In the small town of Lavender, there were many pretty girls, and even some beautiful girls, but none were as beautiful as Linden, and there were plenty of smart girls and bright girls, but none as clever as Linden. There were also hateful girls and nasty girls, but none as cruel as Linden.
Linden had all she could want, a large house with servants to do everything for her, and gardens and animals and fields of crops that provided all the food she needed, and enough left over so that she could sell them for good money. She had all the riches, beauty, lands and comfort that she could ever want, and so she began to cast her eye about for a husband, and her eye fell on young Neil.
Neil was well-made and handsome, which suited Linden. He also had a kind heart and a gentle nature, but this Linden didn’t care about at all. He was in love with a girl called Ellen, who loved him dearly. None of this mattered to Linden, except that it added spice to the contest for Neil’s heart.
She decided to hold a sumptuous dinner. She invited Ellen and Neil and a dozen others, but it was Neil that she made sit beside her while Ellen was given a seat far away at the bottom of the table. All night, Linden talked and laughed with Neil and filled his glass with wine again and again, and giggled and leant against his shoulder, and put food into his mouth with her own fingers. After they had eaten, there was music and dancing, but Linden would dance with no-one but Neil. Neil was entranced, and when Linden put her lips against his ear and asked him to be hers, he said yes.
From her corner across the room, Ellen saw him nodding, and her heart was torn.
Now Linden knew that Neil’s heart truly belonged to Ellen, and that as soon as he woke in the clear light of day, he would have forgotten all about the night before. “He will belong to Ellen as sure as daisies belong to the day,” she said to herself, and so she took steps to make sure that Ellen would disappear altogether.
She picked a bunch of flowers, and sprinkled a potion on them that she made of hoar-hound and aconite. She put a pretty ribbon around them and took them to Ellen.
“My dear, sweet friend,” she said to Ellen, “I have come to say sorry for keeping Neil all to myself last night. I don’t know what I was thinking – it must have been the wine.”
Ellen was ready to forgive her, if it meant that she would have Neil back without a fight, so she welcomed Ellen into her house. Linden gave her the flowers. “See how pretty these will look on your dress!” she said, and she tied the posy to Ellen’s dress with the ribbon.
Immediately Ellen could neither speak nor move, because of the potion. What was worse, anyone who looked at her could only see a brown cow, with large brown eyes and a soft, brown coat.
Linden laughed, and said, “Now young Neil is mine! Don’t worry – once we are married, I will find a nice field for you, with plenty of long grass!”
When Neil woke that morning, his first thoughts were of Ellen, as they always were. He hurried to her house, but there was no-one there except Linden, holding onto the halter of a brown cow with a bunch of flowers tied to its neck. “Oh, Neil!” she exclaimed. “I came to see Ellen but she has packed her bags and gone! She has only left behind this old cow for you.”
“A cow?” said Neil. “What do I want with a cow?”
Ellen tried to speak up, but all Neil could hear was the clanging of the cowbell tied to her halter. “You are right,” Linden said. “Let’s take this great ugly beast to the butcher’s to be killed and cut up for meat. Then at least she will be of use to someone.”
Taking hold of the ribbon around the cow’s neck, Neil trudged along sorrowfully, leading Ellen to the slaughterhouse while he thought about how heartless she was to have left him.
A little way down the track, they came to a gate across the road. While Neil was trying to open the gate, Ellen climbed over it easily. “What an extraordinary cow this is!” Neil exclaimed. “She climbed over the gate as easily as a young girl!”
Linden pretended to laugh, and said, “Neil, you are such a fool! I pushed her over the fence when your back was turned, opening the gate.”
At the side of the track a little further on, there was a tree full of birds singing and chirping. Ellen sang along with them, high and loud. Neil was amazed. “This cow sings almost as beautifully as my dear Ellen used to sing!” he said.
Linden said crossly, “Cows don’t sing! It must be the wind you can hear,” and she pulled the halter so tight that Ellen could hardly breathe.
As they went along, Neil started to think more and more of his darling Ellen and how he would never see her again. He began to whistle a tune that they used to dance to together. Ellen danced along beside him, as light as a feather.
“A dancing cow!” he said, hardly able to believe his eyes.
“Rubbish!” Linden said angrily. “A wasp stung her and she’s jumping about in pain.” She gave Ellen a mighty wallop. “There, I’ve killed the wasp, so there’ll be no more hopping or dancing.” And she gave Ellen a look that said, “One more trick and you’re done for!”
Ellen walked along mournfully, her head down so that Neil couldn’t see the tears in her eyes. They came to a place where there was a hole in the road, and Ellen stumbled. The ribbon in Neil’s hand came loose, and he said, “Be careful, Ellen dear.” Then he realised at last that the pretty brown cow at his side was really his beloved Ellen. He pulled at the ribbon and the flowers fell away. Ellen stood before him, more beautiful and loving than ever.
“My dearest one!” Neil cried. They hugged and wept over each other. When Linden saw them together, laughing and happy, she flew into a rage, spinning round and round until she turned into a whirlwind and flew off over the hills, and she was never seen again.
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