by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket
Chapter 18: The Labyrinth
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
Oliver Simpkin sat in the saloon bar of the Three Goats public house. He was the only person there except for the landlord. He was almost always the only person there. The Three Goats was a traditional old inn, where the Holland family had brewed and sold their own beer for generations. Connoisseurs knew it for the best in New Zephyria, but, best or not, it wasn't much wanted these days. The younger generation drank Scungebucket's Foaming Lager, and, under its potent influence, they roamed the streets looking for other gangs to fight.
"Who's that?" said Oliver Simpkin, pointing at the television.
"Prime Minister," replied Sam Holland, the far from loquacious landlord.
"Ah," said Mr Simpkin. "Prime Minister. Why is he on the doodah-box-thing?"
"He's always on the box. Can't stay off it. Let's hear what he has to say."
"Eunnnngh! Preparations for the election of the President of New Zephyria are now complete. The election will take place on Tuesday the ..."
"What's New Whatsit?" enquired Oliver Simpkin.
"Country. This country. Don't you remember anything, Olly? You used to be the King's secretary."
"Yes, yes, of course. King's secretary? Good job that. Who was the King's whatnot? That fellow with the long nose? Him on the thing there?"
"No that's the Prime Minister."
* * * * *
"Bertie!! BERTIE!!" yelled King Arthur. At the same time he thought, "What's the use? He won't hear me. None of the wanderers hear me."
Prince Egbert looked up. "Dad!" he called. "What are you doin' here? Oh, gosh, don't say you're dead."
"Dead? Of course I'm dead. This bally place is full of bally dead people. You have to be dead to be here, haven't you even realised that. Egad, Bertie, you've been here for months, jus wanderin' about like a bally lost soul. You should be over the Bridge, home and dry."
"I can't go over the Bridge."
"Egad! I knew you were a wastrel, but I thought you were a good-hearted boy. Why can't you go over the bridge?"
"Well, I d-don't quite know how to t-tell you, but you see ... I'm not dead."
"Bertie," said the King sadly, "even a blitherin' ignoramus such as you must see that you've passed the Black Stump and you're in the Underworld."
"Yes, Dad, I see that, but ... well, perhaps I'd better explain. I suppose you all thought I was dead when Bruce came back without me."
"He told us you were dead."
"Are you sure?"
"Where's Bertie? we said. Gone beyond the Black Stump, says he."
"Yes, and so I did, but I'm not dead. We went to the round-up of the Unicorn ..."
"Yes, we saw it on telly."
"And you saw the stampede?"
"Yes. And thought you must have been killed."
"Not so, aged pater, picked up by a couple of Unicorn and carried off to meet their King, whom I'm very glad to see again."
"Thank you," murmured the Unicorn King, "I wondered when one or other of you might remember me."
"Dashed sorry, old chap," King Arthur apologised. "Trouble is, in the excitement of seeing young Bertie here, and findin' he could hear me, I clean forgot you. Thought you were a horse, deuced sorry and all that ... Here wait a minute, you knew Bertie wasn't dead, but you let me go on thinkin' he was!"
"In the country of the demons," said the Unicorn quietly, "it is not wise to talk of things the enemy should not know. Keep your voices down, and if any of the Nightmares or other lesser demons should pass this way, you should pretend not to know each other at all."
"Right'oh. I'll keep a sharp lookout," said King Arthur. "Now Bertie, let's hear your story."
"Well, Bruce and I tootled along to the round-up of the Unicorn, and when the jolly old u-s charged we were caught up in the midst of it, and rather alarming it was too for a chap of my sensitive nature. I didn't know whether we were going to be trampled underfoot or perforated by horns and bullets. That thug Azog was urgin' his men to shoot us when the Unicorn came thunderin' up. One paused right in front of me and I seemed to hear a voice tellin' me to mount. I swung myself aboard automatically and off we galloped. You're going mad, Bertie, Old Bean, I thought, hearin' voices. Next you'll be thinkin' it was the bally Unicorn that spoke. Well of course it was the bally Unicorn. I must have been thinkin' out loud because he suddenly said, You're not mad. It was my voice you heard. I was so surprised I nearly fell off.
