The Thirteenth Rider
Ch. 8: Is That a Threat or a Promise?
The sound of the galloping horses shook the very foundations of the ancient cottage. Each wave of sound made the walls tremble so violently that pictures and knick knacks fell to the floor, the sound of shattering glass and china swirling musically against the thudding sound of Sarah's own heart beat. Gasping for air, she clenched her teeth tightly, biting back the scream that begged to be let out for fear it would alert them to her presence, despite the fact that she knew without a doubt that at least one of them was already aware of her. With Oscar growling low in his throat as she clutched him to her chest, Sarah felt her heart stop when she realized the sounds of hoof beats had suddenly ceased.
Holding her breath, she leaned forward against the cold porcelain of the claw-footed tub, only to stifle a moan when she heard the rhythmic chiming of metal, the sound of metal fastenings on saddles. Afraid to breathe, Sarah listened in silent terror to the low murmuring of voices from outside the cottage, as Oscar's low growl stopped. Looking at the cat, Sarah shivered at the dark way he stared at the bathroom door, as if he were waiting for something.
That was when the calls began.
"Come out, pretty one. You know you want to," called a lightly accented voice that chimed melodically on the air. "You feel the pull of the hunt dancing through your veins. Give in to it…"
"No…no…nononononono," Sarah whispered, hiding her face against the warm orange fur on the back of Oscar's head, as the cat began his low warning growl once more.
"If you don't come out, we'll just have to come in after you," chuckled another voice, the sound sending shivers down Sarah's spine, shivers she was unable to declare pleasurable or fearful.
"Wrong moon phase, you asshat," Sarah grumbled softly in Oscar's ear. "You can't force me to run," she whispered, her green eyes flashing angrily at the bathroom door.
The calls continued, with different voices attempting to draw her from her hiding place. Each new voice tried a different tactic, from gentle calls to tender seduction and outright lewd suggestions. Through them all, Sarah gripped Oscar tightly, finding some measure of comfort in the low rumbling growl that emanated from his aging chest. With Oscar clutched in her arms and the iron key digging a deep ridge in the palm of her hand from where she was squeezing it tightly, Sarah fought off the enticing calls – calls that made her long to move toward the door, seeing herself running free across the moonlit moors. Eventually, she lost track of the number of times she caught herself starting to rise from the bathtub, one hand reaching for the door of the bathroom, only to throw herself back into the tub, a whispered mantra falling from her lips, "They can't make me run. They can't make me run. They can't make me run."
Louder and louder the voices called to her, the enticements swirling around the cottage and seeping into the cracks of the windows and doors. As each new call came, they seemed to overpower her, echoing through her head with a painful force that made her skull throb as her blood pulsed heatedly through her. Louder and louder the riders called to her, their words plucking at her resolve until she could stand it no more, feeling as if she had to respond or the sound of their voices and the pounding pain in her head would drive her crazy. Rising in the bathtub, Sarah screamed with everything she had in her, her voice powered by her own panicked anger – "You have no power over me! Be gone!"
Their malicious laughter chilled her to the bone. In the next instant she heard the horses begin to move, galloping counter-clockwise around the small cottage, the riders continuing their haunting calls. The horses seemed to move faster and faster, once more making the very walls of the cottage quake against the force of the magical hooves.
As the calls and hoof-beats grew louder, Sarah's resolve began to fail. Lifting her foot, she saw her foot stepping outside the tub, outside the careful ring of salt. Her heart clenched as she watched her foot crunch into the salt as if she were no longer in her own body. With a low moan, Sarah watched herself drop Oscar onto the floor, the cranky tabby launching himself at her legs, hissing and snarling as he clawed at her, attempting to get her attention. Then, her other foot was on the floor and she found herself standing completely outside the safety of the ring of salt.
Once her second foot touched the tile outside the salted ring, the cacophony of calls ended, and a single voice rang out.
"Sarah, Dearest Love…come to me. It is time."
