Category Archives: Fairytale Hit Squad 3

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.1 – Red By Name

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‘My, what big fatal chest wounds you have.’

The werewolf glances down at its blood-soaked pelt, yellow eyes narrowed, teeth bared in a grimace of pain. A growl starts in its chest, rising steadily in pitch until it becomes a hideous howl, slicing through the woods quick as moonlight. Seeking an answer.

So I give it one. I put the barrel of the gun to the beast’s forehead and place one high-heeled boot on its throat. That does the trick. The cry chokes in the monster’s throat, its eyes widening. It stares up at me, no doubt trying to play on my conscience: to remind me that behind this bestial mass of fur and teeth, there beats a human heart. That this creature sprawled at my feet is — other than for one night a month — a man.

That might have worked on my predecessor. In fact, it’s probably the reason I’m standing here now, wearing the infamous red cloak, basket in one hand and sawn-off shotgun in the other.  The last girl to don the scarlet mantle — Jemima, I think she was called — was good, but had one thing I didn’t. The thing which proved to be her undoing; the thing that led to Granny knocking on my door, cloak over her arm, knowing smile on her face, offer I couldn’t refuse bursting on her wrinkled lips.

The last Little Red Riding Hood had a conscience.

This beast lying before me isn’t to know. He probably thinks that by beginning to turn back, he can tug at my heart strings, play them like a maestro. Like he’s no doubt done to dozens of other girls over the years, promising them moon-drenched nights of danger and pleasure. He probably thinks I’m just like them: all wide eyes and blushing cheeks, heaving bosoms and fluttering hearts.

I’m not like them.

I’m like me.

The beast’s lips curl back in a parody of a smile. The fur is rippling, receding back into the skin, revealing the human beneath. Limbs crack as they straighten; his muzzle shrinks, his jaw clicking back into place. His eyes begin to lose their sickly yellow hue, returning to a natural, piercing blue. His thick mop of black hair; his dark shadow of stubble accentuates his finely-chiselled features. He’s a handsome one alright. A real ladykiller, I bet.

‘Please,’ he says, voice cracking with the pain. ‘Spare me. I promise I’ll seek the cure, if you only let me live.’

The cure. That’s what’s in the basket. Specially-treated apples, one bite all it takes to turn one of his kind back into human form forever, the lycan curse eradicated, their soul purified. It’s very effective.

But then so’s this.

‘Nighty night,’ I say, and pull the trigger.

***

‘Bourbon, three fingers, straight.’

The barman is staring at me like I’ve got three heads. I’m not in the mood for this; I’m weary and all I want is a drink before heading home to my shack and hanging up my shotgun for another twenty-eight days.

‘Erm…’ He shuffles from one foot to the other. ‘You have something on your cheek.’

I glance at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. My hood’s down; my black hair is dishevelled and wild, my eyes red-rimmed and tired. And my pale skin is spattered with so much werewolf blood, I look like I’ve caught the measles and smallpox at the same time.

‘Sorry.’ I pick up one of the napkins next to a bowl of wasabi peas and wipe my face. That only makes it worse.

‘You’re frightening the other customers.’ The barman sounds braver than he looks. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’

I sigh. I don’t want to make a scene. Neither do I want to risk letting the red mist descend and force me to kill everyone in the room. ‘Fine.’ I take a handful of peas and throw them in my mouth. ‘I’ll be going.’

The whole room breathes a synchronised sigh of relief. I glance around — it’s filled with the usual assortment of unambitious peasants and slop-swillers. I’m better off without them and their accusing stares. Better off on my own.

I pick up my basket and walk back towards the door. There, sitting in the corner, shrouded in grey curls of pipe smoke, is a patron unlike the rest. Large, broad, muscular arms rippling as he grasps his tankard and brings it to his bearded lips. He wears a hood similar to mine, except it’s made of the blackest, finest material I’ve ever seen. It obscures most of his face, though I think I can see his eyes glint from beneath his hood. Watching me.

I sniff the air between us. He’s not a werewolf: no reek of that bestial musk I’ve come to detest so much. Just a man: a strange, muscular, handsome man. Staring at me.

‘Evening.’ His voice is rich as autumn wine. ‘Care to join me?’

I look back at the barman. He’s glaring at me, arms crossed in front of his chest. ‘I don’t think so,’ I say. ‘I’ve been asked to leave, and I don’t want any trouble. Not tonight, at least.’

‘What you want and what comes hunting you are often very different things, lass.’ A cloud of sweet-smelling tobacco smoke fogs towards me. ’Sometimes we have no choice as to which path we must travel down.’

’That’s as maybe,’ I say, regretting stopping to speak to him in the first place. He talks like he’s stepped straight from the pages of some third-rate fantasy novel; likely fancies himself as a lone hero, travelling the land in search of wrongs to put right. ‘But I am, to be brutally honest, knackered. I just want to go home, go to sleep.’

