(A.N.)--- *stands, bound, before the pitiless firing-squad* 

okay, okay.  this is so NOT 'timely'.  no excuses.  my bastard of a muse (my muse is a guy, wouldn't ya know) left me in my hour of need and i was too lazy to get up and drag his ass back.  but i finally set out some incense, sacrificed a few goats, and lured him back with my irresistible charm...okay, you got me---it's spring break.  anyway, he's here now and i'm back in business.  Yaayyyy!  *jumps up and down.  at least, as much as the ropes allow* 

this story has really got a mind of its own, and i'm just the tool.  i'm kind of amazed at how it keeps on morphing.  i like the speculations, though i won't confirm or deny (what would be the fun in that? ^_~).  i have an end, believe me, but Sarah isn't ready for it yet.  i know that sounds odd, but i believe The Labyrinth was about change, and that's what i'm trying to create here.  She's changing, but not enough.  not for what i have planned for her.  not yet.  some things change over night, but not this.  i guess what i'm trying to say is thank you, to those of you who have been patient with this story, and me.  i'm getting there, even if i am taking the scenic route.  ^_^

a place between sleep and awake/end of innocence, unending masquerade/that's where i'll wait for you./hold me near you/so close i sear you/seeing, believing/dreaming, deceiving...~ Nightwish (Sleepwalker)

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Nine: The Hunter in the Sky

Night and day ceased to exist within the fog's cool embrace.  She wandered, knowing each step was a danger, an unknown, where the ground could part or simply fall away.  Her path, undirected as it was, never changed.  She had expected to stumble over 'kings and queens,' all those gold-dotted trees, but nothing ever broke her movements, save her own uncertainty.  When the fog lifted, if it ever lifted, would she recognize her surroundings?  Would she be anywhere at all?  Best not to think about it, best to keep moving.  Even though she knew that was very much a lie.  A more intelligent creature would never have put herself in this situation.

"Damn it!" she screamed, though the fog swallowed enough of it that all she could hear was a dry echo in her ear.  The ground, for all its shifty greyness, was solid as she threw herself upon its mercy, pounding her fists until she felt the first trickle of blood between her fingers.  She collapsed forward, propped upon her elbows and breathing heavily, sucking in mouthful after mouthful of the odorless mist.  Though 'mist' was hardly the word---'fur' seemed more appropriate to the fog that pressed against her body with an almost substantial brush.  Surely not.  Surely she was imaging that. 

"Now that I'm done with my tantrum..."  She folded her arms and rested her chin upon them, nonchalant as her feet began to kick back and forth.  Back and forth.  She rolled sharply over onto her back and coiled her hands over her stomach.  Her once proud shirt was coarse and scratchy against her skin. 

"My soul for some clean clothes," came her breathy whisper, followed by a low tittering giggle.  She stopped abruptly, pressing her hands over her mouth.  Was that horrible sound really coming out of her?  She pushed the heels of her palms into her eyes until the dark was chased with electric-blue, sighed.  This really isn't fair, she thought, then began giggling again.

* * *

The fog was gone when she opened her eyes.  She stared up at a black-silk sky and could count the blinking stars in Orion's belt.  There were more stars, less sky---the edge of her vision flashed on something glistening and close, and her head turned almost of its own accord---pulled, pulled by what her eyes couldn't make sense of.  Bone crossed over the heavens, bleached with the wash of wind and time.  Her gaze traced the graying band to its curve, moonlight raking it in an almost harsh and brittle line.  The next was no softer.  Nor the next. 

A ribcage.  And there, the backbone rising and curving above her.  She knew the points of the ribs would be sharp beneathe that black sand.  And it was so close.  She reached a hand in an almost surreal sweep and the very tips of her fingers grazed the bone.  The touch was real, a dry and thirsty thing that sent a tingle of shock up her nerves.  The moonlight poured down her skin like silver water and she had to fight her breath a moment just to think. 

