Recap: After spending an uneasy night in Hoggle's cottage worrying about Sir Didymus, Sarah and Hoggle resolve to find out what happened to the knight regardless of the trouble it might bring. Meanwhile, Ana makes a rare excursion out of the kitchen to the mirror in the great hall, reflecting on a time when she was not always what she was... and a time when she, too, passed through the mirror. Upon Sarah's return to the king's tower, she asks Jareth for help. With great reluctance, he agrees to see her- alone, after nightfall.
Chapter Thirteen: The Witching Hour
The oak was broad-limbed and ancient, standing taller than the surrounding pear trees. Over time, its roots had buried themselves deep in the wall, forcing apart the stones until it straddled the border of the kitchen gardens and the grassy meadow beyond. Few ventured so far into the pear orchard. All the paths were overgrown with stickthorn and reedy saplings, and in the summer the air was thick with the odor of fermenting fruit. Cian went there to be alone, and there was no one to deny her when she claimed the oak for her own. Branch by branch, she'd hauled away the deadfall and cleared the brambles at its base, pulling up weeds as she went. She'd cut out the rotting center, heartwood crumbling in her hands like stale bread.
Now the tree had a nest-like hollow high in its branches, padded with dried grass and hay stolen from the stables. Cian didn't mind that it provided little shelter from the wind and rain. She kept her treasures hidden in the nooks and crannies: river stones glinting with flecks of precious metal, black-banded pheasant feathers, a handful of the tree's own acorns. Lying on her back and looking up through a window of sky, she trailed her hand along a branch. Knots and whorls in the wood stood out beneath her fingertips, the ridged bark like cracked leather. She closed her eyes and tilted her face to the sun, humming a barely audible melody.
Cian knew a little magic. One did not keep the company she did without learning how.
Her humming grew softer and more monotonous until it rose and fell with the wind. Branches creaked as they cradled her, the oak shivering from root to tip with a low groan and a sigh. The scent of ozone blossomed forth: smoke and burning leaves like the metallic tang in the air before a storm. When the wind died away, Cian sat up and examined her work. A pale green shoot now grew where her hand had traced its circular pattern. New leaves would sprout in a day or so, and the branch would harden before winter's first frost.
It is only a very little magic, she thought, massaging the tingling numbness from her fingers. But even a kingdom can run on small magics, so long as there are enough of them.
Among her possessions was a box cunningly fashioned from a walnut shell. Cian weighed it in her palm before opening it. Packed carefully about with moss was a silver ring set with a milk-white stone, and a seashell spiraled like a unicorn's horn. Sir Didymus had brought it back from his faraway travels. She remembered how he'd presented it to her, with a low bow and a sweeping flourish of his hat.
Cian received few presents. Food, yes- the kitchen servants were indulgent of her mercurial habits and the way she avoided communal meals. They often left bowls of milk and bread on a shaded ledge in the courtyard where she would find it, windfall apples, pieces of honeycomb wrapped in grape leaves.
But the knight had given her a gift, one that served no practical purpose. She frowned as she slipped on the ring. She did not like metal or the way it felt encircling her finger, but the stone was cool against her skin and the color reminded her of clouds. The shell she touched tentatively to her tongue, relishing the taste of salt and sand. Cian had never been to the sea, though if she thought hard she could imagine desolate, stony beaches, the slate-grey waters lashed with rain.
Didymus knew many stories about the port cities, the silk and spice laden ships that sailed out of the harbor to disappear over the horizon. He told her tales of sea dragons and pirate queens, and how the sinking sun set the ocean afire each night only to be swallowed by the darkening waters. Cian had known few friends in her short lifetime. She'd learned to value them fiercely, though it was not the way of her kind.
Now there would be no more stories and no more gifts. Putting away the ring and the shell, she shut the box and buried it deep in the straw.
The servant's quarters were deserted at midday, which was precisely why Sarah and Hoggle had chosen it as a place to hide. The room she shared with Cian at least had a door, and the two conspirators made sure to latch it and push one of the rickety beds across the frame for added security.
Hoggle gave an accusing sniff from his seat on Sarah's bed, regarding the talisman with suspicion. "You could've mentioned this earlier."
"It was a secret," said Sarah in apology, "No one was supposed to find out. I don't even know if Didymus meant for me to open it."
"Of course he meant for you to open it. Why else would he leave it with you?"
But opening the bundle was easier said than done. The handkerchief had Sir Didymus' initials monogrammed on one corner in dark blue thread. It was knotted three times around its mysterious contents, each time so firmly that Sarah had to use her teeth to pry them apart. Neither she nor Hoggle could bear the idea of taking a pair of scissors to the little knight's handkerchief, and neither of them spoke aloud of what might be inside.
The key that opens all doors, thought Sarah.
But the object inside felt nothing like a key. From what she could discern through the layers of fabric, the shape was rounded and irregular with one end tapering off to a point. Sarah thought of the Goblin King and his cryptic riddle. It was almost like-
The last knot gave way and a silver object spilled out onto her palm. It was triangular, two corners curved like a pair of horns with a gold disc centered upon it. Etched on the disc was the serpentine symbol of infinity, and the pendant dangled from a worn black leather cord. Upon seeing it, Hoggle gasped and took a step back.
Sarah felt foolish. "Oh," she breathed. She'd seen it before, the symbol repeated everywhere in the Goblin King's tower- and before that, hanging from Jareth's neck and glinting against his pale breastbone.
"No good will come of that," said Hoggle emphatically. "For the love of turnips, put it back! Didymus should never have taken it."
Sarah held up the pendant, letting it twist back and forth on its cord. There was scant light in the room, but the metal caught what little there was like a prism, gleaming dully and casting angled rays upon the walls.
