Plot summary: After eight long years, Sarah returns to the
Labyrinth only to find that the Goblin King has
married... for love. But as it was on her first adventure, Sarah finds
that things-- and people-- are not always what they seem. This is
a story about unhealthy obsessions, old regrets and second chances.
Rated T for now, but it is likely that this may change at a later date to M due to the content of future chapters.
Chapter One: A Storm is Coming
Twilight was fading when he summoned her, his empty hall lit a sickly yellow with tallow candles dripping in their sconces. Once upon a time, his life had stretched out before him like the boundless sea. Now the last waves beat upon the shore and the years dwindled like the dying day to a thin, pale few. But however little that remained, the man who had once been called Anneas Greycloak would keep fast with all that he had.
On nights such as this, the crown weighed heavy upon his brow, a reminder of all that had passed. A strong gust of wind rattled the shutters and his fingers tightened upon the arm of his throne. It is not him, thought the king. He will not come for me, and more fool he.
He held up his hands, gnarled with age, but powerful still. The king had outlived his enemies one by one, a triumph won not in war, but in patience. Always, he waited... waited, and watched. No more.
A log settled on the fire, a brittle crack that echoed in the empty room. From the walls gazed back at him a hundred upon thousand empty sockets, a skull from every sort of beast in his kingdom and more besides. Some were new, the bleached bone a tawny rose in the firelight. Others were nearly as old as Anneas himself, their surfaces a rich, yellowed ivory that gleamed like satin. Each unseeing hollow was an accusation, the silent reproof of the dead to the living.
To survive is all.
A chill draught whistled through chinks in the wall, sending the bright flames sputtering and acrid smoke drifting to his nostrils. Through a slit in the shutters, he could see dark clouds gathering as the sun slipped from the sky. Soon he would call the thunder and rain, he would summon the wind with a single word. It was not yet time. He had one enemy remaining.
Soon, Anneas promised himself. He too, would be broken.
The king coughed, a rattling, dry sound that he muffled with his sleeve. Sable and ermine cloaked his old bones, bear and wolf hides covered his throne. A fire roared at the end of the great hall, and at his feet burned a small stove, its iron belly glowing with fiery coals. In his youth, he never felt the cold, never flinched at winter's biting edge. Anneas felt both all too keenly now, and he cursed the man responsible.
Quickening footsteps sounded in the hallway, and a young woman entered the hall, the silk of her mantle lined with silverfox. She knelt on the floor upon the matted rushes.
"Your Majesty summoned me."
The king said nothing for a long while, only leaned forward to examine his youngest daughter with a critical eye. Tall and slender, the braided coils of her hair fell to her waist, gleaming in the half-light against her pale skin. Her mouth was set in an impassive line, her lovely face an indecipherable mask.
"You have not your mother's beauty, nor her wit," he mused, his eyes fixed upon her bowed head. "Three daughters she gave me before she abandoned us. Two are lost. You are what remains."
She did not speak or lift her head, but she heard every word. Beautiful, black-haired Lynnara, their mother's favorite with her siren's voice and laughing eyes, vanished without so much as a trace before her first flowering. Gentle Danae with hair the color of sunlight, who now never left her tower room and had to be bound hand and foot, lest she bite her fingers bloody. No one spoke their names now, and she only dared say them in the silence of her room, after all the candles were extinguished.
Firelight silhouetted the king's craggy profile, the hooked nose and hard mouth. When he spoke, it was a croaking whisper.
"If just one of you had been the boy I needed... Just one son, to take up arms at my side in battle and hold this throne after my death." He smiled, and it was terrible to see. "But I sired only daughters, and the weapons of a woman are guile and malice."
The girl at his feet did not move, but her shoulders tensed, fists digging into the folds of her gown. She was ambitious, his daughter with hair the color of mahogany and steel in her spine. Of all his children, she was the most like him.
"Have you learned your lessons well, child?" he asked her, a mocking note in his query. "Well enough to be the poison arrow leased from your father's longbow?"
She lifted her eyes for the first time, and they were a simmering gray like the storm itself. "Well enough, father."
The king sighed, a rasp like steel across stone. "Would that you were a man."
"Command me. You will see that I can do what no man could ever accomplish."
"That could be." He leaned back and stroked his wiry thatch of beard, streaked like iron and ash. "He has very few weaknesses. Given time, you might be one of them."
He bent toward her again, running a finger along the soft ridge of her collarbone. "Very well, my daughter. If you succeed, you may name your reward."
