Summary: A cold winter's night leads Sarah to the Underground, where she discovers the Labyrinth – and its King – are far more beautiful and perilous than she remembers. A seasonal oneshot.
"Winter either bites with its teeth or lashes with its tail." ~ Proverb
"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show." ~ Andrew Wyeth
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.
~ Emily Bronte, 'Spellbound'
A Midwinter Night's Dream
Sarah Williams could not sleep.
She was too cold, too restless, too something.
The house had long fallen silent; the clock on her bedside table showed her it had passed midnight. Standing at her window, shivering a little in her pyjamas, Sarah looked out through the frosted glass. It was the shortest day of the year. Darkness had come early, the night sky icy and clear, promising more cold weather to come. The full moon sparkled on the snow that blanketed the garden. Sarah smiled dreamily. She had always loved winter; never was there such magic and enchantment in the air as in the fading of the year, the frosty nights and chill mornings.
It was the closest she could come to magic these days.
At least in her waking hours. She had been sleeping badly the last few nights, disturbing ripples in her unconscious causing her to awaken with a deep sense of unease. Her dreams were troubled, a disordered array of people and places, unknown yet achingly familiar. Figures from a world she had renounced. Renounced willingly, and yet, and yet…
Occasionally, in one of her more melancholy, introspective moods, she couldn't help but wonder what if –
Especially so close to Christmas. She had passed the age where magic was an inherent part of the festive Season and a small part of her envied Toby's innocent sense of childish wonderment. She knew magic existed but it continued to elude her, so close yet so unattainable…
She sighed and rested her chin on her hand, her reflection lamplit in the dark window. Facing her was a tall, serious-eyed girl of eighteen with a pale, grave face and quietly thoughtful expression. She was no longer the child that capered in the park and enacted scenes of fairytale romance; instead, her imaginings had softened into her own beautiful private world to be dwelt on with inward pleasure. She had become much quieter, rarely speaking those enchanting thoughts aloud to her father or Karen, not wanting to be laughed at or thought odd, but she would still smile with delight at the stream of sunlight raying through autumn leaves and sigh with wistful longing at a high, clear moon riding billowing waves of chased-iron cloud. Dreams shone in her eyes and softened her lips.
Idly, she picked up the snow globe sitting on her windowsill and stared into its clear-cut glass depths. Inside was a miniature rendering of two children ice-skating in a wintry wood. A perfect sylvan scene. It struck her as remarkably vacuous. Whoever had made it clearly had no conception of how a smooth crystal surface could conceal dark and unsettling depths, the dangerous plunge one made into unknown and deadly territory.
Just a crystal, she thought. Nothing more.
Somehow, the realisation caused a pang of inexplicable sadness.
Later, Sarah couldn't remember whether she had slept or not; only she was suddenly very aware of the searing cold biting into her skin as she shivered beneath the sheets, a chill breath like metal against her lips and the ghost of something that sounded a little like a sigh of longing, of yearning –
She sat bolt upright, grey-green eyes flying open. Her heart was hammering in her throat. She was once completely and acutely awake. Darkness pressed around her, the only light visible was from the clear silver patterns traced along the window panes, glittering like crystal and fine as gossamer. Unthinking, she pulled on a sweater over her pyjama top and slipped her faded trainers onto her bare feet. Almost before she realised it, she was padding lightly down the stairs and across the hall, running –
Running to where? To what?
She threw open the back door, drawing in a sharp breath as she stepped outside. The clear night air hit her instantly, sharp and cold and bracing. Tucked into the corner of the porch, she saw the sleigh that Toby had begged for and suppressed a distracted smile. It was a little ridiculous for a girl of eighteen to be almost as enthralled with the prospect of a sledge ride as her five-year-old brother, but there was a childish magic about it that crept into her blood along with the curious, restless energy that possessed her. Yet she could remain still, she had to keep moving, searching, seeking it…
Her trainers crunched on the snow as she ran across the garden. More snow had fallen since she had gone to bed, as the ground was white and trackless and empty. Despite the quiet solitude of the scene, her thoughts were whirling and unsettled and discordant. Mists and drifting fragments of dreams persisted in her memory that she could not shake herself free of. A city. A crystal. A high-boned, arrogant face with hair fine as silk and slanting eyes.
Sarah reached the bottom of the path, and her fingers, already nipped with cold, fumbled with the heavy metal latch of the back gate, stiff with ice. Frost fronds swirled around her as she finally threw it open, the rotting wood groaning with the forceful movement. The fir and pine trees loomed before her, dark and jagged, and she plunged into the wood.
A faint ripple ran over the surface of the air. It was difficult to see at first, like the view out of a window covered in patterns of frost. A faint resistance snagged her clothing, clinging like the edges of old lace. She could compare the thick sensation to moving through cobwebs, a gauzy veil of ancient magic that set her nerves vibrating like the plucked string of a violin. She continued to move through the curious, liquid silence. The scent of pine needles was so strong she could taste it at the back of her throat. Her skin was humming.