"We don't know that he took it."
"Jareth damn well didn't just give it to him as a birthday present!"
"But he knows Sir Didymus has it. He told me."
Even with all her reassurances, Hoggle refused to touch it, shaking his head vehemently. "Something like that is too precious to give away and too dangerous to use. I don't wonder that Didymus was toting it around in his pocket, but I'd hoped you had more sense."
Sarah had already slipped the cord around her neck, tucking the pendant beneath her shirt. There was a portentous weight to it, the metal quickly warming in contact with her skin. A laugh bubbled up unexpectedly from her throat, soft and rich as though she didn't have a care in the world.
So this is what it feels like. She smiled confidently at the scowling dwarf. "Come on, Hoggle. You know your way around the Labyrinth- which door shall we try first?"
She should have known it wouldn't be that easy. The castle was itself a labyrinth, and each crooked corridor seemed to lead them deeper into its heart. Sarah recognized a few places from her previous visit: the oubliette with its lone shaft of light to illuminate the darkness, the brick-lined tunnels, a crumbling section of wall where a blind beggar once sat with a tin cup in his hand.
This time there were no False Alarms, only concave trenches and rough-hewn stone where their imposing faces had been. She wanted to ask Hoggle what had happened, but her friend's grim silence discouraged questions. Whether it was chance or to the Goblin King's pendant around her neck, every door they came to swung open at the first try. Sarah and Hoggle found one empty storeroom after another, old wine cellars and odd passages that led absolutely nowhere at all.
Calculating time was difficult underground, but Hoggle reckoned it was well past midday when they stumbled out of yet another dusty corridor only to find themselves back where they'd begun- a wide hall not far from the servants' quarters. Sarah picked strands of cobweb from her hair, grimacing as she wiped her hand on the hem of her skirt. Hoggle coughed and spat, his shirt and vest grimy with dirt.
"This is useless," said the dwarf in disgust, "There are too many doors- we'll never find Didymus like this."
"You're looking for the wrong kind of door."
Cian had crept up behind them, silent as a cat. Bits of dried grass stuck to her clothing and mud streaked her bare shins as though she'd been grubbing in the dirt. In one hand she held a copper lantern, lights darting this way and that behind the cloudy glass. She slipped past, gesturing for them to follow.
Sarah looked at Hoggle, who shrugged. "Might as well."
The passage was wide enough for all three of them, but the friends crept along in a tight cluster with Cian at the front, keeping close to the pool of lantern light. Their voices took on a muffled quality as if dampened by the surrounding earth and stone. Sarah touched the girl's arm and was startled by how cold and clammy her skin felt.
"Is it much further?"
"Not long now." Cian's hand was steady as she held the lantern aloft, but a bead of sweat ran down her temple and left a glistening track down her cheek.
She's terrified, realized Sarah. Cian's eyes were wide and glazed, quite unlike the careless creature she was aboveground. Every drip of water made her flinch. When Hoggle stumbled, a frightened squeak escaped the back of her throat. Sarah squeezed her friend's shoulder in sympathy and Cian gave her a grateful, quicksilver smile.
The corridor narrowed, brick and stone turning to hard-packed earth. Roots threaded through the soil like thin white worms seeking the light. Hoggle brushed his hand against the wall only to find that the roots were fragile; when broken, they oozed a foul and sticky sap the color of tar.
"Try not to touch anything else," Cian warned them, "It's not much further."
The tunnel ended abruptly in a wall of solid rock, seamless stone fitted tightly into the earth around it.
Hoggle made as if to kick the wall, then thought the better of it. "Well?"
Cian swept her foot over the ground, displacing a layer of sand and grit. After a moment, Sarah joined her, sweeping from the center of the floor outward until the frame of a trapdoor was exposed. The door was round like the cover of a well, weathered wood with a great iron ring sunk into one side. When Sarah and Hoggle tried to lift it, neither the ring nor the door would budge.
Hoggle cursed and dug a fresh splinter out from his thumb. "That's that, then. Unless you know another way in."
Cian shook her head. "The other doors will be watched. There's no other safe way down- not to where this leads."
Sarah's hand went to the pendant around her neck. The metal gave off a radiant heat like a miniature sun and it hummed beneath her fingertips. Yes, she thought. This is what the Goblin King's talisman was for- this was no ordinary door. Sarah faltered. But how to use it? She didn't know the right words.
"Try it again," she suggested aloud.
Hoggle glared at her as if she were mad. "What, me? By myself?"
Sarah nodded. She forced herself to relax her grip on the pendant, but Hoggle could not fail to notice the way she clutched the front of her shirt. It's a key, she reasoned hopefully. With a key, you don't need the right words.
The dwarf scowled and spat on both hands, then attacked the iron ring with renewed ferocity. His shoulders bunched and shook with the effort, but to no avail.
Hoggle glanced sourly at his companions. "You could lend a hand, you know. My back isn't what it used to be."
Cian shrank back and refused, but Sarah stepped up to the door, one hand still resting lightly upon the pendant. The iron ring was pitted with age, the metal so cold that it seemed to leech the heat away from her skin with a single touch. Sarah repressed a shiver and grasped it tighter. She and Hoggle pulled together until their arms ached, but the door did not move.
"We could get an axe and try chopping through it." Hoggle sounded doubtful.
It was a tempting idea. Not for the first time, it occurred to Sarah that the castle was as bad as its king- a tangle of secret passages, false doors and dead ends. What good was the key if she couldn't make it work? Anger flared inside her and Sarah seized the iron ring with both hands. Bracing hard, she leaned back upon it with all her weight.
"Come on, Hoggle, pull! Just one... more... time..."