The girl moved away from his touch, her gaze boldly meeting his own. "Tell me what I must do. I will not fail you."
"The Goblin King has dared to stand against me."
He took the girl's chin in his calloused hand.
"You will make him kneel."
The funeral was a ghastly affair.
Crimson and white flower arrangements to rival a parade float surrounded the grave plot, and the scent of gardenias was so thick Sarah thought she might choke on it. Standing stiff as a porcelain doll, her black linen dress felt too tight, the collar chafing against her neck in the moist August heat. The flowers she held had begun to wilt.
Above her, the sun cut through the cloud cover in brilliant angles, lighting up the scene in an unearthly yellow. Sarah looked down at the flowers in her hand, the delicate bell-like blooms and bruised leaves. Lily-of-the-valley. She couldn't remember if she'd picked it up, or if someone had handed it to her. Her movements automatic and unthinking, she raised the spray to her face and breathed in its scent, frail and sweet.
Standing beside her, a young priest mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, pink-faced and uncomfortable. He touched her shoulder.
"Are you all right?"
Sarah nodded and tried to smile. "I'm fine, Father, thank you."
She wasn't, of course, but there was nothing more Sarah could say. Her mother was dead. Only now did that knowledge feel real, when she stood before the black granite obelisk marking the grave. Each time she closed her eyes, she could feel the weight of it pressing upon her breast, the unyielding stone like ice against her skin. It was a morbid thought, and Sarah pushed it away. She shouldn't be thinking about herself. Linda was gone.
Sarah had been used to not having her mother around. She grew up barely seeing her more than once or twice a year, for Linda could rarely find the time in her busy schedule to visit her ex-husband's family. They'd never been close, and had spoken only infrequently until several months ago.
When she was a child, Sarah collected every publicity photo and magazine clipping of her mother that she could find. She waited up on her birthday for her mother to phone-- inevitably late at night, because Linda always forgot they were in different time zones. It was all reassurance that her mother had not disappeared entirely, that she existed in another world more marvelous and bright than Sarah's own. Her mother might not be around, but she was there.
And then very suddenly, she wasn't anywhere. Sarah felt oddly alone, as if something had gone missing and she didn't know what it was. It was a puzzle with a piece missing, a chandelier with one light bulb burned out. Everything seemed fine until you examined it up close. Karen and her father had offered to come with her, and now she regretted turning them down. There was no one else, Sarah was all the family that Linda had.
The sound of a car door slamming broke her reverie, and Sarah looked up. She saw a world swimming in scarlet and a long line of celebrity well wishers clothed in black, looking sleek and dangerous. A damp strand of hair stuck to her cheek and the heat made her vision swim. For one brief moment, the outlines of sharply tailored Dior and Armani blurred, then dissolved. In their place she saw brightly gowned dancers, whirling in perfect time to a music box melody...
No. Sarah dug her nails into the palm of her hand, and the scene swam back into focus. Something hot stung her eyelids, and she swiped at it with the back of her hand. Eight years was a long time, but on some days it didn't feel long enough.
"Get a grip, Williams." she said under her breath.
No one paid her any attention, and it was as if she hadn't spoken at all. Sarah forced herself to open her fingers, to let the spray of flowers fall. She had to let it go.
Within minutes, the lilies were trampled into the grass, crushed under a careless stiletto. Sarah did not care. This was empty ritual and she felt numb inside, the bitterness rising in her until she wanted to scream. It looked for all the world like another of her mother's endless film premieres, save for the rosewood coffin nestled in its bed of emerald astroturf, waiting to be lowered into the ground.
But this was the kind of tribute Linda would've wanted: the rich and famous lined up to see her one last time, the queue of limos stretching past the cemetery gates. She would've laughed to see movie stars gingerly picking their way across the lawn, eyes darting this way and that to avoid--or seek out-- the waiting horde of photographers. And looking for the open bar, no doubt. Sarah could almost hear her mother's throaty laugh. Oh, yes. Linda would've thought it the event of the year.
Sarah rarely called her mother, even in her own thoughts. Linda had once scolded her for doing so, and as a little girl, Sarah was happy to oblige. "Mother" was too tame of a word to refer to the wild, gorgeous Linda Williams. For as long as she could remember, her mother was always off filming this or that movie, or jetting off to London and Paris. At the time, Sarah envied her glamorous life and even wanted it for her own.
Now it struck her how artificial it all was, as if they were standing on a movie set. Any minute now, a director would yell "Cut!" and the story would end. The artfully groomed mourners would disperse and drift away to their trailers for touch-ups. The crew would tear down the set to make way for another. But this was real, and Linda would never again lounge in her dressing room in a silk robe, chattering away on her cell phone about the latest Hollywood gossip.