Shaking her head, Sarah felt herself move toward the door, drawn by the voice. A low moan slipped past her lips as she watched her hand reach for the door of the bathroom, her other hand balling into a tight fist, the nails digging painfully into her palm. Pausing she looked at her fist, crimson droplets seeping from between her clenched fingers. Slowly, the drops pooled at the bottom of her fist, grouping together into a heavy drop that shivered against her skin before falling to the salted tile at the edge of the door. The sight of the blood droplet splattering against the tile freed Sarah from her trance-like state.
"NO!" she screamed, stumbling away from the door and back into the bathtub. "Someone… save me! Anyone! "she screamed, burying her face in her hands, heedless of the blood that smeared across her pale features as she screamed. All the while, her mind whirled, trying to find a way out – any way to get away from the Fae who were clearly on the hunt. And they were hunting her.
Galloping toward the village far below him, the Goblin King watched as his riders stopped near a small, whitewashed cottage – the one that housed 'Her'. The one that drew him to become a hunter for the first time in centuries. As he watched, the Seelie riders pulled away from the little cottage, milling about near a large tree at the edge of the property, while the Unseelie riders crowded near the garden gate. Drawing nearer, he could hear them shouting, calling out to 'Her', the knowledge setting his blood to boil as a nameless rage rushed through him. Then, they suddenly set off, racing around the little house, the great hooves of the horses kicking up huge clods of dirt as around and around they ran, the sound a deafening roar that echoed toward him.
Despite his growing fury, there was little he could do to save her. It was her own fault. Blasted infuriating wench… he growled as he rode toward them. She had to interrupt the marking by breaking the crystal. And for what? To save a brat I would have gladly returned in exchange for her.
It was always about her. True, he took the child because he was duty-bound to do so when she wished him away, but in the end he would have moved heaven, earth, or even the very stars themselves… for her. She was his match in every way, and yet with the marking unfinished and the bonding not even begun, he was powerless to approach her outside her dreams, dreams that she had only recently invited him in to. And even more frustrating, he was powerless to intervene against the Unseelie who were presently stalking her, taunting her and tempting her to join the hunt. He could do nothing but watch, hoping that they broke a rule of the hunt, as he was forbidden by ancient law to do anything to save her since she had turned down the Goblin Queen's throne.
…Someone save me! Please! Anyone….
A sharp pain stabbed through his head as her voice echoed inside his mind, her panicked words giving him the invitation he had been waiting years for. With an angry snarl, Jareth shook his head, spurring his horse on faster with a sharp dig of his heels. Should she leave the safety of the cottage, all was lost. If she joined the hunt, he could do nothing but pray to all Gods Above and Below that he caught her first.
Stubborn bloody woman…. He snarled inwardly. If she had just accepted my offer, none of this would be happening.
His heavy leather cloak whipped and cracked sharply on the wind as he roared up to the riders still racing around.
"CEASE AND DESIST AT ONCE!" he bellowed, pulling his mount to a halt by the garden gates and forcing the Unseelie riders to stop their race around the cottage.
The Goblin King glared at the Unseelie riders stopping before him, his eyes dark with rage. "THIS is not the path of the hunt. You will leave this village immediately and return to the chosen path," he ordered, his voice deadly in its icy tone.
"But she is cursed, Goblin King. Surely you can feel it? It hangs so heavily in the air of this place, one can almost taste it," countered one of the riders in black, his face a mask of frustration.
"Aye…and her fear tastes like peaches," added another, his hands gliding over the vines that twisted upon the arbor gate, monkshood blooming wherever his hands touched.
"Cursed or not, this house bears protections, or can you not see them?" he snapped, gesturing toward the little cottage just beyond the vine-covered garden gates. "You know the rules. Homes with protections are to be left alone. Both the property and those who dwell within it."
One of the Unseelie riders slid from his horse, moving swiftly toward the gate, "A floral gate is not enough to keep me out. The curse on that bitch calls to me and I will make her mine."
As he reached for the latch of the gate, another rider grabbed his arm, cautioning him, "No. The arbor gate is made of iron, embedded deeply in the earth. You cannot enter."
Raising an eyebrow, Jareth glared at the rider who issued the warning. That he should know the arbor gate was seeded with iron was troubling – none should have gotten close enough to sense that yet.