All at once rusted hinges squealed in protest and the trapdoor swung up with a shuddering groan, casting up a shower of dust and small pebbles.
Staggering back, Hoggle stared. "Gods help us."
The opening was a cavern, rounded sides rimmed with crumbling lichen like scaly rot eating away at the lip. Black and muddy green were the stones, the surfaces slick with mildew. The light of Cian's lantern lapped feebly at the edge of the abyss, and all they could see of its depths was a single carved stone step.
Cian was already edging away. "This is where I leave you. I've been underground once, by my mistress' command. Not even for her would I go down again."
"What's down there?" asked Hoggle.
"A winding stair. Then a long, dark passage." Sarah answered without thinking, then wondered how on earth she could possibly know.
Hoggle gave her a peculiar look, but Cian nodded in confirmation. She held out the lantern, its light steadier now. "Take it. It won't go out unless you will it, not even in the caverns." Depositing the globe in Sarah's hand, she retreated back down the hall.
"Well," said the dwarf, frowning in disapproval, "She sure didn't want to stick around to see what happens."
"Don't blame her, Hoggle. I don't think she can help it. We wouldn't have found the door without her."
Cian's slender form disappeared around a corner without a backward glance.
"Yeah. Remind me to thank her for that later."
The trap door lay at their feet like an open maw, steps descending in a spiral around an open shaft and disappearing into the darkness. Sarah resisted the temptation to drop a pebble down it and count the seconds until it hit bottom. She suspected neither she nor Hoggle would like the results.
Hoggle grunted. "No use standing around. Age before beauty," he said, waving Sarah aside and lowering himself down onto the first step, "Hold that lantern up so I don't fall and break my neck, will you?"
The memory plays tricks.
After the girl had gone, the Goblin King poured a glass of wine, the liquid a pale straw-gold like watered sunlight. He took up a fresh quill and a bottle of ink. Unfurling the map of his kingdom, he set the black stones back into place at each corner and tried to empty his mind of all distractions.
This map was the work of his own hand, and every square inch of it was known to him as intimately as the land itself. When he closed his eyes, he saw not only black lines and boundaries, but wide plains and the thousand mirrored pools of the marshes beyond. He saw long stretches of cracked earth and the gradual greening of the foothills as they rose to mist-shrouded peaks. The Goblin King had flown over his territory many times- enough to recall the sharp scent of the pine barrens, or how the wind sang unceasingly through the grasslands in the hours just before dawn.
All that he remembered. But there was something he'd forgotten...
Paper rustled on his desk, breaking his concentration. The oblique slant of the sunlight through his window told him it was no longer late morning; hours had passed while he'd allowed his mind to wander in search of that which eluded him. Jareth's vision blurred back into focus only to find that one corner of the map had begun to curl in on itself. The stone which held it down-
A scorpion scuttled out from beneath the map fold, barbed tail held high. It stopped in the very center, armor-plated back gleaming as it crouched upon the heart of the maze. Jareth regarded it with a curious sense of detachment. This should be not be. He had not summoned the magic to transform it. He could not even fathom why he'd done so for the girl. It was nothing but a conjurer's trick, illusory as all magics of that nature. There was no real danger.
But this... He reached out to trap the scorpion, thinking to isolate it in a glass for study. The Labyrinth was full of unstable magics and by necessity, Jareth was master of them all.
A brief, needle-like pain on the back of his hand told him differently. The Goblin King drew back with a hiss, a bright drop of blood beading on his skin in the join between thumb and forefinger. It was the color of rubies, and already he could feel the surrounding flesh heat as the toxins spread. He seized the nearest book thinking to crush the creature under its weight... but the scorpion had already changed back into a flat, black stone.
He touched it, expecting to feel some residual warmth or spark. There was nothing. Though his heart raced, he was not afraid. Scorpion stings were rarely fatal, and not to one such as him. This had merely been a warning. As the mild poison flowed through his veins, all Jareth's senses sharpened. He tasted the wound and the tip of his tongue went pleasantly numb, the venom both acidic and sweet.
Other gateways and other worlds, he'd told her. The secret had been his burden for more centuries than he could recall, shared by few and rarely spoken of aloud. He'd done the unthinkable, for no more reason than because the girl asked it of him. A breeze stirred the pages strewn over the study floor, stirring the now-cold ashes on the hearth. Scorched leather and burnt paper, words consumed by the fire. The Goblin King gripped the wrist of his injured hand tight, thinking of the girl and the scar that marked her palm like a brand.
She'd called him by name.
They descended the stair single file, Hoggle leading the way. It was precarious progress, even with the lantern blazing in Sarah's hand. The plane of each step was narrow and sloped slightly downward. Cold air rose from the open shaft in its center, and their footfalls echoed back at them from every turn. When Hoggle's knee pained him, they rested with their backs flattened against the wall for fear of falling. It seemed an age until they reached the bottom, stumbling out of the stairwell into a wide open cathedral of stone. A warm draft blew down the hollow shaft and from it rose a low, keening cry like a broken flute. Sarah looked up, but she could not see where the stair had begun.
"Best not to think about it," said the dwarf, wiping his face on his grubby sleeve, "We're a long way from anywhere we want to be, that's for sure."
A palpable dampness clung to their hair and clothing and the darkness pressed in from all sides. Stalactites hung down like teeth, and when Sarah raised the lantern high, they glowed with a faint phosphorescence. She'd been in caves before, tourist attractions with paved walkways and handrails, spotlights sunken into the walls. This place was nothing like that. Shadows trembled before the lantern light and their footsteps carried a deadened echo. The silence hung so emptily around them that she and Hoggle spoke in hushed voices just to fill it up.