Movement caught her and her eyes swung to her left.  Whispering from one of the ribs, nearer to the backbone was a sash that spilled on the wind like the reddest blood.  Its colour should have been mute in the dim moon, but it was bright.  Technicolour against the chiaroscuro, and glittering so softly on the wind.  And the wind, pulling at her hair with cool caress...After so many days in its absence---it was a boon, a gift, a blessing.  Something to wrap around the weariness that had seemed to thread through every fiber of her being. 

Her eyes fell down the same line of smooth bone and paused.  Nearer where the sand swallowed the bone was a tight loop of a knot, a ragged rope that dipped and swung against the breeze.  It tied a boat, anchored it to the spot as if the black sand that pressed against its bottom was actually water that could and would carry it off if nothing held it stationary.  Even then it seemed in wait of movement, like she could untie the knot and send the vessel sailing over a sea of ebony sand.  The boat itself was oddly shaped, a crescent, but softer in its curves, much like a canoe, but bigger, stronger.  One end, the farthest, curled up some, and she knew, if she could see it from the side, that it might resemble more a hook rather than a crescent.  The darkness stole some of its colour, but she could see that it was rich and vibrant, not weathered like the bone that surrounded her.  Running along the rim, from end to end, were three bars of colour.  Her guess was blue and green, and maybe red.  It had an exotic air to it.  Something...something not American.  Not European.  She couldn't place it.

What was the use to that?  A boat moored in the desert?  And the bone she was just now recognizing as the cage it was?  She wrapped her fingers around one rib and it was strong and solid, not brittle at all.  To leave such a carcass the animal that had died, if that was what it was, must have been huge.  Big enough to swallow her whole.  But, odd enough, she wasn't frightened.  She was calm with a clarity that made the breeze smell of freshly budded peonies and honeysuckle.  And she knew what it meant even before she could think it out in her head. 

There was an answering spark in the distance, like light tracing the edges of a mirror.  Miles away, it had to be miles away.  So distant that it wasn't real yet.  Unconcerned, she turned and the bone pressed between her shoulder-blades.  She leaned lightly against it, trying to reach beyond the clarity to an emotion that was more suited.  Fear seemed more suited, but it just wasn't there. 

Not yet not yet.

There was a flash of light at her back and she whirled, almost instantaneously.  She was surprised to find her body tight with the willingness to fight, like a first instinct.  That was new and not entirely pleasant.  Her heart seemed to be squeezed down into a space far too small for it, it strained against that closeness and she realized it was her.  The spark she had witnessed so many miles away was at the edge of the boat, and it wasn't a spark at all, but the Goblin King's pendant.  Her startled glare climbed up to his face, not mistaking the dry humour to his mouth.  His eyes were very warm and very pleased; there was something about her surprise that he liked.  When she could she saw that he held in his left hand some sort of lantern with a swirling point of blue brilliance.  It gave a faint glow, a shadow of light that left his face cool, a contrast to the amused heat in his eyes.  He was all black leather and lace, his hair leeched of colour so that it was no more than a pale halo rather than a gold crown.  Black suited him well. 

He placed the lantern upon the edge of the boat and the bars were blue, green, and red.  Just as she had thought.  He stared at the bands of colour as the wind came and pulled at the long, wild strands of his hair. 

"I thought you might like a little light," he said softly, but there was something insincere in his tone.

"Thanks," she replied carefully, and he smiled.

The silence stretched.  And she could almost feel it pulling between them like something that might snap and fly back at her, a rubber band stretched too thin.  The desert was cold around her, and she knew it wasn't right.  A real desert was full of life and activity, scurrying creatures and flapping wings.  The black sand spread around her in every direction, an endless horizon.  No rocks, no cactus-flowers, nothing broke its surface for as far as she could see.  Except them.  She felt isolated, to say the least.  Cut out of existence.  She was actually grateful for his presence.

"Do you see those stars up there," she asked quietly, leaning her forehead against the bone.  The glittering red material continued to spill and twist on the wind, it was becoming a distraction.  She watched as his face tilted upward.

