And because I'm in a Christmasy mood, here's one for my Labyrinth fandom friends that I wrote a while back and hadn't had time to post here.
Plot Summary:While on a semester abroad in England, Sarah stumbles on a reference to a name she hasn't heard in years. Was her adventure nothing more than a dream? Or are things more than what they seem?
Author's Notes: This was written for the labyrinth_exFic Exchange. I was called in as a pinch hitter, and I wrote this over a couple of days, well past deadline ... which may explain why it's a bit disjointed. I did my best to follow the prompt, but as you will see, some stories seem to have a mind of their own, and some questions are better left unanswered.
Prompt: Sarah is studying abroad (where is up to the author) and she keeps seeing references to Jareth in old books. What are they? Does she ask him about them?
Worlds are hinged so strangely that it takes only a moment to turn them upside down.
The rain starts on her walk home. Sarah's used to the damp after a few weeks in London, but she'd left her umbrella ("brolly" Mrs. Glaslindys, her landlady, calls it) at home. There's a teahouse on the corner, and a pub across the street she could duck into. Instead she braves the downpour a little further and pushes open the door of a tiny bookshop she'd noticed but never had the time to explore. Overhead, water sheets off of the sign, partially obscuring the faded painting of a quill pen.
A bell tinkles charmingly as she enters.
Inside everything is cozy and warm. Yellow lamplight gilds the long narrow room and a veritable maze of shelves. In the front corner, near the slightly warped glass window and its tiny display of books, are a couple of well used reading chairs that would fetch several thousand in an antique auction house. Her stepmother would have a conniption to see them here, with the upholstery a bit worn and the wood scarred by so much use.
Sarah smiles and breathes in the scent of books: dust, paper, glue, leather, age, and wonder.
No one comes to greet her, and the shelves are unlabeled and unorganized. Pulpy paperbacks and ancient looking leather tomes share shelf space, with no regard for any kind of system. She has to move carefully through the aisles to avoid tripping over stacks left on the floor. In a word, it's perfect.
For the first time since she came to London she feels right at home.
Outside the rain pounds the pavement, but inside, Sarah explores every nook and cranny. Her fingers trail over the spines, occasionally pausing to pluck an interesting title out for further inspection. Eventually she finds herself sitting cross-legged in a corner, paging through a frayed and fragile collection of children's fairy tales.
It's only the rumble of thunder overhead that makes her pause, momentarily, to look up. When she looks down again, she finds him: Jareth, right beside her thumb on page 113.
Sarah blinks, then looks again.
It's a name she's not thought of in years, but it's so etched into her memory that she couldn't forget it even if she tried. And she had tried. It was a dream that wouldn't fade with time; it stayed crystal clear, sharper than a mere memory. She barely could recall her thirteenth birthday party, but the events of that night, be they memory or imagination, had never blurred in her mind.
It was a dream. It had to have been a dream.
How many times had she sat at her mirror, whispering the names of her friends, and waiting for a response that never came? Finally she had had to give up, chalk it up to the late night and the storm and loneliness or boredom.
But she's never forgotten, and now she wonders anew, her fingers tracing the tiny black print that forms a name she hasn't heard in almost ten years.
The story is unfamiliar, the name mentioned only in passing: a threat to an unruly child who eventually goes on to have a different adventure entirely. Still, there is the name and the vague reference to goblins and a world Underground. It's enough to get her thinking.
She buys the book from a wizened old man who she has to nudge awake from his nap at the counter. The rain has stopped by the time she leaves the store, the book wrapped protectively in a plastic bag. Lights shimmer on the wet pavement and old buildings while fog creeps around the corners, but for the first time since coming to London, Sarah doesn't notice these things.
Instead she thinks of a decades-old dream, and wonders.
When Sarah calls home the next day, she asks Karen to find the little red book and ship it to her. The British postal service being what it is, Sarah asks her to Fed Ex it. It costs almost as much as a plane flight.
She unwraps the package like it's Christmas. The cover of the book fits familiarly in her hand, the leather worn to fit her fingers. When she opens it, the pages smell like her childhood. Memories overwhelm: evenings curled up on her bed surrounded by an army of toys, afternoons in the park wearing her favorite costume gown, mornings at the breakfast table, her mother reading aloud to her while she was sick in bed.