‘The land of dreams is often the most treacherous of all,’ he puffs. ‘Let he who does not enter into Morpheus’ realm prepared rue the day.’

‘My worries tend to be more real,’ I say, pulling up my hood. ‘So, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I’ll be on my way.’

A series of smoke rings coil into each other. I think he’s given up, returning to his shadowy corner, waiting for someone more gullible to impress. Then he speaks.

‘As you wish.’ A long sigh. ‘I only thought you might wish to know what I had to tell you.’

‘And what’s that?’ I’m used to the come-ons and the lousy pick-up lines. I think it’s the red cloak — some kind of scarlet woman thing. Guys seem to think I’m an easy target, fair game. ‘How you’ve never met someone like me before?’

‘No, no.’ He taps his pipe on the table. A plug of spent tobacco thuds out. ‘I just thought that perhaps you might like to know what happened to your father.’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.2 – A Blast From The Past

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‘What do you know about my father?’ I lower my hood and glower at the stranger. ‘Tell me. Now.’

He picks up the spent plug of tobacco between finger and thumb and appears to take sudden interest in it. I’m not in the mood for games, and patience has never been my strong point. I can sense the red mist beginning to gather on my mind’s horizon.

He doesn’t answer, not at first. Instead he gets out his pouch, pinches another clump of tobacco and spends at least a minute plugging his pipe with it. He lights a long taper from the candle on the table, then leans back, puffing contentedly. I try not to imagine what he would look like with his pipe sticking out his jugular.

He exhales a cloud of smoke so thick it almost thuds to the floor. ‘I knew your father,’ he says at last. ‘He and I fought together in the Goblin Wars.’

Now I know he’s lying. That particular conflict, bloody as it was, took place relatively recently. Long after my father was taken from me.

‘That’s impossible,’ I say, baring my teeth. ‘Now, if you don’t stop wasting my time, you’re going to make me really angry, and you will live to regret that. Briefly.’

‘Jacob had a temper too.’ There’s a smile in his voice. ‘Looks like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.’

‘Look.’ I raise my voice. The other bar patrons look up, then make a big deal of doing their best to ignore us. ‘Jacob — my father — is dead.’

‘Alas, this is true. Would that I had been able to save him from the goblin menace.’ His tone changes, drifting away in a cloud of melancholic pipe smoke. ‘I was with him at the end, you know.’

I lean down, growling at him so only he can hear. ‘Listen. My father died when I was a child. There’s no way he could have fought beside you in the war. You’re a liar.’ My nails dig gouges in the table.

‘You saw your father die?’

‘I … I was young.’ I was just a girl, happier and more innocent than I am now. Not yet exposed to the horrors of the world, believing that people were people — and not capable of transforming into monsters. I remember the morning that all changed: the day my mother came into my bedroom, face soaked with grief. ’My father … was taken by wolves.’

The stranger lays down his pipe and exhales the last of the smoke. ‘Scarlett,’ he says. ‘Your father did not die that fateful night.’

‘How do you know my name?’ The red mist is nearly upon me. ‘Tell me!’

He reaches inside his tunic. My hand instinctively shoots for my shotgun. He doesn’t stop; instead he takes out a yellowed sheet of paper, folded in half. ‘Because,’ he says, ‘your father made me promise to give you this before he died. It’s for you.’

I snatch the paper from his hand, unfolding it and smoothing it on the table. ‘One false move,’ I say, not looking up, ‘and your brains will be decorating the walls.’

He doesn’t say a word; he sits back in his chair, waiting. I focus on the paper, on the words written upon it. The words written in my father’s hand. And the red mist disperses, like a drop of blood in the ocean.

Dearest Scarlett, it reads. I know this will seem strange to you, but please know I have written this letter with nothing but love for you in my heart.

I am sorry, dearest daughter. Sorry for making you believe I was lost to you, taken by the wolves. It was the only way, my darling. The only way to protect your mother — and to protect you.

I have never been honest with you, Scarlett. I am not the man you and your mother believed me to be. It is to my eternal shame that I have lived this lie all these years, and only pray that one day you will understand and be able to forgive me.

My time, I fear, is running out. My one regret is knowing that I will never see you again, never meet the strong and wise woman I know you must have become by now. I know you would make me proud beyond compare.

My throat feels as though invisible jaws are clenched around it; my chest is tight, the blood pumping through my veins. The tavern has melted away: it’s as though I am a little girl again, carried through the orchard on my father’s shoulders, laughing happily with the sun on my face.

Scarlett, the letter continues. The time has come for you to know the truth. That you are not the daughter of a lowly farmer. It is time for you to claim your birthright. To inherit that which belongs to you. To embrace your destiny. To —

And there it ends. I turn over the page, scouring the blank paper for more. ‘What is this?’ I say, waving it in the stranger’s face. ‘Where’s the rest of it?’