"Orion?"

"Orion, yes."  She nodded slowly.  "My favourite constellation.  The Hunter of the night sky."

"It is the constellation of Kings."

She just stared at him.  Not certain of what emotion she conveyed.  But, whatever it was, it inspired him. 

"Seriously."  He waved at the boat on its still waves of sand.  "When a King dies it is said that he sails the sky to Orion, where he rules for eternity...'Sail thou the sky,'" he spoke clearly, "'Sail thou with the Imperishable Stars.'"  He had been gazing up at the sky, eyes out of focus with some internal story.  But that story seemed to shatter on his laugh.  He looked back to her and said, "Or so I've been told."

She shook her head, not seeing the amusement in his words.  But she did grin at him suddenly, "Are you certain these dead kings don't become trees?"

"What?" confusion, and was that indignation in his voice?

She threw her head back and laughed, and the sound was empty and small, out of place between the grey bone and the coal-black sand.  He stared at her for one hard moment, and it was such an odd look, as if he didn't know quite what to make of her.  The look pleased her; the determination that followed it did not.

"Enjoying yourself, are you?"  He stepped closer and traced a gloved finger down one rib, as if he could feel it through the leather.  "In there."

"Did you put me here?"

He smiled and his hand slid up until it was about level with his face.  He leaned into the bone and rested his forehead against his hand, rolled it a little so he could stare directly into her eyes.  "If I were going to put you somewhere, Sarah, I..." his voice trailed off, not because he was having trouble with his words, but because he seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say.  He hid his eyes against his glove and grinned at himself silently.

"In an oubliette?"  Something in her didn't want to know.  Didn't want to think of how terrible and creative he could be.  But it wasn't important.  She was almost certain that whatever vision he found so amusing was nothing she was going to like.

"Oh, no," he whispered.  Then, to her confusion, he started to laugh, just a soft sound that should have been lost on the wind.

"Well...where?"

He just shook his head back and forth, back and forth, like he couldn't think of anything else to do.

He wasn't going to tell her, and she was beginning to worry about the fact that he seemed to be hiding his eyes against his hand.  As if there was something there he didn't want her to see. 

So, it was time to shift gears again, and quickly.  "Is there anything you can tell me about the Middleground?  Anything that might help me?"

He glanced at her, and his eyes were as normal as they ever got.  Light and dark, warm and cold.  "I've told you enough, Sarah.  All that I can without breaking the rules."

She hugged her arms across her stomach and wished it wasn't so cold.  Wished she didn't feel so bitter.  "And here I thought you didn't give a damn about breaking rules.  I mean, you did tell me I had thirteen hours, but for some reason it felt more like nine..."

"I won't break these rules," he stated emotionlessly.  He didn't seem to like where she was going with the conversation.  And that was okay, because she didn't like where she was at.  For a few minutes at a time Sarah could forget their past, forget how he had played with and manipulated her.  Those moments never lasted long. 

"You won't help me?"  And at the same time her tone was saying, 'well, isn't that just. like. you.'

He straightened against the bone, no longer a picture of nonchalance, but something serious, and deadly.  "I have helped you."

"Sure."

"I have."

She nodded and smiled, empty as a doll's black eyes.  She expected him to play her game, and, to her shame, she was actually looking forward to going a round or two with him.  But his eyes snapped narrow.  Instant anger.

"Have it your way."  He almost turned, almost walked away.

"No!" she gasped, realizing she was pressing herself against the bars and reaching through, one hand suspended in the air.  She vaguely remembered launching herself forward.  She knew she looked desperate, she knew her voice was high and pleading...but she couldn't care yet.  She didn't want to be alone.  She didn't want to return to that thick fog that she knew was waiting for her on the other side of her consciousness.  So she stretched her hand out to him, not reaching---imploring, and whispered, "Please don't go."

That got him.  He froze right in his steps and turned back, just a little surprised.  No, it wasn't a little.  His eyes fell on that hand and she almost jerked it back, but didn't.  It would have been a pointless gesture anyway.