Her cold-stung hands brushed against evergreen leaves of frozen dew and a light shower of dislodged snow scattered the ground where the movement disturbed the branches. Some of it went into her face. Blinking the snow from her eyes, Sarah paused to look across the frozen landscape.
A new world opened before her in all its icy glory, the night still and crystalline. Everything seemed transparent. Where the garden she had left had been of faded and muted tones, chill and spectre-grey, she saw that here the world was not drained of colour but an exquisite tapestry of winter hues. The firmament flickered with lights and tints vivid as the aurora; white and blue and pale green gems that streaked across the sky. Snow stretched as far as the eye could see, white and cold and sparkling, coated with shimmering ice. She could see a river wound its way through the trees, an iced-over diamond. The castle stood in the distance like an iced birthday cake, the fragile winter moon poised above its frosted battlements. She drew a sharp breath at the aching beauty of the scene.
The atmosphere felt different. It held an enigmatic transparency: clearer, sharper, somehow more alive; it stung her chest as she inhaled. Sarah gasped a little at the slightly painful sensation but soon found her body invigorated by the icy, unfamiliar air. The light was different, too. Bright and cold, it felt as though her eyes had just been opened and she was using them for the first time. For several minutes, she merely stood and appreciated being able to see and touch and breathe the air.
Then a shuddering thrill of adrenaline passed through her, and she looked up, because she knew she was being watched.
He was standing several metres away, looking at her calmly. Sarah stared back. The Goblin King was tall – impossibly tall – as lean and straight as the densely packed trees surrounding them. His cloak was of the purest white, offsetting his pale, wintry beauty that seemed wrapped in a shroud of snow. He cast his hood back, and she saw the lining was silvery silk, the shade of melting ice. The action threw his features into sharp relief: the bladed line of his cheekbones, the ice-blond halo of his hair, the glassy shards of his eyes. A coronet of stars entwined with frost adorned his brow. A light seemed to shine beneath the paleness of his skin. He appeared the very personification of winter in all its stark, savage beauty, something enduring and forever.
"Sarah," he said, and she remembered his voice. Sharp and precisely honed as a knife's edge, and just as perilous. It caused her to shiver with a terrible lancing cold. "This is a most pleasant surprise." His hands were open at his sides in a gesture she assumed was meant to be disarming but seemed rather to be cutting off any hope of escape. "I welcome you once more to my kingdom. This time, not as an adversary, or an enemy, but a fortunate wayfarer passing through."
She moved closer as though doubting the evidence of her own eyes, the tread of her footsteps on the frozen blades of grass sounding startling loud and clumsy in comparison to his light and otherworldly grace.
"Wait," she said slowly. "I came here – I did this… myself?"
A smile, like the thawing of frost, curved his mouth. "With a little help, perhaps."
"Why have I never come here before?"
"Has it never occurred to you that having too much of something takes away the magic and emotion?"
Sarah was barely listening. Her mind was reeling. It hardly seemed possible he could actually be here: her invented phantasm of magic and illusion and half-longing. She wondered if he would simply melt away if she touched him. But he was real; she knew that, far more real than her vague imaginings or uncertain memories could ever have hoped to recreate.
"You don't seem too surprised to see me," he observed.
"I thought, sometimes – I felt you watching me."
"Yes," he said evenly, making no attempt to deny the fact. "I've made it my business to watch you. Defeating my Labyrinth as you did… Oh, how you angered me at the time. But nevertheless. Admirable." His sharp gaze speared through her like an icy wind. "And I see you are putting your gifts to good use. I've felt you on the fringes of my world for some time now. It is only natural that now, on the Solstice, you should finally find your way here."
"The borders between your world and mine are not as substantial as they seem."
"I meant how have you been watching me?"
He made no reply, but her eyes followed the movement of his hands, blinking at the sudden light that erupted from his long fingers. The crystal flared into incandescence, lighting his thin features in sharp angles and planes.
"I should have known," she said softly.
The Goblin King tilted his head to one side, regarding her a long moment. The crystal vanished from his hands. She saw that, for once, he was surprised.
"What is this, Sarah? No petulant tantrums? No stamping of your feet? You were a wilful child; I expected you to fly at me in anger, not this calm acceptance. What has happened to make you so gracious after all these years?"
"I don't know," she said, thoughtfully. "It just never really occurred to me to be angry with you. Toby is safe. There's no reason for me to resent you."
"Perhaps," he said. Then he smiled. "And how do you like my world, Sarah?"
She looked around the silent forest. The bare, leafless boughs of the trees were weighted with snow, the intricate lacework of branches standing out starkly black against the silvered azure sky.
"It's beautiful," she said. "I never realised it before –"
A laugh that was so very inhuman. The icy air seared her lungs as she inhaled sharply. His strangeness made her shiver.
"You're different," she said.
He inclined his head. "As are you. You are looking well, Sarah."
She did not realise that the cold had brought a flush of vivid colour to her cheeks and brightened her eyes. "You're –"
Sarah hesitated, examining him cautiously, his detachment, his cool, pale colouring. What was it? He seemed colder somehow, more remote, more… elemental. Yes, that was the word she had been mentally searching for.
