My most recent and insistent plot bunny that absolutely insisted that I write it down. So now I'm writing three stories at the same time. That won't get confusing. (I'm being sarcastic. I've been tempted more than once to write 'Sakura' instead of 'Sarah')
Teller, teller, tell me a tale,
Of love and fear and duty,
I want to die in the arms of love,
I want to die for beauty.
For beauty is the only truth,
And death the only lie,
I want to sing a final tale,
And love before I die.
-"Teller, Teller," Troll Bridge, Jane Yolen
Sarah Williams had grown up during the thirteen hours she had spent in the labyrinth. She was less prone to seeing the world in black and white, and had attempted to cut the phrase, "It's not fair" out of her vocabulary with varying degrees of success. She tried to be less selfish and spoiled, although her stubbornness and fearsome temper were there to stay. Her parents had noticed and welcomed the sudden change in attitude. They had been curious about her overnight change, but Sarah had simply smiled and shrugged. She knew better than to expect them to believe her, and, truthfully, she was ashamed of how she had wished Toby away.
Sarah, herself, might have eventually come to believe it had been nothing more than a dream, were it not for the bruises, some of which took days to fade, and the foreign dirt that clung to her clothes and shoes. Most telling of all, she was able to contact her friends through her vanity mirror and, as she eventually discovered, through most reflective surfaces. Although, in anything other than a mirror, it was easier to have them come through, rather than try to converse with faint, blurry images.
Sarah rather suspected that the Labyrinth had imparted other gifts to her as well. She was rarely lost and never stayed lost for long, had an affinity for mazes, found what was hidden, and, most startling of all, had the ability to see those responsible for spoiled milk, knotted hair, misplaced items, and a number of other annoyances in life: goblins. Her eyes had been opened to a whole new side of reality.
But despite her newfound maturity, Sarah and her parents would never be close. Robert and Karen couldn't understand their wayward, dreamer daughter. Sarah was one of those rare mortals who hadn't completely left her childhood behind when she grew up. She harbored a belief in magic, and her stepmother especially didn't approve of 'fairytale nonsense.'
Toby was a different matter. The two siblings had a very strong bond. Sarah truly loved him and no longer resented his presence in her life. And in her presence, Toby was no longer quite so fussy. As he grew, Sarah told him stories. His favorite was the Labyrinth. Sarah lost track of how many times she had told him that story, always careful to leave out the Words. Sometimes she thought he remembered his time in the castle beyond the Goblin City, but he did not seem as changed as Sarah was.
One thing that had not changed was her loner status in high school, and her stepmother despaired of her ever having a boyfriend. If anything, the students seemed to go out of their way to avoid her. Perhaps they subconsciously realized the change in her, and feared the unknown.
Rather than ignore her gifts, Sarah cherished them, and went out of her way to search out the magick in the Aboveground, especially on vacations. So far she had met Wiccans in an occult shop downtown, a medicine woman on a trip to New Mexico, and a teen sorceress in Manhattan, who had accidentally bumped into her and let loose a torrent of French in her excitement before calming down enough to switch to English. She hadn't told any of them her story, but they had recognized that she had been touched by something otherworldly.
Sarah had attended college for one year in Boston before deciding to study abroad for a year in England. She had spent the first couple days flinching every time an Englishman spoke, the accent so similar to his. Eventually she had relaxed and found that she loved the campus, the course offerings, and had even managed to make a few friends. So, during the winter vacation she had completed the paperwork to transfer and packed up what she would need to live in England.
Although she was a skilled actress, it was no longer her dream. She changed her major to English Literature and took several summer classes her first year in England since she didn't have the money to fly home. By her junior year she was well ahead in credit requirements, enough that she could relax her senior year. She was, however, rather lacking in spending money. She had flown home for Christmas and been forced to quit her part-time job since the café she had worked at for the past few months had closed down.
