‘Perhaps I could plait it for you, my little hairy munchkin.’ Cecil is down on his haunches examining my bushy tail whilst I stand juggling disbelief, anger and — each time the Minotaur lifts my newly-grown appendage for a closer look — dread embarrassment. ‘Or I could weave daisies and lilacs into it, how about that? By the time I’m done, it would look divine!’
‘It is fascinating,’ says Lance, sitting on what I haven’t got the heart to tell him is a hardened mound of dragon dung. ‘It would appear your lupine tail is now a permanent fixture. It goes against all the lycanthropic lore I have studied in the hallowed library of Camelot.’
I exert a muscle I never knew I possessed and whip my tail out of Cecil’s pawing grasp. ‘Never mind lore and lilacs,’ I exclaim. ‘How do I get rid of the blasted thing?’
‘I’m not sure you can, my lady,’ says Lance. ‘It is an extension of your lupine self, now come to the surface, caused, I believe, by exposure to Merlin’s magics.’
‘So I’m stuck with it?’ I curl it around so I can examine the tip for myself. It’s thick and long, hardly easy to conceal. ‘Won’t that cause us a bit of a problem when we try and sneak into the palace?’
‘We may need to alter our plans, yes. I had previously intended that we would pretend to be honest merchants or lowly beggars, seeking alms in the Kingdom’s capital.’
‘Wouldn’t that have been a bit of a challenge anyway, given we now have a minotaur in tow?’
Cecil looks hurt. ‘Are you implying I stand out in a crowd, my little crimson crocus?’
‘No more than I do now.’ I try to sit down on a nearby rock but my tail gets in the way. ‘So, Lance. You’re the ideas man – what do you suggest?’
‘I had hoped our bullish companion could pretend to be a beast of burden pulling our wares,’ says Lance, ‘but I do concede we are now likely to attract more attention than would be comfortable.’
‘A beast of burden?’ Cecil splutters. ‘I’ll have you know I have dismembered people for less hurtful comments than that.’
I raise my hands, appealing for calm. ‘I suppose we need another plan now anyway. And I’m sure Lance knows full well the extent of your capabilities and skills. Your musical prowess, for example.’
‘Well, yes.’ Cecil sniffs. ‘If I am to be thought of as a beast, I would much prefer to be recognised as a beast of bewitching beats, not one of burden.’
‘The fact remains,’ I say, swishing my tail tentatively from side to side, ‘to all extents and purposes, we resemble a trio of freaks.’
Lance claps his hands, startling both Cecil and myself. ‘You are a genius, my lady!’
‘I am?’ I know I’m smart, but I’m not entirely sure what I’ve managed to contribute to this conversation so far.
‘Freaks! Curiosities! Marvels!’ Lance is on his feet, excitedly addressing a pair of unwitting trees. ‘That’s it! We could pretend to be a travelling circus, come to perform for SB’s jubilee celebrations! A mighty minotaur displaying feats of astounding strength!’
Cecil puffs out his chest. ‘I can lift three times my own weight, you know.’
‘A blind fortune teller!’ Lance points to himself. ‘Able to peer beyond the veil!’
I get an uneasy churning in my stomach. ‘And me?’ I ask.
‘The startling and uncanny wolf girl!’ Lance is in full flow. ‘Raised in the forest by a pack of wild animals, she knows only the way of the beast! See her snarl! Fear her bestial rage! Marvel at her large furry appendage!’
I feel my tail bristle. ’And you’re sure this will get us to within striking distance of SB?’
‘Positive, my lady. She is powerful, but she is also vain. If we proclaim ourselves as talented troubadours with a unique never-before-seen premiere performance that she will be the first to witness, I know she will find it impossible to resist.’
I think for a moment, then sigh. I can think of no other plan, truth be told. And Lance’s is crazy enough that it might just work. I decide to agree, and in doing so, focus on the one sliver of a bright side I can imagine.
‘And then I can rip her throat out?’ I say.
After some initial doubts, even I have to admit we make for quite a remarkable bunch. Cecil sprung into action almost immediately, producing a needle and thread from the darkest depths of his loincloth and proceeding to make us a set of costumes out of anything he could get his hands on. After an hour or so of frenzied activity — and a tedious ten minutes of fitting and adjustments — I stand back and assess his handiwork.
Lance is resplendent in a forest green ensemble, made somewhat unsurprisingly from green things Cecil picked up at random from the forest. His crown of poison ivy is a particularly impressive creation, even if it is causing him to itch a bit.
As for the Minotaur himself, Cecil has fashioned a new loincloth out of one of Lance’s spare pair of black leather boots. It looks a trifle tight to me, but Cecil was most quick to reassure me that it fitted ‘snug as a little wiggly worm in a little wiggly worm-sized tunnel’, so I thought it best not to press the matter further.
As for me, I refused to let him tamper too much with my signature outfit. He has however managed to increase its usefulness, adding an array of pockets, zips, studs, poppers and fastenings to my crimson cloak which allow me to carry even more weaponry than I was able to before. I did protest when he demanded I give him my leggings, but the tail-flap he has created is remarkably comfortable.
‘Well done,’ I say. ‘I have to admit, you did a rather good job of that.’
Cecil glows with pride. ‘I can see you are happy, my little scaramouch fandango.’ He points down and giggles. ‘Do you realise your tail is wagging?’
I feel my face flush and turn away, though I do feel a sense of warmth and camaraderie that is most unfamiliar, and not wholly unwelcome. Either that, or it’s indigestion from Lance’s rather unpalatable ‘fruits of the forest’ casserole.
‘So, we are ready?’ I ask, after Cecil has scraped the last of the unappetising stew from his plate, ‘for our debut performance?
Cecil grabs his saxophone and improvises a melody which sounds like a bulldog being boiled in a bathtub. ‘You betcha, sweetcheeks!’ he says. ‘I can’t wait to strut my stuff in front of royalty!’
‘You should bear in mind,’ says Lance, ‘you already are in the presence of someone with royal blood. Our noble leader here is the daughter of the most famed regal couple of all time.’
Whilst I’m heartened to hear Lance now trusts Cecil enough to share my family history, I still find the notion of being a fairytale princess as hard to swallow as a fingernail sandwich. ‘Never mind all that for now,’ I say, tightening one of the black leather buckles Cecil has fixed to my hood. ‘Lance, is there anything else we need to know or do before we set out on the last stage of our journey?’
Lance nods solemnly. ‘Only one thing, my lady.’
‘And that is?’ I groan, imagining some knightly errand or noble quest he insists is vital to our success.
‘When you face SB,’ he says, looking straight at me with his sightless eyes in a rather unsettling way, ‘you must do so alone.’
‘Not a problem,’ I say, slipping my Luger out of its holster and squinting down the barrel. ‘It would be best for both of you if you weren’t there to witness me wreak my bloody vengeance upon her.’
‘Well, that’s just the thing,’ says Lance. ‘Neither Cecil nor I are going to live long enough to see you do so.’