Sarah reads it from cover to cover, the words achingly familiar. Then, puzzled, she reads it again, slower, searching. The sun is coming up when she finally puts the book down.
She knows the lines by heart, knows the story inside and out.
Nowhere in the novel is the name "Jareth."
Perhaps she imagined it.
Perhaps it was just a dream, and in her dream she invented a name for her imaginary Goblin King.
A name she'd never heard before or since.
She does some research, but even Google can't give her much. The name is uncommon, the meaning uncertain. Maybe it's Welsh. There's some mention of La Mort d'Arthurand Sir Gareth or Gawain. It's not like spelling was consistent back then. There's not much to go on.
Eventually she gives up. Decides it must have been a dream. The mention in the fairytale book a mere coincidence. She puts both books on a shelf and tries to forget.
Some things refuse to be forgotten.
She finds him again in a small town in Scotland.
She and her flatmate and another girl in the theatre program take the train up for their week off to explore the Highlands. They stop several places, mostly on whim. A rainy night drives them down a dirt-rutted road to the nearest pub and bed and breakfast. When dawn arrives, the place is charming enough that they decide to spend the day.
The town is a bit off the beaten path, but used to tourists mainly due to the ruins of a castle nearby. Their tour guide is a weathered old man with a lovely voice for storytelling and a penchant for ghost stories. Sarah wishes she could capture his particular accent for use on the stage and asks if she can record him. Delighted to find an appreciative audience, he agrees.
On the walk up from the village he entertains the small group with stories of the area, local legends and folktales. Sarah questions him endlessly, enchanted by his voice and his effortless retellings. They spend the afternoon exploring the castle ruins, clambering up stone stairways to explore chambers roofed only by the sky, taking photos of crumbling walls scaled and conquered by an army of moss. It seems strange, to Sarah, to imagine the place once full of people-that once this had been a place where people had lived and worked and loved and fought and now all that is left is a hollow shell.
As the afternoon wanes, their guide takes them down into the remains of the dungeons and regales them with stories of prisoners of note, a famous escape, and the local version of the Grey Lady who haunts the ruins. Her friends are properly scared by it all, but Sarah herself is drawn to a doorway and a word etched there.
Her fingers trace the ancient pattern.
"Bòcain," the guide explains. "Goblin. It's a warning."
"I saw your smile, lass, when I told my tale. The ghostly woman pining for her lost love. It's a good story for the tourists. They eat that shite up. But it's not the only one."
Then he spins her a different version, of a young mother, widowed by war, and her only child. "Alone, she was, and frightened. Far too young to be a widow and with no other family left. The boy cried at night, missing his da, and finally she had had enough."
"She called on the goblins," Sarah whispers. The guide nods. A shiver traces down her spine.
"Aye. That she did. And they took the babby underground, to their king. The woman begged for the boy to be returned, but the Goblin King offered her something else, instead: the return of her lost husband."
The shiver becomes goosebumps, and Sarah remembers a crystal full of offered dreams. "Did she take the bargain?"
"Aye. But it was a faerie trick. Come the dawn, her husband was revealed as a changeling, a faerie in disguise. The villagers burned him, and the woman died of a broken heart-her love and her bairn gone forever."
The story haunts her more than any ghost. Sarah remains silent as they make their way back to the village and the warmth and comfort of the pub. The other tourists ply their guide with drinks, in thanks for the trip and the tales. Sarah studies the foam in her mug and wonders, late into the night. When her friends are ready to hie themselves to bed, Sarah stops to speak to the guide one last time.
"The Goblin King," she asks, "does he have a name?"
The old man regards her, an odd light in his eyes. Maybe it's just a reflection of the lamp overhead, but for a moment, she thinks she sees a gleam of red behind his pupils. "Many," he says. "But I'm thinking the one you want is 'Jareth'."
He sees her start, sees her surprise. His grin reveals a mouthful of crooked teeth spaced with dark holes.
"What does he want?" she asks.
But the old man only shakes his head and hides secrets behind his smile. As she turns to leave, however, he speaks.
