A/N: I love reading my reviews so much! You lovely people are much too kind. I apologize that this story has been so slow in the making. I hate whining about my problems but I want to be forgiven so I shall play the sympathy card... I have Carpal Tunnel. Bad. Both farkin' hands. It has hindered me drastically. But, I had release surgery on my right hand and will be getting my left done soon. Hopefully, after I heal from that, I will regain my mad ninja-like typing skills.
Fingers crossed.

Chapter 14:

Through the sparse undergrowth of the sepulchral forest, three pairs of booted feet quietly proceeded in single file, cloaks swishing, whisper-soft, around their ankles, until the slim, leafless trees at last gave way to a small, dismal clearing.

A few tense moments passed as the wary travelers studied the forbidding stone cottage that occupied the very heart of the gloom-ridden glade. Made of flat, mud-brown blocks of river stone set rather crookedly atop each other, the dwelling looked like a misshapen wart thrusting up from the equally-ugly ground it perched upon. Shadows filled the small area, as the surrounding woodland prohibited much sunlight from entering this secluded place.

To the left of the front door stood a large log pile, to the right stood racks of drying herbs. A large ebony cat lay curled up on the door stoop, wheezing and snoring as it napped.

It soon became apparent that nothing out of the ordinary awaited them there, and Lorcàn felt a swell of relief wash over him.

So far, so good; no sign of the Goblin King's search party as of yet... though he wasn't ready to relax his guard quite so quickly.

After the catastrophic turn of events at the Williams girl's home, Lorcan had indeed learned his lesson the hard way. His cocksure attitude had undergone a jarring reality check when he had discovered that even he could make a mistake. Things might seem as though they are going as planned, but one could never take for granted that they would continue to actually do so. That was why he remained still and silent there in the treeline, reconnoitering for what seemed a safe length of time.

Exhaling deeply, he focused his attention while releasing all of his negative energy and doubt. Finally, he raised his right hand in a signal to the two men who stood a few yards behind him.

"Alright. Let's go," he beckoned quietly. "I want to be done with this already. The stench of that filthy thing is becoming unbearable."

"Are you entirely sure this is wise?" Drystan asked, looking from his brother to the swaddled form he carried over his shoulder. His brother might have decided them upon a new and improved plan, but for some reason his nerves were getting the better of him by the second. This whole endeavor had the potential to go horribly wrong... just as the first one had. The narrow escape hadn't exactly stimulated a whole lot of confidence in his brother's leadership skills. After having come so close to capture, Drystan now had a new awareness of how very much he would dislike losing his head beneath Jareth's blade. He was, after all, rather fond of his head in it's current position, situated firmly upon his shoulders.

"Are you losing your nerve, brother?" Lorcàn asked, a sneer twisting his thin mouth.

"Can you blame us for being concerned after what happened to your last plan?" Drystan spat back, nodding his head toward the silent man at his side, indicating that the red-haired Fae shared his skepticism. Mortin grew uncomfortable when his leader's icy glare turned his direction, and he began to shuffle his feet awkwardly and twist the end of his frizzy orange beard.

Lorcàn shot his compatriots a scathing scowl and said, "This plan is entirely foolproof."

Drystan snorted. "There's no such thing."

"Have faith in this one. It cannot possibly go wrong."

"Well explain it once more so I can judge that for myself. I still haven't got it all sorted yet."

Lorcan heaved an impatient sigh. "It's simple. Jareth is roaming about, looking for us, right? Well, we're going to do the opposite of what he will be expecting. After we get rid of the boy, here, where he would never think to look for him, we are going to go after the girl. We'll lure her with a substitute, snatch her, and vanish into thin air before Jareth can even sense something is amiss."

"And why are we getting rid of the kid?"

"Because I don't need him. Just something that looks like him. This way, if we should get caught, which we won't, we'll have a bargaining tool. It would be foolish to pack the brat around with us, now wouldn't it?"

Drystan sighed and looked at Mortin.

"I think it's risky, but... but, sure," Mortin stammered. "I'll do it if you think it will work."

"Brilliant. Let's go." Lorcàn rolled his eyes, impatient with his comrades.