Sarah swayed where she stood. This is stupid, she thought through clenched teeth. You didn't matter to her. Why should she matter to you?
And yet, she was glad to feel something at last. Linda had never been an attentive parent, but she was her mother and Sarah should feel sad. Shouldn't she? Was she a monster to feel nothing at all except for this strange, hollow sensation?
When Linda had breezed back into her life, she hadn't known what to feel then, either. Her mother offered no explanation for the years she'd been absent, not a single mention about the ugly divorce from Sarah's father. Instead, she'd greeted her daughter like an old friend, inviting her out for lunch at some chic tearoom downtown or dropping by Sarah's dorm room unexpectedly with a box of pastries in hand. It was as if the distant years had never existed, as it mother and daughter had always been best of friends.
She was such an extraordinary actress that anyone might've been taken in by the grand masquerade. But Sarah had learned all about reality and artifice when she was fourteen years old. She had learned to distrust the motives of people who said they wanted you... needed you.
Once again, memory betrayed her and a burning knot rose in her throat. Sarah swallowed it back down. Forget about the Labyrinth. Eight years is too long for... Too long for what? She refused to complete the thought and stubbornly focused back on her surroundings.
As people filed past, Sarah recognized a few faces: a teary-eyed young starlet only a few years older than she was and clutching her designer purse as if it were a life preserver, an aging rocker, a famous photographer who'd once taken an infamous photo of Linda posed in Central Park... and scores of her mother's old boyfriends with younger women trailing behind them. Each one was or had been Somebody, but they were nobody and nothing to Sarah. Most of them hadn't even known Linda Williams had a child.
Surviving daughter, Sarah thought. That's what she did... survive.
But sometimes only just.
The woman dusted the wooden tabletop with a generous scattering of flour and slapped down the ball of dough, kneading it fiercely with the heels of her hands. Fold and press, quarter turn, then fold and press again, the regular rhythm of it soothing her as it always did. It was just after dawn and cool, but the kitchen was already warm with the woodfire roaring as a new batch of loaves went in. Several smaller rounds were cooling at the other end of the table, and the whole room filled with the scent of yeast and fresh-baked bread.
At the soft patter on the staircase, she paused and wiped her hands on her apron. Moving quickly, she set on the table a small pot of strawberry preserves, a crock of butter, and a dainty silver knife. Last was a blue and white checked napkin, which she laid carefully by them before turning back to her bread.
"You are late, sir knight," she said curtly, not looking up as her visitor entered the kitchens. "As penance, you must put on the kettle yourself."
Sir Didymus swept off his hat in a stately bow, which she ignored. "My lady must forgive me, but the king's business waits for no man, knight though he be."
"The king is yet abed at this hour, as you should be... Unless my eyes deceived me when they spotted you entering the postern gate a few hours before dawn."
"They did not," admitted the little knight as he busied himself with the kettle. "I have been away half the night. But all the more reason to break my fast in the company of a lovely lady."
The woman snorted at that. Her black hair had long since turned iron gray streaked with silver and she wore it up in a severe knot. Her dress was a serviceable brown, now spattered with flour. She had no illusions about how she looked in the early morning, sleeves rolled up and buried to the elbows in bread dough."Flatterer." she accused her friend dryly. "Someone told you I plan on making blackberry tarts today."
"Thy harsh words wound me," said Sir Didymus, splitting open a bun with his knife and slathering the insides with butter. "Yet I confess that such knowledge had reached my hearing. I have my informants."
"You would not be the king's eyes and ears if you did not."
Her amiable remark was made in a light tone, but the conversation fell silent. In the background, the kettle burbled over the fire. They had an understanding, she and the king's most loyal servant. All the same, some things were best left unspoken. She finished shaping the loaf and set it on a flat wooden board. Picking up a sharp knife, she slashed it three times across the top.
When the kettle began its low whistle, she retrieved it and poured for both of them. Only then did she sit on the stool across from Sir Didymus, wrapping her long fingers around the cup. Her hands ached, not from the activity, but from something else entirely. Dawn broke clear and bright, but she knew from experience that could change, the painful twinge in her bones foretold it. A storm is coming.
When she spoke, the words were chosen carefully. Even here, you could never be sure who might be listening.
"Your duties are taxing," she said, blowing on her tea to cool it. "You must take care not to overreach your strength."
