two as some of the old men, gone into their cups, had spoken of nights spent underground, nights that turned into years passed by morning.
“I reckon they live in hills,” he said at last, somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of waking up to a hundred years gone and himself grey and withered. But, there was gold at the end of it and he was always game for some o’ that.
Gnarl had put up with Nod for nearly five years now. He’d inherited the kid from a cousin, or maybe an uncle, who’d had one too many mouths to feed. Gnarl had never wanted a partner, but if he’d had to choose, it certainly wouldn’t have been Nod.
Nod was a great hulking boy with nary a skill to his name, but Gnarl had come into some gold at the time, along with a friendly barmaid who’d filled him so full of warm, brown ale that he’d been feeling unnaturally sympathetic. He’d taken Nod under his wing, so to speak, and taught him how to wield a dagger. Since then they’d been on more adventures than Gnarl could remember. He fervently hoped this one wouldn’t turn out like the last. It had been Nod’s idea, of course. Now that Gnarl thought about it, most of the wrong ones were. They had chased a sheep all over creation for no more than two ha’pennies.
“Look yonder!” Gnarl’s reverie was broken by Nod’s excited shout. Nod was gazing into the distance, eyes squinted against a setting sun, at a dark protrusion jutting up from the flat land. “It’s a hill!”
“Ye daft git, that’s a cow, but that,” Gnarl said as he pointed ahead and off the left a little, “is a pub.”
“You’re not wrong there,” Nod said.
It was a homely pub, one square room with an open fire and soot-blackened walls, a few battered chairs and tables spread about, and air that smelled pleasantly of pipe smoke.
“G’evening,” Gnarl said to the man wiping down the tables with a clean if slightly worn cloth. “My friend Nod and I sure could do with a drink.”
“And you are?” the man said, raising an eyebrow.
“Pardon me manners. The name’s Gnarl. We’re on a mission from Lord Fadlil, we are.”
“Mr. Brough,” the man said as he poured two mugs full of frothy ale. “Fadlil, you say? We don’t have any business with lords here.”
“Oh no,” Nod said as he tipped a mug to his mouth, “the lord don’t know we’re here. He’s put up a reward as for him that can rescue his daughter from the Queen o’ the Fairies, and we’re off to do the job.”
Gnarl elbowed Nod in the ribs. “Er, what he means to say is…”
Mr. Brough cut him off. “Fairies, you say? You sure about that? Why just last week our Billy had a go at one of them, but seeing as Billy is one of them…but you two? I wouldn’t chance it if I was you.”
Gnarl hid his grin behind the mug of ale as he drank it down to the dregs. An idea had sprung to life in that bald head of his. “Thank you kindly for the ale, Mr. Brough. Me and Nod’ll be going now.”
“What?” Nod said as Gnarl grabbed him by the coat and dragged him out the door.
“I’ll tell you what. Didn’t you hear him? There’s a fairy what lives in that village yonder. If we capture this Billy, he can take us to his queen!” Gnarl would have hopped up and down with excitement, if he was the type for it.
Nod squinted his eyes and scratched his head. “I like it. But how are we gonna catch a fairy?” he said.
“Don’t know yet. First, we have to find it. Let’s see what’s what in the village, but not be seen, if you get me,” Gnarl said.
A dirt road wide enough for one wagon ran past the pub and on into the village, but between it and Mr. Brough’s pub there wasn’t much in the way of places to hide except behind a long hedgerow. Gnarl and Nod were fair scratched up by the time they reached the back of the smithy; from there they crept along to the first of the village houses, where they hunkered down behind a stone fence.
“Can’t see nothing from here,” Nod said as he craned his neck and peeked over the top.
“Guess you’re right,” Gnarl said. “Look here, we’ll sneak through that garden yonder, between this house and the next, get a good view of the village center from behind them roses.”
They shuffled along in a crouch until they reached the garden gate, which opened onto a narrow path that led to the front of the garden. There, red and yellow roses grew against a low stone wall. They followed the narrow path through a patch of gooseberries, when without warning Gnarl tripped over something and fell flat on his face. Before he had time to get his bearings, something whacked him on the back of his head, and a little voice said, “Ha! Got you.”
In a flash his hands and feet had been tied up. Gnarl peered out of one blurry eye and saw Nod in the same fix.
“Quick, drag them back here before Mrs. Bower sees us!” the voice said.
