Well, hello again. Probably no one here remembers me, and that's probably a good thing, looking back on my old stories from ever-so-long-ago. In the interim I got a BA, started on a master's degree, had a baby, and have moved about a dozen times. All very good reasons for not finishing the old fics, all of which sucked. I'm not going to take them down, just because I think it's interesting to see how writers change over the years. But I'm not going to finish any of my old Labyrinth fics, so if anyone out there was still holding out hope, sorry. Not gonna happen. I do plan to finish this one, I believe, as I've gotten much better at actually finishing things I start. I guess you could technically call this story a crossover between Labyrinth and Pamela Dean's Secret Country books. That being said, I don't believe it will be necessary to have read any of Dean's books to understand or enjoy this story, and there will be no main characters from her books appearing anywhere in this fic (just an ancient librarian or two, perhaps, later on). The main storyline is J/S, the main world is the labyrinth. I own nothing except a guitar, a toddler, and a battered old PC, so don't sue me. The first is out of tune, the second is always sticky, and the third isn't worth anything. So there.
The forest was very dark. He had said to her, in warning, before she had pledged, that there were some parts of the world where light never penetrated, and he had been right. She hadn't understood back then. She had still been a child.
She had thought she liked trees, but she didn't like these. They stood close together, and their branches were so entangled that it was always murky on the forest floor. When they had first come, she had wanted always to keep a fire lit inside the wretched hovel they called home. He had forbidden it, for things in the forest were attracted to fire and notice was the last thing he wanted.
She had long since forgotten how long they had been there. It didn't much matter, anyway. Time had ceased to matter, or count for anything. Every day was very nearly the same. She would wake in the utter darkness before dawn, rise from her narrow pallet, and uncover the few glowing coals from the night before's meager fire. The tiny, tough, nearly inedible grains that grew in marshy pockets of the forest required all night to slow-cook into something resembling food, and these she had put in a pot with water, salt, and sweet tree sap the night before. It was tough and watery at the same time, and had no taste, but it was edible. She placed portions in two rough wooden dishes on the hearth, and left the hut for water.
When she returned with her cold bucket, he was awake and eating. They did not speak to each other. They did not look at each other. They lived by routine only.
He left soon, without greeting or goodbye, and she doused the fire and washed the bowls in cold, dingy streamwater. The sun had risen; she could tell because it was possible to see her hands now, and the outline of the bucket. This blue midnight light was all that would ever penetrate this far into the forest. She had learned to live semi-blind in a dark world. At first she had questioned many things, though she had been warned not to. Now she questioned nothing.
She tended the few vegetables that would grow in the poor soil and eternal night of the forest. Every day she went out to her garden patch and scraped away the hanging draperies of spider webbing from the night before, huge sticky swaths that hung deathly still in the windless trees. She had never seen the spiders that made the nets. She did not want to. She also went foraging for the few things she could glean from the forest: marsh grain, pale sour berries, some edible plant leaves and shoots. By trial and error she had learned what she could eat and what she must avoid. Luckily none of the errors had killed her.
They had not tasted meat since they came to live in this wretched place. The kind of things that would make catching it easy—things she could only name with hesitation, it had been so long—were forbidden here. They would attract too much attention. A lowly peasant couple would never have access to such things. Things like knives. Guns. Arrows. He carried a sharpened stick with him when he went off into the forest, but she knew that anything dangerous enough to defend against would be too strong for her. She went defenseless into the forest every day, never sure she would return at night. That feeling became part of her life.
They were here for a purpose, but the purpose became hazy the longer she stayed. She was sure he still remembered, but her part in this had little to do with the actual plan. She had to lend credence to his presence, to further the sham that they were really poor peasants trying to eke out a meager existence on their little plot of land. The forest was wide and deep, certainly many times bigger than where they had come from, and likely even bigger than the place that she had been before that. These places were dim in her memory now. Everything was, except the forest.
She collected dead branches for firewood, leaving the soft ones that had already moldered. She bundled them on her back, using rope she had fashioned herself from dried vines and sap. Then she filled her tattered apron with the leaves of several plants she knew to be bitter but edible, and more swamp grass to pound for grain. There were no berries today, and she had never found any edible nuts in all the time she had lived here. She returned to the hut, put the leaves away, and began pounding the tough swamp grass with big rocks to crush the seed heads and release the grain inside. Then she swept it all up into a pile, separated the bits of husk from the kernels, and put the kernels in her breakfast pot with scummy streamwater and a pinch of salt and a small pouring of sweet sap. That would be tomorrow's breakfast. Then she took more grain that she had pounded and saved from the day before, and ground it to a sticky paste in the hollow of a concave rock. She mixed this also with water and salt, and baked it on the hearth into a sort of unleavened bread. It tasted terrible, but he never complained. She wondered sometimes if he had forgotten what real food was like. She had, often.
It was at night, when he came home from his scheming, that she most yearned to be gone from this place. She served him his bread and bitter greens, and he ate without comment before going to his pallet to sleep. They slept on separate pallets in separate corners of the hut. She remembered, then and only then, what it had been like to love him; to be touched, and to know his eyes on hers. She knew, then, what it was like to have someone near you and yet to be completely alone. She didn't even have the consolation of believing that he felt the same hatred of the situation that she did. She knew better. He was too old to give in to emotions like that.
He could feel her emotions, and sometimes it nearly killed him what he was doing to her, but there was nothing he could do about it. It had been years, by his reckoning, that they had been self-exiled in this dungeon of a forest. She was so young that she had lost count of the days and weeks, but he never did. In some ways, it didn't much matter how long they stayed. Though born mortal she now aged like he did, and would soon count her memories by eons, not months or years.
But inside she would not always be twenty years old, as she had been when she had married him and renounced her claim on human mortality, and he knew she was beginning to understand that now. After years spent in the perpetual darkness of the forest, her psyche was aging quickly. At some point, he would no longer be able to undo the damage. What frightened him, when he chose to admit it, was that he wasn't entirely sure when that point would come or if he would even recognize it when it did. She could be ruined forever, damaged internally to the point where she could never recover.
But he had no choice. They were here for a reason, and if he failed in his task it was not just his own kingdom that would fall. Everything rested on his shoulders.
In the deep stillness of the hovel, the whisperings of the giant spiders and their mammalian prey outside, he crept to her pallet. Perhaps once a year, he allowed himself the weakness of her flesh. It had to be brief and he had to hold back the full extent of his desire, how he craved the smell of her skin and the gleam of fire or starshine in her expressive eyes. He pressed his thin mouth to the thrumming vein in her throat, inhaled the secret scent behind her earlobe. This was not how he preferred things—this desperation, the accumulated grime of years fetid on their skins. Above all he wished for the kind of life he had meant to spend with her, years of hedonistic indolence in his whimsical castle. They had had so little time for that, but what choice had he?
It's not fair! The faint memory of her childish voice pricked his mind, some of the first words she had ever uttered to his face. She did not say so now. She did not say anything now.
The faint scent of salt caught his attention as he relaxed, spent, and began to draw away. She was crying, though she did not make a sound. What choice did he have, he thought furiously, both to himself and to her. He pulled back to his own pallet, his own corner of the hovel, but did not sleep.