AN: A oneshot from a while back. I wrote it before my story 'Fading,' so while they don't share a narrative context, there's a tiny nod or two to 'The Moved Stars' in that story. :)
The patrolgoblin patiently closed his beady eyes and tried to remember the way back to his house. Straight for thirty-seven bricks, left at the topiary shaped like a hippopotamus, and then… and then…
He sighed in dismay. It was just no use. He was only a goblin, after all, and not very clever; few goblins were. And even humans got lost in the Labyrinth, with its endless twists and cul-de-sacs, and the miles and miles of ivory-colored, glimmering stone walls that all looked the same. It was why goblins didn't move about, at least with any particular sense of purpose, until after dark, when the stars came out. Even if the Labyrinth changed under your very feet—which it very well could do on occasion—you'd always find your way by the night sky. It was the one thing in the Underground that could be counted on to be reliable and unchanging.
Or, at least, it used to be. Before the stars moved.
The scabby little creature sighed again and squinted at a mar on a wall, wondering if he'd seen it before. It looked like getting home and going to bed was going to take all night again.
Time was, he reflected, the Underground was more or less predictable for its denizens. Not the Labyrinth, of course, that could leave a hot meat pie in your path one day and then gobble you up the next. But the Underground itself, the world of which the Labyrinth and the Goblin City were part, was fairly easy to get along with. No need to remember a coat, or shovel your walk, or carry an umbrella, when there was seldom any bad weather. Or any weather at all, for that matter. Most every day was the same: the temperature pleasant and mild, the sky dim and one of an assortment of possible pale colors.
Then one morning (or morning, at least, for the outer edges of the Labyrinth, where the goblin and his troop patrolled), the dimness was gone. It had been chased out by light, light, everywhere light. Water shimmered, pavingstones sparkled, light bounced merrily off of anything it did or did not have business bouncing off of. It wasn't really a sunny day, since the Underground didn't have a sun. But it was a beautiful day, warm and joyous, and the sky shone a sweet, pale lilac that was fit to break your heart. It was the kind of day that made you want to bust out in song.
He hadn't liked it one bit. Neither had any of the rest of the Labyrinth patrol; it was much too severe and 'Aboveground' and altogether untrustworthy, and none of the goblins could say with any enormous certainty that they wouldn't burst into flames if they stood out in it too long unprotected. They'd drawn straws for the shadiest paths, and he'd lost, but hadn't grumbled too much because he figured it was temporary. The King was a mercurial sort. This good mood of his probably wouldn't last the day.
It had lasted the day. And then it had made a return the next day, only the sky was a thoughtful shade of sage green. And then the next, and the clouds had scudded across a field of spiced yellow. The light and light and everywhere light just went on, for… well, for lots of days in a row (with no seasons, there was not much call for the marking of time beyond hours and days, even if the goblins had been smart enough). After it had been going on for a while, the bright, good humored weather broke occasionally for a violent and sulky all-day thunderstorm, so terrifying in its booming wrath that this particular timid little monster had on more than one occasion opted to simply not go to work.
The goblin looked up from his musings to see that he was going under a stone arch, and got excited for a moment, thinking he might know where he was. Automatically he looked just above it for the star at the lefthand corner of the Milk Bottles constellation. Of course, the bottles weren't there, and he moved on, more glum than before. He would have found someone to ask for directions, had there been anyone to ask. But out here, at the edge of the Labyrinth, you could seldom find much of anyone that wasn't a guard, like him, and just as lost as he was.
They were too far out to hear rumors from the castle, to find out what had prompted all the strange weather. Only once had he even seen the King, as the King, in royal garb. But more and more often now, when he was out on the first patrol round of the day and as the glow rose in the black sky, the goblin guard would see a white owl soaring noiselessly above him—out, with the castle behind it, flying toward the edge of the Labyrinth and the worlds they said lay beyond.
Even a goblin, stupid as he was, could guess that there was a someone to that light and thunder. Though it wasn't something one said, even a goblin knew it was for her, without knowing who "her" was.
Of course he should have guessed it was a human.
It was a silly thing for a Labyrinth guard to feel, he supposed, but humans almost scared him a little. They were strange and powerful creatures, with frightful gifts of creation and destruction and memory. He didn't really know what that meant, exactly, but he'd heard it said even by the faefolk, of whom the King was born, and they were far stronger and smarter than any goblin, so it must be true. The King himself, of course, would never be heard to say it.