"I managed to hold on somehow and we thundered away across the plain leavin' the roundup in a shambles and that gangster Azog weltrin' in his gore."
"They never found his body," interjected King Arthur.
"There was no body," said the Unicorn King, and no gore either. The leader of the round-up was the demon Azog, scourge of the horselords, banished from earth a thousand years ago. How he came to be in New Zephyria I do not know. He should never have passed the Black Stump. We failed in that, but at least he died, as was foretold, on the horn of his ancient foe."
"Strange allies that Scungebucket woman has," grunted King Arthur. "Go on, Bertie. "What happened next?"
"We galloped over the plain to the Black Stump," said Prince Egbert, "and all the Unicorn formed up in a circle round their King. That's when I saw that Bruce was with us, mounted on another Unicorn. Anyway, my beast and his went up to the King and we both dismounted and had a bit of a chinwag with him. The upshot of it all was that he told me that if I wanted to find out about Auld Hinnie McIldhu and rescue Vicky and get back Simpkin's memory I'd have to go beyond the Black Stump.
"At this my knees began beatin' out a tattoo you could have heard miles away if it hadn't been muffled by the gent's natty suitin'. You mean, says I, I've got to die?
"Die? says the King, Not a bit of it. You wouldn't be the first man to go to the Underworld alive. Your own ancestor Prince Theowulf went down and wreaked havoc among the demons and taniwha.
"I don't mind tellin' you that by this time my teeth had joined in with my knees and were chatterin' like castanets. Th-that's all very well, I said, but he was a great hero. Vanquishin' a herd of taniwha was nothin' to him. I'm not a hero. I'm just a coward. I've never fought anyone except with a gang at my back and our only battles were against boys who couldn't fight back.
"Every hero has to start somewhere, said the Unicorn King. I don't suppose Prince Theowulf ever thought he could face a taniwha until he tried. Anyway, you have his sword and his ancient greenstone mere - and besides you've already stood up to Azog to rescue us.
"Well that was different of course. We were never in any real danger, but goin' beyond the Black Stump was somethin' I didn't like the sound of at all. Still the Unicorn King said his people went in and out all the time and as long as you weren't afraid it wasn't too bad. Well to cut a long story short, I was in a blue funk but even I could see that if I wanted to find any trace of Auld Hinnie McIldhu I had to do down below. So Bruce went back home alone and I set off mounted on the Unicorn Prince and tryin' to look as if I was a dead soul.
"Beastly depressin' place it is down here, as I expect you've noticed, but the worst thing about it is people keep wanderin' off the path and gettin' lost, and there was nothin' I could do about it. I tried to round up a few of them, but they couldn't see me, or if they did see me that ran off screamin' as though I were some kind of monster. I gave up in the end. My Unicorn told me it was no good, and it was better not to draw attention to myself, but I hated just lettin' them wander off to perdition like that, especially when the Nightmares came swoopin' down and sent them stampedin' away like frightened rabbits.
"Anyway, I soon saw that I would have to join them. If Auld Hinnie McIldhu is one of the demons of the Underworld there would be no point in ridin' straight for the Rainbow Bridge. If she's got a headquarters down here at all it would have to be somewhere off down by the Abyss. So I waited until there were no Nightmares around, slid off the Unicorn's back, and off he went back towards the Portal as if he'd delivered his passenger, leavin' yours truly sittin' in the sand-dunes wonderin' which way to go.
"I soon found out. As soon as the next flock of wanderin' souls came along down came the Nightmares and drove them off the path. I soon saw that they weren't just panickin' the poor souls for the fun of it. They were drivin' them, always in the same direction, downhill, towards the Abyss. It was like lions panicking a herd of zebra, or wolves drivin' a herd of deer, or even schoolboys swoopin' down on the new bugs and frightening them into scuttling off to hide behind the hall where they could be trapped and scragged.