As they made to step out into the clearing, a dry, crackly voice echoed through the air, though the owner of the voice remained unseen.

"Hold, Dark Ones. What business have you with me?"

Lorcan, knowing the one he sought was observing him closely, stopped and bowed humbly, though it irked him to do so.

"We bring you a gift, Mother Crone," Lorcàn replied, gliding confidently into the clearing until he was within a few hundred paces of the cottage.

Slowly, the wooden door of the shack creaked open on rusty hinges and out stepped a skeletal wraith, garbed in dusty black rags that looked every bit as old as she... and that was more years than most anyone could count in number. Her long, frizzy hair was as silver as a fish's belly, her face and hands so riddled with veins that their color was almost blue. Her hooded eyes were a tired, nebulous gray, and they held a steely glint of razor-keen intelligence. That intelligence, coupled with her gifts of prophecy and ancient earth magic, made her a dangerous adversary to anyone foolish enough to offend her.

"I need no gift from you, Unseelie. Be gone from here." Stepping forward, the revenant raised a long, twisted rod and shook it firmly, setting the pointed bottom end on the ground beside her.

"A moment, Mother. I have brought you something I think you will very much appreciate." Without pause, Lorcan turned and took the bundle from his brother and sat it on the ground before him. With a flourish, he whisked off the tattered, soiled blanket, revealing a tow-headed mortal child, sleeping a deep, undisturbed slumber.

"And how did you come by a human bairn, Unseelie?"

"Ask me no questions, Henwrach, and I shall tell you no lies," Lorcan replied smoothly, casting a devilish smile her way, using his infamous charms in a blatant attempt to dazzle the old hag.

"What price?" The ancient woman demanded, sounding only mildly curious, her voice carefully moderated so as to give away nothing of her true thoughts.

"Price? Why, no price, for you, My Lady. Tis a gift freely given. What need have I for a mewling mortal? I am but a carefree man without a clue as to the care of a human child. He is of no use to me. Truth be told, his whimpering grates at my nerves. But I believe he could be of value to you. You could train him as a pet or harness his energy to restore some of your own. I truly care not what becomes of him, so long as I may be free of him."

"Hmph." The old woman leaned forward for a better look. The lad was handsome, to be sure, and certainly no more than a few summers in age. He was definitely of value. She could sense it as assuredly as she could sense the blackness in the heart of this fetching Dark One before her. "Aye. I'll take him from you. Leave him there and be away with you. I trust you not at all."

"As you desire, Love," Lorcan said with a wink.

A second later the Dark Ones vanished.

Sarah woke to an insistent jangling sound that refused to cease. Grumbling, she opened her eyes and looked around, disoriented. She was surprised to find herself back in the room Jareth had assigned to her the night before, with no clear memory of how she had come to be there.

The last thing she remembered was falling asleep by a beautiful, peaceful little brook... in the arms of the devious Goblin King!Why, in the name of Hell, had she allowed herself to curl up in his lap and nod off like a pampered kitten? Damn it all that was incredibly embarrassing! How would she ever earn the respect she was demanding from him, or get him to take her seriously,if she became a docile little twit every time he touched her? It was positively mortifying. And how had she ended up back here, in this chamber, without being awakened? And why was she absolutely certain, as if her body was now some sort of receiver, tuned in to his particular frequency, that he was no longer anywhere nearby? It was unnerving, this strange, melancholic sense of... emptiness... that was settling over her, filling her now as she thought of him.

So many questions she still had no answers to, and the number just kept growing. She had lost not only the chance of venting her anger on him again while it was still fresh in her mind, but she also had no way of getting answers to her endless questions.

Sarah snorted in amused disgust. Knowing him as she was beginning to, she had no doubt that Jareth had probably taken some sick delight in luring her into a nap while he made good his escape. While she had slept the entire afternoon away, he had left without so much as a by-your-leave, denying her the satisfaction of unleashing her wrath, nor risk having heavy objects lobbed at his insufferable head again anytime soon, either, damn him.

The coward.

The jangling sound continued to grow louder.