He'd heard stories. Seen humans himself before, at a safe distance. They were all the more terrifying for how unpredictable they were; humans, unlike the world they lived in, changed from moment to moment. Their hair got longer, they got taller, their very faces changed with time. They learned, and grew, and went away and came back stronger. The Labyrinth might change, the sky above it might change, but it was all only an act, a sort of shifting. To keep up with the humans, probably.
He should have guessed it was a human, dangerous and changeable, that could hold their King under such thrall—even if saying something like that in the King's earshot could get you Bogged.
He did see Her, just once (it had to be Her; everything changed around Her, everything ordered itself to Before Her and After) on a day when the sky woke up smoldering orange like a burned-low oil lamp, and quickly sickened into an unnerving and unnatural pale blue, that eerily watched the Labyrinth with the brightness of a fever dream. The goblin guard had been so preoccupied with avoiding the gaze of that sky, he almost rounded a corner right into Her. He'd realized the mistake just in time, and quailed unnoticed in a shadow at Her feet.
The Girl had been hesitating at a fork in the path; she had dark hair, and a puffy shirt like the one he'd seen his Majesty wearing that once. He didn't have time to notice more before she made a decision and disappeared down the other leg of the fork. He remembered wishing he knew if she'd chosen the right one.
The funny thing was, even with that pale, bright sky, the stars had been there. They had shone even brighter than the blue, faint but readable—or at least, they would have been readable if he'd known how to read them. They had not been the stars he knew. These stars had been moved.
He looked up again now, little black face wrinkled ruefully. There they were, in the blackness, the same mixed-up stars that he could never learn, although it had been many, many lots-of-days since they'd changed. Sometimes he thought he saw the same constellations as he'd known in the forever Before Her, and it got him mixed up all over again. He and his troop members had, on a few occasions, attempted to figure out a map of the stars by which they could navigate; however, none of them were really bright enough to draw such a map, and they couldn't quite agree on any of the pictures they saw.
The Sword and the Castle were certainly gone, scattered among the mysterious clusters which maybe had names, but not any that the goblins knew. The Cow was gone. The Cottage was gone. And if the Milk Bottles were anywhere, it was not above the stone arch where he knew how to find them. One of his troopmates swore that one night he'd spotted not only the Lord, but the Lady too; the secret, he'd told them triumphantly, was that they were in the same place in the sky now, twined around each other—in a waltz, perhaps. (When he'd been told to prove it, though, he couldn't find it again.)
There was a bunch about midway up from the horizon that the goblin was pretty sure was the old Window, but if so its shutters were closed. He peered around the sky in search, but couldn't find it in the patch of dark visible above him. He knew from previous nights spent meandering home that next to the Window was now something that looked like the Owl, except without its wings. One of the others in his troop said that the Owl was perching now, looking in, and its wings were folded. Himself, he didn't see it; he saw a creature with its wings cut off, grounded in the wrong part of the sky. Everything was wrong about that sky. Everything about it, it seemed to him, was lonely and purposeless—constellations that nobody could name, like a letter with nobody to open it. It made him sad.
There were no bright days anymore. He never thought he'd miss those glaring skies… and yet, somehow, these endlessly dim days that never seemed to get past early dawn were no better. There were still thunderstorms sometimes, but mostly the rain came in long, cold drizzles.
The guard, finally accepting that he wasn't going to get home tonight (and, indeed, with little night to spare), sat down on a flagstone and looked up at that garbled sky.
He wondered what had become of the human girl. He had never seen her nor heard about her since. He had heard there was lots of light Aboveground; maybe even the bright, bright skies had not been bright enough. Maybe the strange blueness had frightened her away. Maybe she could read the stars without a map, and she hadn't liked what was written there.
He was only a goblin, he knew, and not very clever, but even he could see that the sky was for Her. Even he knew that the King would not have brought her here just to let her go, that he must've done everything he could to get her to stay.
But she hadn't stayed. Not even for the love of the Goblin King—not even for the fear of him. The little patrol guard sat in his nameless corridor, and wondered why, and watched the field of mysterious stars surrender to another misty morning's chill.