"Come on Sarah, relax," her friend Mel wheedled as the two of them wandered around London on a hot July afternoon. "Have fun, and don't worry. I'll pay for lunch."
"You don't have to do that," Sarah protested.
"I want to," Mel interjected, waving away the brunette's protests. "We may be poor, penniless college students, but I am the poor, penniless college student with a job. Besides, without your help I never would have passed that mythology unit in English. Now put those good eyes of yours to use and find us someplace to eat."
"I didn't do that much," Sarah commented as her gaze jumped from building to building. "It wasn't that difficult."
"Speaks the 'Faerie Queen,'" Mel replied dryly. "Give me quantum physics any day."
Sarah mock shuddered. "Blasphemer!"
"Dreamer!" her friend shot back.
"And don't call me 'Faerie Queen.'"
"But the nickname suits you so well," her friend protested.
"Why don't we eat in that pub down there," Sarah suggested, changing the subject. "The Leaky Cauldron."
Melanie shaded her eyes against the bright sun. "Where?"
"Between book store and record store."
"I think you need to get your eyes checked," Mel teased as they came to a stop across the street from the Leaky Cauldron. "There's no pub here."
"No pub?" Sarah questioned with a frown as she took in the dingy appearance of the Leaky Cauldron. She observed Melanie and noticed how her eyes slid from the book store to the record store.
"Sarah, the two stores are connected by a wall," her friend pointed out.
"Yes, of course," she agreed with a slight hesitation. "My mistake."
"Come on. Let's go find a fish and chips shop."
"Again?" Sarah asked in disbelief. "You've been eating fish and chips for the past three days. You're going to die of a heart attack at 21."
"Hey, at least I'll go out happy," Melanie joked.
Sarah returned the next day, alone, to check out the Leaky Cauldron. A few minutes of observation confirmed that no one could see the pub, making her more curious than ever.
She opened the door with some trepidation. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness, and when they did she had to remind herself not to stare. Quickly, before she could draw attention to herself, she slipped inside and made her way to an empty niche near the back. Only then did she drink in the sight of people in robes of various colors and styles eating and drinking, waving around wands of all things. Dishes stacked themselves and cups hovered in midair, and the people acted so unimpressed it must have been an everyday occurrence.
What is this place, Sarah wondered. Nothing so strange or surreal as the Underground, so she wasn't overwhelmed by the sights. But still, to find people practically ignoring the magic around them, to see them taking it for granted…
Sarah chuckled to herself. Now she was beginning to sound like Hoggle. Although she was a little surprised at the complete lack of glitter she associated with magic.
"Excuse me," said a man's voice, and Sarah jumped. A couple had approached while she was distracted. "Might we get by?" he asked politely.
"Sorry," she mumbled and moved away, watching them out of the corner of her eye. The man took out his wand and began tapping bricks. Sarah turned when she heard the clatter and watched the archway appear.
"Please, God, not another labyrinth," Sarah muttered as she slipped through behind them, moving quickly before she could rethink her decision.
Her eyes lit up when she noticed the shops around her.
"Cool," she breathed. "My kind of mall."
The people around her eyed her Muggle clothes curiously, but Sarah took no notice.
She grinned as she browsed through the apothecary, pet store, robe shops, and gift store. She eyed Ollivander's, but decided against going in. She had no magic, and no need of a wand. Sarah eventually gathered from signs and certain products that these people were called witches and wizards, and was relieved to at least know that much in a place she knew nothing about.
A broom in a store window caught her eye, and she wandered over. The store sold supplies for something called, 'Quidditch.' From what Sarah saw, she deduced that it was a sport played on flying broomsticks.
I'd love to fly, she thought dreamily. Thoughts of flight brought to mind a certain Fae King, which caused her to glance around suspiciously, as she had done off and on for the past seven years. As always, she saw nothing out of the ordinary.