"Enough!" shouted the Goblin King, his voice echoing against the walls of the cottage, "Ride on now or pay the price."
The Unseelie riders looked at the stormy visage of the Goblin King, lightening flashing in his dark eyes as he dared them to defy his order, as he would relish the chance to punish anyone who disobeyed him.
"But that family is cursed. They are fair game, particularly the daughters," protested one of the riders, only to shrink in his saddle as the Goblin King's withering gaze fell upon him.
"I said…ride on," came the steely reply from the Goblin King, his cold voice knifelike as it sliced through the air.
Hooves thundered past them as the Seelie riders took off out of town, the reluctant Unseelie riders following them upon the winding path that led toward the dig site on the other end of town. Jareth watched until the groups passed the dig site and began the long climb up the southern moors at the edge of the village. When both sets of riders crested the hill and began down the other side toward the portal of the mists, he slid from his horse, a gloved hand gently caressing the face of his favorite steed.
"Rest, Rylan," he whispered, tenderly rubbing the horse as it nuzzled into his hand.
Turning to the gate, he raised his hand and lightly touched the arbor arch, "Nochtann," he whispered, smiling grimly as the iron lettering embedded in the wood glowed briefly. "None shall pass, Precious? We'll just see about that."
With a flick of his wrist, the latch of the gate raised and the Goblin King stepped into the kitchen garden, flinching slightly as the iron portal tore at his magic, as if attempting to pull it bodily from him. But his entry wasn't unseen. A lone rider paused on the top of the moor, watching as the Goblin King stepped through the garden gate and then boldly walked into the tiny cottage, a wicked sneer twisting his lips as he turned his horse and rode on.
"So that is the girl who turned down the Goblin Queen's throne," he chuckled darkly, his mind already alight with wicked tricks he could use against her. "She turned you down once, Goblin King, but she will never refuse me. And through her, I'll have your throne. And then…your very life."
Silence fell around the little cottage and as much as Sarah feared the pounding of the horses hooves that heralded the arrival of the Wyld Hunt, the eerie quiet that descended upon the house now scared her more. Clutching Oscar to her chest, she hunkered in the bathtub, jumping with a startled squeak when the kitchen door banged open. Her heart lurched painfully in her chest as she strained, listening for any sound. Then she heard a sound that made her heart ache with fear – heavy footsteps, heading toward the bathroom.
"Oh Gods," she gasped, terrified green eyes wide as she stared at the door, tightly gripping both the cat and the iron key that hung around her neck.
As the footfalls stopped outside the closed bathroom door, Sarah held her breath, sure that whatever happened next, this would be the last time she saw her grandmother's little cottage. A word crept over her lips as if a prayer, one she never thought she would hear herself utter, but at this moment she could do nothing to stop it…
"Jar…." She whispered, her eyes glued to the door.
In the next instant, the door shot open, banging loudly against the wall, hard enough to splinter the plaster and making Sarah shriek.
"Jareth!" she screamed, squeezing Oscar so tight that he yowled in pain, before turning to slash at her cheek with his paw. Hissing in pain, Sarah dropped the angry cat who launched himself out of the bathtub, darting between Jareth's legs with a warning growl, then pounding down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor of the house.
Cocking his head, the Goblin King smiled wickedly at her, his mismatched eyes sparkling mischievously, "Calling for me in your time of need? How quaint, Precious. Although it would serve you right if I ignored your cries and left you to the perils of the hunt, after what you did to me."
"I…I…didn't call for you Goblin King," she snapped, scooting further away from him until the faucet of the bathtub dug painfully into her back. "And…I didn't do anything to you."
Leaning toward the doorway, Jareth smirked at her, his teeth flashing with shark-like sharpness as if considering how she would taste.
"On the contrary, you did, Sarah. On both counts. Let me refresh your memory -'Someone save me! Please! Anyone!' Sound familiar?" he chuckled, a devilish sneer teasing the corner of his mouth as he looked at her, cowering in a bathtub, her hair mussed, shirt twisted around her body, midriff exposed – and looking positively delectable. "And, I do believe I qualify as both 'someone' and 'anyone'. Hence, I am here. And have saved you from the savagery of the hunt. You're welcome, by the way."
