‘My lady!’ Lance’s cry is frantic. ‘Please, desist!’
I struggle to hear him through the rush of blood pumping in my ears. I snarl, tightening my fingers around SB’s lily-white throat. Her eyes bulge; her tongue protrudes from between her smug ruby lips. I think of all I’ve learned these past few days: the lies, the betrayal, the execution of my mother at this she-wolf’s hand. I grit my teeth, my resolve set firmer than ever.
‘Scarletski Rudetski!’ Cecil’s hands are on my shoulders, trying to wrench me away from my stranglehold. ‘What are you doing?’
I turn, my teeth bared. ‘Get your stinking paws off me, you stupid big lumbering ox! Can’t you see who we’re up against?’
Cecil looks like I’ve just slapped him in the face. He shakes his head, his eyes widening in Lance’s direction. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ he wails.
‘A glamour,’ says Lance. ‘Morgana has bewitched her.’
I pause at his words, loosening my grip ever so slightly. I stare down at SB’s bulging red face. The eyes. There’s something about the eyes. A spark within them: mocking me with barely-concealed mirth. As I loosen my grip further, SB’s features melt away, replaced by the different — though equally arrogant — countenance of Morgana.
‘Why the hell did you do that?’ I yell, removing my fingers from the witch’s neck, pleased to see I’ve left two neat rows of livid bruises. ‘I could have killed you!’
‘No, my dear.’ Morgana gets to her feet, brushing imaginary specks of dirt from her svelte shoulders. ‘You do not possess nearly enough power to do that. I did however wish to test your mettle. To see if you have what it takes when the time comes.’
‘When the time comes to do what?’ I say, breathing heavily.
‘To choke the life from SB and free the Kingdom from her shackles of oppression,’ says Morgana, looking at me in a sly manner which causes my shackles to rise. ‘So that one more worthy can take her place.’
Morgana managed to convince Cecil that her sheer silk dress with daring leg slits was all she needed to allow her to portray the role of a daring acrobat in our increasingly unlikely pretence of being a group of travelling performers. Lance was still adamant that pretending to be a band of wandering troubadours gave us our best chance of getting into SB’s palace unmolested, so we spend the remainder of the day rehearsing our acts.
I have to admit, Cecil is mightily convincing as a strongman, lifting a twenty-foot long tree trunk with one hand and a discarded cartwheel with the other, whilst balancing a gigantic boulder between his horns. His chest bulged with pride when Morgana gave a condescending clap of her hands, before busying herself with her own routine.
Though the witch is easy to hate, her display of acrobatics is undeniably impressive. Though her battle magics are apparently gone, I can only assume that the feats she manages to pull off are a result of some other kind of enchantment — unless it’s normal for a woman to be able to do that whilst clutching both her ankles and still managing to whistle …
From cartwheeling and tumbling to eye-watering displays of contortionism, Morgana’s movements are graceful, limber and fluid. Exactly the opposite of mine. Fortunately, all my act calls for is for me to maintain an overall mood of grumpy menace, something I am a bit of a natural at. I swish my tail from side to side, bare my teeth and snarl, to the extent that Cecil is so scared of me that he drops his boulder on his hoof.
‘Ow!’ He hops about on one leg. ‘You are truly frightening, my fierce little fiery-hued fiend.’
I know he means it as a compliment, but the words still sting a bit. Is this my lot in life — to scare people with my bestial anger? And my increasingly inconvenient tail?
‘Speak to us, oh masters of the veil.’ Lance’s eyes are closed, his fingers waggling in the air in front of him like ten fat broiling worms. ‘Commune with us; impart to us the secrets of your wisdom.’
Lance’s nonsensical burblings are — I hope — part of his act. Though cursed by Morgana to be able to see glimpses of his own future mishaps and misfortunes, he is not to my knowledge able to contact the spirits of the dead. As I listen to him mutter more of his meaningless mumbo-jumbo, I start to worry about how convincing our deception will be. There’s a good chance I may yet need to make use of my vast arsenal and bestial lycan rage …
After we’ve finished rehearsing, we feast on a roast pig and quaff some elderberry wine which Morgana conjured up from nowhere. Despite my initial suspicions that the food and drink would be poisoned, after I waited to see if Lance or Cecil would keel over after having taking a mouthful, I settle down and actually quite enjoy it.
‘See?’ says Morgana, sitting down on a log beside me. ‘You have nothing to fear from me, Princess.’ The way she says the word is still mocking, but I let it pass.
‘What are your plans once we defeat Merlin and SB?’ I ask. Her comment about a worthy replacement for SB’s throne is bothering me: I’m pretty certain she didn’t mean me …
‘A battle lies ahead,’ she says, staring into the crackling fire. ‘Let us see who survives it, then we can discuss what we have planned for the future.’
A burning ember lands dangerously close to my tail. I flick my furry appendage, extinguishing it before it can do any damage. ‘I never asked for any of this, you know,’ I say.
‘I understand,’ says Morgana. ‘Before I was … who I am today … I was quite content to lead a normal life.’
I raise an eyebrow. Is Morgana — the most powerful and feared sorceress in all the lands — opening up to me? ‘And now?’ I say. ‘Aren’t you happy with the power and riches your magic has brought you?’
She sniffs, part I am sure for dramatic effect. Sure enough, Cecil’s head snaps towards her, concern etched across his bullish features. ‘That is one thing I have never had, Princess. Happiness.’
My heart bleeds for her. I look askance at Morgana: at her beautiful features, perfectly-proportioned body and elegant poise. ’What would make you happy then?’ I ask.
Half a smile materialises on her lips. ‘If I tell you, will you swear not to breathe a word?’
I nod. Inside, I have my intentions crossed. There’s no way I’m promising anything to a witch. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Of course.’
‘I only want,’ she says, laying her hand upon mine and turning to me with an expression I didn’t imagine her to be capable of, ‘to be reunited with my daughter …’