‘There is no more, alas. I was with him when he wrote it. With him when the goblin chieftain broke into our tent and … ‘ His voice trails off, no doubt wishing to spare me the details.

‘And what? I am not a child any more.’

‘… And took your father’s heart.’

The red mist returns. Not, this time, directed at this mysterious stranger in front of me, but at my father’s inhuman murderer. My growl turns into a whine, and then into a howl of grief and rage.

‘There is one more thing I must tell you, Scarlett.’ The stranger lowers his hood. The sight of his face causes my cry to die in my throat. Scarred, ravaged, deep gouges scoring his skin from forehead to chin. And his eyes: like two saucers of milk. I realise with a start that the stranger is completely blind.

‘Wh—what is it?’ I sway on my feet; the room begins to spin.

‘Before your father died, Scarlett…’ says the stranger, fixing me with his haunting, sightless eyes. ‘Your father changed.’

‘What do you mean?’ I lean on the table, trying to steady myself. ‘Changed how?’

‘Your father was not killed by wolves,’ says the stranger. ‘But moments before the goblin chieftain took his heart, your father became one.’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.3 – The Past Is Another Country

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‘Not possible.’ I glower at the stranger, even though I know he can’t see my expression. ‘My father was many things, but he was no werewolf.’

‘Perhaps not when you knew him.’ An infuriatingly enigmatic smile spreads across his face. ‘But I know what I saw, Scarlett. Before the witch took my eyes.’

My fists are clenched; the red mist taken hold. And something more: something … else.

‘If what you say is true — if my father had the beast lurking within his heart — then …’

‘Indeed, Scarlett. Though do they not say a beast lurks within all of us?’

I spit my words through gritted teeth. ‘There are two ways to become a lycan. First, to be bitten by one — to recover from the wound, but infected by the poison already blackening your veins.’

He nods, as though hearing something he already knows. ‘And the second way?’

The red mist darkens to a deep shade of crimson, like sunset on a battlefield. ‘To be born of one.’

Another nod. ’Did you know your father’s parents?’

I shake my head pointlessly. ‘I did not. Father told me they were dead, killed by bandits when he was a child.’

‘And you had no cause to doubt his words?’

‘Of course not.’ Though, I have to admit, I’m beginning to now.  Claws of suspicion, piercing the very sense of who I am. I stare at the back of my hands, half-expecting thick fur to sprout from beneath the smooth white skin, talons to take the place of my manicured red fingernails.

‘If it is any consolation, I do not think Jacob knew of his condition himself. He was as surprised as I was when he began to change.’

‘This was before you went blind, I take it?’ My tone sounds sarcastic, even though I didn’t mean it to be.

‘Ah, yes.’ His forehead furrows. ‘That … affliction … was bestowed upon me later.’

‘So you saw my father change into a wolf?’

‘Not completely. The goblin chieftain slew him before his transformation was complete. Jacob did however buy me enough time to escape with my own life, and for that I will be forever grateful to him. And to his family.’

‘This letter,’ I say, stabbing down with my finger at the paper still lying on the table. ‘It speaks of my destiny, my birthright. What do you know of this?’

‘I know one thing, Scarlett. Your father was not the man you believed him to be, that much is clear. But there is more. Did you know who your father actually was?’

‘He was my father. A simple farmer.’

‘No. That, too, was a pretence.’

‘What do you know about him?’

‘That your father was much more than a lowly tiller of the land.’ The stranger’s voice drops low; I have to lean close to hear his words. ‘He was an exile.’

‘An exile? From where?’

‘From the land beyond the mountains, Scarlett.’

‘From the Kingdom?’ I’m not sure which of the discoveries I’m making about my father is the most preposterous: that he wasn’t killed when I was a child, that he was a werewolf, or that he was an exile from that damned narcoleptic tyrant’s land.

‘Not only that,’ continues the stranger, ‘but he was a man of some repute, prior to being banished. A Lead, in fact.’

‘A Hero? If I find you are lying to me then — blind or not — I shall make you suffer.’

‘I don’t doubt it, Scarlett. Which is why I am telling you nothing but the truth.’

‘So who was my father? Which so-called Hero was he?’

‘You have heard the legend of Snow White?’

I laugh. ‘Don’t tell me he was one of the dwarves…’

‘No.’ He smiles. ‘Jacob was a man of higher stature than that.’

‘So who was he then? Prince bloody Charming?’

‘That was one of the names he went by, yes.’

‘Oh, come on. You expect me to not only believe that my father was a Hero, but the most famous one in the whole Kingdom?’

‘I expect you only to hear my words, Scarlett. What you choose to believe is up to you.’