What she did notice was a bookstore, and she quickly made her way over, never having been able to miss browsing through books. She took a moment to look examine the store, before wandering around and looking for the fantasy and fairytales. As she walked she trailed her hand over the shelves, sometimes pausing to examine the titles or watch the moving cover pictures, but the various spellbooks didn't hold her for long. Since she wasn't a witch, they were essentially useless.
The fairytale section held Sarah spellbound. She completely lost track of time as she skimmed, read, and paged through the books. She'd found an almost cute story about the Goblin King and his labyrinth in one of the children's books, and one that was not so cute in an anthology of folklore. She was greatly relieved that neither tale contained the Words.
Sarah suddenly realized that she had been in Flourish and Blott's for quite a while and checked her watch to find that it was almost 3:30. Deciding that she had spent enough time in…wherever she was, she picked out a collection of fairytales and made her way to the register.
"Three Galleons, two Sickles," the cashier said mechanically.
Sarah paused. "Do you take pounds?" she asked hesitantly.
"We only take Galleons, Sickles, and Knuts," the woman drawled in a bored tone.
Sarah's eyes flashed angrily at the tone. "We are still in England, aren't we?"
"This is the Wizarding World, hun. We use wizard money here," she sneered. "Why don't you go exchange your money at Gringotts Bank."
Sarah ground her teeth, and then hid a vicious grin when she noticed one of the store's goblins messing around with the cash register. Apparently witches and wizards couldn't see the goblins either.
"And where is Gringotts?" she asked with faux politeness.
"I'll show you," said a woman who was examining a display next to the counter, and Sarah turned to face her. She was an older woman with black hair streaked white with age pulled back into a bun, dark eyes sharp and intelligent behind rectangular glasses, and emerald green robes. "I was planning on making a trip to the bank anyway."
"Thank you very much," said Sarah with a truly grateful smile, and set her book on the counter, ignoring the cashier's protestations. "Hold this for me," she ordered of the employee with no little bit of exasperation and then followed the other witch out onto the street, grinning smugly when she heard pounding on stuck cash register keys.
"My name is Minerva McGonagall," the older woman said once they stepped onto the cobbled road.
"Sarah Williams," Sarah replied, shaking her hand.
"This must be your first time in Diagon Alley," Minerva commented.
"It is," she confirmed.
"Your accent is American. Are you here on vacation?"
"You're right, I am an American. But I attend one of the small colleges outside of London where I transferred to about two years ago," Sarah replied.
"I have been many places in my life," Minerva said, "but I have yet to visit America."
"Mm. Yes. Perhaps someday…."
"If you don't mind my asking, what do you do?" Sarah asked.
Minerva smiled faintly at her. "I don't mind at all. I am a Transfiguration Professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
"Sounds interesting," Sarah commented cheerfully. "What's Transfiguration?"
The woman regarded her with surprise. "It's the study of changing one object into another. Are you a Muggle?"
Sarah frowned. "I don't know. What's that?"
"A Muggle is someone who doesn't have magic," the professor explained.
"Oh. Then yes, I guess I am a…Muggle," Sarah said, considering. "What a strange word."
"You seem to be taking everything well. Have you known about the Wizarding World for very long?" Minerva said curiously.
"Not long at all," the brunette replied easily. "But I've seen stranger things."
Sensing that Sarah would not tell her what stranger things she had seen, and knowing that it was rude to pry anyway, Professor McGonagall changed the subject.
"Well, I hope you have enjoyed what you've seen of our world so far," she stated.
"Oh yes. It's wonderful. I've never seen anything like it," Sarah gushed, and Minerva smiled at her enthusiasm.
"Here we are," she said at last. "Welcome to Gringotts."
"Wow," Sarah breathed, taking in the large building. She started when she noticed the goblin standing guard at the door, and two more behind the glass doors. They were much bigger than the goblins she was used to seeing creating trouble, though still short compared to humans. And, most startling of all, they seemed to be visible to everyone around her.
"Don't worry," Minerva said, having noticed her jump. "Goblins run the bank. Just remember to be polite."