"Huh. I thought nothing could be worse than the Bog. Turns out I was wrong."
A rat skull rolled up against Sarah's foot, and she kicked it away in disgust. "I can't imagine anyone ever coming down here on purpose. Where are we, Hoggle? This doesn't look like it's part of the castle at all."
"I don't think it is," said the dwarf, "This place was old before the first cornerstone of the castle foundation was set. Stories say the goblins came from caves long, long ago. They were even stranger then, with eyes the size of dinner plates so they could see in the dark. Don't think they could even talk, not so you or I could understand them, anyway."
Sarah looked up at the craggy ledges running up the cavern walls. She could almost picture them- dozens of goblins hanging off them like bats, wizened little faces peering back down. "I wonder why they stayed here if they had a choice."
"Maybe they didn't. I've heard tell it was safer down here. Magic wasn't as orderly in those times. Not as predictable."
Orderly and predictable weren't exactly the words Sarah would use to describe the Labyrinth now, but she didn't argue. "Then why did they leave?"
"Who can tell what goes on inside their heads? Hardly anything sensible, as far as I can tell."
"There must have been a reason, Hoggle."
"I didn't say there wasn't a reason," said the dwarf defensively. His response was so quiet that it was nearly lost among the echoes. "The stories say he called them."
There could be no mistaking the emphasis on the word 'he'- not Jareth, not the Goblin King, and none of the usual outraged distrust. There was an almost reverential tone to the dwarf's speech now, one she'd never heard before. They passed from one cavern to another before he continued. In this one, the walls and ceiling glittered with millions of faceted crystals, some the color of smoke and others clear as water and shot through with veins of silver and gold. Hoggle shuffled along, favoring his bad knee.
"He wasn't king, then. He wasn't anybody, as far as the stories recall, and the Labyrinth didn't look the way it does now. But he traveled far and wide over the land, and he called them. They heard his song from deep underground and crept up through their tunnels out into the light."
Sarah was transfixed. "And?"
"And it changed them. Changed the land, too, I suppose, but my people came later from over the mountains and there's some stories the goblins won't tell to an outsider."
There was a strange beauty to the tale, a goblin myth of creation and first beginnings. Sarah could not imagine what Jareth had been like then- not a king, but a wanderer.
"It sounds like a fairytale, Hoggle."
"Don't know if I believe it myself. Outlandish, it is. But all the goblins I've ever asked tell the same story, so maybe there's some truth to it."
The passage wound its way through the caverns, but with tell-tale signs of human work. The floors were smoothed and leveled, holes drilled into the stone and the leftover debris hastily swept into piles. Hoggle regarded them with disgust. Heavy iron grates had been fitted over recesses in the walls, the stout bars already rusting from the damp. The queen had her own oubliettes.
"Thieves and invaders," grumbled the dwarf, pausing to shake one of the grates as though he would tear it from its hinges if he could, "Destroying whatever they can and spoiling the rest."-
Sarah thought again of the False Alarms. They were living rock set into the castle walls, huge monoliths with roots of granite sunk deep into the earth. They couldn't just pick up and walk away. But men with picks and shovels could move them, she realized, The queen's men, hammering and hacking away until nothing was left but rubble and sand. Sarah felt sick.
Hoggle reached up and gently squeezed her arm as though he could tell what she was thinking. "It isn't as bad as all that. You'll see." The dwarf's voice was gruff, but kind.
Forcing a smile in return, Sarah let the lantern light play upon the corridor stretching out before them and strained her eyes into the darkness ahead. If Hoggle could hope, she supposed she could do no less. The deeper they went into the caverns, the colder it got, and the lantern gave off no heat of its own. Her breath misted in the air.
"I think we've come too far, Hoggle. Didymus can't be down here."
"Oh, he's down here all right," said the dwarf with a reluctant shiver, "You can feel it in the air. Not him, but the queen's people- we're getting closer to those guarded entrances Cian was talking about. My nose might not be as good as Didymus', but even I can smell it."
Sarah turned her face to the breeze that flowed past them and sniffed cautiously. There it was- a faint odor, rank and musky like an animal's den. It grew stronger with each step and warmer drafts from the side tunnels did not disperse it. After a while, the ground began to slope upward beneath their feet. More animal bones littered the corners of the passage, not just mice and rats but small, round skulls that looked almost human. Sarah turned one over and recoiled at the teeth-marks scored deeply along the length of a child-sized jaw bone.
"Don't look." Hoggle's voice was hard as the rock around them. "We can't help them now. All we can do is see that Didymus doesn't end up like them."
Sarah's hand shook and the lantern light flickering uneasily in the gloom. "Jareth wouldn't let anyone do this."
"He already has, may the gods forgive him. I told you, didn't I? Goblins don't go out at night anymore. No one does, if they can help it."
"Oh, Hoggle. How could this happen to the Labyrinth?"
Her friend's shoulders hunched in unhappy resignation. "It wasn't all at once, Sarah. The new queen was all right at first, even though she wasn't... what we expected. But he seemed happy enough, and we had our king back where he belonged. Some of us thought that was all that mattered. By the time she showed her true colors, it was far too late."
"Didymus doesn't think it's too late."
"Didymus wouldn't admit he was beaten even if he were standing on the gallows with a noose around his neck." Hoggle sniffed. "And maybe he's right. The goblins say he was born under a lucky star."
In spite of herself, Sarah smiled. "We could use a little more luck."
They moved faster through the tunnels now, stepping quietly as they could and keeping the lantern close so that its light shone no more than a few feet ahead. Crude brick shored up the cavern walls in spots, and water seeped from them in a constant drip. They came to a sharp turn in the corridor that dead-ended into a stub of a passage.