His thin mouth curved as though he guessed her thoughts. "As you can see," he said. "I am more – far more – than the fevered daydreams of a fifteen year-old girl."
Strange that she did not feel angered, or afraid. The still hush over the land seemed to have laid its icy fingers over her discordant emotions. She felt only very calm, and a little curious.
"Can I ask you something?"
"You may ask," he said coolly. "Whether I choose to answer is a different matter."
"Do you have a name?"
"I have a thousand."
"Just one will do."
"You may call me Jareth. Yes." He smiled, finely honed teeth glinting in a way she wasn't entirely sure she liked. "I think I should like that, very much indeed."
"How old are you?"
His asymmetrical face was deliberately bland. "Older than you would care to imagine."
She noticed now that, despite the cold, he was not wearing gloves; his hands were bare, something she realised she had never seen before.
"Don't you feel the cold?"
"I feel it," he said. "Though it does not affect me. These trappings –" he indicated his heavy cloak – "Are merely a matter of tradition and ceremony. Winter is a harsh and unpitying mistress, and should be treated with due respect."
She saw now the thinly iced puddles were covered in a treacherous powder of snow. "How –"
"So many questions, my precious, curious Sarah. I should be flattered that you show such… interest… in me."
A gust of wind wailed through the trees, a wild, haunting, melancholic song. The Goblin King raised his head, silvery lashes resting against his cheekbones as he closed his eyes.
"The world breathing its last. My heart aches with it."
He looked out towards the distant peaks of snow, a far away look in his eyes as though he were looking into another world, another time. He seemed to have forgotten her presence. Behind him, beyond the frost-rimmed forest, the city stood like a many-faceted diamond, blue-veined and shining. The air radiated an aura of power, the crystal court standing at the centre of that power, linking the invisible bonds of the Underground in unbreakable chains. Sarah felt the chill breath of ancient magic blow across the nape of her neck.
"What's happened to the Goblin City?"
He raised a winged brow, his attention of her snapping back into sharper focus. "Happened? Nothing has happened. It is the same as it ever was."
Sarah shook her head. "No…" she said slowly. "It feels different. Alive. I can feel… magic." She could. It rippled like tiny currents of electricity across her skin. "It was never like that before."
"Sarah," he said, with just a hint of amusement in his voice. "Sweet thing. Did it never occur to you that it is perhaps you who are different?"
"Me?" she echoed, bewildered.
"Perhaps I should have said more perceptive. The castle is what it is. The eye of the beholder, however…" Cold eyes ran over her face, studying her intently. He could have been a statue chiselled from ice but for the intensity of that look. "But by all means, if you wish to indulge your curiosity, I cannot say I am entirely averse to the idea." A smile crept over his thin mouth. "Will you not come? The festivities are beginning."
She deliberately evaded the question, trying to keep the conversation out of potentially dangerous waters. "I didn't expect you to celebrate Christmas."
"The Yuletide festival has existed long before your modern Christian conception." He had moved closer towards her, although his silver-grey boots made no sound on the ice-encrusted ground. "You should see the castle, Sarah. Halls of diamond and glass, ice sculptures with crowns of ivy and mistletoe. Berries red as blood, sweet and sharp to taste… it is a feast you would never forget."
"I believe that," she said dryly. "Do you think I never read about Goblin fruit after the last time we met?"
Jareth threw back his head and laughed; the silent forest rang with it. Sarah shuddered, for there was something so very cold in the sound. It sounded like glass shattering. "Oh, Sarah, Sarah. Such a pity you did not show such caution beforehand. But for one night, at least, come as my guest and let me entertain you as such."
She looked at him uncertainly. "You're not… angry with me?"
"Why should I be?" A curious expression of mocking pain and bitterness flashed across his face, so briefly, she wondered if it had even been there at all. "Do you think I have had nothing better to do these last few years than mull over past wrongs? Did you presume that a wayward mortal girl was the most important thing in my universe?" Sarah flushed. "And, as you may observe, my realm has hardly undergone any lasting damage from your foolishness."
She gazed again at the beautiful city in the distance lit with the sparkle of frosty lights that made her think of diamonds.
Then a sudden image seared her mind like a winter's chill: pale halls and glittering chandeliers wreathed in evergreen, endless mirrors and an echo of bells and song carried by the sharp wind. The scene faded as rapidly as it had appeared; the surrounding forest, the trees, rushing back into focus with a nauseating speed. It was all she could do to keep her legs from caving in beneath her as she pressed her hands to her temples, waiting for the world to come back into focus. Her head would not stop spinning. She could see nothing but an indistinct pale blot where Jareth's immobile face hovered somewhere above her.
"What –" she stumbled over the words – "what just happened?"
"My question exactly. What did you see?"
"I saw – I saw – the castle – a feast –"
"Poor dear," he crooned, the lilting amusement audible in his voice. "I had hoped the sight of my exquisitely lavish banquet halls would not produce such an adverse reaction."
She frowned, sceptical still. "This isn't some kind of trick, is it?"
"I thought we were past such childish whims."
"Well you can't blame me for being cautious," she retorted, suddenly angered at his dismissive attitude. "Last time on one of your whims, you stole my brother."
