“Look,” said the small child in scarlet, “do we have to go through the whole ‘all the better to see you with’ routine? I mean, you look nothing like my grandmother even on her worst day and I’ve got more errands to run before the end of the afternoon. Talking of my grandmother, if you’ve done anything to her, you’re dead. Just so you know.”
The wolf only leered and bared its teeth.
“I passed at least ten woodcutters on the way here,” said the little girl. “And I can scream louder than anyone you’ve ever met –”
The wolf raised itself, poised to leap.
“And,” said the child, “as it happens, I have my own axe. You don’t think I walk through woods with a basket full of goodies and no protection, do you? You must think my parents hate me.”
Some wolves, alas – real wolves – are less easily defeated. Almost all of them, in fact. Life is difficult. Get used to it.
“You’re late!” said the Princess, sitting up and giving her tardy rescuer a glare. “A hundred years late! Tell me, how is that even possible?”
The Prince gave a shrug. “Come on, you should have seen the wall of thorns that used to be round this place. You were kinda hard to reach. Thousands died in the attempt, but not yours truly –”
“I had important things to do!”
“Then next time think of that before you go round insulting fairies.”
“I wasn’t being insulting. I merely pointed out that beauty and grace aren’t exactly the best christening gifts. They’re not useful, you can’t wrap them, and you can’t even take them back in the morning. She should have tried harder. I mean, she could at least have gone for brains!”
“Yeah,” said the Prince, giving a grin. “And you know what, I think I will.”
The Princess wasn’t paying full attention; she had more complaints to make. “And that kiss wasn’t the greatest, by the way. I mean, not bad, all considered, but still – I’d say there’s room for improvement.”
“Oh, yeah? I never had any complaints before!”
“If you’re unconvinced,” said the Princess, putting her arms around him with a wicked smile, “I can give you a practical demonstration. Point by point. I’m sure you’ll come round to my way of thinking.”
Life doesn’t do happy endings. In life, what you get is too tangled up to unravel – until only one of a pair is left staring at an empty space, wondering what just happened. The only question in this romance – and Lynda fears she does know the answer to this – is which one of them that will be.
iii. huff and puff
“You can’t call that a house!” said the Big Bad Wolf.
Somewhere under a heap of straw, a small pig quivered and whimpered.
“Well, no, you can’t now,” said the Nice Wolf, Big Bad Wolf’s best friend (despite everything). “What’s so hard about giving out some constructive criticism instead?”
The Big Bad Wolf glared. “It’d be wasted on someone so dim-witted he thinks you can make a house out of straw! Where would you even begin?”
“All right, all right, but when we come to the second one, can you try and find something encouraging to say? Even if it’s only that it’s better than the last one?”
“Yes, but I’m busy and they’re too stupid to live. Can’t you do the encouraging bit for me?”
Sometimes the thing is, we are the wolves; we’re the ones who eat people alive. Sometimes. Lynda turns in her sleep. Sometimes she wakes, hearing gun shots. Sometimes.
Be careful what you say to people. It might be the last thing they ever hear.
“Will somebody explain the point of the exercise to Friar Mathews?” said the outlaw, regardless of the fact she was wearing questionable Lincoln green tights and a stupid hat with a red feather in it. “Or how about I spell it out to you in very large and simple letters? We rob the rich to give to the poor. So, don’t tell me that our hoard of gold and jewels has temporarily been stolen by a badger or eaten by a tree – I want it here, now. All of it!”
The Friar paused, mulling the question over. “Actually, it might have been stolen by a tree and eaten by a badger?”
“Well, get the tree to give it back and get it out of the badger by any means necessary,” said the daring outlaw, reaching for her bow. “Either that, or I’ll start using you for target practice!”
The Friar put up his hands. “Okay, okay, I see your point! Er. Several of them. I think I’m feeling a twinge of something somewhere…”
“Somehow I didn’t think so. Well, come on – what are you waiting for? I want that gold!”
“Yes, but, look, there was this magpie and you know what those little beggars are like. It’s not my fault. Have you considered running a protection racket instead?”
The outlaw strung an arrow to her bow.
“I’ll take that as a no, then…”
Sometimes it’s so hard to do the right thing. It’s like a conspiracy. It’s never as simple as it should be, and that’s the truth.
“It was just a stupid sword! Who leaves a sword lying about like that if it’s so important? How was I to know?”
The wizard raised an eyebrow. “There was an engraving on the side of the stone. I always thought you were a good reader – I’d go so far as to say one of my best pupils.”
“Even I don’t pause to read things when I’m being chased by a dragon! Now what am I supposed to do?” The new Queen of Britain waved her magic sword about wildly, causing her magical adviser to take a wise step to the side.
“Get a court together. Organise everyone. Get the country’s infrastructure in shape. Slay more dragons. I think you’ll be good at it.”
The Queen looked down. That was what she was afraid of. “Yes, but… what if I’m too good?” Then she looked up again. “Sir. What if I’m a tyrant?”
“Then someone will come along and slay you in the fullness of time.”
“I’m not sure that’s very comforting.”
The magician turned back. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
“So what do I do?”
“Don’t be a tyrant,” said the wizard. “It is up to you, after all.”
“Is it?” said the Queen. “I suppose it is.”
Lynda wakes in the newsroom in the dark. “Damn,” she says, under her breath, “I have got to stop doing this.”
She turns on the light, but as she surveys her own small kingdom, her heart is beating a little too fast, and she can’t shake off the fear of what she might become.
“Lynda,” says someone, standing in the doorway. “What time is it? You have got to stop doing this.”
She gives a small smile. “That’s what I said.”
“Hey, great minds and all that.”
Lynda moves nearer. “Spike.”
“Have I ever told you how sexy those pyjamas are? They scream prison uniform like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s weirdly inappropriate and appropriate at the same time.”
“Spike,” says Lynda, reaching him. “I still think you’re a self-righteous, low-down, narcissistic rat who was, incidentally, completely wrong about that article earlier – and, by the way, you don’t spell hypocrite as if it involves an actual hippo – but since you’re here, will you do something for me?”
“That depends, boss. That nice officer down at the station said we’d be having words if I helped you bury another body in the Gazette grounds. He said it might start looking suspicious.”
“Just shut up and kiss me, okay?”