"Brìgh gach cluiche gu dheireadh."
"What does that mean?"
"The essence of a game is at its end."
She returns to London full of questions without answers.
But life goes on, and rehearsals and classes take up so much time. When she can she sneaks away to the library, overwhelmed at first by the sheer size of it. It's very different from the little brick building back home. Undaunted, Sarah explores.
Mazes, after all, have never posed much of a challenge to her, and she's good at finding what she's looking for-even if she's not entirely sure what that might be.
Still, it's close to the end of the term when she finds him again. Once again, it's raining; the kind of rain that chases everyone indoors. Through the high arched windows Sarah watches it gray the already gray streets and buildings beyond. Thunder grumbles overhead like an impatient narrator. Inside the library the shelves gleam under the warm light. There's a little lamp at her table, casting a golden glow over the rich, dark wood and her small pile of books.
She's somewhat day dreaming, her mind turning over her lines for the upcoming showcase while her eyes merely skim the words in front of her. She's halfway through ("... set your heart at rest, the fairy land buys not the child of me...") when something catches her attention. It's an etching of a castle, atop a hill, the way it looked several centuries before. The details are wrong, but there's something to the shape of it that seems familiar. Frowning, Sarah scans the accompanying text.
"...The Castle Yester, built in the 13th century by Sir Hugo de Giffard. Legend has it that Sir Hugo summoned an army of goblins to build the castle, including the infamous Goblin Ha' (hall) beneath, where he practised his dark magic …"
There are no pictures of Sir Hugo, but there is something about the etching of the castle that calls to her. It embeds itself deeply in her mind, and for weeks after, she dreams of it sitting atop its hill while a storm brews in the skies above.
Time passes as time does.
Her semester draws closer to its end. Sarah finds that she loves it in England. Not London, specifically, though it has its appeal. The theaters and stages and opportunities for her there feel endless. But there's something about the land that calls to her, something in the air, in the ground, in the stone. If someone had asked her to give it a name, she'd have said it was magic. What else could it be?
Her mother left her with money, which means choices.
There is home, and her family, and Toby who she loves.
But there is something in Sarah that has never been content. There are questions that she's always wanted answered.
Mrs. Glaslindys says she's fey-touched. "You've got fairy eyes, child," she says over biscuits and tea one rainy evening. Her wrinkled, crab-apple face creases with worry. "You see more than you should. If you'd been born here the faeries would have snatched you right up."
The other girls laugh at Mrs. Glaslindys's talk of fairies. Sarah never has. "Why? What would they want with me?"
"You're special, somehow," Mrs. Glaslindys says. "Can't you feel it, girl? Something has marked you from the day you were born, I'd wager."
"Something? Or someone?" Sarah muses, more to herself. To Mrs. Glaslindys, however, she simply asks, "What do you know about goblins?"
"Wicked little imps. Leave a bit of milk out for them, and wear your clothes inside out. Carry a bit of cold iron and you'll be alright. You're too old for the likes of them, though. At most they'll do you a mischief. It's the little ones they want."
For a moment Mrs. Glaslindys looks blank, stumped, as though it never occurred to her to wonder such a thing. "Who knows? Have you tried the shortbread, dear?"
Sometimes the way forward is the way back.
It's the last week of the term. There are final performances to get through, and a couple of exams. Sarah's on her way home that Monday afternoon when it once again starts to storm. It seems like the rain comes out of nowhere, clouds boiling up in the sky and abruptly releasing their downpour. Thunder growls ominously and Sarah ducks into the first doorway she finds.
The bell tinkles charmingly overhead.
Once again the bookshop feels deserted, but the lights beckon and the books entice. She shakes the rain from her hair and wanders, letting her feet guide her down the aisles and between the stacks. In a dark corner, her finger catches on the spine of a book, and she pulls it out.
The cover is dark blue leather, clearly old but unfaded. The top is dusty, as if it has sat there for a long, long time. When she opens it, the spine crackles with disuse. It does not smell like most books. There is the lingering scent of dry, hot deserts and deep, green forests; underlying that is a slightly foul smell, like a swamp or a city littered with refuse and populated with poultry.
It is a collection of old tales and folklore. The pages fall open.