He shrugged. "You make much out of nothing."
She stared at him, shaking her head. "You don't get it, do you? You don't even understand why it's wrong."
"There was nothing wrong about it. I merely acted on the dictates of your own wish."
"That's not what I mean. You don't understand feelings, or emotions. I wouldn't expect you to."
Jareth's beautiful eyes narrowed. "Do not speak of things you know nothing about."
"Don't pretend you cared about Toby, or any of it," she said, no longer able to keep the bitterness from her voice. "You said it yourself. That it didn't mean anything. It was always just a game to you, wasn't it?"
"A game?" The Goblin King's body went suddenly rigid. He had turned white to the knuckles, clenching graceful hands that trembled with forcible restraint. There was something cruel and wild and terrible about him as he blazed like northern lights in a polar sky. "You foolish child," he said, and she was shaken by the cold fury in his voice. "You ignorant, thoughtless girl."
Sarah had never been lacking in courage, and it leapt up now, searing her chest like a white-hot flame. "I'm not a child," she said, angrily. "I'm eighteen years old."
Jareth laughed then, and his features lost some of their frightening severity, though the intensity did not leave his pale, almost colourless gaze. Long and narrow fingers traced the air inches from her face in the outline of a caress, but there was cruelty, not tenderness, in the gesture. She could imagine the feel of those fingers against her skin, how cold they would be. "Oh, Sarah," he said softly. "You are such a child. So painfully young. You speak with such certainty and yet you know nothing."
"I know you're not human."
"No," he agreed. "I'm not. And that makes your convictions more unfounded, not less. What do you know of me, or what I am? Just because I do not wear my heart on my sleeve or live everything I am on the surface or whine and complain my way through hardship, you presume I pass from one random caprice to another without feeling the effects. That I have not learned to swallow down pain and heartache and disappointed hope until it gnaws into the darkest recesses of the heart and chokes you with its bitterness and ashes – Oh, I have felt, Sarah. You of all people should know that."
"But you said…" She couldn't go on. The chasing clouds were edged with piercing fringes of light. It was too bright. It blinded her.
Dazedly, she tried to summon some kind of rational thought or explanation for his words. He could not have been speaking of her… it was unthinkable…
It had begun to snow lightly; the white snowflakes swirled and eddied around her, following the bewildered reeling of her mind. And Sarah was remembering, from long ago, words read from the pages of a book -
But what no one knew was that the Goblin King fell in love with her and gave her certain powers.
The world seemed to have stopped spinning. The Goblin King's gaze burned into her, though his face remained unreadable. Sarah stumbled away from him, shaking her head. It was not possible… She could not have known… not then…
"Is it true?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
Jareth stared at her with hooded eyes and said nothing.
"Did the King of the Goblins fall in love with the girl?"
At first she thought he was not going to answer; he remained motionless in his stern beauty. The moment seemed to stretch on between them endlessly. Finally, she dared a glance at him.
If she had expected him to be cowed or embarrassed, she was disappointed. His eyes never lost that strange glitter in the silver light: hard and cold and metallic. Fine scorn played around his pale lips. "Love?" he repeated, with a mocking laugh. "You humans use that word so carelessly, attaching it to anything around you: your parents, your siblings, even your pets. I wonder if you could understand what real love is, Sarah, when you have had forever to experience it."
The icy flakes had settled on his shoulders, nestling in his hair like a wintry crown. The flurrying drifts made it almost impossible to see him clearly.
"I did love you, once."
The silence was immense, deafening. She could only stare at this cold, aloof, immortal being who stood under a netted sky of pale fires, his eyes clear and grey as mirrors. She should have been astounded, disbelieving, insulted, even. But she felt only very calm.
When she spoke, the reply was not the one she had meant, or indeed, expected to give.
"Once?" she said.
There was something sharp and cold and ageless, and a little cruel, in his gaze. "I am immortal, Sarah. Even the most enduring love recedes in the passing of time. Remembrance never dies, though pain becomes more bearable, a subdued undertow rather than an overwhelming tide. I know this feeling will fade into the distant recesses of memory into a longing, half-forgotten dream." He gave an oddly bitter smile. "You were not the only one who had dreams, Sarah."
The words came to her as clear as though they had been spoken yesterday. "Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave."
Jareth's pale eyes burned. "Quite."
"Oh Jareth," said Sarah. "You would never be content as anyone's slave."
"But you didn't know that, then."
"So I was right," she said, a little bitterly. "You were just saying that to trick me."
"Yes," he said, simply.
Another movement; all haughtiness and ice and reserve. Sarah tried to swallow the painful lump that had suddenly risen in her throat. The forest was bleak and lovely under the glittering stars; and Jareth's silhouette, tall and angular, stood out against the night sky. White ice crystals were caught in his silvery hair.
"You're cruel," she said, finally.