Several small hands grabbed at Gnarl’s feet and pulled him unceremoniously through the gooseberries and out through the garden gate, where with the help of a brawny young lad, they toppled him into a wheelbarrow. As his vision cleared, he saw Nod, standing upright just beside him, with one young girl holding onto his ropes and another one pressing a wooden spoon into his stomach.
Gnarl blinked to clear his vision. The girl with the spoon had the whitest hair he’d ever seen, and eyes the color of sunshine. In her other hand, she was holding a copper pot. She glowered at him and waved that pot in his face. “What, you never saw a fairy before?”
“You’re the fairy?” Gnarl said in disbelief. “But I thought…oh, never mind. We didn’t mean any harm, young miss, we was just lost.”
“Lost, my foot,” she said. “I know spies when I see them.”
What the divel was she on about? Gnarl twisted his arms but he was tied tight. Impressive, he thought, for a bunch of snotty-nosed gits. There were five of them in total, Gnarl counted.
“What do we do with them now?” the brawny lad asked.
“We question them, of course. But I guess we’d better get them away from Mrs. Bower’s garden. I know, let’s take them to Mr. Woodward’s shed!”
It was an odd procession that made its way behind the houses, what with Nod being prodded by a wooden spoon and Gnarl being pushed along in a wheelbarrow. They passed sheep in the field on one side, and on the other, a crumbling stone fence and walls and walls of brambles. Gnarl grunted repeatedly as he was jolted around in the wheelbarrow as it bounced over every rock. Flecks of manure covered his coat—horse, by the smell of it. He wrinkled his nose and said, “Who the divel are you?”
The small white-haired girl let off poking Nod and said, “I am Billy the Conqueror, and you are my prisoner.”
What a fine mess, Gnarl thought. This was all Nod’s fault.
“Here we are. Jack, open the door,” Billy said.
Jack let the wheelbarrow drop with a thud and pushed open the door to an old shed. Gnarl tried to peek inside, but his view was blocked as Billy prodded Nod in ahead of her. Jack hefted the barrow again and rolled Gnarl in and then suddenly, everything went black.
When Gnarl came to his senses, his hands and feet were untied. He saw Nod, scratching his head, and Billy, still holding the spoon and pot, gaping at…
Gnarl blinked. They appeared to be in a woodland clearing. A low, eerie light filtered through the trees, but there was no sun overhead. At his feet were patches of wildflowers in shapes and colors he’d never seen before, not that Gnarl was much of one for noticing. He looked up, straight into the face of what could only be the Queen of the Fairies. Gathered around her as though they’d come for the show were boggarts, spriggans, and pixies, and there was Poolie, calm as you like, sitting on a cushion at her feet.
The Queen o’ the fecking Fairies, Gnarl thought. I will eat my hat. She was short and dark and was wearing a dress made out of what looked like petals. Brown hair—or was that leaves?—flowed down her back. Her lips were berry red, and when she opened her mouth in a cruel, cruel smile, Gnarl saw that her teeth were pointed.
“Oh, it’s you,” the Queen of the Fairies said to Billy.
“You’ve heard of me?” Billy said as Gnarl looked on in astonishment.
“Word travels fast in my realm, dear. You settled that trouble with Old Nana quite nicely—although I can’t say I approve of your methods—and now you’ve brought me exactly what I want. I believe this puts me in your debt.”
“Well,” Billy said, puffing out her chest, “only they invaded my country and I couldn’t be having with that.”
“Indeed.” The queen turned her stony gaze onto Nod. “And why were you trespassing, if I might ask?”
Nod scratched the back of his head. “We come to rescue Poolie, your highness.”
“She ain’t no highness to us, you dolt,” Gnarl growled at Nod before addressing the queen. “Give us the kid, and we’ll leave you to your business.”
“Oh, but you are my business, and Poolie isn’t going anywhere,” the queen sighed, “are you, dear.”
Billy folded her arms across her chest. “What do you want with my prisoners? And what’s she doing here? You haven’t stolen her, have you?”
Kid’s got guts, I’ll give her that, Gnarl thought.
The queen laughed. It sounded like glass breaking. “Of course I haven’t stolen her. She fancies herself in love with my son. She’s a sweet girl, but she’s…well, you know, she’s human. I’ve been trying to convince her to go home, but she won’t hear of it.”