‘As far as my memory serves, Prince Charming was not a werewolf.’

‘Indeed he was not. My mast … Jacob managed to keep that a secret from everyone. Even your mother.’

‘She certainly seemed to have no clue.’ I recall her, before she died. She was such a quiet woman, accepting of her lot. Resigned to her fate. Even when the fever came, she didn’t complain, not once.

‘Scarlett.’ His tone changes once again. Kinder, more compassionate. ‘The woman you called mother …’

A swirl of red mist. ‘Don’t. Just don’t.’

‘I swore Jacob I would tell you the truth.’

‘Even if I don’t want to hear it?’

‘You need to hear it, Scarlett. Your mother —‘

‘Was Snow White. And my father was Prince Charming. And he was a werewolf.’ I get a weird sense of being outside myself, listening to my own words as if they’re being spoken by someone else. ‘Of course.’

‘It is true, Scarlett. After Snow White’s death, your father was exiled from the Kingdom. Carrying you strapped to his back. He tried, Scarlett. To make a new life for himself. And he truly loved the woman you knew as your mother.’

‘Then why did he leave us?’

‘He was tracked down by SB’s agents. She changed her mind, after exiling him. Decided that he should share Snow White’s fate after all. Fortunately, I managed to find him first and warn him.’

I close my eyes, tempted to give in to the reddening mist. ‘I can’t … ‘ I say. ‘I don’t …’

‘I would not expect you to believe me without proof, Scarlett.’

I pick up the letter and shake it in front of his face, creating a draught that he can at least feel even if he can’t see it. ‘You have proof? More than this?’

‘I do.’

‘Where is it then, this proof?’ The mist is receding; my voice is calmer. The patrons of the tavern have returned to their business, albeit with a thick veneer of nervousness.

‘I could not bring it with me, Scarlett. It is in a place far from here.’

‘You can show me this place?’

‘I can. Though it will be a long and perilous journey to where it lies.’

’It’s not like I have any reason to stay here now, is it? Not if what you’ve told me is true.’

‘There is another reason you may wish to go, Scarlett.’

‘And what’s that? You’re going to tell me my grandparents were fairies now, is that it?’

‘No. Your mother. Your real mother.’

‘What of her?’ All I know of Snow White are the legends. Of her bravery, her kindness. Her ability to see the best in people, no matter how black-hearted they proved to be. Even at the very end, when she forgave her executioner and blessed him moments before the fall of his axe. She sounded like an insufferable dullard to me. ‘She’s alive?’

The stranger’s eyes moisten. ‘Alas, no. Though her memory lives on, in the hopes and dreams of the downtrodden and the abused.’

‘So what about her?’

‘She left you something, Scarlett. A treasure beyond all imagining. Locked in a chest, deep in the forest, able to be opened only by you.’

‘And what is in this chest? The destiny my father spoke of in this letter?’

‘In a manner of speaking, yes.’ He leans back, draws up his hood once more.

‘Tell me. Now.’

‘Your mother left you her crown, Scarlett. Before she was captured, she made me swear that when you came of age, I would find you and return you to the Kingdom.’

‘To do what? Live under the yoke of SB’s rule? No thank you.’

‘No, Scarlett. To take the crown. To take your rightful place.’ He pauses, lighting his pipe from the guttering candle between us.

‘Which is?’

‘Atop SB’s throne, where your mother should have taken her rightful place. Your destiny, Scarlett, is to become Queen of the Kingdom.’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.4 – Rules Of The Road

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‘My life was a hell of a lot simpler before running into you.’

The stranger and I are walking through the village, towards the run-down shack I rather optimistically call home.

‘Perhaps that is true.’ Though he’s as blind as a headless bat, he seems to have no trouble making his own way through the garbage-filled streets. ‘Though it was, to be frank, a lie.’

‘I’m still not convinced everything you’ve told me is true.’ My mind has only just stopped reeling. A royal princess, born of Heroes. And a father who may or may not have been a werewolf: one of the very beasts I have taken an oath to rid the land of forever. ‘I have a lot of unanswered questions.’

‘And I will have ample time to furnish you with answers to them as best I can once we commence our journey.’ He pauses to let a stray dog race past in front of us. The animal stops mid-run and cocks its head, staring at the stranger with a look of canine suspicion. Then it cocks something else against one of the slumbering drunks slouched against the tavern wall and continues on its way. ‘First, though, you said you wish to gather your supplies?’

‘Absolutely. If our journey is as perilous as you claim it will be, I want to have all the weaponry and ammunition at my disposal.’ I start to grin at the thought of finally getting the change to use the handheld explosive chicken launcher I paid a small fortune for at last year’s summer fair.

‘Your mother’s throne must not be gained through acts of violence, Scarlett. Snow White was the very essence of love and compassion: only one of similar character may sit upon the purple velvet.’