"Love is cruel," said the Goblin King, and his voice was like the sound of the wind through pines. "Even the love for your brother, which left my kingdom torn asunder and my own desires thwarted… all consequences you did not see, my dear, destructive Sarah, because you refused to see –"
She felt strangely on the verge of tears. "It wasn't like that – I was fifteen years old, a child. I just wanted my brother back–"
"Ah yes," he said softly, a strange mockery gleaming in his eyes. "Want. You want so much, don't you precious? And you take – regardless of the ruination you leave behind." He leaned in close to her, and she felt his angular figure beneath the enveloping weight of his furs, smelt the combined scents of pinecones and metal and cold night air. His silken voice was barely a whisper, stirring the hair against the cheek. "Well, I have wants, too, Sarah. And I have no qualms about taking what is rightfully mine."
"Toby –" she whispered, "No –"
He drew back, flared eyebrows drawn together in a thin line. He gazed at her without amusement. "How long will you insist on wilfully misunderstanding me?"
"Me." Her voice was fainter than the softly falling snow. "You want me."
"I cannot deny the prospect has never appealed to me more than it does now." He paused a moment to let his eyes run over her appreciatively. "Be as that may…" His slanting eyes snapped back to her face and he smiled. "I have no intention of carrying you away, so you may relax. Your being able to enter my world at will means that I will see you again, soon enough."
"What if I don't come back?"
"Oh, you will. You mortals are so predictable. You are far too curious to keep away for too long, even when it would be wise to do so. And you, Sarah, with your unfulfilled longings and love of beauty… no, I cannot imagine you being able to prevent yourself from returning."
Sarah said nothing, as she had the horrible feeling that he was right. Searing cold penetrated her bones; she wrapped her arms around herself.
"You're shivering, Sarah," he observed. "Are you afraid of me?"
"I'm cold," she said, which wasn't quite a lie.
"Of course," he said. "How insensitive of me. Your attire is not best suited for this weather. Although that can be easily remedied."
His low voice sent a pulsing vibration through her ears. The alert, cautious part of Sarah's brain told her that it would be a very bad idea to let him come near her, but she found herself unable to move. A hoar frost seemed to be stealing over her mind, making her oblivious to everything but the hyper-sensitivity of her skin in proximity to his. Jareth make a curious, sweeping gesture with his hands – the air rippled – and falling into his arms was a mantle of dark green that he gathered up and swathed around her shoulders. His hands, tying the emerald-coloured ribbon, brushed against the hollow of her throat like the icy touch of metal. Sensation flooded her frozen limbs. His eyes glittered, starlike. He drew back and regarded her consideringly.
"You were always beautiful, Sarah Williams, with your dark hair and ivy-coloured eyes, but tonight you seem even more so. You could take your place at my side at the feast tonight, and my subjects would fall at your feet and worship you."
His hands were beautiful, graceful, deadly. Entwined in his fingers was a twist of ivy, white berries nestled amid the dark green leaves. He wove a wreath and placed it in the dark tresses of her hair.
"Winter's Queen," he whispered, his breath ghosting the space between them.
There was magic in his voice and enchantment in his touch. His skin glimmered like trapped moonlight. Sarah suddenly wanted to touch it, wondering if it would feel as smooth as it looked. She had a sudden vivid flash of their reflections; the tall, pale king with a crown of frost adorning his ice-blond hair, facing a dark-haired young woman shrouded in rippling emerald silk. A beautiful woman who radiated grave power and quiet majesty. A woman who wasn't Sarah Williams.
"It intrigues me," Jareth said at last, "How different you are from that wilful child who recklessly entered my Labyrinth without giving any thought to the consequences. You have changed, Sarah. So much so that I wonder if you even know who you are any more. The ties that bind you to the Labyrinth run through your blood, draining much of what you were, and replacing much of what you are."
He's wrong, she thought, stubbornly. No matter what he says, no matter how much he tries to drag me into his world, I'm still me. I always will be.
"You look displeased, Sarah. I never said the change was an… unwelcome one."
That strange, starlike glitter had returned to his eyes. Sarah swallowed hard, fighting down the overwhelming urge to back away. Anger and hatred from him she could deal with; it was his love that was truly frightening. That was something she still could not grasp, could not comprehend…
"For what it's worth…" The words came a little haltingly. Cold narrow eyes caught her own and held them. "I do think about it, sometimes. How different things would have been if I had –"
"Then you regret your decision?"
"No," she said honestly. "But I do regret some things."
She looked away over the trees. "Missed opportunities."
His voice was offhand, detached. "It isn't too late, if you wish to renege your decision."
Sarah smiled, a little sadly. "The price was too high, Jareth."
"Your brother is in no danger from me."
"I'm not talking about Toby. I would never be happy in some fool's paradise, not for all the magic and trinkets in the world. I would still be your slave, paint it however you like."
"Then if you have no desire to see further into my world, there is little keeping you here." The Goblin King's tone was dismissive, almost bored. He began to turn away, as though she were merely some toy he had tired of playing with. She winced. That hurt.
He was really leaving… ? After everything he had said? Had he meant it? Sarah felt something painful tighten inside her chest. She could not let him go like that, not with such coldness and disdain –
"Wait," she said, suddenly.
His figure stilled and he looked at her curiously.
"Aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?"