When he looked back up to her his eyes were empty, waiting.  The wind fluttered the lace at his throat, whipped at his hair, but he remained unmoved.

She didn't know what to say, but she had to give him a reason for stopping him.  Something he would believe, something she could get away with.  "You have helped me.  I'm sorry."  She couldn't look at him while she said it.  It wasn't guilt, but it must have looked like it to him.  It was anger at having to say such a thing, anger because she knew it would amuse him.  She dropped her hand and as it fell it brushed against something cool.  Her eyes shot up.  He had grasped her hand in both of his.

"Apology accepted," there was amusement in his voice, but it wasn't his usual mocking bite of sound.  It wasn't completely unfamiliar though.  She studied his face to find that edge of trickery and just couldn't see it.  But if he wanted to be friendly...

"Can you get me out of here?" she asked quietly.

His head tilted to the side and he genuinely seemed to think about it for a moment.  She saw the answer flash in his eyes, and it pleased him.  "Perhaps," he said, "if you kiss me."

She had a sudden urge to jerk her hand free, but couldn't seem to move.  "What?  I mean, NO!"

He shrugged like it didn't much matter to him anyway.  "I guess you will just have to stay there then." 

She expected this of him, she so did, but he still managed to piss her off.  She straightened with the indignation, then slumped, the outrage draining away and leaving her almost numb in its place.  She wanted free and he knew it.  He had kissed her before and that somehow made it not such a big deal if he kissed her again.  You don't really believe that, do you?

She looked up and watched his smile curve even more.  He knew she was going to give in. 

So much for being friendly, she thought distantly, sliding her hand out of his and wrapping both around a bar.  She was anchoring herself and she knew it, holding onto the cold, hard reality of the bone. 

"Do it," she hissed at him, "let's get this over with."  If he didn't like the bitter antipathy in her voice, he didn't show it.  She closed her eyes so she didn't have to see anymore and waited, not letting herself think about what was coming.  Kissing your adversary didn't seem right in any circumstances.

She didn't have to wait long.  She felt the smoothness of his glove slide over the lines of her jaw, startlingly cold and real, and sucked in an involuntary breath.  She pressed herself closer to the bone but didn't move away.  It was an effort not to look, not to shrink back from his touch.  It wasn't so unpleasant, that wasn't the problem.  No, the problem was his methods.  She felt a surge of anger wash through her just as his lips touched hers.

Chaste.  That's the word that came to mind.  Part of her was reeling in surprise because that soft brush was not what she had prepared for.  He cradled her face between his hands, not caressing, simply holding, and she realized he was trying to indirectly will her to move against him.  And when she wouldn't...he bit lightly at her lower lip.  That was too much, beyond where she was willing to go.  She threw herself back, but not far.  His hands tangled in the long, ebony-brown strands of her hair before she could get enough leverage, and the pain froze her in her flight.  She cried out as he jerked her back to him by her hair, winding it around his hands until she was effectively caught.  Then he kissed her again---and gentleness, chastity, was a distant dream.  The bruising press of his mouth was a reality, something full and dangerous.  Something to avoid and fight.  And she tried, pushing her palms furiously into his chest, clawing at his hands to free her hair.  But struggling only brought her pain, little hurt-noises that crawled out of her throat independent of her. 

She clenched her teeth tight to deny him that last bit of herself and he didn't seem to like it at all.  His teeth sank into her already tender lip, harder and harder, until she acquiesced with a small whimper.  She let him inside.  And that was the mistake.  She should have made him chew through her lip and never yielded...because he fell upon her in one swoop, possessed her mouth with a ferocity that was almost terrifying in its violence, leaving her dazed and crashing in its wake.  She was bowed at the middle, one hand steadying her against the bone, when she finally realized it was over and he had released her.  The fact seemed secondary, and she couldn't focus on it just as she couldn't seem to get her eyes to focus either. 