‘Then how does that bitch SB manage to rest her backside on it?’ My mind darkens; I hated the Queen of the Kingdom long before I learned she was responsible for the deaths of my parents. My predecessor — Little Red — was one of her many victims also: stripped of her hood, her basket and her shotgun and sentenced to a life of solitary imprisonment for the supposed crime of jokingly telling SB what a big head she had.

And how it must have irked SB to pass on the mantle to me: a nobody from the Badlands. But rules are rules, and I imagine Granny was most insistent, banging on about how no-one — not even the Queen — could interfere with destiny. As the wizened old bag explained to me when she turned up on my doorstep a couple of years ago, my name appeared in the Book as soon as Little Red was stripped of her responsibilities.

‘She got Merlin to fashion her a special cushion.’ The stranger shakes his head. ‘Woven from fairy silk and set with ivory buttons fashioned from the horn of a unicorn. Maleficent herself could sit upon such a thing and be imbued with nothing but faith, hope and charity.’

‘Merlin? She has him working for her now?’

‘Indeed. Now that Arthur lies slumbering and the Round Table gathers dust, he was of the opinion his work at Camelot was done. SB convinced him his skills would be appreciated at the Kingdom’s palace.’ He coughs uncomfortably. ‘Though the manner of her convincing is the subject of much conjecture.’

‘They’re together?’

‘Let’s just say she keeps the tip of his hat straight and leave it at that.’

‘That’s the closest thing to a joke you’ve managed to make since we met. Are you feeling alright?’

‘Forgive me, Scarlett, I know this is no laughing matter.’

I stop, turning to him. His face is ashen, his blind eyes gazing sightlessly at the ground. ‘On the contrary,’ I say. ‘Keeping a sense of humour about things is how I get through the days. You should relax a bit more. Believe me, it makes all of this —‘ I gesture at the uninspiring surroundings of the village — ‘bearable.’

‘And would it make you happy? If I was more light-hearted?’

‘It might make me stop wanting to slap you every time you open your mouth.’

‘You wish to slap me? All I am doing is telling you … ‘ Another cough. ‘Ah. I see. One of your jokes.’ His laughter is as strained as a rat being forced down a plughole. ‘Very good.’

‘Listen, just try and let go a little. Be natural about it.’ I almost feel sorry for him. ‘I don’t even know what you’re called. Why don’t we start by you telling me your name?’

‘Which one? My travelling name, the name I was born with, or the name I was once known by?’

It’s like pulling teeth from a tiger. ‘Whichever one you wish.’

‘Very well, Scarlett.’ He straightens his cloak, checks his belt is fastened, then kneels down in the dust in front of me. I’m embarrassed, not knowing where to look.

‘Er … You don’t have to do that.’

‘Oh, but I insist.’ A smile spreads across his face. ‘It is my place, after all.’

‘Your place? What do you mean? Who are you, really?’

‘My name is Samuel,’ he says, head bowed. His hair is patchy like a half-plucked turkey; scars cover his scalp like runes written by a drunken scribe. ‘The name I was given as a child, at least.’

‘Samuel,’ I say. The name means nothing to me. ‘Or would you prefer me to call you Sam? Sammy?’

‘No, Scarlett. I would prefer it if you called me the name I took several years later, when the map of my destiny was made clear.’

‘And what’s that?’

He raises his face, his blank eyes filled with devotion. ‘I would be most honoured,’ he says, ‘if you called me Lancelot.’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.5 – Future Imperfect

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‘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…

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.6 – Seeing The Wood From The Trees

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‘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.’

‘A tunnel?’

‘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 …

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.7 – Facing The Beast

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Even though I’ve never set eyes on it before, I know the creature crashing through the forest towards us is The Questing Beast. Perhaps it’s the gnashing rows of razor-sharp teeth, the fearsome curved yellow claws or the blood-soaked black pelt … or perhaps instead it’s my inner sense of danger, alerting me to wherever it exists.

Or perhaps it’s down to the fact the brute’s got a big metal disc hanging from a black studded leather collar around its neck with “Questing Beast” engraved on it.

‘Get back!’ I leap forward, instinctively putting myself between the monster and Lancelot. My companion is quivering with fear, his unwounded knee trembling. I draw my sawn-off shotgun and aim it at the beast’s head.

‘Beware my lady!’ His voice is shrill. ‘The Beast cannot be harmed by —‘

His words are lost amidst the deafening explosion from my firearm. My sawn-off is one of my favourites, its polished teak handle comforting in my grip. But it’s the ammunition which really makes the difference. Thrice-blessed bullets, laced with an exquisite cocktail of poisons which disperses across a ten-foot radius when the high-explosive tips make contact with their target. The combination has never failed me once.

