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 …