Sarah begins to read.
There is a clock somewhere in the shop, and when it chimes seven she finally looks up and shuts the book. Inside she feels as though she's been spun upside down, but outwardly she is calm as she collects her things and the book and goes in search of the counter.
It takes a couple of prods to wake up the old man sleeping in the swivel chair behind it. He blinks rheumy eyes at her and his mustache twitches as he rings up the sale. There is a cage in the corner behind him, and a bright-eyed bird cocks its head to the side to study her. "Gracias, senorita," it says.
Sarah stares. "Keep the change," she tells the proprietor, who has already settled back into his chair for his nap.
She thinks she hears the bird sigh as she exits the shop.
There are always forks in the road, choices that need made. Sometimes what you thought was the way forward is a dead end. Sometimes the path changes when you aren't looking.
We grow up, but we rarely grow wise.
Curiosity compels, and feet follow.
On the other side of the ocean is the life she left behind, the world she knows. It too, is full of questions that need answers. But they aren't Sarah's questions, and she isn't that interested in their answers.
"Are you sure you don't want me to postpone my flight another week or two?" her flatmate asks. It's the last day of the term. Bags are packed, flights are booked. All but one. "I could come with you."
"I'll be fine," Sarah says. "I'm … going to look up some old friends."
Rebecca studies her for a long moment, then pulls her hair over her shoulder and fiddles with the end of it. "You're not coming back, are you?"
"I don't know," Sarah says, but she smiles as she says it.
The train takes her as far as Edinburgh.
She finds a tour bus heading out to the village of Gifford and pays for a seat. It's not a long drive, and Sarah spends most of it watching the hills roll by and the trees grow older and darker. As they near the village the trees give way to fields and low stone walls and hedges. Something about it feels familiar.
It feels, she decides, like going home.
She likes the white buildings all pressed together like books and the brick and stone ones with their Spanish tile roofs. The bus drops her off in the square, near the Goblin Ha' hotel. She shoulders her backpack, stops at the newsagent and buys a map of the area. Down the street she has lunch at a tiny coffee shop named "Love's Coffee … and Food." She wonders why food is only an afterthought. Then she tastes the coffee.
There's a boy working the till. He's youngish, with a head full of ginger hair and a rosy birthmark over one eye. He's cute, though, and he knows it. She doesn't mind when he flirts with her when she pays up.
"Do you know how to get to the Goblin Ha'?" she asks after awhile.
He grins. "Of course. Everyone here knows where it is. Very few go, however. Bit spooky out there."
"Does it scare you?" she asks.
"Course no'," he scoffs and puffs out his skinny chest. "You looking to explore, lass?"
"Can you take me?"
"Fear not, fair maiden. I shall be thy guide," he tells her with a wink. "Meet me here after lock up. Bring a torch and wear hiking boots."
Sarah's been in England long enough to know that when he says "torch" he means "flashlight." She buys one at a shop down the road. Hiking boots she already has.
Her guide's name is Todd, and he's as nimble as his namesake. He takes her through fields and into the woods, skirting anything that looks fencelike and official. Sarah wonders if they're trespassing and decides they probably are. Todd's dog, Emrys, trots at their heels. Sarah isn't even surprised that it's a sheepdog.
The light dims to a rich gold that filters through the trees. Part of their trek leads them uphill, over ancient tree roots and rocks. It feels so familiar; Sarah bets she could walk it blindfolded. She's not quite foolish enough to take that bet, however.
There is a path, ancient and dotted with the occasional cairn to mark the way. Tingles start at the base of her spine and dance their way up. Finally, Emrys sits down and whines and refuses to go any further, despite Todd's coaxing and threats.
"He's fine," Sarah says, her eyes on the path ahead. "How much further is it?"
"Just round the bend."
"Thanks for taking me this far," she says.
"You don't want me to come with you?" he asks, but he doesn't seem surprised. "Like I said, bit spooky in there."
"No," Sarah tells him. "This is something I need to do alone."
"Well, if that's how it is done, that's how you must do it," Todd tells her. Then he grins. "If you need me..."
"I'll call," Sarah says. He won't wait for her, though. She knows this, too. It's getting dark, and time is running out.