But then I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Despite the noxious green cloud enveloping its body, The Questing Beast hasn’t even broken stride. All the shotgun blast appears to have done to it is make it even angrier. And closer.

Pistols. They’re the only thing I have which have a chance of working at this range. I whip them out from their holsters, the filigree on the Derringers glinting wickedly. I squeeze both triggers repeatedly, firing bullet after bullet at the Beast’s advancing body.

They’re as effective as peas against a pachyderm. I empty both weapons nevertheless, hoping that at least one of the enchanted bullets finds a way to penetrate the monster’s defences.

But my hope is in vain. And now it’s full ferocity is bearing down on me.

Claws slash at me, slicing through the air as they swoop towards my throat. I duck and weave, avoiding the creature’s swipes, then roll to one side, narrowly avoiding the deathtrap clamp of its jaws.

My weapons are useless; all I now have are my agility and my wits. And I get the distinct feeling that neither are going to be of much use to me here.

And now, with the Questing Beast’s slavering maw millimetres from my face, I don’t know what is.

I brace myself, preparing for the end. In my line of work, I’m ready for it. I’ve faced that particular demon many times in the past, until I have neither fear nor regrets at the thought of my own untimely, hideous and agonising death. I close my eyes …

… and that’s when it happens.

The pain is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Every single tooth in my skull feel as though it’s being dragged out by the roots; my arms and legs buckle in blistering pain, as if my bones have been shattered in a hundred different places. My spine is a chain of agony, from top to tail.

…My tail.

My claws.

My teeth…

I am wolf.

*****

‘My lady!’ The voice seems to come from a dream within a dream. ‘My lady! Scarlett, wake up!’

I crack open my eyes, groaning in pain. I feel cold, then realise with a start that I’m completely naked. I glance around in panic, seeing the shredded remains of my cloak lying in a crimson heap close by. Beside another, more organic, crimson heap. Which is still twitching.

‘My lady, you did it!’ Lancelot is kneeling at my side. I instinctively cover my modesty with my hands, then remember my erstwhile companion is blind as a brick. ‘You achieved the impossible!’

‘Uh … I … what?’ My head feels like the Needlessly Numerous Marching Band Of The Badlands have taken residence inside. ‘What did I do?’

‘You slew The Questing Beast, my lady! With your bare hands!’

I stare at my palms. They’re soaking. Red.

Then I stare at the mass of flesh and gore where The Questing Beast used to be.

Then I turn over my hands and see the grey fur receding back into the pores of my skin as I watch.

And then I laugh harder than I’ve ever laughed in my life.

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.8 – The Voices, The Voices

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‘For a blind Knight Of The Round Table, you’re a dab hand with the old needle and thread.’

‘My lady Guinevere taught me many things,’ says Lance, repairing the last rip in my shredded hood. ‘Not least how to mend ripped bodices.’ His voice turns bashful. ‘Which is something we experienced rather frequently.’

I decide not to press him for more details: my imagination has already done a good enough job of making me feel like I’ve just swallowed a diseased toad.

‘Shall we press on, my lady?’ He hands me my cloak and hood and the rest of my clothes which were torn to pieces during my transformation into a wolf. His handiwork is impressive: my clothing looks as good as new. ‘We should make the entrance to the labyrinth by nightfall.’

I perform the last of the checks on my vast array of weaponry. I stare down at my hands, finding it hard to believe that my fingers — or rather, my claws — are the deadliest weapons of all. The minced remains of the supposedly indestructible Questing Beast lie in a gory pile nearby. Despite feeling somewhat at odds with my newfound powers of lycanthropy, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride at my handiwork.

‘The Minotaur,’ I say, ignoring Lance’s wince of warning. ‘It will be no match for me now.’

‘You should still exercise caution, my lady. Though I am no expert in your condition, as far as I understand things, you may only turn once per month. When the moon waxes full, and the pale-faced goddess Diana is in the ascends—‘

‘Bullocks to that,’ I say, examining my forearms. Is it just me, or are they slightly hairier than normal? ‘I can tell I’m able to turn it on and off like a tap.’

‘But … the lore …’

‘Is wrong,’ I say. ‘Take it from me.’  I’m not in the mood to discuss it further: my mind is darkening with the thoughts of all the lycans I’ve mercilessly slaughtered in the past.

Lance, to his credit, changes the subject. ‘The beast at the heart of the labyrinth may prove to be a more dire threat than even the Questing Beast.’

‘If it can be killed, I fail to see how.’

‘It can indeed be slain, Scarlett. But the corridors of the labyrinth are littered with the bones of those who have tried.’

‘Then we shall avenge them. I’ll tear out the Minotaur’s throat with my teeth, rip its horns off with my bare hands, shove them up its — ‘

‘My lady.’ Lance holds up his hand. ‘May I ask that you exercise some control over your powers. Lycanthropy is a curse, as you well know. If you allow the condition to rule you, then it will take over: devour the very things which make you human. Turn you into a beast. Forever.’

