‘Lancelot. As in Sir?’ I’m strapping on the last of my weaponry as I speak, adjusting the strap on the rocket launcher and wishing the surface-to-air missile launcher was a bit lighter.
‘I once held that title, long ago.’ The stranger probably believes he is staring wistfully out my window. I haven’t the heart to tell him his face is only about three millimetres from the fridge. ‘My actions — my choices — saw me no longer deserving of it.’
I know the tale. Of how he ran off with the King’s wife, brought about the whole fall of Camelot by not being able to keep his lance in check. A tale of tragedy, of forbidden love, of the frailty of human nature. Boring as a beggar’s britches, in other words.
‘And now you wander the land, seeking to make amends?’ I ask.
‘I do not wander. Errant I may be, Scarlett, but my deeds still have purpose. That, as I have explained, is why I am here.’
I lock and load the last of my payload. ‘So you say. I’ll wait to see evidence of your claims before I let myself believe them, however.’
‘I would expect no less from the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming.’ Lancelot smiles benevolently at the fridge door. ‘You are of noble birth, Scarlett.’
I have been called many things in my time, but noble is most definitely not one of them. The notion makes me feel queasy. I clutch the grip of my uzi for reassurance. ‘Enough of this,’ I say. ‘Let’s get going. The sooner we make it to the Kingdom, the sooner all of this will be over.’
‘Very well.’ Lancelot turns, getting ready to kneel before me again. ‘I shall defend your honour to my last breath, my lady.’
This is no doubt the sort of behaviour that worked its charming magic on Guinevere, but it takes more than a pocketful of smarm to win me over. ‘We’ll see who needs defending,’ I say. ‘Keep behind me on the road, let me deal with whatever perils might be in our way.’
‘I fear we will face many, Scarlett. SB’s agents are abroad; I suspect Merlin may have alerted her to my purpose. It is possible she knows your true heritage — and if that is the case, she will stop at nothing to ensure you never get within a mile of the throne.’
I heft my long-range laser-guided rocket-powered grenade launcher. ‘I only need to get within two miles.’ I give a hollow laugh.
‘That’s as may be,’ says Lancelot, ‘but we must take care, Scarlett. We should do nothing to draw attention to ourselves; we should keep off the roads, make our way north through the Great Forest.’
There’s wisdom in his words, though trekking through the trees will cause our journey to take twice as long. ‘I feel at home in the woods,’ I say. ‘Especially wolf-infested ones.’
‘We will face worse than wolves, Scarlett. I have heard whisper that the Questing Beast is on the loose, no doubt freed by Merlin’s magics.’
‘The Questing Beast? I’ve never heard of it.’
‘A fearsome and most dreadful creature, it has been the vanquisher of many a noble knight.’
That word again. ‘Can you describe it? If we’re to face a monster, it would be useful to know its weak points.’
‘That’s the thing, Scarlett. It has no known weak points. Cut off its head, it grows another. Pierce it through the heart, a replacement organ grows in its stead. Slice it in twain, and the two halves will join together as one again, more terrible and dangerous than before.’
‘So it can’t be killed?’ I stroke the barrel of my shotgun. ‘Not even with enchanted bullets?’
‘It is immune to all magics. Merlin, prior to his association with SB, tried many spells and incantations to banish the beast. All to no avail.’
‘So how will we face it?’
‘I suggest we do all we can to make sure we do not, Scarlett. We must be alert for its tracks, for any signs it is on our trail.’
‘I am at home in the forest. My senses are at their keenest there. But you, Lance … ‘
‘Though I have no eyes, I can still see.’ He taps the centre of his forehead. ‘I have been imbued with the Sight.’
‘You can see the future?’
‘Only short glimpses of what is immediately about to happen. Enough, however, to keep you from stumbling into danger.’
I have to admit that might prove useful. At the very least, it should help steer us clear of stepping in any steaming piles of wolf droppings in our path. ’How did you get such a gift?’
‘From the same witch how took my vision. The scourge of Camelot herself.’
‘Morgana le Fay?’
‘A thousand damnations on her name.’ Lancelot makes a gesture in front of himself. ‘Aye, Scarlett. It was her.’
‘Why did she grant you the Sight? Surely that is a boon not a curse?’
‘Not in the way she cast it upon me.’ Lancelot drops his head. ‘Whilst it is true I can see what is about to happen, Morgana gave me the Sight so I could see my own death.’
‘And take measures to avoid it, surely?’
‘No, Scarlett. She was most clear on the matter. The particular strain of the Sight I possess allows me only to take action to avoid harm befalling others.’
‘But not yourself?’
Lancelot runs a palm across his scarred scalp. ‘Sadly, no. If danger has me in its sights, I as good as turn to stone. I know exactly what is about to happen to me, but I am powerless to avoid it.’
‘A curse indeed.’ I chew my lip idly, contemplating Lancelot’s quandary, imagining how I would feel if I was in his position. My hands toy absent-mindedly with my vast array of weaponry — my thumb is on the trigger of my Derringer, its smooth metal curves cool and comforting.
’Scarlett, I implore … you … ‘ His words dry in his throat. His eyes stare blindly at me, his mouth fixed open. One hand is held in front of his face, the other shielding his left knee. He is as still as a statue: even his chest is still, as though his very breathing has stopped.
Before I have time to wonder what has happened to him, my finger slips. There is a deafening boom; a flash of gunpowder; the sharp tang of cordite in the air. Though my pistol was lowered, it was still pointing at the hapless knight.
Straight at his left knee…