When she did finally see him his arms were folded and he was well out of her reach.  Something in her was giddy at the thought that he felt threatened by her and had acted accordingly.  But that something wasn't important.  Important was getting rid of the tingle in her bruised lips that was actually starting to feel good.

She wiped her hand well and thoroughly across her mouth, making sure his eyes followed, making sure the gesture displayed all the disgust she wanted him to see.  She knew her glare was jagged; she wanted it to cut him.  But he returned her stare, blankly, before appearing to decide on an emotion.  He smirked.

"You've had your fun," she panted, "now let me out."

"No."

She straightened, dark eyes cold with disbelief.  "What?  But I kissed you!"

"Yes, you did."

She approached the bone, quietly contained, because what she really wanted to do was jump up and down and hurl horrible curses at him.  But ranting and waving her arms like a madwoman lacked a certain amount of dignity.  She had to settle for the next best thing.  "You promised."

"I said I might let you out, but I've changed my mind," he replied haughtily.

"You!" she shrieked.  In the next instant all hell had broken loose within her and she was flinging handful after handful of ebony-sand at him.  The voracious wind caught the glinting particles and scattered them in every direction, but his.  She wasn't really trying to hit him, though she seriously wanted to.

He grinned that canary-eating grin of his and bowed low, one arm stretched out at his side.  "Me," was all he said.

She stopped short and his face sobered instantly.  "What is it?"

She uncurled her fist and let the black sand crumble between her fingers, light streaking through it like powder-fine glass.  Her palm was decorated with tiny cuts, not serious, but deep enough that they oozed blood, and it was dark in the moonlight.  He stepped closer and she held her hand away from her as if it was something foreign and not all-together friendly.

"It cut me," she whispered dazedly.

"Let me see," he said, reaching through the bars for her wounded hand.

"No!" she snapped rather frantically, jerking back out of his reach.  He froze in mid-motion.

"Sarah...let me help you."

She stared at him and her eyes were wide, not exactly with anger, but it wasn't surprise either.  She shook her head hesitantly, once left, once right. 

"You will carry your wounds back with you," he reasoned, his eyes betraying just a touch of confusion, like an edge of darker colour tracing his pupil.

"Then I will."

He reached for her hand again, but she took another step back, cradling it protectively to her breast.  It seeped blood onto her pristine shirt, a spot of imperfection screaming amongst all the white.  She didn't seem to notice.

He stared at her and she stared back, and there eyes fought though the exact reason why was unclear.  Finally, he looked away.  "Keep them then, but here," he grasped the lace at his left wrist and ripped it off in one harsh movement, "bind it to stop some of the bleeding."  He held the strip of black cloth out to her without moving any closer, or making any gesture that could be mistaken as 'threatening'.

She took it hesitantly, but stared across at him.  "You know I cannot tie it with one hand..."

"I can tie it.  That is, if you let me?"

She studied him a moment, then nodded.  But her eyes were very intent on his movements as he took the makeshift bandage and wound it thrice around her ruined palm.  He then turned her hand over and knotted it across the back, tightening it until she gasped sharply with pain.  The gasp seemed to be some signal that all was correctly in place; he stepped back and let his hands fall limply to his sides.  His ripped sleeve hung oddly, and it reminded her of how her own clothes had suffered at the vouivre's claws.  What would the Goblin King think of that one?  Best not to find out. 

"Thanks," she remarked coolly, drawing her hand back to her breast.  The cloth irritated the minor cuts and made them sting, but if it would make him drop trying to help her...she could stand a little pain.  In fact, she more than welcomed it.  It felt very real, and reality was exactly what she needed.

"You could tell me why."

"Why what?" she asked with a lilt to her voice that was almost too high.  Playing ignorant was not one of her strong suits.

"Why you want to hurt yourself."

"I don't want to hurt myself."

"Fine.  Why do you want to keep the pain when you can be free of it?"

"Maybe I don't understand why you want to help."