"Hoggle!" Sarah tugged on her friend's sleeve to draw his attention.
There was a low opening in the wall, one that was smaller than all the others. The heavy iron grate that covered it hung slightly ajar on its hinges.
Ducking head and shoulders through the opening, Hoggle wriggled inside. "Empty," he reported, "But I'd wager he's been here and gone, not too long before us, either."
Silver glinted from the rubble on the cavern floor and Sarah sifted through it with care: tiny metal picks no longer than her finger, some bent nearly in handles had been inscribed with a fine scrollwork of flowering vines and a lion rampant, along with the motto 'Courage sans peur'.
Sarah stared at them in disbelief. He couldn't have. The lock bore faint scratches where rust had flaked off. Could he? Around her neck, the Goblin King's pendant gave forth an almost smug warmth.
The dwarf gave the lock picks a cursory glance, but took his time inspecting the far corners of the cell. "That rascal was always good at getting into places he shouldn't," he said with grudging pride, "Kitchen pantries, especially. Figures he had a trick up his sleeve." Hoggle squeezed out of the oubliette door and stood brushing the dirt from his breeches, far more cheerful now than he had been moments before. "Don't you worry. Mark my words, he'll be waiting for us back at the cottage- and emptying my larder, like as not. We should follow his example and get out of here."
Sarah feigned a cheer she did not feel. "I'm sure you're right."
The oubliette opening was so low to the ground that she would've had to crawl on her stomach to get inside. Sarah crouched on her hands and knees with the lantern before her, peering in. The cell was not a large one, even for someone of Didymus' size. Columns of rock grew from floor to ceiling and the steady drip of water echoed in the far corners. Even with the reassuring glow of the lantern, the walls crowded in close and the sound of her own breath echoed harshly straightened and thrust the handful of lock picks into her pocket.
Jareth's queen had a great deal to answer for.
In a lonely corner of the orchard, the nettles grew tall. Spines white as frost prickled each stalk, and spotted butterflies sat among the leafy tops, fanning their wings slowly in the sun. Cian took no notice of any of it. The stinging nettle did not bother her, and neither did the tendrils of poison ivy she'd coaxed to grow along its borders. It was just one of the many hiding places she had in the kitchen gardens, so numerous that not even her mistress knew them all. But she could not hide forever; the setting sun turned the sky to a fiery gold, and Ana would look for her soon. Cian did not know what she would tell her.
I've sent the Runner into the wolves' den. It was not an explanation her mistress would welcome. Cian breathed in the scent of crushed nettles, rocking back and forth a little in her nest. She is not alone. I did the best I could.
Her kind did not, as a rule, have long memories. There was no use for them, not when the passing of seasons was their only reckoning of time- the earth was constantly changing and yet unchanged. But Cian would never forget what it was to be so deep underground, beyond the reach of wind and sunlight. Even now the memory stole the afternoon warmth from her body, the fragile human heart she'd been given suddenly leaden and cold. Had she done enough?
Something angular and black launched itself from a nearby tree and a raven landed on a nearby fence. It sleeked its wings and a noise like a dry rattle sounded from the back of its throat. Hopping closer, it pecked the fence post three times, as if to get her attention.
Cian eased herself to a low crouch- slowly, so as not to frighten it. "A message for me?"
The raven croaked softly, ruffling its neck feathers. A hollow reed dropped into Cian's cupped and waiting hands. Inside it was a curl of parchment rolled up tightly and daubed with red wax on either end. Her fingers closed over it quickly.
"I thank you, little brother," she said with a little bow.
In her pocket was a small piece of beefsteak wrapped in an oak leaf, squirreled away for such a purpose. She fished it out gingerly and the raven snapped it up with relish, preening its breast with a blunt, curved beak. The parchment slipped out easily onto Cian's palm. It was only a small scrap of paper, torn off the corner of a larger document and much crumpled. The message was an untidy scrawl, the ink smeared and barely legible.
Noon tomorrow, it read. Birch grove by the spring.
She'd never sworn an oath. Ana reminded herself of this daily, but it had long ceased to be of any comfort to her conscience. That Jareth had never formally asked it of her made little difference- he was the Goblin King, and she owed him more than she could ever repay. Once upon a time, her loyalty to another would've taken precedence, but it was no longer so. Oath-breaker, she would be called in her homeland. Traitor. Coward.
Ana rubbed the sage leaves back and forth between her hands before letting them fall into the cooking pot. Their spicy scent rose back up on the steam as she stirred them into the simmering broth. Around her, the kitchen rang with friendly voices and the clatter of crockery. She welcomed the activity and how it enveloped her in the bustle and chaos of preparation. This was Ana's sanctuary, and she would not trade it for all the castles in this world or the next. All that remained was to preserve it from ruin.
On the pretext of refilling the salt cellar, she passed by the corner of the kitchen where Sarah stood slicing vegetables for soup. Her absence had not gone unnoticed, but she had not been up in the king's tower, Ana knew. The hem of the her skirt was black with grime, and she smelled of crypt dust and old bones. Yet for all that, she was cheerful enough and bent her head to her work, stealing the occasional glance out the kitchen door to the darkening sky. She caught the housekeeper's eye, nodding briefly before turning away.
Ana closed her eyes against a sudden tide of memory: another girl, tall and slim with her hair curling in short, dark wisps around her face. One hand was pressed beseechingly against the glass, her mouth forming soundless words until the mist between worlds swallowed her altogether. The older woman steeled herself against the sharp ache in her breast, still fresh after so many years.
So alike, she thought. It is only I who have changed. A generous pinch of salt went into the pot and Ana took up a wooden spoon. She held it for a moment, balanced in her hand as gracefully as any scepter. In her corner, Sarah handled the knife with less skill than enthusiasm in her haste to finish the task. And what debt do I owe her?