Sarah's jaw worked as she gawped at him, but found that no words would squeak out of her throat.
"What? No scathing remark? No biting retort?" he laughed as he taunted her, leather-gloved hands leaning against the doorjamb. "Well if that is how grateful you plan on being, I might as well go back outside and tell the riders they can have you."
At this Sarah lurched from the tub, stumbling toward the door before she thought better of it, collapsing upon the toilet instead.
"No, please," she said simply, her green eyes seeking his mismatched ones, before falling to his boots. "I don't want to be hunted."
Raising an eyebrow, the Goblin King surveyed the girl turned young woman before him. She had grown more beautiful, yet had a haunted air about her. There was something wrong, something he could not quite place his finger upon, but it gave him pause. Peering closely at her, he smirked when she glanced up at him, her green eyes narrowing as she surveyed him.
"You can't enter. I've salted the ground," she stated, pointing at the line of salt that edged the doorway of the room. "And I won't go with you. Not now. Not ever."
"Firstly, Precious… you are sadly mistaken if you think a bit of salt and iron will keep me out," he drawled, before stepping over the threshold of the bathroom, chuckling darkly at the startled gasp from Sarah as she cringed away from him. "You are mine, Sarah. You. Belong. To me. Nothing will protect you from me should I wish to come near you."
"Oh God…" she moaned, sliding from the lid of the toilet and scooting against the wall, wedging herself between the sink and the bathtub.
"A deity I am not. Your Majesty or Sire will suffice, Sarah dearest," he replied coolly as he stopped in front of her, a gloved finger lightly lifting a tendril of hair that had fallen across her face, enjoying the subtle tremble that shuttered through her at the caress. "Secondly, 'Never' is not very long at all. And in your case it is even less time than you think. I saved your life tonight, Precious. You owe me. Yet again. And I will collect."
Jareth watched with an amused smirk as a pair of green eyes flashed angrily at him in response to his words. Without a word, Sarah seemed to straighten, her head held high as she glared back at him, unabashedly meeting his gaze.
"What do you want, Goblin King?" she demanded, her voice quiet and firm in the silence of the bathroom.
Biting back a chuckle, Jareth nodded in her direction – this was the confident and challenging attitude he expected of her, not the cowering damsel in distress she was when he first entered the room.
"Why so formal, my dear? Jareth was good enough when you wanted my help, it should be sufficient now," he said with an amused sneer. "What I want, Precious Sarah, quite simply… is you," he replied quietly, his mismatched eyes piercing her as he awaited her reaction, and was pleased when she didn't even flinch.
Sarah opened her mouth, wanting to ask him about Diantha, but unable to find the words for fear that he would confirm it was true.
"I won't go without a fight, Goblin King," came the determined reply.
He laughed outright at this, the sound echoing in the small bathroom, a baritone rumble that seemed to wash over every inch of her body, caressing her like a phantom touch.
"I would expect nothing less from you, Sarah. After all, you did beat my Labyrinth, making yourself the Champion," he winked at her, his fingertips gliding lightly along her jaw, to tenderly caress her bottom lip.
Sarah shivered as she watched him, his tongue snaked out to run across his teeth, wrapping around the pointed canines. The predatory look in his eyes made her skin flush hotly, only finding relief when he stepped away from her, to move toward the door.
"I assure you Precious, that I have no intention of forcing you to come with me… at least not tonight," he said with a sly smirk, his eyes flickering mischievously at her. "However, I do want to ensure your continued safety, as I rather care for your well-being."
"Care? Hah!" Sarah muttered, glaring grimly at him. "Possessive is more accurate."
"Indeed," Jareth laughed, tilting his head slightly as he surveyed the young woman who still insisted upon challenging him. "And such a lovely possession you will be."
"I don't belong to you, Goblin King. Not now. Not ever," she protested, sharply biting her words as she challenged him.
Swiftly he crossed the room once more, towering over her as she leaned against the wall. His breathing was ragged as his face contorted, while he tried to control the flash of rage that begged to be released upon her for her continued insolence.