Sarah could hardly believe she had uttered the words; they hung in the crystalline air, expectant, tense, imbued with meaning. She rarely asked for, or even initiated a kiss; she wasn't self-assured enough. Normally she waited to be kissed. And yet, here she was, boldly demanding it from her one-time enemy. She waited, dreadfully fearing he was going to laugh.
But he did not laugh. For a moment, his tense frame swayed like a bough in the wind, then he was again a carven figure of ice. "I didn't think you wanted me to."
She stared into his oddly-shaped eyes, trying to discern the expression within them.
"I can't give you what you want, Jareth," she said at last. "But I hope this will help. For whatever little it might mean."
He stood very still for such a long time that she began to wonder whether he had changed his mind after all. She felt his breath against her closed eyelids, the static brush of his hair against her cheek. Unable to endure this prolonged point of tension, she looked up, almost afraid of what she might see. Jareth's expression was concentrated and absorbed; staring at her so intently she wondered if he meant to commit the image of her face to memory. Then she remembered that he was immortal and had no human sense of urgency. She shivered under his cool scrutiny and the movement caused the cloak around her body to shift like ripples of water. Something vivid and flaring leapt into his eyes. The side of his mouth came down, and he pulled her towards him and kissed her hard.
The ferocious joining caused shockwaves – magic? – to ripple through her. The taste of his mouth was sweet and piercing. Her body was pressed against his, liquid-silk and marble-hardness, intricate lace and unyielding muscle. Jareth's hands slid between the silken folds of the emerald cloak, beneath the loose sweater and t-shirt she had slept in, to sweep against bare skin, tracing the curves of her waist. Tendrils of writhing blue fire were spiralling outward from the light touches of his hands. She was overwhelmed in the sensation, the feel of him; the solidity that was no dream-fragment, no elusive memory. He was kissing her with savage yearning that was almost punishing, as though he wanted to devour her whole. And she could smell pine-needles, magic –
His kisses were paralysing her. This was a very different Jareth to the aloof, mocking Goblin King she had come to know. This was an unearthly, wild-eyed stranger who shuddered against her with quickened breathing, hands moving over her, unwilling to leave any part of her body untouched. She began to feel afraid, for there was something so unnatural, so inhuman in his responses. He tugged at the ribbon of her cloak, making a satisfied noise as the heavy material slithered from her shoulders to pool at their feet. Lancing cold hit her skin as she felt her bare shoulder exposed to the cold night air, then the soft – no sharp – sensation of his lips and teeth against her throat, sliding across her collarbone. Someone, perhaps herself, was sighing, moaning, as she shivered under his fervent caresses. God, I can't –
And Sarah knew she should pull away, end this right now, but her numb hands were entwined in his gossamer-fine hair, pulling his head back towards her, wanting that blurring painful-pleasure of his mouth on hers –
She was falling… she was drowning… she was dying of cold…
Then his hands were resting above the waistline of her pyjama bottoms, lowering the material by slow inches. A sudden, electric jolt shot through her body as his cold fingers traced lazy circles around her hips. She pulled her mouth from his, gasping as the icy air seared her lungs.
"Jareth, I –"
He leaned forward and kissed her again. Softer, this time, with a slow sensuality that caused shocks like cold electricity to pass across her skin. The sound of his mouth moving against her own was like softly falling snow. His heavy cloak was all-enveloping, drawing her against the hardness of his body, and his leather-clad thigh pressed between her own. She gasped at that, Jareth, and felt him smile against her mouth; he liked her using his name. Cool hands twisting in her hair, trapping her in place. No sounds now but heavy breathing, and something else… a wild and distant cry echoing in her ears, like the baying of wolves on the hunt –
The shock of it had a galvanising effect. Sarah wrenched herself away, listening hard. She had not been mistaken. Not animal, yet not quite human either. Her body trembled with cold and unquenched desire. She swallowed nervously and stared at the Goblin King. He was breathing hard, eyes blazing like ice-crystals.
"You hear it," he said at last, his voice hushed. "The Wild Hunt. They are distant yet, and the night is calm, but they may yet pass through."
She tried to gather her thoughts, tried to forget the shuddering sensation of his hands –
Her voice was unsteady. "What's the Wild Hunt?"
"The Wild Hunt, Wilde Jagd, Cŵn Annwn, Åsgårdreia… your books would perhaps give you a cursory understanding, but suffice it to know that there are some things in this realm I cannot protect you from. And I imagine, looking as you do tonight, you would be quite a prize. And I am far too possessive, sweet Sarah, to let you be carried away from me."
The cold air kissed her hands and face. The air around them tingled with suppressed power; it tasted metallic in her mouth. And Jareth's face was fading in the wake of –
Cold and darkness, night-winds sweeping over the desolate snow-covered moors, wild and fierce, and through the icy gale Sarah saw emerge legions upon legions of a perilous host passing before her eyes. Swathed in silver-grey, armed for terrible battle, they thundered along to the howling of the wind, accompanied by the unearthly baying of wolves and hounds and the pounding of armoured steeds. Violet spots danced in front of her eyes. And the wild king had a hold of her in a tight grasp and she was clawing at the hands, trying to loosen the bruising grip. Every touch was like glass splintering into her palms, the fragments flying into the stars that burned in her line of vision. And still the phantasms approached. Her chest strained as she fought uselessly for breath. Tears were stinging her eyes and she couldn't breathe, she couldn't think, they were upon her –
Blackness was sweeping over her like some vast bird of prey and just as she was prepared to welcome its annihilating imminence, she dimly heard a voice saying calmly, "Sarah – Sarah – come back."