Sir Didymus' eyes sparkled as he took another bun and stirred a heaping spoonful of sugar into his steaming mug. "My lady is kind. I am always careful."
"Every night, you go about the king's business. And yet I do not think you have found what you seek."
"Not yet." admitted the knight. "But it will be done. If not by me, then another."
"One might say it is too large of a task for one person to handle alone, no matter how loyal or brave."
He took a gulp of his tea. "One might say that."
Didymus could be as slippery as an eel if he cared to be, and these were dangerous times. An uneasy quiet reigned the room again while the woman considered her next words. She swirled the mug of tea, watching as the leaves settled to the bottom again. Sipping slowly, she met his eyes over the rim of her cup.
"Help often arrives when we least expect it, sir knight."
"So it does," agreed Sir Didymus as he wiped crumbs from his whiskers. "Yet my grandfather always said that to wait for gifts from the gods was like waiting for cows to give beer."
That surprised a short laugh from her, a rare thing. "Your grandfather sounds like a scoundrel, but a wise one."
She set her cup aside and went back to her work. The running of the Goblin King's household was a task she excelled at, but it was also one that required constant vigilance. The court would soon rise and call for their breakfasts. Then there was the noon meal to prepare, more baking to be done, and the evening meal to supervise. She was up a full hour before any of her kitchen staff, but already she could hear the clatter of feet approaching. Even Didymus would soon leave to report to his king, and she had her own business to attend to.
While she enjoyed his friendship, it was just as well. The little fox saw much, and there were things she would not have him see. Sir Didymus pushed back his stool and carefully re-folded his napkin. There was a suspicious bulge in his coat pocket the shape of a bun. The knight nodded his thanks as he left, but turned as if to make a casual observation.
"You have baked a few extra loaves, my lady."
"Yes." The woman paused and covered the ball of dough with a damp cloth, setting the wooden board aside so it could rise. "I believe we shall soon have company."
Sarah kicked off her sensible black shoes, holding them in one hand as she climbed the last flight of stairs. The funeral had lasted far longer than she thought it would, and now the late afternoon sun slanted through the window on the landing, warming the floorboards underfoot. Rummaging in her purse for her keys, she hesitated just a moment before opening the door.
The apartment was a wonderful discovery, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood two blocks from the nearest subway stop. It had a tiny galley kitchen and even tinier bathroom, but the living room was spacious and her bedroom had a view of a gated park across the street with spreading oaks and stone benches.
That it lacked an elevator meant Sarah had to walk up four flights of steps, but she was getting accustomed to it. It made her feel like she was a child again, pretending she was a princess in a tower. Linda found it for her not three weeks before, and it still smelled of new paint.
Boxes of books lined the walls of her living room with more boxes piled under the window that led to the fire escape. Her father drove up the weekend before to bring her things from the attic, neatly labeled in Karen's handwriting. Sarah threw her shoes into the closet, lifting her hair off the back of her neck and sighing. The air conditioner was on the blink again, today of all days. Taking a bottle of water from the fridge, she pressed it against her hot cheek briefly before opening it and drinking down half its contents in one long swallow.
Sarah was thirsty, but forced herself to admit that she was stalling to avoid going back to the bedroom and facing what was there. She hadn't slept well the night before. Even with the light on, she dozed fitfully and jumped at every single noise. All because of the mirror.
It wasn't strange for Linda to leave her something in her will. The same afternoon, fat envelopes full of old letters and photographs arrived, then a box of her mother's jewelry accompanied by a cordial missive from her mother's lawyers. For someone whose life was ruled by the impulse of the moment, Linda was surprisingly meticulous about having everything planned out to the last detail. But she'd left no instruction or explanations about the mirror.
Sarah walked across the apartment, stopping before the bedroom door. It was cracked ajar and she pushed it open and stood in the doorway, the water bottle dangling forgotten in her hand. It was there, waiting for her just as it had since its arrival yesterday afternoon.
The package was so large that it took three men to wrestle it up the stairs. There was no space in the living room for it, so they hauled it into the bedroom and propped it against the wall opposite her bed. She'd left it sitting there untouched for the entire day, bound up with cloth, twine and brown paper.
That wasn't what Sarah had intended, but despite all her curiosity, she couldn't bring herself to tear off the wrappings and see what lay underneath. There was no real reason why, but as Sarah looked at the tangled whorl of knots that held it together, she had an inexplicable feeling that doing so would... change things. Sarah hated change.
The afternoon came and went and still she left it alone, the bulky heft of it an awkward intrusion in her tiny bedroom. Instead she cleaned the kitchen, sorted through her mother's old photographs, laid out the black dress she'd wear to the funeral-- anything that kept her out of the bedroom.
