‘WHAT HAPPENED?’ Jack has an even more dazed than usual expression on his pasty slack-jawed face.
‘You were smacked off a flying carpet by a three-hundred feet tall ogre with a baseball bat,’ I say.
‘Oh,’ he says, as if that’s some kind of everyday occurrence. ‘Where are we?’
‘On our way to Darkwood. To find Gretyl. Rememeber?’
‘My head hurts,’ he says, looking at me like he’s got no idea who I am.
‘Where did you find this one?’ Prince Charming’s back on his feet. I’m not sure what’s hurting him more: the bump on his head where Jack landed on him, or the bash his ego’s just taken. Hopefully both are equally painful for him.
‘We should count our blessings, I guess. We could have ended up with Little Jack Horner.’ I make a face and stick out my thumb, impersonating the least-feared Jack in the Kingdom. ‘Tremble before my mighty plum!’ I say. I’m pleased to hear Goldie tittering.
Prince Charming ignores me. ‘Now at least there are four of us,’ he says, hoisting his shorts up so high I’m surprised he’s not signing soprano. ‘More than a match for anything Darkwood may have in store for us.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ I say. ‘I heard the last chump who went in there came out turned into a frog.’ I’m lying, of course. I just said it to see him wince. It’s every Prince’s nightmare.
‘Worse than that,’ I say, enjoying watching him squirm. ‘It was a real ugly frog too. Stank like a troll with dysentery’s underpants. No princess in the land would think of going within a hundred feet of it, let alone puckering up and kissing it.’
That kills the conversation, which is just fine by me. We walk on, having to stop every few yards to repoint Jack in the right direction. As we get closer to the edge of the wood, I feel it: the foreboding, the dread. Despite my bravado, I’m so nervous I have to keep looking over my shoulder to check I’m not leaving a trail of sawdust behind me.
‘What’s that?’ Goldie points ahead to a small hut, sat just outside the forest. Dirty grey smoke puffs out the chimney.
‘Looks like someone lives there,’ says Prince Charming. ‘We should ask them if they’ve seen anything suspicious.’
‘Suspicious?’ I say. ‘Like someone who chooses to make their home right next to the scariest place in the Kingdom?’
He scowls at me. ‘I’m not scared of someone who lives in a hut.’
‘Perhaps you should be.’ I try to keep my voice steady, but it’s hard when I see what’s just walked out the front door.
It’s like something from a nightmare. A misshapen head, covered in weeping boils. Eyes bulging like pickled onions, a wide mouth swollen with hundreds of sharp yellowed teeth. At first I think it’s got three legs, then I realise it’s stark naked and is so well-endowed that even I feel my varnish begin to blister.
‘What in Grimm’s name is that?’ Goldie quivers behind Prince Charming, clutching the edge of his cape.
‘Wotcha, me old luvaduks!’ says the creature, in the worst Cockney accent I’ve ever heard. ‘Welcome to Darkwood. Now, can I interest you in some of me fine trinkets and baubles?’
The hideous little gimp opens the shutters on the hut’s single large window and skips to one side. The place is filled to bursting with an eyeball-searing array of garish knick-knacks. T-shirts with slogans like ‘Big And Bad’ and ‘My Friend Went To Darkwood And All I Got Was This Nagging Feeling I’d Never See Them Alive Again’. Scale models of Maleficent’s Castle and Baba Yaga’s Hut next to a mangy collection of furry trolls, all of which seem to be engaged in unnatural acts with each other . Snowglobes with what looks like drowned fairies floating lifelessly inside.
‘See anyfink you like?’ He claps his hands twice and laughs like a maniac. Goldie gasps. The chump starts growing in size, slowly at first, then so big he’s towering over us, dwarfing the hut behind him.
‘I’ve got a special offer on today.’ He stares down and licks his lips with a slimy green tongue. ‘Buy something, and I won’t bite yer bleedin’ ‘eads off.’