Overhead the leaves rustle, and the breeze picks up. There's a storm brewing. She can smell it on the wind.
The entrance to the hall is a dark archway beneath a ruined wall. The place is abandoned, but not empty. It's alive in the way that some old buildings are: with memories and magic. The hair on the back of her neck and all along her arms stands on end.
She takes a deep breath, and steps through the archway.
The walls are cold stone, and her footsteps echo off the vaulted ceilings. Leaves litter the floor and cobwebs curtain the corners. In her head she hears alarms ringing (...beware, beware...), and she knows she's on the right track. The light from her flashlight sends shadows waltzing away from her, dancing into the corners. There are ghosts here, pressed all around her.
Sarah explores, because that's what she does. She finds the main hall easily enough, pokes her head down the tunnels and passageways, but ultimately ends up back in the hall. The architecture is gothic, and so symmetrical she can believe that it had to be made with magic. Finally, she sits down on the floor, in the center of the room and waits.
Outside she hears the storm building. Wind whispers down the tunnels to ruffle her hair. The scent of rain, the sound of thunder, every so often a flash of light. In the hall, however, it is dry. Her flashlight flickers and goes out.
The light on her LED watch counts down the minutes to midnight.
There is a gust of wind, stronger than the rest. It rushes through the hall, chased by the flash of lightning. The air sparkles. And he is there, a dark silhouette against the tunnel entrance, his cape a tattered shadow, and the lightning caught in his silver-gold hair.
"You're him, aren't you?" Sarah says.
He only smiles a little, his eyes inscrutable in his ever-so-slightly inhuman face.
"Jareth," she says, his name practically a prayer. His eyebrows arch and he crosses his arms.
"Why have you come here, Sarah?" His voice prowls through the darkness toward her, though he himself remains still.
"Because you dared me to," she says.
He smirks. "Did you enjoy our game, Sarah?"
"Piece of cake," she replies.
Then he is in front of her, his cape swirling around them in the wind, long strands of his hair brushing her face. She realizes then, that aside from a dance in a dream within a dream, she has never touched him, nor he her. "There is no baby to save," he tells her.
"Then what would you have for your prize?"
Jareth stills, his mismatched eyes sparkle in the dim light. "You know that it wasn't a dream, silly girl. What more could you possibly want to know?"
"I want to know what you want-"
His bark of laughter echoes through the hall, scattering shadows. She realizes then that they aren't alone. In the darkness a thousand inhuman eyes watch as though worlds hinge on this moment.
"Careful, Sarah. Haven't you learnt yet to be careful what you wish for? You might just get it." He steps toward her, so she can feel the electricity of his body only inches from her own. She can smell the wild scent of him-like forests and deserts and magic and male.
"What do you want of me, Jareth?"
For a moment she thinks he will not answer.
"I am ancient, by your measure," he says, his voice as soft as a caress. "I was ancient when this hall was built, old even when these hills were young. I cannot remember my beginning, or how I came to be what I am. All I know is the game, the challenge, the chase. I am a villain by necessity, because this world needs villains..."
"What do you need, Jareth?"
"You," he says, his jaw clenched as though the admission pains him. "I have always needed you."
Stories are like labyrinths. You may not know where the path will take you, what choices you will make. There are many ways it can end, if the wrong fork is taken, the wrong door opened, the riddle never solved.
But stories are like labyrinths, and there is always more than one right path. Some are shorter, some are longer, and they change what you find when you reach the center.
If you do reach the center, though, you may never find your way back out again.
You may not want to.
There are places where the veil is thin, where the crossing between worlds is as easy as taking a breath, or a step.
Perhaps it is the wrong step, but Sarah is very good at landing on her feet.
Additional Notes: My apologies to Great Britain (I've never been). My thanks to my beta (who lives there). The Goblin Ha' is a real actual place, located beneath the ruins of Yester Castle southeast of the village of Giffon, in Scotland. According to history, it was built by Sir Hugo de Gifford (allegedly a wizard and necromancer), who summoned an army of goblins to construct his castle. Interestingly, to me at least, there's something about the shape of the original castle that resembles the castle beyond the goblin city.
That could, however, just be my imagination.