I know he’s right. I can already feel it: the bestial rage simmering just beneath the surface. The bloodlust, nigh-on impossible to slake. The whispering, tempting me to give in to the power burning within my heart. It would be so quick … so easy … so good

‘Once you retrieve your mother’s crown,’ says Lance, ‘you will be safe. Through it, her purity and love will imbue you with the ability to control even your basest desires.’

That sounds a bit dull to me, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Besides, my heart’s set on the vast amounts of weaponry I’ll be able to purchase with the wealth of the Kingdom when I inherit the throne. ‘Then we should continue on our quest,’ I say, using words I know my sightless companion will appreciate, ‘and restore order to the land at our earliest opportunity.’

The day passes without event. I let Lance recite his knightly poetry, the tortuous rhymes of which distract me from the voices in my head telling me to give into the lupine power and rip out his larynx. We make reasonable progress through the Forest, especially considering Lance’s limp. An hour or so after noon, we can hear it: the roaring of water in the distance, a sound like the constant bellowing of a hundred thousand beasts.

‘The Raging River.’ Lance gazes meaningfully at a nearby tree trunk. ‘The watery grave of many a noble soul.’

‘You’ve obviously crossed it before,’ I say. ‘You went over the Bridge of A Hundred Doubts, I take it?’

‘That I did, my lady. My disguise as a blind beggar was most effective. SB’s militia let me cross without challenge.’

‘I’m sure we could take them.’ The voices in my head are a little louder now. ‘If I let myself turn into a wolf, then I —‘

’No, Scarlett. You mustn’t. Even if you are able to change at will as you claim, transforming twice in such a short space of time will be too much for your humanity to bear.’

‘But doesn’t that mean I won’t be able to face the minotaur either?’

‘Not as a wolf, no.’

The voices retreat somewhere I can’t hear them so clearly. I hoist my triple-barrelled shrapnel grenade launcher. ’Then I’d better make sure everything’s fully loaded.’

‘Another thing, my lady. I’m afraid the labyrinth is protected by powerful magics of the ancients. We will not be able to enter it armed in any way.’

‘What? I have to leave all my babies behind?’ I stroke the handle of my nuclear-powered crossbow lovingly. ‘No way. We’d be better off taking our chances against the militia.’

‘They are too many, even for you and your undeniably impressive arsenal,’ says Lance, shaking his head. ‘Besides, they would be able to alert SB as soon as we attempted to cross. The success of our mission depends upon us keeping an element of surprise.’

There is wisdom in his words. The Kingdom is connected by magically-powered ley lines, allowing those possessing enchanted amulets to contact one another in an instant. I can scarcely imagine anything worse, but then that’s yet another example of how much I dislike SB’s supposedly wondrous Kingdom. Perhaps I’ll abolish the amulets and disconnect the ley lines when I take the throne…

’So be it,’ I say. ‘I shall face the Minotaur unarmed and without the aid of my wolfish powers.’

‘It is an honour and a privilege to serve you, my lady.’ Lancelot kneels before me, his head bowed. ‘You truly have your father’s courage.’

I look down at my pale hands. Whether I have my late father’s bravery or not, I have an unshakeable feeling I may well end up sharing his fate …

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.9 – Amazing Grace

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‘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?’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.10 – Fascinating Rhythm

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I think it’s the familiarity with the sound of my weapons that does it. The staccato burst of my machine gun; the ratatat of my shoulder-mounted Gatling; the earth-shaking thump of my high-explosive mortar shells.

Whatever it is, one fact is indisputable: I’m absolutely fantastic on drums.

‘Again, again!’ The Minotaur claps his hands like an overexcited toddler, albeit one with a massive bull’s head and an axe twice the height of me. ‘From the top, one-two-three-four …’

And I launch into the song he’s just taught me once more, laying down a steady backbeat with my feet as my hands skip over the drum skins in a flurry of syncopated dexterity. After warily agreeing to his terms whereby I could gain safe passage through the Labyrinth only if I was able to prove my musical prowess, I can now feel the rhythm deep inside my chest, echoing my heart and making me feel as close to happy as I’ve probably been in years.

‘You’re a natural, darling!’ The Minotaur  — who I’ve since learned goes by the name of Cecil — lowers his saxophone and click his fingers to my complex rhythms. ‘Much better than all these other no-hopers. Tone deaf little blighters, the lot of them!’

I smile and nod, trying my best not to look at the shattered bones lying all across the cavern floor. Instead, I close my eyes and perform a perfect paradiddle I didn’t even know I had in me.

‘Simply divine!’ Cecil gushes. ‘You’re the finest jazz drummer I’ve ever heard!’