"Come in... if you must." She immediately felt bad for her unkind tone, but thinking about Jareth and his endless lies and schemes made her so mad she could spit. Not that she would, of course. Karen would banish her to the seventh circle of Hell for such an unladylike act. As soon as the thought came Sarah winced with unexpected melancholy. And then shook herself hastily.

How was it even possible that she could miss Karen? Karen - the strict and cold-mannered stepmother whom she'd loved and hated all at once... whom she would never see again, thanks to Jareth. Well, Jareth and a band of ruthless, bloodthirsty assholes who had ruined her entire life the night before.

Thanks to Jareth.

"All roads lead to Jareth," she sighed, disgusted.

By this time, the familiar face of the housekeeper was hovering before her, chattering like a magpie.

"I's already in and you's gotta get up now, Lamkbkin. It's nigh onto dinners time and you's friends is all waiting on ya."

Mim the Whirlwind, whose keys had been making all the racket, immediately began tugging at her, arranging her on the edge of the bed and yanking at her clothes in a frenzy of efficiency. With no resistance from her groggy charge, the goblin had the rumpled pink gown over Sarah's head in a trice, quickly replaced by a soft, buttery yellow garment of the softest velvet.

Covering a wide yawn with her hand, Sarah asked, "Friends?"

"If that's what you's wanna call 'em. I say a dwarf, a fox-goblin and a yetti is no kinds of friends for my Lamb, but who's Mim to say these things?"

Excitement replaced her weariness and Sarah hopped down from the bed, grabbing Mim in an affectionate embrace.

"Mercy, child, put this old woman down afore you's pull something."

"Sorry, Mim. I'm just so happy to be seeing my friends again. Finally." Sarah placed the small goblin back on the floor with a quick kiss on her plump little cheek, and then followed obediently as Mim led her to the adjoining dressing room. Taking a seat at the small vanity, an almost identical reproduction of the one she'd left behind, Sarah fidgeted anxiously as Mim wound her stubby hands around and through her long sable tresses, working a thin herringbone braid on either side of her face, connecting in a larger one that ran down her supple back.

"Oh, Mim! You are so very good at that! I always wind up tying my hair in knots, " Sarah said with a broad grin.

"Mmmm. Well, thank you's, Lamb, but don't you's be thinking Mim don't got sense enough to be knowing what you's up to, buttering me up when I's still thinks you's shouldn't be uh' sociatin' with a dwarf, a fox-goblin..."

"And a yetti. Yes, Mim. I know how you feel. But Hoggle, Ludo and Sir Diddymus are very, very special to me. They... they're my only friends."

Mim finished braiding Sarah's hair and then gave her a quick pat on the shoulder. "Tsk tsk tsk. You's certainly haven't been livin' the right way if you's ain't got no nother friends than those sorry souls. But that will all be different now. My Majesty is very pop-ya-lur. His friends will now be your friends and then you's can stop uh' sociatin' with dwarves and such."

"Oh, no, Mim! I will always want to uh' soc... I mean associate... with dwarves... I mean Hoggle and Ludo and Sir Diddymus." Sarah exhaled slowly, thinking about how bizarre and difficult her life and conversations had become lately. "They were very kind to me and comforted me when I needed comforting pretty badly. I... I love them very much."

Mim looked into Sarah's eyes and her lips began to quiver.

"What a sweet little lamb I have. You are a good girl, you's is."

Sarah reached up and squeezed the gnarled little hand on her shoulder.

"Thank you, Mim. Now," she said, excitement in her voice, "let's go!"

I'm going to end this here because I don't want to rush the reunion... I am working on the next chapter as I post this one so I can get it up as well before my next operation and recovery.
I would also like to add another author's note regarding something that has been bothering me...
I just read Water for Elephants while recuperating from my first surgery and I discovered that a character in that book throws a copy of Shakespeare. I swear I didn't steal that idea on purpose. I had never read nor heard anything about this before writing my confrontation scene. I chose Shakespeare because it seemed like a book Jareth would own AND, since I own one, I know for a fact that it's pretty heavy, which is what I was after most of all. :)