‘It’s smaller than I thought it was going to be, I have to admit.’
I test the door, giving it a shove to see if it’s as flimsy as it looks. The balsa wood flexes beneath my palm: a slightly stronger shove and I’m pretty certain it would splinter into a thousand fragments.
‘Appearances can be deceptive, my lady.’ Lance’s voice is raised to allow it to be heard above the roaring of the river. ‘The entrance to the Labyrinth is protected by dark magics; once inside, you will be within its power, alone against its dread enchantments.’
‘You’re not coming with me?’ I stifle a claw of disappointment. I’d hoped Lance would tag along and at least distract the Minotaur for me whilst I attempted to slay it with my bare hands.
‘Alas, I cannot. The wards have been designed to keep those of a knightly persuasion out of the labyrinthine corridors. And, whilst it is true I may be somewhat lapsed, I can already feel the magic barriers preventing my entry.’
‘But I thought we were going to use the Labyrinth to pass beneath the river? If you can’t come in, how are you going to get to the other side?’ The thought of trekking through SB’s tediously cheerful Kingdom alone is irksome to say the least.
‘The same way I crossed it two days ago. By pretending to be a blind beggar, returning from the Badlands.’
‘So, let me get this straight. I’m about to head in here alone, unarmed and unable to transform into a beast.’
Lance nods, albeit at a nearby tree trunk instead of at me. ‘Correct, my lady.’
‘And we’ll meet up again at the exit, I presume?’
‘Indeed so. And I shall take all of your weapons.’
‘And how will you get those past SB’s guards on the bridge?’
‘Aha!’ Lance waves a finger. ‘A little trick I learned from Merlin himself. If you would kindly hand me one of your firearms, I shall demonstrate.’
Reluctantly, I hold out my rustiest, most battered pistol, smiling happily at the memory of when I last used it to shoot a rampant cockatrice between the eyes. ‘Be careful with it,’ I say. ‘It’s loaded.’
‘Fear not, Scarlett.’ Lance holds the pistol to his chest, closes his eyes and mumbles incoherently to himself. There’s a shimmer in the air, a sound like a branch snapping and my pistol vanishes, replaced by a small and innocent-looking twig.
‘Tada!’ Lance brandishes the stick as if it’s Excalibur itself. ‘A blind beggar, carrying a bundle of kindling upon his back – what could be more inconspicuous than that?’
‘And you can definitely change them back again?’ The thought of my collection of weaponry being forever transformed into matchsticks makes me queasy to my core.
’Absolutely.’ He waves his hand. My pistol reappears — if anything, it looks slightly better than it did before, some of the rust having vanished from the barrel. I take it from him and inspect it. It is indeed in full working order, the bullets nestling inside as full of deadly promise as ever.
‘Very well,’ I say. I spend the next fifteen minutes unbuckling and unclasping my array of holsters, straps and bandoliers. By the time I’m done, the gleaming pile of firepower reaches almost to Lance’s shoulders. ‘You’re sure I can’t take anything inside this cursed Labyrinth?’
‘Positive, my lady.’ Lance raises an eyebrow. ‘I take it that’s not quite everything?’
I cough. Even though Lance is blind, I’ve never let a soul witness where my emergency weapon is concealed. I turn my back on him and flex my fingers …
Slowly … gently … carefully …
…and with a soft popping noise, there it is. I breathe deep with the exertion of it all.
‘What in Camelot’s name is that?’ Lance sounds bemused, sniffing the air.
‘A poison dart,’ I reply, scratching the inside of my left ear where I had the tiny missile hidden. ‘Imbued with basilisk blood, fatal to all known living creatures.’ I stare at the deadly little shard wistfully.
‘Sadly, not even that could pass the Labyrinth’s magical wards.’ He raises a knightly eyebrow and takes the dart from me carefully. ‘And that’s everything?’
‘I’m as defenceless as a blind kitten.’ I bite my lip, immediately regretting my choice of words. ‘No offence.’
‘None taken, my lady.’ Lance gathers up my plethora of weaponry and mumbles his incantation again. There’s a slight ripple in the air, then he hoists the bundle of innocuous branches onto his back. ‘I bid you farewell, and wish you luck.’
I feel naked without my arsenal. ‘Any tips?’ I ask. ‘For facing the Minotaur?’
‘Be yourself, Scarlett. Remember who you were born to. You have the heart of a hero beating within your chest.’
‘Charmed, I’m sure.’ I shrug, then turn to face the door again. With one swift kick of my boot, it splinters into sawdust. ‘Well, I suppose I’d best get this over with. I’d like to be in the Kingdom before nightfall.’
‘Godspeed, my future Queen.’ He kneels, bows, drops the kindling, fumbles about on the ground then stands up again. ‘Until we meet again.’
‘Just don’t drop any more of my guns,’ I say, then pull up my hood and step into the darkness.
I already feel as though I’ve been in here for days.
At first, I thought I had a pretty good sense of where I was — always keeping a wall to my left, tracing my path carefully through the twisting corridors of the Labyrinth. But after a few wrong turns and dead ends, I feel as though I’ve wandered blindfold into an unmapped forest after drinking seventeen foaming pints of Ma Chisolm’s Old Speckled Swamp Toad.
I stop, weighing up my options. Which seem, after a few moments’ pondering, to number approximately one. I need to keep going, hope that I find the exit before I die of starvation, or end up as the Minotaur’s latest hapless victim, my bones added to the hundreds littered around the Labyrinth’s snaking passages.
I’m about to press on when I hear it. A hideous cacophonous wailing which sets my teeth on edge. Even though I’m not in my lupine form, I feel my hackles rise. Somewhere, close by, it sounds like the Minotaur is subjecting some poor unfortunate soul to the most hideous torture imaginable. The noise is close — and seems to be growing closer. It appears my hopes of slipping through the monster’s lair undiscovered have faded to nothing.
I instinctively reach for my absent weapons, then curse aloud. No sooner have the words left my lips than the noise ceases. I hold my breath, then creep forward, hugging the shadows. After a few more steps, the unholy racket commences again, even more ear-splitting than before. My mind is more than capable of imagining some pretty horrible things, but even I can’t picture what could be making such a dreadful sound.
Then I turn the corner, and need to try to imagine no more.
The Minotaur is massive, its bronzed skin bulging with taut muscles, its yellow horns sharp and vicious. Steam bellows from its flared nostrils; its eyes flash yellow like the sulphurous pits of hell. And there, held firm in its hands, is the source of the hideous noise which echoed through the Labyrinth’s passages.
‘Why, hello there!’ says the Minotaur, removing the saxophone from between its monstrous lips. ‘You simply must tell me at once, darling — what did you think of my latest little ditty?’