The lights may be on in his eyes, but there’s nobody home.
Gone is Cecil’s cheery optimistic manner, replaced instead by a pixie-fuelled inferno of rage. Steam bellows from his nostrils; his muscles bulge beneath his taut brown skin; his loincloth flaps with an air of abject fury.
‘Cecil!’ I know before the cry leaves my lips that there’s no point: the Minotaur has been possessed by the pixie swarm, who will be controlling his every thought and action. ‘Cecil, it’s me! Scarletto Scaramouch Fandango!’
‘It is of no use,’ says Lance, limping to my side. ‘The creature we knew as Cecil is gone, his life-force suffocated by the parasitic cloud of pixies.’
The Minotaur is charging towards us, spiked club swinging above its head. He’ll be on us in a few moments. Apart from a flimsy branch of leaves, I’m completely naked. My weapons are in a pile where I left them when I transformed into a wolf. My energy is depleted: there’s no chance of me transforming back into a beast until I’ve had a chance to rest. I need to think — and act — quick. Which I would possibly be able to do if it wasn’t for this blasted tune running through my mind and distracting me …
Despite the actuality of Cecil’s musical talents being the tiniest bit lower than what he believed them to be, every now and again he did manage to come up with a catchy tune. And it’s one of those which is buzzing round my head right now, no doubt brought to mind by the sight of him crashing towards me with the intent of beating out a rather more unpleasant refrain with his club.
There’s a chance. A tiny, desperate one, admittedly, but it’s all I can think of.
I put my lips together and blow. As a stealthy hunter of forest-foraging fauna, my ability to whistle is well-honed. And whilst I’m more used to using it to mimic the calls of the creatures I’m hunting, I’m also pleasingly able to replicate Cecil’s tune.
A few notes in, and nothing happens. The Minotaur is nearly upon me. I brace myself, hoping to be able to withstand the first of his blows then somehow manoeuvre myself into an advantageous position and bring him down. I continue to whistle, though it’s looking like it’s not going to have any affect on the pixie-inhabited monster. I change key, moving on to the chorus segment.
And that’s when it happens.
The Minotaur’s ears twitch, tuning into the sound of my whistle like a pair of leathery antennae. I continue to whistle, blowing harder and increasing the volume of the tune.
Cecil blinks, then judders to a halt. His eyes are crossed, his widening mouth opening and closing like he’s eating an invisible pizza. The club crashes to the forest floor as he starts to click his fingers in time with my whistling melody.
And then two concentrated blue streams of pixies shoot out of his nostrils.
‘Get them!’ I leap forward, swinging my branch at the little blue bugbears, swatting dozens of them aside with each swipe.
Cecil shakes his head and widens his eyes. ‘Scarletto Cornetto!’ he cries. ‘You’re not wearing a stitch!’
I laugh, flattening a few score more pixies with my branch. ‘Never mind that,’ I cry, ‘help me get rid of this pest problem!’
‘Gladly, my little whistling dixie!’ Cecil grabs handfuls of the swarming mites, crushing them in his gigantic fists. Beside me, Lance is joining in as well, flailing at the blue cloud with his stick and swatting groups of them from the air.
After a chaotic few seconds of flurried activity, it’s all over. The ground is stained blue with the squished remnants of the malevolent sprites. I’m out of breath and sweating, but filled with the intoxicating power of victory. And — less familiarly — relief: that Cecil appears to be safe.
‘Thank you so much, my little hooded wonder,’ he says, dropping to one knee. ‘I am forever in your debt — my next song will be a tribute to your bravery and wits!’
‘You did indeed do well, my lady.’ Lance is also kneeling, though facing in completely the wrong direction. ‘It is an honour to have you as our leader.’
‘Oh enough of that,’ I say, though I have a suspicion I’m blushing as crimson as my name. ‘Come on, help me retrieve my clothes and my weapons and we can bring justice to this land once and for all. Together.’
Cecil does another impressive job mending my torn cloak with his surprisingly nimble fingers. After I was reunited with my weapons, I reunited him with the remains of his saxophone. The look on his face as he cradled the flattened instrument was heartbreaking, but after Lance reminded him how musical his bellowing can be, Cecil eventually brightened and before long was composing another ditty which — I have to admit — was rather stirring.
It provides a suitable soundtrack for us as we march northwards, refreshed and revitalised, confident in our collective abilities to defeat SB and reclaim my mother’s throne. Surprisingly, my previous thoughts of gaining access to the Kingdom’s vast amounts of gold have been replaced by a desire for justice. I decide to share this with Lance, despite feeling a bit sheepish doing so.
‘It is the mark of your heritage, my lady,’ he says. ‘I have always seen it within you — and now it gladdens my heart to to see it rise to the surface in such an inspiring manner.’
‘It feels … odd,’ I say, cradling my favourite submachine gun in my arms like a comatose kitten. ‘I’m used to being alone.’ I glance over my shoulder at my tail. ‘And human.’
‘We are all on a journey,’ says Lance. ‘We do not always know what lies ahead.’
‘You do, though.’
‘Only for those whose fate is intertwined with my own. And, as we discussed before, your influence is already making the dread certainties of the future less sure.’
‘So what do you suggest we do now?’ The mantle of leadership is as alien to me as wearing a party dress and a ribbon in my hair.
‘I suggest we continue exactly as we are,’ says Lance, smiling. ‘I have utmost faith in you to choose the right paths on our journey, my lady.’
‘And him?’ I nod across to Cecil, who’s trying to coax a tune out of a couple of toads he picked up from the side of a stream a couple of hours ago. Despite his enthusiastic squeezing, all the poor amphibians manage to do is make rather distressed squeaking noises.
‘He is a valuable member of our party,’ says Lance. ‘Capable of gaining us access to SB’s palace through force if our plan to slip in undetected fails.’
‘We’re still intending to pretend to be performers?’ I look askance at Lance. His previously impressive forest-fashioned outfit has started to wilt a bit.
‘I believe that plan has the best chance of us confronting SB with the minimum of violence,’ he says. ‘Unless you disagree, I advise we continue on that course.’
‘And Merlin? What do we have to fear from him?’
Lance is about to reply when I become aware of someone else on our path, standing a few paces ahead. A woman, slender, with long black hair curling over her shoulders.
‘Morgana!’ Lance sounds as though someone’s stepped on his grave, stopped there, and is now tap-dancing on it.
‘Leave Merlin to me,’ says the woman, coiling a strand of hair around her fingers and smiling bewitchingly at us. ‘He and I have something of an old score to settle…’