"You never understand, but it is something I have come to expect," he smiled, though there was no true humour to it.  In fact, his stance was very rigid and guarded.

"I don't trust you," she said, and she hadn't planned on those particular words coming out of her mouth.  But they did, biting with accusation.

"Nor should you, but that is an entirely different subject.  What has happened, Sarah?  And don't try to feed me another line---you don't have my trust, either."

"When I want to share, I will," she snapped.  He could be so condescending in his tone!  So damn condescending!  She dug her nails into the cloth wrapped tight around her hand, and felt a sharp stitch of pain answer.  For some reason it was almost soothing.  Almost.  "Look!  I don't want the pain, but I don't want to be indebted to you either.  I'm taking the lesser of the two evils."

He wasn't buying it, and she knew it.  His fingers tapped with irritation for one long moment as he stared at her.  But he sighed and uncrossed his arms.  "Give me your hand and we'll call it a truce.  You will owe me nothing."

"Get me out of this cage and we'll call it a truce," she said.

"I can't."

"You mean 'won't'."

"No.  I mean I cannot get you out, even with magic." He glanced around and the look was nearly eloquent.  "Very little of my magic works here anyway."

"And you knew about this before..."  Before what?  That wasn't a kiss...she wasn't even sure what to call it. 

He grinned, not needing her to finish.  "Of course."

"Oh!  You are so horrible!"

"When 'horrible' serves my purposes, yes.---"

"How does healing my hand serve your 'purposes'?" she cut in.

He shrugged.

"What happens if I make it through the Middleground?"  When.  She had meant to say 'when' and not 'if'.  She didn't like how unsteady her faith was becoming in herself.

"Why, you make it through," he replied nonchalantly, picking up the lamp with its swirl of blue light.  It didn't look like flame held within the glass.  It looked like something alive, something frantic to be free.  Its very struggle seemed to create light.  The same light that illuminated the Goblin King's face, and gave it some otherworldly glow.  She didn't want the light anymore; she wanted him to let whatever it was inside go.

"How does my outcome affect you?  You would have washed your hands of me long ago if it didn't."

She had startled him.  He placed the lantern back down and turned to her with eyes that were just a little wide.  And a little weary.  He hadn't expected her to come to that conclusion.  She saw herself grow-up in his eyes just a touch.  But not enough, not enough by far.

"I am your patron," he whispered, "I opened the door.  Your loss reflects on me."

"And if I don't lose?"

"I must reward you," he glanced away as he spoke.  He didn't seem to be comfortable with their conversation anymore.

"How?"

"Anything you want, but only one thing.  And there are limitations."

"I get a wish," she translated, "that you must grant.  I could ask for your kingdom and you would have to give it to me."  She watched his eyes narrow, but not with anger.  For once he was the one trying to read how much honesty was in her voice.  It didn't please her; she had no desire to trick him.  Some sort of reprisal for all that he had done, maybe, but something up-front.  Something not bought with deceit. 

"That would not be wise."

"But you would have to turn it over to me, wouldn't you?"

He paused, then, "Yes."

"Then it seems to me that you gain nothing from helping me.  I don't think you would mind a little tarnish to your reputation.  So what is it?"  For some reason that question seemed to comfort him.  He relaxed and even smiled somewhat.

"I am trying to be fair---"

"That aids me and not you.  I ask again, what do you get out of it?  And don't claim fairness, I do not believe you."

"Maybe I get to be something besides the villain.  I am not your enemy here."

"I know that."

"Do you?"

"In the Middleground I have no enemies, things just are.  At most, I am my own enemy.  I don't need you to be the villain.  I can do it well enough on my own."  That look again.  It was beginning to bother her and she didn't know why.  "Why are you giving me answers now, when you wouldn't before?"

"You are asking the right questions." 

Oh, is that all.  "You haven't told me what you get out of all this."

"No, I haven't."

"Well?"

He smiled, his head dipping forward slightly, "When I want to share, I will.  Until then..."  He spread his hands wide.