When the day was nearly gone and the sun sank behind the skyline, she could ignore it no longer. She dug out an old kitchen knife and painstakingly cut the bindings, sawing through the knot with care. They fell with scarcely a rustle, like a snake shedding its skin. Dust lay thick as mold on the object beneath, and Sarah picked up a piece of cloth to to wipe it clean...
Antique glass and dark wood, her reflection like a ghostly shadow on its silvered surface.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall...
Sarah didn't like it. Her instant aversion was nothing she could explain, not with logic. It was just the way it looked, like something not of this world. It looked like something from that place... She was reluctant to think about the word, even though somewhere in the boxes her father brought her was a well-worn book bound in faded red leather. The Labyrinth. But that was ridiculous. How could something from there get here?
You did, came a sly little admonition. There and back again.
"Not by UPS." she said to her empty apartment.
Sarah's voice echoed flatly back at her and she drank the rest of the water, now grown tepid in her hand. Dropping the empty bottle in the wastebasket, Sarah took cautious step into her bedroom. Dim and airless, the room itself seemed to wait. The light had turned a murky ochre that foretold a summer storm, the mote-filled beams illuminating the room in weak shafts. Her breathing sounded loud to her own ears, as if she'd run for miles. The mirror leaned against the wall, looking for all the world like a dark doorway that beckoned.
Steeling herself, Sarah ran her hand over the frame. It smelled of the lemon oil polish she'd used the day before, the wood a dark mahogany with a honeyed grain that seemed to pick up the fading light filtering through the curtains. An ornate design of twisting tree branches and oak leaves had been carved into it, with grotesque little faces peeping out here and there.
Something about it unsettled her deeply. Even with the heat of the day baking the bricks of the building, the frame felt unusually warm to the touch, like a living thing. Sarah half-expected it to move beneath her fingers, and she pulled back in haste.
The velvet it had been bundled in was the color of old blood, it lay pooled on the carpet. Kneeling, she gathered up the fragile folds. She rubbed a piece of it against her cheek, the cloth worn smooth with age. It smelled of dust and roses, the strange and the shockingly familiar. No. Sarah let it drop from nerveless fingers and dug the heels of her hands into her temples, now throbbing. The blood pounded through her veins until it was a dull roar in her skull. Stop it. Just... stop.
To disguise the trembling of her hands, she picked up a length of twine and wound it tightly around her fingers. Her unease did not lessen. It's a just mirror, she thought. And an ugly one at that. Unmindful of her thoughts, the mirror sat there, implacable and mysterious as when she'd first cut the strings and let the wrappings fall.
Sarah turned her back on it and opened the window, trying in vain to capture even the barest wisp of a breeze. The air outside was heavy with the scent of the coming rain. As she struggled with the ancient sash, she thought she saw something, a dark shape that flickered across the mirror's surface. Sarah whirled around, but there was nothing. A trick of the light. Or the reflection of the curtain's edge, fluttering sluggishly in the summer wind.
She had a growing sense of dread that it had been neither. Not for the first time, she wondered if the mirror could be haunted. Don't be ridiculous, Sarah lectured herself. You're too old to believe in ghosts.
But ghosts could come in many forms, not just the spirits of the undead. They could come in the form of unanswered questions, unspoken regrets, and paths not taken. The grim possibilities lay heavy on her mind, pressing down upon with the weight of an entire world...
Knees suddenly weak, she slid to the floor, tucking her legs beneath her and leaning back against the foot of the bed. It wasn't just the mirror with its fey little faces and the way it seemed to absorb all the light in the room-- the whole day had been full of unwanted reminders of a time she'd rather forget.
Sometimes you did everything you could to let go of the past.
But sometimes the past wouldn't let you go.
Author's Notes: Chapter title was taken from the first track in Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King soundtrack. All three movie soundtracks are gorgeous, but I believe the last may be my favorite-- a wonderfully evocative work both light and dark.
I realize this first chapter introduces a lot of new things all at once. Please be assured, the threads will knit together soon enough. In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you thought, good or bad.
the last fanfic, I managed to update quite frequently, sometimes as
often as once a week. I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up such a
grueling pace this time, but you have my promise that I will never let
the story hang in limbo for months on end unless I'm on my
deathbed. If you do decide to come along for the ride, then hang
on... we have a long, strange trip before us.
Comments/reviews welcome. Review replies (if not made privately) will generally be posted in my livejournal under dmacabre.