"I screamed and ran with the rest of them, until we got close to the Abyss. Some of the souls were driven right over the edge. I suppose they fell down to the deeper levels and worse tortures. I had to avoid goin' over too, but without lettin' the nightmares see I wasn't in a blind panic, so I screamed and waved my arms and ran this way and that, sometimes towards the precipice and sometimes away from it, and sometimes along the edge.
"That's how I came to the Castle, if you can call it a castle. It's huge and black and horribly menacing, just like you told us Auld Hinnie was, and it's right on the edge of the Abyss.
"Down came the Nightmares again, and off I went, straight for the Castle. They were after me like the Hounds of Hell. I was running like a hunted deer. They tried to cut me off and drive me over the edge, but I swerved like a rabbit and kept going. They came in like rugby tacklers, but I jinked round them and ran for my goal. I was gasping for breath and my legs were like lead.
"I saw an open gate and I shot into it and slammed it in their faces. Then I turned and found myself in a tunnel. At my first step it began lurching and spinning. I staggered and fell, and all the time the tunnel pitched and rolled like a ship in a storm. I was dizzy and sick. I had to get out. Somehow I found the gate, fell through it and was sick on the sand.
"The Nightmares were there. How they jeered. I was sick and dizzy and crying with frustration and humiliation.
"Into the Labyrinth! they jeered. Hustle him into the labyrinth! They were all around me. There was no escape. Remember the Labyrinth at school, Dad? In the cellars under the hall.
"I remember," said King Arthur. "It was used for initiations, but surely all that had stopped long before your time Bertie?"
"Not so, aged pater," grinned the Prince. "I too have crawled through the cellars in a blue funk about spiders and spooks, taking wrong turns getting lost and wonderin' if I'd ever see the light of day again - and I've helped to shove newbugs in too. It was still going strong when I left and I expect it still is. Anyway, these Nightmares were determined I should go back into the Labyrinth, so in I went and the door was slammed hard behind me.
"There I stood in the darkness. I thought, If I don't move perhaps everything will stay still. It worked. But how long could I stay absolutely still? I could hear the Nightmares cackling outside and I knew they weren't going to give up. Anyway, I thought, if this is Auld Hinnie McIldhu's castle I have to get into it somehow, and that means I've got to find my way through the Labyrinth. People say if you can survive a New Zephyrian public school you can survive anything, so I gritted my teeth and told myself, Bertie, old bean, it's just like the Labyrinth at school. If you've done it once you can do it again. Of course I was thinkin' at the same time, But the school Labyrinth stayed in one place and didn't make a chap feel like a cat in a spin-dryer. Still, nothin' for it but to start. Ultra-cautious, inch one foot forward, keep your head still, don't look down, don't look anywhere.
"It seemed to work, so I tried again. Inch by inch I edged forward. It was slow work, I can tell you, and every time I felt a lurch beginnin' I had to stop and keep quite still until the dizziness passed. I kept takin' wrong turnin's of course and comin' up against blank walls. I had no idea which way to go and no hope of ever findin' my way out again. I began to despair. I was imprisoned forever in the Labyrinth, and if I lay down, or even allowed my head to slump, my prison would become an eternity of lurching, pitching, rolling dizziness and nausea.
"It was then I heard something bellowing. The guardian of the Labyrinth, I thought, probably a Minotaur. How in the world am I goin' to fight a Minotaur if I can't even move without collapsin' and bein' sick. I can't even run away if it comes for me. Then I thought, If I can't move in these tunnels perhaps it can't either. Perhaps there's a place at the centre of the Labyrinth where everything stays still. Then I racked the old bean, and this is what I came up with. The Labyrinth is here to protect the Castle. But Auld Hinnie McIldhu doesn't want to live in perpetual dizziness, so the Castle must be solid. The Minotaur is probably the last danger. Better to die facing a Minotaur than to be spun to death in the Labyrinth.
"So I drew my sword and inched forward towards the noise. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly I saw light at the end of the tunnel. I shuffled towards it and came out into the castle courtyard. All around were massive black walls, and the light was the dim grey light of the Underworld, but it was at least light, and by its mournful glow I saw, standin' in the middle of the courtyard, a great grey beast. It stood there, swayin' and stampin' and obviously in a foul temper.