“You should, you know,” Billy said to Poolie, who looked at her forlornly. “It ain’t worth it. What do you want to waste your life chasing after some fairy for, when there are battles to be fought?”
Poolie burst into tears. “But I love him,” she sobbed.
Billy stamped her foot. Gnarl coughed, interrupting them. “Scuse me,” he said. “But what about us?”
“You,” the queen said, “trod on my path. You have offended me and my court, and you must pay for it.”
“What?” Gnarl said. “What are you talking about?”
“I know what,” Nod said, still scratching. “You recall that sheep we was chasing?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Remember that strip of bluebells that ran through the fen? I warned you, bluebells don’t grow on fens, but you said never mind the fecking flowers and you chased that sheep right through ‘em.”
“Precisely,” said the queen. “I’ve been after you two ever since.”
“Huh,” Billy said. “Sounds fair enough. How about I exchange them for her?”
“But…” Poolie said.
“Now you listen,” Billy said as she aimed her wooden spoon right at Poolie’s head, “you’re coming with me, and that’s final.”
“But…” Gnarl said.
“But nothing. You can’t just go around messing with fairies. Although,” Billy said to the queen, “you sure you want them? This one’s got lice,” she pointed at Nod with her wooden spoon, “and that one’ll stink out your whole forest.”
“What?” Nod said, still scratching. “How’d you know that?”
“Seen it before. Horrible critters. They get everywhere. Though, the stench is our fault. We put that one in Jack’s wheelbarrow,” Billy giggled, “the one he uses to clean out his pa’s stable.”
The queen recoiled in disgust. “Take the child, and take those two with you,” she shrieked, “but there will still be a price!”
The next thing Gnarl knew, he was standing inside the musty old shed again.
“Where are they?” Gnarl said to Nod. “We’ve got to catch that kid!”
“You heard her, I’m done with fairies,” Nod said.
“Not that one, you eedjit. Poolie! We can still get the reward out o’ this mess.”
They fumbled their way out of the dark shed and into the last hint of daylight, where they saw Billy chatting with none other than Lord Fadlil himself.
“We saved your Poolie, sir!” Gnarl said in a rush as he swept up behind a bewildered Poolie and put a rough hand on her head. “Lookit, she’s here safe!”
Billy crossed her arms and stamped her foot.
“My dear child,” Lord Fadlil said to his daughter as he pried her out from under Gnarl’s hand and pulled her into a hug. “Whatever has gotten into you? Running off like that—I was worried sick!”
“It wasn’t them,” Poolie cried into her father’s chest. “She did it, she got me sent home from fairyland. It’s not fair!”
“So it was you, was it?” Lord Fadlil said to Billy. “I can’t thank you enough.”
Gnarl looked on in dread as Lord Fadlil reached into his pouch and pulled out ten shining gold pieces. “I believe this is for you,” he said with a smile as he gave Billy the reward.
“Thanks,” Billy said, “but you might want to talk to your daughter. She fancies the son of the Queen of the Fairies, and that’s no life for her.”
Lord Fadlil looked at Poolie in surprise and said, “We’ll talk about this later.”
The pair said their goodbyes and entered the carriage that was waiting for them on the road, as Billy counted up her reward.
“Now lass,” Gnarl begged Billy, “we didn’t mean any harm. We was just trying to get the young girl back to her father.”
“And what about the fairy path?” Billy said.
“We promise,” Nod said, hands clasped together, “we’ll never cross another one again!”
“Well, all right. Here, you can have one each.” She carefully placed a coin in their outstretched hands, and then shouted, “Troop! To me!” before marching off.
“See?” Nod said, “Wasn’t a total waste.”
“You said ten thousand pieces of gold, not ten,” Gnarl said, kicking himself for believing Nod in the first place.
“And now we have one, which is more than we had before, am I right?” Nod said, grinning.
“S’pose,” Gnarl said as he and Nod opened their hands to gaze lovingly at their profit. “But what’s this?”
In their hands was nothing but dried flowers.
Author’s Note: How Billy the Conqueror Took Back the Greenwood making Michael Matheson’s 2015 Recommended Reading list inspired me to put the second Billy story online here. This is the only story not told from Billy’s point of view, and since it has already been revised in my quest to turn these stories into chapter books for young readers, I see no harm in sharing this version with you.