‘Er, sorry about that.’
Lancelot is most certainly moving now. He’s writhing about on the ground, clutching his bloodied knee and yelling like a banshee caught in a lawnmower.
‘That’s… quite … all … right.’ He forces the words out through gritted teeth. ‘I … saw it coming.’
I holster my pistol and check the safety catches of all my other weapons, which takes a good five minutes. By the time I’m done, Lance’s breathing is almost back to normal and he’s fashioned a bandage from a strip of material he’s torn from the sleeve of his tunic.
‘It was an accident.’ I’ve already apologised, but feel the need to say something. ‘Are you going to be able to walk?’
‘I understand.’ His face is surprisingly calm. ‘Though it may hamper our ability to travel as quickly as I’d hoped. And our ability to outrun the Questing Beast, should it discover us.’
‘I’ll protect you.’ To be honest, I’ve no idea where this strange feeling of honour is coming from. I’m — if you pardon the pun — a lone wolf. A solo operator. I’ve only ever agreed to take a partner along on a hunt once, and that didn’t end well. I still visit the woodcutter’s grave faithfully every year, though that’s mainly to remind myself to never be that soft again, rather than pay tribute to his memory.
‘Thank you, my lady.’ Lancelot tries to kneel again, then winces in obvious agony.
‘We’ll go at your pace. And I’ll lead the way.’ I take out my semi-automatic and carefully thumb the catch. ‘You’ll have nothing to worry about, I promise.’
‘You are truly your parents’ child, Scarlett.’
I cock a smile as the irony of it sets in. ‘Does that mean my real surname is Charming?’
‘It does. Princess Scarlett Charming of the Kingdom.’
‘You know,’ I say, setting my sights on the path leading from this stinking tumble-down heap of hovels I’ve lived in for years, ‘I kinda like the sound of that.’
The forest is my second home.
Or, based on what old limping Lance has just told me about the place of my birth, my third.
We’ve been in just over a couple of hours, and it already feels like we’re in another world. Vast trees rise like petrified green giants above us, blotting out the sky with their vast canopies. The light is dim, the shadows murky. Birdsong twitters uncertainly in the branches; shrill calls of unidentified creatures slice through the gloom. Every one of my senses is tingling with the sheer pleasure of being here: coupled with the high likelihood that behind every other trunk lurks a creature waiting to be cut to shreds by one of my many weapons.
We’re making slow progress. I guess I can’t really complain, since it was me who shot off Lancelot’s left kneecap in the first place. But I’m still growing impatient, wanting to press on and get this so-called quest over with. Though I’ve not got the heart to tell my companion I have absolutely no desire to claim the throne of the Kingdom, I’m assuming that the title will also come with a vast amount of wealth. And there’s an array of high-grade military weaponry on the black market I’ve had my eyes on for quite some time.
‘How long do you think it will take us to reach the Kingdom?’ I ask, peering down the sights of my Kalishnikov. ‘We should consider making camp soon. Not even I’d be foolhardy enough to keep going through the night.’
Lance rubs his knee, groaning. ‘Six days, perhaps seven. Assuming we find a safe place to cross the Raging River.’
I’ve heard of it. Almost a mile wide, the waters in constant turmoil. A natural border between the Badlands and the Kingdom, with only one heavily-guarded bridge separating the two lands. Whole volumes of depressingly tedious ballads have been penned about the thousands who have lost their lives in its angry grip.
‘There’s only one place to cross, surely? The Bridge Of A Hundred Doubts.’
‘Which is exactly where SB will be expecting us to be heading.’ He stoops down to pluck what he probably thinks is a berry from a nearby bush. I haven’t the heart to tell him it’s a dead beetle. ‘And that is why we are making for another place entirely.’
I watch him chew on the deceased bug, smirking as his face contorts in disgust. I wait for him to spit out the last of the legs. ‘And where is that? I don’t know of any other way to cross over the river.’
‘And you are correct, my lady.’ Lance wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘But there is a way to pass beneath it.’
‘No, a labyrinth. Excavated from the ground long ago by a race of people long since vanished. In the days when passage between the two lands was permitted, when the world was at peace.’
‘How come no-one else knows about it?’
‘Plenty know about it, my lady.’ He sits down on a fallen trunk, rubbing at his shattered knee. It’s stopped bleeding, at least. ‘But few would dare to enter it.’
‘Why?’ My senses tingle. Never a good sign. ‘It is guarded?’
‘Indeed it is. By a monster so fearsome its name is only whispered by the wind which blows over the corpses of its foes.’
I’ve heard the legend. ‘It’s the Minotaur, isn’t it?’
His sightless eyes widen and he makes that strange gesture in front of his chest again. ‘Hush, my lady! You must not speak its name!’
‘The Minotaur? Why not? Does it appear when you call it?’ I start to laugh. ‘Here Minotaur! Here, boy! There’s a good Mino—’
There’s a sickening crash.
I whirl, a gun in each hand, aiming at the source of the noise.
A moment of relief as I realise it’s not the Minotaur.
Then a sense of rising panic as I see it’s worse than that. Much, much worse …