‘My life was a hell of a lot simpler before running into you.’
The stranger and I are walking through the village, towards the run-down shack I rather optimistically call home.
‘Perhaps that is true.’ Though he’s as blind as a headless bat, he seems to have no trouble making his own way through the garbage-filled streets. ‘Though it was, to be frank, a lie.’
‘I’m still not convinced everything you’ve told me is true.’ My mind has only just stopped reeling. A royal princess, born of Heroes. And a father who may or may not have been a werewolf: one of the very beasts I have taken an oath to rid the land of forever. ‘I have a lot of unanswered questions.’
‘And I will have ample time to furnish you with answers to them as best I can once we commence our journey.’ He pauses to let a stray dog race past in front of us. The animal stops mid-run and cocks its head, staring at the stranger with a look of canine suspicion. Then it cocks something else against one of the slumbering drunks slouched against the tavern wall and continues on its way. ‘First, though, you said you wish to gather your supplies?’
‘Absolutely. If our journey is as perilous as you claim it will be, I want to have all the weaponry and ammunition at my disposal.’ I start to grin at the thought of finally getting the change to use the handheld explosive chicken launcher I paid a small fortune for at last year’s summer fair.
‘Your mother’s throne must not be gained through acts of violence, Scarlett. Snow White was the very essence of love and compassion: only one of similar character may sit upon the purple velvet.’
‘Then how does that bitch SB manage to rest her backside on it?’ My mind darkens; I hated the Queen of the Kingdom long before I learned she was responsible for the deaths of my parents. My predecessor — Little Red — was one of her many victims also: stripped of her hood, her basket and her shotgun and sentenced to a life of solitary imprisonment for the supposed crime of jokingly telling SB what a big head she had.
And how it must have irked SB to pass on the mantle to me: a nobody from the Badlands. But rules are rules, and I imagine Granny was most insistent, banging on about how no-one — not even the Queen — could interfere with destiny. As the wizened old bag explained to me when she turned up on my doorstep a couple of years ago, my name appeared in the Book as soon as Little Red was stripped of her responsibilities.
‘She got Merlin to fashion her a special cushion.’ The stranger shakes his head. ‘Woven from fairy silk and set with ivory buttons fashioned from the horn of a unicorn. Maleficent herself could sit upon such a thing and be imbued with nothing but faith, hope and charity.’
‘Merlin? She has him working for her now?’
‘Indeed. Now that Arthur lies slumbering and the Round Table gathers dust, he was of the opinion his work at Camelot was done. SB convinced him his skills would be appreciated at the Kingdom’s palace.’ He coughs uncomfortably. ‘Though the manner of her convincing is the subject of much conjecture.’
‘Let’s just say she keeps the tip of his hat straight and leave it at that.’
‘That’s the closest thing to a joke you’ve managed to make since we met. Are you feeling alright?’
‘Forgive me, Scarlett, I know this is no laughing matter.’
I stop, turning to him. His face is ashen, his blind eyes gazing sightlessly at the ground. ‘On the contrary,’ I say. ‘Keeping a sense of humour about things is how I get through the days. You should relax a bit more. Believe me, it makes all of this —‘ I gesture at the uninspiring surroundings of the village — ‘bearable.’
‘And would it make you happy? If I was more light-hearted?’
‘It might make me stop wanting to slap you every time you open your mouth.’
‘You wish to slap me? All I am doing is telling you … ‘ Another cough. ‘Ah. I see. One of your jokes.’ His laughter is as strained as a rat being forced down a plughole. ‘Very good.’
‘Listen, just try and let go a little. Be natural about it.’ I almost feel sorry for him. ‘I don’t even know what you’re called. Why don’t we start by you telling me your name?’
‘Which one? My travelling name, the name I was born with, or the name I was once known by?’
It’s like pulling teeth from a tiger. ‘Whichever one you wish.’
‘Very well, Scarlett.’ He straightens his cloak, checks his belt is fastened, then kneels down in the dust in front of me. I’m embarrassed, not knowing where to look.
‘Er … You don’t have to do that.’
‘Oh, but I insist.’ A smile spreads across his face. ‘It is my place, after all.’
‘Your place? What do you mean? Who are you, really?’
‘My name is Samuel,’ he says, head bowed. His hair is patchy like a half-plucked turkey; scars cover his scalp like runes written by a drunken scribe. ‘The name I was given as a child, at least.’
‘Samuel,’ I say. The name means nothing to me. ‘Or would you prefer me to call you Sam? Sammy?’
‘No, Scarlett. I would prefer it if you called me the name I took several years later, when the map of my destiny was made clear.’
‘And what’s that?’
He raises his face, his blank eyes filled with devotion. ‘I would be most honoured,’ he says, ‘if you called me Lancelot.’