I can’t help but feel proud of myself. I’m used to being the finest wolf-slayer in the Badlands, but – beyond making some interestingly abstract patterns on my victims’ pelts with my weapons – my potential to express my creative side has been somewhat limited. I splash at one of the cymbals and let the tone ring out to an echoing fade. ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I’ve enjoyed myself, I must admit.’

‘I’m soooo pleased to hear you say that,’ says Cecil. ‘We must form a band immediately. He purses his lips. ‘How about Scarlett & The Horn?

‘Er, yeah, I suppose…’ Much as I’ve enjoyed myself here, I wasn’t exactly planning on making a career out of it. Not when there’s a Kingdom — and a vast amount of riches — to inherit. ‘Anyways,’ I say, casually stretching, ‘I suppose I’d best be going now.’

‘What?’ Cecil clasps his hands over his snout. ‘You’re leaving? But … but … you can’t!

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, eyeing his massive axe. ‘I’m afraid I have to meet someone.’

He paws the ground for a moment. ‘Are they … are they musical?’

‘Lance? No, not to my knowledge. He does write poetry though.’

‘A lyricist?’ Cecil clicks his hooves together and does the least dainty pirouette I’ve ever had the displeasure of witnessing. ‘How wonderful! I have to meet him! We could become a trio, travel the land, setting hearts and souls aflame with our freeform jazz!’

‘I’m not sure he’d be —‘

‘I’lll hear none of it, Miss Little Red Bossypants!’ He folds his arms and pouts. ‘Take me to him, right away!’

I sigh. Considering about half an hour ago I thought I’d never leave the Labyrinth alive, I suppose this isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. And if I can convince Lance to go along with it, having Cecil on our side when the time comes to storm SB’s castle could prove very useful indeed. Especially if I tell him that everyone in the Kingdom hates jazz …

‘Very well,’ I say, ‘though please be gentle with Lance. He’s rather … unique.’

‘All the best artistes are, darling!’ Cecil fidgets with his sax, obviously keen to get going. ‘Come on then, last one out the Labyrinth is a big sissy poostick!’

*****

I’ve seldom been so relieved to see daylight. Even with Cecil expertly navigating the twisting corridors of the Labyrinth, it took us over an hour to reach the exit, set into a cliffside on the northern side of The Raging River. I find myself equally relieved to see the familiar figure of Lance sitting on a nearby rock, the pile of kindling that is really my magically-disguised arsenal of weaponry lying at his feet.

‘There he is,’ I say to Cecil, who’s been regaling me with his latest and apparently most tuneless compositions for the past forty minutes. ‘Come on, I’ll introduce you.’

‘My lady?’ Lance raises his head, his sightless eyes narrowing at the sound of our approach. ‘You made it out of the Labyrinth intact?’

‘I did indeed,’ I say, glancing at Cecil. He has the mouthpiece of his saxophone pressed between his lips, ready no doubt to unleash another sonic blast from his instrument. ‘And I’ve … em … made a new friend. Lance? Meet Cecil.’

The minotaur thrusts out a gigantic hand enthusiastically. Lance continues to gaze off somewhere into the middle distance. Cecil looks at me, puzzled.

‘Sorry,’ I say to him, feeling a bit ashamed of myself. ‘I should have explained: Lance is … well, he can’t …’

‘I’m blind, Cecil,’ says my knightly companion. ‘Blind as a headless chicken tossed down a bottomless pit on a moonless night.’

Cecil gasps and hops from one hoof to the other. ‘How wonderful!

I look at him, aghast. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake and should have slain him when I had a chance. ‘Wonderful?’ I say. ‘The poor man can’t see a thing!’

‘But just think, my little Scarlett pimperdink! A blind jazz musician! It’s the stuff of legend!’

‘I think you’re being a bit insensitive,’ I say. ‘Lance’s sight was taken by an evil sorceress. It’s a curse, not a blessing.’

‘It’s quite alright, my lady.’ Lance holds up his palms. ‘I am unashamed of my condition. In some instances, it can even be a distinct advantage. For example, I don’t have to look at the face of monsters as hideous as the Minotaur. A beast so disgusting, so —‘

I start to speak, then realise it’s pointless; that it’s too late. Lance has frozen solid, the state which kicks in when he has a vision about imminent harm about to befall him. And it doesn’t exactly take a genius to work out where that harm’s going to come from …

… but when I look to Cecil, I see that instead of bearing down on Lance with his axe, the Minotaur is sitting down on the ground, crying his eyes out. ‘Hideous?’ he manages between sobs. ‘Disgusting? Me?’’

So if it’s not Cecil who’s about to inflict terrible damage on Lance, then who is?

Presumably the same unseen assailant who’s just smashed something into the back of my skull, causing everything to turn an all-encompassing and rather painful black …