Aloud, Ana called over her shoulder, "See that your knife is sharp- a dull blade causes more harm."
Sarah obediently reached for a whetstone. The sound of the knife being drawn over it was ordinary and comforting, a rhythmical rasp like waves upon the shore. Hands folded tight, the housekeeper watched over her charge. The remaining daylight slipped further away and the sun glinted off the blade, red as blood on the water. Ana turned away, unable to bear it.
One queen must fall so that another may rise, she thought. For better or ill, I choose you.
Knife and whetstone had fallen silent. When she looked back, Sarah was gone.
Broken stones blanketed with moss and fallen leaves littered the edges of the courtyard. What had been innocuous by daylight was changed by the dark- a section of steps resembled a hunched and twisted figure, and the cracked archway leaning up against the wall tangled in creeper-vine looked like a gaping set of jaws. On a column perched a raven, but at Sarah's approach it took off with a startled croak. She watched as it spiraled up and away past the king's tower. When it was only a distant speck, a figure moved at the tower window. Sarah retreated to the shelter of the courtyard wall, concealing herself amongst the ivy.
Jareth's profile was starkly outlined against the light, unmistakable even in silhouette. A quick motion of his arm and he cast a handful of something into the air. Fine as sand, it swirled this way and that, glittering as it sifted down to where Sarah stood. It dusted her face and hands, and when she tasted it on the tip of her tongue, it was bitter as medicine.
Ash and burnt paper.
When she looked up, the window stood empty. At the base of the tower, torches flared up one by one, leading the way up the spiral stair. Sarah touched the pendant around her neck for luck, but all the confidence it had bestowed upon her earlier was gone.
The library was dark, the hearth swept clean. On the mantle, a silver clock ticked the seconds, slender hands pointing to eleven and three.
Less than an hour till midnight. Cold sweat trickled down the back of Sarah neck from her climb up the stairway, and she wiped at it nervously. Across the room, the door to the side chamber stood open, light spilling through.
The Goblin King's private chamber was neither large nor lavish. Two candle stands with a dozen tapers each stood on one side of the room with two more framing the fireplace. A canopied bed occupied one end with an imposing wardrobe beside it. Half-moon windows stretched along the curved wall every few feet so that one could look out in every direction. Through them, the sky was a dusky field of midnight, one bright star visible far to the south.
"So you've come. I was beginning to think you would not."
Seated with one boot propped up on the window ledge, Jareth was so still he blended into the shadows. He motioned her into the room with a careless gesture, as though it little mattered if she entered or not. This time, the Goblin King was clothed not in black but white, though his gloves were a rich, red-brown leather. The laces of his shirt were undone at the throat, and Sarah caught a glimpse of something as he moved into the light: a thin scar perhaps an inch or two long, centered over the heart. Jareth straightened and it disappeared from view.
"I promised I would. And I always keep my promises."
The Goblin King of old would've had a ready reply to that, smooth and darkly suggestive. This one did not. Jareth merely glanced at her in swift assessment. Sarah was never more conscious of her own appearance than she was in his presence. She'd exchanged her work-soiled clothes for a plain linen gown, but was still acutely aware of how shabby it was by comparison, how the faded embroidery at the sleeves had been mended and re-mended and the hem let down so many times that the fabric was worn to near transparency. The Goblin King gave no sign that he noticed any of it.
"I, too, keep my promises." He gestured again and more candles flickered to light.
The table near the window was large enough to accommodate a feast, but instead it held a large map, the parchment aged to a yellow-ivory.
The Goblin King nodded, but made no move to touch it. "You wanted to know where your knight has gone. Look, then."
Heavy batons of polished rosewood weighted down the sides of the parchment, and Sarah slid them apart as far as they would go. This map was far more detailed than the one she'd seen earlier that day. Brilliant colors leapt off the parchment, scarlet and tourmaline, swirls of cobalt and gold, with each location marked in elegant script. At the center of the map was the Labyrinth, and at the center of the Labyrinth was the castle. Sarah traced the outer boundaries of the maze, but to her consternation, the graceful lines of ink rippled at her touch. Fluid as water, they shifted restlessly upon the parchment, never settling into one place for longer than a moment.
"You cannot map the Labyrinth," said the Goblin King, a faint tinge of amusement entering his voice, "Not truly. It is a puzzle that does not want to be solved." As he spoke, the ink lines solidified once more.
Sarah looked at the map with new distrust. A map ought to tell you how things were, not what they might be. She turned her attention to other portions of the map, being careful not to touch the parchment again.
Jareth had spoken of enemies at the borders, but in truth, the kingdom had few strategic weaknesses. Dense forest stretched north and east with a wide river snaking down through it to feed the Bog. To the south lay sparser woodland and plains, then the shore of a great inland sea. A tiny fleet of dragon ships were inked upon the map and marks placed at points along the coast where watchtowers stood. To the west was the Wasteland, and after that, mountains.
Green jade pebbles sat in twos and threes edging the mountain border, flanking a larger piece of polished lapis lazuli. Sarah picked it up. The stone was a deep blue, a vein of glittering gold running through its heart.
"Didymus." Jareth had come to stand beside her. "The jade stones are the armies at his command."
Hoggle had told her of the goblin soldiers- not the foolish little creatures Sarah had seen before, but much larger cousins- wiry and reptilian with eyes that could see in the dark, bred for battle. It still did not reassure her to think of Sir Didymus leading them, but it troubled her even more to wonder about the enemies he would face.
Across the western border, all along the mountain range were dozens of white quartz pebbles, far outnumbering the green. The sight of them froze Sarah's breath in her throat.