"It must have heard me. It swung round with a great bellow, and I saw its fearsome tusks and its peculiarly prehensile proboscis. I was so flabbergasted I nearly dropped my sword. It wasn't a Minotaur. It was a fabulous beast straight out of the Brothers Jolly - an Oliphaunt."
"Egad!" ejaculated King Arthur. "An actual Oliphaunt, like the ones Hannibal crossed the Alps with in the fairytale?"
"An actual Oliphaunt," said Prince Egbert. "Not a demonic illusion either, but a livin', breathin' animal - and a very angry one. I could see that it was chained to a stake by its back legs, but in that small courtyard there was no gettin' past it.
"I racked the jolly old b. again, tryin' to recall all I could about Oliphaunts. That's it, says I, Rememberin's what they do. Oliphaunts never forget. Then I seemed to here your voice, Dad, sayin' Oliver Simpkin never forgets, and I remembered that when Simpkin used to win all those Brain of New Zephyria quizzes people used to call him Oliver the Oliphaunt or Oliphaunt Simpkin. Dashed queer thoughts. Anyway, there seemed to be no point in lurkin' in the shadows so I stepped out lookin' as bold as I could and cried out Ho! Oliphaunt! or some such guff. I was ready to retreat as soon as it attacked, but the beast just stared at me, then went down on its knees and bowed its head.
Golly! says I. Nice to meet you, Oliphaunt.
Bow goes its head again.
Do you know me? says I, and its huge head starts going up and down for all the world as if it were noddin'.
Oliphaunt Simpkin, I thought, so I said "You're not by any chance Oliver Simpkin are you?"
It shook its head.
Of course it can't be Simpkin, I thought. Simpkin's back in good old NZ. So I says to the animal Oliphaunt, have you got Oliver Simpkin's memory?
Yes, went the head.
Can you speak? says I.
No, went the head.
Right, listen Oliphaunt, I said. I'm here to get back Simpkin's memory and my baby. If I can break the spell you might be sent back to your jungle. Is Vicky in the Castle?
The Oliphaunt nodded.
Is it Auld Hinnie McIldhu's castle?
It nodded again.
If I'm to break the spell I need to know her real name. Do you know it?
Again it nodded.
Can you tell me?
The Oliphaunt shook its head. Impasse. Oliphaunt knows. Oliphaunt can't speak. If Oliphaunt knows it must be in Simpkin's memory. Perhaps Simpkin read it somewhere.
Is it written down somewhere? I asked.
Yes, went the head.
Well, eventually I guessed it must be in the Chronicle of New Zephyria, and I got the Oliphaunt to stamp its foot for the volume number and the page number: Volume 6, page 209. I lost count for the page number, of course, but I asked the Oliphaunt to stamp out the hundreds, then the tens, then the units. So now all I have to do is pop off home, have a nice hot bath and a good dinner, then tootle off down to the National Library, get out Volume 6, and Auld Hinnie's goose is cooked."
"You must hurry, Bertie," said King Arthur urgently. Things have gone badly wrong in New Zephyria while you've been down here. That sniggerin' nincompoop of a Prime Minister has declared a Republic, and that blasted Scungebucket woman is up for election as President."
"Egad!" cried Prince Egbert. "I'd best be on m' way."
"Take m' unicorn," said King Arthur. "I can walk from here. Just one thing, though. How did you get out of the Castle? Through the Labyrinth?"
Prince Egbert grinned. "I went right into the castle. I saw Vicky, fast asleep but lookin' quite healthy. Then I came to a room full of mirrors. They showed me my own reflection but behind it each one showed a different scene. I came to one that showed the desert outside the castle, with the gate, and the Nightmares lurking beside it. I leaned up close to see what they were up to - and I fell right into the reflection and found myself outside near the edge of the Abyss. So I just tip-toed away and the Nightmares never saw me."
"The time for sneakin' around is over," declared King Arthur. "Take m' Unicorn, Bertie, and gallop for all you're worth!"