"Yes," Sarah murmured with a small grin. "It's always best to be polite when dealing with goblins." These must be a different breed than the Labyrinth goblins, if they were trusted to run a bank of all things. It was almost mind-boggling.
As the two women drew closer the guard's eyes widened, and he stood straight, bowing and opening the first set of doors for them. "Lady," he murmured, startling both women. Goblins often referred to Sarah as 'Lady', but she hadn't thought this Aboveground breed would know or mimic that.
"Oh, er…thank you," Sarah stuttered.
Minerva eyed her curiously, almost suspiciously. "They've never done that before," she murmured as they approached the next set of doors.
"Really?" Sarah asked distractedly. A verse engraved on the silver doors had caught her attention and she read it to herself:
"Enter stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there."
She shivered as the two goblins bowed her through the doors as well. The large, double doors, goblins, riddles, it all reminded her strongly of the Labyrinth.
Sarah paused just inside the doors and turned to her companion. "Thank you so much for showing me here, and for answering some of my questions. It was very nice to meet you."
"It was my pleasure, Sarah," Minerva said warmly. "If you are ever near Hogwarts, feel free to come see me. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation."
"Me too," Sarah agreed with a smile. "Bye."
Minerva watched her walk off, in search of an unoccupied goblin. She noticed the goblins begin to look up, ignoring whoever they happened to be helping or whatever they happened to be doing. A murmur swept from goblin to goblin, and they bowed their heads in respect as Sarah Williams passed.
"Lady," they said. "It's the Lady."
The witches and wizards turned, curious and confused, to stare at the young woman in Muggle clothes. She kept walking, head held high, refusing to flush with embarrassment.
She does look regal, Minerva McGonagall thought to herself, witnessing this proud display. But what sort is she that the goblins of all creatures acknowledge her?
Sarah paused as one of the goblins approached her. "My name is Griphook, Lady Sarah, and I am the manager of this branch of Gringotts Bank. Please come this way." He led her behind the row of counters to and down a hall of office doors, passing a wizard with fiery red hair who looked after them with surprise. She followed obediently, a little dazed and uncomfortable with such special treatment. These goblins were a far cry, in looks and intelligence, from those who resided in the Goblin City, and it took her several moments to adjust.
"Now, what can we do for you, Lady?" he asked indicating that she seat herself in his large office.
"Please, it's just Sarah," she said, brushing non-existent dirt off of her shirt.
"Of course, Lady."
Sarah sighed mentally, and resigned herself to the title. "I really only came to exchange pounds into wizard money. Although," she added thoughtfully, "any information you can give me about this world would be extremely helpful. This is the first I've seen of it, and I had no idea that this existed. I'm also curious about how you ended Aboveground, if it's not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all," Griphook said. "As I am sure you deduced, all goblin employees of Gringotts are of the same breed. For various reasons, including a desire for more intelligent interaction, we decided to move from the Goblin City to the Aboveground centuries ago. In general, we found banking profitable and to our liking. His Majesty approved of the move, as long as we send Him a yearly tithe. We no longer have anything to do with the wishing away of babies. It was beneficial for all parties concerned, and we have become content with our lot in life. The wizards, of course, know nothing about the reality of the Underground."
"Fascinating," Sarah commented, listening intently.
He continued to tell her about the Wizarding World, describing the society, Hogwarts, and the war, giving a brief history of the last war, as well as defining a few terms common to this world. By the time Sarah left the bank, she felt she had a fairly decent understanding of the Wizarding World.
She stopped by the bookstore on her way out, eager to purchase her chosen book. Thankfully, someone else was manning the counter, and they appeared to have fixed the cash register, so she anticipated a quick finish.
Instead, the wizard couldn't find her book and called the woman Sarah had dealt with earlier out from the back room. Sarah gritted her teeth, feeling a headache coming on, and ground out, "Can I speak with the manager, please?"
Next chapter: Sarah discovers Hogwarts.
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