"Do you begin to understand?" asked the Goblin King. "Your knight is in a very risky position, indeed."
Sarah gazed numbly at the white pebbles- so many, against so few. Even a well-trained army had small hope of winning, and the losses would be great. "Who are they?"
"Pawns who heed only the will of their master. Who they are matters little- such an enemy will offer him no mercy and expect none in return."
History books were full of battles, but they'd always seemed like such dry, academic discussions to Sarah. This was all too real. The piece of lapis lazuli was cold and heavy, but when she set it down, the absence of it in her hand felt even worse. She searched Jareth's face for some sign of remorse or concern, but there was nothing but a studied blankness. A flat black stone sat on the edge of the map and he picked it up, idly manipulating it from one gloved hand to the other.
"We never know what we are capable of until we are called upon. Didymus' strength is that he admits no weaknesses." Frowning in concentration, Jareth rolled the stone across the back of his wrist, vanishing it briefly like a conjurer with a coin.
That's not strength, argued Sarah silently. That's insanity. "And if he fails?"
"That possibility would never occur to him. He is not troubled by fear or doubt. Some might envy him in that." He set the river stone carefully down in the center of the labyrinth, nudging it into place with the tip of his finger.
"How could you do it? How could you send him there when you don't dare go yourself?"
Anger kindled in Jareth's eyes. "He knows his duty, as I know mine. Do not think to lecture me on how to play games of war."
"If he loses he could be killed."
"Anything is possible. Do not think I have failed to consider the consequences."
Sarah refused to relent. "You're heartless."
In the next room, the clock struck half past eleven. An errant breeze swept through the room that sent the candle-flames dancing, and Jareth faltered in his speech. He swept a hand over his face, and the moment quickly passed.
"He bears a powerful token. It may be enough to turn the tide of his fortunes."
The pendant around Sarah's neck suddenly felt heavy as a millstone. Not if it's here with me.
Jareth regarded her warily, as though he were trying to decipher a rare text. "Come. There is something more you should see."
At the far end of the chamber opposite the bed stood a tall, rectangular object. It was nearly half again Sarah's height and wide as the span of a man's arms, draped in heavy blue velvet. Jareth tugged on one corner and the cloth slid to the ground in a whisper.
It was even larger than the one she'd passed through when she arrived in the Labyrinth. This one had a frame fashioned of wood so dark it was nearly black, though glints of amber and gold shone in the grain. Hawthorn and ivy twined up the sides, carved finely so that each individual leaf stood out from the next. In it, Sarah and Jareth were reflected back pale as ghosts. Stripping off his gloves and casting them impatiently aside, the Goblin King touched the surface of the glass.
"Don't-" cried Sarah before stopping herself short.
"Do you think it dangerous?" asked Jareth, unsmiling. "You would be right."
From empty air he plucked a single silver pin and held it up before her eyes. "Give me your hand."
Sarah hesitated only a moment before placing her hand in his own, palm up. The movement of the pin was quick; a bright drop of blood welled up on her forefinger. Guiding her forward, the Goblin King pressed her wet fingertip against the mirror's surface. It was slick and immovable as a glacier, and when Sarah pulled away, her blood left a dark smear upon it like a blemish in the glass.
Jareth still held her tight by the wrist, raising her hand to his mouth. For a moment, she thought he might kiss it but he did not- he only blew upon it, the warmth of his breath banishing the mirror's lingering chill. When Sarah looked down, the blood had gone, leaving no trace of a wound behind.
The Goblin King did not let go of her hand. "Watch."
Before, the mirror had reflected back only candle flame and shadows, but now it took on a light of its own, softly silver like the moon.
"You asked what would be worth such sacrifice," he said, holding Sarah's hand so that the light played over her outstretched fingers. "Long ago, these mirrors were made to channel the Labyrinth's wild magic and open doorways to other worlds. Nowhere else is such a thing possible, nor should it be; we were not meant to travel so readily between them."
Sarah's mind raced to comprehend. That there was some means of passage between the Underground and home she knew, though she didn't understand how. But other worlds?
For once, Jareth did not ridicule her ignorance. "Not every mirror contains a doorway. Only certain mirrors... in certain places," He retrieved the length of blue velvet that had pooled upon the floor. "Boundaries exist between one world and the next. You could no more cross them than you could put your hand through this cloth without tearing it. But there are places where the boundaries are thin..." He unfolded the velvet, revealing a worn portion so threadbare it was nearly translucent. "There they might be breached, if enough magic is brought to bear upon it. The Labyrinth is one such place."
Sarah wanted to shake her head, argue with him. It wasn't that simple, it couldn't be. You couldn't just tear a hole in time and space...
Jareth's voice was stern. "Watch."
The mirror-light shimmered, pouring inward as the images upon the surface changed. At first Sarah could make out only vague details and hazy shapes, but then the mirror began to clear, refocusing upon a single picture: white walls and a half-open window streaked with rain, curtains fluttering in the wind. Shock ran over her like cold water. Her apartment. There was the lamp she'd found at the thrift store and her nightstand, piled high with books. The black dress from her mother's funeral lay crumpled on the floor beside the unmade bed, a candle lay overturned in a puddle of melted wax with a wisp of smoke rising from the wick-
It vanished without warning. The surface of the mirror undulated slowly as if something large moved just behind it, and it filled Sarah with dread.
"So many worlds, so many possibilities. If a powerful enough creature could make that crossing into a world without magic, he could rule it with no more effort than a thought." The Goblin King spoke this last part softly, but the words hung in the air as though they were written in fire.
Sarah could not stop herself from asking. "Would you?"
"What makes you think I haven't already done so?"
