Little Mandy’s brow furrowed in concentration, as she poured a ring of salt onto the pavement. The slug oozed forward until it came into contact with the small white crystals, and then curled up into a tight ball as it turned inside out. Mandy giggled and poked it with a stick, then poured more salt onto the unfortunate creature.
“Aw, does Mister Slug not want to play anymore?” she said.
When no answer came, she ground the mass of ready salted slug under her heel until it spurted out from the edges of her shoe, then skipped off to the bottom of her aunts garden to see what else she could find.
The summer was hot. The hottest one she could remember in her short life. Instead of playing with her friends however, her parents had shipped her off to her aunt’s house the moment that the school term had ended. It was so unfair! She kicked at a small pile of stones that clattered across the sandstone paving slabs.
“Oi! Watch what you’re doing,” said a voice from the long grass.
Mandy crouched down and parted the grass. A tiny man with a white beard and green cloth hat stood glaring at her, with his hands on his hips.
“Those bloody rocks could have killed me – hey! Stopit! Whatchadoing?” he said, as the girl reached down and grabbed him with a pudgy fist.
“Ooh! A fairy!” she said, lifting the furious little man up to her face.
“A fairy! You can bugger off. You’ll never catch me mincing about among the flowers and abusing rodents,” said the man. “I’m a gnome, and don’t you forget it!”
“I shall call you Mr Tiddlywinks,” she said. “Can I have my three wishes now?”
“Mr Tiddlywinks? My names Geoff!”
“First, I want to be a princess”
“Sorry Luv – I don’t do wishes. I’m more a sitting by a pond, fishing sort of bloke.”
Mandy’s face darkened and her bottom lip puffed out.
“No wishes! NO WISHES!! Then Mr Tiddlywinks, I think I am going to squeeze you till you pop and see what your insides look like!”
The girl tightened her sweaty fist and squeezed. The gnome squeaked but could not escape the fleshy prison that was crushing the life out of him.
“Hang on a second luv, just because I can’t grant you wishes, doesn’t mean I can’t help,” he gasped.
“There’s this ring, see. In the forest. A magic ring.”
“Well, it’s said that only the fairest and bravest little girl can go into the enchanted forest and steal it away from the wicked witch.”
“I’m brave! And fair!”
“That’s what I’m saying. You’ll be able to get it, no problem.”
“And the ring will give me my three wishes?”
“The ring will give you a million wishes…just…stop squeezing so hard.”
“Oh! Sorry Mr Tiddlywinks,” she said, relaxing her grip a little. “But if you’re lying to me…if you try anything funny…I’ll squish you into goo. Got it?”
“Got it,” said the gnome, rubbing his bruised ribs. “Shall we go then?”
They set off into the woods, along well worn trails where shafts of sunlight penetrated the foliage to make shifting patterns on the forest floor. Mandy skipped along, pausing only to smell the flowers along the side of the path, or to hurl rocks at squirrels that scampered among the branches. After a while the path faded amidst the undergrowth and the trees became dark and unfriendly.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way Mr Tiddlywinks?”
“Of course I’m sure. Its right up ahead…unless you’re scared – in which case you can skip along home and I’ll find another brave and fair little girl to get the magic ring.”
“I’m not scared!” she said, “and if you even THINK of giving that ring to anyone else then it will be bad for you. Very very bad.”
“OK, OK – just up ahead there’s a fallen tree. You need to go under that and straight ahead.”
The tree lay across the trail, rotten and worm eaten. A small gap was visible under the ivy that crawled over the decomposing wooden corpse of the once towering forest giant. Mandy crawled underneath.
“It’s dirty under here, and it smells!”
“Never mind that, just get past the tree and go straight ahead. We’re almost there.”
Mandy wriggled through the gap and climbed to her feet on the other side. The forest seemed different, the light taking on a strange purple cast. No birds sang in the trees, and there were no squirrels to throw things at. The woods were silent, as if they were holding their breath in anticipation. Ahead of them, thick gossamer strands stretched between the tree trunks.
“It’s not real. It’s just a trick of the wicked witch to keep little girls away. This is why you need to be brave. Just walk through them – they are not really there.”
Mandy frowned, closed her eyes and walked straight ahead. Within seconds she was entangled in thick oozing silk.
A shape detached itself from the dark canopy above and scurried down the webs towards the terrified girl. A huge black spider regarded her with hundreds of eyes. Hairy fangs dripped venom onto the rotten leaf carpet of the forest floor. Mandy screamed as the creature descended and wrapped her in a tight silken cocoon.
“Mr Tiddlywinks! Help!” she yelled, but it was no good. Within moments her body was completely encased in a sticky white shroud, with only her tear filled eyes visible.
The spider dropped a small bag of coins into the gnome’s outstretched hands.
“Thanks Shelob, pleasure doing business with you,” he said.
A jingling came from his pocket. He reached in and produced a small mobile phone.
“Hello, Geoff’s fast food delivery service….a boy AND a girl?…at the Gingerbread house?…OK, give me an hour…I know, but what can I say…business is booming…better make it an hour and a half”