An instant later it was over. Her body was humming in an aria of pain as she gasped down lungfuls of cold night air in such quantities she almost threw up.
"I saw them," she said in a ragged breath. "They're beautiful, and terrible –"
"You are safe. Nothing will happen to you while I am here." His hands were firm, holding her steady. His touch was like ice-cold water, which paradoxically burned her like fire. A sudden, awful apprehension seized her and she pulled away from him.
"Did you make me see that as – as some way of tricking me to come with you?"
Jareth gave an affective sigh. "Sarah, as you are neither my vassal nor my subject, I cannot make you do anything, however much I would like to."
"Then how am I seeing things?"
"Do you not remember the story? Certain powers. I have watched you. But I could not get at you, near you… I began to wonder whether you really had renounced the Labyrinth, after all." He gave a frightening smile. "I cannot tell you how pleased I am that I was mistaken."
The hyper-real light lent his high, thin, elfin features a curiously sinister cast. She stared at him in confusion, his stark outline becoming gradually more defined in the blue-white light of approaching dawn.
He stepped towards her once more. His eyes were hard and brilliant, like cut glass. "Anyway… I believe we had unfinished business."
Unfinished – what does he mean by… Jareth's mouth curved. Oh…!
She hurriedly knelt down, picking up the enveloping cloak of emerald silk and held it out to him. It was suddenly very difficult to meet his eyes. "You can have this back," she said awkwardly. "It's yours."
He didn't move. He was so pale, thought Sarah, all crystal and ice and coldness and untouchable beauty. She wondered what it would take to make his white skin bloom with blood, to bring colour to those thin, colourless lips. Then again, perhaps she didn't want to know the answer.
Hands behind his back, he was looking down at her as though something amused him greatly. "Are you sure you won't change your mind? You didn't seem entirely unwilling to –" he smirked – "come around to my world."
Her hands tightened on the water-fine silk. She could no longer feel her fingers. "No," she said hoarsely.
He did not seem overly concerned by her refusal. Probably because he was right and she wouldn't be able to stay away. Not after seeing such enchantment and unimaginable splendour. Even now, she knew the sights and sounds of this night would haunt her forever. From this distance, the enclosed city looked like the interior of a snow globe. It was magical and at the same time, wild and lonely and starkly beautiful; the kind of beauty that would drive you mad, the kind of beauty one would sell their immortal soul for.
Again, she heard those words spoken in his lilting, rhythmic cadences, enticing and compelling.
The ties that bind you to the Labyrinth run through your blood, draining much of what you were, and replacing much of what you are.
Perhaps she was bound to the Labyrinth. But she would never, never be bound to him. It was not possible… she could never allow it…
"I'm sorry," she said, softly.
He snarled at her. "Spare me your pity, Sarah. I would prefer your hatred." She winced as he lifted her chin with one hand, fingers pressing painfully into the tender skin. He stared at her through slitted eyes, enunciating each word clearly. "Who are you to pity me, you who walk in two worlds, yet fully belonging in neither? You cannot with any certainty even tell me who you really are. Will you decide now?"
She closed her eyes against the rising tears that threatened to spill over her cheeks. "I can't," she said.
The Goblin King looked at her intently for a moment, then sighed as he released her. His eyes were very cold.
"So be it."
Sarah hesitated. How was it that he could speak of love and pain and yearning one moment, and then look upon her with near-hatred the next? The brightness of the ice-blue sky seared her inner lids as she closed her eyes. Love is cruel.
"What do you want from me?" she asked finally. Her voice was hollow and without emotion.
She heard the sweep of his furs against the snow-covered ground as he moved closer towards her. Silver-pale hair spilled into his eyes as he looked down into her face. "What would you be willing to give me, Sarah?" he murmured against her skin.
Her entire body was humming, intensely aware of his closeness. She twisted the silken material of the dark green mantle between her fingers, remembering the sensation of his fine hair threading through her hands as she had kissed him.
She saw his eyes alight with interest at that, although his voice was coolly indifferent. "A guarantee?"
Her hands were trembling slightly; they clung to the cloak as though it were a lifeline. "That the next time I come back…" her voice was shaking but determined, "I will have an answer for you. I've seen your world, and it's beautiful… and terrifying. It's cold and cruel and enchanting and magnificent." She lifted her chin, meeting his gaze steadily. "You were right. I am bound to this world. And that means I have power over it. And if –"
She was halted by Jareth releasing a low hiss of breath, his knuckles gliding along the line of her cheekbone in a lazy caress. She shivered as his other hand slid around her waist, gathering her to him. "You, Sarah," he said, and there was something exultant, almost gloating, in the way he looked at her. "You are cold and cruel and enchanting and magnificent." His fingers ran across the coronet of ivy twisted in her dark hair. "So aloof yet so brilliantly beautiful." His breath was like the tracery of frost against her lips. "Winter's Queen. My Queen." He nipped at the corner of her mouth and she jerked in his arms. "My sweet adversary…" he breathed.