Too late, she remembered the goblin legends, and what had seemed only a fanciful tale took on a more sinister pall. In the other room, the clock chimed softly to mark the passing of a quarter hour. The mirror's light was a lambent silver-white once more, washing all the color from Jareth's features. He stood close enough to be her shadow, the scent of smoke clinging to his hair and clothing. The smell of it recalled to her a burning candle, with just a touch of sulfur lingering behind.
Other worlds, thought Sarah. And what if all the armies in the Underground were not enough to protect such a secret? Didymus must know how hopeless this fight is. But knowing would not deter him from his duty, and Jareth clearly believed the knight to have left already. Sarah realized with a pang that he'd stayed behind long enough to find her, and the delay had put him into grave danger. She pushed the thought away. There's still time. There has to be.
Jareth spoke, the words a barely audible murmur in her ear. "The only thing less forgivable than failure is not to fight at all."
"I... I understand." Sarah took a deep breath. "Thank you."
The Goblin King did not acknowledge that he'd heard her. He veiled the mirror once more, abruptly extinguishing its light. "The hour grows late. It is time you should be going."
"There's something else I need you to-"
Jareth hissed in exasperation. "I've told you more than any ordinary mortal knows- more than I should. I've brought you here, where no other besides myself has crossed this threshold and stood before this mirror since the Labyrinth was made, and I've done it all because you asked it of me." He seized her arm and propelled her before him. "My promise to you has been fulfilled. All I want in return is one simple thing: I want you to leave. Now." With nothing more than that, he began to steer her toward the door.
"I just want-"
The conversation was familiar, yet different, and the discrepancy nagged her thoughts even as she struggled. Wait. That was it. She'd asked for information that only he and Sir Didymus knew and he'd given it readily. Why? The Goblin King was more than capable of weaving lies and riddles to keep from divulging what he knew. It had never been a simple matter of her asking for something and receiving it. Unless...
Sarah planted her feet and braced hard. "Let me go."
He dropped her arm as though it burned him, confusion mingling with irritation. "You dare-"
An icy gust of wind swept through the chamber, extinguishing all the candles at once. In the next room, the clock began to chime the thirteenth hour, each bell piercingly clear. The notes lingered in the air without fading, their harsh, mingled dissonance sending prickles of unease down the back of Sarah's neck. The Goblin King stood unmoving, head bowed and his face bloodless and still. All the shadows in the room roiled and swirled around him until the white of his clothing stood out in the darkness, billowing like a tattered sail upon his frame. Sarah seized his hand and his fingers closed about hers, squeezing so hard she thought the bones would break. She tried to call out his name, but the wind stole the words as soon as they left her lips. The stones of the tower shook beneath their feet, and from very far away came a brittle crack, like the shattering of a mirror.
The seventh chime had sounded by the time the wind died down. The room was bathed in smoke and starlight, and the fire in the hearth was nothing but ash. Jareth shivered once, like a raptor settling its plumage. He opened his eyes, so pale as to be nearly silver. Awareness and awe flared in them, cold as a dying sun.
"Sarah," He breathed her name so softly that she wasn't certain she'd heard it. Then his face hardened. "You stubborn little bitch..."
The words died in his throat. Turning on his heel like a clockwork automaton, the Goblin King strode toward the window. She caught at his sleeve, but he shook her off impatiently. She persisted and stood directly in his path, stifling an exclamation of pain when his chin cracked a glancing blow across the bridge of her nose.
It checked his progress only a little. Jareth seemed barely to hear, although he stopped just short of the window, bracing against the archway with both hands. The outline of his body rippled and blurred. Caught between him and the ledge, Sarah felt as much as saw his form began to shift, the shape of the man wavering in and out of the light and the outspread wings of an owl trying to take its place. One moment, Jareth's heart beat steadily against her outspread palms, and the next, she felt the hollow bones of the bird and its heart fluttering like a trapped moth within.
An ugly noise of rage and despair tore from Jareth's throat, his mouth twisted with the effort of resisting the change. "Get out of my way, Sarah."
Relief and apprehension washed over her. He knew her. This was the Jareth she remembered, through angrier than she'd ever seen him before. If she was right- if she could compel him with words alone- she could stop this. The power he'd given her might be enough to counter any spell or bewitchment.
She placed her hands atop his shoulders. "Like hell I will. I... I order you to stop where you are."
The last chime of the clock cut off abruptly before it was complete and Jareth staggered, grunting like the air had been driven from his lungs. She grabbed at him to keep him upright, but he swatted her away like a gnat, then seized her by the throat. The leather cord of the pendant twisted in his grip until it wound tight around her neck, biting deep into her skin.
Sarah didn't care. She drew his head down to hers, the shock of his mouth warm against her own forgotten as Jareth wrapped her in a fierce embrace. She tasted blood and salt on his lips, each breath like fire until he released the cord. The pendant lay between them, burning so hot that it was like trapping molten metal against her breast. Sarah closed her eyes to the honeyed pain of it, relishing a fleeting ghost of sensation: the furious thrashing of white wings and a shrill cry of triumph, sharp talons that raked her from throat to belly. She gasped without sound and the illusion vanished.
All the stars went out.
When it ended, his hands were tangled in her hair and his forehead was pressed hard against hers as if he could not bear to draw away. The words were half-smothered against her own lips, nearly lost in the harsh rasp of his breathing.
"Command me," he said with a groan, "Command me to stay."
Sarah ran her fingers through his hair, following the curve of his spine damp with sweat. He shuddered beneath her touch, burying his face in her neck.
"Stay," she whispered.
Author's Note: As many of you have pointed out to me, it's been an embarrassingly long time this story was updated. Thank you everyone for your patience and your lovely reviews. They made all the difference.