"Mark my words, Sarah," he snarled, his leather-clad hands finding purchase upon the wall as he pinned her between his arms. "You do belong to me. And I will do what is necessary to ensure that no harm befalls you from other sources. But hear me well, if you insist upon pushing me, I cannot ensure your safety from me. You'd do well to remember to whom you are speaking, little girl," he murmured, gripping her chin between his fingers and lifting her eyes to his. "Understood, Precious?"
Jareth glared at her as Sarah's jaw tightened, her eyes emerald flames of defiance as she glowered back at him.
"In time, you will see that this is the way things will be, my dear. However, foor now I leave you this," he said, his voice gentling once more as he released her from the wall and producing a crystal ball in his hand, allowing the crystal to spin slowly upon his outstretched palm as he offered it to her.
"I don't want anything you have to offer, Goblin King," she retorted, tossing her head and looking away from the proffered crystal.
Undeterred by her stubborn reaction, Jareth moved the crystal into her line of sight, deftly wrapping his fingers around it and squeezing tightly. He smiled when the crystal popped with an audible snap, eliciting a sharp gasp from Sarah. Opening his hand, Jareth held his hand out to her once more.
"A trisk…." She whispered, looking at the silver charm laying on his open palm.
"Yes, a triskelle, Precious. I am surprised that your grandmother did not have one in the house," he said with a nod.
Cringing, Sarah looked at the tiles of the floor, "She did. I gave it to my boyfriend. He wanted to show it to an academic friend of his who is interested in folk lore symbols."
With a frown, Jareth looked at her sternly, "Knowing what that charm does, that was quite silly of you."
"Gee, thanks for the reminder, Goblin King," Sarah grumped, crossing her arms over her chest with a huff.
"Take the charm I offer, Sarah. Keep it on your person at all times. Even better, hang it around your neck and never take it off. It will protect you from the hunt on all but the Fairy Moon."
Sarah looked from the charm to Jareth and back again, worrying her bottom lip as she considered her options. She could turn it down and risk his anger once more. Or she could accept it and risk that it was a trick. Sensing her hesitation, Jareth backed away slightly, a quietly thoughtful look on his face as he watched her.
"Believe it or not, this is no trick, Sarah," he said, his voice low and soft, so unlike his earlier outburst. "I do want to ensure your safety and clearly the Unseelie of the hunt want you. They will stop at nothing to trick you into things. Keep this charm on you at all times and it will combat any magic they might use to entice you to join the hunt."
Her hand reached out, slender fingers gripping the delicate silver charm as she turned it over on his palm, examining it.
"Great…it will protect me from them, but what is to protect me from you?" she grumbled, finally picking up the charm and slipping it into her pocket.
Before she could react, Sarah found herself enfolded in the Goblin King's embrace, one of his arms twining around her waist while the other pressed gently, but firmly against her back, pulling her to him in swirl of creaking leather and exotic spice that tantalized her senses. Gasping from the shock of suddenly finding herself in his arms, Sarah was completely unprepared for the velvet sensation of his lips on hers. Insistent yet tender, the kiss left her breathless as her defiance seemed to shatter against the onslaught of his lips which possessed hers thoroughly, as if trying to brand upon her psyche the fact that she belonged, body and soul, to the Goblin King.
Just as quickly as his lips found hers, they were gone only to nestle near her ear. His heated breath teased against the sensitive skin under her ear as he whispered softly, "Nothing will ever protect you from me, my love. The sooner you come to terms with that fact, the better off you will be."
Swiftly he kissed her once more, leaving her breathless and trembling against him. Cocking his head as he looked at her, he sneered, his eyes flashing wickedly in the dim light of the room. "Oh and Sarah... I do not share what is mine. Lose the boyfriend or risk consequences – for both of you."
With that Jareth ran a thumb over Sarah's forehead, smiling indulgently at the dazed look upon her face from his rough kiss, pleased that she reacted so readily to his kisses.
"Codladh," he murmured softly, catching her as she collapsed against him into a deep and dreamless sleep. In a flash of golden glitter, the Goblin King and the Labyrinth Champion vanished from the bathroom, leaving nothing but faint traces of gold mixed with the crushed salt upon the floor.
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