She was so cold… flecks of snow clung to her skin and hair, and she could feel nothing save the sensation of his lips against her own, almost biting like ice, his nails sharp where he held her chin tilted upwards to grant him better access. She was sinking into the folding embrace of his ice-encrusted furs, the snow-flurried world tilting around her in a bewildering haze of piercing white and she saw –
My dreams…? My future…?
They were outside no longer; the snow-crowned pines, the iced-over waters had disappeared and it seemed they were in a lavishly adorned chamber, firelight and crystal flashing in the near-darkness, casting rippling shadows on the heavy curtains. Silk slid in a sensuous caress beneath her body as the Goblin King leaned over her, his eyes slits of silver, daring her to stop him, daring her to let him go on…
No hope of stopping now; her fingers dug into the pale skin of his naked torso and he growled into her neck, ragged, incoherent words. Sensation threatened to choke her as his cool hands slid possessively down the length of her body, lifting her waist to meet him. Firelight turned pale skin to gold as their bodies moved together, silver-blond hair enmeshing with black as she arched against him and gasped aloud –
Startling coldness bit into her like the touch of metal. Sarah's eyes flew open, and she realised in the same instant that they had not moved from the forest. The cloak she had been holding onto so tightly lay in a discarded pile at her feet. She could taste the bitter tang of Jareth's kiss and something else – blood where he had bitten her lip. She turned her face from his and felt his lips brush her hair.
"Not yet," she breathed unsteadily. "Perhaps not ever –"
She could still feel him against her; the lightly muscled shoulders and arms that stiffened almost imperceptibly, the soft sound of his sigh. The scent of pines and frost and ivy grew stronger as the bright dawn light rayed through the tops of the fir trees, casting long shadows across the snow. It looked so peaceful… she suddenly remembered the Wild Hunt and shuddered. Beyond the borders of the forest, the Goblin City was crowned in an aureole of pale winter sunlight.
It must be morning, Sarah thought, wonderingly.
Breath escaped her in a rush. "I have to go."
He smiled coldly. "Then go. It is only yourself that is keeping you here."
She looked at the Goblin King uncertainly. There was a spot of red blood – my blood, she realised with a jolt – that stood out very bright against the whiteness of his skin. His angular figure was as relaxed as she had ever seen it, but beneath the studied nonchalance, she sensed him watching, waiting to see what she would do next. She felt rather like a mouse caught between the paws of a much larger cat.
I was expecting you to try and stop me – what happened to 'just fear me, love me'?
Did she want him to stop her?
The very intimate scene she had just witnessed suggested not.
"Why so hesitant, precious?" he asked softly. He unfurled an elegant hand in a lazy, languorous gesture that encompassed the surrounding forest. "If you wish to go, I will not hinder you."
"Then…" She shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably. "I guess it's goodbye."
"For the present," he murmured, inclining his silver head. The glistening white lights entwined in his coronet flashed like stars. So beautiful…
Sarah stared at him, as long and intently as he had gazed at her before he kissed her. A strange, ethereal ache smote her chest as she studied the high, proud, aquiline features, that face which was so inhuman in the complete lack of softness in its severe lines and marble hardness. But the eyes… it was in those haunting, crystal-pale eyes that she saw all the bitterness and pain and yearning that lurked beneath the tightly bound restraint. Yes, she had been cruel, though it had been most unconsciously done.
She thought then she heard a soft whisper, though it might have been the wind breathing through the pines.
I love and I remember.
"Jareth –" she started to say, then paused.
His figure was losing its sharp clarity. Tall and pale-haired, he seemed to almost melt into the background. The air rippled, wavering and silver-blue, and the startling acuteness of the trees and the city was blurring and receding, like an object sinking to the bottom of a lake. Then there was nothing but echoing silence.
Sarah opened her eyes. It was still dark in her bedroom; only the narrowest ray of winter sunlight slanted through the gap in her curtains. She was lying in bed, the sheets thrown in disarray around her legs.
But the forest – the castle –
In spite of the early morning chill, her dark hair was plastered to her forehead with perspiration. She lay still, waiting several moments for her breathing to slow.
But there was nothing elusive about this dream, no fleeing memories or vague half-remembrances. She recalled it all with perfect clarity. The beauty and the terror. And him.
Sarah shivered violently as her body responded to the frosty temperature of the room. The window was thrown open (although she was sure it hadn't been before). She shifted slightly, and her feet struck something tangled amid the sheets of her bed. Pulling herself up into a sitting position, she leaned forward, squinting in the half light –
It was an emerald green mantle. Shards of ice were still caught in the voluminous folds. Sarah gathered it up in her arms, pressing it against her pounding heart as she closed her eyes.
A rush of wind swept through the room, a wild and elevating music that pierced her heart and set her nerves ablaze with a fleeting longing.
I love and I remember.
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