King Arthur swung himself down, but just as his toe touched the ground the earth heaved all around them. Behind and before, to left and right the dunes burst asunder and out surged the awful forms of taniwha monsters. Behind them, through the tunnels they had made, came the demons of the lower depths, the servants of Whiro and Hecate.
"Egad!" groaned King Arthur. "We stood too long gassin'."
He drew his sword. Prince Egbert drew both sword and greenstone club.
"Look well on these weapons, taniwha," he cried, for they are your doom! Stone and steel together wield, and taniwha its life must yield!"
The taniwha opened their jaws and showed their terrible teeth, but none of the four seemed eager to test the truth of Egbert's words.
"This is the sword of Theowulf, First Prince of New Zephyria," cried Prince Egbert, "and this his greenstone mere, the sea-borne gift of the Twelve Great Spirits. They thirst for your blood, taniwha!"
"Egad!" murmured King Arthur to the Unicorn. "Can this be Bertie?"
"It can, and it is," murmured the Unicorn softly. Then, aloud, he neighed, "The horn of the Unicorn King is ready for you, demons of Whiro! I shall slay you as I slew your brother, Azog!"
King Arthur than raised his sword. "If steel can cut you then beware the blade of Arthur, King of New Zephyria!" he bellowed.
So they stood, the three warriors, the last hope of New Zephyria, and offered defiance to the host of Hell in a last stand worthy to be sung in the chants of the bards. The taniwha raised themselves, like dragons, on their legs and advanced upon the heroes, and around them surged the tide of demons. Then suddenly, through those mournful caverns was heard the sound of a horn, clear and bright, a summons to battle. The sound of hoofs was heard, and down from the Rainbow Bridge came armoured men, mounted on Unicorn, the Kings and Princes of New Zephyria, and, at their head, Prince Theowulf himself.
The demons howled in fear at this reversal of their fortunes. Some turned to fight and some to flee. They tripped each other and obstructed the huge taniwha. Then the knights of New Zephyria were upon them, slashing and stabbing, while the rabble of demons fought with claws and knives, and the taniwha roared, and exhaled their stinking, poisonous breath and lashed their tails.
Prince Egbert had no time to watch the battle. One mighty monster charged him. Seeing it come, terrible as a dinosaur, deadly as a dragon, he struck blindly with his sword. It lodged in the taniwha's throat and was jerked from his hand. Then the monster came again with open jaws to swallow him. He slashed wildly with his sharp-edged greenstone club. The creatures foul breath was all around him. His senses reeled, then a heavy weight struck him and he fell, helpless into darkness.
The battle raged, but the courage of the ancient kings was high, and at length the demons fled, some down the taniwha tunnels, others to cast themselves over the edge of the Abyss. The taniwha too turned tail and burrowed once more into the lower depths, except for one, which lay dead. The Knights of the Unicorn clustered around Prince Theowulf and gave a hearty cheer. Then Theowulf welcomed his descendent, Arthur, to their eternal company, and spoke highly of his courage and that of his noble son, Egbert.
"But where is Bertie?" King Arthur demanded. "Has he been carried off by demons? Or Swallowed by a taniwha? If we've lost Bertie, we've lost. Bertie! Bertie!"
"..m ..nder he.." came a muffled voice. "get me ou. s.mb.dy!"
The ancient Kings of New Zephyria heaved aside the head of the dead taniwha, and found Prince Egbert squashed beneath its jaw, his sword in its throat, his greenstone mere lodged in the side of its neck.
"Gosh, thanks," he said. "Beastly stuffy under there, what?"
"You killed it, Bertie! Oh well done!" carolled King Arthur.
"Eh? What? Oh well, you know, stone and steel together wield, and all that, - what? - and taniwha its life must yield."
"May yield," said Prince Theowulf, "only may. It depends on the wielder of the stone and steel. Well done, Egbert, King of New Zephyria!"
"Gosh! Yes, I suppose I am - if I ever get back there. I must go before it's too late."
"Go with all speed!" commanded Theowulf. "Let the Unicorn King carry you. The other Unicorn will go as your escort, but I do not think you will be challenged. The time for secrecy is past. Speed is your only hope."
* * * * *
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